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New York never changed.
Elena Larsen stood beside her friend’s Zipcar and took a good look around. The crowds, the traffic, the smell of street vendor chestnuts floating on the cold December air. It was all exactly the way she remembered.
“Laney, I am so glad you finally joined us this year.” Cassandra gave her a reproving look.
“You’re glad?” Elena laughed. “I single-handedly saved the economy. My checkbook will never recover.” From the car, she hauled two shopping bags that strained their handles.
“Hey, it’s Christmas. ’Tis the season for checkbook abuse.” Cass walked around the car and grabbed her in a tight hug. “If you let another decade go before visiting us again, I will hunt you down and kill you.”
Elena hugged back but made no promises. New York may have been home at one time, but now it held only bad memories.
“I have to run. Give Kara a kiss and a belly rub for me, okay? Bye!” With one last wave and a blown kiss, Cass was back in traffic, a cab driver offering his opinion of her driving with a raised finger and a blare of his horn. Cassandra Baines was the quintessential New Yorker—a study in contradictions, a mix of urban polish and take-no-crap attitude. Kara, Elena’s sister, was even more so. Elena had no doubt attempting to rub her sister’s pregnant belly would get her hand slapped—which, she concluded with a wry grin, was probably why Cass had suggested it. She shook her head with a laugh. Damn, it had been good to see her—really good. Thirteen years is too long for friends to go without real, face to face contact, Cassandra had scolded her when she’d first seen her. Elena tamped down the guilt that flared in her gut—she’d had to leave.
She simply couldn’t bear New York City after that day.
She hefted her luggage—a huge suitcase on wheels and a small laptop bag—over a patch of snow and did her best not to look south.
And realized she’d been wrong. New York had changed.
The spire of One World Trade Center glinted in the sun and she felt a tug on her heart that she’d never expected to feel. She hadn’t been in Manhattan since she was fourteen years old and despite the scar on the skyline, there was something here that still whispered home.
Elena stood and stared and was abruptly bumped from behind. Unbalanced by the bags clutched in her hands, she couldn’t stop the fall, and landed in a heap in the same mound of snow she’d tried to avoid. “Hey—” she protested, but a strong voice overpowered hers.
“Hey! Watch it!” A man shouted at the guy who’d shoved her, but it did no good. The obnoxious guy never looked back. The stranger bent to her, held out a bare hand. “Are you okay?”
Elena looked up into the face of the man who’d come to her aid. Dark hair curled over the edges of a knit hat, framing dark eyes that glinted with annoyance and concern. His cheeks were ruddy from the frigid air and his mouth, just the shape of it, made her own drop open with a little gasp.
She watched, hypnotized, for a long moment until that mouth curled. “Miss? I’ll ask again, are you okay?”
Elena gave herself a little shake and nodded. “Yeah, I’m fine, just—just really pissed off.”
The stranger grinned and Elena’s breath clogged in her lungs. His mouth was enticing when it was pressed into a tight, annoyed line but when he smiled, it was damn near lethal.
When he smiled, something changed.
She shivered and shook off the sensation, placing her gloved hand in his without thinking. Suddenly, she was upright with no memory of how she’d gotten there. Her rescuer was large.
Yet she felt completely safe in his hands. She blinked and swayed, and he shifted his hands to her shoulders. A delicious warmth spread over her.
“You’re sure you’re not hurt?”
She jerked, nodded. “No. Uh, yes, I mean I’m good.” Jeez. She couldn’t remember how to form words. His smile was intoxicating. Perfect teeth, just the right shade of white between loves coffee and Osmond cousin bracketed by honest-to-God dimples—the last time Elena saw dimples this cute, a boy had smiled at her only to vanish into the crowd gathered to honor the victims lost on September 11th. She thought he was an angel who’d stopped her from doing something even worse than what had already happened. He’d tucked something into her hand, something that caught the sun, a bit of light that cut through all that darkness.
A snowflake. A crystal snowflake ornament. She’d kept it all these years and still wasn’t sure if she’d imagined the boy who’d given it to her. The man in front of her wasn’t him—couldn’t be him—he wasn’t as tall for one thing. Looking up at that boy had put a crick in her neck. But he sure reminded her of him. Oh, she could happily spend the rest of her life staring at this man’s smile.
“Miss?” He shifted, obviously uncomfortable with her scrutiny and she crashed back to the present, mortified that she was still holding him.
She hurried to pick up the shopping bags and when she reached for the luggage handle, he shook his head. “I’ll help you.”
“It’s okay, I can manage.” She gave it a small tug.
“I’m sure you can. But I’ll help you anyway. Where do you need to go?” He tugged back.
Frustration, embarrassment, and just plain anxiety at being back in New York frayed Elena’s last threads of patience. “I said I can manage. Thanks for your help. I can take it from here.”
