On a Christmas-scented Saturday morning in early December, Dallas’s newly elected mayor, Filomena James, walked her only surviving daughter, Kelsey, down the pew-packed aisle of the lavishly decorated Highland Park United Methodist Church.
She slipped her arm through her daughter’s, and off they went to the instrumental score of “Let Me Tell You About My Boat.” Filomena had insisted on music hipper than “The Wedding March” for her child’s big day.
Bucking the old guard.
That was how she won her mayoral seat. Filomena was innovative, clever, and resourceful. Never mind that Kelsey was a traditionalist. After all, Filomena was the one shelling out the big bucks for this shindig, and to quote her campaign buttons, she was the “rebel with a cause.”
She’d insisted on the December wedding date, so as not to conflict with her mayoral bid. In mild protest, Kelsey put up a feeble fuss. Her daughter was not a fan of December in general or Christmas in particular. But as always, Filomena had prevailed.
“Lucky” for Kelsey, Mama knew best.
Everything was going as Filomena had planned. That is until the groom hightailed it for the exit, elbows locked with his best man.
Fifteen minutes later, back in the bridal room of the church, Kelsey sat as calm as a statue, ankles crossed demurely, feet tucked underneath the bench, expression mild. Her waist-length hair twisted high in an elegant braided chignon. A bouquet of white roses and a crumpled, handwritten Dear Jane letter were lying in her lap.
Sounds of car doors slamming and hushed voices stirring gossip drifted in through the partially opened window.
The poor thing.
Do you think Kelsey suspected Clive was gay?
How does Filomena recover from this?
Exhaling deeply, Kelsey hid her smile as relief poured through her. Okay, sprinkle in a dab of sadness, a jigger of regret, and a dollop of I-do-not-want-to-face-my-mother, but other than that, Clive’s abrupt adios hadn’t peeled her back too far.
Hey, it wasn’t the most embarrassing thing that had ever happened to her. She’d get through this.
Filomena paced. As if struck by a hundred flyswatters all slapping at once, her cheeks flushed scarlet. Black Joan Crawford eyebrows pulled into a hard V. “Do you have any idea how humiliated I am?” she howled.
“I’m sorry, Mother,” Kelsey said by rote.
“This is your fault. If you’d slept with Clive, as I told you to, instead of sticking to that wait-until-the-wedding nonsense, I would not be on the hook for this nightmare.”
“Yes, Mother. You’re right. You’re always right.”
Filomena’s scowl lessened. “Well, at least you admit it.”
Kelsey’s best friend, Tasha Williams, who’d been standing by the door, lifted the hem of her emerald green, charmeuse maid of honor dress and strode across the small room to toe off with the mayor-elect.
“Are you frigging kidding me?” Tasha’s deep brown eyes narrowed and she planted her hands onto her hips, head bobbing as she spoke. “Kels got stood up, not you.”
Yay, you. Grateful, Kelsey sent her friend a thank-you smile.
“The media will eat me for dinner over this.” Through flinty eyes, Filomena’s glower could wither houseplants to dust.
Uh-oh, Kelsey knew the look far too well. A clear signal to give her mother a Grand Canyon–sized berth.
“Have an inch of compassion, you witch.” Tasha glared lasers at Filomena.
Proud that her bestie had not called her mother a “bitch” when she knew the word was searing the end of Tasha’s tongue, Kelsey cleared her throat. Long ago, she’d learned not to throw emotional gasoline on her mother’s fits of pique. Courting head-to-toe, third-degree burns was not her favorite pastime.
“What did you say to me?” A sharp, cutting tone curdled her mother’s voice. Her icy stare could quell Katniss Everdeen.
Gulping, Tasha couldn’t quite meet Filomena’s eyes. “Just . . . just . . . have a heart, dammit. She’s your daughter.”
“Don’t you lecture me, you little upstart.” Filomena shoved her face in front of Tasha’s nose.
