The Christmas Scoop

Dogwood Mountain No. 1



Ivy Macpherson couldn’t remember who’d said it first, but as she pushed her way through the throngs crowding Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, she definitely agreed. You can’t go to hell without changing planes in Atlanta first.

The normally busy airport was packed even tighter with holiday travelers, which meant it was amateur hour as far as she could see. Haggard mothers running over people’s feet with their expensive strollers. Harried family men loaded down like mules with carry-on bags and the occasional Disney princess backpack. Toddlers breaking for free space like running backs after the snap. Bored, oblivious teens glued to their cell phones blocking the passageways.

She caught the weary eye of a TSA agent and gave the woman a sympathetic smile. That job wasn’t easy on the best of days, but during the week before Christmas, Ivy bet it could be downright ghastly. The noise alone would be enough to drive anyone mad.

Too bad she couldn’t have spent the holiday curled up in her cozy Brooklyn apartment. Okay, “cozy” was kind. It was a glorified studio with a stove the size of an Easy-Bake oven, but it was hers. And it was most decidedly not where she was headed—Dogwood Mountain, North Carolina, the tiny town where she’d spent most of her life. The one she’d been trying to escape ever since.

Dogwood Mountain wasn’t a bad town. It had a certain charm, she had to admit, with its quirky shops and historic inns, all set in the glorious Blue Ridge Mountains. It was the kind of town that drew thousands of tourists. They blocked the sidewalks in summer and crammed the twisty, two-lane roads in the autumn during “leaf-peeping” season. But in the winter, when all the tourists left, only the stalwart remained to brave the bitter winds and leafless trees, the gray skies for days on end, and the endless quiet broken only by winds soughing through the pines and their short-needled cousins, the hemlocks. Then, it felt more like torture.

But it was Christmas, and Christmas meant family and obligation and slogging through the Atlanta airport to pick up a rental for the drive up to Dogwood Mountain. It wasn’t like she could avoid it when her mama had brought her into the world on Christmas Day. And she certainly couldn’t beg off when her mama shared that birthday with her and gave her a name that fit with hers, thanks to “The Holly and the Ivy,” a madrigal that nobody sang anymore except in England. She guessed. She’d never been to England at Christmas.

The train heading from her concourse to ground transportation was packed as tight as a pre-Marie Kondo closet of puffy coats and scarves and beanies in a dizzying array of colors. Ivy winced as a businessman stepped on the toe of her lined winter boot. The wince was mental as well. This really wasn’t the best timing for her to be out of town, even if it was Christmas week. Right now, work, not family, was Ivy’s priority.

Her company, Scoop Media, started as a blog but soon grew into a multifaceted media company thanks to Instagram, YouTube, and a quotable Twitter feed. The original celebrity gossip and online quizzes helping people identify which odd Victorian piece of flatware they might be—lemon fork for Ivy…perfectly designed for a thick skin and a tart interior—now included articles and think pieces on society, pop culture, and politics.

It was no secret in their midtown offices that Scoop’s founder wanted it to go big, maybe even take it public. Last week’s staff meeting officially revealed the worst-kept secret in New York media.

“Scoop is undergoing a total realignment,” her boss, Wendy, announced. “All divisions will be folded into one of three missions—life, work, or world.” Quizzical looks and raised eyebrows swept the table.

Wendy continued, “Each mission will be assigned its own guru, who will choose a limited number of supports. All current divisions at Scoop will be aligned with one of the key missions or combined with another division.” Into the buzz of speculation that followed, she dropped the bomb.

“The total number of staffers will also be reduced.”

Ivy was a good writer with a skill in producing great stories. What she didn’t have was a bombshell contribution that would make her an obvious choice for a promotion.

She heard a commotion off to her right, and a crowd of young women poured around the corner, chattering and snapping photos with their phones. In the center of the throng, flanked by two burly men in suits and sunglasses, stood Julian Wolf, A-list movie star and certified hottie of the century.

Ivy knew a ton about Julian already—everyone in her business did—but the reality was something else. Broad shoulders, thick, dark blond hair, massive physique he famously spent four hours a day perfecting. He performed the celebrity dance, smiling and nodding at the crowds and posing for selfies.

Ivy fired off a couple of shots with her smartphone and forwarded them on. Almost immediately, her phone rang.

“Is that who I think it is?” Jada Graham demanded. Whip-smart and matter-of-fact, Jada had shown Ivy around on Ivy’s first day at Scoop, and now she was Ivy’s closest friend in New York.

