I hope you’re looking forward to the release of The Comforting Christmas, which is the final installment in the Montana Dreams series. It’s available right now for pre-order on Apple Books and Nook (coming soon to Amazon).
Since you’ve waited so patiently for Michele’s story and The Comforting Christmas hasn’t released yet, here’s a sneak peek just for you!
The Comforting Christmas
Copyright © 2023 by Susan Hatler
My current gig waiting tables at Danica’s wasn’t my dream career, but it had just helped me take a step in the right direction. Serving customers at this upscale restaurant wasn’t a bad job per se. I mean, the tips were good, the people were friendly and it kept me actively on my feet. But in my heart I had different aspirations than being a server at this charming restaurant on the lake in my small mountain town of Whitefish, Montana.
Ever since I was a little girl, I’d been enchanted by the idea of planning events . . . like a tea party, or a wedding, or a New Year’s Eve bash. No event would be too big or too small. I loved the magic that happened when people gathered around decorations and appetizers and themed cocktail napkins. Most especially, I wanted to be the mastermind behind such events.
Michele Griffin, Event Planner Extraordinaire.
I’d imagined a gazillion different business card designs with this title under my name—okay, maybe I’d have to leave the word “extraordinaire” off the title to be more professional. But, still. I always got the warm fuzzies when I thought about it.
Then, this morning, I was scrolling on social media while enjoying my morning coffee and my gaze locked on a blue-sky-and-white-cloud-fettered meme that read, “If not now, when?” Those four words immediately haunted my brain. At twenty-nine years old, why was I still waiting tables instead of pursuing being an event planner?
Actually, it didn’t matter why. There was no need to worry about why it had taken me this long to get it. I wanted to be an event planner, so now was the time to get after it.
With that in mind, I arrived early to work before my dinner shift and appointed myself the head of décor here at Danica’s. With Christmas mere weeks away, I went into the storage shed and sifted through boxes of long-forgotten holiday decorations. My boss wasn’t a scrooge or anything, so we did have a respectable Christmas tree in the dining room already. But it wasn’t nearly enough when my creativity was brewing.
Within a couple of hours, I had decked the place out with miniature Christmas trees trimmed with white and silver ornaments and lots of tinsel, mistletoe over the doorway, and fir boughs on the siding of the interior walls. The festive decorations added to the rustic, cozy feel of the space, and the holiday theme was boosted in spades by the steady snow falling outside.
Feeling proud of my hard work elevating the holiday cheer in here, I wiped my hands before changing into my black pants and black button-up shirt for my shift. As customers arrived, ordered, and left, the words from that meme replayed in my head: If not now, when?
As I cleared a table at the back of the restaurant—stacking plates on my arm like a pro—I thought back to my teenage years. I’d spent hours in the general store reading glossy how-to-entertain magazines I couldn’t afford to buy, while visualizing the parties I would throw once I had the friends, the time and, of course, the resources to do so. I imagined my life would be filled with backyard soirees and elegant luncheons.
That so didn’t happen.
Despite my social media boards full of hosting tips, I rarely had anyone over to the tiny apartment I rented, since there wasn’t a lot of space for entertaining in my cramped bachelorette pad. At this point in my life, maybe I should already own my own place, but that required more than my meager savings account allowed. Sigh.
Setting dirty dishes in the kitchen sink, I swiftly returned to the dining room and took an order from a customer who was eating alone while reading a book.
“Hey, George,” I said, to the regular I knew well.
“Good evening, Michele,” he said, without taking his gaze from the page.
“The usual?” I asked, unable to resist a smile, knowing he always ordered the pot roast.
“If it ain’t broke . . .”
“No need to fix it. Pot roast coming right up,” I said, slipping my notepad into my back pocket, before putting his order in with the kitchen.
As I walked back into the dining room, I overheard a couple giving compliments to the host on our Christmas decorations. A warm rush of pleasure flooded my chest at the smiles on their faces. Feeling proud that my efforts had been noticed, I took a few more orders with an even peppier skip in my step.
But one afternoon of decorating didn’t make me an event planner, so my excitement quickly faded. As I cleared another table, I found myself wishing my salary was big enough to purchase a house with enough space for the kinds of lavish parties I’d always longed to throw. So much for the glamorous life.
If not now, when?
Argh! I had to do more than embellish the holiday decorations at Danica’s. But, what?
