Carrie Slayton's feet were killing her. She'd spent the last ninety minutes standing in two-inch heels at a charity art auction in a swanky studio in downtown Chicago. She couldn't understand how shoes that matched her black dress so beautifully could be this painful. Vanity, thy name is fashion.
"My name is spelled with two l's," the middle-aged woman, dripping in diamonds, reminded her. "That's Michelle, with two l's."
"Got it." Carrie underlined the correct spelling. Michelle, spelled with two l's, had just spent thirty thousand dollars for the most ridiculous piece of art Carrie had ever seen. True, it was for a good cause, but now she seemed to feel her name needed to be mentioned in the news article Carrie would write for the next edition of the Chicago Herald.
"It would be wonderful to have my husband's and my picture to go along with your article," Michelle added. "Perhaps you should take it in front of the painting."
Carrie looked over her shoulder at Harry, the photographer who'd accompanied her from the newspaper.
"Of course, Lloyd and I would want approval of any photograph you choose to publish."
"Of course," Carrie said, doing her best to keep a smile in place. If she didn't get out of these shoes soon, her feet would be permanently deformed. She wiggled her toes, hoping for relief. Instead they ached even worse.
Harry, bless his heart, dutifully stepped forward, camera in hand, and flashed two or three photos of the couple posing in front of what might have been a red flower or a painting of a squished tomato or possibly the aftermath of a murder scene. Carrie had yet to decide which. The title of the work didn't offer a clue. Red. Yes, the painting was in that color, but exactly what it depicted remained a mystery.
"Isn't it stunning?" Michelle asked when she noticed Carrie staring at the canvas.
Carrie tilted her head one way and then another, looking for some clue as to its possible significance. Then, noticing that Michelle, spelled with two l's, was waiting for her response, she said, "Oh, yes, it's amazing."
Harry didn't bother to hide his smile, knowing that all Carrie really wanted was to get out of those ridiculous shoes. And to think she'd gotten her journalism degree for this!
Carrie knew she was fortunate to have a job with such a prestigious newspaper. A professor had pulled a favor and gotten her the interview. Carrie had been stunned when she'd been hired. Surprised and overjoyed.
Two years later, she was less so. Her assignment was the society page. When she was hired, she'd been told that eventually she'd be able to write meatier pieces, do interviews and human-interest stories. To this point, it hadn't happened. Carrie felt trapped, frustrated, and underappreciated. She felt her talent was being wasted.
To make matters worse, her entire family lived in the Pacific Northwest. Carrie had left everything she knew and loved behind, including Steve, her college sweetheart. He'd married less than six months after she took the position in Chicago. It hadn't taken him long, she noted. The worst part was that Carrie was far too busy reporting on social events to have time for much of a social life herself. She dated occasionally, but she hadn't found anyone who made her heart race. Dave Schneider, the man she'd been seeing most recently, was more of a friend than a love interest. She supposed after Steve she was a bit hesitant to get involved again. Maybe once she left the Herald and moved home to write for a newspaper in the Seattle area, like she planned, things would be different.
Back inside her condo, Carrie gingerly removed her shoes and sighed with relief.
This was it. She was done. First thing in the morning she would hand in her two-week notice, sublet her condo, and take her chances in the job market in Seattle. If the managing editor, Nash Jorgen, refused to give her the opportunity to prove she had what it took, then why stay? She refused to be pigeonholed.
That decided, Carrie limped into her bedroom and fell into bed, tired, frustrated, and determined to make a change.
"You can't be serious," argued Sophie Peterson, her closest friend at the newspaper, when Carrie told her of her decision.
"I'm totally serious," she said as she hobbled to her desk.
"What's wrong with your foot?" Sophie asked, tagging behind her.
"Stupidity. This gorgeous pair of shoes was only available in a half-size smaller than what I normally wear. They were so perfect, and they were buy one pair, get the second half off. I couldn't resist, but now I'm paying for it."
"Carrie, don't do it."
"Don't worry, I have no intention of wearing those heels again. I tossed them in a bag for charity."
"Not that," Sophie argued. "Don't hand in your notice! You're needed here."
