First THREE Chapters FREE
If someone ever filmed my family at Christmastime, the end result would resemble a reality show where siblings are pitted against each other in a series of to-the-death competitions. Either that, or a documentary on domestic dysfunction with a delightfully festive backdrop. I can even hear the voiceover narration announcing, “The Carmichael clan competes for the Christmas crown” with exaggerated alliteration.
Observing what I’ve now dubbed the Gingerbread Gauntlet, I pop a gumdrop in my mouth, letting the copious amounts of sugar dissolve on my tongue as I regard my brother, Matt’s, pièce de résistance. He’s captured Thomas Jefferson’s historic home, the Monticello, in impressive detail down to the candy cane columns.
Beside him, my sister, Veronica, painstakingly squeezes a piping bag, adding evenly spaced frosting shingles to a fairy-tale cottage tantalizing enough to tempt Hansel and Gretel, even after their ill-fated foray into the witch’s forest.
By the end of the day, my dad will choose this year’s winner who will receive—I kid you not—a literal trophy. It’s one of those plastic statues commonly doled out at the end of a children’s soccer tournament, but still… It’s a trophy. For the best gingerbread house. Because who makes a gingerbread house just for fun?
If I sound bitter, it’s not because in all my twenty-eight years of life, I’ve never won the trophy. Or even come close. No, the slight chip on my shoulder is because, just once, I’d like to celebrate the holidays like I’m in one of those Hallmark movies with my loving family gathered around a cozy fireplace singing carols while big, fluffy snowflakes flutter outside the frosted window.
But that will never happen. Because my family can’t sing carols without turning it into a Christmas episode of The Voice. And it never snows in Los Angeles.
Veronica sets down the icing and reaches for the sifter of powdered sugar to add a dusting of saccharine snow to her creation. Her hand collides with Matt, who had the same idea.
“Excuse me, but I’m using that.” Veronica tightens her grip on the sifter.
“Correction. I’m using it.” Matt gives a little tug, eliciting a puffy white cloud.
I lean back in my chair, nibbling on a Twizzler as I watch the scene unfold. Even though they’re both in their early thirties, Veronica and Matt bicker like toddlers. Unless they’re picking on me, of course. That’s a united effort.
“No, I am.” Veronica gives the handle a hard yank, and a powdery plume explodes across the table like a sweetly scented volcanic eruption.
“Great. Look what you did.” Matt brushes the front of his cable-knit sweater, but only manages to make a bigger mess.
Watching in amusement, I drag the unchewed end of my licorice stick through the silky coating covering the plaid tablecloth, absent-mindedly tracing an outline of a snow angel.
“Me?” Veronica cries indignantly. “This is your fault! Look what you did to my gingerbread house. You buried it in an avalanche.”
“Yeah, well, mine looks like it was obliterated by a blizzard. So, I guess we’re even,” Matt huffs.
Veronica pouts for a full thirty seconds before her lips curl into a smirk. “Well, I guess it could be worse. Our gingerbread houses could look like Quincy’s. What’s it supposed to be, anyway? A replica of the Roman ruins?”
Matt snorts. “Don’t be obtuse. Can’t you tell she’s making an artistic statement?”
“Oh, right.” Veronica nods, playing up the joke. “What’s your masterpiece called?” she asks me with mock sincerity. “Deconstructed Gingerbread House?”
They share a laugh.
“Ha-ha. You two are hilarious.” I roll my eyes and take a nonchalant bite of the Twizzler, forgetting I’d just dipped it in sugar. Gross. There really is such a thing as too sweet.
I’d like to say their insults are out of jealousy, but the truth is, my gingerbread house—if you can even call it a house—would be condemned by any self-respecting building inspector. I doubt the lopsided roof could withstand a light throat-clearing from the Big Bad Wolf, let alone a full-blown huff and puff. But you want to know the truly sad part? It’s probably my best attempt to date. I am not gifted in the fine art of transforming baked goods into a home fit for the Borrowers.
I push back my chair and stand.
“Come on, Quincy. We’re only teasing. Don’t leave,” Veronica cajoles, doing her best to appear contrite. “We’ll be good. Right, Matt?”
“Scout’s honor.” He raises three fingers in the Boy Scout salute, even though he was never a member.
For a moment, I consider sitting back down. Despite the lifetime that has proven otherwise, a small part of me wants to believe in a Christmas miracle—that for once, we can enjoy a holiday together without the backhanded insults lobbed in my direction like verbal snowballs. Snowballs with hidden rocks in the center.
