A Whole Year Younger

Another day, another nap.

Recently I realized that I have blog posts dating back to 2004 archived on an external hard drive. This is a slightly terrifying prospect, because hello, teenage angst! They come in handy sometimes, though.

Reading through old writings can give you new perspective on a situation. They can also give you a better birthdate for your cat.

That’s right, folks—Squirt is a whole year younger than I thought! 😂 I thought she was 14 but she is, in fact, 13. (Again?) When I let her know, she just flicked her gaze away from me disdainfully.

She has naps to take, people.

It seems like I got her in May or June of 2004, so she was probably born in March or April 2004. Some people pay big bucks to look younger, but not Squirt—she actually is younger! (Plus there’s the fact that she is tiny and doesn’t at all look or act like an older cat, aside from being more cuddly and taking more naps.)

There you have it, folks—musings from a kooky cat lady who is procrastinating all of the things. #amediting #amschooling #amwishingiwasnapping

PS: Does anyone know how to import LiveJournal XML posts to WordPress? I can’t figure it out for the life of me, and the plugins I’ve tried all suck. Not that the world really needs to read my angsty teen blogs, but it’s a hell of a lot easier reading them here than it is to squint at an XML file, and I kind of like scrolling through (some of) memory lane.

Save 30% Off Becoming Natalie!

Natalie might not survive a summer back home with her father.

For Natalie, the key to a successful life has been simple: escape her divorced parents, get a well-paying job in graphic design, and snag the sexy CEO. Life in the Big Apple isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, though, and Natalie quickly finds herself drowning in debt and drama—especially when a nurse calls her from a hospital back home.

Her dad’s had a heart attack and needs surgery—and Natalie is the only one who can take care of him while he recovers. But Natalie hasn’t spoken to her father since her parents’ divorce, and their relationship has been nothing short of complicated.

Coming home could give Natalie a chance for a fresh start with both her dad and her checking account, though. The plan is simple: use the summer to get back on her feet—as long as the handsome karaoke DJ she keeps running into doesn’t sweep her away completely.

Becoming Natalie is a lighthearted, humorous Chick Lit novel that will warm your heart.

Use code 30JAN to save 30% off Becoming Natalie in the Kobo store!

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Becoming Natalie Gets a Makeover

One of the things I usually do in the last couple weeks of the year is update my books. This could be as simple as giving it a shiny new cover (like I did with the South of Forever series), or as complicated as rewriting it entirely (like I will with Crazy Comes in Threes [more details coming soon]). Becoming Natalie fell somewhere in between.

While re-formatting and re-reading it, I realized the ending is pretty abrupt (and there were even a couple unanswered questions). So I set aside some time and wrote a brand new epilogue that neatly wraps everything up. (If you’ve already purchased the book, you can read the epilogue for free here.)

I also gave Becoming Natalie a fresh coat of paint and a new blurb. Check it out!


Natalie might not survive a summer back home with her father.

For Natalie, the key to a successful life has been simple: escape her divorced parents, get a well-paying job in graphic design, and snag the sexy CEO. Life in the Big Apple isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, though, and Natalie quickly finds herself drowning in debt and drama—especially when a nurse calls her from a hospital back home.

Her dad’s had a heart attack and needs surgery—and Natalie is the only one who can take care of him while he recovers. But Natalie hasn’t spoken to her father since her parents’ divorce, and their relationship has been nothing short of complicated.

Coming home could give Natalie a chance for a fresh start with both her dad and her checking account, though. The plan is simple: use the summer to get back on her feet—as long as the handsome karaoke DJ she keeps running into doesn’t sweep her away completely.

Becoming Natalie is a lighthearted, humorous Chick Lit novel that will warm your heart.


Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5


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Becoming Natalie: Epilogue

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t read the previous edition of Becoming Natalie, the following will spoil the ending for you. I recently added an epilogue to the book, and decided to post it here for those who’ve already purchased and read it. Click here to read a FREE excerpt.

Though the resort had been beautiful in the winter, with the glacial sky stretched over the frozen ocean, it really came to life in the summer. Natalie had practically counted down the days to June—for more than one reason. For one, the resort’s steady flow of guests had slowed down considerably during the colder months, which meant she had a lot less to do. For a while, she’d worried that she’d be out of a job, but Rohan had assured her that wasn’t the case.

“After all,” he told her brightly, “we’ve got renovations to do all winter.”

And renovate they had.

With Nigan back in commission, things really got moving. Between Rohan and his father, Natalie stayed busy making new materials for the spring and summer promotions. The Singh men had big plans for the resort—including a full-service spa and wedding planning. By the time June bloomed around the grounds, business was booming.

But the resort wasn’t the only thing growing.

Though they were taking things slowly, Natalie and Rohan had been dating for ten months. She wasn’t about to drop any L bombs any time soon, but once they were together, things between them were just . . . easy. She’d been slightly worried that dating another guy that was her boss would be a bad idea, but Rohan had wanted to immediately set boundaries.

“When we are working, we are Natalie Booth, marketing coordinator, and Rohan Singh, hotel concierge,” he said in bed one evening.

“You know,” she said, her head resting on his chest, “you can seriously drop the last names now.”

“I am serious. We need to make sure our working relationship doesn’t interfere with, well, us, Natalie.” Those deep brown eyes bore into hers. “I don’t want to screw this up,” he said softly.

“Neither do I.” She pressed a kiss to his cheek. “So we should probably make a rule about keeping things strictly professional while on resort property.”

“Well . . . minus our suites,” he said with a grin. He pulled her into his arms, and they stopped talking.

Still, things were going incredibly well, considering how often they saw each other. Natalie’s days were a blur of marketing meetings, hours designing posters and brochures, and scheduling ads across newspapers, radio stations, and social media. At night, she and Rohan either had dinner in the dining room or went out. And her days off—well, those were her favorite days of all.

Since Rohan still had family in India, he, his uncle Nigan, and his father Darius visited quite often. She’d gone with them for a few weeks in January. Visiting another country should have been slightly nerve-wracking, but with Rohan and his family, it was fun. He often whisked her away for adventures on weekends, too—whether it was running karaoke at a random Connecticut dive bar or exploring the lakes and parks hidden around the state.


The door to her suite swung open, ricocheting off the wall. Layla lifted her head from the floor, then settled right back down when she saw who’d come in.

Natalie’s father balanced two plates piled high with waffles, a jug of maple syrup, and two tall glasses of milk. He hustled across the living area and plunked everything down on a nightstand—somehow managing not to spill anything.

“Dad,” she said, “I told you to just call room service.”

“And miss out on my famous waffles?” He shook his head at her. “It’s healthy to have a nice, home-cooked meal every so often.”

“I have home-cooked meals every day.”

“A restaurant in the resort you live in doesn’t count, Lee.”

“Dad.” She tugged her hair up into a messy bun, using the gesture to hide the smile pulling at her lips. “Darius usually cooks for us. He’s really talented. He can even make Italian food—”

Her father pressed a plate of waffles into her hands. “Eat, Nat. It’s getting cold.”

Shaking her head at him, she cut a bite with her fork, trying not to think about how annoyed the chefs might be with her father for barging in on their kitchen. She hoped he’d at least cleaned the waffle iron.

“So,” Dylan said between bites of waffles. “Are you happy?”

She set her fork down, considering. It was still kind of weird to live so far from any family. While it was true that her mother and stepfather were still in the state, they weren’t close anymore—and probably never would be again. Though it’d initially stung to find out that her mother had cheated on her father, Natalie had accepted things for what they were. After all, she and her dad were so much closer than they’d been. Even if he was the type to force waffles on her.

At least Grandma Booth had stayed behind in Florida for the summer.

“Yes,” she replied, answering her father’s question. Her eyes lifted to meet his. “Are you?”

“Well, your grandmother is driving me crazy . . .” He exaggerated a grimace. “But yes. I am.” He shook a finger at her. “Just don’t go doing anything drastic like getting married, young lady—at least not without letting your old man know first.”

“Don’t worry, Dad. I’m happy with exactly the way things are right now.”

And she was. Though it’d been hard to let her dad go to Florida, he was much more independent than he’d been while she’d stayed with him last summer. He was driving for a school bus company and planned to continue spending his summers at Laurel Lock. In a few weeks, she and Rohan would go visit him—Layla too.

“Now what about that meddling friend of yours? I never could stand the way she interfered with your life,” Dylan said.

Natalie lifted an eyebrow at him, but chose not to comment on the irony of his statement. “You mean Violet? We talked. We’re not as close as we once were, but she apologized. She’s really happy for me—and she got rid of that tool she was dating.” She shuddered. Between her and Violet, they had the worst taste in men—with the exception of Rohan.

As if on cue, knuckles rapped on her door and Rohan strode in. “Ah, Dylan Booth!”

“You can call me Dad—”

“Just Dylan is fine,” Natalie amended, shooting her father a look.

Rohan plopped down on the bed beside her and plucked the fork from her fingers. He shoveled waffles into his mouth.


“I thought you said his father was feeding you?” Dylan asked, looking quite satisfied with himself. “It’s a good thing I’m visiting.”

Natalie sighed, then smiled. The more things changed, she mused, the more things stayed exactly the same. She could live with that.

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Becoming Natalie: Chapter 5

The second the truck stopped moving, Dylan threw open his door. Gravel-sized pebbles crunched beneath his sneakers. He reached up toward the sky, stretching, a loud yawn pouring out of his mouth. The sound echoed throughout the open space.

Natalie winced. “Can’t you yawn quietly?” She shut off the engine and climbed out. It felt amazing to stretch her legs. The hour long drive had definitely taken its toll. She glanced up at the sky. If she hurried, she could catch a few rays of sun down at the beach. By the time her father finished making dinner, she could have the base of her base tan going. She reached for her suitcase.

“Leave those there for now,” her father said, pulling a ring of keys from his belt loop. He went through them, selected one, and ambled toward the trailer.

Ignoring him, she yanked her suitcase out of the pickup bed. Dropping it to the side, she reached for his next. If she wasn’t careful, she surmised, she could end up with a hernia. They seemed to run in her family. As she began tugging on it, she felt her father’s hand clamp gently around her arm.

“I said, leave ‘em there.” He tugged her toward the trailer.

“What are you doing, you psycho?” She yanked her arm away.

He pointed to the deck. “Look at this,” he said, opening the door and entering the screen room. He swept his foot in an arc through leaves and other debris. “You’ve got to clean this up.”

She snorted. “Me? I think you can handle a broom.” She turned toward where she had left her suitcase.

“I can’t, Nat. I’m exhausted. I’m supposed to rest.” He put a hand on the arm of a deck chair, stooping a little.

Pressing her lips together, she entered the screen room, ducking under a spider web. With a grimace, she grabbed the broom from the corner. Sweeping would only take her a few minutes. “Then I’m going down to the beach,” she told him, pushing a pile of dirt toward the leaves.

She wondered how so much stuff had gotten into the screen room. Her father had built the deck himself, adding screening to the lattice on the bottom specifically so that the flooring stayed clean during the off season. As she swept, she glanced around for a hole or tear.

From his seat, her father hummed, watching her.

“Is this up to your standards?” she asked, pointing to her progress. A clean path ran from the door to where she stood, on the other side of the deck.

He shrugged.

Squatting, she pointed to a dark corner. “Looks like there’s a hole here,” she said. Her eyes ran along the bottom of the lattice. A gap gaped between the wood and the ground. Frowning, she scooted closer. Tiny claw marks were imprinted into the dirt outside. “Dad,” she said, motioning him over.

The chair creaked as he got up. A moment later, he joined her. “I’ll be damned,” he said. “Looks like there’s a fox nest under the deck.”

Wrinkling her nose, she looked at him. “How can you tell?”

He pointed into the garden in front of them. Two small creatures with orange fur and bushy tails chased each other in the leafy fronds.

Natalie gasped.

“It’s okay,” Dylan said, lowering his voice. “They won’t hurt you. As long as we don’t mess with the babies, mama won’t bother us.” He stood slowly, his knees stiff. “Finish up here,” he said, wobbling back to his chair.

Clutching the broom, she jerked her chin toward the foxes. “Aren’t you supposed to call animal control or something?”

“For what?” He waved a hand at her. “We’re in their backyard.” Pointing to the deck floor, he said, “You missed a spot.”

She rolled her eyes, but resumed sweeping.

By the time she finished, the sun had sunk below the treeline. Deep shadows stretched across the campsite. Even though the sun wouldn’t go down fully for another forty-five minutes or so, the trees at the top of the hill blocked it out after a certain time of day. Below, on the beach, it would still be bright and warm.

Shivering a little, she replaced the broom. “All set,” she said, wiping her hands on her jeans. “I’m gonna go down to the beach for a bit. Can you handle dinner?”

Her father’s eyes fluttered open. Yawning, he shook his head. “You’ve got to rake the leaves out front,” he said.

“Rake?” she repeated. Small piles of leaves were everywhere, leftover from the winter. It looked as if someone had emptied a bag of them, scattering them all over. “Can’t it wait ’til tomorrow?”

“It’s going to rain tomorrow,” he said. “If they get wet, we’ll get those little gnats. They’re a pain in the ass.”

“Dad,” she said, putting her hands on her hips. “It’s getting late. I drove for an hour plus, then swept this whole deck for you. What more do you want?”

“I want,” he said, his voice growing stern, “you to rake the leaves so we don’t have to deal with the gnats after the rain.”

Turning red, she flung her hands up into the air. “You can’t treat me like a little kid!”

“I could just do it myself, then,” he said.

She noted his pale complexion, the way his hands shook. “No,” she said, sighing. “I’ll do it.” With another glance up at the sky, she held her hand out for the shed key. At least, out in the yard, she wouldn’t have to deal with her father watching her every move.

The shed smelled like kerosene, but it was otherwise clean. Beach chairs lined the walls in neat stacks. Rope hung from hooks. A couple fishing poles leaned against a metal garbage can full of deflated swimming floats. She inhaled. For some reason, she had always loved the scent of kerosene. It reminded her of late nights on the deck, a fire flowing out in the keystone pit. Her parents had played cards while she watched. Sometimes, her father let her join them, and they played Rummy 5000. She had been good at it, she remembered—as long as she had his help.