In a soothing, even tone, Kelsey pressed her palms downward. “Mom, I’m fine here. Please, go do damage control. You’ll find a way to turn this to your advantage. You’re a master at spinning gold from straw.”
“Excellent idea.” With stiff-legged movements, Filomena shifted her attention off Tasha. Finger pinching the ruching at the waist of her snug-fitting mother-of-the-bride dress, she straightened herself, dusted off her shoulders, and stalked toward the door. “Clive’s father owes me big-time.”
Filomena’s exit left Kelsey and Tasha exhaling simultaneously.
“Ah, gotta love how she turns every disaster into a political stepping stone,” Tasha muttered.
“It’s her superpower,” Kelsey said.
“What’s her kryptonite?”
Rereading Clive’s scrawled letter, Kelsey didn’t answer. Before Clive fled with Kevin, he’d pressed the note into the minister’s hand.
Shabby of me to ditch you this way, but please believe me when I say I wanted to marry you. You are the kindest, most loving person I’ve ever met and my deep affection for you has gotten me this far. But no more cowering in the closet, praying to turn into something I’m not. You deserve better. I deserve better. I’ve been a coward, and you were safe. Time to stop running. Kevin and I love each other. We have for a long time. Last night after the bachelor party . . . well . . . let’s just say everything changed forever. Out there somewhere is the real love of your life. Please, cash in the honeymoon tickets and spoil yourself with a trip of your own.
Best wishes, Your friend always, Clive.
Floating off the page, three words stood tall above the others, accusing her of her most glaring shortcoming.
You were safe.
Yes, she played it safe.
Guilty as charged.
While Clive’s betrayal stung, the loss and embarrassment didn’t equal the pain of the truth. If she hadn’t been playing it safe, going for the most accommodating, least challenging man around, she wouldn’t have ended up here.
Once again, her mother was right, and this was her fault. To avoid a major war that she stood no chance of winning, Kelsey had kept her own wants and needs suppressed. Filomena pushed the union because Clive’s father was Texas Supreme Court Justice Owen Patterson. Kelsey had meekly accepted the union.
Intelligent, witty, urbane, Clive was entertaining and erudite, and he always smelled fantastic. How easily she’d slipped into a tranquil relationship with him. When he’d told her that he was old-fashioned and wanted to wait until the wedding night before they had sex, she’d been charmed.
And it was a major red flag she’d blown right past.
“‘Sweet’ is code for boring,” Tasha had warned when Kelsey broke the news that she and Clive weren’t having sex. “Who buys a car without test driving it first?”
Now she understood why Clive avoided having sex with her. Not because she was special as he’d claimed. Nope, because he wasn’t really interested. She was gullible and had taken him at his word.
What a dumbass. Wadding the letter in her fist, Kelsey tossed it into the wicker wastebasket.
“Good start.” Tasha gave a gleeful grin. “Let’s cash in those tickets and get this party started. You need a wild night with a hot guy. How long has it been since you’ve had sex?”
Well over eighteen months. Since long before she’d started dating Clive. “I don’t know if I’m ready for that.”
“Will you stop? You gotta get back out there. Time’s a-wastin’.” Tasha reached for her clutch purse, popped it open, and took out a fifth of Fireball whiskey. “I brought this for the wedding reception, but we need it ASAP.”
“Believe me.” Kelsey held up a palm. “I’m mad at myself for letting things get this far. I should have stopped the wedding, but my mother started the steamroller, and I just climbed aboard the way I always do.”
“Reason enough to take a shot.” Tasha chugged a mouthful of hooch, let loose with a satisfied burp, and pressed the whiskey into Kelsey’s hand.
“Drink,” Tasha commanded.
“Good gravy, I’m not wrecked. I promise.”
“But you should get wrecked. Get mad. Howl at the moon. Let loose.” Tasha stuck her arms out at her sides as if she was an airplane. “Wing woman at your service. Never fear, Tasha is here.”
