Friends with Benefits

Chapter One

Caitlin

I see him in the crowd, a head taller than everyone else around him, his familiar grin reminding me that he’s not just my older brother, he’s my best friend, too. And boy, have I missed him.

“Jory!”

I leap into his arms like I used to when we were kids. Only this time, I’m all grown up and from the way Jordan takes a step back to regain his footing, I’m probably also too big to pull the same stunt year after year. But it’s not like he’s ever minded before.

“Whoa, sis!”

Until now.

Jordan sets me down on the ground and steps back, surveying my outfit. Five hours on the plane meant I had to be comfortable so sweats were in order, completely perfect in California but not in New York where everyone looks more dressed up than they do in the West Coast.

“Mom was right,” he says, grinning. “She said you wouldn’t bring a coat. Come on, Cait, what is this flimsy little thing?”

The ‘flimsy little thing’ is my cardigan. “It was seventy degrees when I left.”

“That’s California for you. It’s close to thirty here.” Jordan lifts the wool coat he’d slung over his arm. “Here. Let’s get this on you before you freeze to death out there. I swear your blood’s grown thin after living by the beach for the last three years. You even have a tan.”

He helps me into one of my old coats complete with a scarf that he wraps around my neck and my face because he swears the wind chill will make my skin hurt like it did the last Christmas when I came home to temps of 20 degrees and Dad had to loan me his scarf. But just like the years past, I had no East Coast-worthy winter coats to pack with me from LA anyway, not when West Coast version of thick couldn’t hold a candle to New York winters.

“It’s projected to be in the 30’s here. Hopefully it will snow,” he says as he helps me into my coat. “Then we can have a snow ball fight like we used to when we were younger.”

“I can’t wait. And I’ll beat you, too.”

Jordan rolls his eyes. “Ha ha. Dream on.”

As I follow my older brother through the crowd at JFK, I can’t believe how happy I am to be home with family. There’s no other place I’d rather be for Christmas and it’s always been the same all my twenty-five years. The only exception was last year when Jordan was stuck in some rural town in the Philippines building schools and clinics for a nonprofit and missed his boat for Manila and as a result, his flight home. I hated seeing everyone at the dinner table but him but I also understood that there are simply things beyond your control. Since he came back nine months ago, I’ve made him promise never to do that again. After all, family is family.

Now he’s got a family of his own and he suddenly looks so grown up. Who knew that just before he’d fly out to Southeast Asia, he’d end up meeting the woman he’s engaged to now, Addison Rowe, a nephrology specialist and the mother of their one-year-old daughter, Piper? Basically the guy had a one-night stand but if ever there was a love story that was meant to be, it’s theirs. And I love Addison to bits. She’s funny and her mother makes the meanest fried egg rolls and pancit this side of the Mississippi.

As we make our way out of the terminal, I take in the sights of sounds of New York that I’ve missed so much. It doesn’t matter that it includes honking cars and irate drivers. Here, New Yorkers show you who they really are the moment you meet them. They don’t string you along like they do in LA, telling you they’d love to do lunch and never follow through. New Yorkers just don’t have time for that.

“Where are Addison and Piper?” I ask as I follow Jordan through the crowd. At six-feet-four inches of solid muscle, the ginger giant manages to clear the path just by being there.

“They’re waiting at the house. You should see Piper, Cait. She’s a little tornado, walking already and keeping Addy busy. Heck, she’s keeping all of us on our toes. Who knew a baby could cause so much havoc?”

“The good kind of havoc, I hope?”

Jordan shoots me a look. “Of course.”

I laugh. At twenty-nine, Jordan is the perfect father and it’s no surprise. Although he’s only four years older than I am, he was always protective of me when we were kids to the point that no one could ask me out without going through him first. And no one messed with the high school quarterback. So he was always a natural when it came to being the protector. Him and his best friend, Campbell Murphy.

We get to his truck minutes later and he loads my luggage in the back extra cab as I get in the passenger seat.

“So how’s the Best Man?” I ask as he gets behind the wheel and starts the engine. He turns on the heater, warm air blowing in my face at full blast and I welcome it. He just might be right about my skin thinning after living in LA for the last four years.

“He’s great,” Jordan replies. “You know how Campbell is. Work, work, and more work.”

“I sure hope he got Christmas Eve off.”

“Of course, he did,” Jordan says, grinning. “He may work a lot but the guy knows when to relax and chill. You should see him play golf every chance he gets.”

“Do his bosses play it?”

Jordan laughs. “You know they do. But Campbell actually enjoys it. He keeps threatening to introduce me to it as soon as the weather allows.”

Campbell is not just Jordan’s best friend, he’s also the boy who grew up in the house next door before his parents divorced and he ended up living with us for his last two years of high school. While my brother is more comfortable building houses and custom cabinets, Campbell is a whiz when it comes to financial spread sheets, working as a quantitative analyst for an investment firm in Manhattan. Or as he calls himself, a “quant.” I’ve known him for as long as I can remember and Mom and Dad consider him the third O’Halloran sibling. He has a seat at the table every holiday and any time he wants to stop by. Mom even knit him his own stocking which she hangs from the mantelpiece next to Jordan’s and my own.

I’d been hoping to see Campbell on this trip since I missed him the last time I came home four months ago. He’d been traveling for work and even though we often text each other, it’s not the same as seeing each other face-to-face. We love to tease each other a lot about anything and everything whenever we’re together, and after a tough semester filled with research, dissertations and bad dates, I’m ready to just let go and have fun with someone I’m comfortable with as well as girlfriends I grew up with.

As if in response, my phone vibrates and I see my best friend’s name on the display. “Shit, I forgot to text Roxy that I’ve landed.”

“Wish her Merry Christmas for me, will you?” Jordan says as I click answer. “I’ve been pretty out of the loop lately to know what she’s been up to.”

I laugh. “Ya think? You’ve got a wedding to plan, Jory. Your bar hopping days are over.”

“So when did you get in?” A high-pitched voice asks when I slip my earbuds on. I’ve known Roxy Porter since high school and whenever I come home, she and I usually hang out.

“Twenty minutes ago. Right now we’re stuck in traffic. What’s up?”

“Remember that guy I introduced you to the last time you were here?” she asks and I shake my head. Roxy introduces me to a lot of people whenever I return home for a few weeks. After a while, the guys’ faces and personalities blend together. She also knows I don’t have time to date but she still fixes me up on dates anyway.

“No, but I’m sure I’ll remember him if you tell me what he looks like and what he does for a living.”

“Malcolm Carter. He’s an investment banker and he drives a Porsche. You met him at Lindsay’s party the last time you were here,” she replies, unfazed. “He’s this Uber hot, blond god who happens to remember you and wanted to know if you were in town. Not panty-melting hot for my taste but panty-melting for the other nurses,” she says. “But it’s you he wants to take along with him to his company holiday party. I’ll be there, too, which is good because if things turn south, I’ll have your back.”

“Who are you going with?”