Blinking away the memories, she grabbed a rake from the back of the shed and went back outside.

Raking in flip flops proved to be annoying at best. The tines kept getting caught on her toes, and sometimes leaves brushed against her skin. When she finished, her feet were caked in dirt. Bits of leaves clung to her clothing. She didn’t even want to see her hair. Five neat bags sat near the dirt road. One of the maintenance workers would pick them up in the morning, according to Dylan. She had made good time, but not good enough. The sun had begun to sink beneath the horizon.

She clomped onto the deck, feeling like a zombie risen out of its grave. Her father opened his mouth, but she held up a hand. “I’m going to take a shower now,” she said, tossing him the shed key. He started to say something, but she slashed her open palm through the air, cutting him off. “Nope, don’t wanna hear it.”

Inside of the trailer, she found towels and a wash cloth. Kicking off her trashed flip flops, she stepped into the tiny bathroom. To use the toilet, she would almost have to put her feet in the shower. Rolling her eyes, she reached for the knob inside of the shower. She turned it on. Nothing happened. She kept turning it. Only a squeaking sound poured from its metal faucet.

“Dad,” she called.

Floorboards squeaked as he entered the trailer. “Yeah?” He poked his head into the bathroom. “Oh. I tried to tell you. The water’s still off. You have to turn it on.”

“I have to what?” She turned toward him, hands on her hips. “Have you done anything to open this season?”

He shrugged. “I haven’t been feeling good,” he said. “Come on, I’ll teach you how.”

She turned the faucet off. “Or I could just take one in the adult lounge,” she said, brushing past him. She stomped through the screen room. Clamping her fingers around the handle of her suitcase, she headed toward the recreation hall.

“Nat,” her father called.

Her suitcase caught on a rock. Its wheels bit into her already blistered heels. “What?” she howled.

“When you get back, throw some burgers on the grill.” He stood in the doorway to the screen room, leaning against the frame.

She scowled. “Do it yourself.” She jerked her suitcase over the stone. Nothing was going as planned. She thought of New York, and Benjamin’s hot tub. Her job had paid enough, if she could just avoid putting things on her Victoria’s Secret credit card. She should have tried harder.

“And,” she grumbled out loud as she dragged her suitcase through a patch of grass, “I should have never come home.”

* * *

Beads of water dripped down her back. A large, dark wet spot marked one side of her suitcase. Her feet were already dirty in her ruined flip flops. She felt like a new person, though. Walking back to the campsite, she hummed. Everything would be fine, she told herself. She just needed to have more patience.

Rolling back into the site, she waved to her father. He sat in his chair reading a newspaper.

“Better?” he asked, putting the paper aside.

She nodded. Feet crunching over the little stones, she walked toward the screen room. As she stepped up onto the deck, he jerked a thumb toward the shed.

“Do me one more favor,” he said, “and set up my hammock.”

She released her suitcase. It fell over, wet spot up. “One more favor?” She slammed her fist against the door frame. “I’m starving, Dad.”

“So set up the hammock and then throw a couple burgers on. Or better yet,” he said, “throw them on now. By the time you finish, they’ll be ready.”

“Why can’t you do it?” She stooped to pick up the suitcase. With a sigh, she brought it into the trailer. “It’s been a long day,” she called through the open door. “Can’t it wait?”

“I need to relax,” he said. “I can go lay on it in the morning. Think about how nice it’d be.”

Natalie scowled. “If I do this one last thing for you, will you quit bugging me?”

He nodded. “Sure.” Then, stroking his stubbled chin, he said, “Wait, we have to pick up my prescriptions in the morning.”

She wondered whether she should kill him, or herself. “You’re a maniac,” she told him. “Why couldn’t you say something before we left Waterbury? Why do you have to be so difficult?”

Sputtering, he got up from his chair. “You’re being difficult. I had a heart attack, Natalie. It’s nothing to be taken lightly.” He joined her in the trailer.

“You keep using that as an excuse,” she said. Crossing her arms, she stuck out her chin at him. “I’m going home in the morning—to New York.”

“You are?” He cocked his head at her, an eyebrow raised. “I’m not stupid, Natalie. You can’t go back.”

Her heart caught in her chest. “What do you mean?”

“I know all about your financial troubles,” her father said. “You were on the verge of losing your apartment, if you haven’t already been evicted.” He reached out for her hand. “Come on, Nat. Let’s help each other out, huh?”

She pulled away from him, out of reach. “How do you know?” Her heart thudded in her chest. There was no way he could possibly know. He had to be bluffing. She should have played it cool, she surmised with a twinge. He had probably been digging, and her blurt-out told him for sure. She wanted to smack herself.

“Your mother told me,” he said, as if she should have known.

She blinked at him. It had been years since her parents spoke to each other. When her mother remarried, it was up to Natalie to call her father to schedule their weekly visitation. Her mother hated her father, and didn’t miss a single opportunity to tell her. Natalie couldn’t blame her. If Benjamin or any other man ever cheated on her, she would castrate him. “Since when do you two talk to each other?” she asked, gripping the  edge of the dinette.

“Nat,” he said, his voice softening, “we’re always going to talk to each other.” He sat down on the couch, which would be her bed for as long as she stayed. “How else can I get updates? You don’t talk to me.” He shrugged, palms up.

“I’m talking to you right now,” she said, rolling her eyes.

“Arguing with me, more like.” He gave her a smug grin.

“You’re impossible,” she said. Shoving her suitcase underneath the dinette, she felt her nerves start to buckle. She needed to get away from her father before she actually did kill him. Straightening, she moved toward the deck. “I’m going for a walk,” she announced. Without waiting for him to respond, she stormed out of the trailer, through the screen room, and back outside.

The temperature was starting to drop. In the dying daylight, she could just make out the dirt road. Her father’s site sat at the beginning of Cedar Circle. If she continued down the road, she would be at the top of Rocky Mountain—an unpaved treacherous hill that led directly down to the beach. In the waning light, though, she would probably break her neck. Instead, she would have to go down Cedar Circle, cut across Laurel Lane, and down Lake Drive.

She wished she had brought her headphones. It wasn’t a long walk, but it was definitely longer than going down Rocky Mountain. She would rather take the trip than sit at the site with her father, though.

Natalie set out, her hands still clenched into fists. She wondered if she would be better off dealing with Edward, her stepfather. At least he wouldn’t make her work all day and then expect her to make dinner. Her father was turning out to be a misogynist, she surmised with a twist of her lip. No wonder her mother had left him.

A few minutes later, she reached Beach View Drive. A group of people sat on the gazebo. A fire burned on one of the beach-front sites. Two children chased each other while their parents watched the sun set, arm in arm. Pink streaks stretched across the sky. On any other night, she might stop and watch, too. She continued past the beach, though. Wishing she had a flashlight, she walked through the beach parking lot—which was really just a large dirt semicircle—and ducked through leafy branches.

Squinting, she could just make out the path. She took her time, picking her way over roots and jutting rocks. She could walk the path in the dark or blindfolded. Ever since her parents started camping at Laurel Lock, she had wandered the area just outside of the campground. Technically, it was state property. Her mother hated when she slipped away and went into Hopemead, but Natalie thought of it as her sanctuary. On the path, she always found something new. There was a tiny stream. A crumbling stone wall ran almost parallel to the trail. Once, she had found a trio of pipes that led nowhere. When she told her father about them, he said they had probably once belonged to a house. There was no other sign of a house, though. She had liked to pretend that they were put there by aliens or maybe Native Americans. Her favorite part of Hopemead, though, was the cave.

Ducking under one fallen tree and stepping over another, she paused. The cave was still there. It was actually an old root cellar—or at least, that was what her father called it. Rumor had it that it was connected to tunnels that ran underground, or that it had been built by Native Americans. Whatever it had originally been, it had become a party spot. If she sat on the rock just outside of its entrance, though, she had a perfect view of the cove that opened up into the lake, and the sunset.

A fire pit sat, cold, just above the small beach. She kicked off her flip flops and padded onto the sandy, pebbles. Unlike the campground beach, the cave beach was completely natural. Small waves lapped quietly at the shore. The sound of the water soothed her soul, and brought her blood pressure down. At the cave, things really were okay.

The remaining light from the sun cast pink shadows on the sand. She crouched near the shore and watched as a boat sailed toward the campground docks. What she needed, she mused, was a job. It would get her away from her father for a while every day, and would help her move into her own place. At the very least, it would help her pay her bills. Heat flushed her cheeks. She couldn’t believe her mother had blabbed her business to her father, of all people. She made a mental note to never tell her mother anything, ever again.

Pulling her phone from her back pocket, she scrolled through her contacts. The last time she talked to her high school best friend, Violet had her own bar in Oakdale. It was just a dive bar, but it would have to do. She pressed the phone to her ear and waited, holding her breath.

“Nat-a-tat!” Violet squealed. “Haven’t heard from you in thirty-ish. Where have you been?” Loud music and voices drowned her out.

“Banging a CEO,” Natalie said, falling into their old rhythm.

“Is he cute?” Violet asked.

Natalie could practically hear the laughter in her voice. “Was,” she said.

“Old news,” Violet said, a pout lacing her words. “Tell me something that happened within the hour.”

“Okay,” Natalie said, scooting back until she sat on a bumpy rock. “My father conned me into leaving New York to take care of him.”

Violet snorted. “You willingly left New York? I don’t buy it. Spill.” A glass shattered.  Men laughed. Gradually, the noise in the background ceased as Violet moved into her office.

Natalie watched as the sun dipped below the lake. In a few more minutes, she would be walking back to the campsite in pitch darkness. She needed to hurry up. “Listen, Vie,” she said. “I need a job, pronto. Tell me you need a bartender.”

“You’re in luck, Lie,” her best friend said. “I just had someone quit on me. We’re super shorthanded. If you can get here, you can start tonight.”

Natalie might not survive a summer back home with her father.


Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5


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Becoming Natalie: Chapter 4

Bursting into the entryway, Natalie turned in a half circle. Her heart pounded in her chest. The kitchen lay in front of her. To her right, the bathroom. She moved past both rooms, calling out for her father. She hadn’t been in his apartment in at least a year, but nothing had changed. If anything, he had downsized on the amount of Booth paraphernalia. Last time she had visited, he had an old telephone booth in the entryway. She was pretty sure he still had a restaurant style booth as his dining table.

She entered the living room, eyes sweeping the floor for her father. The bedroom door stood ajar.

“Dad,” she called, her voice breaking.

She pushed open the bedroom door and moved inside.

Bright sunlight streamed in through the windows. Squinting, she held a hand over her face. Spots danced in front of her eyes. Blinking, she moved out of the path of the light.

Her father sat on the floor, a full suitcase open in front of him. Huge spiral bound books overflowed from it, some of them half open on the floor, displaying huge maps. She blinked again, unable to believe what she saw. One of the titles read Toll Booths in New England.

“Okay,” she said slowly. “You’re getting out of control.”

He glanced up at her as if he hadn’t heard her come in, yelling for him. “I bet I could sell some of this on eBay.”

I bet this would qualify as proof of your insanity,” she said, picking up a guide to toll booths in Missouri. “When are you planning on visiting the Midwest?”

Shrugging, Dylan lifted two of the atlas-sized books and set them aside on the floor.

Natalie glanced at his open closet and groaned. “Were you trying to wrestle this out?”

Her father scooped more books out of the suitcase, his eyes glued to the pile.

“I thought you were already packed,” she said, crossing her arms, “and just had to get your suitcase?”

Pressing his lips together, her father shook his head.

“Are you just trying to waste all of my time?” she asked, throwing her hands up in the air.

Dylan shrugged. Avoiding looking at her, he pulled the last toll booth book from the suitcase and added it to the pile. Then, still keeping his eyes from hers, he stood, legs shaking. Shuffling over to his dresser, he tugged open a drawer.

“Are you going to ignore me? Because I can just go home.” She shook his keys. “You can stay here, in your sad apartment, and hire a visiting nurse or whatever.”

“Have some respect,” he snapped, throwing a glare at her.

“Oh, now you can look at me?” She paced, her hands shaking. “You talk about respect, yet you don’t respect me!” Stopping in front of him, she jabbed a finger in his face.

“Stop talking to me like I’m a child,” he said, picking up a pile of tee shirts and dropping them into the suitcase.

“Then stop treating me like your slave!” She spun away, nearly crashing into the phone booth. So much for him getting rid of things. She slammed her palm into it.

It rocked slightly. “Be careful with that!” he said, rushing over and steadying it.

Blowing out a puff of air, she stalked toward the door. “Whatever,” she said. She stomped back into the living room. Slumping into the couch, she buried her face in her hands. Tears stung her eyes. So far, she kept doing exactly the opposite of what she meant to do. She needed to be a better daughter, no matter how difficult her father was. She was all he had, she reminded herself. Whatever mistakes he had made in the past, he didn’t deserve to sit in his apartment all alone while he healed. She rubbed her palm, still stinging from the impact with the phone booth, on her jeans.

Maybe she was crazy, she surmised. Her father didn’t deserve her help.

Still, she had nowhere else to go—unless she wanted to hang out with her stepfather until she found her own place. Gritting her teeth, she closed her eyes. She had made quite the mess.

“Ready,” her father sang, dragging his suitcase behind him. Its sides bulged, as if he had stuffed some of the toll booth guides back in.

Cringing, she got to her feet. In just a few strides, she was at his side. “Let go,” she ordered, tugging the suitcase from his grasp.

“It’s heavy,” he protested.

“No shit,” she said, using both hands to drag it toward the front door. “That’s why I’m going to slide it down the garage stairs.”

He nodded as if he approved, and followed her to the door.

* * *

Getting the suitcase down the stairs proved to be harder than she had thought it would be. It didn’t slide very far, and got turned around, catching on the rungs of the railing. Scowling, Natalie tugged it from between two posts. A sharp pain lanced through her finger. Shrieking, she yanked her hand away. She stared in horror at the bloody spot where both her acrylic nail and real fingernail had been.

“What’s the matter with you?” her father asked from the top of the stairs. “It’s just a nail.”

