She laughed bitterly. How could one ill-timed malfunction cost her the opportunity of a lifetime? At least her station had been the first to break the story. Maybe she was being too hard on Tate; perhaps she should’ve thanked him for jumping in when he did.

But there was the little matter of him not tossing the story back to her. Not only did he break it, it appeared he enjoyed doing so. The way he gloated afterwards, believing he had saved the day. What was his deal? He hadn’t lifted a finger during the investigation but had gallantly walked around the newsroom all day like he was Tom Brokaw.

She swirled her wine inside her glass. Why, at thirty-three, was he working in Wilmington? Why not a bigger market? He was talented and well liked. There was no denying that their ratings had improved since his arrival in January. Viewers really took to him—at least the focus groups indicated they did.

Her phone buzzed. She grabbed it from the bar counter. Her younger brother, Alex, had sent her a text. The message, Check your Facebook, appeared on the tiny screen.

That was vague. She touched the icon. There were no new messages. Perhaps her very pregnant sister, Quinn, had posted something on her wall about the baby. Amanda’s finger slid up and down, scrolling through the statuses. Jen, a production assistant, was making macaroni and cheese, and writing out her Christmas dinner shopping list. David, Amanda’s friend from church, was at the dog park. She laughed. It amused her how some people used the online platform to broadcast the most mundane events in their lives. Who really cares what you’re planning to make for Christmas dinner or that you’re picking up your dog’s sh—?

Wait a minute. Her heart stopped and her fingers trembled. Brad Sullivan had changed his status from single to engaged.

This had to be a cruel joke. Her ex-boyfriend was getting married? How could this be? Mister “I’m afraid of commitment” was engaged? To whom? It was only two years ago that he’d been her boyfriend.

Brad wasn’t just an ex-boyfriend—he was her only ex-boyfriend. They had grown up together and had known each other all their lives, but it was only when she started working at their hometown news station after college that they began dating.

While Amanda worked the eleven o’clock weekend shift, Brad had enrolled in the police academy program and, shortly after graduating, became a police officer for their town. They were together for five years.

Amanda wanted to get married. There was no question in her mind that Brad was the one. They’d talked about it, but Brad seemed to always have a reason why it would be better to wait. He had made all the excuses under the sun from wanting them both to be better established in their careers to needing to save up enough money to buy a house.

She never understood his logic. She was an anchor and he was a police officer in the town they grew up in—how much more established did they need to be? Her parents would have helped them build a cabin on their land, but he’d said he was too proud to accept their help.

Two years ago, she thought Brad was finally ready to propose. Amanda drained her glass. Staring into its bottom, she thought back to that awful Christmas Eve that had changed everything.

* * *

Amanda could hardly wait. She brushed back the red velvet curtains in her childhood room and peered out the second story window at the decorated lawn below. Her gaze fell on the red and gold sleigh at the end of the driveway. The sleigh was part of the elaborately decorated lawn that brought thousands of visitors to her parents’ home in Bath, New York each Christmas. It would be the perfect spot for Brad to ask her to marry him. They had shared their first kiss in that sleigh.

Just days ago she had seen him leaving Bath Jewelers with a gift bag in hand and had ducked into an alleyway so he wouldn’t see her. She’d always dreamed about getting engaged on Christmas Eve just like her grandparents had. Christmas was a special holiday for the Turners.

Brad’s squad car pulled into the driveway. She squealed with excitement and took one last glance in the mirror, approving her last minute change from her family’s mandatory Christmas sweater to a formfitting winter white one, dark jeans, and brown riding boots. A much better outfit to say the all-important “yes” in. Brad would love it. Dabbing her lips one last time with gloss, she headed to greet her man.

From the top of the banister, she could hear the sound of many voices talking over the Christmas music. Christmas Eve was the biggest day of the year for her family—her parents ran a Christmas tree farm, and every Christmas Eve they provided Christmas trees for those in need. The evening always ended with a celebration at the Turners’ with the volunteers who’d helped out throughout the day. It would be wonderful to share her good news with all of her family and friends.

Amanda made her way down the spiral staircase taking two steps at a time. In the foyer to her right, groups of her mother’s volunteers chatted and munched on Christmas cookies. They were all wearing matching red sweaters with tiny embroidered Christmas trees on the front. The same as the one she ditched upstairs. She moved into the living room. Over by the fireplace were Brad’s fellow police officers. Her parents stood near the tree.

Her father greeted her. “Hi, honey. Everything okay?”

“Hi, Dad. Everything’s fine.” She scanned the crowded room, her heart beating rapidly. “Great turnout tonight. Have you seen Brad?”

“He’s over there under the mistletoe.” Her mother nodded toward the foyer entrance. “Better go kiss him before your grandmother does.” She chuckled.

Amanda laughed. Her mother adored Brad. She had let it slip this week that he had stopped by to talk to her dad.

She nudged Amanda. “Looks like Quinn is enjoying Mark’s company.”

Amanda spotted her older sister on the sofa laughing it up with Brad’s older brother. What a flirt. They were both teachers at Hammondsport High School. She was glad he was here. The Sullivan brothers were very close. They had lost their parents at an early age and were raised by their grandparents. Unfortunately, both grandparents had since passed away. Amanda’s parents had always treated both Brad and Mark like family. Soon Brad would be an official member. She smiled, watching her sister flirt back. Maybe someday Mark would, too.