But before I can decide my next move, Mom sashays out of the kitchen carrying a silver platter of her infamous fruitcake. I know the iconic dessert gets a lot of flack this time of year, and the wisecracks are endless, but when it comes to my mother’s recipe, they’re all true. It’s basically concrete in loaf form, sprinkled with a few dried cranberries that, frankly, deserve better.
“Okay, kids. Time for fruitcake,” she announces in a singsong voice.
Matt and Veronica unabashedly groan, and my mother’s smile falters.
Diedre Carmichael has only one flaw. And it’s her inedible fruitcake. But despite the fact that one bite could crack the toughest of tooth enamel, she puts her heart and soul into it every year.
“Thanks, Mom.” I lift a hefty slice off the serving plate, nearly spraining my wrist. It easily weighs five pounds. “I’ve been waiting for this all night.”
Okay, so I’ve actually been anxiously awaiting it like a dental patient thumbing through a tattered copy of Highlights Magazine before their root canal, but I don’t expound on that detail.
Her face brightens. “Thank you, sweetheart.”
I follow her into the living room where my dad reclines in his wingback chair in front of the fire, both feet propped on a matching brocade ottoman. An unlit cigar dangles from between his lips. He claims he enjoys the smell and mouthfeel, but I’ve long suspected it’s simply an excuse to avoid eating Mom’s fruitcake.
I settle in the middle of the emerald-velvet Edwardian-style sofa, which I honestly don’t think was ever intended to be used as furniture, and Matt and Veronica plop down on either side of me.
Mom sets the fruitcake on the coffee table and offers me another slice. Her expression is so innocently expectant, I can’t refuse even though my stomach is still trying to figure out what to do with the first one.
Veronica snickers under her breath, but I ignore her, happy to see the glow on Mom’s face as she serves everyone eggnog before joining Dad in the twin armchair by the hearth.
The comforting sound of crackling logs mingles with the soft, melodic notes of “White Christmas” emanating from the custom built-in speakers hidden in the mantelpiece. The entire scene, from the tasteful decorations to everyone’s designer Christmas sweaters, is worthy of a greeting card. Yet, my chest constricts with a familiar foreboding, full of dread for what comes next.
“As we draw near the end of another year,” Dad says, raising his crystal-etched punch glass, “I couldn’t be prouder of all we’ve accomplished. The Carmichaels are a force to be reckoned with.”
“Hear! Hear!” Matt chants, lifting his own glass in solidarity.
As my father’s appraising gaze sweeps over us, I shrink back into the rock-hard cushions, wishing I could sink into the crevices and disappear. My dad, Charles Carmichael III, tends to have that effect on people. He expects nothing less than excellence. Of everyone. Which is probably why his advertising firm, Carmichael Creatives, has achieved such an impressive level of success. But no one feels the spine-crushing pressure more than his offspring.
“Deidre,” he says, turning to my mother, “the chest, please.”
She ceremoniously hands him an antique writing box of brass-bound mahogany, the sort of box I imagine British soldiers used to send love letters to their betrothed back home. Five scrolls lay inside, along with five gold-plated Montblanc pens.
Matt and Veronica scoot toward the edge of the couch in eager anticipation, while I retreat further back, craning my neck in search of an escape. Am I too young to fake a convincing stroke? I glance at the fruitcake. What if I nibble another bite and it conveniently lodges in my throat? Would choking to death extricate me from this unbearable situation? Or will I still be expected to participate as the paramedics wheel away my lifeless corpse on a gurney?
Probably the latter.
While I resign myself to the inevitable, Mom passes out the scrolls.
“Matthew,” Dad says, “as the eldest, you go first.”
Matt sits up straighter, pulling his shoulders so far back I can’t help but wonder if they popped out of socket. If so, he doesn’t seem to notice. “Last year,” he says with a self-gratified grin, “my Christmas Commitment was to learn Japanese. Ninmu kanryō.” He presses his palms together and bows at the waist as Mom and Veronica applaud and Dad voices his approval.
Since before I was born, my family has carried out a tradition called Christmas Commitments. Because we can’t simply make New Year’s resolutions like normal people. It’s essentially the same thing except a week earlier. And we write them down and report back each year, which is apparently all part of the “fun.”
“Veronica?” Dad prompts, beaming at her proudly.
She tosses her hair over her shoulder, whipping me in the face. Fortunately, she had her hair professionally blow-dried for the occasion, so the icy blond strands are silky soft and emit her trademark scent—strawberries and superiority.
“My Christmas Commitment was to get my master’s degree in business communications.” She pauses for dramatic effect, then draws a large swish in the air with her finger and says, “Check!”
“Well done!” This time, Dad starts the round of applause.