Speaking from between clamped teeth, she said, “You don’t understand. It’s like having a nail ripped out twice.” The words came out slurred, as if she were drunk. Scrunching her face up, she balled her other hand into a fist, digging her nails into the palm of her hand to distract herself from the pain. Maybe, she surmised as she sucked in a deep breath, this was all karma for some horrible act she had committed in a past life. She didn’t believe in past lives, though. Exhaling, she opened her eyes. Her finger throbbed. The sooner she got her father up to the campground, the sooner she could get it fixed.

Then she remembered her empty bank account and maxed out credit card. Maybe her father would pay for it. Looking up at him, peering down at her with an expression on his face somewhere between concern and disbelief, she reconsidered. Maybe pigs would fly.

After a few more minutes of tugging with one hand, holding her injured hand out of the way, the suitcase popped free. She clambered over it, nudged it with her foot, and it slid down another few inches. Several kicks later, she got it to the bottom of the stairs.

If she ever found a new job, she was going to buy him a rolling suitcase with a long handle.

She dragged it to the pickup, its bottom scuffing against the asphalt.

“Be careful,” he chided, running behind her with his arms open, as if he was going to catch it.

Rolling her eyes, she released it, shoulders dropping. All she had to do was lift it into the bed of the pickup, and she was home free—sort of. The thing had to weigh seventy-five pounds or more, though.

“I can get it,” Dylan said, reaching for it. Beads of sweat rolled down his face.

She swatted his hands away. “Why don’t you get in and start the air?” She smiled at him and handed him the keys. Nodding, he took them and turned toward the passenger’s side. Shaking her head, she used the back of her hand to wipe the sweat from her own face. It was just after noon, and had to be already ninety degrees. Summer was rolling in, in full force.

Natalie looked back at the task at hand. Wincing, she spread her legs, crouched into a squat, and lifted the suitcase. Arms buckling, she hefted it over the gate and into the bed. She started to tumble, caught herself with her elbow on the truck’s corner, smacking her bone into hard chrome.

“Gah,” she screamed, clutching her elbow and hopping up and down. If she made it to the lake without any more injuries, it would be a miracle. Come to think of it, she surmised, scowling down at her blistered heels, she had done nothing but get hurt since arriving in Connecticut.

Whimpering, she walked to the driver’s side. She pulled open the door and slid in. Cool air brushed against her face, and she rested her head against the seat for a moment.

Then, slowly, she realized which song was playing.

She reached for the button to change the station, glancing at the digital display. The first button was the same station. Groaning, she pushed the second button. A car commercial replaced the horrible crooning.

“What do you have against Bon Jovi?” her father asked, reaching for the first pre-programmed button.

“No way,” she said, covering the dashboard. “I’m driving, my music.”

Her father snorted. “This is my truck,” he said.

Deja vu pressed down at her, making her feel as if she hung upside down. Taking a deep breath, she began backing out of the driveway. The sooner they got on the road, the sooner they would be at the campground. Maybe she could talk him into paying for her nails and a bottle of wine.

They hadn’t been on the highway for ten minutes before he started again.

“Why aren’t you getting onto 691?” he asked, twisting in his seat as they passed the exit. The expression on his face reminded Natalie of someone who had just run over his own dog.

Gripping the steering wheel with both hands, she smiled and said, through her teeth, “Because I’m driving.” She felt like a crazy person. She wondered if maybe her father needed medication.

“You’re going to hit traffic if you stay on 84,” he grumbled, crossing his arms. Slouched in his seat, he looked like a kid whose parents wouldn’t take him to McDonald’s.

“Dad,” she said sharply. “We’re going to hit traffic no matter which way we go. As you’ve reminded me a hundred times, I got to the hospital too late in the day.” She huffed, tightening her grip on the steering wheel.

He sank lower in his seat. “I don’t know why you have to yell.”

Pressing her lips together, she stared at the road in front of her. 84 was pretty empty, considering the time of day. She supposed it was because all of the kids were still in school—for another couple of weeks, anyway. If they had left even ten minutes later, she might be dealing with that traffic. Once they got to Route 2, they would be home free—at least, she hoped so.

The sun shone brightly down on the pickup. She smiled. Despite her misgivings, it would be nice to stay at the lake for a few days. At the very least, she could catch up on her tan—as long as Dylan didn’t keep her working all day. Up at the site, there was mostly shade. She would have to keep moving her chair to get even a fraction of sunlight. Down at the beach on the lake, though, it was a different story. Her smile widened. On a Monday, there wouldn’t be anyone else there. She would have the whole beach to herself. Granted, she might not get down to the beach until the next day. Still, she found herself looking forward to being there. Nestled in the country, away from the city, she could get a handle on her problems.

She wiped sweat out of her eyes. Blinking herself out of her daydream, she glanced down at the temperature. “Why did you turn the air down?” she asked, sneaking a look at her father.

He sat with his arms wrapped around himself, body slightly hunched over. “I’m cold,” he grumbled.

She bit down on her lip. Usually, she was cold out of the two of them. ”Cold?” she repeated, pointing out the window. “It’s like ninety degrees out.”

Shoulders drawn up to his ears, her father made a face. “I think it’s the damn blood thinners,” he said.

She turned the temperature down a little. Instantly, he started to shiver. “Why do you have to be so dramatic?” she whined.

“Why can’t you be more understanding?” He pressed the off button. “Open up your window, if you’re so hot.”

Pulling in a deep breath through her nose, she then exhaled through her mouth. She needed to find a way to compromise with him, or the rest of the ride was going to be miserable. “How about we leave the air on, and you can close the vents on your side?” She gave him a smile, proud of her solution.

“My truck,” he insisted, turning and looking out the window.

“Dad,” she tried, but he stared out at the passing trees.

She opened her window a few inches. Wind rushed inside, whipping her hair around, ruining her part. The air felt cool, though—compared to the warming interior of the pickup, anyway. She took both hands off the steering wheel, yanking the hair tie off her wrist in the same motion.

“What are you doing?” her father gasped, grabbing the steering wheel. The pickup lurched to the left.

Natalie yanked it away, correcting their path. “I’ve got it, Dad,” she said. “I do this all the time.”

“Did they teach you that in driving school? Is that what I spent all that money for?” He waved a finger in her face. “Don’t do that ever again, unless you want to give me another heart attack.”

She wanted to tell him that he stressed himself out, but kept her mouth shut. Her hair flew into her face again. Using one hand, she tucked it behind her ears. The next few days, she decided, were going to be anything but relaxing.

* * *

“Take this right,” her father instructed.

“I know,” she said, even though she didn’t. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been to the campground.

Half out of his window, her father pointed up. “They’re getting a new sign,” he said.

“Why don’t you get back in the truck?” she replied, turning onto the dirt road. The truck bounced, its tires kicking up stones. She could just imagine him getting clobbered in the head with a stray rock. As much of a blessing it would be to have him quiet for a while, she did not want to go back to the hospital with him.

Safely back in his seat, her father grinned at her like a kid at a circus. “This is going to be great, Lee,” he said. “You’ll be thanking me for taking us up here.”

She smiled, despite the knot of anxiety in her stomach. The old stop sign loomed ahead. Attached to it, she knew, was a white sheet of paper declaring that visitors pay inside. She had completely forgotten the fees. As far as she knew, the campground didn’t take debit cards. Besides, she didn’t need anymore overdraft fees. “Um, Dad?” she asked, already slowing the truck.

Her father leaned out of his open window again, his eyes closed, a smile on his face. Birds chirped from the trees above. A breeze rocked the mountain laurels softly. The air smelled crisp and clean, like dirt and water and woods.

Loosening her grip on the steering wheel, she shouted his name.

He jumped. Turning toward her, he raised a hand in frustration. “You’re going to kill me,” he declared. “What do you want?”

Taking a deep breath, she patted his arm. “Sorry. Listen, how long are we going to be here?”

He hand a hand through his hair. For the first time, she realized his hairline was receding. Regarding her with his brown eyes, he shrugged. “As long as it takes.”

“Well,” she said slowly, “I need to know, so I can pay them.” She pressed her lips together, resisting the urge to lick them. She had left her lip balm in her purse, which sat on the floor behind her. Since her father wouldn’t let her take her hands off the steering wheel, getting it while driving would have been a miracle. Licking her lips would just chap them even more. As soon as she found a new job, she was going to have to invest in some good lip balm, the kind that didn’t dry her lips out so she would have to use more.

Her father nodded, as if thinking to himself. She expected him to say that he would take care of her. Instead, he said, “You’re going to have to pay for yourself, kiddo.”

Her mouth dropped open. She stared at him. He couldn’t be serious. She started to argue, to say that if she didn’t know how long she was going to be there, she couldn’t possibly pay. Then she remembered that he didn’t know about her apartment or her bills or the job she had left. She suddenly wished she had taken Benjamin up on his offer.

“Or,” her father said, a slow smile breaking across his face, “you can become a co-signer on the site. You’d get your own pass. Of course, you’d be responsible for maintenance and—”

“Whoa,” she said, holding up a hand. “I can’t be a co-signer. I’m here to take care of you, not the trailer. I didn’t even know we were coming up here, Dad.” She shook her head at him.

“Come on, Nat,” he said. “Your mom was a co-signer. It’ll be fun, like old times.”

Scowling, she tipped her head back. She couldn’t believe he had really gone there. “If you hadn’t cheated on her,” she said to the ceiling, “she would still be a co-signer.”

Her father said nothing.

She looked back down, glancing at him out of the corner of her eye. They sat just a few feet from the stop sign. She could either drop him off and go back to Waterbury, or stick it out. Being a co-signer wouldn’t be the end of the world, she surmised. At the very least, it would buy her a free vacation. Nodding to herself, she straightened. She needed to look at her situation as just that, time off before moving on to the next phase of her life—whatever that was.

Licking her lips, she eased the truck forward. “Okay,” she told her father.

“You’ll do it?” he asked. The light in his eyes almost made it worth it.

“What do I have to do?” She pulled up to the stop sign.

He smiled. “Nothing, kiddo. You’re all set.”

Eyebrows furrowing, she turned to look at him. “What do you mean?”

He patted her hand. “You’re already a co-signer. I called them from the hospital. Go on, you can just roll right through, here.”

Her hands fell into her lap. She stared at him, mouth open. Her head started to turn. Her lips began to move.

A car behind them honked its horn.

She glanced into the rearview mirror. A station wagon sat behind them, a rack of bicycles strapped to its roof. One of the bikes was askew, as if it had lost a strap.

“Let’s go home,” her father said, motioning for her to drive.

She wanted to argue, but for better or worse, the trailer was going to be her home, for who knew how long.

Natalie might not survive a summer back home with her father.


Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5


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Becoming Natalie: Chapter 3

Both of Natalie’s eyes actually twitched. She crossed her arms in an effort to keep from exploding. “Where, then, do you think we’re going?” she asked. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea that her father had his own room. If she tried to strangle him, there would be no one to stop her.

Dylan smiled, his eyes nearly closed. “Laurel Lock,” he sighed.

Natalie snorted. She balled her hands into fists, her fingernails biting into the palms of her hand. “The campground,” she said. “Really? Why would you go all the way to the campground instead of home?”

A snore escaped from her father’s lips.

Slamming her hands down at her sides, she stalked toward his bed. “Dad,” she said sharply.

He jerked awake, glancing around the room. His cheeks turned pink. “Did I just fall asleep?”

Rolling her eyes, she leaned over him. “Why are we going to the campground?” Her chest heaved. She shouldn’t have left New York. Taking care of her father had seemed like something noble to do, like paying a bill. Instead, she felt on the verge of a breakdown. Tears filled her eyes. She scrunched her face up, willing them away.

“Natalie,” he said, as if she were a five-year-old who wouldn’t listen. “My cardiologist said I need to keep my stress levels down.” He shifted, burrowing deeper into the bed. “Where is it more peaceful than the lake?”

Taking a deep breath, Natalie smoothed the blanket over him. “Yes,” she said slowly, “but the campground is an hour away. What if something happens? Shouldn’t you be closer to your cardiologist?”

He waved a hand at her, scoffing. “They have five hospitals in the area,” he said. “Besides, if I’m going to drop dead, it’s going to happen no matter where I am.” He grinned.

She did not smile back. “Okay, but what about all of the work it takes to maintain the site? Have you even opened up yet for this season? It’s already June.” She visualized the site, the piles of leaves that would have accumulated throughout the previous fall, and the blanket of pine needles that never stopped growing. All of that work would put stress on her father’s heart. Knees weak, she wobbled over to the chair next to the bed. Maybe, she surmised, he was crazy.

“Easy there, killer,” Dylan said, watching her. “You can help me with all of that stuff.”

She leaned forward. “I can what?” She looked down at her manicure. “These hands were not made for raking.” The rest of her wasn’t made for camping, either. The trailer sported a claustrophobic, standing-only shower with the water pressure of a rag. Her father did all of his laundry in a coin-operated washing machine, then hung it out on the line to dry. He cooked on a grill. The only air conditioning was the breeze that moved between the trees, coming up from the lake below.

“Lazy, your generation,” her father said. “Is it so much to ask for you to help your own father?”

“You didn’t ask!” she said, jumping to her feet. Heat flushed her cheeks. “You don’t get to boss me around anymore. I’m twenty-three years old!”

Propping himself up on his elbows, Dylan inclined his chin. “The decision is final,” he said.

Glaring at him, she crossed her arms again. He glared back.

A nurse poked her head into the room. “Visiting hours ended five minutes ago,” she said.

Natalie ran a hand through her hair. “Fine,” she told her father. “I need to get some sleep anyway.” She grabbed the keys from the foot of the bed. Anger roiling through her, she left the room.

“Goodnight,” her father called after her.

She kept walking.

The second she climbed inside of the pickup, the tears started streaming down her face. She pulled the door closed behind her and put her head down on the steering wheel. Body shaking, she let the sadness take over. She could always fix her makeup later—not that it mattered. There was no one to impress. Benjamin was two hours away, and had probably moved on to some other girl. All of her college boyfriends were scattered throughout the country.

