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“Sweetheart, just where do you think this relationship is headed?” her mother asked, clearly concerned for Carrie.

She appreciated her mother’s question. “I don’t know, and I don’t think Finn does, either. For right now, we’re taking it one day at a time. And, Mom, you won’t believe what he sent me. He actually mailed me a toaster. It looks like an antique.”

“A what?”

“You heard me right. A toaster. I realize it probably has some special significance to him that he wanted to share with me. But if that’s the case, he hasn’t explained it yet. I have it in my kitchen.”

Her mother chuckled. “Oh, dear, Carrie. Listen, honey. I don’t want to burst your bubble. You’re new into this relationship, and this is a honeymoon period, but soon enough reality is going to settle in. I don’t want you to set yourself up for heartache. Just be careful, okay?”

“I will, Mom.” And while she agreed, Carrie couldn’t help thinking that love would see her and Finn through any obstacle. She was crazy for this guy, toaster and all.

Once they’d finished chatting, Carrie returned to her computer. Finn was scheduled to phone, but he hadn’t, which concerned her. Just then her cell phone chirped, letting her know she had a text message.

Carrie grabbed her phone.

What are you doing?

Listening to “Mary, Did You Know,” which was playing softly in the background. It was one of her favorite Christmas songs.

A little early for Christmas music, isn’t it?

Reading Finn’s text, she punched in her answer. Not for me. Besides, you have your Christmas decorations in your cabin. How are they holding up?

He responded within seconds. Snowflakes dangling from my ceiling. Utterly ridiculous.

But they are still up?

Yes. Remind me of you.

Very sweet, thank you.

I look at them and think of the stars we saw that night.

That incredible starry night. Makes me miss being with you all the more.

G-r-r-r. Hennessey misses you.

Hennessey? What about you?

Finn texted back a smiley face.

Carrie laughed. She had just tucked her cell phone in her jeans pocket when it rang. A sweet joy went through her when she saw it was Finn. So she was going to get her phone call after all.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hi. It seemed ridiculous to be texting you when we could be talking.”

“I agree. You must be in Fairbanks. I had no idea you spent that much time in town.”

“Generally, I don’t. Fact is, until these last few days, it’s been weeks since I was at the condo.”

In other words, he’d come into town in order to be able to communicate more easily with her. Finn wasn’t a romantic man. The fact that he would mail her a toaster told her it was highly unlikely that he would look to win her heart with flowers or jewels.

“I had bread from my toaster for breakfast this morning.” She mentioned this so he’d know that she’d put his gift to good use.

“That isn’t much of a breakfast.”

“I was in a hurry to get to church. I’m in the choir, and we had an early practice for the Christmas pageant.”

“You sing, too?”

“I’m an alto. I harmonize well. Come to think of it, I play well with others, too.”

“Clearly you’re a woman of many talents.”

She ran her fingers through a tousle of dark curls. “I’d like to think so.”

They spoke for an hour until her cell phone battery was nearly depleted. Before they ended their conversation, Finn told her he would be out of reach for a couple of days, checking the pipeline outside of Fairbanks.

“I’ll survive,” she assured him. Although she made it sound as if it wouldn’t trouble her, she was already dreading not hearing from him.

“Maybe you’ll survive, but I’m not sure about me.”

“Finn.” She laughed, her heart warmed by his words. “That’s the most romantic thing you’ve ever said to me.”

He snickered softly. “I’m not a romantic kind of guy.”

“I sort of guessed that, which makes these little comments precious. I’ll miss hearing from you, too.”

He grumbled as if he didn’t quite know how to respond.

“Oh, before you go, I wanted to tell you that I’ll be in Chicago for Thanksgiving—it’ll be my first alone, but I’ll be in Seattle for Christmas.” She mentioned this with the hope that he would take the hint and fly down for a visit. Seattle was relatively close to him, much closer than Chicago. When he didn’t immediately pick up on her hint, she added, “My parents feel bad that I won’t be with everyone on Thanksgiving, so for Christmas they’re giving me a ticket to fly home.”

“Good idea.”

He hesitated and then asked with what seemed like reluctance, “Have you talked to my mother since your return?”

“No. I haven’t had a chance to get in touch with her. I know she’s anxious to hear what happened with the ring.” Truth was, Carrie felt terrible having to tell Joan that her plan had backfired. Given the turn in her relationship with Finn, maybe she’d hang on to the ring a bit longer, rather than returning it at Christmas, as she’d planned.

“Does my mother need anything?” he asked. His voice was low, concerned, and different from the teasing banter they had exchanged earlier.

“She’s well physically, if that’s what you’re asking. As for her other needs, there was only one thing I picked up on.”