“In the flesh.”

She heard clattering over the line and pictured Jada, lips pursed below her signature bright headscarf and luxurious springy natural curls, typing furiously to search for information on the current People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive. “What’s he doing in Atlanta?” Jada asked.

“Good question. Last I heard, he was supposed to be jetting off to Europe for the holidays.” Ivy stretched up on her tiptoes to focus on Julian, who stood an easy head and shoulders over most of the crowd, his perfect teeth blinding in his tanned face.

Ivy frowned. Something was off.

“Earth to Ivy.”

“Shh.” She watched more closely as Julian continued to smile and wave. “Listen, J, I’m going to have to call you back.”

“Okay, fine. Toss me aside like a falafel wrapper.”

“I love you!”

“Whatever.” Jada hung up.

Ivy returned her attention to Julian and soon her uneasy feeling resolved into certainty.

That man wasn’t Julian Wolf. Those were Julian’s trademark sunglasses, the scruff of facial hair he’d grown for his last movie, and the designer messenger bag he took everywhere. But the smile was off—no bad-boy curl to one side—and the bag was looped over his left shoulder rather than his right.

Julian Wolf was left-handed. This man wasn’t.

Ivy considered this. The question wasn’t what Julian was doing in Atlanta, but what a decoy was doing in Atlanta pretending to be Julian. All she had to do was follow not-Julian and get her story.

She checked her Apple watch. The family was expecting her for dinner, but her plane had made good time. If she spent an hour or so or even a day trailing the decoy around Atlanta, she could make excuses and drive up later. Surely, the family would understand. They didn’t get why she was so all-fired ready to leave Dogwood Mountain, but they were always so happy to see her. They’d forgive her for being late. As long as she didn’t miss the mutual birthday celebration with her mother, she’d have some wiggle room.

A phone trilled nearby. She turned her head to see a tall man in a faded green army jacket jerk to a halt, his movement thwarted by the same growing frenzy around not-Julian as Ivy. He began fishing for the phone in of one of the deep pockets of his beat-up coat. Once he succeeded, the name on the screen elicited a wide smile.

“Hey, babe.”

Goosebumps prickled up Ivy’s arms. It had been a long time since a man had talked to her that way, and in that obvious tone of voice. But there was something more. Something vaguely familiar, like she should know this man, even though his thick beard and dark hair were completely unfamiliar.

Trying not to seem obvious, she stepped back as if impatient with waiting for the crowd to disperse, then sidled a little closer. She’d seen him somewhere. Did they go to school together? Had they been waiting for the same plane? Something.

And then he laughed, a warm, rich sound, and she knew.

Army Jacket was Julian Wolf.

Ivy glanced around, a little panicky. No way that laugh wasn’t recognized. But to her surprise, it didn’t even seem to register. Too many people too worried about collecting kids and bags and making it out of here with their sanity and belongings intact. Julian had managed to switch places with a decoy with no one the wiser—except her.

Ivy couldn’t hear his whole conversation, but it was obvious who was on the other end of the call. The tabloids and all their online counterparts had been abuzz the past several weeks once it got out that famously untamable Julian “Lone” Wolf had somehow been captured. And by a nobody! Not a virtual nobody starlet with incredible luck, but an actual, for real nobody. No one knew who she was. Julian was obviously off the market, but no one had been able to ferret out his mystery woman’s identity.

The goose bumps blossomed into a full-body tingle. If Ivy could find out who she was, there was no way Scoop could deny her a promotion. Ivy leaned over on one foot so she could hear him better but not appear obvious.

“A what?” he said. “A Velocirapture?”

Ivy’s heart accelerated. No way.

“Raspberries and chocolate I get. But caramel, too? That sounds like a lot,” he continued.

The Velocirapture Ivy knew was a decadent mix of buttermilk-chocolate pecan cake, fudge sauce, caramel, and raspberries, topped with homemade whipped cream and more pecans. And, yes, Julian, all of those toppings are essential. She also knew the Velocirapture was the signature dessert at the Brontosaurus Pub, a quirky brewpub housed in an old Sinclair gas station. She’d lost count of the number of times she’d been to the Brontosaurus, a beloved mainstay of her hometown.

“We’ll have to share one when I get there,” Julian was saying. “It should only be a couple of hours.”

Ivy suppressed a squeal. Julian Wolf’s mystery woman was in Dogwood Mountain! And right now, she was the only person in the world—besides Julian himself and his mystery woman—who knew.