She laughed, a stream of snot flying from her nose and landing on her upper lip. Cringing, she wiped it away with the back of her hand, then onto her jeans. There were no more napkins in the truck. She couldn’t even clean up when she got back to her father’s apartment, because she hadn’t gotten the key from him.

She was officially homeless.

She could call her mother. Linda kept an open door policy. Her stepfather Edward, on the other hand, did not. While he hadn’t hit her since she was a kid, Natalie doubted he would be warm and inviting. No, he would find ways to make her feel unwelcome, until she had no choice but to leave.

She shook her head, wondering why she had ever thought she could stay with her mother. Every time she visited, she thought things might be different. The truth was, she was better off sticking with her father.

She refused to go back into the hospital and beg him for the house key, though. Besides, visiting hours were over. They probably wouldn’t let her back in.

Considering her options, she started the pickup. It rumbled to life, shaking underneath her. It sounded a little like it needed an oil change. Frowning, she listened for a moment. It wasn’t like her father to let things go when it came to his vehicles. She would have to remember to take it somewhere. While he had taught her how to do an oil change and a bunch of other car things, the thought of getting dirty made her shudder.

Besides, changing the oil would not help her get some sleep.

She could knock on Mrs. Spinelli’s door and see if she could crash on her couch. It was after nine o’clock, though, and the old woman was probably long asleep.

While the pickup wasn’t comfortable, she could pull into the driveway and sleep in the cab. It would be like camping, but only for one night. There was no back seat, though, and she couldn’t imagine trying to sleep sitting upright. Plus, she needed a shower. Snot and tears were already crusting on her cheeks. What she really needed was a long, hot bath.

She left the hospital parking garage, heading toward the Courtyard Marriott. It was only a few minutes down the street, had a private parking garage, and the most comfortable hotel beds she had ever slept on. She could just throw it on her credit card. A little more debt wouldn’t kill her.

Few other cars occupied the streets of downtown Waterbury. Only a couple red lights got in her way. She pulled into the lot of the hotel, guiding the pickup toward the parking garage. Yawning, she pulled into the first available spot. She slid out, grabbed her suitcase from the bed, and marched toward the entrance.

The doors opened automatically as she walked into the lobby. Ceilings high like a cathedral loomed over her. Dark wood, red and orange upholstery, and coffee shop style chairs decorated the large room. A sign boasted free Wi-Fi, but not a single businessman occupied the tables in the late hour.

Natalie dragged her suitcase to the front desk. No one stood behind it. There was no bell to ring. A wall separate the desk from some kind of employees-only area. She drummed her fingers on the dark wooden surface, hoping someone was nearby and would hear her. No one came. Clearing her throat, she craned her neck, trying to see over the tall desk.

A guy her age poked his head from around the wall. Muscles rippled under copper skin, evident despite the hotel uniform he wore. His nose took up most of his face, but his jawline was slight. Dark curls whispered across his forehead. “Help you?” he asked, dark eyes dancing. Despite his exotic looks, no hint of an accent laced his words.

She wondered if anyone actually could help her, but didn’t say so. Instead, she smiled. “I just need a room for the night.”

He raised an eyebrow at her. “You don’t look like the people who normally stay here,” he blurted. A lock of curly, dark hair fell into his face. He brushed it away.

“Excuse me?” She slapped her hands down on the counter. “I’m a customer. You don’t get to talk to me that way!”

He bit down on his lower lip. “Hate to point this out to you,” he said, “but you have mascara all over your face.”

Eyes widening, Natalie patted at her cheeks. Sure enough, her fingertips came away with crusty bits of dried mascara. “Oh, no,” she said, fresh tears welling in her eyes.

The concierge, whose gold name tag read Rohan, pushed a box of tissues toward her. She plucked one and dabbed at her eyes. “At least your face is wet now,” he said, making a scrubbing motion over his own face. “You can get all that gunk off.”

She stared at him, hand frozen. “Do you even know the first thing about hospitality?”

“Do you know the first thing about picking a good mascara?” He smirked.

Disgusted, she threw the dirty tissue at him. “Give me a room,” she said, digging in her bag.

“Well, I can’t just give you a room,” he said, flicking her tissue onto the floor behind him. “They cost money.”

She scowled at him, plunged a hand into her bag, and withdrew her wallet. Still glaring at him, she plucked her credit card from its pocket and snapped it down on the counter. She grinned at the sound it made. Nothing made her happier than the sound of plastic.

Rohan snorted. “Should I call security?”

“What the hell for?” she demanded, pushing the card closer to him.

He picked up the card. “You just seem a little crazy. Full size or queen?”

“You’re not going to offer me a king?” she asked, putting her hands on her hips. The height of the desk made it hard for her to look intimidating, though. From her side, she had to look up at him a little.

“Why would I offer you a king sized bed?” he asked, typing on a keyboard she couldn’t see. “You’re here alone.”

Her jaw sagged open. “How the hell do you know?” She thought of Benjamin, and all of the times he had reserved rooms for them, with California king beds and room service that delivered chocolate covered strawberries. The memories stung, and her shoulders sagged. “Just give me a queen,” she said, almost visibly deflating.

Nodding, he tapped a few more keys, then swiped her card. She knew he swiped it because of the sound it made—another sound that made her smile. If all else failed, she could still count on her American Express card, even if she would probably never pay it off. Propping her elbow on the counter, she rested her cheek on her hand, humming.

Rohan cleared his throat and plunked her card down on the counter. “Your card’s declined,” he said.

She blinked at him. “It’s what?”

“Denied. Won’t work. No dinero.” He shrugged. “Sorry?”

Natalie snatched the card up. “You’re not supposed to say it like that,” she said.

Rohan steepled his fingers. “And how am I supposed to say it?”

“You’re supposed to say ‘Sorry, ma’am, but your card has been declined. Do you have another method of payment?’” She slid the card back into her wallet and handed him her debit card.

“What are you, a robot?” He typed something in the computer and slid her card.

She swallowed hard, her mouth dry. Her hands shook, and she moved them out of his sight. There was no money in her checking account. If her debit card was accepted, it would be a miracle. She took a deep breath. She needed to stay calm, act normal. Trying to remember what they were talking about, she reached for a pamphlet about the hotel’s amenities. “I used to work at Macy’s,” she said, remembering. “People expect you to act a certain way. It’s upscale.”

Laughing, Rohan handed her card back. “You think Macy’s is upscale?” He shook his head. A printer behind him spit out a sheet of paper. He turned his back to her, retrieving the sheet.

“They sell Coach and Michael Kors,” she said, holding one hand palm up. Never in her life had she ever met anyone like the concierge. She wondered what was wrong with him.

“It’s just funny,” he said, turning back to her. He placed the sheet on the counter and tapped a line at the bottom. “Sign here.”

She scrawled her signature, turning the dot on the letter I in her name to a heart. “What’s funny?” she asked, grabbing her bag.

“Nothing,” he said, handing her a plastic room key. “Enjoy your night.”

Rolling her eyes, she turned away from him. Maybe, when she woke up in the morning, she would discover that it had all been some kind of dream. Sometimes, she smoked weed with Benjamin. Maybe she had smoked something laced. It would be just like the bastard to not tell her. She couldn’t remember smoking, though. The last thing about Benjamin that she remembered was their phone conversation from that morning. She could have hallucinated that, too, though, she surmised as she stepped into the elevator.

* * *

When the alarm went off on her phone the next morning, Natalie opened her banking application and checked her account balance. Grimacing at the negative one hundred dollars and overdraft fee, she logged out of the app. Toiletry bag in hand, she stumbled into the bathroom and turned on the shower. She had showered right before crawling into bed, but she couldn’t start her day without it. Showers were like a ritual for her: wash off the dirt before bed, wash away the sleep for the day.

She drove back to the hospital with the radio on full blast, the bass of a Katy Perry song booming through the speakers. Everything was going to be okay, she told herself. She was going to play dutiful daughter for a few days while her father healed from his surgery. Then, she would stay at her mother’s for no longer than a week. In the meantime, she would find a graphic design job in Hartford or even New London, close enough to home so that she had a backup plan, just in case. Or, she could go back to school, taking out another student loan so she could live in the dormitory again. It would be nice to not have to worry about things. Plus, it would give her a chance to make some friends she could actually keep in touch with.

Pulling into a parking spot, she shook the negative thoughts out of her head. It wasn’t that she didn’t have any friends. Life after college was just too busy. Everyone lived too far away.

Despite her optimism, she took her time getting to her father’s room. She doubted that she could stomach yet another argument. And, if he was still hell bent on staying at the lake while he got better, she was going to scream. Still, it would only be a few days. She could probably handle it. Maybe she could even talk him into getting her a hotel room in the next town over. She would have to explain why she couldn’t afford to get one herself, though.

Arriving at his room, she knocked on the door frame, then strode in. “Good morning,” she chirped, forcing a smile. “How did you sleep?”

Her father sat in a chair, fully dressed, his lips turned down at the corners. “Good afternoon, you mean,” he said.

Natalie glanced up at the clock. “Morning,” she corrected. It was only 11:30. She wondered if it was a generation gap thing.

“They served me lunch at eleven,” Dylan said. “It’s the afternoon now.”

Rolling her eyes, she changed the subject. “You’re all dressed. Are they discharging you?”

“Any minute now,” he grumbled, glancing at the door. “Takes forever in these places. They practically force you to stay, then they won’t let you leave.”

“Well, you did  have a heart attack,” she said, sitting down on the hospital bed. “How are you feeling, by the way?” It felt strange, to be talking to him as if he were her father. He felt more like a stranger, someone she only saw once in a while and had to be cordial with. Once they were done with medical talk, she wouldn’t be able to think of anything else to say to him. Unless, of course, he picked a fight with her. She could always count on that.

A nurse walked into the room, holding a packet of papers. “Here you are, Mr. Booth,” she said, handing the sheets to Dylan. “Take care, now.” She gave Natalie a nod, then strode out.

Dylan held the papers out to Natalie. “Read these while I drive,” he said, standing from his chair. “We’ve got to pick up my suitcase at the house.”

Natalie snatched the keys from the hospital bed. “Oh, no,” she said, standing. She tucked the papers into her purse. “You’re not driving anywhere.”

“The hell I’m not,” her father said, holding out his hand. “That truck is in my name. I’m driving it.”

Sighing, she patted her purse. “I saw something about not driving for forty-eight hours,” she said.

“It said that?” Dylan’s shoulders slumped. “I can’t even drive? I drove myself in here while I was having chest pain.” He shook his head. “I should’ve stayed home. This is ridiculous.”

Natalie stared at him, eyes wide. “Do you hear yourself?” She shook the keys at him. “Let’s go.”

The drive back to her father’s apartment was about as pleasant as having her wisdom teeth removed. Her father kept trying to tell her where to turn, and how to ease on the brakes at stop signs and red lights. When another driver passed them at a stop sign, horn blaring, Dylan rolled his window down, leaned out, and told the driver to shove it up his ass. By the time they got to his apartment, Natalie’s knuckles were white from having gripped the steering wheel so tightly. She wondered if she was too young to have a heart attack. Staying in the hospital, with her father stuck at home, might be a blessing.

“Put your blinker on,” Dylan instructed as they arrived at the house.

“Why? No one’s behind me!” She pulled into his driveway, wishing for a shot of vodka or maybe just a shotgun.

The second she rolled to a stop, her father swung his door open.

“Easy there,” she said, turning off the truck. “Let me help you.”

He waved a hand at her. “I don’t need your help getting out of the truck.” He walked over to the stairs slowly, wheezing slightly.

“Are you really going to climb all of those stairs?” She was pretty sure two flights of stairs counted as exertion.

Skirting the stairs, her father walked up a slight incline to a garage door that she hadn’t noticed.

“And how are we going to get in without a key?” She crossed her arms, leaning against the pickup. “Are you listening to me?” she asked, watching as he stopped at the garage door.

“Hush,” he said, flipping open a panel that covered the box. He punched in a code. The ground vibrated under Natalie’s feet, and the garage door opened.

Gaping, hands hanging limp at her sides, Natalie stared at him. All he’d had to do was give her the code, and she could have saved her money—or lack thereof.

“You coming?” he asked, stepping inside.

She peered in. Only a single flight of stairs led to the second floor. They were carpeted, and had railings on both sides. He would have no trouble with them. Plus, she surmised as she shook her head, she might strangle him if she followed him. “I’ll wait here,” she said.

Shrugging, her father ambled toward the stairs, whistling an Eagles song.

Mumbling swears under her breath, Natalie walked back to the pickup. She was going to have to figure out how to get him to pay her back for the hotel room. It was only fair. She pulled her phone out of her bag and logged back into the bank application. Looking at the negative number only made her feel worse. She sighed. She was going to have to find a new job sooner rather than later. With any luck, she could move into her own place by the end of the month.

Glancing at the garage door, she paced, wondering what was taking so long. If all he had to do was grab his suitcase, it should only take a couple of minutes. She thought of the stairs and the way he had wheezed. Maybe letting him go alone hadn’t been such a good idea. Maybe he had gotten hurt, or even had another heart attack.

She walked to the open garage door, biting on her lower lip. Pausing at the entrance, she wondered if maybe she was overreacting. Maybe he was just using the bathroom, or had gotten a phone call. Shaking her head at herself, she walked away.

Halfway back to the pickup, she paused again. Maybe she should at least call up to him, just to make sure. She would feel awful if something was wrong and she hadn’t even tried. Good daughters checked on their fathers, no matter how crazy they made them.

She went back into the garage. The scent of old oil and spray can paint greeted her. A big black stain marred the floor. In the corner, her first tricycle hung from a large hook. She smiled, thinking of the times he had taken her up to the tennis court to teach her how to ride it. Later, he had taught her how to ride a real bike, with training wheels, and then finally, one without.

The door to the apartment stood ajar. Her heart fluttered in her chest.

“Dad?” she called up to him. When he didn’t answer, she moved to the stairs. “You okay?” she called, raising her voice even louder.

No response.

Heart thudding in her chest, she took a step up the stairs.

A loud thud from overhead made her jump.

“Dad!” she screamed, and flew up the stairs.

