Standing on the crowded, bustling sidewalk of Seventh Avenue, Cassandra Baines sipped her peppermint hot cocoa as she waited for her best friend. She’d placed herself at the center of the top step so when Bree came up the escalator, out of Penn Station, she’d be right there and easy to spot.
The familiar smells and sounds of Manhattan barraged her from all sides as she stood in the midst of frenetic activity. So many people—hustling into Penn to make their trains, coming out of Penn eager to roam the city, or just trying to get through the crowds to wherever they were headed. Cars and taxis bulleted down the street, horns blaring, the exhaust fumes mixing with the smoky smell of pretzels and chestnuts in the cold air. A group of teenage girls hustled by, all of them talking simultaneously.
Cassandra wasn’t fazed by the chaos. She was a lifelong New Yorker, born and raised on Long Island, less than ninety minutes away from Manhattan. She’d spent her undergrad years at NYU and done her graduate program at Columbia, and now she had a tiny apartment in Chelsea and taught English Lit at NYU. Noise didn’t register and crowded sidewalks didn’t make her claustrophobic. The only thing ruffling her at the moment was wondering where Sabrina was. She should have been here by now.
A cold gust of wind blew, lifting the ends of Cassandra’s shoulder length hair. She shivered, glad she’d chosen to wear her fuzzy wool hat, thickest scarf, and heavier wool coat. The temperature hadn’t gotten above forty degrees that day, and sure felt like it was dropping into the low thirties now. She took another sip of the hot chocolate to keep warm.
She turned in the direction of the familiar voice, and there was Bree, coming up the escalator. In a few seconds, they were hugging and chatting and all was bright again.
Going to see the lighting of the tree at Rockefeller Center had been an annual tradition since the girls were babies. Four women had been sorority sisters in college, became the closest of friends, and bonded for life. After graduation, they’d made a point of getting together several times a year, which had been fairly easy, since all four of them lived in New York. So when those four women had their own daughters—Cassandra, Sabrina, Jade, Kara, and Elena—the next generation of girls were practically raised as sisters. They’d become an expanded loving network that shared in each other’s lives as one big family.
Some of Cassandra’s best childhood memories were of huge Thanksgivings with everyone at Aunt Enza’s house, out east on Long Island. A few days later, they’d all meet up in the city for the tree lighting. The four moms especially loved holidays and loved creating celebratory traditions . . . but things had changed after Aunt Marie had died in the Towers on September 11th. A black hole ripped all of their lives open. Kara and Elena no longer had a mother, the other moms had lost their sister, and the sorrow was a tangible thing none of them had been able to shake off for a long time. Having one another to lean on had gotten them all through those dark days.
And the years passed, and the girls all got older, and some of the traditions had changed slightly. Elena, the youngest, had refused to set foot in New York City after her mother died and she moved away with her father—and really, no one could blame her. Jade had moved to Tampa a few years ago. Even though they had all made it to Aunt Enza’s for Thanksgiving this year, not all of them were going to the tree lighting ceremony. In fact, for various reasons, Cassandra and Bree were the only ones making the pilgrimage.
And they planned to make the most of it.
Bree had dropped her young daughter off at her mom’s for the night so she could make it into the city. Now, she and Cass made their way to Rockefeller Center, heads down against the cold gusts of wind. They walked up 33rd Street so they could look at the holiday displays in the picture windows of Macy’s. After that, they walked up another few blocks and made the left onto Fifth Avenue. It wasn’t a short walk from Penn Station to Rockefeller Center, but they loved to do it every year, even in the cold.
They passed all the big department stores that decorated their window displays for the holidays. The scent of sugared nuts and pretzels and smoke floated on the frigid air. Cassandra looked around and smiled happily. There was a different energy in the city at this time of year; it was like the holiday season itself had sprinkled magic and light all around, and everyone just seemed to be . . . brighter. Happier. Excited. The vibe was a tangible thing, and Cassandra loved it. Every year, it revitalized her and filled her with joy.
Two hours later, after the tree lighting ceremony, they pushed their way back through the crowds. They were even colder now, but they linked arms and chatted as they walked. Cassandra spoke of how busy her schedule was with final exams looming next week. Bree talked about how her daughter, Charlie, was kicking ass on the local hockey team—the only girl, she skated circles around all the boys, a natural talent. Cassandra marveled at that. Her nine-year-old goddaughter was a spitfire, all right, much like her mother. And Cassandra adored them both. A rush of affection shot through her and she smacked a kiss on the back of Bree’s gloved hand.
