Read the Prologue here
Twelve Years Later
“Thanks for going with me to Carolyn’s Christmas Eve party,” Julia McNamara said. She’d lived in Durham now for a few months having moved this summer to start a teaching job. She loved the kids in her new elementary school and loved even more being close to her brother, Mick.
Julia’s life, that had always been stressful and lonely, seemed to finally be coming together for her.
Mick was married and had a baby girl, Ava, who was four months old. Julia was living in the townhouse Mick had bought when he moved here over a year ago and she had an awesome roommate along with a great relationship with her older brother that she’d been missing for years.
“No problem,” Stella said. “I was just going to be alone tonight anyway.”
Stella White was Mick’s sister-in-law. Stella’s older sister, Lindsey, was married to Mick and Julia couldn’t have asked for a better roommate when Stella decided to move closer after Ava’s birth and was looking for a place to stay.
“Why aren’t you spending the time with Walker tonight?”
Stella had been dating her boss, attorney Walker Olson, for a few months. Things had been going well, so Julia was shocked they weren’t together tonight.
“It’s still early and he’s got his daughter tonight because she is spending tomorrow with her mother. If it were only the two of them I’d do it, but I’m not sure I’m ready for a big family dinner just yet.”
“They all know you are dating. You know Walker’s father and sister,” she said, grinning. Walker’s father and sister were lawyers too at the firm where Stella worked.
She grabbed a red sweater to change into while Lindsey was going through her closet looking for something. Since Julia had the day off she could have gone alone earlier to the Christmas Eve open house at Carolyn’s, but she’d rather wait for Stella to get out of work and go with her.
“I know. Walker didn’t ask and I didn’t bring it up. He’s bringing Kaylee home in the morning and then going straight to his parents like he always does. I’ll go see him later in the day. We’ll have fun at my mom’s anyway.”
“Then I get to have the place to myself,” Julia said.
“Sorry about that,” Stella said.
“Don’t be sorry. You know my history. That is my norm. I’ll be looking forward to it. Especially after having screaming kids the past few days. The only thing that gets kids worked up worse than a bag of sugar is the thought of having a week off and getting gifts on top of it.”
“I remember those days,” Stella said. “Found my boots. Ready to go?”
“Let’s hit the road.”
“I’ll drive if you want,” Stella said.
“Works for me. I’m still trying to figure out my way around this town.”
They arrived at Carolyn Fierce’s house shortly after. Carolyn had taken Julia in like one of her own since she’d always considered Mick a fifth child.
It was nice to be wanted but such an unfamiliar feeling on top of it. Maybe there was some jealousy there that Mick got a chance with another family while she was by herself. She’d never say anything though because she was happy one of them got it in their life.
She had her career to give her the family she never had. She got to think of those kids as hers and to help mold them and give them a life away from what they might be experiencing at home. Something she would have wanted as a kid.
“There you two lovely ladies are,” Carolyn said when they were greeted at the door. “Mick and Lindsey will be here soon. Mick had the day off. They are just waiting for Ava to wake up.”
She knew that. Mick, like her, didn’t have the best holiday memories either. He said he was doing things differently with his own family. The right way.
Julia wasn’t sure what was right, wrong, or indifferent. She was just used to getting by. She didn’t even like that Mick helped her out a few times over the years, but she was grateful just the same.
“Thanks for having me,” Julia said.
“Nonsense,” Carolyn said, taking her jacket. “I expected you to be here.”
Since she spent Thanksgiving with the Fierce family she was pretty sure she was expected to be with them for everything. She’d take it as it came since she was making new friends here and doing other things with singles now too.
Just not dating, which was a bummer when everyone around her was hitched it seemed.
“I still appreciate the invitation,” she said.
“Help yourself to food and drink,” Carolyn said. “Stella, Walker couldn’t make it?”
“He’s at his parents’ with Kaylee today. He’s got to bring her back to Tiffany’s in the morning,” Stella said.
“I understand. Well, you two know most that are here now since it’s family. We’ll introduce you to more as they come in or they will introduce themselves. It’s just casual. Stay as long as you want.”
“We aren’t staying that long, are we?” she said quietly to Stella when Carolyn was called away.
“No. They eavesdrop too much. I’ve learned my lesson.”