"Not as a reporter," Carrie assured her, dumping her purse in her bottom drawer and shucking off her thick winter coat. "Sorry, my mind is made up. You and I both know Nash will never give me a decent assignment."
"You're your own worst enemy." Sophie leaned against the wall that separated their two cubicles and crossed her arms and ankles.
"Well, for one thing, you're the perfect fit for the society page. You're drop-dead gorgeous, tall, and thin. It doesn't hurt that you look fabulous in a slinky black dress and a pair of spike heels. Even if I could get my hair to grow that thick, long, and curly without perming the living daylights out of it, Nash would never consider someone like me. It isn't any wonder he wants you on the job. Give the guy a little credit, will you? He knows what he's doing."
"If looks are the only criterion--"
"There's more," Sophie said, cutting her off. "You're great with people. All you need to do is bat those baby blues at them and strangers open up to you. It's a gift, I tell you, a real gift."
"Okay, I'm friendly, but this isn't the kind of writing I want to do. I've got my heart set on being a reporter, a real reporter, writing about real news and interesting people." In the beginning, Carrie had been flattered by the way people went out of their way to introduce themselves at the events she covered. It didn't take long for her to recognize that they were looking for her to mention their names in print. What shocked her was the extent people were willing to go in order to be noticed. She was quickly becoming jaded, and this bothered her even more than Nash's lack of faith in her abilities.
The holidays were the worst, and while it was only early November, the frenzy had already started. The list of parties Nash assigned her to attend was already mammoth. Halloween decorations were still arranged around her desk, and already there was a Christmas tree in the display window of the department store across the street.
Determined to stick with her plan, Carrie went directly into Nash Jorgen's office.
A veteran newsman, Nash glanced up from his computer screen and glared in her direction. He seemed to sense this wasn't a social visit. His shoulders rose with a weary sigh. "What now?" he growled.
"I'm handing in my two-week notice." If she'd been looking for a response, she would have been disappointed.
He blinked a couple of times, ran his hand down the side of his day-old beard, and asked, "Any particular reason?"
"I hoped to prove I can be a darn good reporter, but I'll never get the chance writing anything more than copy for society weddings. You said when you hired me that you'd give me a shot at reporting real news."
"I don't remember what I said. What's wrong with what you're writing now? You're good."
"It isn't what I want to write."
"So? You make the best of it, pay your dues, and in time you'll get the break you're looking for."
Carrie was tired of waiting. She straightened her shoulders, her resolve tightening. "I know I'm fortunate to work for the Herald. It was a real coup to get this position, but this isn't the career I wanted. You give me no choice." She set her letter of resignation on his desk.
That got Nash's attention. He swiveled his chair around to look at her once more. His frown darkened, and he ran his hand through his thinning hair. "You really are serious, aren't you?"
A chill went down her spine. Nash was actually listening. "Yes, I'm serious."
"Fine, then." He reached across his desk and picked up a hardcover book and handed it to her. "Find Finn Dalton, get an interview, and write me a story I can print."
She grabbed hold of the book, not recognizing the author's name. "And if I do?"
"Well, first, there's a snowball's chance of you even locating him. Every reporter in the universe is dying to interview him. But if you get lucky and he's willing to talk and we print the piece, then I'll take you off the society page."
Carrie wavered. He seemed to be offering her a chance, as impossible as it might seem. Now it was up to her to prove herself. She dared not show him how excited she was. "I'll find him."
He snickered as though he found her confidence amusing, and then sobered. He regarded her with the same dark frown he had earlier before a slow, easy smile slid over his harsh features. "I bet you will. Now, listen up--if you get an interview with Finn Dalton, you can have any assignment you want."
Taking small steps, Carrie backed out of the office. She pointed at Nash. "I'm holding you to your word."
The managing editor was already back to reading his computer screen and didn't appear to have heard her. It didn't matter; she'd heard him, and he'd come across loud and clear.
Once she was out of his office, she examined the book to see the author photo, but couldn't find one, not even on the inside back flap.