“Jace. He’s working the bar that night so I get to hang out as his assistant. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even get tips. Bankers tip good, right?”

I laugh. “I have no idea but maybe they will. It’s the holidays, after all.”

“Drunk people usually are more generous,” she says. “So is it a yes?”

I don’t want to commit just yet, not when Jordan is eavesdropping. “Can I let you know tomorrow? I have to check my schedule. After all, it’s Christmas.”

“There are still five days before Christmas, Cait, which means that’s five days of partying.”

I chuckle. “I’ll let you know tomorrow.”

“Alright. Anyway, I can’t wait to let you try my latest accomplishment. Sex with the Bartender.”

“You’re already having sex with the bartender, Roxy. What’s new?”

She laughs. “No! I mean the drink. It’s one of the best things out there and so I’ve been practicing. Let’s see… Malibu Coconut Rum, Bailey’s Irish cream, Triple sec, 7-up, Grenadine, and Roses Lime Juice. See? I even know the ingredients. You should try it., Cait. I’ll make you one at the party if you come.”

Roxy has been dying to learn how to mix drinks for years. For a registered nurse, it’s the last thing I would have thought about her but it’s her way of relaxing after twelve hour shifts in the ICU. While other people love to cook, she likes to mix drinks.

“We’ll talk more about it tomorrow, Rox.”

“So you going to the party?” Jordan asks after I say goodbye to Roxy and slip my phone and earbuds back into my backpack.

“I don’t know if I am or not yet. I promised one of my accountability partners at school that I’d–”

“Scaredy cat,” Jordan coughs out the word and I whack his bicep playfully, although there’s nothing playful about my glare. “Alright, alright. I was just kidding,” he protests. “What happened with that Kieran guy you were seeing a few months ago?”

“We only dated for two months,” I reply. “All he wanted to do was hang out at the cool spots so he could possibly run into some producer to pitch his next screenplay. It got old.”

“I bet,” Jordan says. “So how’s school?”

I lean back against the seat, grateful for the topic change. My dating life is abysmal, not when I’m on a scholarship for my Masters and I don’t want to blow it. “One more semester and I’ll be done.”

“What are your plans after that? Any plans for a vacation? You’ve always wanted to go to Italy.”

“With what, Jory? My good looks? I need to work and start paying my way for a change. I’m twenty-five, for crying out loud. Even Roxy’s working as a nurse now and she makes good money.”

“And? It’s not like you were slacking the entire time. You’re in school… earning a Masters degree at that,” he says. “Just remember to take a break, alright? Life isn’t all about school and work, sis.”

“I know, Mr. I-Spent-A-Whole-Year-Abroad-Building-Schools-While-Exploring-The World,” I say as Jordan responds by rolling his eyes. Two years ago, he took a whole year off working for a nonprofit to build schools and clinics in Asia. It was a working vacation but a vacation just the same.

“Anyway, I do have a few job prospects after graduation,” I add.

“East Coast, I hope?”

“No, most of them are West Coast, unfortunately. One is in Portland and the other is in Texas. With the job market’s so tough these days you can’t really be too picky although I miss the four seasons. The fall colors, especially… and a white Christmas. I miss you guys most of all. It sure can get lonely out there in LA.”

Jordan squeezes my hand. “We missed you, too, Cait.”

Twenty minutes later, we make it to the O’Halloran family home in Forest Hills Gardens. It’s a borough in Queens and about nine miles to Manhattan. The best word I could probably describe it is quaint although Roxy likes to call the neighborhood where Jordan and I grew up posh. Thanks to Grosvenor Attenbury, the architect behind the Tudor-style homes that boast towers, Norman-style turrets, red-tiled clay and gabled roofs, Forest Hills Gardens often looks like an English village when people first stumble upon it. Some streets even have wrought iron streetlights on top of “Harwich Port blue” lampposts.

My excitement builds the moment Jordan parks the truck in the driveway and I get out. The house exterior is bedecked with lights and I can only imagine the electricity bill. But it doesn’t matter. It’s gorgeous, as if celebrating my official return home for the holidays.

Mom and Dad are standing on the other side of the door and the moment I walk inside, it’s utter mayhem. The smells of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and hot chocolate make my mouth water as I lose myself in hugs and kisses from Mom, Dad, Addison and Piper. There’s nothing like being home for Christmas and as I walk into the living room with Piper in my arms, I sigh at the sight of the Christmas tree.

The Fraser Fir set up in the far corner of the living room and partially decorated only because that’s what we’re doing tonight. It’s why everyone is here, to put up their respective decorations that mark every year we’ve lived in this house. The decorations range from cheesy to classy to handmade projects from Jordan and my preschool years. I used to be embarrassed about them but now that I’m grown up, I’m grateful that Mom saved them all. Even Campbell, the boy next door, has his commemorative decorations. Too bad he’s not here to join us. Like Jordan said, he’s probably working.

I hand Piper back to Addison as Mom reappears from the kitchen with a mug of steaming hot chocolate. Dad follows right behind her with a tray of cookies.

From the corner of my eye, I see Jordan standing next to Addison. They’re both beaming and I feel a pang of jealousy hit me right in the chest, a yearning to find the same thing they’ve found in each other, true love. And to think they found it when they weren’t exactly looking.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever allow myself to fall in love, but that thought only lasts for a few seconds, before the thought of my next dissertation hits me like a ton of bricks and I return back to earth. After everything Mom and Dad have sacrificed to get me all the way to grad school, I owe it to them to be successful. So, no, I don’t have any time for love, not until after I graduate and then get a job and pay them back.

Love can come later.

CHAPTER TWO

Campbell

I shouldn’t be tired but I am. I’ve been up since four in the morning testing quantitative models for the team before I take the rest of the week off even if it means I’m really still working, just not showing my face at the office.

Right now, the holiday party is rocking with free drinks flowing from the bar and everyone I know taking their selfies in front of the window that features a view of the Empire State Building all alight in holiday colors. Too bad everyone’s still discussing business, especially with the boss having just left for the rest of the year. Who got a bonus? How much? As if someone would disclose their bonuses unless they’re assholes wanting everyone to know just how important they are.

I glance at my watch. Only nine o’clock, still too early to leave. But even if I went straight home, I’d still be wide up until about two in the morning, probably doing statistical analysis and risk modeling or playing one of my roleplaying games with online friends based around the world.

I finish my drink, something Roxy made for me that’s actually pretty good. Who knew she was dating some bartender and is now tagging along with him learning how to mix drinks herself? She’s Caitlin’s best friend although I never really got to know her well other than two times when she tried to set me up on blind dates and I just couldn’t find the time of day for such a thing. I had no need for blind dates. Still, she’s pretty cool for an ICU nurse and wanna-be bartender. Too bad I never got to talk to her at all. The bar was slammed.

“So you really are taking time off, huh? I can’t believe it. You flying off somewhere warm? Bahamas maybe with one of your side chicks?”