“And that is?”

Carrie knew she was wading into deep waters, but she felt she had to try. Finn’s mother had entrusted her with something precious, and she wanted to repay the favor. “She needs her son.”

His response was a dismissive snort.

“That’s what I thought you’d say.”

“I’ll be in touch in a couple of days.”

“Okay.” Not being able to talk to him for even a short amount of time would feel like an eternity. “I have a busy week with the holidays close and all.”

“You going to be with Harry?” he asked, mentioning the staff photographer.

Now it was Carrie’s turn to hesitate. “For a couple of events, and then I’ll be out the Tuesday before Thanksgiving with a … friend.”

“A male friend?”

She didn’t want to mislead Finn. “Dave and I set this up a while ago, Finn. Trust me, you don’t have anything to worry about.”

He grumbled something unintelligible.

This was another romantic jewel he offered her without even realizing what he was doing. Carrie’s smile took up her entire face. “I love it that you’re jealous.”

“I’m not jealous,” he insisted. “Just concerned. No guy likes the idea of his girl spending time with some other guy.”

Oh, boy, he walked right into that. “Am I your girl, Finn?”

“Would a guy send you a toaster if you weren’t?” he asked.

“You have me there,” she said, smiling. Her phone beeped, reminding her that her battery was almost dead. “I really need to recharge my phone. Fly safely, Finn.”

“I always fly safely.”

“And hug Hennessey for me.”

“What about me?”

“Do you want a hug, too?”

“I’ll take that as a bare minimum, but I’d like a whole lot more.”

“So would I,” she whispered, before she ended the call.

Chapter Nine

“What’s with you lately?” Sophie asked Wednesday afternoon as they waited in line to order lunch.

“What do you mean?” Carrie pretended to be reading the menu posted on the wall above the cashier. She almost always ordered the same thing. Egg-salad sandwich on wheat with a small garden salad, ranch dressing on the side.

“Ever since you were away you’ve been … I don’t know, different, I guess. Happier.”

Carrie smiled. Oh, yes, she was happier.

“You’ve met someone, haven’t you?”

How could she deny it and keep a straight face? “Could be.”

“Carrie, it isn’t like you to keep secrets. It’s the guy who sent you that joke gift, isn’t it?”

“The toaster isn’t a joke, but yes, and if you must know, his name is Paul.” Middle name, she added silently.

“Paul is from Seattle?”

Technically, that was where Finn was born. “Yes.”

“What’s his story? Is he married? Is that the reason you’re keeping this to yourself?”

“Married? Of course not.” It irritated Carrie that Sophie would believe she’d even consider dating a married man. “You know, I’m thinking I’ll order the curried chicken-salad sandwich instead of my usual egg salad. I’m in the mood to live on the edge.”

“You’re changing the subject.”

“Yes. Get the hint, Sophie. I’ll tell you more when there’s more to tell. For now, I’m not talking.”

“Fine, then, have it your way,” Sophie pouted.

Carrie’s cell phone beeped.

I’m back. It was Finn.

“It’s him, isn’t it?” Sophie demanded, attempting to look over Carrie’s shoulder.

Carrie ignored her and stepped up to the counter to place her lunch order. When it was Sophie’s turn, she grabbed her phone and texted back. Can’t talk now.

Have you missed me?

Oh, yes. Am having lunch with snoopy friend.

Got ya. In an hour?

OK.

She dropped her phone back inside her purse just before Sophie rejoined her. They found a vacant spot, set their order numbers on the table, and then went for their drinks. Carrie was antsy to talk to Finn. Two days had never seemed so long. She was dying to know if he’d missed talking to her nearly half as much as she’d missed chatting with him.

Carrie had her coffee and Sophie her soft drink when they reclaimed their table.

“We should talk about the party,” Sophie said. Their orders arrived, and she thanked the waiter with a smile.

Party? What party? Then Carrie remembered that just before she left for Alaska they’d decided to host a small party in Carrie’s condo after Thanksgiving. Her place was bigger and could accommodate more guests.

“I was thinking the first week of December. Friday or Saturday.”

“Sounds good.” Carrie mentally reviewed her calendar. As far as she could remember, both days were clear.

“If we don’t get the word out soon, it won’t happen. Besides, everyone gets so busy this time of year.”

Sophie was a party girl, and Carrie had agreed, looking to make the most of the holiday season.

“I thought we’d throw together a few appetizers and bring out the eggnog. Four or five couples should keep it manageable. We don’t need to make a huge thing out of it—just a few friends getting together to celebrate the holidays.”

“Ah, sure.”

Sophie reached for the pepper shaker and doused her Oriental chicken salad. “You going to ask Dave?”

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