A preview of FINDING HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS
Hallmark should really shoot movies here, they wouldn’t have to spend a dime ritzing it up. Multi-colored Christmas lights frame the window and they're dusted in fluffy, sugary snow. The window is a glowing halo around Jimmy Schmidt and Janie Carter—no, Janie Schmidt—the quarterback and head cheerleader from my high school class. It’s an artisanal frame around them and their happily married blonde straw hair and bright blue eyes. They are in ugly Christmas sweaters, toasting the bulk of my high school class that has gathered at The Barn with Bud Lights. The bar was literally built with the wood from Mr. Pritchers' barn when he tore it down and it's one of eight divey places in this middle-of-nowhere town of 5,000, where the weekly newspaper focuses on cattle prices, ski conditions and who got a DUI this week.
It's quaint. Picturesque. And I've been trying like hell to distance myself from it for the past 13 years.
Because when I walk into The Barn, I'm gonna be klutzy Cam Collins. The shy, willowy science nerd. No one will care that I’m successful, that I’m wearing both Burberry and Louboutin. Even that I’m walking in six inch stilettos. In the ice and like a boss no less.
And those stilettos are just one of the 8000 reasons I don’t belong here anymore. That I wouldn't be anywhere near here if it weren't for my mom. Neither The Barn nor Willow Creek, Colorado.
Come home, she begged. It's been so long. Everyone asks about you.
Ugh. I know. No one can mind their business.
It's been 13 years and we’re not getting younger. Your niece is three and you've never spent Christmas with her. You love the snow.
Icing on the guilty cake. Particularly because it’s all true. Especially the snow part. I miss it in Seattle. So much.
But then there was the knife I should have seen coming.
It’ll be the first Christmas without grandma.
Juju died of cancer in June. And the loss left me so hollow that I easily I caved despite the sickening feeling ripping through my stomach. And when coming home wasn't enough, she’d guilted me out the door to my informal class reunion, too. I should have made her come so she could personally shove me through the door.
Everyone will be there.
I know. That's why I don't want to go.
They've missed you.
Doubt it. They just want to know what I’m up to since I refuse to get on Facebook.
AJ will be there.
And just like that she had me. Because even after all these years, even after he broke my heart, AJ Jenkins still has a pull on me.
That pull is tugging hard enough that I’m kicking snow piles with my Louboutins in Hallmark-fucked-the-outdoors Colorado. And I'm staring past Jimmy and Janie at AJ and how he’s filling out a henley in a way that should be illegal.
He’s gotten far more attractive. Like recruited for a modeling gig attractive. He’s always had broad shoulders but they’re muscular now. All of his formerly gangly limbs are. Any sign of baby fat is gone from his face, replaced by a razor-sharp jaw. His hair is dark and a little wavy, a lot unruly like the devilish scruff he’s sporting. Even with the fur, his lips are just as plump as I remember.
I take a deep breath and two steps toward the door, only to spin back toward the street. I’ve picked the wrong outfit. My haircut is too fashionable, someone is sure to say it’s crooked rather than purposefully asymmetrical. Smokey eyes are totally uncalled for. I worry over ten million things that I wouldn’t think twice about in Seattle.
Only one thing’s for sure—I should be home drinking egg nog and watching White Christmas.
“Cam? Cam Collins?” A voice pulls me from my spiral.
A man with bright blonde hair that hangs in his face steps around the hood of a beat up Chevy. He looks me over lazily as he adjusts hockey sticks and a giant bag in the bed. Except for a scruffy beard, he looks exactly the same.
“Jersey?” I question as my eyebrows knit together.
“No one’s called me that in years.” He laughs at me.
“No one’s called me Cam in years, either.” I let out a deep breath and find a small giggle for him.
“In that case, hi, I’m Mike.” He held out his hand for me to shake. “I’m in town visiting the family for Christmas. Do you come here often?”
I couldn’t help but crescendo to a full blow laugh. But I managed to grab his hand and shake it all the same. “Camilla.” I rolled my eyes. “And no, I don’t come here often. Nor do I appreciate cheesy pick up lines.”
“You wound me, Cam.” Mike dramatically cupped his heart and walked toward me like he was gravely injured.
“Well Jersey, what can I say?” I shake my head when I’m sure he’s watching.
“You can tell me why you’re dancing around on the sidewalk in front of the bar.” He shoves his hands in his pockets and suddenly he’s looming over me.
“You got taller,” I say a little nervous with such an attractive version of an old friend so close.
“You got hotter.” He smirked down at me.