After she’s duly praised, the room turns eerily silent save for the melancholy rendition of “A Change at Christmas” by The Flaming Lips and the aforementioned crackling logs. I can feel the pitying glances, although I keep my eyes glued to the festive Nordic print on my fuzzy socks. The alternating pattern of tree, snowflake, tree, snowflake is quite hypnotic if you stare at it hard enough.
“Quincy?” I can hear the hesitation in my father’s voice. And something even sadder—hope. After all these years, he still thinks there’s a chance I won’t completely disappoint him.
My throat tightens. “I, uh…”
“It’s okay, honey,” Mom coos in her coddling way. The way that says All my babies are perfect, no matter what. Even you, Quincy. “You can tell us.”
“Come on.” Veronica nudges my arm. “How bad can it be?”
What she means to say is It can’t be any worse than every year prior. And she’s right. I take a deep breath, but I can’t form the words.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” she groans in exasperation. “I’ll do it.” Leaning over my shoulder, she reads off my scroll. “Last year, you wrote take a dance class.” She looks up, baffled. “That’s it? That’s your easiest Christmas Commitment ever. What were you so worried about? You didn’t even specify that you had to be any good at it.”
“Yeah, Quincy,” Matt adds, placing a hand on my arm. “I’m sure you were able to take a simple dance class, right?”
Heat and humiliation creep up my neck. I almost did. But when I arrived at Introduction to Swing in a 1950s rockabilly outfit only to find everyone else in street clothes, I was so embarrassed, I quickly ducked out of the room. Then I kind of… forgot about it.
When I don’t respond, my mother and father exchange a look. A look that simultaneously fills me with shame and relief as Mom chirps, “Why don’t I go next?”
For several minutes following, I barely listen as my parents take turns reporting on their accomplishments. Ever since I was five and quit ballet after one lesson, it’s become a family joke that I never follow through on anything. The adorable nickname Quincy the Quitter has been bandied about more than a few times. I’m not sure if it’s a chicken-or-egg situation and I quit things to live up to the moniker, or if I earned the title because I always quit things, but either way… The charming epithet will probably be engraved on my headstone.
“Anyway, kids,” Dad says, “that’s my big announcement.”
I blink, realizing I’ve missed something important. “What announcement?”
“Jeez, Quincy. Aren’t you paying attention?” Veronica sighs loudly. “Steve Bailcroft is retiring, and Dad wants to promote either Matt or I to marketing director. We have three months to create a campaign for our new client, Extra Energy Drink. Whoever comes up with the winning pitch, gets the promotion.”
For a moment, I’m too stunned to speak. Steve Bailcroft has been Dad’s right-hand man at Carmichael Creatives since its inception. He’s credited with more successful ad campaigns than anyone else in the company. Of course, Matt and Veronica have coveted his position since the day they were hired straight out of college, but everyone—including myself—thought Steve would keel over mid-pitch meeting before he ever retired.
Without thinking, I blurt, “What about me?”
Veronica bursts into laughter, and I can’t blame her. I have no idea what came over me. Except, I have this sudden, all-consuming urge to change the course of my life. Like Scrooge being shown his dismal fate by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, I glimpsed my own depressing future and didn’t like what I saw.
Veronica quickly sobers when I don’t recant my question. “Wait, are you serious?”
“Why not? I’ve worked there nearly as long as you have. And I’m a pretty good copywriter.”
“Sure, but…” She trails off as if her objections should be obvious, and casts a can-you-believe-her? expression in Dad’s direction.
He steeples his fingers and presses them to his chin, mulling it over.
“Daddy, please don’t tell me you’re actually considering Quincy for the position. Even if she wins, she’ll quit a day later,” Veronica voices what everyone’s thinking.
After a beat, Dad lowers his fingers and meets my gaze. “Veronica makes a valid point. How can I be assured you’ll follow through if you win?”
“Um…” I hesitate, admittedly stumped. I’d give him my word, but it doesn’t mean all that much when you consider my track record.
“I know!” Veronica cries, snatching the scroll from my hand. “What if she has to finish her Christmas Commitments? All of them?” Her eyes flash with a devious triumph, and for a moment, I marvel at how two people can look so much alike—we share the same lapis-blue eyes and blond hair, though mine is more sunny than snow queen—but be polar opposites in every other way.
As Dad ruminates over her suggestion, my pulse sputters. Maybe I could complete one or two of the items on the list, but all of them in three months? There’s no way.
“That’s not a bad idea, Veronica,” Dad says, and my heart plummets. “But not the entire list.” He turns to me. “If you want to be taken seriously in this competition, over the next three months, you’ll need to finish the last ten items on your list, including whatever you add today. Do we have a deal?”