Sighing, Kelsey wondered if her friend had a point. Who would judge her for getting drunk after being jilted at the altar?
With a toss of her head, she took a short swallow. The cinnamon-flavored whiskey burned and lit a warm liquid fire in the pit of her stomach.
“Take another,” Tasha coached.
Opening her mouth to say no, three words flashed vivid neon in Kelsey’s mind. You were safe.
Clive nailed it. Since her twin sister, Chelsea, drowned on Possum Kingdom Lake when they were ten, she’d been playing it safe. Honestly, even before then. “Safe” was her factory default setting. Chelsea’s death only compounded her natural peacemaking tendency. No adventuresome twin around to balance her out.
With a snort, Kelsey took another drink. Longer this time, and she felt her insides unspool.
“Good girl.” Tasha patted Kelsey’s shoulder.
After the third shot, Kelsey felt warm and woozy and ten times better than she had half an hour ago.
“Okay, okay.” With a worried expression, Tasha took the bottle away from her. “All things in moderation. I don’t want to hold your hair while you puke before we ever get out of the church.”
Snapping her fingers, Kelsey reached for the bottle. “Gimme, I’m done playing by the rules.”
Ninja quick, Tasha hid the whiskey behind her back. “I’ve created a monster. I’ll return it when we’re in the limo.”
“Bye-bye limo.” Kelsey hiccupped. “Clive and Kevin took it.”
“How do you know?”
“Peek at the curb.”
Poking her head out the window, Tasha said. “Oh well. Uber here we come.”
“Where are we going?”
“Wherever you want. In place of a honeymoon, we’ll spend the next two weeks doing something wild and crazy. Fun, fun, fun are our buzzwords.”
“Don’t you have a job?”
Spinning her finger in the air helicopter-blade style, Tasha said, “I quit last week.”
“Wait. What? Why?”
“Had a fight with my boss. He pinched my ass and I slapped his face, yada, yada, he wins.”
“Oh Tash, I’m so sorry. Did you consult a lawyer?”
“No need. Handled it on social media.” Buffing her knuckles against her shirt, Tasha grinned. “Since he owns his own business, he can’t get fired, but you can bet he got a lot of angry comments and people saying they won’t be using his catering company.”
“Why didn’t I know about this?” Kelsey asked as guilt gnawed. She’d been a shitty friend. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Wedding prep and getting your mother elected mayor of Dallas kept you snowed. When did you have time for my drama?”
“What are friends for? I need to make it up to you.”
“Then kick up your heels.”
“Shouldn’t you be scouting another job instead of holding my hand?”
“No worries. Already got a new one.”
“You’re looking at the new executive chef for La Fonda’s, and I start the Monday after the New Year.”
“That’s awesome! I mean about the executive chef job, not getting your ass pinched. Congrats.”
“Let’s do this thing.” With one palm raised in the air as if she was a waiter balancing a tray, Tasha pumped her hand. “Celebrate my new job and your freedom at the same time. We’ll have an epic adventure.”
“No doubt.” She mulled over Tasha’s proposition. Why not? Time to break out of her bubble.
“Where should we go? New Orleans? Eat gumbo, drink hurricanes, and get inked?” Tasha wriggled her eyebrows. “What do you think about me getting a spider tattoo on my neck?”
Wincing, Kelsey sucked in a breath through clenched teeth. “Hmm, Cajun food upsets my stomach.”
“Vegas? Blow through our mad money, pick up male strippers?”
“Um, I want something more—”
Sedate was the word that had popped into her head. Sedate. Sedative. She’d been comatose too long. “Where would you prefer to go, Tasha? Whatever you decide, I’m good with it.
Tasha gave an exaggerated eye roll. “Girl, you got dumped on your wedding day, and I can find a party wherever I go, even in your white bread world.”
She adored Tasha’s spunkiness. Spunk was also the reason Filomena wasn’t a big Tasha fan.
