From Chapter One
Later that night in her grandmother’s suite at The Carlyle, Amanda leaned against her husband and looked at the family around her. Her father was there, too, and of course, Gran. Mother, close as she was to Dad despite their being divorced for twenty-many years, had a performance tonight. Amanda rubbed her nearly full-term middle and thought of the little one who would join them soon.
She thought of all the things she had to be thankful for this year. In addition to her husband and the child they were expecting, there were the theater-going audiences with mainstream tastes that were keeping her family stage-bound and in town for the holidays. There would be no hitting the Christmas markets of Europe or the beaches at St. Bart’s on the twenty-fifth this year, for the show had to go on.
Her father would be tied up portraying Scrooge until the twenty-seventh. Gran was doing a thirteen-week run as the witch in a splashy musical version of Hansel and Gretel. Darrell had a movie coming out mid-month, The Christmas List, in which he portrayed a harried single father. Harried father was perfect for Darrell, who specialized in second-banana roles. This time he was playing second fiddle to three kids and a pet pig. A pet pig! Only Amanda’s mother was bucking the family-friendly trend, appearing in the off-Broadway and decidedly anti-Christmas domestic drama, The Negativity Scene.
Amanda had to admit, part of her shared the negativity sentiment. She grew exhausted just thinking of the coming month. No, she didn’t mean the prospect of sleigh bells ringing or shoppers rushing home with their treasures. She meant all that plus the trio of birthdays in her family that fell in the middle of the Christmas bustle. Gran’s on the first, Dad’s on the tenth, and Darrell’s on the twenty-first.
The traditional English trifle she’d prepared for Gran and was now preparing to dish out was only phase one of her grand scheme. This Christmas, her mission, now that she had her loved ones confined to the city for the month, was to gift each birthday celebrant with a genuine honest-to-goodness birthday cake. No Yule logs, no gingerbread houses, no boule à neige flocked with powdered sugar, no goopy mounds shaped like Santa or Frosty covered with red and green sprinkles. And the only fruitcakes allowed would be the ones she shared a genetic pool with.
For Gran’s work of art, Amanda had soaked lady fingers in pear brandy, diced candied ginger, shaved white chocolate, and then folded said white chocolate into whipped cream. Then she’d layered all those delectable ingredients in a traditional English trifle bowl until the result was beautiful. She had laid out plates on the dining table next to the small refrigerator and now gently eased her serving spatula down and in.
“It’s a new moon tonight.” Darrell handed her a plate. “They say more babies are born around the new moon than at any other time of the month. In case you feel the need.”
She pulled back. “What, to give birth? Tonight?” And, spatula poised mid-air, looked around. They were still dressed in evening-out finery. Dinner had barely settled in their stomachs. Gran was already beginning to nod off. “No thank you.”
Her husband slung an arm around her mid-section. “Squirt may have other ideas.”
“No. Squirt is on my side.” Their son, due in the middle of the January blahs, was ensconced in peaceful slumber as if to say, I’d like another six weeks in here, please. “As long as he doesn’t dally and decide to debut on Groundhog Day, we can safely avoid the threat of any holiday birth for Squirt,” she said.
She’d rather be a whale of a pregnant woman for life than deliver in December.
“Some people just can’t handle being born in the season of joy,” Darrell said.
Gran, ensconced in her own confused peaceful slumber on the sectional sofa, perked up. “Precious,” she called to Amanda, “which fellow is this ‘Squirt’ now?” Gran never had been able to keep Amanda’s suitors straight, and even though Amanda was now married, she did not appear to want to give up the habit.
How Gran remembered her lines was anyone’s guess.
“Squirt’s just a placeholder name for the baby until we find one we agree on, Gran,” Amanda said. “Darrell wants Sam but I prefer Charlie.”
Amanda’s father, pouring drinks, handed one to Gran.
As if that would help clear Gran’s mind.
“Excellent,” he said. “I’ll pencil in my grandfatherly duties. Sometime between Vail and Palm Beach should do.”
Amanda returned her attention to the trifle.
Why couldn’t they have their birthdays in June, like sensible people such as herself? In June, you could celebrate with strawberry shortcake, a bouquet of peonies, and a picnic. You could even enjoy the proverbial day at the beach instead of blizzard warnings and wind chills and polar vortexes.
Despite her family’s annoying quirks, this Christmas, Amanda had togetherness on the brain. This would be the last holiday when it would be just she and Darrell. Next year, Squirt would be slobbering under the mistletoe and pulling ornaments off the tree. And they’d be in California. Everybody else would be God knew where.
“Dad,” she said, “you’re not happy on the party circuit and you know it.”
Stubborn, as usual.
“I just don’t want you to grow old and alone,” she said forcefully.
She’d rather be a whale of a pregnant woman for life than deliver in December.
She handed out pieces to everyone and then settled into a high-backed chair. Brushing past her father, she gave his shoulder a gentle pat. “You’re a kind and generous man, and it’s time some woman came along and saw what she’s been missing out on all her life.”
“Get a clue, old man.” Darrell stepped in from the kitchen with a glass of milk, which he handed to Amanda. “Her New Year’s resolution is to marry you off.” Darrell did have a way of putting things bluntly. Amanda loved him anyway.
Her father plucked a single ice cube from a bucket and plunked it into a highball glass. “A prospect as likely as a foot of snow in Central Park on Christmas Eve,” he admonished. A trickle of scotch flowing over the top provided the finishing touch to his drink. He seemed to relish rebuffing her even more than drinking his cocktail. “And besides, I can’t get married for New Year’s. I’m already booked for a week in Vail.”