I turn to see Marissa from Legal standing next to me, a tall glass of Long Island Iced Tea in her hand. Normally she probably wouldn’t’ say such a thing but after seeing her down two of those earlier, I’ve no doubt she’s already drunk. A lot of the employees are.

“Nah, I’m staying in town.”

She looks at me in surprise. “I would have thought you’d be in the Caribbean by now, enjoying a Mai Tai or something, usually with some gorgeous model.”

“Where’d you get such an idea?” I went out with two women who happened to be models as of the last year but that was about it. I didn’t even know that’s what they did for a living, having met them through mutual friends at the gym where I’ve been going the past year. At first, being around them it was exciting. After all, it’s an ego trip being around gorgeous women. But the novelty wore off fast after I realized they could hardly hold a conversation that didn’t have anything to do with selfies, social media, and where the next party was.

“I saw it on Instagram,” she says as I scoff. “You get around for a shy boy, you know, so we at Legal made a bet that you’d probably show up on Insta again.”

I peer at her. She’s definitely drunk. “Good luck with that. I always stay in town for the holidays, Marissa, especially with parties going on and you never know who you’re going to run into.”

“Oh, that’s right,” she says. “By the way, congratulations on being named one of the top twenty best analysts in the country. That’s huge! I can’t believe you and Carter made the list. As if we haven’t gotten tired hearing about it from him every day.” She laughs. “He framed the page and it’s right there on his desk. What did you do with your copy?”

“It’s in my desk drawer somewhere.” I cross my arms in front of me and lean against the wall. I don’t really want to talk about business. “What about you? Going away?”

“Yup, a few days with family in Delaware for Christmas,” she replies. “Got any family out here?”

“Extended,” I reply, realizing it’s probably the first time Marissa and I have ever talked about family. But she’s also drunk, her glass empty already. I should tell her to ease off the booze but I’m sure she knows that already. Still it would be better than telling her that my mother is spending the holidays in Florida with my stepdad, where it’s warmer and better for her arthritis. The rest of the year, she and Warren live in a renovated flat in Brooklyn. As for my dad, well, he does his own thing, whatever it is. He doesn’t even call to wish me a Merry Christmas, not since he abandoned us when I was sixteen. From that time on, it’s as if I never existed for him. With two more years before I turned eighteen, he sent his child support payments and that was it. But it wasn’t enough to save the house he’d taken a second mortgage on without Mom’s knowledge.

I exhale, feeling my anger building. Whatever, Dad.

My thoughts are suddenly interrupted when I see one of the senior analysts walk in with his date and my heart skips a beat. Flaming red hair – check. Wide, perfect smile – check. Holy hell, but that dress just about clings on her body type of dress – check.

Why didn’t Roxy tell me that Caitlin was coming?

I do a double take to make sure it’s her, and it sure is—Caitlin O’Halloran, my best friend’s sister and the girl next door. Porcelain skin that’s earned her more than her fair share of acting and modeling scouts wanting to represent her, and then there’s that dazzling smile that I know so well. Too bad she’s flashing her pearly whites at the last man I’d expected to see her with, Malcolm Carter, top senior analyst and resident company asshole. He’s also the same guy who framed the article that named both of us among the top twenty top analysts in the country and makes sure everyone in the company knows it.

My jaw clenches as Malcolm’s hand lowers down to the curve of Caitlin’s back. Questions race through my mind: How long have they known each other? How did they meet? Social media? Her brother? No, can’t be her brother. Must be her friend, that bartender-slash-nurse.

I watch as Malcolm introduces Caitlin to the guys he hangs out with, the same guys he boasts about every exploit, each ‘win’ lauded with a nickname for each woman, names I can’t even imagine pinned on my best friend’s sister.

As her eyes scan the room, Caitlin sees me and within seconds, she’s in my arms, the smell of her shampoo filling my senses. Lilac, reminding me of freshly baked chocolate cookies from her mother’s kitchen that Jordan and I would chow down and then riding our bikes down the street to the park where we’d play ball with the other kids. How long had it been since I last saw her? Eight months? A year?

“Campbell, I can’t believe you’re here!” she exclaims as I let her down. Just a few inches shorter than my 6’2” frame, she should be a model but she chooses to bury her nose research about genes and disease. “Did you get my texts?”

I stare at her, the realization that I hadn’t responded to her texts hitting me. I’d told myself I’d get to them later. “Crap. I did but I forgot to reply. Sorry, Cait.”

She shrugs. “That’s okay because this is the best Christmas present ever. You’re here!”

Behind her, Malcolm clears his throat. “Small world. How do you two know each other?”

“She’s my best friend’s sister,” I reply. “So you better be nice, man.” There’s an edge in my voice that I hadn’t intended to come out but I can’t help it. He better not give her a nickname like he’s done to every woman he’s dated.

“Yup, he sure is,” Caitlin says, beaming. “He grew up next door and I’ve known him forever.”

“So how do you guys know each other?” I ask.

“Roxy,” they both answer in unison, and as they laugh at their timing, it all makes sense. Roxy’s all about matchmaking her friends even if her matches have proven themselves faulty at best. She thinks opposites attract but in New York, even if they do, they don’t tend to last long. After two attempts to pin me on a blind date, she knows better than to match me with anyone. I’m too busy with work and I usually end up dating women who are just as busy as I am to devote any time to a long-term commitment.

“So you two are going out for the first time tonight?” I ask and Caitlin nods.

“Babe, why don’t we join the rest of the guys and have fun?” Malcolm says, his hand drifting down the small of her back. “They don’t call this place one of the hottest places to party for nothing.”

Before I can say goodbye, Malcolm whisks Caitlin away and I watch them disappear into the crowd. Great. Now there’s no way I’m heading home knowing she’s with Malcolm. I’ve always been protective of Caitlin whenever her older brother isn’t around and knowing the guys at my office, I can’t help but feel even more protective than I already do. Besides, if Jordan knew of Malcolm’s reputation, I’m sure he’d do the same thing.

But as Mitch and the other guys from my department beckon for me to join them by the window, I remind myself that Caitlin’s no longer in junior high. She’s old enough to do whatever she wants, even if it’s being that jerk Malcolm Carter’s holiday party date.

Two hours later, I’m pretty much done holiday-ing. I’ve drank, danced, tried not to tall business with the other employees, and I’m finally ready to go home. Caitlin’s date seems to be going well and I’m happy for her although I’m worried about all the drinks she’s having. But just as I reminded myself every twenty minutes, Cait’s old enough to take care of herself. I’m not here as her chaperone.

Suddenly she walks past me by herself and I get up from the bar and catch up with her at the coat check counter. I’ve known Caitlin since we were kids and I know when she’s pissed because it’s just like she looks now. Arms crossed in front of her, chin held high and eyes straight ahead.

“Cait? Is everything okay? Where’s Malcolm?”

“He’s…” she pauses and rolls her eyes. “He’s busy.”

“What do you mean, busy?”