I glance between Matt and Veronica. Matt licks his thumb and rubs the remaining powdered sugar smudge on his sweater, wholly uninterested, like he knows I’ll fail and isn’t worried about it. But Veronica… Veronica has this slightly manic glint in her eye, and her lips arch into a challenging sneer.
“I’ll do it,” I say quickly, before I can stop myself.
“Excellent!” Dad raises his glass. “Then may the best Carmichael win.”
As everyone salutes with a sip of eggnog, Veronica traces her fingertip down my list, landing on the first item I’ll need to cross off—the one I wrote ten years ago.
A slow smile spreads across her face as she leans in and whispers, “Good luck, Quincy. New York City is going to eat you alive.”
I dig my nails into the disconcertingly sticky leather seat as the cab driver swerves around a pedestrian with a death wish, wondering if Veronica was right.
This New York, with the petulant gray sky and gritty slush covering the uneven sidewalk, isn’t the magical city of Nora Ephron films. Although, it’s probably my fault. If I’d arrived in autumn rather than early January, I’d be sniffing bouquets of sharpened pencils instead of shivering in my too-thin coat, regretting my life choices.
The cabby—who’s inexplicably adverse to modern comforts like a heater and air freshener—slams on the brakes, and my forehead flies forward, colliding with the front seat headrest, which is slightly slimy for unfathomable reasons.
He hammers his fist against the horn, glaring at a stylish woman weighed down with shopping bags who’d stepped off the Fifth Avenue curb without a moment’s thought to oncoming traffic. Somehow, she manages to maneuver her packages just enough to free her hand for an offensive gesture that elicits a round of obscenities in return.
Ah, New York. The city that never sleeps. Which explains why everyone is so crabby.
I’m thrown back against the seat as the driver stomps on the gas, grumbling something about lousy tourists under his breath. I consider apologizing on behalf of myself and my fellow sojourners, but decide to keep my mouth shut, figuring anonymity is my best shot at survival. But I seriously contemplate booking a return flight as soon as I arrive at Brynn’s place. My childhood best friend would be disappointed but would ultimately understand. That’s the one perk to being dubbed Quincy the Quitter… no one bats an eye when you bail.
After all, I’d done that very thing ten years ago when I’d promised to follow her to New York after my gap year. She’d gone off to college at Columbia, and except for the one summer I’d visited—aka the worst summer of my life—I abandoned the idea of joining her. Eventually, she stopped asking me.
When I’d called out of the blue after the new year and sheepishly told her about the competition and asked to stay with her for three months—since Dad decreed it would be long enough to cross “Move to New York” off my list—I’d half-expected her to hang up before I’d finished my sentence. I hadn’t exactly done a great job keeping in touch all those years. But I should have known better. Brynn has always been the sweetest, most forgiving person on the planet, and she genuinely seems excited to see me. Which, I’m not gonna lie, adds to my guilt.
The cab lurches to a stop outside a stately brick building that looks more like a swanky hotel than an apartment complex. This is where Brynn lives?
Light snowflakes begin to fall, swirling around the black-and-white striped awning shielding the entrance and dusting the twin rows of potted conifer trees flanking the broad stone steps. A soft glow emanates from behind the glass door like a beacon of warmth welcoming me out of the cold.
My spirits are so lifted by the beautiful sight, I don’t even mind when the driver makes me haul my own humongous suitcase out of the trunk. Or when one of the wheels gets caught in a crack in the sidewalk. As freezing flakes find their way down my collar, stinging the back of my neck, I yank the handle of my suitcase, but it won’t budge. I glance at the driver, hoping he’ll take pity on my plight.
Instead, he skids off down the street, flinging ice-cold slush from his tires like a water cannon, drenching the front of my coat and jeans. To add insult to injury, my suitcase wheel chooses that exact moment to free itself from the crevice, and the momentum sends me flailing backwards into a snow-covered—and unpleasantly prickly—bush.
For a moment, I consider the pros and cons of staying put and letting the thorny branches envelop me until I freeze solid and become a permanent fixture. Con: I’d probably be a prime spot for snooty Upper East Side dogs to relieve themselves. Pro: Becoming an ice sculpture may be my best shot at sticking out the entire three months in Manhattan. That settles it. Succumb to a frosty grave and finally finish what I started.
My resolve waivers when melted snow seeps through my clothing, racking my body with a bone-shattering shiver. I clearly don’t have what it takes to be a martyr for my own moral growth, so I ungracefully liberate myself.
Sopping wet and bedraggled, I lug my suitcase into the pristine lobby, dripping water onto the white marble floor. Taking in the elegant wallpaper and expensive artwork, I feel incredibly out of place as I try to remember Brynn’s most recent text.