An audible, loud groan of protest from the crowd surrounding Fake Julian burst out as the security team began to shepherd him through the atrium toward an exit. She was so distracted she nearly missed that Real Julian was headed out a door farther down the terminal.

“Shoot!” She snatched the handle of her purple suitcase and followed him at a distance she hoped was discreet enough for him not to notice.

The doors swished open and a blast of chilly, wet air curled around her. She shivered. The leaden skies dripped sleet onto the tangle of cars weaving toward the curb. Whistles and splashes merged with the roar of aircraft overhead. Her breath puffed out in clouds. Flashing lights to her left drew her attention; the atrium crowd had moved outside, now joined by a number of photographers. Fake Julian threw the crowd a final smile and ducked into a gleaming black Mercedes. She cut her gaze to the right and watched the beat-up army jacket move farther down the curb. Real Julian kept his head down, texting.

Ivy twitched. She was dying to talk to him, but one word would ruin everything. She was working on a plan when a gray car pulled up at the curb. Julian looked up from his phone and exchanged a brief conversation with the driver through the cracked-open passenger window. Then he opened a door, tossed the black duffel bag he was carrying into the back seat, and got in.

Ivy narrowed her eyes, but the car was too far down the curb for her to identify. It wasn’t a sedan, though—wagon? SUV? Clouds of warm exhaust made it hard to confirm or to read the license plate. It was missing the trademark peach, though. This tag was bluish. North Carolina plates.

Forget Atlanta. The car inching forward to merge into traffic was headed to Dogwood Mountain, she was sure of it. Ivy whooped with triumph and sprinted for the rental car counter. By the end of the week, she vowed, she’d have her story and a brand-new, exciting life.


Wrestling his overly cautious grandparents onto an airplane to Florida and then finding himself the chaperone and temporary confidant of a certified A-list actor in the same day was about as complicated as Rand Cooper’s life had been in years.

“I really appreciate this, man,” Julian said, leaning back on the worn leather seat of Rand’s old Subaru and flashing Rand a thousand-watt smile.

There was a short silence as Julian took a long sip of water. “You have no idea how thrilled Katy is about this trip. We’ve had barely any time together lately.”

When Katy Daniels, Rand’s college housemate, had called asking for a favor, a private hideaway for holidays, he’d said yes without hesitation. But when Katy admitted sheepishly that the new squeeze she was bringing with her was Julian Wolf, he’d laughed. Several minutes of ribbing followed, after which he listened to her explain how the Julian everyone knew from the movies and the guy she’d run into at a farmer’s market were two very different people. That Julian, she concluded, was someone worth holding onto, so she had.

Famous people weren’t Rand’s usual customers, but in all the years he’d helped his grandparents with the day-to-day issues at the Cooper House Inn, he’d done plenty to provide service wherever he could.

“It’ll be a relief to have some privacy,” Julian said. “That’s one thing we’ve been extra careful about. You saw the craziness at the airport.”

Rand nodded. “Who could miss it?”

“I’m lucky. Some stunt doubles can only be shot from behind, but Kurt looks so much like me, he’s actually made it into some midrange shots.”

“It was a good plan.”

“Katy thought of it.” The pride was evident in Julian’s voice. “There are just enough stories starting to get out about my ‘mystery woman’ that it’s only a matter of time before one of the paparazzi outs us.”

“Katy always was a good one for planning.” Rand admired women like Katy, firm and sure in their conclusions. “She reminds me a lot of someone I knew from high school, so she wasn’t unfamiliar.”

“She has that effect on people.” Julian turned his famous face toward Rand, and for a moment, their gazes met. “The first time we met, I felt like I’d come home.”

Rand nodded. Just like Ivy Macpherson. Smart, stubborn, dying to get out of Dogwood Mountain for good. “Wish I could say the same. My friend bolted for elsewhere as soon as she could, and I rarely see her these days.”

“Too bad,” Julian commiserated.

“Yep.” He didn’t bother telling Julian that Ivy worked for a New York media group. Not that he read Scoop often. Or sometimes caught himself googling for Ivy’s name.

Julian looked out the window. Now that they’d left the crazy traffic of Atlanta and its suburbs behind, the road had calmed into a ribbon through the trees. The shadows of the foothills deepened. In another hour, they’d be winding through the smaller mountain towns of North Georgia before making the final turn and the climb up to Dogwood Mountain.

“Pretty country,” Julian remarked.

“It is.”

“I grew up in California’s Central Valley,” Julian said. “Cropland as far as you can see, and not much snow.”