“I went to ladies room and when I returned, he was making out with some girl,” she says. “She was dancing with us just an hour ago and…” she pauses, shrugging. “Whatever. It’s just not cool, you know, to dump me like that all because I kept saying no to him even after I told him I wasn’t interested in that. I mean, it’s a first date. Come on.”

I feel my jaw clench. “Oh, no he didn’t.”

“It’s okay. He couldn’t, though heaven knows he wanted to. He kept pulling me toward that damn mistletoe over there.” She points toward the Christmas tree in the far corner where someone stuck a mistletoe on the wall next to it. “But I shut that shit down right away. We’re on our first date for crying out loud.”

“Good for you.”

“At least I had sex with the bartender. Twice.” She frowns. “Or was it three times?”

“You had sex with who?!”

She laughs. “I knew I’d get you, Cam. It’s a drink Roxy made for me. It’s called Sex with the Bartender. So so good.”

“How many drinks did you have?”

“I had Sex with the Bartender this much.” She holds up three fingers. Actually she can’t seem to know how many fingers she’s holding up. First, it’s two fingers, then three. Shit. Two or three, that’s still a lot of rum for a girl who doesn’t drink much.

“Wow, Cait, that’s a lot.”

“Anyway, I’m leaving,” she announces as I follow her to the elevator and she starts punching the buttons until she hits the one for the lobby. “I need to go home.”

“I’ll take you home.”

“You don’t have to, Cam. You’re not my babysitter.”

“I’m definitely not your babysitter but it’s also two in the morning.”

“It is?” She looks at me incredulously. “Wow, in LA, it’s last call by one.”

“That’s LA. This is New York.” The elevator doors open and she steps out of the elevator. “And there’s no way I’m letting you get in a cab by yourself.”

She stops in before the front doors. Outside, it’s raining, the streets glistening. “I don’t know, Cam. I should be fine. Besides, I don’t want you taking me all the way home and then having to drive back to the city. I mean, you live here.”

“Why don’t we do this instead? You stay over my place for the night and I’ll drive you home in the morning.”

“What about your girlfriend?”

“I’m not seeing anyone right now, Cait,” I say. “Besides, even if I did have a girlfriend, it wouldn’t change a thing. You’re my best friend’s sister and I used to live with you and your family so it’s not like there are any secrets between us. Come on,” I take her hand and lead her out the front doors just as a cab stops in front of us.

“Small world, isn’t it? I’m so glad you’re here, Cam,” Caitlin says as she slides into the back seat and I follow right after her. I give the driver my address and we sit in silence, gazing out the window, the rain starting to come down in sheets. “We just missed that, didn’t we? So much for my idea to go home.”

I study her, amused when she flinches as thunder rumbles overhead followed by lightning streaking across the sky. Her green eyes look upwards in awe. “You’re not used to the rain anymore, are you?”

“I’ve been living in California for the last four years, Cam. It hardly rains there, which means there’s no thunder or lightning either.”

I pull her to me and feel her rest her head on my shoulder. I kiss the top of her head. “I’ll hold you through it all. Don’t worry.”

She giggles. “Thank you, my knight in shining armor.”

Ten minutes later, we arrive at my apartment building, walking past the doorman toward the elevator. It’s an older building but just as expensive as every other building around it simply because it’s in Midtown Manhattan.

I unlock the door to my one-bedroom high-rise apartment and we step inside. As Caitlin shrugs off her coat, her jaw drops at the sight beyond the full-length window at the other end of the apartment. “Wow! You have an amazing view! Jory wasn’t kidding when he said you could see the Empire State Building.”

“He and your dad helped renovate this place so he should know.” As Caitlin slips off her boots and heads for the window, I remember how the view was the only saving grace about the apartment when I first bought it four years ago. Fresh out of Harvard, I was young, bright-eyed, and deep in student loan debt. So why not incur more debt by living in the city? At least, the renovation didn’t cost me too much. All Mr. O’Halloran wanted was my enthusiastic referral of O’Halloran Builders to colleagues and friends.

But no matter the cost associated with living in the city, this apartment was also been one of the best decisions I’ve made. It had me living close to the financial heart of the city where I was determined to make my mark. It’s also a place all my own, which means I’ll never find myself at the mercy of someone else again.

Sitting on the couch, Caitlin pulls out her phone from her purse and dials a number. “I’m letting Mom and Dad know where I am before they freak out. They’re at a party in New Jersey but they should be home by now.”

I join Caitlin on the couch and listen to her leave a message to her parents telling them she’s with me and that she’ll be home the next day. After she hangs up the phone and sets it on the coffee table, and we watch the lights at the top of the Empire State Building change colors for a few minutes before I see her yawn.

“Wow. Sorry about that,” she says. “It sure is a beautiful sight, though. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the city like this before. You could totally fall asleep to the view.”

“Yep, you sure can,” I say, getting up from the couch. “Let me get stuff set aside for you.”

“Cam, you don’t have to.”

“It’s no problem, Cait,” I say, grinning. “I’ll set out an extra toothbrush and a towel for you in the bathroom. And you can use my shirt for bed if you want.”

She follows me to the bedroom. “I’m sorry for crashing here tonight.”

“Oh, don’t feel bad. I’m glad you’re here, to be honest.” Better with me than with Malcolm, that’s for sure. I pull down the covers on the bed. “You take the bed and I’ll take the couch.”

“Cam, I can’t do that–”

“No arguing,” I say, a fake stern look on my face. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

I grab a shirt and a pair of sweatpants from my dresser and step outside. I can’t help but feel relieved that Malcolm couldn’t help being what he was, a jerk who made a move on another woman while on a date with another. But that’s his problem. I can’t believe how much better I feel knowing she’s here. Caitlin may be old enough to take care of herself but she’s still my best friend’s sister.

CHAPTER THREE

Caitlin

My headache wakes me up first—that and the smell of coffee wafting from the kitchen. As I force myself to sit up on the bed, there’s a knock on the door and Campbell sticks his head in.

“I could hear you groaning all the way from the kitchen,” he says. “How’s your hangover?”

“Do you have to ask?”

“Not really. Care for some coffee?”

“Can I brush my teeth first?”

He laughs. “That would be a good idea, Cait. Sure.”

I rush to the bathroom, hating that my hair is a mess and I must look a fright. But at least, I should get an A for effort. A girl’s got to look presentable first thing in the morning especially in the presence of a boy, even if he’s just her brother’s best friend. I’m sure Campbell has seen me in worse shape when we were kids… but we’re not kids anymore. And I have to admit, he’s a lot more built than the last time I remember seeing him. When did his biceps get so hard and toned? Even his jaw has gotten wider only because his neck is wider, too. Has he been working out?

When I return to the bedroom five minutes later, Campbell is standing by the window. He drew open the shades while I was inside the bathroom and I cover my eyes as I stumble back to the bed. Outside, the clouds are still grey and thick but it’s not raining.

“Why do I suddenly feel like a vampire?”

“Because you’re hung over.” He hands me a pair of sunglasses. “Here. Put those on and I’ll get the coffee.”