I blew dark wisps of hair away from my eyes as our line cook slid a bacon burger onto the counter and rang the order-up bell. I balanced plate after plate on my arms as I weaved my way through the bustling tables, smiling at every patron whose eye I caught along the way. Being personable was a part of this job, and it played a big role in determining whether or not I got tipped at the end of a meal. Good thing I loved being social.
Since our town was so small, I knew most of the local customers by name. In addition to the locals, we served truckloads of tourists who came to visit Big Mountain for hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter. I smiled at a regular, who was a single mom and always brought coloring books and crayons for her two children while they enjoyed their Sunday dinner with us. Then I nodded to the elderly couple who often dined here and always held hands throughout every meal, still in love after all this time. So sweet!
When I turned around, I noticed Holly and Dave come through the front door and my heart warmed at seeing my favorite couple.
I loved Holly like a sister, and she had earned the title of “best friend” ten times over during the years I had known her. We had met in the local bookstore years ago when we had both reached for the last copy of a cozy mystery by our favorite author. That had sparked a long conversation about books and life that had never really ended. She was my closest friend and knew the most about me. Well, as long as you didn’t count my hairstylist, Delilah.
What was it about a hairstylist that made you want to tell them your life story and also listen to theirs? Huh.
Anyway, Dave was Holly’s perfect match, a real stand-up guy with a heart of gold. They had enjoyed their first date together here at Danica’s, and I had helped plot a surprise wedding for them on the back deck with its gorgeous view of Whitefish Lake. So romantic! They used to drop by the restaurant often for pie and coffee, but not since their babies had arrived. As I dropped off a double order of biscuits and gravy at a table, I saw them get seated at their favorite spot by the fire and then I scooted over in their direction.
“I didn’t know you were coming in tonight,” I said, sidling up beside Holly on her side of the linen-covered table. I tilted my head, giving her a knowing smile. “How’s life treating you?”
“Not sleeping enough, but my heart is full,” she said, holding her pudgy son, little Joe, in her arms. Adorable.
“Hey, Michele.” Dave nodded to me as he strapped an infant car seat onto the chair next to him that held their adorable baby girl, Sofia, who had been named in honor of Dave’s tough-as-nails and sweet-as-pie Italian grandmother. Sofia was snuggled in her car seat and snoozing like an angel. “How are you doing?”
“That’s a complicated question,” I said, not wanting to tell him that a social media meme had made me realize I’d been doing zilch toward my dream since I’d graduated high school. Cringe.
“Care to elaborate on that?” Holly asked, looking concerned.
“Maybe later,” I said, stealing a peek at their beautiful baby girl.
Staring at that sweet little face, I vowed to let Sofia know how fast life moved and that she needed to pursue her dreams right away in order to make them a reality. At the very least, she should take strides toward her dream even if they are small steps. Otherwise, she might wake up and be twenty-nine and still working a job that was supposed to be “just for now.” I couldn’t let her make this same mistake. I’d definitely tell her all of this . . . you know, once she learned how to talk.
“You’re making me nervous,” Holly said, giving me a look.
“Don’t worry about me,” I said, not wanting to be responsible for making a tired woman worry. “Just peruse the menu and let me know what your taste buds are craving tonight.”
She sighed. “Okay . . .”
“We’ll talk when you’re older,” I whispered, backing away from Sofia.
Holly and Dave looked happy together, albeit exhausted. But the dark circles under their eyes were obviously worth the joy that the children brought into their life. The two babies were practically twins, even though Joe was their biological son, and Sofia was adopted. Two at once seemed like a handful to me, but Holly and Dave’s eyes shined with love whenever they looked at their children, which caused a little ache in my chest.
I hoped to be this happy one day. But my tiny town wasn’t exactly bursting with eligible bachelors. In fact, I had gone to school with most of them, or had known them long enough to watch them crash and burn multiple relationships, making me want to steer clear.
“What can I get started for you, Dave?” I asked, noticing a new table I needed to clear.
“I’ll have the fried cod,” he said.
“And I’ll take the veggie pasta, please,” Holly said, rubbing her nose against little Joe’s forehead. They named little Joe after Holly’s dad, Joe, who had passed away. Holly’s dad was the reason she’d fallen in love with Whitefish and moved here. I had looked at the sky and thanked him numerous times for bringing Holly to our small town. “Yes, I love you. Yes, I do,” Holly said to little Joe, before glancing up at me. “Can I get extra grated parmesan on top of my pasta please? It’s been an extra cheese kind of a day.”