Walking back to her cubicle, she paused at Sophie's instead. "You ever heard of Finn Dalton?"
Sophie's eyebrows lifted on her round face. "You mean you haven't?"
"No." The book title wasn't much help. Alone. That told her next to nothing. The jacket revealed a snow-covered landscape with a scattering of stubby trees.
Sophie shook her head. "Have you been living under a rock?"
"No. Who is this guy?"
"He's a survivalist who lives alone someplace in the Alaskan wilderness."
"Oh." That was a bit daunting, but Carrie considered herself up to the challenge. She'd been born and raised in Washington state. She'd hoped to join her family for Thanksgiving, but if she needed to use her vacation time to find Finn Dalton, then she was willing to.
"His book has been on the bestseller lists for nearly seven months, mostly at the number-one position."
Carrie was impressed. "What does he write about?"
"He's the kind of guy you can set loose in the wild with a pack of chewing gum, a pocketknife, and a handkerchief, and by the time you find him he's built a shelter and a canoe. From what I've read, his stories about Alaskan life and survival in the tundra would kink your hair. Well, not that yours needs curling."
This was Sophie's idea of a joke. Carrie's wild dark brown curls were the bane of her existence. She tamed them as best she could, but she often found herself the brunt of jokes over her out-of-control hair.
"Nash says he doesn't give interviews."
"Not just doesn't give interviews--this guy is like a ghost. No one has ever met or even talked to him."
"Surely his publisher or his editor--"
"No," Sophie said, cutting her off. "Everything has been done by computer."
"Well, then . . ."
"All anyone knows is that he lives near an Alaskan lake somewhere in the vicinity of the Arctic Circle."
"How is it you know so much about this guy?"
"I don't, and that's just it. No one does. The press has gone wild looking for him. Plenty of reporters have tried to track him down, without success. No one knows how to find him, and Finn Dalton doesn't want to be found. He should have called his book Leave Me Alone. Someone could pass him on the street and never know it was him, and from everything I've read, that's exactly how he likes it."
Intrigued, Carrie flipped through the pages of the book. "Nash said I could have any assignment I wanted if I got an interview from Finn Dalton."
"Of course he did. Nash has been around long enough to know he's got you in a no-win situation."
Carrie glanced up. "I don't care. I'm going to try."
"I hate to be a killjoy here, but Carrie, no way will you find this guy. Better reporters than either of us have tried and failed. Every newspaper, magazine, and media outlet is looking to dig up information about him, without success. Finn Dalton doesn't want to be found."
That might be the case, but Carrie refused to give up without even trying. This was far too important to drop just because it was a long shot. "I'm desperate, Sophie." And really, that said it all. If she was going to have a real career in journalism, she had to find Finn Dalton. Her entire future with the Chicago Herald hung in the balance.
"I admire your determination," Sophie murmured, "but I'm afraid you're going to hit one dead end after another."
"That might be the case." Carrie was willing to admit to her friend that finding Finn Dalton wouldn't be easy. "But I refuse to quit without trying." She knew Sophie didn't mean to be negative. "I want this chance, and if it means tracking Finn Dalton into some forsaken tundra, then I will put on my big-girl shoes and go for it." But not the heels she'd worn last night, that was for sure.
The first thing Carrie did in her search for Finn Dalton was read the book. Not once, but three times. She underlined everything that gave her a single hint as to his identity.
For two days she skipped lunch, spending her time on the computer, seeking any bit of information she could find that would help her locate Finn Dalton. She went from one search engine to another.
"How's it going?" Sophie asked as they passed each other on their way out the door a couple of days later.
"Good." Through her fact-finding mission, Carrie was getting a picture of the man who had written this amazing book. After a third read she almost felt as if she knew him. He hadn't always been a recluse. He'd been raised in Alaska and had learned to live off the land from his father, whom he apparently idolized. One thing was certain, he seemed to have no use for women. In the entire book, not once did he mention his mother or any other female influence. It was more of what he didn't say that caught Carrie's attention.
Excerpted from Starry Night: A Christmas Novel
by Debbie Macomber
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are
provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or
distributed without the written permission of the publisher.