The man studied her. She studied him back. He was big—easily six feet with broad shoulders and narrow hips. He wore a dark jacket with a scarf looped around his neck. To her total surprise, he laughed and held up his hands in surrender. “Obviously, you’re a native New Yorker home for the holidays.” He handed over her bags.
The word stabbed through her heart and she rubbed her chest where the wound still stung. They’d left home not long after the towers fell and moved to Virginia, where the house was nice enough, if you liked old Victorians. And she supposed the Georgia house had charm. The Florida house was big, even had a pool. But her dad never stayed long in the jobs that took him and what was left of their family from state to state. Maybe that was why all those houses had felt more like hotels than home.
No. No, that wasn’t why.
It was because her mother wasn’t with them. She was lost here, in New York—a whisper on the wind that blew across lower Manhattan.
Elena forced a smile. “Yes.” She turned to leave.
“I’ll walk you to where you’re going.”
Elena shook her head. “Thanks, but I’m here.” She jerked a thumb at the building behind them. “My sister’s place.”
Another grin. Impossibly, it was more devastating than the first one. “Merry Christmas.” He extended a hand. “I’m Lucas but everyone calls me Luke.”
His attitude, the twinkle in his eyes, his smile, his dimples. Jeez, they could melt the snow under her feet, or under her – Oh God. She quickly dusted snow off her butt, feeling her face burn when his grin grew wider.
“I like your hat,” he offered. “My mother would have loved that.”
Elena couldn’t miss that. Her eyes snapped to his, held there, and yes, if she looked closely, she could see sadness under the twinkle. Courtesy demanded that she acknowledge his statement, but self-preservation compelled her to avoid it. Elena never spoke of her mother and the attack that killed her and did her best to not think of it. Discussing his mother would send her right back into that dark place she’d spent thirteen years clawing her way out of. Instead, she thrust out her hand, clasped his. “Merry Christmas to you, too. Thanks for rescuing me.”
It couldn’t have been warmer than twenty-five degrees and he had no gloves, but somehow, their brief connection shot a jolt of heat through her system.
When she failed to offer her name, Lucas shoved his hands back into his pockets and asked, “Can I give you a hand getting inside?”
“Um, no. I’ve got it. Thanks again.” Elena took a definite step back.
The move made his hands come up, surrender-style. “Not a line, not a ploy, I promise.”
“No, I didn’t think it was. I just don’t want to keep you from wherever you’re going. You’ve already done a lot. Thank you.”
“What’s your name, pretty lady?” He angled his head and her mouth opened all by itself because her brain was completely entranced by that smile.
“Elena. Nice meeting you. Merry Christmas again.”
“You, too. Merry Christmas.”
She wheeled her suitcase and hefted her shopping bags through the door of her sister’s building. When she looked back, the man with the supernova smile was gone and she sighed in relief.
And, maybe, just a little disappointment.
But mostly relief. She wasn’t here for a holiday fling even if the guy did have the most amazing smile she’d seen in a long time. She pressed the buzzer for 4D.
“That you, Laney?”
The buzzer sounded and Elena shoved open the inner door that led to the elevator, which smelled faintly of garlic from someone’s pizza delivery. When the doors slid open on the fourth floor, Kara stood there with open arms.
“Laney! Oh, God, thank you so much for coming!” Kara folded her into a hug.
“Ow! I just got kicked.” Elena couldn’t resist. She reached out and patted her sister’s round tummy.
Kara winced. “Uh, sorry about that. Milk Dud’s happy you’re here, too.”
Elena’s lips twitched and a laugh bubbled out. “You don’t seriously call my niece or nephew Milk Dud, do you?”
“Yes. I do.”
Elena bit back her mirth when Kara whirled around and tried to stalk back into her apartment. At nearly nine months pregnant, the best she could manage was a fast shuffle. Elena followed her into the apartment and gasped. “Kara! This place is gorgeous!”
Kara grinned and put her hand over her belly. “It’s amazing, right? Steven and I found it on our first day, after we decided to move in together.” When her grin faded, Elena wanted to hunt down Steve Orland and peel the skin off his body for hurting her big sister.
“Have you heard from him?”
“Not since the stick turned blue, when he told me we’d both be better off without him.” Kara said with a sad shake of her head. “But he does send money. Every month. Like a freakin’ utility payment.”
Kara shook her head again, waved a hand. “No, no, no. Not going to cry one more tear over him. Come on, let me show you around.”
The apartment had two bedrooms, each with its own bath, an efficiency kitchen that was separated from the living room by a breakfast bar, and a great big closet roomy enough to sleep in. Huge floor to ceiling windows graced every room, though the windows in the second bedroom were safety-gated. That room was already painted a soft green with stuffed animal critters happily romping over an entire wall behind a half-assembled crib. Beside the crib, there was a rocking chair next to a tiny table and bookcase, ready for story time. Boxes of baby equipment were stacked in another corner. An air bed was spread out on the floor, waiting for Elena.
