A VERY BLACKWELL CHRISTMAS
New York City
I was seated behind my desk on the fifty-first floor of the Wenn Enterprises building—crunching down on an ice cube while minding my own damned business—when I heard them coming my way.
I knew it was Jennifer and Lisa, because when it came to those two? When they were on a mission, as they clearly were now? They sounded like a couple of broodmares strapped in two pairs of Manolo Blahniks as they steamrolled down the hallway toward me.
And what fresh hell are they about to darken my doorway with today? I mused as I looked across my spacious office at the open door. What could possibly be the matter now? Oh, right! We’re on the cusp of Christmas! So, naturally this must be about that.
How utterly predictable…
And then there they were—flushed! At least Jennifer looked presentable in the black Prada leather pencil skirt she’d paired with a long-sleeve cashmere sweater. But Lisa? My perfect size zero? She only looked passable in a pair of dark skinny jeans and a white blouse. Yes, she was a writer who spent most of her days huddled in what I imagined was some dark, lifeless room where she banged out her ridiculous zombie novels, so I decided to give her outfit a pass, if only because her hair and makeup were on point.
At least she’d tended to them before she’d dared to come here.
“What’s the issue?” I said before either of them could speak. “I have a meeting to attend in ten minutes, so make it quick.”
“Ten minutes?” Lisa said in frustration. “This is going to take at least an hour to sort out.”
I looked at Jennifer for confirmation.
“An hour?” I asked.
“At least an hour,” Jennifer said with a sigh. “None of this is good.”
“Potentially for all of us.”
With a raised eyebrow, I leaned toward my desk, placed my right elbow on top of it, and then rested my chin in the palm of my hand while I gazed at each of them. “All of us?” I said. “Pray tell me how I ever got swept up into whatever nightmare you two have devised, and why it’s going to take at least an hour to sort out?”
“It’s Ethel,” Lisa said. “Tank’s mother. She and Harold have decided to come here of all places for Christmas! To Manhattan—where they’ve never been! And while they’re here, they have no plans on getting a hotel room. Instead, they want to shack up with Tank and me at our home! Ethel called me this morning to break the ‘good news’ to me. Jesus, Barbara, you know what went down between me and that woman at my wedding. You know how she was with me. Sure, things seemed to have ended on a good note between us when Tank and I left, but who the hell knows what that holy-roller is going to bring our way over Christmas? Before they even arrive, I’m officially on record for calling all of this an unmitigated disaster.”
“And I’m telling both of you that this isn’t something I can handle right now,” I said firmly. “There is, after all, work to be done. So, how about this? Are you two available for dinner tonight?”
“I am,” Jennifer said.
“I totally am—Tank will understand,” Lisa said.
“Then how about if we dine at Le Bernadin and figure this out before both of you develop frown lines in front of me,” I said.
“Le Bernadin?” Jennifer said. “We’ll never get in.”
“I’m Blackwell,” I said. “And you are Jennifer Wenn, the wife of a billionaire. Of course we’ll get in, so plan on meeting me here at seven sharp—I’ll ask Cutter to drive us. We’ll be dining early, I know, but tomorrow is a busy day, so it is what it is.”
I stood up from my desk and shot Lisa a look. “And for the love of God, Lisa, please find something suitable to wear. Because je refuse to show up at that restaurant with anyone who looks as you do now.”
“I’m in crisis!” she bellowed.
“To be decided,” I said. And then I looked coolly at her. “But I will agree that your outfit is…”
* * *
As exclusive as Le Bernadin was, naturally we got a table—and one of the best, if only because when my assistant called to make a reservation, the staff likely mooned over the idea that Jennifer Wenn—wife of Alexander Wenn—would rather like to dine there tonight.
This was the city’s original temple of haute French seafood—and it had maintained its gilded reputation for decades.
With white tablecloths, decorous service and a jackets-required policy in the main dining room, the scene remained formal but with a slightly modern twist thanks to sleek leather banquettes and a 24-foot mural of a tempestuous sea by Brooklyn artist Ran Ortner.
When we arrived, we were greeted by the handsome host, who led us to one of the banquettes beneath the mural, which was perfect because it was the place in the restaurant to be seen—and to people watch.
Since Jennifer was famous in this city, even this storied crowd couldn’t help but turn to look at her as we took our seats and asked the host to bring us three martinis. I knew I was about to get into the mud with these two, so with a mischievous smile, I sweetly asked for mine to be dirty.
When the drinks arrived moments later, I was happy to see that it was.
“Here’s to us,” Jennifer said as she lifted her glass toward the center of the round table.
“Don’t you mean ‘here’s to a steaming pile of unnecessary drama’?” I asked as I touched glasses with her and Lisa before taking a sip of the ice-cold cocktail. It was divoon…
“There’s nothing unnecessary about it,” Lisa said with a toss of her pretty blonde hair. Thankfully, she’d upped her game and had changed into the lovely black Dior suit I’d suggested she purchase in the fall. “Even I couldn’t have written a plot twist as evil as Ethel darkening my doorstep on Christmas—and for an entire week, no less. I can see it now. She’s probably going to ply me with more audiobooks about all the ways I’m going to burn in hell because I write about the undead. Please tell me how I can get out of this. I seriously need some help here.”