My laugh goes a little breathy.
“Yeah, that’ll do.” I blush as I grab his offered elbow.
“They’re all honestly curious you know?” He nods toward the the door. “Don’t worry.”
I wish he hadn’t said anything about them. Fear and insecurity whirl beneath my skin like a living monster. Before, I might have walked in the door like a normal person, but tonight I’m distracted, my questions from before are abusing my brain all over again, and as Mike pulls me along, something terrible happens. Something that hasn’t happened in close to 13 years.
Like a clumsy giraffe battling the doorsill, with limbs flying everywhere despite being rather petite.
The water droplets and bits of tracked off snow on the wood flooring just inside make it worse. I clamor and clatter everywhere, Janie is speaking, but when I jostle her table her words trail off. When I knock over her and Jimmy’s Bud Lights, the whole bar looks up.
Way to make an entrance, Camilla.
In one moment the designer duds, the successful business, and 13 years of yoga and Pilates are all wasted. All it takes is one moment to erase that version of myself and reinforce the one I’d run from. I no longer have a cover of Seattle Magazine or The Monthly. I am not revolutionizing the face of American craft distilling. I’m a nerd that just spilled Jimmy’s beer.
Mike is right there at my elbows, helping to steady me. I jerk away, slightly uncomfortable at his familiarity and bang into the table making Janie’s beer wobble. My hands shoot out to stop it but somehow a solid fist punches the beer, sending suds spraying in a dramatic arc. The bottles clamor and roll, beer chugging onto the floor. My face contorts as I scramble to grab the bottles and somehow stop the trickling beer.
“Cam,” Janie stands up beside me. “Cam stop. Cam calm down, it’s just beer.” She pats my shoulder kindly.
I pop up from the floor and look at her like she’s grown a second head. I expected something bitchy, snappy or smart. Kind hadn’t even crossed my mind.
“Sorry, Janie. Can I buy you another?” My voice is shaky, so unlike my own.
“Only if you get yourself one and sit down to join us. Tell us what you’ve been up to.” I found myself nodding as she adds, “You too, Mike.”
“Did everyone get the memo to call you Mike instead of Jersey?” I smile at him as I fiddle with my zipper on the way to the bar.
“Yeah. Two years after college, I think. Had them announce me as Mike at the alumni hockey game.”
I bite the inside of my cheek. That statement packs a wallop. I had succeeded in distancing myself but in a different way than I’d hoped. I’d missed traditions, changes, and years out of everyones life.
Mike pulls my jacket from my shoulders and with it, me from my wallowing. He smiles and arches a brow as he hangs it on one of the large support beams nearby. I feel exposed and shove my sleeves down to cover my fingers. They lace into the chunky knit and curl, and even if it ruins the All Saints top, it makes me feel better. I bite my lip too as I all but tiptoe to the bar.
“What can I get ya?” The bartender asks with her back to us.
But after a moment of silence on my part while Mike’s busy high-fiving Jeremy Frank, she turns, her blonde hair swishing. I lock eyes with familiar blue ones. One has a pen-sized ball of gold but I would have remembered them even without that curiosity.
“Trig?” I ask, wide eyed.
She doesn’t even wait for my response before lunging across the bar and gathering me in a hug.
“I never thought you’d come back,” she whispers in my ear.
“Makes two of us, Trig.” I hug her back tightly.
“He’s watching you.”
And without looking, I know exactly which he she is referring to. I can picture AJ’s blue eyes boring into me. He’s always been able to nail the steely, intimidating gaze of disapproval. It chokes me now that I’m fully aware of it.
“I don’t know if I can do this.”
Trig and I were thick as thieves in high school. I stayed in touch with her longer than anyone else after. But we’d lost touch all the same. Apparently that hadn’t changed that she still had the magic ability to draw confessions from the pit of my stomach.
“I find a drink usually makes it easier.” She pulls back and winks at me. “Hiya Mike, what can I get ya?”
“A Bud, and two Bud Lights for Janie and Jimmy on my tab.” He throws his arm around me. “Last but not least, whatever Cam here would like.”
I make a sour face and I’m not sure whether it’s because he’s made himself comfortable on my shoulders or called me Cam. Again.
Shaking my shoulders ever so slightly, I open my mouth to order but Trig’s already pulling something from beneath the bar. A familiar crystal cut bottle with a beige parchment label emblazoned with a delicate but bold thirteen faces me.
“You have a bottle?” I say quietly as I reach out to cradle the bourbon.
“I’ve carried it since day one. I have the other stuff too.” Trig’s voice is sweet and warms my insides.