I prop the thick pillows against the headboard and lean back, gazing at the flannel pajamas I’m wearing. Somehow I’d availed myself of a pair of tie-on PJ’s from his walk-in closet and don’t even remember it. This one has a design of cute Dalmatian puppies all over.

“Are these from my parents?”

“Yup. From last year,” he says, handing me a mug of coffee. “It’s become a tradition, I’ve noticed.”

I giggle. “Yeah, that way you get to spend Christmas morning looking like you used to when we were kids. You used to come in from next door wearing your PJ’s. Do you remember that?”

He nods. “Of course. Although we’re all grown up now. So I don’t know how long they’ll be giving me PJ’s for Christmas.”

“Maybe you’ll still get one this year. Old habits die hard,” I say, grinning. “Besides, I miss those days when we were still kids with not a care in the world.”

Campbell doesn’t say anything and he doesn’t have to, the truth behind my words making me sad. He’d always told me that his best childhood memories come from his interactions with our family and the two years he ended up living with us after his mom had to sell the house to pay off her husband’s debts. He’d taken a second mortgage on the house without telling her; he even forged her signature. What he did with the money is anyone’s guess but I’m sure it went to his second family, the one he ran off with when he abandoned Campbell and his mother.

“You still plan on staying the night, right?”

He nods. “Of course.”

“We’re having Christmas Dinner on Christmas Eve anyway this year. A little change of plan, so it’ll be perfect.” I pat the space next to me. “Sit with me, Cam. It’s your bed, remember?”

He sits next to me and for the next few minutes, we don’t talk. Outside the skies are clear and although it looks cold, it’s not raining. I sigh happily, feeling my headache receding with each sip. “You make good coffee.”

“French press.”

“I do instant mostly because I need instant gratification”

He stares at me in mock horror. “Do I even know you? Instant coffee is not real coffee.”

“Yes, it is.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“Yes, it is.”

We laugh, back to the same back and forth bantering we always do since we were kids. It used to drive my parents crazy while Jordan would just roll his eyes. Then we become quiet again, our attention back on enjoying the coffee.

“I was really drunk last night, wasn’t I?” I say quietly. “I hope I didn’t make a fool of myself.”

Campbell pats my hand resting on the covers between us. “No, you didn’t. You were just fine.”

I pout. “You’re just saying that to make me feel better.”

“You don’t remember throwing up, do you? I didn’t have to hold your hair away as you threw up in front of the toilet?” Campbell asks and I shake my head, horrified by the visual his words presented. “Then you were fine. You were just a wee bit drunk.” He holds his thumb and index finger two inches away as I chuckle.

“Thanks.”

We don’t talk for the next few minutes again, either too busy enjoying our coffee or probably wondering what to say next. I look around his bedroom, its simple masculine design evident in the heather grey tones of the walls that match the dark grey of the bed covers and the headboard. A large painting hangs overhead. There’s a floating bookcase on one wall filled with architecture and travel books opposite the window that’s covered with floor-to-ceiling wide horizontal blinds. A lone modern chair sits in one corner next to the door leading to the walk-in closet.

“One thing about you, Cam, is that you’re such a perfectionist that even your bedroom is perfect,” I say. “Come to think of it, your whole apartment is perfect.”

“I bet you barely remember it from last night.”

“I will in a minute,” I say. “I remember the view of the Empire State Building.”

Campbell chuckles. “That’s what everyone usually remembers.”

“You used to be this neat when you lived with us, too. Remember?” I nudge him shoulder with my elbow. “You had strict rules of me not entering it at all.”

He rolls his eyes. “That’s because you used to come in and make a huge mess of everything.”

I make a face. “Oh, that’s right. I was a pest, wasn’t I?” Actually, now that I remember things through the fog of my hangover, I was more than a pest. When I was eight and he was twelve or thirteen, I told my parents I was going to marry him.

“Nah, you were alright.” He finishes his coffee. “Anyway, when I first bought this place I was so small with dividing walls that made it seem even smaller that I had to make sure every square foot counted. I remember your dad giving me the sledge hammer so I could break one of the walls down.”

I smile, visualizing him with the sledge hammer. Imagining my brother and my dad doing it is easy but Campbell? “Well, you had to do what you had to do. And now you’ve got an amazing place. It’s so… so you. Simple yet classic.”

I don’t know why I’m blabbering but somehow, his apartment is just the epitome of him as a person. Simple and classic. Trustworthy. Smart. Neat. Gorgeous as he sits next to me in his t-shirt and sweat pants.

“Why, thanks, Cait. Are you sure you’re still not drunk?” I could swear I see a blush creep on his cheeks as he smiles. “But I can’t claim all the credit. Jordan and your dad helped with the design and the build out. You should have seen this when I bought it. It was horrible. Expensive… but horrible. Your dad figured it would do well as a test of his company’s mettle when it came to making smaller spaces pop and so I’m one of the clients they have in their portfolio.”

“Somehow I missed all that,” I say. “How come I didn’t know that?”

“Because you were buried in college papers,” he says, touching the tip of my nose with his index finger. “Anyway, O’Halloran Builders did an amazing job with this place.”

“It suits you, Cam.”

“Thanks.”

We don’t speak for a few moments, enjoying our coffee in silence. “Anyway, maybe I should call Roxy and tell her what a dud Malcolm turned out to be. I should have her set me up with someone new. You know her. She won’t give up until she finds the right match for me.”

The silence that follows almost has me repeating what I just said but I know Campbell heard me. He just chose not to answer. Instead, Campbell sips his coffee and looks out the window.

“You done with your coffee?” he asks, getting up from the bed and I nod. “Here, let me take it to the kitchen.”

“Did I say something wrong?” I ask as he stops by the door and looks at me.

“No, you didn’t,” her replies. “But you’re right. Maybe Roxy can find you a better match next time. She seems to enjoy playing matchmaker anyway. I think Jordan’s mother-in-law is into the same thing, too. She’s determined to find a match for me one of these days.”

I follow him out of the bedroom, hating that our time together is over too soon. I enjoy being around Campbell. I can be myself and not worry about watching what I say even if sometimes I say the silliest things. But I also know I’m no longer just his best friend’s baby sister. I’m all grown up now, my language peppered with complicated terms about genes and disease.

As I walk into the living room, I stop and look around. The rest of his apartment is as perfect as he is, in varied tones of white with gray accent walls, an electric fireplace situated close to the tall windows with a gorgeous view of the city. But as perfect as everything looks, now seen with my hungover eyes, something is missing. “Where’s your tree?”

“What tree?”

“Your Christmas tree.”

He shrugs. “I don’t have one.”

“What do you mean you don’t have one? It’s Christmas, Campbell Murphy.”

“I know it is but I usually spend it with your family anyway, so I don’t need a tree.”

“But what happens when you come home?” I ask.