Amanda grabbed a candy cane from a dish on the coffee table and twirled it with her fingers. It wouldn’t be long now. The sleigh was ready. Her family and friends were here to celebrate afterwards. Amanda guessed there had to be at least fifty volunteers in the house, if not more.

Amanda whispered to her mom. “I think it’s time.”

Her mother grinned.

Amanda tucked her hair behind her ears and headed toward the hanging mistletoe. Brad, who was still wearing his police officer uniform, greeted her with an uncomfortable expression—he wasn’t one for crowds. She had fantasized about this very moment for five years, but never in her fantasy was he wearing his police duds or looking as disheveled as he did now. He was still incredibly handsome, with his brown hair, chocolate eyes, and square jaw.

She stood on her toes and kissed his cheek. “Tradition,” she chirped, pointing to the mistletoe.

Brad shifted, appearing uncomfortable. “Hey. Can we talk outside for a minute?”

“Sure.” Amanda grabbed the duffle bag with the blankets. Her eyes caught her mother’s, and she raised her hand nonchalantly, touching her ring finger.

Her mom hurried over to the large bay windows. Amanda knew her mother planned to have a front row seat to the proposal.

She followed Brad outside and shut the front door. The frigid air immediately hit her face. It was a perfect winter’s night. She’d remember this feeling for a long time to come, and one day tell the story to their children and then their children’s children. She smiled at the thought.

“Amanda, I wanted to wait until after Christmas, but, um . . .” he stammered and looked away. “Oh, man. This is really hard.”

She nodded. “I know.” Grabbing his hand, she gave it a reassuring squeeze. Brad wasn’t the best with words but Oh, man. This is really hard wasn’t quite where she had envisioned he’d start. Hadn’t he practiced?

“Why don’t we go down to the sleigh?” she suggested. “I have some blankets in the bag.”

“I think here is fine.”

Her gaze darted over toward the living room windows. Her parents quickly turned their backs. Their blatant attempt to witness the proposal was so transparent. She should’ve just brought a row of chairs outside and charged admission.

She linked her arm with his. “Come on, honey” she coaxed. “It’s so beautiful down there with the lights.”

Brad broke their link but then grabbed her hand. His eyes were fixed on her.

Something wasn’t right. His hand shook in hers. Was he really that nervous? She would just have to put Brad out of his misery and get engaged on the porch. That was fine. With the twinkling white Christmas lights outlining the house, it was still pretty romantic, plus her family would have a better view of the proposal.

“Whatever you need to say, I’m listening,” she reassured him. “Let’s just step over here.” She moved to the right, a better angle for her family to see. She noticed the backs of her brother and sister were now next to her parents’.

Brad sighed again. “You mean the world to me . . . I . . . um . . .”

“Is there something you want to ask me?” She didn’t know how much longer she could stand out in the cold without the blankets or his body to snuggle up to. If he couldn’t spit it out, maybe they could get engaged inside by the fireplace. Good Plan B.

Brad pulled his hand away and jammed it into his coat pocket. “Amanda, you are wonderful and we’ve had a lot of great times together.”

This was it. She watched as he fished around his pocket. The ring must be really buried in there. She could see her younger brother, Alex, watching with a smart aleck grin.

Brad continued. “I guess what I’m trying to . . .” He took his hand out of his pocket. The small object fell out of his shaky hands into the snow. He bent down trying to find it.

Before she knew what she was doing she blurted out, “Yes I will marry you, Brad Sullivan.”

She looked down. Her eyes widened. Brad was not holding a ring but a small key. Her apartment key. “What is this?” she asked.

“I think we should take a break.”

Just then the door flew open and her family burst out. She glanced around in horror. All of the guests had congregated in the foyer. Many of them holding plastic champagne glasses.

Her father slapped Brad proudly on the back. “Congratulations, son. Welcome to the family.”

Her mom came over and hugged her. “Let me see. Let me see.” She grabbed Amanda’s hand. Her eyebrows furrowed. “Dear, where is your ring?”

Humiliated, Amanda rushed into the house and up the stairs to her room.

* * *

It had only gotten worse from there. The news that Brad had bought an engagement ring but then changed his mind and dumped her on Christmas Eve had spread like wildfire. Daily errands were torture; the whispers and glances of pity were just too painful. She needed a fresh start. A month later, she landed the job in Wilmington and didn’t look back.

But while her relationship had ended that night two Christmas Eves ago, a new one began. Quinn started dating Mark, and they eloped in Las Vegas six months later. They were now about to have a baby. The fact that Quinn was now Brad’s sister-in-law was difficult for Amanda to swallow. There was no clean break. Her family tried to be supportive and encouraged her to come home this Christmas. She’d thought she was finally ready to do it. Until now.

She knew it was a mistake earlier this year to accept Brad’s friend request on Facebook. This proved her theory that one should never friend her ex-boyfriend until both were happily married—and even then, one should reconsider.

“Thanks a lot, Alex,” she mumbled, annoyed at her brother for sending the text in the first place. Was he trying to give her a heads-up? He could have called to break the news.

“I’ll have another, please.” Amanda waved her empty wine glass and glanced up at the mounted television. Their explosive local story had made national news. “I really need to get out of this town,” she muttered.