So sorry! I’m stuck at work. See Sharon. And don’t forget depreciation.
Her cryptic instructions don’t make much sense, and I’m pretty sure that last part—which sounds like one of her nerdy accounting terms—is a mistake and meant for someone else.
Panic starts to set in. I should call her and ask for clarification, but I hate to bug her at work, especially since she’s doing me such a gigantic favor. Maybe I can camp out in the lobby until she gets home?
Tiny tears of exhaustion and frustration build behind my eyes. I’m cold, travel-weary, and starving. The trifecta of emotional meltdowns.
“Can I help you?”
Through blurry vision, I spot a middle-aged woman in a black bellhop suit and shiny uniform hat covering her short-cropped brown hair. She looks like some sort of fancy concierge, further cementing my suspicion that Brynn actually lives in a posh boutique hotel.
“I’m looking for Brynn Delaney’s apartment?”
“Ah, you must be Miss Carmichael.” The woman smiles, deepening the wrinkles around her kind eyes and wide, friendly mouth. “I’m Sharon. Miss Delaney asked me to give this to you.” She reaches into her breast pocket and withdraws a small white envelope. “This key is to 3B on the fifth floor. You can take the elevator, then turn right, and it’s three doors down. Can I help with your luggage?”
“Thank you for the offer, but I can manage.” I peer inside the envelope and see a sparkling gold key.
“Is there anything else I can do for you?” Sharon asks warmly.
“Um, no thank you.” All I can think about is taking a long, hot shower and raiding Brynn’s refrigerator.
“Enjoy your stay.” Sharon taps the brim of her hat before returning to her post by the front door. In my discombobulation, I must have walked right past her without realizing it.
My damp soles squeak across the floor as I drag my bag to the gilded elevator, and I can only imagine what Sharon must think of Brynn’s out-of-town houseguest. I try to put my embarrassment out of my mind the entire ride to the fifth floor, but my cheeks still feel pink when I stick the key in the lock.
However, any thought I’ve ever had evaporates the second the door swings open, swept away by pure, jaw-dropping disbelief.
Brynns’s apartment gleams like a glittering oasis in a metropolitan wilderness. You know how people say they want to pinch themselves in case they’re actually dreaming? Yeah, that’s the last thing I want to do. If this is a dream, sign me up for a lifetime’s supply of Ambien.
I flick on the light and step farther into the foyer, marveling at the vast, open spaces. I thought all New Yorkers lived in shoeboxes. Sure, some might be Christian Louboutin or Manolo Blahnik, but shoeboxes, nonetheless.
Brynn’s entryway opens to a sizable kitchen on the right and steps down to an even more expansive living room with a fireplace, huge flatscreen TV, and miles of built-in bookcases, which I plan to peruse to my heart’s content later.
But my favorite feature? The three floor-to-ceiling picture windows framing a breathtaking view of the city all bathed in a bluish haze like a wintry wonderland. I can even glimpse the snow-capped trees of Central Park through the slits in the surrounding buildings.
I’m so mesmerized that, for a moment, I can’t move. I can’t even breathe. Instead, I concentrate on imprinting the scene into my permanent memory.
I knew Brynn did well for herself as a top-level CPA in a prestigious financial firm. She had such high-profile clients, they were protected by nondisclosure agreements. But I didn’t know she did this well. Bravo, my friend. Bravo.
It’s quite possible I would have stood in that spot, captivated by the view, for hours, completely forgetting my long-anticipated shower, if not for a low, guttural growl. The hairs on my arms shoot straight up, almost as quickly as my heart catapults into my throat.
Slowly, I turn toward the source of the sound.
A monstrous dog, almost mythical in size, engulfs the shadowy hallway. It reminds me a little of Beethoven from all those movies I watched as a kid. What kind of dog was he again? A Saint Bernard? I think that’s it. Except, this dog has fangs that could filet me in seconds.
“H-hey there, girl.” I hold up my hands like a bank robber surrounded by a heavily armed SWAT team.
I’m met with another menacing growl.
When Veronica said New York City would eat me alive, I hadn’t thought she’d meant literally.
“B-boy?” I stammer, worried I’d accidentally offended him. Was a dog more likely to maul you if you got its gender wrong? I’m not sure, but I don’t really want to find out, either.
“Who’s a good boy?” I ask feebly. My high-pitched tone resembles a preschool teacher who’s afraid of children. The dog isn’t impressed and curls his upper lip in a vicious snarl.
I have no idea what to do.