Natalie might not survive a summer back home with her father.


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Becoming Natalie: Chapter 2

Blue tile, white tile. Her eyes crossed staring at it. Glancing down at her toes, she examined the nail polish on them. If only she had thought to bring a bottle. She looked back up at the clock on the wall. Only two minutes had passed since she last looked at it. The second hand ticked its way around the numbers. As always, her phone was dead when she needed it the most. A few rounds of whatever free game looked the most fun would help kill the time.

Scowling, she went back to checking the tiles. Whoever did the floor had forgotten to alternate them in a few spots. She wished she could cut them out and swap them. Surely St. Mary’s would appreciate her home improvement skills.

Scooting off the chair, she got to her feet. There had to be a better way to wait. She walked to the nurse’s station, flip flops slapping against her feet, the sound echoing off the hospital walls. Aside from the occasional overhead call, the surgical waiting area sat in silence.

“Yes,” the nurse said, rolling her eyes.

Natalie couldn’t blame her. She had probably asked five times in the last half hour if there was any news. She gave the nurse a smile. “Is there somewhere I can buy a magazine here?” Despite her best efforts to read TIME and Arthritis Today, she just couldn’t get interested. She needed Cosmopolitan or People. Even Oprah would do.

“Gift shop. First floor.” The nurse looked away, severing the connection.

Getting to the gift shop would be a way to kill time all on its own. The hospital was separated by several walkways and elevators that led to different units. Walls boasted brochures on heart health and pregnancy, but what Natalie really needed was a map of the place. It wasn’t even a big hospital.

She got on the first elevator she found and rode it to the ground floor. Waiting for the doors to open, she held her breath. Stainless steel slid aside to reveal a coffee shop in the center of the lobby. The scent of French roast wafted toward her, and for a moment she thought about getting a cup. The cup holder in her father’s truck had yielded exactly three dollars in change, though, and if she was going to buy anything, it was a magazine.

Stepping off the elevator, she skirted the coffee kiosk and headed to the gift shop on the far side of the lobby. The usual heart shaped Get Well balloons revolved in the windows, moved by a draft that Natalie couldn’t feel. She passed through the entrance, her eyes drawn to a rack of magazines. As she started toward them, she passed a shelf of teddy bears. Pausing, she lifted one from its spot. Sandy brown, its big black eyes stared up at her. Its tiny mouth smiled at her. Its face was sweet, like a kitten’s. A big red heart was stitched onto its chest. It reminded her of a bear her father brought home for her once, when she was little and he still worked for the moving company. It wore the company’s tee shirt and smelled like vanilla and her father’s aftershave. Every time he went away, she hugged it while she slept, breathing in its scent.

She wondered if the bear was still in her things at her mother’s.

Putting the bear back in its place, she continued to the magazines. It only took her a few minutes to scan through the titles and prices. The only ones she was interested in were too expensive. A few comic books and crossword puzzles were in her budget. She couldn’t remember the last time she had read a comic, if ever, though, and didn’t want to have to ask the nurse in the waiting room for a pen.

Twisting her lips, she stalked out of the gift shop. She wondered if the day could get any worse. She supposed it could, if her father died or if she broke a nail. Heat flooded her cheeks. Comparing a broken nail to losing her father was probably the worst thought she had ever had. Pressing the call button for the elevator, she whispered a silent prayer to whatever god might be.

“Please don’t kill him or anything,” she said under her breath.

The elevator doors opened and she strode on, once again riding alone. She wondered what it would be like to have siblings. She might still be taking care of her father, but at least she wouldn’t be alone. Her mother sure as hell wasn’t going to help her, no thanks to her father.

As the elevator stopped on the surgical floor, she realized she could have at least bought a coffee.

“Your father’s awake,” the nurse said without looking up.

Natalie froze, one foot outside of the elevator. “What?”

Eyelashes fluttering as she rolled her eyes again, the nurse repeated herself. “Do you want to see him? He’s in recovery.” As Natalie opened her mouth to say no thanks, the nurse surged forward. “Come this way.” She stepped from behind the nurse’s station and walked down the hall, leaving Natalie no choice.

Recovery turned out to be a large room that looked like some kind of war infirmary. Several hospital beds lined the walls. The only one with a patient in it was her father’s. Another nurse stood by his side, holding a cup of water and a giant pink swab.

Her father peered at the nurse from under heavy eyelids. He opened his mouth, tongue lolling. His hand lifted and he jabbed a finger in the direction of the cup.

“No, Dylan,” the nurse at his side said. “You can only have a little.” She painted his tongue with the swab. Water trickled into his mouth and his throat worked as he swallowed it. He moaned. “That’s it,” she said.

“More,” he said, his voice surprisingly strong.

The two nurses exchanged exasperated glances. When the nurse at his side saw Natalie, she held out the cup and swab.

“Thirsty,” her father gasped.

“Dylan, we’ve been through this,” the nurse said. She beckoned for Natalie to join her. Placing the cup in Natalie’s hand, the nurse stepped to the side and darted away. Without another word, both nurses headed toward the exit.

“Wait,” Natalie said, but both nurses kept walking.

“Be right back,” one called.

“Don’t let him drink it. Use the swab,” the other directed.

Then they disappeared around the corner, leaving Natalie alone with her father.

“Dammit,” she said.

“Is that you, Nat?” her father asked, his eyes wide open.

“Don’t be so dramatic,” she told him.

“Gimme that cup,” he said, his voice hoarse. His eyes pleaded with her. One of his hands reached out toward her, his arm shaking a bit.

She gently pushed his arm back down. “Okay, Daddy,” she said. “You’ve got to rest.” Dipping the swab in the cup, she swirled it around. Then, giving him a timid smile, she held the swab out to him.

He moved fast for a man who had just had surgery. His hand slapped hers, sending the swab spinning through the air. It landed on the floor with a plop, droplets of water painting the tiles.

Natalie’s jaw dropped open. A red mark bloomed on her hand. Her skin stung. Her fingers twitched. Shaking, she drew her eyes away from the swab on the floor and met her father’s eyes.

“Gimme that cup,” he rasped.

“You hit me!” she screeched. Her voice echoed off the walls. She glanced toward the door, but neither of the nurses appeared.

Her father shrugged. Struggling on his elbows, he raised himself into a sitting position. “Cup,” he gasped, stretching his fingers out toward it.

She backed away, her eyes never leaving his face, moving toward one of the empty beds across the room. She set the cup down on a tray next to the bed. Then, still staring at her father, she said, “Get it yourself.”

“Why did you go and do that?” her father yelled.

“Because you hit me!” she fired back, holding up her hand. The red splotch had receded a bit, but she could still see the mark where his hand had connected with hers. She couldn’t think of a single time her father had ever hit her. Even when she was a mouthy tween, he had left the discipline to her mother, who firmly believed in the timeout chair. She went almost her entire childhood without being hit, until her mother married Edward. Shaking her head, she cleared the memories away, narrowing her eyes at her father. “Are you going to apologize?”

“Apologize for what?” he asked, gasping. He shifted in the bed, leaning up against the pillows. “All I did was ask you for the water.”

“And you slapped me,” she said, still holding up her hand for him to see. Tears stung her eyes.

He shrugged. “It was an accident,” he said, lowering his voice. He offered her a smile. “Now, come on. Bring that cup of water back here.”

Resisting the urge to stick her tongue out at him, Natalie shook her head. “They said you can only have a little at a time.”

“So give me a little,” he said, his voice rising again. He sounded desperate, like a man trapped in the desert instead of a hospital bed. “I’m so thirsty,” he said. “Come on, Lee.”

She froze at the old nickname. A smile tugged at her lips. Memories of fishing and camping rushed her. She thought of the teddy bear again. Her knees buckled. Then her hand throbbed, breaking the spell. She looked at it. A welt began to rise where the red mark had been. “I’m not giving you any water,” she said. “I don’t even want to be—”

“Everything okay in here?” One of the nurses stood in the doorway, a hesitant smile plastered on her face. Maybe, her expression said, I shouldn’t have left them alone.

Dylan scowled. “Everything’s great. I’m only dying of thirst here.”

“You’re not dying,” Natalie said.

“Then why did I have a heart attack?” Red splotches blotted his face. His eyes glared through her, and his chest heaved.

“Okay,” the nurse said, crossing the room. She pressed her hands to Dylan’s chest. “Let’s lay back down.”

“When can I take him home?” Natalie asked, stooping to pick up the soggy swab.

“Well,” the nurse said, pushing a button on the side of the hospital bed, “we’d like to keep him another night to monitor him. Then, if everything’s okay, he can go home.” She smiled as the bed lowered, forcing Dylan to lay flat on his back. The bed hummed, and Natalie’s father’s scowl deepened.

Natalie put her hands on her hips. “They told me I had to be here to take him home when he got out of recovery,” she said. Her nerves rattled and she felt heat rush through her. Without looking down at her arms, she knew her skin was breaking out in a rash. “Do any of you people know what you’re doing?”

The nurse raised an eyebrow at her. “Recovery time can’t be rushed,” she said, smoothing Dylan’s sheets. She patted his hand. “You’ll be out of here as soon as possible.”

Gritting her teeth, Natalie threw up her hands, a wordless scream of aggravation erupting from her throat. Without another word, she stomped out of the room, tears blurring her vision. Fatigue tugged at her, amplifying her frustration. She stormed all the way back to the parking garage, her father’s keys clenched in her hand. The rash on her arms itched the way a heat rash did, and she balled her other hand into a fist to keep from scratching it.

She wished she had stayed in New York. She probably could have just crashed with Benjamin for a few days until she found a new place to live. Or, she surmised as she unlocked her father’s truck, she could have fought the eviction. She wasn’t that far behind on rent. Maybe she could have saved up and paid her landlord weekly.

Tears trickled down her cheeks. She hadn’t even tried to salvage her life, which meant that it hadn’t meant that much to her in the first place. Maybe a part of her had wanted to come home. She wondered if she could blame it on temporary insanity. She sure as hell didn’t want to be around her father anymore.

Sliding into the driver’s seat, she turned on the truck. She flipped open the center console and rummaged through a pile of crumpled receipts for a fast food napkin. A splotch of grease marked one corner, but the rest of it was clean. She dabbed at her face, careful not to smear her makeup. It was a good thing she had gone for the waterproof mascara that morning, she mused as she dried her eyes.

Nodding at her reflection in the rearview mirror, she put the pickup into reverse and backed out of the space.

The drive back to her father’s house only took a few minutes. Grateful, she parked in the driveway next to a shiny Lincoln. Mrs. Spinelli must be home, Natalie mused. On shaking limbs, she climbed the stairs back to her father’s apartment. Her luggage still sat on the deck, untouched. Snorting, she pulled it over to the front door with her. Then, retrieving her father’s keys from her pocket, she pushed the house key into the lock. It only went in halfway.

Stunned, she pushed harder, jiggling it. It didn’t fit. She withdrew it and examined the lock. Nothing blocked it, that she could see, anyway. She squinted at the key. No grease or other debris clung to it. She tried it again. The key still did not fit.

Swearing, she kicked at the door. Somehow, her father had given the nurses the wrong key. Maybe, in his fear and pain, he had strung the wrong keys together. She saw him, stooped over his kitchen table, one hand clasping his chest, the other fumbling through his box of key rings. The man had more sets of keys than she would ever know about. He had keys to the apartment, keys for the truck, spares for cars he no longer owned, and even a copy of the key to the house they had lived in before the divorce.

Sighing, Natalie shoved the ring of keys back into her pocket. Digging in her bag, she pulled out her cell phone. All she had to do was call the cardiology unit and see if they could put her through to her father. Someone had to have a spare key. It would take some time, but Dylan could make a few phone calls, and Natalie would be on his couch by bedtime.

Nodding to herself, she pressed the home button to wake up her phone. A black screen greeted her instead of her lock screen. She tipped her head back, stomping her feet. She had never charged her phone.

Swearing, she tossed it back into her purse. The rash on her arms tingled and itched, and she sucked in a deep breath. She needed to calm down. Her eczema cream sat on a shelf in the medicine cabinet of her New York apartment, and she had no idea when she would next be able to get a refill.

Blowing out a puff of air, she grabbed the handle of her suitcase. A moment later, she started down the stairs, dragging her luggage behind her.

At the bottom, she checked the heels of her feet. Fresh scrapes joined the blisters from her first trip to Dylan’s apartment. The wounds oozed bright red blood, and she grimaced. She hadn’t been home for twenty-four hours, yet she was already completely broken.

Tossing the suitcase back into the pickup, she steeled herself for yet another trip back to the hospital. She wondered how many times she had driven back and forth, then decided not to try to count. It would probably only make her feel worse.

By the time she parked the truck in the parking garage, the sun was dipping below the skyline. Stomach rumbling, Natalie slid out of the driver’s side. With every step, the blisters on her feet stung even more. She tucked her hands into her pockets to avoid scratching or picking at anything, and walked back into the hospital.

The scent of antiseptic greeted her once again. Another stronger scent burned at her nostrils, and she forced herself to breathe through her mouth. A bitter taste danced on her tongue. Scowling, she walked by a maintenance man spraying the same spot with a bottle of Windex, over and over. The blue fluid bounced off the glass and into the air. He glanced at her, a vacant expression in his eyes, as if he had just shot himself up with heroin.

Shivering, Natalie hurried away.

The surgical unit was even more quiet than when she left it. Saying a silent prayer to whatever might be listening, she stepped off the elevator and walked back into the recovery area. All of the beds were empty. She bit down on her lower lip.

“Do you need help?” a nurse asked from behind her.

Relief washed over Natalie. “I’m looking for my father,” she said, giving the nurse his name.

“Right this way,” the nurse said, leading her back into the hall. She pointed to a room down at the end.

Natalie thanked her and made her way to the room, hoping her father was awake. If they had moved him into a room, they had probably already given him whatever medications he needed for the night.

When she peeked inside, though, Dylan sat staring at the television. He had the room to himself for the moment. Apparently it was a slow night for heart surgeries.

“Kiddo,” he said, nodding in her direction.