“Depends on the year, here,” Rand said. “Sometimes it’s just cold. Other years, we bless our generators because the power’s out and the drifts can get as tall as a car.”

“I wouldn’t mind getting snowed in,” Julian admitted. “Peace at last.”

They spent the next hour in relative quiet. Famous though he was, Julian wasn’t much of a talker. Rand could see why someone with ideas, who wouldn’t let him sink into blue moods and kept him on his toes, would appeal to him. Someone like Ivy. Katy. He corrected himself.

Rand shook his head. He had worked his tail off to get Ivy to notice him when they were younger, to choose him, but the fact that he was her only real competition at school made her keep him at arm’s length romantically. Once they chose different colleges, University of North Carolina’s famed journalism school for her and North Carolina State’s architecture program for him, that was pretty much it. He’d shelved his boyhood fantasies and turned to work. But it never failed. During the holidays, Ivy Macpherson memories bubbled to the surface, and nothing he could do would stop them.

It was midafternoon when Rand turned off the highway and headed down Second Street, the residents’ preferred way to avoid the typical crowds that thronged downtown Dogwood Mountain. All he’d need was for Julian to get spotted by some tourist while they were stuck at a light, and Katy’s weeks of careful planning would be blown.

Soon, the tires of his old Subaru crunched on the blue-gray gravel of the small parking lot tucked into the L-shape of the Cooper House Inn.

“Sorry to bring you in the back entrance,” Rand said as he killed the engine.

“No problem,” Julian replied. “You’d be amazed how many restaurant kitchens and loading docks I’ve come to know over the years.” He got out and stretched luxuriously. Rand felt suddenly small in his six-foot frame.

“I can get that for you,” Rand said as Julian hauled his duffel out of the back seat.

“Wouldn’t think of it,” Julian replied. “Lead on.”

Rand clomped his boots on the worn artificial turf mat at the top of the shallow steps and opened the door to the back porch. He ushered Julian inside and closed the door behind him. “Wait here for a moment.”

He pushed open the door to the inn’s kitchen. It was too early to start prep for the complimentary afternoon tea, so the big room was, thankfully, deserted. “This way.”

Rand motioned toward the back stairs. His grandmother would be horrified at this breach of hospitality. He could count on his day manager, Jessica’s, discretion, but all it would take was one of the college kids home for the holiday break who did odd jobs around the inn or a guest in the lobby to spot Julian and spoil everything.

The two men climbed to the third floor. Rand led Julian around the corner into the other wing, stopping at a door at the end of the hall. A small brass plate engraved with a dogwood blossom glowed on its polished wood surface. Rand knocked softly.

There was a muffled thump of feet, then a pause before the door was flung open by a petite woman whose shoulder-length braids framed a freckled face the soft brown of a wren’s wing.

The duffel thudded to the floor as Julian scooped her up into a fierce embrace. They kissed deeply and then, with a sigh, Julian let her down. The crown of Katy’s dark head barely reached Julian’s massive shoulder.

“Hey, Rand,” she called, her light brown eyes glowing above her freckles. She tucked her arms against Julian’s broad chest and huddled in the curve of his arm.

“Hey, yourself.” The suite’s antique furniture appeared dainty next to the oversized reality of Julian Wolf standing on the worn Persian rug. ”Everything okay?” he asked.

Katy dragged her gaze away from Julian and beamed at him. “It’s perfect,” she said.

Rand could tell Katy was seeing the room through a veil of romance. And it was beautiful. His grandmother took great care with all of the rooms, right down to the subtle gardenia scent of the linens. But Rand had an architect’s eye. He saw cracks in the plaster and sagging floorboards, not lace curtains in the dormers and fresh flowers on the bedside tables.

“The second floor rooms in the other wing have the best view of downtown, but if privacy is what you want most, you’ll be better off up here.”

Julian chuckled. “I’d be happy in a mildewy camper if Katy were in it.” He kissed the top of her head, then held out one beefy hand and pressed a hundred-dollar bill into Rand’s palm.

“I can’t take this.”

“I insist,” Julian said. “For your time. You’re a good man, Rand Cooper.”

“I’d like to think so,” he said. He tried once again to refuse the gift, but his words fell on deaf ears. Katy and Julian had already turned their attention back to each other. He smiled in spite of himself. At least someone was getting what they wanted most for Christmas.

“Text me if you need anything,” he said, closing the door quietly behind him.

The Christmas Scoop will be available soon from Tule Publishing. Find out more here!