The ironic thing is I’ve always wanted a dog. For years, I’d begged my parents for a puppy, but thanks to Matt’s allergies, they gave me a goldfish for my fourth birthday instead. I named him Spot, which suited him perfectly since he had a big white circle on the left side of his body. I’d strap his fishbowl into the seat of my little umbrella stroller and take him for walks. I even taught him a few tricks.
The only two he learned with any level of competency were “stay” and “play dead.” And every time he successfully executed the last trick, his namesake spot would inexplicably be in a different location the next day. I don’t want to admit how old I was when I finally figured out the real trick, which involved a punch card at the local pet store and my parents’ uncanny ability to lie straight-faced.
Of course, I could have adopted a dog when I moved out, but I live alone in a tiny apartment in Burbank, and it doesn’t seem right to keep an animal cooped up most of the day.
I wonder if I explain all of this to Cujo if he’ll have mercy on me. Then a thought hits me. Depreciation! The last word from Brynn’s text. Snippets from one of our phone calls weave in and out of my jet-lagged brain, struggling to find focus. I’d been busy trying to book my flight, so I only caught half of what she’d said.
I’m not entirely certain my recollection is correct, but it’s worth a try.
“D-depreciation?” I whisper, praying this works.
His bushy, reddish-brown eyebrows lift slightly. That’s a good sign.
“Depreciation,” I say again, this time a little louder and with more confidence.
The dog lunges toward me, and in my terror, I scrunch my eyes shut and fall to my knees, covering my face with both hands.
So, this is how it ends….
Two enormous paws topple me backwards, but instead of ripping out my jugular, my attacker lathers me with an inch of slobber.
I force my eyes open and gaze into the most adorable, droopy brown eyes I’ve ever seen. The ferocious beast has transformed into a two-hundred-pound lapdog. I can’t help but laugh.
“Hey, buddy. Are we friends now?” I scratch behind his soft, oversized ears, then notice the collar around his neck.
“Wilson,” I add, reading the engraving.
He wiggles his backside in greeting.
“Hey, Wilson. I’m Quincy. Thanks for not eating me.”
He nuzzles my face, and is so sweet and cuddly, I can’t believe I was ever afraid of him.
“As much as I appreciate the sponge bath,” I say as he licks my face again, “I’m in desperate need of a hot shower.”
My phone buzzes in my coat pocket, and I dig it out to read the text from Brynn.
Still working. So sorry you’re spending your first night alone. Help yourself to the food in the fridge, including the leftover sushi. And don’t wait up. It’s going to be another all-nighter.
I text back No worries. Wilson and I are best buds. See you in the morning.
As much as I’m looking forward to seeing Brynn, I don’t mind turning in early. That is, after I wash up and avail myself of her leftovers.
I give Wilson a few more head scratches to solidify our new bond, then wander down the hall, vaguely recalling Brynn’s description of where I’d find the guest bedroom.
It’s technically her office, as denoted by the sleek, modern-style desk beneath the large window, but there’s also a cozy daybed and a sumptuous looking armchair tucked into a reading nook of sorts. The decor consists mostly of monochromatic neutrals with a few pops of rose petal pink, and I couldn’t have asked for a more pleasant space, even if I’d designed it myself.
After I dig a pair of pajamas out of my suitcase, I meander back down the hall in search of the guest bathroom.
Like everything else in Brynn’s apartment, it’s surprisingly spacious. And rather than a tub-and-shower combo with questionably colored grout—like the one in my bathroom—this is one of those walk-in designs with solid slate tile walls.
There’s a stack of folded towels on a sleek metal rack, and I grab the one on top. It’s as thick and plush as any you’d find at a five-star spa, and I unabashedly rub my cheek against the fluffy fabric, inhaling the distinct lavender scent.
My first night in New York might be off to a rocky start, but it’s slowly looking brighter.
Towel in hand, I step through the narrow opening and peel off my damp boots and clothes, placing them—and the cloud-like towel—on the teak bench at the back of the shower so they don’t create a pool of water on the bathroom floor. The recessed lights in the ceiling cast a soft, soothing glow, and I can already feel some of the tension draining from my stiff muscles.
That is, until I spot the dozen or more shower heads protruding from all angles, including directly overhead. Yeesh. I might need an engineering degree just to figure out how to turn them all on.
As I’m analyzing which lever goes to which showerhead, the bathroom door creaks open.
My pulse spikes, then skitters to a halt.
I’m positive I closed the door behind me. I even remember hearing the latch click into place. Unless Wilson knows how to turn a door handle…
Fear creeps up my neck, and I shiver.
Brynn is still at work, so who could it be?