He shrugs again, rinsing the mugs and stacking them in the dishwasher. “I sleep. I work. I hang out with friends. I play my video games. Besides, there are Christmas trees everywhere I go. It’s no big deal, Cait. It’s just Christmas.”

As I look at Campbell, I can’t believe I never saw it before, the quiet boy who became the man of the house when his father abandoned him and his mother for another woman. He even bailed out on child support payments by fleeing to France, forcing Campbell’s mother to sell their house just to pay the debts he left behind. When she found a live-in job as a cook for a wealthy family in the Hamptons, my parents asked her if Campbell could live with us for two years until he graduated high school. That way he didn’t have to transfer schools where his mother wouldn’t have been around to take care of him anyway. He worked hard those two years, earning straight A’s and eventually landing a scholarship at an Ivy League university. While he’s always spent Christmas Eve at the house, I don’t blame him for not entertaining anything else. His mother moved to Miami and lives her own life and his father keeps promising he’ll visit Campbell one day but never does. Still, this whole just Christmas crap is too much and I’m not buying it. Not one bit.

“What do you mean, it’s just Christmas? It’s not just Christmas, Cam. It’s Christmas!” I emphasize that last word in case he didn’t hear me the first time. “We have to get you a tree. Like, we have to.”

He laughs. “No we’re not. I don’t have room for one.”

“Yes, we are and yes, you do have room. We’ll find room. So what are your plans for the day?”

“I was going to drop you off and check out the Union Square Holiday Market.”

I clap my hands. “Oh my gosh! Can I come? I need to shop for Jordan and Addy and Piper and it’s my goal not to order anything online this year. I want to support local arts and crafts. Can I? Can I? Can I?”

Campbell looks at me for a few seconds because he starts laughing. But he doesn’t say yes or no.

“Can I?” This time I give him my best sad puppy dog look. “Please? While we’re at it, we can even shop for the ornaments that will go on your future tree.” I even bat my eyelashes.

“Okay.” He laughs again and it’s a deep hearty sound that sends a tingle straight down my belly, something that’s never happened before with Campbell.

“Let me get you a towel so you can shower and get ready,” he says as I tell myself that what I just felt must be part of my hangover. “I’ll go in after you’re done.”

* * *

Half an hour later, I step out of the bathroom wearing Campbell’s robe. It has that clean mountain soap smell and a scent that is all male, all him.

Stop it, Cait! He’s your brother’s best friend and you’re just the annoying sister who just talked him into doing something he never wanted to do.

“Hey, I’m done in the bathroom,” I announce as he gets up from the couch, the laptop perched on the coffee table. “Wait! Are you working?”

“Just sending emails.” He closes the laptop and heads into the bathroom, leaving the door partially open. Soon, I hear the shower running.

I can’t explain it but I’ve always felt safe around Campbell. Maybe it’s because he’s my brother’s best friend and my unofficial ‘other’ brother when he lived with us. I can be myself around him, not worried about being too smart for my own good. I can be weird and nerdy, too, and he totally gets it only because he’s just as nerdy. He used to wear thick prescription glasses and then one day, he had one of those eye corrective surgeries that got rid of the glasses and suddenly he was hot. Even Roxy said so and she proceeded to pair him with one of her friends—or she tried to. Campbell was never available.

I slip on the dress I wore the night before, glad I’d picked one that wasn’t too short. With the forecast calling for rain, there was no way I was wearing something too short or with stilettos for that matter. Instead, I wore knee-high boots to the party which work out perfect for today’s excursion to the holiday market. Satisfied with the way I look, I step out of the bedroom—and freeze.

Wearing only a towel around his hips and his back towards me, Campbell is standing in front of the mirror brushing his teeth. I stare. Forget the nerd. Since when did he get all bulked up? I can see the muscles on his shoulders and back ripple, the unmistakable indentation of one muscle to the next tensing with each movement. Even his buttocks look perfect from under the towel. When he runs his fingers through his dark hair, I can’t help but notice how his broad shoulders taper to slim hips. And then there were those six-pack abs. I don’t realize he’s watching me from the mirror until he playfully winks at me.

“Oh! Sorry!” I mumble as I hurry to the kitchen to get a drink of water. Wait! Is that where that saying comes from? A tall drink of water because… damn. But I draw a blank, my mind still on the sexy man I’d just ogled at in the bathroom.

I down a glass of water in one gulp, blowing out a breath as I stare at the blank spot next to the electric fireplace. What on earth am I thinking? Campbell is my brother’s best friend and I have no business thinking he’s anything but that. It’s exactly the reason I feel so comfortable around him, because I trust him just as much as Jordan trusts him, too. Even my parents trust him.

Doing anything with him outside the realm of friendship can never be on the agenda at all. Well, unless we get stuck in a deserted island somewhere and we get bored. But there’s only one problem: we’re not stuck in a deserted island somewhere. And I’m definitely not bored.

“Hey, you ready?”

His voice snaps me out of my thoughts and I nod, pointing to the empty space in front of me. “I was just thinking the tree would look good over here. Maybe a Fraser Fir—because they’re the best in my opinion. Maybe five or six feet. What do you think?”

Campbell smiles. His hair is still slightly damp and an errant curl has made its way to the middle of his forehead. “I think you’re right, Cait. A tree would look good there. I’m glad you suggested it.”

More like insist on it, but that’s okay. I’m blushing and I hate that I am because it’s as if I’ve suddenly lost control of my body. There are butterflies fluttering about in my belly, too. “Oh, gosh, thanks, Cam.”

“You’re welcome.” He takes my coat from the rack in the hallway, cocking his head toward the door. “Care to have breakfast first? I’m starving.”

CHAPTER FOUR

Campbell

I never planned on getting a Christmas tree only because I had no reason to. I spent every Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at the O’Halloran’s and their tree is amazing, covered with decorations collected and carefully stored through the years and lit up with enough lights that it could be mistaken for a beacon by intelligent life in outer space. I even had my very own stocking hanging from the mantel that Mrs. O’Halloran sewed for me when I was twelve or thirteen.

That was when my parents’ problems began, when Dad didn’t come home some nights, claiming he was traveling. Only he wasn’t. He’d started seeing someone he met at Macy’s and eventually lived with her, balancing his life between our house and hers all under the guise of traveling for work until he couldn’t do it anymore. So he left with just a note saying he’d found someone else and that they were moving to France where she had family and property. No other goodbyes, no child support for those last two years before I turned eighteen. Mom had to scramble to make ends meet and eventually we had to sell the house when the creditors came calling. Dad had even taken a second mortgage on the house without telling Mom and before we knew it, it was gone.

Jordan’s parents took me in for two years after that and those two years were the best years of my life. It was chaos O’Halloran style but it was a good chaos—a happy one. Sure, Jordan often got into trouble and Caitlin would stay past curfew, but it wasn’t anything major. Certainly nothing like my dad abandoning his family to run off with his mistress.