“You got it. Coming right up, lovebirds.”
I wove my way back toward the kitchen, holding empty dishes with one arm while picking up check folders with my other hand as I headed to the kitchen. The key to being good at this job was having the ability to go into multitasking hyperdrive, and never slowing down until the shift was over (unless cute babies were involved).
Making up for the lost time, I sped up, turning the corner tightly, and then—
“Oof!” I exclaimed, crashing into my boss, Dylan Scott, my forehead knocking into his chin in a not-so-gracious way. “I’m so sorry,” I said, glancing up at him. My tummy did a cartwheel.
Dylan was much taller than me, with beautiful chestnut hair brushed back neatly, amber-brown eyes with black flecks, and a mouth that would have been more appealing if he wasn’t frowning so often. He’d owned and operated Danica’s ever since his dad had passed the restaurant to him in his will. I had a secret crush on him, but he was—putting it lightly—a little too uptight.
“Michele,” he said, clearing his throat and straightening his cuffs. “There you are. Listen, table twenty-three sent their order back to the kitchen, saying the steak wasn’t rare enough.”
“I told the kitchen to serve that steak to them still mooing,” I said, stepping back from Dylan and feeling relieved I hadn’t dropped any dishes. I blew the bangs out of my eyes. “It wasn’t bloody enough for them?”
“Apparently not.” His gaze followed my hair a moment, making me wonder if my bangs were sticking up now. “Will you see to it that the order is remade properly?”
“Of course, I’m on it,” I said, letting out a sigh.
Dylan was a good guy, and he had always been a fair boss, but whenever he made his rounds in the dining room to ask how guests were enjoying their meal, more often than not somebody found something I’d done wrong. Picky patrons who liked to complain were my least favorite part of this whole waiting tables thing. I wanted to make people happy and did my best, but there always seemed to be someone dissatisfied with me.
“Hey, don’t let them get to you,” Dylan said, seeming to notice the mental battle going on inside my head. As always, his encouragement was brusque but welcome. “Just move on to the next thing, all right?”
“All right,” I said, feeling slightly better as I turned ready to drop these dishes into the kitchen sink, run credit cards and return bill folders to tables, before picking up fresh orders from the kitchen. But then . . . Dylan touched my wrist and all of the air rushed out of my lungs.
I froze from the contact, my brain short-circuiting as my gaze dropped to my skin that was still tingling from where his fingers had just brushed. I knew I shouldn’t have this reaction to an innocent touch from Dylan. He was my boss, after all, and he could be a total wet blanket when the pressure was on in the restaurant.
But I wasn’t oblivious to the fact that he was around my age, unmarried, and extremely good looking. It didn’t help that he had a grounding sort of presence that kept me tethered to reality on the days when things got truly crazy out on the floor. There was also something way too appealing about the way he seemed to notice when the pressure was getting to me.
“Um,” I said, my heart rate kicking up as I stared at my wrist and fought the strong urge I had to lean in and kiss him. Obviously, I restrained.
There was nothing inappropriate about his slight touch at all, but I couldn’t remember the last time Dylan had touched me, if ever.
“Can I talk to you after your shift?” he asked, his eyes suddenly earnest. “It will only take a few minutes, and then you’re free to go.”
“Sure,” I said, wondering what was up.
“Thanks,” he said, and then swept away to check on more tables, leaving cool air to swirl around my wrist where his fingers had brushed so briefly.
I bit my bottom lip, staring at the hot band of skin that continued to tingle long after Dylan had moved on. I was losing it, that was all there was to it. There was nothing between Dylan and me, and it was ridiculous to have this kind of reaction to my boss—yet he had starred in my dreams on more occasions than I’d care to admit. Obviously, I just needed to get back out there and go on a real date again, then my subconscious could stop wishing for things that weren’t there with my boss.
As much as I knew this rationally, it didn’t keep butterflies from winging around in my stomach for the rest of my shift.
As you know, you can listen to my audiobooks FREE on my YouTube channel HERE. It’s all free for you, so subscribe to my channel and listen to my audiobooks as many times as you’d like. To celebrate reaching my goal of 1000 subscribers on YouTube, I’ll be giving away five copies The Welcoming Wedding.
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Next, to enter to win my giveaway, please comment below and let me know what goes through your mind when you hear the phrase “If not now, when?“, and let me know if you’ve ever procrastinated.
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