“What is that?” Mike’s brow is crinkled beside me.
“That’s Camilla’s baby.” Trig takes it back out of my hands and pops the cork stopper before pouring a glass for me. She adds one ice cube and hands it back. “Read you like it that way.”
“Baby?” Mike bends down to study the bottle Trig’s left resting on the bar and for the first time since I left my condo yesterday, confidence swells inside me.
“She makes that.” Even Trig is beaming.
“What?” Mike’s gaze shifts from the bottle to me and once again he’s looking at me the way he had outside the bar. Interest is mingled with hunger. I feel my skin blush in bright rose patches in response. Shy is the only thing I haven’t shaken in 13 years.
“The bourbon, the bottle, the brand,” I answer quietly, my eyes shifting away to trace the woodgrain of the bar. “That’s what I do now.”
“We have more catching up to do than I thought.”
“I Got Friends In Low Places”
My last 12 Christmases have been peaceful. We’ve had deep snow for almost all of them, each tree that the fire department erects on Main Street has been bigger and more beautiful that the last. Even the last three, the ones missing my Dad, had a homey feel that Mom and I worked hard to maintain.
But of course she's going to bulldoze unlucky 13. Her favorite number, my least. I still remember those little things, those little quirks about her, even now.
Cam Collins sears into your brain.
The bar stops when she walks in. Well barrels in. She’s still a total klutz but otherwise Cam’s earned her high school superlative of Most Changed.
Whatever she does these days, she's successful. And dammit money suits her. She doesn't wear it like gaudy jewelry. She opts for a thick rich coat with leather patches on the elbows, jeans that could be painted on and stilettos with crimson bottoms that are as devilishly sexy as her crimson lips.
I hate her.
Mike’s following her around like a puppy dog. I’ve never wanted to kick a puppy until now. He takes her heavy coat, revealing a chunky knit sweater underneath that somehow hugs her tits and shows off her midriff all at once. She's grown into her other superlative as well, the unofficial one the guys gave her in the locker room, best tits.
I hate Mike, too.
Cam’s shy smile hasn't changed. Of all the things I imagined her to be now, shy isn’t one of them. The Cam Collins I’ve conjured up is a fearless, globetrotting snob. Certain of everything and unwilling to compromise. She started cultivating that persona when my head was turned in high school. I’ve spent 13 years convincing myself that somehow I’d missed all her warning signs.
My stomach twists because that smile, the one I knew intimately, has me questioning myself. And she’s nervous. Here in The Barn, one of the most unassuming bars you can imagine, she’s got her hands digging in her sweater sleeves.
The urge to hug her wells in my chest and radiates out to my fingertips. Once again I’m taken off guard and utterly unsettled. But I’ve only seen her this nervous one other time, the wobbly, teeth-chattering nerves that I know are painful. But thinking about that day claws at me. While we didn’t break up that day, the day I put her on a plane to Edinburgh is the day I lost her.
A wave of hatred surges and barrels through me replacing any urge to touch her or talk to her. This is a familiar wave, one that I ride as it consumes me any time I think about losing Cam.
I really am trying to rip my eyes away when Trig hugs her over the bar. Cam’s sweater sneaks up revealing a tattoo. Subtle black and gray lines weave up her right side. Whatever it is starts below her denim waistband and then travels up to disappear under the white of her sweater. The sweater that her black bra pokes through. A whole other feeling claws through me.
I walk away.
Shoving through the backdoor, I take a deep breath. Cold air rushes into my lungs and I choke on it. It’s well below freezing on the patio, and now, inside my ribs. Frigid insides make me forgot about the tumult of the bar, the ruckus of Cam. Since it’s colder than a witches tit out here I can’t think about anything beside hypothermia.
“J,” A sultry purr weaves from the corner of the fenced in patio.
There’s no accompanying face, just shadow buried under a faux fir hood.
“Who is that?” My whole face pinches, I know because my eyelids sting the frozen parts of my eyeballs that they cover.
She shoves off her hood and I immediately figure it out. Georgia is the only ginger in town. I should have known because of the cheap matted fur of her coat. That and she’s been hitting on me for the past four years.
“Hey Georgia. How are you?” I sigh as I hunch my shoulders, digging my hands deeper into my pockets.
“Why are you out here freezing your ass off?” She throws her arms around me and stale cigarette smoke puffs out of her jacket.
Well because Cam is inside being Cam—you know a flawless, gorgeous, unassuming heartbreaking bitch.