Five years earlier, Tasha and Kelsey had met when Kelsey was organizing a fundraiser during her mother’s bid for a city council seat. In charge of hiring the caterers for the event at the Dallas Museum of Art, Kelsey had gone to interview Tasha’s boss, Tony, the ass pincher, without knowing of course that he was the kind of person who sexually harassed his employees.
When Tasha popped a mini quiche into Kelsey’s mouth, and it was the best damn thing she’d ever eaten, she’d hired the caterer on the spot, based solely on Tasha’s cooking skills. After hitting it off, Kelsey stuck around to help Tasha clean up after the gala, and the rest belonged in the annals of BFF history.
“Wherever we go there must be scads of hot straight guys,” Tasha said. “How does a dude ranch sound?”
“Good heavens, I have no idea how to ride a horse.”
“Yeah, me neither.”
“Wherever you want, I’ll go.”
“Don’t make me pick. I always pick, this is for you. My mind is lassoed onto hot cowboys. Yum. Ropes, spurs, yeehaw.”
“Let the sex stuff go, will you? I don’t need to have sex.”
“Oh, but you do! Great sex is exactly what you need.”
“If my libido were a car on the freeway I’d putter along in the slow lane.”
“Because you’ve never had great sex.” Tasha chuckled. “And for eighteen months, you’ve been in a deep freeze. Ticktock, time to climb down from your ivory tower, Rapunzel, and reclaim your sexuality.”
“I dunno . . .” Kelsey fiddled with the hem on the wedding gown that had cost as much as a new compact car. Could Filomena get a refund?
“C’mon, you gotta have hot fantasies.” Tasha’s voice took on a sultry quality. “What are they? A little BDM? Role playing? Booty call in scandalous places? A park bench, a pool, a carnival carousel?”
“Hey, it happens.”
“Tasha, did you have sex on a carousel?”
Her friend smirked. “Maybe. Once. I’ll never tell.”
Lowering her eyelashes, Kelsey tossed the rose bouquet into the trash on top of Clive’s crumpled letter.
You were safe.
“Quit playing coy and cough ’em up,” Tasha said. “Name your fantasies. Scottish Highlander in a short kilt and no undies? Or football player wearing those skintight pants? Fireman? Doctor? Construction worker?”
“The YMCA players . . .”
Tasha heehawed. “No more gay guys for you!”
“Hmm, there is one fantasy . . .” Kelsey mumbled.
“Just one?” Waving her hand, Tasha said, “Never mind, not judging. One is enough. What is it?”
Not what, who. “Forget it.”
“Is he a real person?” Leaning in, Tasha’s breath quickened. “A celebrity? Or . . .” Her voice dropped even lower. “Someone you’ve met in real life?”
Unbidden, Noah MacGregor’s face popped into Kelsey’s head.
In her mind’s eye, Noah looked as he had the last time she’d seen him. Seventeen years old, the same age she’d been, and six-foot-five. Broad shoulders, narrow waist, lean hips. His muscular chest bare, hard abs taut. Her lipstick imprinted on his skin. Unsnapped, unzipped jeans.
Rattled and rocked, her safe little world had tilted. Noah was so big, so tall, and he had a wicked glint in his eyes. An honest man, independent and sexy. One hot look from him had sent her heart scrambling.
That final night, they’d been making out on the dock at Camp Hope, a grief camp for children on Lake Twilight. That year they were both junior counselors, after having attended every summer since they were eleven as campers.
On the dock a blanket and candles and flowers. Courtesy of her romantic boyfriend.
They were ready to have sex—finally—when he’d jumped up, breathing hard. His angular mouth, which had tasted of peppermint and something darkly mysterious, was pressed into a wary line. Noah’s thick chocolate-colored locks curling around his ears and his deep brown eyes enigmatic.
In her bikini, she’d blinked up at him, her mind a haze of teenage lust and longing. “What’s wrong?”