I snatch the towel off the bench and wrap it around myself. When CSI finds my body, at least I won’t be in my birthday suit.
Biting my lip, I suppress a whimper as the prowler’s heavy soles plod across the bathroom floor.
Is it possible I narrowly escaped Wilson’s bone-crunching mandibles only to wind up like Janet Leigh’s iconic character in Hitchcock’s Psycho?
I’ve heard about New York’s horrific crime rates, but I didn’t think I’d become one of the statistics… especially on my first night!
Good grief. I’m so terrified, my thoughts are rambling.
Focus, Quincy. There’s still a chance it’s merely a burglar and he—or she—doesn’t even know you’re here.
Although, it begs the question… how did they get past Wilson? I say a silent prayer he’s unharmed. Maybe they tossed him a large steak to distract him?
The toilet seat clinks against the porcelain tank, and I jump in fright.
Is the… is the burglar using the bathroom?
I suppose even criminals have to go sometime. But here? Now?
This can’t be happening.
For some reason, I close my eyes and cover my ears. Maybe it’s from years of deeply ingrained propriety. Or perhaps I simply don’t want the last sounds I hear before my demise to be a stranger’s bodily functions. Either way, I inch backward, putting as much distance as possible between myself and the intruder. But as I quietly shuffle my feet, I bump one of the knobs and ice-cold water rains down on my head.
Before I can stop myself, I let out a yelp.
“Is someone in here?” a startled voice asks.
A startled voice I faintly recognize. But it can’t be him… can it? “E-Ethan?” I squeak as I fumble with the slippery faucet with one hand while the other clutches the now-drenched towel.
I hear the distinct zip of his fly closing, which only adds to my embarrassment. What in the world is Brynn’s older brother doing here?
“I didn’t think you were arriving until tomorrow.” His tone is sheepish and apologetic.
“Um, well…” I finally manage to shut the water off, although droplets continue to bead off the ends of my hair and ping onto the tile floor. “I’m here now,” I finish lamely.
“Of course.” He releases a self-chastising groan. “I’m sorry, Q. You’re trying to take a shower, and I barged in here like a clueless idiot. I must have startled you to death. I’ll go use Brynn’s bathroom.”
I take a moment to collect myself. He hasn’t called me Q since… Well, since I visited Brynn in New York ten years ago. Why does the sound still send tingles down my spine?
I inhale sharply. Stop being ridiculous. Now is not the time to revisit a silly childhood crush.
“Thanks,” I murmur, trying to repress my mortification. I never thought the first time I ran into Ethan again I’d be wrapped in a soaking-wet towel like some sort of soggy burrito, talking to him through a tile wall.
Even after the door closes, I hold my breath, not daring to move until I’m a thousand percent sure he’s gone. And even then, my shower is hardly relaxing. Every little sound—plus some nonexistent ones—gives me a mini panic attack, although I know I’m being unnecessarily paranoid.
After I dry off, I slip into my flannel pajamas, regretting my pattern choice. I could have gone with tasteful snowflakes, but instead, I chose cartoonish cups of hot chocolate with cheesy smiles and their equally nonsensical winking marshmallow companions.
For a moment, I consider ducking into the guest room to change into my fleece-lined leggings, which Veronica begrudgingly admitted make my backside look “decent.” Maybe I’ll even swipe on some mascara and lip gloss.
Ultimately, I decide to face Ethan in my mortifying PJs sans makeup. After all, my crush on Brynn’s brother was a long time ago. We’re adults now. He’s probably married. Or seeing someone, at the very least. And I’ve sworn off dating for the next millennia or more.
I shove my feet into a pair of pink slipper socks—complete with wooly pom poms on the back—and pad softly into the kitchen. As soon as I round the corner, I immediately regret my decision.
Ethan stands at the gas range with his back to me, stirring something heavenly in a small copper saucepan. I have a suspicion it’s his family’s decadent hot chocolate recipe—the kind his mother used to make Brynn and me after we played outside all day in the cold—but for once, it’s not the chocolate that’s making my mouth water.
Ethan’s wearing loose sweats hung low on his hips and a long-sleeve thermal shirt snug enough to show off the curve of his biceps. Wowza. Even when he ran cross-country in high school and worked out every day, he never looked like that. All of a sudden, my mouth goes dry like one of my socks was stuffed in it.
Thankfully, Wilson barrels across the room and knocks some sense into me—literally and figuratively. From my new position on the floor, I wrap my arms around his neck and give him a snuggle.
“Sorry about that,” Ethan says on Wilson’s behalf. “He doesn’t realize how big he is.”