“Just needed some fresh air.” That’s much more acceptable than admitting I’m waffling between fantasizing about kissing and killing Cam.
“I’m glad to have the company, but it’s freezing.” She’s still stroking my arms and it’s taking everything in me not to push back gracelessly. “Can I buy you a drink?” She not so subtly presses her chest to mine.
And my first thought is maybe that will make Cam jealous. My second is that I hate that she has me so damned twisted up.
“Sure.” I answer before I allow myself to fall further down the wormhole that’s opened up with the crimson lips of my ex.
The moment we walk back into the bar, I slyly check whether Cam’s watching. She’s not. Trig is though. With a cocked eyebrow. My hand naturally comes to Georgia’s back and I guide her to the bar.
“Trig, give me a Pabst.” Georgia pounds her fist on the bar and my skin crawls.
I didn’t think it was possible but Trig’s eyebrow arches further as she pulls and cracks a can. She slides it as she asks for three dollars.
“I’m buying AJ a drink.”
I try not to notice that Cam twists on her stool to take in the scene. She’s arched her neck gracefully and looks up from under her eyelashes. When I’m sure she’s not scanning the creaky weathered floorboards, I throw my arm around Georgia’s shoulder. Cam’s head snaps back toward her pool table and Georgia leans into me.
“I’m buying AJ a drink.” Trig’s abrasive voice pulls me back to the bar. “Don’t be an idiot,” she adds to me under her breath.
Her words apply to Georgia, Cam and the slippery slope I’m dicking around on tonight. Trig slams a glass of whiskey on the bar and pushes it toward me. I roll my eyes as I snatch it while it’s still sliding.
Georgia and I walk over to where her brothers are posted up by Golden Tee. The video game glows on the faces of the twins I played hockey with freshman year of high school. They are not the group of people I’d like to be hanging out with tonight, but I’ve worked myself into this corner—literally.
I console myself with a sip of the amber glass Trig poured for me. Smoke and cherry hits me hard and the harsh, the tart burn of bourbon plays in my throat and nostrils. I was expecting Jack or Jameson, not this. Never this. It’s exceptional. There is something smokey, bitter, earthy and something undeniably sweet that is more complex than cherry, vanilla or almond maybe.
It tastes like the memory of Cam.
While I’m sipping it, nodding aimlessly at Georgia, the pool table gets taken over. Mike, Janie and Jimmy are up. Every fiber of my being is praying that Cam isn’t their fourth person. I don’t think I can take watching her play pool.
I take a turn at Golden Tee, slamming that white roller ball far more violently than is necessary. But by some miracle I do well. Georgia is draped around me and I’m so fixated on the pixelated screen, I don’t brush her off. For a while, I’m on a course in Palm Springs, warm, and launching golf balls, blissfully unaware of my past except for the insanely good bourbon that haunts my senses.
“Damn,” I yell and bang on the machine when I screw up the perfect putt; Georgia squeals with disappointment and punches my shoulder harder than is absolutely necessary. Since it’s Bo’s turn, I decide to take a piss and get a refill.
Worst. Idea. Ever.
I should have stayed in Palm Springs or whatever desert oasis flashed on the screen, whatever the cost in shimmering coins. Cam is bent over the pool table, angling at a difficult shot. Those painted on jeans accentuate curves I don’t remember her having. Curves I want to paw. Then there’s the mysterious tattoo. It cuts across cream colored skin I want to lick despite everything between us. Or rather, the lack of things between us.
To make matters worse, she makes the near-impossible shot. The Cam Collins I know is three things: uncoordinated, callus and the world’s worst pool player. I’d had to help her with every shot she ever took, my body wrapped completely around hers, my hands guiding her every movement. Almost every time she’d look over at me rather than the ball.
But now she goes and runs the table.
How long has she had these skills? Did she develop them because I wasn’t there to knock them in anymore? Or worse, could she always do it, but wanted my hands on her.
This was my most dangerous line of thought yet. Because it sucks me back to that warm summer night when we’d played the best game of pool of my life. I’d helped her with each shot. She’d wiggled her ass up against my crotch too many times to count. Just when I thought I was gonna have to drop her at home and jerk off, she’d grabbed my hand and pulled me out to the 13th green behind Molly Merithew’s house.
Crickets chirped, punctuating her labored breathing. There was the slightest warm breeze tickling my skin. I never asked if it was the breeze or desire that peaked her nipples when she shimmied out of her white eyelet linen top. Cam stripped naked there behind the willow trees and let me have her for the first time, bathed in moonlight. When we snuggled under the stars she wore nothing but my flannel.