Rolling her eyes at the lame nickname, she stepped into the room. She pulled the ring of keys from her pocket and jingled them at him. “Why did you give the nurses the wrong key?”

He cocked his head at her, eyelids drooping. So they had given him medication. Blinking a few times, he shook his head. “I didn’t give you the wrong key,” he insisted.

“Um, yeah, you did,” she said, tossing them at him. They landed at his feet, bouncing on the mattress.

Leaning forward, he picked them up. He moved like an elderly man, his body stiff and slow. Holding the keys in his hand, he shook his head again. “Nope. These are the right ones,” he said.

Natalie threw her hands up in the air. “Dammit, Daddy. Why do you have to make everything so hard?”

“I’m not making anything hard,” he said, forcing each word out. He slumped back against his pillows. His eyes slipped closed.

“Oh no,” she said, stalking toward him. “You are not falling asleep yet.” She shook his shoulder. “Where is the house key? Who has a spare?” Tears threatened to spill down her cheeks again. She blinked them away.

“You don’t need the house key,” he said, a soft smile spreading across his lips. His eyes drifted closed.

“Why not?” she demanded, shaking him again.

Dylan opened his eyes a crack. “Because,” he said, “we’re not going home. We’re going somewhere else.”

Natalie might not survive a summer back home with her father.


Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5


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Becoming Natalie: Chapter 1

Natalie stared at the pile of bills on her gleaming coffee table. One was an eviction notice—she just knew it. Another was for her American Express, followed by her overdue Victoria’s Secret card. Sighing, she looked down at her checkbook. She made $60,000 a year. There was no reason for her to be so broke. Tapping the book with lacquered nails, she considered her options.

She could claim bankruptcy. Her mother had done so, years and years before. She had only been six or seven, but she still remembered moving out of the apartment and into the cramped little studio, where her four-post bed was replaced by a tiny twin. Her dresser hadn’t even fit in the same room.

No, she couldn’t claim bankruptcy. Besides, she surmised, there were probably rules about making sixty grand a year and crying poor.

She stood and went to her closet. Hundreds of designer items hung in neat, color coded rows, the tags still hanging from their sleeves and belt loops. She could try selling some of it on eBay. Pulling a sweater dress from the ranks, she held it up against her, bangles on her wrist clattering against each other. She bought it to wear to work, and just hadn’t gotten around to it. Maybe she would wear it later in the week. She put it aside.

Running her fingers through the clothes, she shook her head. She couldn’t part with any of it. Even if she never wore those Diesel jeans or the red Michael Kors bag, they were more than just apparel.

She sat on her bed, rummaging through her mind for a third option. There was none. She was screwed.

The phone in the living room rang. She swore. She was tired of bill collectors calling. She wasn’t even sure why she had the line. She only ever used her cell phone, anyway. It rang again. She should probably just let it go to voicemail. No one ever called her landline.

The phone rang again, and she stood, scowling. If it were a computerized bill collector, the bot was being awfully persistent. Maybe it was an actual human. She stalked to the living room. Snatching the handset from its cradle, she pressed the talk button.

“Yeah?” she answered.

“Ms. Booth?” a woman asked.

“Who’s this?” Natalie demanded.

The woman paused. “Is this Natalie Booth?” she asked. She sounded like a twelve-year-old girl, her voice lilting at the end of each word.

Natalie bit down on her lower lip. Very rarely did bill collectors call her by name. She glanced at the caller ID, and her eyes widened. Her heart slammed in her chest. “Yes,” she managed. She thought of the last time she had seen her mother. She hadn’t looked sick, but the stress was slowly wearing on her. Natalie swallowed hard. She sucked in a breath, sitting down on her love seat.

“Ms. Booth, I’m calling on behalf of your father. My name is Rosie. I’m a nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital.”

Natalie clenched the arm of the couch with her free hand. Her mouth went dry.

“I’m so sorry to tell you this,” Rosie continued.

Natalie gasped. No. Not her mother. Not her sweet, beautiful, loving mother. Tears dribbled down her cheeks.

“Ms. Booth?” the nurse asked. “Are you there?”

“Yes,” Natalie managed.

“Your father suffered a massive heart attack early this morning. We’ve stabilized him, but—”

Natalie loosened her grip on the arm of the couch. “My father?” she repeated.

“Yes,” the nurse said. “He—”

“Why are you calling me?” she asked, her breath returning to normal. She leaned back against the throw pillows, closing her eyes. Her mother was okay. Her mother was alive.

The nurse cleared her throat. “You’re listed as his emergency contact,” she said slowly. Papers shifted in the background. “It says here you are his only child, currently living in Manhattan. Is that correct?”

“Yes,” Natalie said slowly, “but I’m not his emergency contact. You’ve made a mistake. Call his sister, or someone else.”

The nurse sighed. “I’m sorry, Ms. Booth. I know these situations can be . . . awkward. But you are his only listed contact, and your father’s condition requires a lot of care. Some decisions need to be made—”

“No,” Natalie said. “Not me. I can’t do this. You’re going to have to call someone else!” She jumped to her feet, pacing the room.

“There is no one else,” Rosie said. “You’re going to have to come down here, sign some paperwork. We need to do a few procedures and need your permission.”

“Have him sign it!” she said, her voice rising.

“Natalie,” the nurse said, “your father is currently unable to make decisions for himself.”

Her heart lurched. “What does that mean?” she asked, her voice sounding like a child’s.

The nurse took a deep breath. “It means,” she said, “that without your help, he could die.”

Natalie stared down at her toes, red nail polish glinting in the light. Wiggling them into the plush carpet, she watched as they disappeared into the fluffy white fibers. The faux fur rug was her favorite thing. It was like walking on the back of a giant fluffy cat. Any time life got hard, all she had to do was bury her toes in the carpet, and everything was fine.

“Ms. Booth?” the nurse asked. Her voice sounded as though it funneled from a million miles away. Tinny static crackled. Natalie wondered how landlines could still sound so horrible when humanity had things like high definition television and wireless headphones. “Natalie, are you there?” the nurse asked again, her voice snapping into clear transmission.

“Bad connection,” Natalie said.

“As I said, you need to come down here as soon as possible. We need to put stents in. It’s not a complicated procedure, but we do need someone to sign for permission. It would be a different story if the patient—your father—were awake.” A fresh wave of static drowned out everything else the nurse said.

Natalie held the phone away from her ear. Of course it was up to her. If her parents were still together, it would be up to her mother. She probably wouldn’t even be living so far from home. Snorting, she looked around her apartment. Her eyes fell back on the eviction notice. Gambling had never been her favorite thing, but if that letter was what she thought it was, she would go home. At least, for a little while.

Cradling the phone between her cheek and shoulder, she leaned forward and scooped the letter from the coffee table. In one swift motion, she tore it open. The words at the top, typed in all capital letters, confirmed her suspicions.

“Okay,” she told the nurse. At the very least, she could go to the hospital, sign whatever she needed to, and go to her mother’s. She had been begging for a visit, anyway. By the time Natalie got to Connecticut, she would have a backup plan, and no one would know what happened.

She cringed at the thought of returning to Waterbury. The only thing left in that city, she mused as she went back into her bedroom, was crumbling buildings and crackheads. She couldn’t understand why either of her parents remained there, especially when they hated each other. Opening her closet door again, she peered inside.

The biggest suitcase she had wouldn’t fit even a fraction of her wardrobe. The irony did not escape her. She should have listed everything on eBay when she had the chance. She couldn’t even afford a storage unit. Sticking her tongue out, she began sifting through, looking for the most practical pieces and the ones she absolutely couldn’t part with. Anger seared through her. Her father was always inconveniencing her life.

When she finished packing, she dragged the suitcase into the living room. The wheels caught in the fluffy rug, and she swore. Yanking at the rug, tears streaming down her face, she wondered how different things would be if her parents hadn’t divorced. She would probably still live at home, and wouldn’t have to leave her rug behind. She ran her fingers through the fibers, tears dripping onto her hand.

Her life was a hot mess, she concluded.

Standing, she looked around the living room. A pair of scissors sat on the coffee table, on top of a stack of magazines. A few weekends before, she had pretended she was a collage artist. She hadn’t even gotten past cutting out a few images. Benjamin swore there was an artist inside of her. All she had to do was find it.

At the thought of Benjamin, she froze.

Tapping her chin with a manicured finger, she tried to think of a way out of ending things between them on a bad note. She didn’t want him to think she was flaking out on him. Up and moving out of state did look pretty bad, she surmised, but she had a good reason—mostly. She just had to convince him that she was worried about her father.

She sat down on the couch and pulled his phone number up in her contacts. She wondered what he was doing on a Sunday morning. More than likely, he was golfing somewhere. Rolling her eyes, she tapped her phone and let the call connect.

“Benjamin Ryan,” he answered, even though he knew it was her.

“Hey,” she said, examining a chip on one of her fingernails.

“Natalie,” he crooned. “It’s so early.”

Okay, then, he probably wasn’t golfing. Glancing at the clock, she rolled her eyes again. It was almost eleven. “You’re spoiled,” she said, thinking of his huge waterbed. Automatically, she remembered the way his skin felt under her fingertips as she ran her hands across his bronzed chest. Soft and hairless, toned and tight, she would have never guessed that he was closer to forty years old. She wished she had time to say goodbye—to really say goodbye. He had a hot tub in every bathroom, and the thread count on his sheets mirrored the play cash in his wallet. The last time she spent the night, she had lain on top of him, chest to chest, feeling his heart race against hers. He wasn’t the worst lover, but he wasn’t the best boyfriend, either.

“Hello?” he breathed. “Earth to Nat.”

“Bad news, Ben,” she said, crossing her legs. She imagined him sitting up in bed, one eyebrow arched, the sheets cascading away from him as he moved.


The question only punctuated the image in her mind. She struggled to hold the giggle that threatened to escape. Everything about Benjamin Ryan was textbook playboy. Even the way he moved and spoke was a cliche. She wondered if she, too, was a cliche, by association. Sucking in a deep breath, she let him have it: “I’m moving back to Connecticut.”

Silence met her on the other end.

“Ben?” She pulled her phone away from her ear, checking to see if the call was still connected. It was. “You all right?”

“When?” he asked.

She squirmed on the couch. “This afternoon. Now.”

“Why?” The question settled heavily on her ears. He didn’t actually want to know why she was leaving. He wanted to know why she wasn’t putting in her two weeks’ notice.

Amping up the actress she always wanted to be, she said, “My dad, he’s sick. He had a heart attack or something. I’ve gotta go take care of him.” Then, she threw in a sniffle, for good measure.

“Nat, Ryan & Sundry needs you,” Benjamin said. “We’ve got that huge deal with the Giants coming up. I can’t trust anyone else to take care of their print design.”

She thought of the huge Mac desktop in her office. She would miss designing on that thing. “I’m sorry, Ben,” she said. “You think I’m thrilled to just up and leave, too?”

“Why don’t you just take a vacation? I can talk to HR. You’ll be fine.” She could practically hear him smile.

He didn’t get it. “Ben,” she said, letting his name linger in her apartment. She couldn’t tell him she was getting evicted. She couldn’t let him know about the credit cards.

“Or what if you work remotely?” She could see him, throwing the sheets back and slipping out of bed, his naked penis dangling in the late morning light.

Stifling a laugh, she shook her head. “I’m not going to have time, Ben,” she said. “The nurse said it’s really bad. I’m gonna have to take care of him.”

“Dammit, Nat, you’re leaving me at such a bad time.”

She wanted to tell him that he would find someone else, that there were plenty of girls who had majored in graphic design. They just weren’t all stupid enough to sleep with their bosses. Instead, she said, “I don’t have a choice.”

At first, he said nothing. Then, he laughed. “No, I guess you don’t.”

Without another word, he ended the call.

* * *

The train hit a bump, smashing her knee against the seat in front of her. She swore and rubbed at the spot. The scent of sweat and greasy food enveloped her. Wrinkling her nose, she placed a hand on her luggage, steadying it. Another bump rocked the train. Unlike the few flights she had been on, not a single word of reassurance was uttered over the loudspeaker. Natalie guesses that turbulence on a train was normal.

Rolling to a stop, the train’s brakes let out a whoosh. The conductor muttered the stop name, and Natalie had to strain to hear what he said. Static crackled around his words. She frowned. “Any idea what he just said?” she asked the woman sitting across from her.

But the doors whooshed closed and a fresh slew of passengers stumbled around, looking for seats. Natalie’s heart fluttered in her chest. Not only could she hardly make out the stops when they were announced, but there were no more seats left, other than the one her suitcase barricaded.

“Excuse me,” a delicate voice sniffled. She sounded like she had the flu, or a sinus infection.

Natalie groaned, clutching the handle to her suitcase protectively.

“Anyone sitting there?” the girl asked.

Shifting in her seat, Natalie looked from her luggage to the space between her knees and the next seat. She got the feeling that her train wasn’t meant for anything other than daily commute. Licking her lips, she looked back up at the girl.

“Can you speak English?” the girl asked slowly. She shifted in her Converses. A backpack hung from her shoulders. A camera dangled from her wrist. She peered at Natalie with blue eyes, the interior lights reflecting off her glasses. Another bump sent her jolting into the air, and she clenched the seat, her knuckles white. “Any way you can move so I can sit?” she grumbled.

“Sure,” Natalie said, sighing. Bringing her knees to her chest, she slid the suitcase in front of her.

“Thanks,” the girl said. She sat, shoulders heaving. “You never get used to that.” She gave Natalie a watery grin.

Natalie smiled back, then let her gaze wander out the window. There was no point in talking to anyone. She would be off the train in an hour or so. Making friends was not on her priority list.

“So where are ya going?” the girl asked from beside her. She blew her nose into a tissue.

Natalie winced.

“Don’t worry,” the girl said. “It’s just allergies.” She jerked a head toward the window. “Worst thing about summer.” Reaching for her backpack, she squeezed a glob of hand sanitizer from a bottle on a keychain. She rubbed her hands together, then held one out. “Charlotte,” she said.

From the seat in front of her, two guys about her age argued over whose drawing was better.

“Your lines are so much cleaner,” one said.

