Chapter 1: 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”

Until now.

He 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. “Mom was right. She said you wouldn’t bring a coat warm enough.”

“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.”

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.

“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 at?” 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 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 use 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 the father thing.

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’s never missed a single Christmas Eve dinner at the house and I don’t think he intends to this year either.”

Campbell Murphy is the boy next door who happens to be Jordan’s best friend. 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.

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.”

“Uh-oh, Foxy Roxy’s in the house,” Jordan says, chuckling as I glare at him. “Tell her Merry Christmas for me, will you?”

I’ve known Roxy Porter since high school and whenever I come home, she and I usually hang out. She’s my connection to the local scene and she actually likes to be called the same name that Jordan called her. It’s even her email address.

“Tell him Merry Christmas right back,” Roxy says when I slip my earphones on. “So when did you get in?”

“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.

“You introduced me to a lot of guys, Rox.”

“Carter Malcom. He’s a banker or something like that and he drives a Porsche. Heck, his name even sounds like a banker’s. Anyway, 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 enough to ask for your number.”

“Haha. You introduced me to a few guys the last time we hung out, Rox, so I don’t remember which one he’s supposed to be. But I’ll probably remember him when I see him again.”

“I told him you were in town and he’d like to take you with him to his company party so he’d like your phone number so he can ask you himself,” Roxy says. “I’ll be there, too, by the way, so it’s not like you’re going solo, babe.”

“Who are you going with?”

“Jace. He’s tending 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. “I’ll make sure to wear that top with a V-neckline just to be sure.”

I laugh, knowing Roxy means it, too. She will be wearing that top with the deep V neckline.

“So is it a yes?” she asks. “I know it’s short notice but, remember, I’ll be there so if he pulls anything, I’ll ream him a new one.”

I don’t want to commit just yet, not when Jordan is eavesdropping. “Are we hanging out tomorrow night?”

“Yeah.”

“Then why don’t we talk about it then? I think Jory’s eavesdropping.”

He chuckles. “Oh, is this supposed to be top secret?”

“Hey, I heard that,” Roxy says in my ear. “Yeah, why don’t we hang out tomorrow? Maybe get our nails done or something.”

“Sure.”

“Then we can hit Polly’s on Austin Street. Jace is tending the bar and he’s got a few recipes he wants to work on for that company party. I’m getting the hang of this one called Sex with the Bartender.”

“Sex with the what?”

Roxy laughs. “Sex with the Bartender. It sounds really cool, isn’t it? It’s one of the best things out there. 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 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.

“But only if I go. There could be a chance I won’t.”

“Oh, please, Cait. It’s Christmas. Lighten up.”

“We’ll talk more about it tomorrow, Rox.” I say goodbye and slip my earbuds back in my backpack.

“So you going to the party?” Jordan asks.

“I don’t know if I am or not yet. I’ve got to research–”

“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.”

I continue to glare at him. “Yeah. Right.”

“So how’s school?”

I lean back against the seat, grateful for the topic change. “One more semester and I’ll be done.”

“What are your plans after that? Take a little vacation? God knows you deserve one.”

“With what, Jory? My good looks?” I pause, remembering the modeling scouts who came calling years earlier. They’d started back in high school and then college. Even in LA when I first started the Masters program, they’d hand me their business cards while I’d be with friends at the Grove with promises to make me a top fashion model or the next reality show contestant. It used to be flattering until it wasn’t. “No, don’t answer that. I just need to work and start paying my way.”

“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.”

Jordan responds by rolling his eyes as I laugh.

“Anyway, I’ll think about it.” I check my cuticles. Grad school hasn’t left me much time for manicures and pedicures, which means before I go on my date with Carter, I need to get them done. “But I do have a few job prospects after graduation.”

“East Coast, I hope?”

“No, most of them are West Coast. One is in Portland and the other is in Texas. But the job market’s so tough these days you never really know. But East Coast would be nice. I do miss the four seasons, the fall especially… and 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.

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