I never got that shirt back. And until drinking the bourbon tonight, I’d sworn off anything remotely related to vanilla, too—that’s what Cam tasted like.
Fuck pool. Fuck this delicious, vanilla tinged bourbon. And fuck Cam Collins.
“AJ, room.” Mike taps my hip with his pool cue.
“Yeah man. Sorry.” I snap out of summer so many years ago and turn on my heel for the bar.
“Same?” Trig asks evaluating the set of my jaw as if it’s a riddle she’s determined to solve.
“No,” I snap before reining my temper in. “Tequila.”
I almost miss it but Trig’s eyes dart over to Cam. We both know how miserable tequila makes her. We both know that’s why I’m drinking it.
“I don’t think you really want tequila AJ. I think you want more of that bourbon.” She shoots me a skeptical face.
“No. I don’t ever want that again. What’s it called so I can avoid it at all costs?”
She purses her lips and once more her gaze flits to Cam. This time I can’t figure out why.
“It’s called 13, AJ.” She sighs and hauls Sauza up onto the bar, pouring before I can say anything else.
13. Goddamned bastard-ass 13. Of course.
“Never again, you hear me?” I slam the shot she poured and grab a highball across the bar, despite the fact that she tries to smack me. “Tequila.” Trig and I are close so she knows exactly why I’m grabbing at the glass, and a double shot with a single ice cube and a lime appear just in time for me to turn away in a huff.
After far too many drinks and a brooding tantrum over my golf game, I’ve succeeded in chasing Georgia away and closing the bar.
As soon as I step outside sobriety hits me like a ton of bricks. Below freezing temperatures will do that. The street is utterly abandoned except for the plow that’s a good three blocks down the only highway that runs through town. Most of the lights have dimmed or gone out completely, leaving me with a few streetlights, the stars and the soft Christmas lights from the window.
I take a deep breath, relishing my town and feeling more like myself than I have all night.
“Fuuuuuuck.” A voice to my right drags out the curse, exasperated.
All I can see is telltale red-bottomed heels. I sigh. Cam is draped over a city bench much the way she always insisted lounging on couches—feet up, head down. I take a moment to drink in her legs once again. There is something about how dangerous those heels actually are that makes them even sexier. She swears again and kicks them loosely over the green metal back of the bench.
Before I can hesitate, I turn back toward the bar. Trig can deal with this. But just as I reach for the door, all the lights of The Barn flip off including the Christmas lights softly illuminating Cam’s legs. I yank on the door anyway, hoping Trig will hear and come out the front, but I’ve been here once, or twice, or seventeen times and know Trig has slipped out the back.
The worldweary sigh that escapes my lips even overshadows the plow finally rolling past. I stay still while it passes, my eyes flipping between the big hunk of orange metal and the tiny specks of crimson in her shoes. I want to leave her. Frostbite is as close as I can get to making her feel what I felt.
Snow crunches beneath my boots as I walk over. I stand over her for a moment before she opens her eyes but then haunting green fixes right on me.
“What are you doing, Cam?” I say, harsher than is strictly necessary.
Her mouth opens and closes once or twice but she doesn’t find words.
“Cam?” Worry pools in my stomach when it dawns on me how drunk she has to be to lay upside down on a snowy bench.
“Jay,” she breathes my nickname and I swear it’s the oxygen rattling through my lungs.
“No one calls me Jay anymore.” I sigh. “You’re sleeping on a bench, you know that right?”
“I wasn’t sleeping. I was cursing the universe thank you very much.” She makes zero effort to sit up like a human being.
She’s hooked me, despite everything.
“What did the universe do?” At least I manage to keep my smile from splitting my face.
“Took my cell. Can’t call my folks for a ride.”
I pull my phone out and start to dial. I remember the number by heart. It’s ringing her house phone when I hand it over. We sit in silence in the chill of the wind as she calls a few times. When her sailor mouth splits the peace of the night, she swirls to sit normally on the bench.
“Thanks.” She holds the phone out missing my hand completely, then kicks her feet for a few moments, snow flying from her perfect pointy toes.
“You can sleep on my couch.” I reach for her to help her feet.
When she stumbles like the Cam I know and love to hate, I pick her up, cradle her to my chest and start toward my house.
“You can put me down.” She slurs her words so I know exactly how well her ankles will work and ignore her. But I can’t ignore that she’s added delicious cherry to her intoxicating vanilla scent. And leather. Then there is something I can’t put my finger on, something warm and homey.
I debate dropping her back in the snowbank I found her in.
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