“No way, dude. Yours is so much more detailed.”

Natalie fought the urge to peek over the seat and see what they were doing. All she could see were the tops of their heads. One wore a Pokemon snapback and the other wore a Cardinals fitted. She didn’t think they were related, or even gay. She wondered whether they were the kinds of artists who went to the city for the weekend, selling as much as they could out of their backpacks.

“Um, hello?” Charlotte waved a hand in front of her face. “You all right, there?”

Swallowing, Natalie nodded. “Sorry. I’m just tired.” Tired didn’t even begin to cover it, but she wasn’t about to tell a stranger about her problems.

Charlotte nodded. “I hear ya.” She leaned across Natalie, pulled her camera off her wrist, and snapped a picture as they rolled by a station. “This weekend was a blur!”

Natalie raised an eyebrow. “Um, kinda short on space, here.”

The other girl didn’t seem to hear her. “I’m just glad this thing’s on time. They were delayed all weekend because of that thunderstorm.” She snorted. “Like the MTA’s never seen rain before.”

“Sure,” Natalie said, looking back out the window.

The speaker above them crackled to life. The conductor uttered the next stop, sounding like a robot whispering.

“Good luck to them,” Charlotte said.

Natalie turned to look at her. “How can you understand what he’s saying?”

The train lurched to a stop and another group of passengers clambered on. They frowned at the full seats and shuffled toward the next car. The doors hardly closed before the train got moving again.

“This is so dangerous,” Natalie said, looking down at her hands. Her knuckles were white.

“Which stop are you?” Charlotte asked. “Wait, let me guess. New Haven?” She shook her head. “Nah, you don’t look like a student or crackhead.” She pulled lip balm from a pocket of her backpack and spread some onto her lips. The scent of cherries wafted toward Natalie. “Waterbury?”

Natalie nodded. “Pretty sure I’m going to miss it, though.”

“Well, you haven’t missed it yet.” Charlotte grinned. “Lucky for you, that’s my stop, too.”

Breathing a sigh of relief, Natalie let her head rest against the seat.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Charlotte said.

Natalie quirked an eyebrow at her.

“People always use the backs of the seats to help them move, and there’s a bathroom on the train.” When Natalie just looked at her, Charlotte said, “There’s never any soap. They don’t wash their hands.”

Whipping her head away from the seat, Natalie returned to watching the world slide by.

The stop came sooner than she thought it would. The train hit a bump, the speakers overhead crackled, and Charlotte stood.

“You coming?” the other girl asked.

Natalie almost wanted to say no, that she had gotten on by mistake. There was still time. She could still go back to New York, up the elevator, and into her apartment. But the nurse said her father could die, and she didn’t hate him enough to let that happen. She shoved her luggage away from her, stood, and exited the train.

A breeze ruffled her maxi skirt. Sunlight lanced down at her, and she lowered her sunglasses. She hugged the handle of her suitcase to her chest, mind whirling. She couldn’t remember ever having gone to St. Mary’s, at least not recently. She was pretty sure it was on the bus line, but had no idea where the closest bus stop was.

“You good?” Charlotte asked from beside her.

Biting her lower lip, Natalie nodded. “Totally.”

“Are you sure? I can give you a ride somewhere.” Charlotte fished out keys from another pocket in her backpack. “I’m licensed.” She winked.

Clearing her throat, Natalie reconsidered. A ride was a ride. “Do you know where St. Mary’s is?” she asked.

“The hospital?” Charlotte cocked her head, looking a little like a sad puppy. Natalie nodded, and Charlotte waved for her to follow. They descended the stairs leading from the platform, weaving past people attached to luggage and cell phones. Apparently Natalie wasn’t the only person coming home. She followed Charlotte out into the parking lot, where the other girl led her to a beat up green Sunfire. “Despite the way this thing looks,” Charlotte said, unlocking the trunk, “I’ve never been in an accident.”

Nodding, Natalie lifted her suitcase inside. She slid into the passenger seat and buckled her seat belt.

Charlotte started the car. She pulled her blonde hair into a messy bun and lifted sunglasses from the rearview mirror. “Who are you visiting?” she asked as they left the parking lot.

Natalie decided to go for honesty. “My father,” she said, looking out the window as they joined downtown traffic. The area looked vaguely familiar. “He had a heart attack.”

“Damn,” Charlotte said as they stopped at a red light. “That sucks.”

Natalie shrugged. “For me, mostly.” She felt the other girl looking at her, and sighed. “He’s not the easiest person to get along with.” She studied her hands in her lap. Once upon a time, she had been the epitome of the term daddy’s little girl. They had regular Sunday dates. She wondered if they would be on a father-daughter date instead of meeting up at the hospital, if things were different.

The rest of the ride passed in silence. Natalie wondered whether she had said something wrong, or if maybe Charlotte’s own father had passed away. It was too late to fix it, though. They pulled in front of the hospital. Charlotte kept her foot on the brake but didn’t put the car in park. She popped open the trunk. “Here you are,” she said.

“Thanks,” Natalie said. She slid out of the passenger seat and walked around to retrieve her luggage. The hospital loomed above her, casting its shadow down. With a tug, she freed her suitcase from the trunk. “Thanks again,” she called, slamming it shut. Charlotte said nothing. The little Sunfire whirred away, leaving Natalie alone.

Sighing, she turned toward the hospital.

Cool air conditioning greeted her as she entered. She hadn’t realized how long she had gone without it, on the train and in Charlotte’s car. Brushing back a strand of sweaty hair, she considered finding a bathroom and freshening up. She didn’t want the hospital staff to think she was a scumbag and dirty. She passed door after door, though, and did not see a bathroom.

Rolling her luggage up to the information desk, she made eye contact with the woman behind it. “Hi,” she said, lowering her sunglasses. “I’m looking for my father. He had a heart attack.”

“Name?” the woman asked.

She gave it.

The woman frowned. “Your father’s name, sweetheart.”

Sucking in her cheeks, Natalie squeezed the handle of her suitcase even tighter. “Right,” she said. “It’s Dylan Booth.”

The woman tapped on her keyboard, made a few mn-hmn sounds, and looked up from her screen. “He’s in cardiology,” she said, giving Natalie directions.

Her heart thudded in her chest, and the floor swam up at her. The word cardiology sounded so much more formal. Colors plunged into view, sharp and clear. Every speck on the floor looked as if she were looking at it through a microscope.

She reeled backward, catching herself at the last second. The woman behind the desk seemed not to notice, though. Casting one more glance at the desk, Natalie collected herself and walked away.

Switching elevators and rolling through the halls, she felt stupid for bringing a whole suitcase with her. She should have dropped it off at her father’s first. Looking back, she should have done a lot of things, she surmised. The cardiology ICU sat bathed in silence. Only one nurse sat at the nurse’s station, and her name tag read Brea.

“Excuse me,” Natalie said, rolling her suitcase until it rested against the desk. “Is there a Rosie here?”

Brea brushed waist length brown curls over her shoulder. Her blue eyes measured Natalie. Then, slowly, she shook her head. “She’s gone for the day. Is there something I can help you with?”

“Dammit,” Natalie said, and the nurse flinched. She kicked at her luggage. She could have spent one more night in her apartment. Scowling, she glanced across the hall at the room her father was in. With no more money for another train ticket, all she could do was move forward. She gave the nurse her best smile. “Rosie said I had to come sign some forms for my dad.”

Brea nodded, her neck lengthening like a giraffe’s as her head bobbed up. She shifted some papers around, then plucked a folder from underneath a Victoria’s Secret catalog. Slapping it on the desk in front of Natalie, she used a French-manicured nail to show Natalie where to sign.

“How is he?” Natalie asked, scribbling her signature.

“Sleeping,” the nurse said, picking up the catalog. “They usually do. Takes a lot out of you.” She turned the page.

Natalie nodded and went to the next form. “DNR?” she asked. “What’s that?”

“Do not resuscitate. It’s if your father codes and we have to bring him back.”

“Codes?” Natalie frowned. “You mean, like, dies?” She stared at the form. She almost wished her father were awake. Then she could at least ask him. If he was awake, though, they wouldn’t have made her come sign the forms. She sighed. She couldn’t remember a single time she had ever talked to her father about his last wishes. Even when her parents were together, their conversations never exactly got heavy. Her parents never went to church, so she had no idea what either of their religious preferences were. “What should I put?” she asked Brea.

The nurse shrugged. “Is your father super religious? Like, is he Catholic?” She indicated the walls.

“Are most patients here Catholic?” Natalie asked. She supposed religious people would choose St. Mary’s over Waterbury Hospital. Reaching into her bag, she pulled out a tube of lip gloss. Putting on lip gloss always helped her think. She smeared pink over her lips. Her father lived on the second floor of a two-family home. An elderly woman lived on the first floor. Old ladies were usually Catholic, especially the Italian ones. So, Natalie surmised as she put her lip gloss away, Mrs. Spinelli was probably the one to call the ambulance. Checking the box, she moved on to the next form.

When she finished, she closed the folder and slid it back to Brea. “So, thanks, I guess,” she said, retrieving the handle of her suitcase.

“Wait,” the nurse said. She plunked a set of keys down on the desk. “These are for you.”

Natalie stared at them. Closing her eyes, she smiled. Maybe she should start believing in a god.

“I was also told to let you know that the pickup is in the valet.”

Grabbing the keys, Natalie turned to leave. Then, as Brea’s words sank in, she turned around. “Who told you?”

Brea smiled sadly at her. “Your father. He drove himself in.”

Her mouth fell open. Before she could say anything else, Brea returned to her catalog.

Walking on her tiptoes, Natalie went to the doorway of her father’s room. Machines beeped around him. An oxygen tank whirred. He lay on his back, his head tilted, his mouth wide open. In the half light, he looked at least ten years older. Tears stung her eyes. Swallowing hard, she walked away, the image of her father sleeping burned into her mind like the flash after a photo.

* * *

Shutting the truck off, Natalie leaned her head back against the seat. The engine ticked in time with the beat of her heart. Warm sunlight slanted in through the windows, and birds chirped from the trees above, but she felt cold. With any luck, she could be at her mother’s in a few hours. First, though, she needed to get herself together. A nap on her father’s couch and a shower would do the trick.

Clutching the keys in one hand and dragging her suitcase behind her with the other, she staggered up the wooden staircase. Every few steps, the suitcase skidded into her heels. By the time she reached the top, blood trickled from fresh blisters. She fumbled through the keyring for the house key. Once upon a time, he had given her a copy. It sat somewhere in her apartment in New York. The landlord would throw it away, whenever he figured out that she had left.

Sighing, she began to insert the key into the lock. Her phone vibrated in her bag, making her jump. Swearing, she dug it out and pressed it to her ear. Static buzzed, then a familiar voice began talking.

“I’m so sorry,” Brea, the nurse from the hospital, said.

Natalie’s heart slammed into her throat. She tried to say something, but her airway felt blocked. She squeezed the keys, metal biting into the palm of her hand.

“I forgot to tell you,” the nurse continued. “Your father went into surgery shortly after you signed the forms.”

Air whooshed into her chest. Gasping, Natalie let go of the keys and sank to her knees. The wood from the deck scraped against her skin.

“Has anyone run you through his post-surgery instructions?” Brea asked.

“What’s there to talk about?” Natalie said, her voice rising. “I signed the forms. That’s all I had to do. Rosie said so.” She felt like an indignant toddler, insisting the crayons wrote on the wall, not her. Blood trickled onto the greying wood. Using her thumb, she swiped at one of the blisters. A sliver of skin hung from the wound.

“The procedure is pretty simple,” the nurse said. “After his initial recovery period, he will be released into your care. You can take him home.” Natalie could practically hear her smiling. “Your father is going to be just fine.”

Gritting her teeth, Natalie tore off the slice of skin. Sharp pain lanced through her heel, then the throbbing stopped. She pressed her thumb to the wound.

The last thing she wanted to do was take her father home. So much for taking a nap.

Natalie might not survive a summer back home with her father.


Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5


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Just One More Christmas: Chapter 1

Rowan stared out the almost too-shiny front window of Elli’s. It’d long been replaced since the wild thunderstorm a few months earlier, but the glass was nearly reflective. She suspected it had more to do with Matt’s obsessive cleaning of the window than the actual glass itself.

She sighed. Snowflakes drifted down from the sky, painting the quiet Main Street in soft white. The scene was picturesque—or it should’ve been. Watertown’s Christmas cheer contest was in just three days, and she was nervous.

Actually, “nervous” didn’t even begin to cover it. She’d entered Elli’s—the bakery she’d inherited from her aunt Katherine—with confidence, but that was before The Curse started.

Yes, she was definitely calling it The Curse now.

It was more than a funk. She’d been in baking ruts before—where no matter what she did, she botched every single recipe—but that was years ago when she was still a student. She was a pastry chef—one with certification and her own business. She never messed up the recipes she’d made a thousand times before. It was getting to the point where Matt—her handsome business partner and boyfriend—was taking over her morning work. She was even ruining plain old bread. No matter how carefully she measured, it ended up too salty or completely flat.

She was cursed, plain and simple.

She sighed again and looked away from the pretty town. Normally, snow would cheer her up. It was almost Christmas, after all. But if she couldn’t pull it together, Elli’s would not only lose the competition, but they’d become the laughingstock of the town.

Her shoulders slumped. “C’mon, Aunt Katherine,” she whispered. “Be my angel and guide me or something.”

The bells over the door jingled and Rowan straightened in her seat. A vaguely familiar young woman strode in, a red Starbucks cup in her gloved hand. She was decked out in full winter attire: the world’s cutest knit cap, a red sweater wrapped several times around her neck, and cozy UGG boots. Rowan glanced down at her flour- and chocolate-streaked chef’s jacket. Matt should be up front greeting customers—not her.

“Hello,” she said, managing not to sound like a total Scrooge. “What can I get for you?”

“Hi there,” the other woman chirped. “I’m from over at Tilly’s.” She pointed in the direction of the little café. “I’m just scoping out the competition.” She peered into the display case, not even trying to look ashamed. “All you have are sandwiches? Where are those famous cookies and cheesecakes I keep hearing about?”