“What was that for?” Bree asked, looking at Cassandra strangely.
“I just love you. I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Aww. I love you too. Wouldn’t have missed it, Cass.” Bree gripped Cassandra’s arm tighter. “We have to keep these traditions alive, even if everyone else had to crap out this year.”
“I wish Jade could have stayed a few more days and come out with us tonight,” Cassandra said. “She hasn’t come to the tree lighting in what, three or four years now?”
“Aunt Gigi’s mother-in-law had a stroke,” Bree reminded her. “They had to get back home.”
“Yeah, I know,” Cassandra said softly. “I didn’t mean that to sound bratty.” She hesitated, wondering if she should speak her next thought aloud, then realized of course she could: it was Bree, her best friend in the world, her sister. “Can I ask you something? I feel like Jade’s . . . mad at me. Or something. She was distant at your mom’s house.” She shrugged and offered, “Maybe I’m being paranoid.”
“You’re not,” Bree said, fielding a bump from a passerby, which in turn sent her bumping her into Cass. They both snorted at it. “Look, I’m sorry you felt that. But you know she’s having a hard time right now. I think she’s a little . . . jealous, actually.”
Cassandra’s eyes flew wide. “Of me?”
“Seriously?” Cassandra couldn’t wrap her head around that. “Why?”
“Because you’re doing so well,” Bree said, as if it were obvious. “You’re making your career happen, just as you planned. Now, you’re one of the youngest assistant professors at NYU. You’re on the right track, and you’re successful. Jade’s in between jobs and not sure what comes next. I think she’s just a little jealous. In the ‘she has it going on and I don’t right now’ kind of way.”
Cassandra blinked, walking in silence with Bree as she processed that. Finally, she just sighed and said, “God, I hope you’re wrong. I feel terrible.”
“Don’t. That’s on Jade, not on you,” Bree countered. “And when she gets her act together, she’ll be able to be happy for you again.” She pulled Cassandra around a crushed cup of soda on the sidewalk. “Don’t worry about it. Jade loves you. It’s not really about you. She’s just . . . well, at a low point.”
“I wish she’d talk to me about it,” Cassandra lamented. “I’m here for her.”
“She’s not really talking to anyone. Besides, I’m only speculating.”
“Your instincts are usually right on the money.”
“True,” Bree said with a grin. “But still. No worrying tonight! We’re going to have some fun.”
“Fun, huh?” The wind gusted and Cassandra shivered as they continued their walk up Fifth Avenue. “Fun. Yes. I think I remember fun.”
“Really? ’Cause I don’t think you do.” Bree slanted her a sideways look. “Charlie’s sleeping over my mom’s. I can hang out for a while. We’re going to go to a bar, get a little drunk, and have a good time.”
“We are?” Cassandra asked. “Okay. Any ideas where?”
“No, but I’m freezing. Like, I can’t feel my face anymore freezing,” Bree sputtered. “How about we just duck into the next place that looks decent?”
“Fine by me.”
They made it another block, heads down against the cold, harsh wind, before Bree said, “Here. This one. Looks nice, looks warm. Okay with you?”
Cassandra peered at the storefront. O’Reilly’s Tavern. A huge wreath with red bows and gold sleigh bells hung on the door, and lively classic rock could be heard rumbling through the large glass windows. “I guess . . . ”
“Good, because I need to be inside. Now. Come on.” With a firm hold on Cassandra’s arm, Bree dragged her through the heavy wooden door.
Inside, it was warm and welcoming. The music was louder now, but it set Cassandra’s limbs moving instinctively. It was a decent size for a midtown bar: long and narrow room, high ceilings. White walls with framed pictures and all things Irish, hardwood floors, a few tables and chairs along the walls. The main lights were dimmed, so the endless strings of white Christmas lights cast an ambient glow. It definitely felt cozy. Cassandra quickly counted eight barstools lined up in front of a sturdy, polished mahogany bar, with enough people talking and drinking to fill the place almost to capacity.
The bluesy classic rock song ended and morphed into the Eagles’ version of Please Come Home for Christmas, which Cassandra had always liked.
Still, something inside her wanted to leave. Almost like a whisper of intuition . . .
“It’s a little crowded,” she said, loudly enough to be heard over the noise. “Maybe we should go someplace else.”
“No, this is great,” Bree said with a smile. “I like it here. Cozy but fun. It’s not a dive, but not fancy. Perfect.” She pulled off her hat and unbuttoned her heavy coat.