Amanda frowned at her father’s lame quip and cast a wary look at her husband. Her father had, deliberately or not, just launched fighting words. Darrell was Mr. Holiday Spirit. Being the fan of excess that he was, the whole December birthday thing worked great for Darrell, too. And now with his snow comment, her father was not only dissing marriage, but Christmas to boot.
“Aw, come on, that’s a lousy attitude to take toward Christmas,” Darrell said. “I, for one, would love to see a foot of snow in Central Park on Christmas Eve.”
Uh-oh. Amanda cringed. She sensed a bet in the offing. Whatever it turned out to be, her husband had better not bet his entire multi-million-dollar paycheck on the matter. Her father had an uncanny lucky streak. He constantly struck gold in Vegas. Triumphed at the track. Reigned supreme in Monte Carlo. Hogged the entire jackpot for the Super Bowl. And he always, always, always emerged victorious versus Darrell. And yet, what did her eternal optimist of a husband do? He kept on betting against the man, again and again and again, thinking each time that the outcome would finally turn in his favor.
Of course, that kind of persistence and belief had won her hand in marriage, but that was a different story.
“Another bet?” She groaned. “Honey, your hair still hasn’t completely grown back from the last time you lost to him.” And had to shave his head as a result. What had that wager been about? World Series? Election? She’d lost track.
“Relax, pork chop,” Darrell said, running his hand over a nearly smooth head. “The man has to lose sometime.”
“He never loses.”
“It’s a can’t lose,” her father agreed. “Statistically, there’s only a fourteen percent chance of having a white Christmas at all in New York City, let alone a foot in Central Park.”
She sighed. “Darrell, if you bet against Dad that there’ll be snow at the North Pole on Christmas Eve, you’d lose.”
This only seemed to encourage her husband. He raised his brandy. “Believe, woman.”
There was a flurry of talk about a foot of snow and Christmas Eve and shaking hands and you’re on. Darrell was on the side of snow; her father was no snow. If Darrell lost, he would walk down Fifth Avenue on Christmas Day wearing nothing but a Speedo. If her father lost, once the baby came, he’d do diaper duty for a week.
“Terrific,” she said to her husband. “You have just ensured the melting of the polar ice cap on Christmas Eve. Santa’s workshop will be flooded, toys will be ruined.”
“Now that that’s settled,” her father said, “who exactly do you have in mind for the dubious honor of being the next Mrs. Geoffrey Monroe? It’s not your mother, I hope.” His first marriage, to her mother, Sukie Dyan, ended when Amanda was four. The independent Sukie was about the only one whose prospects for marriage were more hopeless than her father’s. “We only married for your sake. But to be perfectly candid, neither of us ever intended it to be lifelong. And with Gigi…” His voice trailed off. Gigi Simon had been his second wife. “You can scarcely call that a marriage. Sure, a legal ceremony took place, but it wasn’t much more than that. We hardly knew each other.”
“That was twenty years ago,” she reminded him. “You’re a different man these days. You’re much more grounded.”
Darrell jolted up from his brandy. “He is?”
Amanda mouthed a single word to her husband.
“Darling,” her father said, “don’t you think it’s more important that I be the right man than simply find the right woman?”
For a moment Amanda relished the profundity of the sentiment—then remembered who uttered it.
“Please.” She took a bite of her dessert. Delectable. “Where did you dig up that load of manure? From underneath your polo pony?” She crossed her arms. “Don’t make me fix you up with Bitsy Chaney.” An empty threat, Amanda knew. The soon-to-be ex-wife of a wealthy financier, Bitsy Chaney served on more charity boards than almost anyone in the city. “She’s divorcing Henry, you know.”
“You wouldn’t,” her father said. “And you couldn’t. Bitsy isn’t speaking to our family, remember?” How could Amanda forget, since Amanda had allegedly “stolen” Darrell, who’d once been engaged to Bitsy’s daughter, Willow? “I hear there may be a thaw regarding that,” she said. “Seeing as how you’re single and she will be soon.” Of course there was no thaw; the dislike between Bitsy and her father was mutual.
Her father looked into the depths of his scotch, then raised his gaze. That meant he was about to make one of his trademark blanket pronouncements.
“PW, there are two kinds of people in this world,” he intoned. Yep, blanket statement in three… “Those who are good at marriage,” …two… “and those who are not.”
She narrowed her eyes, hard. “You could heat the entire Eastern seaboard from now until Easter with that hot air.”
“Based on my two divorces, I am clearly in the latter camp. And that is the end of it.”
She tried to hold her formidable expression, but it melted away. What she felt toward her father was not so much anger as concern. “You sound so cynical, Dad, and that’s not like you.”
“When it comes to me and marriage, cynicism has served me very well lo these fifty-three years.”
“Soon to be fifty-four,” she said, then got up and planted a kiss on his weathered cheek. “There’s a first time for everything.”
He shook his head. “I’m no good at love. I’m no good at looking for it, I’m no good at recognizing it, and I’m no good at holding onto it.”
Would he never learn? “You’re not supposed to hold onto love,” she said with a smile. “You’re supposed to give it away.”
He wagged his finger at her. “Now, now. I’m your father. Words of wisdom are my department.”
True. His blanket pronouncements did have a way of coming to pass. “As for looking for love,” she said, ignoring his bluster, “Don’t worry about that. Love always comes when you’re not looking for it. And as far as recognizing it, that’s what you have me for. So there. Nothing for you to worry about.” She lifted her fork. “A piece of cake, as it were.”
Maybe he’d never learn, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t try to teach him anyway.
Copyright 2016 by Karen Tomsovic
Book #2 in the City Lights New York series.
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