“Where does Tank stand when it comes to this?” I asked.
“He’s as uneasy about it as I am,” she said. “I mean, it was only six months ago when we got married at their farm in Prairie Home, NObraska. Everyone is playing nice, but the wounds are still fresh. Some of the things that were said during our stay there still sting. And now Ethel either wants to try to just wash it all away with a visit over the holidays, or to stir up more shit. I think it could be the latter. I don’t trust her.”
“You have no reason to trust that one,” Jennifer said.
“Well, I do agree with that,” I said. “Ethel is a wolf in sheep’s clothing if there ever was one. But I will caution you on this, Lisa—if you do shut her out, plan on her to take it personally, which won’t bode well for your tenuous relationship with her. I know you think a lot of her husband—”
“I love Harold.”
“Then you also must consider how this will affect your relationship with him. And how all of this will touch Tank, which of course it will. And not well, by the way. His mother will not only resent you if her little whim to spend Christmas with you isn’t fulfilled, but also him. And that’s something you’ll have to live with.”
“What are you saying?” she asked me.
“I think if you want to keep peace in the family, both of you are going to have to suck it up and welcome Ethel and Harold here. What choice do you have? None. But you already knew that, didn’t you…?”
She took a long pull from her martini when I said that, and then she just shrugged at me. “She just sprang this on me today. There was a part of me that was hoping that somehow the three of us could get together and scheme my way out of it.” She sighed. “But you’re right. She’s got me cornered, because if I don’t go through with this, it will be just another scar on our relationship. Fuck my life already.”
“So, you’ll do it?” I asked.
“I have no choice—for every reason you pointed out. But what about Christmas Eve? Jennifer and Alex have always hosted. Hell, it’s become a tradition where all of us either gather at their home in Maine or at their apartment here. This year Tank and I were going to offer to host. But with Ethel meddling in my home, it’s just not going to be the same because she’ll feel that she has some sort of power over me there, if only because I’m married to her son.”
“Look,” Jennifer said. “It’s fine. Alex and I would love to host again. That way, Ethel will have to be on her best behavior because she’ll be on my turf.”
“I appreciate that, Jennifer, but you’ve hosted three times in a row. It’s not fair for you to have to do it again.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” I said. “And need I remind both of you that last year I had one martini too many and pitched headfirst into Jennifer’s tree, sending ornaments crashing to the floor? No? I didn’t think so because I was a goddamned horror show. If we have Christmas Eve there, everyone will remember what became of me last year—distraught over a man.”
“Marcus,” they said at once.
“Yes, Marcus,” I sighed. “I made a fool of myself after I broke things off with him—and everyone witnessed it. Je refuse to evoke that memory in anyone this year. Je refuse!”
“Then Tank and I will do it,” Lisa said. “We’ll just put our heads together, try our best, and get it done. Ethel likes to cook. Maybe I can keep her busy with the food.”
“Come again?” I said to her.
“I’ll distract Ethel and keep her out of my hair by keeping her in the kitchen.”
“Are you suggesting that you won’t have this event catered?”
“Well, I mean I could, if that’s what everyone would prefer…” she said.
“Need I remind you that woman knows I intentionally poisoned her with lilacs at your wedding? We set her up, Lisa. We knew she was severely allergic to them. We buried them deep within a bouquet of other flowers so she’d never see them—and she didn’t. But after she took one whiff of our little floral flower bomb, the woman broke out into hives and nearly didn’t make her own son’s wedding. You think she’s forgotten that? That she does hold a grudge to this day because of that little stunt? You’re a fool if you don’t—and you’re also a fool if you think she won’t poison the lot of us if she’s in charge of cooking the food. I can see the little Bible-thumper now, sprinkling rat poisoning onto everything. She’s not above it!”
“Seriously?” Jennifer said as she sipped her martini. “Rat poisoning, Barbara? Really?”
“Or worse, because she hates some of us that much…”
“I don’t think she hates me or Alex,” she said.
“That’s because people like you.”
“Something you might shoot for one day…”
“Never. J’adore being feared.”
“I’m not having Jennifer and Alex host again this year, Barbara. Aiden will just be a year old then. They don’t need to be concerned with running Wenn and raising a child while also trying to pull together Christmas Eve for what’s turning into a lot of people. I mean, come on. There will be Jennifer and Alex, Daniella and Cutter, Alexa and you, Epifania and Rudman, Ethel and Harold, maybe Brock and Madison, and Tank and me. It’s too much to ask.”
“Fine,” I said. “Then I’ll do it.”
“Excuse me?” Jennifer said.
“I’ll host Christmas Eve.”