But I tell myself to stop thinking about the past, not when my present looks darn good in the form of my best friend’s sister sitting across from me and talking my ear off about her latest dissertation, something about BRCA1 and BRCA2 and Arabidopsis… or something that sounds like it. She’s animated, her hands moving in front of her as she speaks, slender fingers gracefully illustrating one point and then another. And then there’s her laughter, light and happy. So Caitlin.

“Are you going to stay there after graduation?” I ask when she finishes talking to take a bite out of her omelet. We’re at one of my favorite places to hang out, a small cafe a few blocks from my apartment that’s known for their crepes.

“I don’t know yet. I received an offer from the university hospital but I was hoping to get one closer to home.”

“That would be wonderful if you could work here, wouldn’t it?”

Caitlin nods, her eyes sparkling. “Yes, it would. Then I’d be close to everyone again. That means I can bug you more than I already do.”

“You can bug me anytime, Cait,” I say, grinning. “I thought you already knew that.”

We finish our breakfast fifteen minutes later and make our way to the Union Square Holiday Market, a European-style winter market known for its unique gifts by local craftsman and artists. It’s even dazzling at night, with holiday lights and evergreen boughs gracing the entrance. Barely noon, it’s already filled with shoppers doing last-minute shopping like us. It’s where I usually find gifts for the O’Halloran family, from hand-painted silk scarves and fair trade wool socks for Mr. and Mrs. O’Halloran to board games for Jordan and felted owls for Caitlin who used to be crazy about owls for years although I’m not sure if she is anymore.

“I can’t believe it’s been years since I’ve been here. It’s even better than the last time I remember it,” she says as she grabs my hand, leading me toward a booth selling art drawn on old book pages. “We’re definitely going to need more than two pairs of hands to carry everything back!”

Even without makeup, Caitlin looks amazing, her red dress peeking from underneath her black wool coat. She’s always been a stunning beauty, words I’d never say out loud in front of her brother. With her flaming red hair, porcelain skin and dazzling smile, she’s a sight for sore eyes and always finds a way to make me smile. I remember my simmering anger at my father when I first moved into the spare bedroom in the O’Halloran home, not knowing who to blame for his decision to leave us. While Jordan’s solution was to get me out of the house and keep me busy with sports, Caitlin filled in the silences with her drawings, owls in all shapes, colors, and sizes, and books of poetry she’d find at thrift stores. I don’t know what made her think of poetry but it worked. While she may have been too young to know how it felt like to be abandoned, I never forgot it.

We stop by a booth selling personalized Christmas decorations and Caitlin finds one that’s stamped with the year and the words, Campbell’s First Christmas.

“I think I’ll add ‘tree’ here,” she says, pointing to the space under the word, Christmas. “That way, it’s going to mark the first time you put up your very first Christmas tree. What do you think?”

“I think it’s a wonderful idea.”

“Awesome! We’re going to have a wonderful time, Cam! I just know it.”

I’d long given up arguing with Caitlin about having a tree at my apartment only because she’s right. I have to have a tree, at least, even if it’s just for this year, and I have a feeling that this one will just be overloaded with so many decorations it probably will fall over from the weight… and the lights that will serve as that damn beacon to intelligent life in outer space.

Being one of her godparents, just like Caitlin, Piper’s at the top of my list. I didn’t even have to think about it when Jordan asked me. It was an automatic yes even if I had to take a series of classes about my responsibilities as Piper’s godfather. I’ve even done my share of babysitting, the usual game controllers we used to hold on to from the days when Jordan and I used to hang out now been replaced with baby bottles and teething toys.

“What do you think of this?” I hold up a crocheted doll with hair made of reddish orange yarn. “There are no buttons for her eyes and nothing that’s bound to come loose. And it’s a redhead.”

Caitlin’s mouth curves into a smile. “That’s the cutest thing, Cam! And perfect! I think it goes perfectly with this one.” She picks up another doll from the basket and holds it up. It’s a crocheted boy doll with black yarn for hair although you only see the ends as it peeks out of a patterned beanie.

I hold the girl doll next to the one she’s holding. “They’re a perfect pair.”

“Just like the two of you,” says the woman behind the counter. “You guys look so cute together.”

“Oh, we’re not dating.” Caitlin says at the same time I mutter that we’re just friends.

“I’m sorry if I put you two on the spot,” the young woman says, grinning. “Doesn’t mean you guys don’t look cute together though.”

I clear my throat. “Did you make these or are they imported from somewhere?”

“Oh no, I made all the dolls in the booth!” she says, laughing. “I have an online store and I usually sell patterns but I like making them for the holidays and as special orders.” She points to her business cards next to some of the smaller dolls. I take a card and slip it into my coat pocket.

“Are you getting that one?” Caitlin points to the doll I’m still holding. “I think she’d be perfect for Piper.”

“Yes, I am. I want to get her some baby clothes, too.”

“Oh, and let’s not forget your first Christmas ornament!” Caitlin adds as I hand both dolls to the woman behind the counter and pay for them. Somehow, I don’t want the doll I picked out to be lonely, not when Caitlin picked the perfect match for it complete with the crocheted beanie detail.

Two hours later, we make it back to my apartment, arms laden with bags filled with tree ornaments and presents for everyone on our list except each other—unless Caitlin managed to find something for me when I wasn’t looking. In the past, she’s given me a tie clip, a pair of cufflinks, and an old poetry book she found at an estate sale in LA. This year, I guess it’s the idea of a real Christmas tree inside my apartment and that personalized ornament.

Then it’s a trek back down so we can find the perfect tree at the tree lot three blocks away. Caitlin is relentless but I’m not complaining. It’s the first day of my holiday vacation and I have nothing else planned anyway. I haven’t even thought about work at all, no models to make, no reports to check.

At the lot, we’re mistaken for a couple shopping for our first tree together and I let it slide. So does Caitlin—or maybe she didn’t hear the attendant. And maybe it’s just easier that way. No need to explain that there’s no way we’re together for she’s my best friend’s baby sister, someone totally off-limits. We settle for a five-foot Fraser Fir and although the attendant promises to deliver it within the hour, Caitlin insists we can both carry it home. And we do. She’s that determined to get a proper Christmas tree in my apartment.

Once inside, we set out to decorate the tree and by the time we’re done two hours later, the living room is a mess of wrappers, ribbons, and tinsel. I’m exhausted but even I have to admit that the tree looks great. She even found an online station that played holiday songs the entire time and I didn’t mind it.

On the drive home, we hardly talk. Maybe she’s tired from all the things we did during the day or maybe we just ran out of things to say. But I can sense something else. It reminds me of the low that follows after an intense high, when you’re having so much fun but life happens and you have to come back down. Maybe that’s what’s going on… or maybe not.

“I really had a wonderful time today, Cam. Thanks for rescuing me last night,” she says as I make a right from Queens Boulevard toward Forest Hills.

“You’re welcome.”

“And thanks for putting up with me today,” she adds. “Sometimes I forget that you want your space, too.”

