A VERY BLACKWELL CHRISTMAS

By

 

Christina Ross

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

December

New York City

 

I was seated behind my desk on the fifty-first floor of the Wenn Enterprises building—crunching down on a cube of ice 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 brood mares strapped into 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 and see me.

“What’s the issue?” I asked 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.”

“For whom?”

“Potentially for all of us.”

With a raised eyebrow, I leaned toward my desk, placed my right elbow on top of it, and then I rested my chin in the palm of my hand as 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.”

“Thank you for the reminder, my dear,” I said.  “I mean, as if there’s another Ethel in my life…”

“Anyway, 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 settled down since then, 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 each of you 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 have the gall to develop frown lines in front of me?”

“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.  I understand we’ll be dining unfashionably early and even though I detest the thought of that, 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 like you do now.”

“I’m in crisis!” she bellowed.

“To be decided,” I said.  And then I stopped short and looked coolly at her.  “But I will say 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 its sleek leather banquettes and a 24-foot mural of a tempestuous sea by Brooklyn artist Ran Ortner.

When we arrived, we left our coats at the coat check, and then we were greeted by the handsome host, who led us to one of the banquettes beneath the mural.  It was the perfect place to dine because it was the place in the restaurant to see—and to be seen.

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.  Since I knew I was about to get into the mud with these two, I sweetly asked for my martini to be made dirty.

When the drinks arrived, 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 the unnecessary, steaming pile of drama Lisa is about to unload at this table’?” I asked as I touched glasses with them before taking a sip of the ice-cold cocktail.  It was beyond perfect.  In fact, 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 understand it’s been two-and-a-half years since we got married at their farm in Prairie Home, NObraska, but let’s not kid ourselves—the wounds we made there still sting on both sides.”

“You haven’t seen them since, have you?” I asked.

“I haven’t, but Tank has.”

“Oh, dear…”

“I know, but I was on deadline and couldn’t go with him.”

“I can only imagine how that was received.”

“Tank said everything went well.  I say the reason everything went well was because I chose not to go.  But whatever.  Now Ethel either wants to try to just wash it all away with a visit over the holidays, or to stir up even 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.  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 impact Tank, which of course it will.  His mother will not only resent you if her little whim to spend Christmas with you isn’t fulfilled, but it also will affect him.  Is that something you want 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 into your home.  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 shrugged.  “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 tonight and scheme my way out of it.”  She sighed.  “But you’re right.  She’s got me cornered, because if I don’t go along with this, it will be just another scar on our relationship.”

“So, you’ll do it?” I asked.

“For every reason you pointed out, I guess I have no choice.  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 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 done it so often, 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 it was only three years ago that 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.  As I tried to compose myself, I remember thinking, ‘You’re not slurring, darling—you’re merely speaking in cursive.  No one will notice the difference.’  But they did.  The last two Christmases we spent in Maine.  But if we have Christmas Eve at Jennifer and Alex’s apartment again, everyone will be reminded what became of me that year—distraught over a goddamned man.”

“Marcus,” they said at once.

“Yes, Marcus,” I said.  “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 chaining her to the kitchen.”

“Are you suggesting you won’t have this event catered?”

“Well, I mean I could, if that’s what everyone would prefer…” she said.

“Here’s why that matters to me,” I said.  “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 wouldn’t see them—and she didn’t.  But after she took one whiff of our little flower bomb, the woman broke out into hives and nearly didn’t make it to her own son’s wedding.  You think she’s forgotten that?  That she still doesn’t hold a grudge to this day because of that stunt?  You’re a fool if you do—and you’re also a fool if you think she won’t poison the lot of us if she’s in charge of making 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 time doesn’t heal all wounds, my dear.  That woman 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 aspire to one day…”

“Never.  J’adore being feared.”

“I’m not having Jennifer and Alex host again this year, Barbara,” Lisa said.  “I mean, come on.  There will be too many people there—Jennifer and Alex, Daniella and Cutter, Alexa and you, Epifania and Rudman, Ethel and Harold, Brock and Madison, and Tank and me.  That’s already too much to ask when you consider that Aiden will just be turning three, which means he will officially become Aiden 3.0.  Sure, Luciana is doing her best to handle him, but from what I’ve seen, she has her hands full.”