“I don’t mind.” I bury my face in his fur to avoid looking at Ethan. For some reason, my stomach won’t stop somersaulting. Maybe your first crush is like riding a bike? You never forget how badly it hurt the first time you fell.
“I still feel like a jerk for barging in on your first night in New York, so I made you my mother’s cure-all as a peace offering.”
The intoxicating aroma of rich dark chocolate draws my attention to Ethan as he slowly pours the thick, velvety liquid into two mugs.
My heartbeat slows at the sight of him. His caramel-colored hair is a little longer than it used to be, with a slight curl at the ends. But his hazel eyes have the same mischievous sparkle, and the left side of his mouth still lifts slightly higher than the right when he smiles, to devastating effect.
Breathe, Quincy. Just breathe.
“Thanks.” Self-conscious, I tuck a strand of damp hair behind my ear and follow him into the living room.
I notice the fireplace first. Although it appears to be electric, the flames are surprisingly realistic and provide a pleasant amber glow along with a remarkable amount of heat.
Against the wintry backdrop of New York City covered in snow, the idyllic scene is cozy and inviting. Then my gaze lands on the coffee table. It’s covered in a smorgasbord of snacks. Plates piled high with a variety of crackers and dips, plus a fondue set with melted cheese and chunks of artisan bread. And the holy grail: Brynn’s leftover sushi.
“I thought you might be hungry.” He sets the mugs on the coffee table and grabs a bag of marshmallows, ripping open the seal. “They’re not the winking variety, but I thought we could roast them over the fondue flames later.” He casts an impish glance at my pajamas, and I blush.
“Very funny.” I hide my embarrassment by stuffing my face with a cracker dipped in a tangy red pepper hummus. All hope of making a good impression is already out the window, so I might as well relax and be myself. “Thank you,” I mumble with my mouthful. “I’m starving.”
Ethan unfurls a throw blanket for us to share while I fill my plate with an assortment of sushi rolls and sit cross legged on the couch. Wilson leaps onto the cushion beside me, resting his boulder-sized head on my lap.
My heart only skips a little bit when Ethan sits next to me, slipping beneath one corner of the blanket close enough to smell his cedar-scented bodywash. Counting the subdued palpitation as progress, I forgo the chopsticks and start polishing off the spicy crab rolls like finger food. They may be the best thing I’ve ever tasted.
“What time did you get in?” Ethan asks, helping himself to the tempura prawns.
“Just in time to avoid the storm of the century.” I glance out the window at the quickly falling snow. “Will Brynn get home okay?”
“She’ll be fine. We’re used to this kind of weather.”
As he dips another roll in soy sauce, my mind reels with a million questions. Does he still live in New York, or is he only visiting? I don’t see a ring, so he’s not married, but is he seeing anyone? And what is he doing in Brynn’s apartment? He clearly has a key, so…
Before I can ask, he says, “I think it’s really cool you’re staying with us for a few months. Brynn hasn’t stopped talking about it since you called. Although, she wasn’t sure you’d actually show up.”
That stings a bit, but I deserve it. The truth is, I almost didn’t. Last night I couldn’t sleep. My thoughts were filled with every possible way I could mess this up, and all the reasons I should just give up now. Then Brynn texted telling me how excited she was, and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t let her down again, so I—
Hang on a second! What did he say? “Us?” I repeat, when his words finally click.
“Yeah, me and Brynn.” He shoots me a funny look.
“You and Brynn? You mean, you live here?”
“I moved in with Brynn a few months ago when my old roommate got married, and I couldn’t find a new place.” He peers at me with concern, like I’d suddenly lost my mind. “I was sure Brynn told you.”
“Actually, she didn’t.”
We stare at each other in silence, and I’m not sure why the news is such a big deal. It’s just Ethan. For most of my life, he was like a big brother to me. Okay, that’s not true. More accurately, I was like a little sister to him. But still, this won’t be awkward at all. I’m sure I’ll barely even notice he’s around.
Wilson shifts his weight, shoving me halfway onto Ethan’s lap.
His arm slips around me, keeping me from completely toppling over and face-planting into his wasabi. Even beneath my thick flannel sleeve, the warm pressure of his hand on my upper arm is at once reassuring and dangerously disconcerting. And there’s something in his eyes—a glint I’ve never seen before—that catches me off guard.
I part my lips to say something, anything, but no words come out.
“Q—” he starts, then bites down, flexing his jaw in the same nervous twitch from when we were kids and he had something important to say.
But regrettably, I’m not destined to know what comes next.
In arguably the worst timing in history, the front door flies open.
Thanks for reading the first three chapter of New York, New Year, New You. I hope you enjoyed them. If yo'd like to read more, you can order your copy here.