I watched Lisa finish off the rest of her martini in one fell swoop and then hold up her empty glass. She clearly caught someone’s eye and indicated that she needed another before she turned back to me. “Sorry, how was that?” she said. “You hosting Christmas Eve? Barbara, none of us have ever even been in your apartment for God’s sake. And we’ve known you for years.”
“Consider this your official invite,” I said. “Because someone has to save the day, so it might as well be me. I do know how to throw a party, after all. And my apartment is to die for. But what you both also need to consider is that this actually would be good for me.”
“Good for you how?” Jennifer asked.
Time to face it, I thought. As much as a part of me likes to mess with these two, if only to see their reactions alone, they are not only my friends, but they have become an extension of my family. If I can’t share how I’m feeling with them, then with who…?
“With Daniella and Alexa now out of the house and in their own apartments, I’ll admit that it’s become somewhat lonely at home. I miss them terribly. It is, after all, just me in that monster of an apartment. It’s not the same without them there.”
“Lonely?” Jennifer said with concern. “Why haven’t you told us that sooner?”
“I’m rather surprised I’m sharing it with you at all, but it is what it is, isn’t it? And, yes, apparently even I am capable of that emotion—who knew? But it’s true, not that I want to dwell on it any further. Hosting Christmas Eve would be good all the way around. It would take the pressure of Lisa, it would take the pressure off you, Jennifer, and it also would give me a fabulous reason to have my girls back in the house together at the same time, which hasn’t been easy as of late. Alexa is working long hours at Wenn Environmental, and just a few months ago, Daniella started her job as Director of Trend for Wenn Cosmetic. With her relationship with Cutter still going strong, I’m lucky if I see that one at all these days.”
“Barbara, if you’re lonely, why don’t you date?” Jennifer said.
“Please—dating died with the dinosaurs.”
“It did not, and you know it. So, why don’t you try a service like Elite Singles? It’s filled will professional men looking either for a chance at love or for a second chance at love. You can skim their profiles, look at their photos to see if you find them attractive, and maybe start to date again. I know of a few women at Wenn who have had terrific luck with that service.”
“Do you really believe that I’m going to reduce myself to a dating service, Jennifer? Really? Do you even know me at all?”
“It was just a thought…”
“And I appreciate the concern, but dating isn’t in the cards for me. I’m not sure I’ll ever date again, let alone be in a relationship again. It’s too much work, and it often leads to too much disappointment. Why put myself through it again?”
“Charles is happy with Rita, isn’t he?” Lisa asked. “Why couldn’t you be happy with someone else again?”
“How dare you bring up my ex-husband and his ridiculously named newish wife when we should be talking about me hosting Christmas Eve.”
“It was just an observation…” she said.
“Look,” I said, finishing my martini. “Why don’t we look at the menu, order dinner, and then discuss Christmas Eve? How does that sound? Because in case you haven’t noticed, our waiter has been eyeballing us like a hawk, likely wondering if we’ll ever be ready to order.”
I picked up my menu, glanced over it, and then put it back down. “Caviar for the table to start?”
“Sounds good to me,” Jennifer said.
“I’d love some caviar,” Lisa said.
“Perfect. As for me, I’m having the Dover Sole. I’ve had it here before, and the soy-lime emulsion is to die for.”
“Salmon for me,” Jennifer said.
“They have glazed Maine lobster tail here,” Lisa said. “So, that’s what this Maine girl is having.”
“How cliche, but deliciously so. Now, put down your menus so that poor man will know that we’re ready to order. And when we do, Jennifer and I will order another round of drinks and we can start planning for Christmas Eve.”
“What about me?” Lisa said. “I’d like another cocktail.”
“You’re still on your second—a third would make you sloppy.”
“I don’t do ‘sloppy’, Barbara.”
“Said the woman who writes about zombies with a certain hunger for human brains.”
But when the waiter arrived, he was carrying with him a silver tray with three more martinis on it.
“What’s this?” I asked as he placed them in front of us, and then removed the empty glasses. “We haven’t ordered another round of cocktails yet.”
“A gentleman at one of the other tables is buying this round,” the waiter said.
“At which table?” I asked.
The man looked to his left and then smiled at me. “He’s coming this way now. He said he wanted to say hello.”
“Oh, my God,” Jennifer said as she glanced across the room. “No way…”
“This was meant to be,” Lisa said as she followed Jennifer’s gaze, the excitement clear in her voice. “Holy shit! Who needs Elite Singles when the real thing turns up looking like that?”
“What are you two talking about?” I said, looking over my shoulder.
And when I did? When I saw who was coming toward us with a tentative smile on his lips? I was looking straight at the only other man I’d ever fallen in love with. The man I’d had to leave because he was a busy businessman who turned out to have almost no time for us.
It was Marcus Koch. In a perfectly fitted black suit. His eyes as blue and as intense as I remembered them to be.
It had been nearly a year since I’d last seen him. But my God did he ever look good…