“Don’t say that, Cait. If I felt I had to put up with you, I would have told you,” I say. “Actually I had a lot of fun today. If you weren’t there, I’d have gone to the gym, checked my email and that would have been the end of that. I probably would have ended up working.”

“I know, but just in case.”

“Cait, you’re my best friend’s sister. It’s really no big deal,” I say. “Probably my only complaint would be having Roxy pick a better date for you next time.”

She laughs, pulling out her phone and glancing at the display. “Yeah, she’s been dying to find out what happened so I guess she doesn’t know that Malcolm bailed out on me.”

“Maybe you can let her know your preferences or something,” I add, parking the car in front of their house. “Maybe she’ll find you a better match that way. What type of guy do you normally like?”

Caitlin thinks for a few moments as I park the car in their driveway. “I don’t know. I like them to be smart and funny, I guess.”

I chuckle. “You’ve got to be more specific than that. Serial killers can be smart and funny, too.”

She gives a half shrug. “I guess someone I can be myself with. Someone whom I can be myself with.”

“That’s it?”

“Does tall, dark, and handsome with six-pack abs count? Someone who can make me laugh and tell me things I don’t know and yet still be interesting. Someone who can cook because I sure can’t cook even if my life depends on it, and someone who won’t mind it if I’m not as tidy as most women.”

“Oh, that last one’s a dealbreaker,” I say as she glares at me. “Just kidding.”

“Someone who is classy and knows how to have fun.”

“That’s a good list of qualities to start with, Cait,” I say. “You should tell Roxy that. Maybe she can find someone who fits those qualifications.”

She peers at me curiously. “You do know I was just kidding about the second chance at matchmaking, right? Because I sure as heck don’t have any time to date anyone.”

“Why not?”

“Because I just want to graduate and get a job first,” she replies. “That means I need to focus instead of play around with some guy.”

“All work and no play makes Caitlin a dull girl, you know.”

“So? I don’t mind being dull. Better be dull and rich than pretty and poor.” She reaches for the door handle but I stop her, grabbing her wrist that’s closest to me.

“Hey, where’d that come from? You never used to worry about money and all that.”

“I don’t know, Cam. I guess it’s just seeing everyone around me making it. They have their own apartments, their own jobs. No need for an allowance from Mom and Dad… that kind of thing,” she says. “Look at you.”

“What about me?”

“You’ve got your own apartment and it’s in Manhattan. Look at Addison–”

“Addison is not you, Cait. She’s also older than you by what? Seven years?” I say. “Most of my reasons having my own place in the city has to do with work. A part of it is more selfish… more personal that I’m not willing to share with anyone. But other than that, such things don’t come without a price.”

“I don’t know, Cam. I guess at twenty-five, I feel that I shouldn’t be a student forever even if I am working toward my Masters. I guess it’s just hitting me, that’s all. Seeing everyone at the party last night so successful and talking about their bonuses which I can only dream about. Malcolm said his bonus was a hundred grand. Who gets a hundred grand?”

People like me who don’t have time to put up a tree because it’ll only remind them of an empty apartment, I almost tell her. “I’m sorry Malcolm had to brag about his bonus,” I say instead. “He’s a dick and honestly, Cait, I’m so glad you ended up with me last night.”

She smiles. “I am, too. It was meant to be, I guess.”

“Yes, it was.”

She squeezes my hand. “Anyway, thanks for the ride home. You don’t have to walk me to the door, by the way.”

“The hell I’m not.” I push my door open and step outside. “I’ll carry these inside for you.”

She grabs her coat from lap as I open the door for her. “I just figured it would save you time, that’s all.”

I don’t say anything as steps out of the SUV. Grabbing the shopping bags from the back seat, I follow her to the front door. I can almost feel my happiness from the day go down with each step, like a tank running out of gas. But as she slips the keys into the lock, I also know it’s not exactly that. Why does it feel like the end of an amazing date even though we weren’t exactly on a date?

“Hey, Cait?”

She whips around to face me. “Yeah?”

“I’ve got tickets to Hamilton two nights from now and I was wondering if you’d like to come with me.”

“Hamilton? As in the hottest ticket in town Hamilton?”

I nod. “Yeah. My boss can’t make it so he gave it to me last night before he left the party.”

Caitlin peers at me suspiciously. “And you haven’t asked anyone else to go with you yet?”

“No, but I’m asking you, silly,” I reply, laughing. “You wanna come with me or should I call someone–”

“Are you kidding? Of course I want to go! I’m not about to say no to Hamilton.”

“That’s good then. Maybe we can have a few drinks before we go.”

She nods. “Sure.”

“Does six work for you?”

Her eyes narrow. “This isn’t like a date, is it? I mean, just to be sure. You’re not asking me out on a date.”

A lump forms in my throat. I never really thought about it that way but if she’d rather not see it as a date, then fine. “Not if don’t want me to. We can call it a no-date date, if that makes you feel better.”

“That sounds… corny. But for now, it works. No-date date it is then.” She turns away from me to push the door open and step inside. As I set the shopping bags on the floor, I can’t help but grin when I see the Christmas tree in the far corner, the space underneath it spilling over with presents, most of them with pink ribbons, and I’m willing to bet they’re likely Piper’s, the first O’Halloran grandchild. I inhale, taking in the scents of the home I once lived in for two years.

Suddenly memories come rushing in, of Christmas morning when the three of us would rush downstairs to open our presents and we’d show off what we got while Mr. and Mrs. O’Halloran laughed at our exuberance. We were no longer kids then—Jordan and I seniors in high school while Caitlin was in middle school—but it didn’t matter. Caitlin and I used to be in charge of preparing traditional hot chocolate together, complete with semi-sweet chocolate and whipped cream. There was no judgment in the O’Halloran home.

“Hey, you okay?” Caitlin’s voice breaks through my reverie and I nod.

“Yeah, I’m just amazed at your parents’ tree. It’s like a Hallmark movie come to life.”

“I didn’t know you watched Hallmark movies, Campbell.”

“I don’t but one of my ex-girlfriends did,” I reply. “She cried over everything.”

“Oh.” Caitlin bites her lower lip, looking down at the floor. “So, are you seeing anyone right now?”

I pick up the day’s mail that’s sitting on the floor next to the door and hand it to her. “Nah.”

“Not even dating?”

“Not seriously.”

“So, casual dating then?” She sets the mail on top of the console.

“Maybe. Maybe not. Why do you ask?”

“Nothing,” Caitlin replies quickly, busying herself with the mail before setting it back down.

“Well, I better get going.” I turn back toward the door. “I’ll see you on Thursday at six?”

“Yup, Thursday at six.”

I do my best to walk down to my car without looking behind me but I can’t help myself. When I do, I catch Caitlin outside the front door watching me. She lifts her hand in a subtle wave as I get in behind the wheel and start the Range Rover, doing my best to act cool. I don’t even know why I have to work hard at looking cool but somehow, I do.

Don’t look back, man. Don’t look back.

But I look anyway, this time through my rearview mirror as I drive away. But the front landing is empty.

End of Preview