“Oh, Kara, this is beautiful. Milk Dud’s going to love this room.
Her sister beamed and her eyes misted. “I hope so. I can’t wait for this baby to be born.” And then she winced, put a hand to her back.
“You look really uncomfortable.”
“Oh, God, I really am.” They left the nursery and Kara shuffled back to the living room, carefully lowering herself to the sofa where a book of baby names waited with sticky notes marking a dozen pages. “The baby’s low and if peeing every five minutes wasn’t torture enough, I now have sciatica—which is why I just couldn’t do the big Black Friday shopping thing.”
Elena hadn’t done their big Black Friday shopping thing in years, but said nothing. She stared at her sister’s round tummy, searched for a change of subject. “By the look of you, I’d swear you love being pregnant. I always thought that glow stuff was bull but you’ve got it.”
Kara smiled. “I guess I kind of do, even though I haven’t seen my feet since the summer.” Her smile dimmed. “Tell me the truth. Do they hate me?”
Elena’s eyes snapped to Kara’s. “Of course they don’t. Enza even sent leftovers for you. They’re all worried about you. And two of them are plotting revenge against Steve on your behalf.”
Her sister laughed. “Let me guess. Aunt Enza and Bree?” Sabrina was one of the quartet of daughters all born the same year to former sorority sisters who’d met decades earlier at Bucknell University. Elena had been born two years later, but the girls—Sabrina, Cassandra, and Jade—had widened their circle to include Kara’s little sister. Aunt Enza—Vincenza—was Sabrina’s mother and because their own mother had called her sister, Elena and Kara would forever call her aunt. Now a hot-shot attorney, Enza could freeze, melt, or cut you with a single look. Elena bit back a grin. She sure as hell wouldn’t want to be in Steve Orland’s shoes when Enza finished torturing him but she’d make popcorn and grab a chair to watch while she did.
“I’ll call them,” Kara promised. She put a pillow behind her back, settled in, and held her book out to Elena. “What do you think of this name?”
“Um. Hmm. Walter Larsen. It’s um, well—”
“Old-fashioned.” Kara sighed. “What about this one?” She flipped to another marked page. “I kind of like Octavia.”
Elena pulled the book gently from Kara’s hand. “Kara, do you not remember elementary school at all?”
Another sigh. “Oh, God, you’re right. They’d torment her, call her Octopus.” Kara’s face wobbled and she burst into tears. “What am I doing, Laney? I can’t even pick out a name for this baby! I’m already a terrible mother.”
“No, that’s not true.” Elena winced in sympathy. “Come on now. You have plenty of time. Lots of people don’t name their babies until they’re born. Ask Bree, she’ll tell you the same thing.”
“No, she won’t. Bree’s a great mom.” Kara sniffled and grabbed a tissue from the box beside the sofa.
“And you will be, too. I know it.”
Kara reached over, squeezed Elena’s hand. “Damn hormones. I go off like a firecracker now. I left work—doctor says I have to take it easy and I have so much to do, Laney. The crib and diapers and a name and—”
“Then it’s lucky I’m here.”
“I’m so glad you are.” She blew her nose.
“Okay, then. You just sit there with your feet up and give the orders.”
Kara clapped. “Yay! First, tell me about the cute guy you were chatting up outside.” At Elena’s shocked face, Kara laughed. “I had my nose pressed to the window. I couldn’t see much of him, but the look on your face was priceless.”
Elena shot her sister an exasperated look. “Oh, what look? There was no look.”
“There was most definitely a look.” Kara pointed to the table near one of the windows. “Your first duty is to retrieve the phone I left way over there.”
Elena fetched the phone and sank to the sofa beside her sister. Kara thumbed through her photos and showed Elena the picture she’d snapped earlier. She and Luke of the Radiant Smile were both crouched, hands extended for one of the bags. Too bad he was facing away from the camera. That smile would have been nice to see again.
“And there it is again.” Kara clapped her hands and grinned.
“Will you stop? There is no look.”
But there was. In the picture, Elena’s eyes were aimed up at Luke and her mouth was open in a wide smile she didn’t remember forming. She didn’t just look surprised. She looked… well, like a kid on Christmas morning.
She slapped the phone to the cushion between them and leaped to her feet. “I’m going to get these bags unpacked and then cook you and Milk Dud a fantastic dinner.” She flashed Kara a bright but fake grin and disappeared into the second bedroom.
The second she shut the door, Elena’s grin faded. Kara had been right; there was most definitely a look. With his mega-watt smile and twinkling eyes, Luke had made a hell of an impression. But that wasn’t all. Luke reminded her of things she’d tried so hard to forget.
Tried, but never would.
End of Excerpt