Sighing, Cassandra pulled off her hat and her black leather gloves and shoved them into the pockets of her forest-green wool coat. Bree was already subtly shoving her way through people to get to a visible spot at the bar. Cassandra unbuttoned her coat and followed her friend. There were two bartenders working—one at the far end, and one close enough to be in earshot of Bree, his back turned as he fixed a drink.
Just as Cassandra got through to stand at Bree’s side, the taller bartender turned around. Her heart stopped in her chest, then dropped to her stomach. It was Sean. Sean McKinnon, whom she hadn’t seen or been in contact with in over seven years, standing mere inches away. The man she once thought she’d marry . . . before he left her and broke her heart. Left her broken.
She could barely breathe. It was like the air in the room had dried up and vanished.
Drink in his hand, he froze where he stood. His deep blue eyes went wide and locked on her. Shock openly washed over his handsome face as it paled.
Bree was the one who spoke; the only one apparently capable of speech. “Oh. My. God.”
Cassandra’s heart took off with a gallop and her blood roared in her ears. She didn’t know what to say or what to do. Sean McKinnon was standing in front of her. They were separated only by the bar. It was unfathomable. Her mind went blank.
He broke the gaze first, setting the drink in his hand down for the man to Cassandra’s left. He placed both hands on the bar, as if to brace himself, and looked from her to Bree and back to her again before saying, “It’s really you.”
“I thought you lived in Los Angeles,” she choked out.
“I moved back two years ago,” he said. The familiar smooth tone of his voice, the cadence, the lyrical way his Irish brogue made his words sound like music, all pierced her heart.
They stared at each other in open astonishment before he said, “God, Cassie, I can’t believe this. I mean . . . what are the odds? New York’s a big city.” He gave a wistful grin. “It’s good to see you.”
Something bubbled inside her chest and her throat closed up. Oh, how she’d loved him. And oh, how he’d hurt her in the end. A torrent of emotions whooshed through her in crashing waves: anger, shock, indignation . . . and longing, tinged with plain old lust. He was so gorgeous. Maybe more so. Sexier than ever, that jerk.
“You look wonderful,” he said quietly. The corner of his mouth curved up in the lopsided grin that used to make her melt. It made her knees weak now, too. “Ya cut your hair. And it’s so straight.”
Unconsciously, her hand flew up to touch her hair. Back in college, when they’d been a couple, her wavy hair had flowed almost to her waist. Now, as an almost-thirty-year-old English professor, she’d made sure she looked the part: she’d had her waves straightened chemically, and cut it to rest on her shoulders. “Yeah. I cut it. A while ago. You did too.”
He grinned again. “Aye, no more pony tails.” His hair was still shaggy, but only reached his jawline now and no longer went past his shoulders. It was a little darker as well. Back then, she’d thought of his hair as being dirty blond, but now it was more like a golden brown. She remembered how his hair would lighten in the summer, the strands bleaching to a shimmering gold. A flash of running her fingers through it as he kissed her went through her mind . . . she felt her stomach do a slow flip and looked away, hoping her cheeks weren’t flaming like her insides suddenly were.
His blue, blue eyes flickered to Bree. “Still friends, eh? That’s nice. Hello, Bree.”
“Hi.” She glanced at Cassandra, then back to him. “Wow. Um . . . so. You work here?”
“I work here, and I own half the place.” His gaze stayed glued to his ex-girlfriend’s face.
“You don’t play guitar anymore?” Cassandra said in surprise.
“Oh, I play gigs. I even play here once or twice a week. But I needed something more solid, as well. Remember my best friend, Jimmy O’Reilly?”
“Of course I do.” Cassandra recalled the blond instantly. He and Sean had been like brothers growing up together back in Ireland. Jimmy had moved to New York first, at nineteen, with Sean following less than a year later. They’d even shared an apartment together down in the Village. Jimmy was laughter and good times, whereas Sean was intense and thoughtful. She’d spent a good amount of time with Sean’s best friend. “How is he?”
“He’s good. When I came back to New York two years ago, we partnered. This bar—he owns half, I own half. We’re in it together.” He couldn’t take his eyes from Cassandra, even when the guy on Bree’s right asked for a beer. It was like he was in a trance. It unnerved her.
She swallowed hard and said, “Well then, we should let you should go back to work.”
“Will you stay a while?” he blurted. “I . . . it’d be nice to talk to you.” His marine blue eyes captured hers and held. “It’s been a long time. I’d love to catch up. Please, Cassie.”