“Understatement of the year,” Jennifer said.  “Two months ago, my son mastered the art of running.  Ever since I think poor Luciana has lost ten pounds just trying to keep him from running into walls.”

“Fine,” I said.  “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 because she 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 even seen your new apartment for God’s sake.  And you moved in four months ago.”

“Then 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 new apartment is to die for.  But what each of you also needs to consider is that this actually might be good for me.”

“Good for you how?” Jennifer asked.

Time to come clean, 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 whom…?

“I might have sold my old apartment and bought my new one for a reason,” I said.

“What reason?” Jennifer asked.

Just tell them…

“A distraction.”

“From what?”

“From missing my two daughters,” I said.  “It didn’t work, because with them living on their own, I still miss them terribly.  And now I have this monster of a showplace with expansive views of the Park, and it does nothing for me.  My life isn’t the same without them living with me.  There are times when it can be—dare I say the word—somewhat ‘lonely’…”

“Lonely?” Jennifer said with concern.  “Why haven’t you told us this sooner?”

“I’m rather surprised I’m sharing it with you at all, but to hell with it.  Apparently, even I’m capable of that emotion—who knew?  But it’s true, not that I want to dwell on that any further.  Me hosting Christmas Eve would be good for everyone.  It would take the pressure off Lisa, it would take the pressure off you, Jennifer, and it also would give me a fabulous reason to have my girls in my apartment at the same time, which hasn’t been easy as of late.  Each of them works long hours at Wenn.  And with Daniella’s 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 asked.

“Who in the hell is going to be interested in a sixty-year-old woman?” I said.  “Even someone as fabulous as me?”

“Are you serious?” Lisa said.  “Plenty, Barbara.”

“Where are they…?”

“These days, they’re probably on a dating service like Elite Singles.  You should try it.  It’s filled with professional men either looking 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 any of them attractive, and maybe start dating again if you do.”

“Well, look at you, Lisa,” I said.  “A married woman who happens to be unusually knowledgeable about an online dating service.”

“Please,” she said.  “The only reason I know about it is because friends of mine have had terrific luck using it.”

“Do you really believe I’m going to reduce myself to a dating service, Lisa?  Really?  Do you even know me?”

“It was just a thought…”

“While I appreciate the concern, 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 would I ever put myself through it again?”

“Charles is happy with Rita, isn’t he?” Jennifer asked.  “Why couldn’t you be happy with someone else again?”

“How dare you bring up my ex-husband and his ridiculously named wife when we should be talking about me hosting Christmas Eve.”

“It was just an observation…” she said.

“Look,” I said after I finished my martini.  “Why don’t we glance over 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’re ever going to order.”

I picked up my menu, glanced inside, 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 dinner, 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.

“Glazed Maine lobster tail is on the menu,” Lisa said.  “So, clearly, that’s what this Maine girl is having.”

“How deliciously cliche of you.  Now, put your menus down so that poor man will know we’re ready to order.  And when we do, Jennifer and I will order another round of drinks and we can start brainstorming about all things Christmas Eve.”

“What about me?” Lisa said.  “I’d like another cocktail.”

“You’re still on your second—a third will 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 our waiter arrived, he already was carrying a silver tray with three martinis on it.

“What’s this?” I asked as he removed our empty glasses before placing fresh drinks in front of us.  “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.”

“Well, shit,” Jennifer said under her breath as she glanced across the room.  “No way…”

“This was meant to be,” Lisa said in a low voice as she followed Jennifer’s gaze.  “And by the way, who needs Elite Singles when the real thing turns up looking like that?  He’s smoking hot…”

“What are you two talking about?” I asked as I looked over my shoulder.

And when I did?  When I saw who was coming toward us, his smile as broad and as disarming as ever?  I was looking straight at Marcus Koch, the only other man I’d been in love with.

Three years ago, I ended our relationship because his globe-trotting lifestyle as a successful hedge fund manager was increasingly leaving little time for us.

But here he was now, in a perfectly fitted black suit, his eyes as blue and as intense as I remembered them to be.

I didn’t want to admit it, but my God did he ever look good…

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