Rowan suppressed a groan. Tilly’s Café, to both her and Matt’s chagrin, had opened about a month earlier. The town only allowed three total bakeries, but Elli’s hadn’t had a competitor in years. Everyone loved Elli’s. There was no need for another place like it. But Tilly’s had roared in, taking the space where the old chocolate café had once been. The owners fixed up the inside, repaired the stage, and reinstated the open mic nights and other events the town had loved when Rowan was a kid. Elli’s couldn’t possibly compete with that vibe, considering they didn’t have enough space to add a stage.

There had been no stopping it, though. Technically Tilly’s was well within their right, and the town approved it unanimously. Competition, everyone said, was healthy.

Rowan disagreed.

Composing herself, she lifted her chin. “Gotta keep our secret weapons hidden until the big day.”

“Ah.” The woman lifted a finger. “Good plan.” She held out a hand. “We haven’t met yet. My name is Tilly. Are you surprised?” She simpered, perfect dimples appearing in each cheek.

Rowan shook hands with her and resisted the urge to gag. Tilly was sugary sweet, in that completely fake way that some women adopted. “So you’re the baker?”

Tilly scoffed. “Oh no, sweetie, I’m the director. I have people baking for me.” She glanced Rowan up and down. “I’m assuming you’re the baker here. Where’s your director?”

“You’re looking at her,” Rowan said, not bothering to hide her disdain.

“Oh my. That’s telling.” Tilly shook her head and clucked her tongue in disapproval. Straightening, she sniffed the air, her delicate nose wrinkling. “Is something burning?”

Eyes widening, Rowan darted out of the front room and careened into the kitchen. “No, no, no,” she protested, yanking open the oven door. But it was too late. The pan she withdrew and placed on the counter held a dozen nearly black red velvet cupcakes. She slumped against the stainless steel counter.

“Well,” Tilly said from the kitchen entrance, “it’s been a pleasure. I’m really glad I came by.” With one last condescending smile, she turned and left.

Rowan glowered at her back. “I’m really glad you’re a total bitch,” she muttered. She shook her head at herself. That was hardly even a comeback.

“Are you talking to yourself again?” Matt strolled into the kitchen from the back room. He carried a clipboard in one hand and pushed back brown curls from his eyes with his other.

You were supposed to be watching the cupcakes,” she accused.

“I was?” Green eyes shifted from side to side. “I thought I was taking inventory.” He pointed to the clipboard.

Jabbing a finger at the ruined goodies, Rowan scowled. “Tilly’s owner came by. She was a complete tool.” She crossed her arms.

“Sorry, babe.” Matt put the clipboard down. It clinked against the stainless steel counter. He drew her in for a hug, and she couldn’t help but relax against him. With his green eyes, cherub-like curls, and muscular arms, he was living, breathing Ativan. “Still on that streak, huh?”

She huffed. “It’s a curse.”

“Nah.” Stepping back a bit, he lifted her chin with a warm finger. “It’ll pass. You’re Rowan, Elli’s amazing baker.”

Snorting, she shook her head. “More like Elli’s walking disaster!”

“It’ll be okay.”

“Oh yeah? When? The day after the competition?” She stepped completely away and put her hands on her hips.

“It’s no big deal. It’s just a contest.”

Her eyes widened. “Just a contest? Matt, you must have amnesia. Elli’s has won every single Christmas cheer contest for the past ten years.”

“To be fair,” he said, “that’s only because we’ve been the only bakery in town.”

Rowan’s jaw dropped open. “Are you saying we didn’t deserve those awards?”

He held up his hands. “I’m just saying that there was no one else in our category. It’s been, well . . . a piece of cake.”

“I hate you right now.”

He chuckled and slapped his thigh. “Sorry, I couldn’t help it.”

Rolling her eyes, she turned back to the burnt cupcakes. “This event always meant a lot to Aunt Katherine. Christmas was her favorite holiday.” Tears stung her eyes. Exactly six months had passed since Katherine had suddenly died—well, suddenly to Rowan. She’d had no idea that Katherine was even sick. She’d been out in New Jersey, licking her wounds and hoping to sever her family ties all the way down to her DNA. She’d been so, so wrong.

Matt cupped her shoulders. “I know,” he said quietly. Those green eyes bore into hers, pulling her back from the abyss. He smiled. “What if we go through Katherine’s recipe book? Maybe you just need to try something new.”

“And botch one of her sacred recipes?” She shook her head. “I don’t think I could handle it.”

“Well, it’s better than ruining your own recipes and beating yourself up.” His lips flattened. “Actually, it’d be great if you could just stop the self-flagellation altogether. Ro, you’re a freakin’ magician in the kitchen. Everyone has a bad day now and then.”

“A two-week bad day?” she asked. Still, she bent down and retrieved the cherished recipe book from its spot, nestled in a wicker cube that also housed Katherine’s lucky apron. She eyed the apron thoughtfully. “Maybe I should put that on.” Her forehead wrinkled. “Or . . . not. It’s probably better if I don’t taint it.”

She plunked the recipe book onto the counter. It was a two-inch binder wrapped in a floral pattern fabric. Each of Katherine’s recipes was tucked into a clear sheet protector, written in her looping hand that Rowan had always loved. She flipped it open and skimmed through the contents. “What do you think?”

He drummed his fingers on the counter. “Something we don’t make very often . . . and something easy.”

“Hey.” She swatted at him.

“No offense.”

Shaking her head, she read through the list again. “What about Aunt Katherine’s candy cane cookies?” She tapped the photo with a fingernail that she’d nibbled down to the nub.

“Those are good,” Matt agreed. “She made them the first year I worked here.”

“You mean the year you stole my job?”

“Yeah. That year.” He grinned. “Anyway, she wouldn’t let me touch them. I could only watch. She was so particular about how everything was done.”

“In the best way possible.” Rowan smiled. “She always wanted to make sure you were paying attention, that you really learned how to bake with your heart.”

He nodded, then pressed a kiss to her cheek. “Bake with your heart, babe.” He picked up the clipboard again.

“You’re not going to help?”

“I believe I just did.”

“You know what I mean.” She began laying out the ingredients.

Grimacing, he continued toward the store room. “And hang around you? That’s bad juju.” He strolled away, whistling “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

“Brat,” she called after him. Still, she smiled. Despite their rocky beginning, Matt was the best thing that had ever happened to her.

Rolling up her sleeves, she got to work.

She flipped on her favorite Christmas music playlist—a mix of piano-only songs on Spotify. With the cheerful tunes drifting through the kitchen, she started mixing the dough. Mixing was always her favorite part. Though she used a mixer, there was just something so soothing about watching all of the ingredients come together. She combined butter, sugar, egg yolks, and peppermint extract, watching as the paddle stirred the wet components together. Her shoulders loosened and a sappy smile played on her lips.

This was it. She was going to break the curse, if it was the last thing she did.

Switching the mixer to low, she stirred in the dry ingredients. The dough churned, becoming more and more solid with each turn. It was hard to believe that, at one point, she’d been willing to give all of this up.

Once the dough was mixed enough, she shut off the machine and separated it into two equal halves. She swaddled one in plastic wrap and set it aside. Maybe covering it completely was going overboard, but with her luck she’d splash red food coloring everywhere and she’d end up with completely red cookies instead of candy cane-shaped cookies, alternating in red and white.

She hummed to herself as she dyed the other half of the dough red. Already she could see the perfect little candy canes, positioned in the display case so that every other one of them were Js, their sugar sprinkles glistening.

Using her hands, she shaped each ball of dough into a flat square, smoothing the edges into perfection with a bench scrape.

The front door jingled again, and she cringed. “Matt,” she called.

“It’s just me.” Her best friend, Charlotte, practically floated into the kitchen. Her face glowed, and Rowan suspected it had little to do with the cold weather.

“Tell me everything,” Rowan said as she wrapped the squares, “in just one more minute.” She tucked the dough into the walk-in refrigerator, taking a moment to admire her work. Content, she hurried back into the kitchen. “Go!” she told Charlotte.

“Okay, so you remember Amarie?” Charlotte said, unable to hide the goofy grin that clung to her lips like confectioner’s sugar.

“How could I forget?” Rowan tossed everything into the pot sink for later scrubbing.

“Well,” Charlotte drew out the word, “she added me on Facebook a while back.”

“Uh-huh. I remember,” Rowan prodded.

“She hasn’t posted much lately, because of finals and all that, but . . . she’s coming home for winter break!” Charlotte clapped her hands together and bounced on the balls of her feet, her hair flying off her shoulders. Usually dyed one bright color or another, Charlotte had made no exceptions for the holiday season and had turned her naturally blonde locks into cheery Christmas red.

“That’s awesome, Char,” Rowan said with a smile. “So are you gonna make a move?”

Charlotte’s smile faded. She took a deep breath. “She’s still with Jason,” she admitted.

Rowan nodded sympathetically. “We’ll just have to plan a get-together and then you can sweep her off her feet!”

Her best friend shrugged. “I don’t know . . . I mean, I know she’s queer. My gaydar has never failed me. But . . .”

“Jason puts a wrench in the plans.”

“Exactly. I’m not into adultery.”

“They’re not exactly married,” Rowan said, lifting a finger.

“Right, but they’ve been together a while now. Over a year? Maybe even close to two. And I don’t think she knows she likes girls, too, Ro. Like, maybe deep down, but not really, you know?”

Rowan nodded. She slung an arm around Charlotte. “We’ve got to cure you of this crush, babe. It’s only going to tear you apart.”

Charlotte twisted her lips to the side. “I know it. I barely know the girl. I’ve never felt so connected with anyone before, though. It sounds freakin’ stalker-ish.”

“Nah. I get it.” Rowan shrugged out of her chef’s jacket. “How about we go get our Starbucks fix? I’m really craving a peppermint mocha now,” she said, sniffing at the faint traces of the oil on her hands.

Charlotte giggled. “So I take it your streak has ended?”

“I think so,” Rowan said. “I can feel it.” She pulled on her winter coat, a black parka that fell to her knees. Though Charlotte had tried talking her into dying her whole head green, Rowan had gone back to her natural mousy brown—just until the competition was over. She meant no offense to Charlotte, but she’d wanted to be taken seriously, and she was glad now that she knew how put-together Tilly was.

Linking arms with Charlotte, Rowan called out to Matt that they were heading out, and promised to bring him something back. Arm in arm, she and Charlotte stepped onto Main Street. It was at least a mile walk to Starbucks, but with Charlotte she didn’t even feel cold. They chitchatted as they walked, catching up on their lives. Charlotte had started bartending school so that she could be a mixologist at The 545, the lounge she was a short order cook at.

“This way I can chat up cute girls and make some extra money in tips,” she reasoned.

“Makes sense to me.”

Rowan glanced into the windows of the various shops they passed. Main Street was always cute, but it had an even more special vibe during the holidays. Each bare tree was wrapped in white string lights, the lights intertwining and forming a canopy above the sidewalk. It was pure magic, she surmised.

By the time they stepped inside Starbucks, though, her cheeks and nose were numb.

“My treat,” Charlotte said, blocking her from the chip reader.

“No, mine,” Rowan insisted. “You got the last time.”


“Plus Matt’s ordering too. C’mon.”

Charlotte stuck out her tongue playfully and gave the barista their orders before Rowan could argue further.

“You,” Rowan told her, wrapping her in a one-armed hug.

“Me.” Charlotte beamed.

They took their coffees and sat down at a table.

“So,” Charlotte said meaningfully, dragging out the word. “Any special Christmas plans with Matt?”

Rowan tilted her head, her eyebrows furrowed. As far as she knew, they were each spending Christmas with their families. They saw each other every day anyway. They could exchange gifts any time.

“Seriously? He didn’t invite you to Christmas dinner with the family?”

“So what? I mean, he doesn’t really have a lot of family. It’ll just be his mom, his little brother, and him. He doesn’t get to spend much time with them.”

Charlotte gave her a flat look. “You guys have been together for like six months now.”

“Four, technically. Actually . . .” Rowan counted. “Three.”

Her best friend rolled her eyes. “Six,” she said firmly. “That month or whatever you were ‘broken up’ so doesn’t count.”

“Either way,” Rowan said, “it’s family time.” She suppressed a groan. “Family time,” to her parents, meant ditching their children just before the holidays for their annual cruise. “What are your plans?” she asked, changing the subject.

“The Butler family tradition: Christmas Eve mass and a stern talking-to about how God hates gays.” She rolled her eyes.

“I’m sorry, love.” Rowan reached across the table and gave her best friend’s hand a warm squeeze. “Any way you can skip?”

“Only if I’m bleeding to death. And even then . . .” She shrugged.

Rowan raised her coffee cup in a salute. “To family.”

Charlotte knocked her cup against Rowan’s. “Happy holidays.” She giggled.

A little while later, they headed back to Elli’s. Full dark had fallen in the meantime and, with it, the temperature. Rowan huddled deep into her coat.

Charlotte walked her to the door and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “Good luck with those candy canes,” she said. She hopped into her warm car, thanks to her remote starter when they were still a block away, and waved as she pulled from the curb.

Taking a deep breath, Rowan hurried into the warmth of Elli’s. She hung her coat up, then went into the walk-in.

Matt bent over a shelf, his black Dickies accenting his ass.

“Nice,” she said flirtatiously.

Straightening, he turned and wrapped her in a hug. Full, warm lips pressed to hers. “Aw, look who’s cold. Let me warm you up, baby.”

“In the walk-in?” Rowan lifted an eyebrow.

He smirked. “We could do it in the kitchen instead, if you prefer.”

“Tempting,” she said, twirling away, “but I’ve got a hot date.” She grabbed her chilled dough and took it to her station, leaving him chuckling after her.

Heart thudding in her chest, she eyed the dough on the stainless steel, willing it to cooperate. “All right,” she said. “Let’s break this streak.”

Rowan is determined to win the town’s Christmas cheer contest, but she’s in a funk—for the past two weeks straight, she’s managed to botch every single recipe. With the judging day only a few days away, can Matt get her back on track?

 Just One More Christmas is a standalone holiday romance novelette set six months after the novel Just One More Minute.

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