She and Bree exchanged a quick glance. “Up to you,” Bree murmured.
What am I, crazy? I should walk away right now, Cassandra thought. The same way he walked away from me when I begged him not to. But the look in his eyes was so earnest, so raw and open . . . he was obviously glad to see her and didn’t want her to leave. His twinkling blues were practically pleading with her.
And who was she kidding? She wanted to talk to him, to sit and stare at him, try to wrap her head around this incredible chance meeting. How many times had she wondered where he’d ended up, what he was doing? How many times had she wondered what he looked like now? She wanted to sit and memorize every feature.
Taking a deep breath, she nodded. “I guess. I mean, we’ll be here for a little while.”
“Fantastic,” he breathed, grinning brightly. “Ehm . . . so, what are you two drinking? It’s on me.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Bree said.
“Sure he can,” Cassandra said, the slightest edge to her tone. “It’s the least he can do.”
Sean met her eyes, and the grin faded. “It is.”
“Sam Adams for me, then,” Bree said. “Thanks.”
“And you, love?” Sean asked Cassandra.
She gasped softly, taken off guard by his casual use of his old endearment for her. Cassielove, he’d call her, making it one word. Or just Love . . . all the time. Always.
He realized it immediately and paled a bit. “Sorry, Cassie. It just slipped out . . . ”
“It’s okay,” she said quietly. Remembering, she added, “I’ll have the black stuff.”
The sexy grin returned and his eyes sparkled. “Ah, that’s a good girl.” He turned away to get their drinks.
Bree grasped Cassandra’s arm. “Holy crap. Are you okay?”
“No,” Cassandra said. Aftershock was setting in. Waves of disbelief made her insides wobble and her legs tremble. “I’m in shock. I can’t think straight.”
“We can leave right now,” Bree said. “Oh God, you’re shaking.”
Cassandra hadn’t realized she was until Bree said so. A deeper tremor rocked her body.
Bree squeezed her friend’s arms and rubbed them, meant to soothe. “You want to take off, we’re outta here. Seriously, Cass. Whatever you want to do, we do it.”
“I don’t know what I want. I . . . I just can’t believe it,” Cassandra breathed. She stared back at her friend. “I mean, like he said, what are the odds? New York is how big? This is insane.” She glanced at Sean, halfway down the bar at the tap, pulling a pint of Guinness. Sean McKinnon, right there in front of her, mere feet away. Unbelievable.
“Well, it is the season for holiday miracles, isn’t it?” Bree said dryly. She peered closer at her best friend. “Cass? You sure you want to stay?”
She let out a hard puff of air and said, “Yes. I want to hear what he could possibly have to say to me. I do.” Her lips twisted as she added, “He looks good, doesn’t he? Gotta admit it.”
“Oh yeah. He certainly is aging well,” Bree said. “In fact, he’s hotter than he was seven years ago, the rat.”
“I know. He totally is. It’s not fair. Damn him.” Cassandra swallowed hard and craned her neck, looking for a place to sit down. “I don’t think there are any empty chairs . . . ”
“Well, we’re going to find at least one,” Bree said with determination. “Not just because you’re shaking, but because we’re not going to hang out here at the bar, looking like we’re hanging all over him. No freaking way.”
Cassandra just nodded. Her head was spinning. He’d been happy to see her. He lived in New York? He co-owned a bar? It was overwhelming. Her brain was in overload, and her stomach was in knots. “I’m glad you’re here,” she whispered into Bree’s ear.
“Me too. When you two saw each other, I thought you were both going to fall over. I know I almost did.” Bree squeezed her arm again.
Cassandra scowled as she admitted, “My pride and ego are yelling at me. Saying screw him, just leave right now and never look back. Like he did to me . . .”
Bree stayed quiet, watching her friend.
Cassandra heaved out a heavy sigh. “He hurt me so badly, Bree. Just looking at him brings it back.” She licked her suddenly dry lips. “From how good we were, to how he devastated me when he left . . . ugh,” she shuddered.
Bree put an arm around her shoulders. “Anyone who would’ve walked away from something like what you two had . . . I said it then, and I’ll say it again now: he was an all-out dumbass.”
Cassandra snorted out a laugh. “Yup. And I’m giving him a chance to talk to me anyway. So maybe I’m a dumbass too.”
“Nope. You’re human. It’s curiosity, plain and simple.” Bree squeezed her, a hug of support. “Look, whatever happens here, I’ve got your back.”
“You always have. And I’m so grateful for that.”
End of Excerpt