“Did you hear something?” Noah peered into the shadows.
Propped up on her elbows, Kelsey cocked her head. Heard the croak of bullfrogs and the splash of fish breaking the surface of the water as they jumped up to catch bugs in the moonlight. “No.”
Doubled fists, pricked ears, Noah remained standing, ready for a fight if one came his way. Prepared to protect her.
Her pulse sprinted.
Proud and brave and strong, he looked as if he were a hero from the cover of the romance novels that she enjoyed reading.
She’d fallen deeper in love with him at that moment. Head right over heels. Over banana splits at Rinky-Tink’s ice cream parlor the week before, they had shyly said the words to each other. I love you. Then again when he’d carved their names in the Sweetheart Tree in Sweetheart Park near the Twilight town square. Several nights that summer they’d sneaked off for trysts after their charges were asleep.
They’d kissed and hugged and petted but hadn’t yet gone past third base. Tonight was the night. She was on the pill. He brought a box of condoms. They were ready and eager. Kelsey reached for him, grabbed hold of his wrist, and tugged him to his knees. Their first time. Both eager virgins who’d dreamed of this for weeks.
Souls wide open. Hearts overflowing. Bodies eager and ready.
“Come . . .” she coaxed. “Don’t worry, it’s after midnight. Everyone is snug in their cabins.”
Allowing her to draw him back beside her, Noah branded her with his mouth and covered her trembling body with his own.
The night was sticky. Raw with heat and hunger. Calloused fingertips stroked velvet skin. The boards of the dock creaked and swayed beneath their movements as he untied her bikini top.
Solid. Quick. Determined. Immediately, Kelsey recognized those footsteps.
From nowhere, her mother was on the dock beside them, grabbing a fistful of Kelsey’s hair in her hand, and yanking her to her feet. Kelsey’s bikini top flew into the lake.
Regular life stuff with her mother when things didn’t go Filomena’s way.
Mom, dragging her to the car parked on the road. She must have driven up with the headlights off. How had her mother known they would be there? Blindsided by the realization that Filomena must have been keeping tabs by tracking her every move via her cell phone, Kelsey’s fears ratcheted up into her throat.
A hard shove and Filomena stuffed Kelsey into the car’s backseat and shook an angry fist at Noah who’d followed them. Warned him to stay away. Promised litigation and other dire consequences if he dared to contact Kelsey ever again.
“Noah!” Kelsey had cried as her mother hit the childproof door locks to prevent him from opening the door and springing her free.
Pounding on the car window, Noah demanded her mother get out and have a rational conversation with him.
Stone-faced, Filomena started the car.
“I’ll come for you,” Noah yelled to Kelsey. “I’ll find you, and we will be together. We won’t let her win.”
Kelsey clung to that flimsy promise. Took it to mean something. Fervent hopes. Girlish dreams.
“Over my dead body,” Filomena yelled.
“Please Noah, just go,” Kelsey had said, half-afraid her mother would run over him. “We were just a summer fling.”
All the fight had drained out of him then, and he’d stood in the darkness, fists clenched, face gone pale, shaking from head to toe.
Sobbing and shivering, Kelsey sat nearly naked in the backseat of her mother’s Cadillac as Filomena sped all the way back to Dallas.
And Kelsey never saw Noah again.
Years later, out of curiosity, Kelsey searched for Noah and found him on social media, learning that he was a successful point guard in the NBA and married to a drop-dead gorgeous model—something she’d have already known if she had any interest in basketball. She did not friend him. It was far too late to rekindle childhood flames.
Soon afterward, she’d met Clive, and that was that. But now, here she was, dumped and half-drunk, with nothing to look forward to but her mother’s predictable holiday harangue. Plenty of reasons to hate the holidays. This year, she had little choice but to review her life’s mistakes.
Ho, ho, ho. Merry freaking Christmas.
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