Julia laughed over the comment. On Thanksgiving, Stella and she were caught talking quietly about Stella’s relationship with Walker. Guess the Fierce women had Stella and Walker paired up in their mind to start on their matchmaking again.
Stella was open to being set up. Julia thought that was funny, but considering Carolyn had a hand in Mick and Lindsey and that turned out so well, maybe she should give it a chance when they brought it up to her.
Nah. Not happening.
She could find her own man when she was damn good and ready. So far her luck had sucked the big sour lemon in the romance department.
An hour later, they were moving around and she was sticking close to those she knew. Mostly the Fierces. She’d walked away to get a bottle of water and was stopped. “Hi. I’m Bryan. I work at Fierce Engineering. I don’t think we’ve met.”
He was probably in his mid to late thirties she was guessing. Older than her but not out of reach. She knew she was fussy even though she told herself not to be.
Most likely serious PTSD from watching her mother change out her men and complain about them so much. The last thing she wanted was to be compared to Laura McNamara, but she might have gone just a little too far in the opposite direction.
“Nice to meet you,” Bryan said. His eyes were taking her in a bit more than she felt comfortable with. Maybe she shouldn’t have worn such a fitted bright sweater, but she wanted to be festive. It was a V-neck and it was possible the guy thought she was being sexy with the way his eyes were on her tiny B-sized boobs. “And how do you know the Fierces?”
“She’s my sister,” Mick said, coming over and standing next to her. “You know, family and all.”
“Got it,” Bryan said, moving away.
“That was rude,” she said, looking at her brother. He had a smirk on his face. His size and presence were enough that he didn’t need to be mean. Not that Mick was ever mean that she could remember.
“Not as rude as his eyes on your chest. If I weren’t holding my daughter right now I might have said a bit more than what I had.”
“You said enough,” she said. “It was in your eyes that he knew to walk away. Maybe I wanted to know more about him.”
“No, you don’t,” Carolyn said. “He’s not for you. You wouldn’t get along.”
“And why is that?” Julia asked. The grin was still on her face that was close to her brother’s. She really didn’t want to talk to Bryan anymore but was curious why Carolyn thought that.
“As Mick said, his eyes were way too low. You don’t need someone looking there. You need someone looking in your eyes. Someone that will treat you well and with respect, not merely looking for a good time. That’s all Bryan ever wants.”
Which was what she’d figured out herself. “And how do you know that?” she asked, figuring Garrett, Carolyn’s husband, probably mentioned it.
“Just a guess,” Carolyn said. “He’s new. Hasn’t been employed with Fierce Engineering all that long, but I don’t care for the way he looks at women in general. So yeah, no respect and not good for you. Now if you want me to put my magic to work…”
“I’m good, Carolyn. But thanks for the heads up with Bryan.”
Carolyn patted her arm. “I figured you knew it anyway and was just yanking your big brother’s arm.”
“Was she right?” Mick asked when Carolyn moved away. He was running the tip of his nose on Ava’s now and it warmed her heart to see her brother so open and loving to his daughter. Didn’t look like he was damaged much by their upbringing. Or not permanently at least.
She reached for Ava. “Of course I knew what Bryan was about. I’m not that naïve, Mick. But I’m learning those women don’t ever seem to be wrong.”
She remembered Carolyn’s words the next afternoon when she was home alone and her phone rang. It was her mother.
She wanted to let it go to voicemail but figured if she didn’t answer it, her mother would just continue to blow her phone up.
Here she thought it was the best Christmas she’d had since she was a teen but knew it was about to be ruined.
“Merry Christmas, Mom.”
“Julia,” Laura McNamara said into the phone. “I didn’t think you would answer. Your brother didn’t.”
Figures her mother wouldn’t even come back with a nice greeting but started out bitching like normal. It’s not like they didn’t just see her last weekend. “I’m sure he’s busy right now.”
“Too busy to talk to his mother?”
“That’s not a question for me,” she said. “No one said you couldn’t have asked to come to town to see us.”
“I shouldn’t have to ask to come to town,” her mother said. “Mick should be asking me, but he’s too busy being with his new family.”
She let out a sigh and wished she hadn’t said what she did. “We were there last weekend because you said it was better for you. Now all of a sudden you are saying today would be better. What did you do today?”
“I spent it with Don.”
“Who is Don?” she asked. She lost track of the men in her mother’s life, as they changed more than Mick did Ava’s diaper throughout the day.
“He’s my new boyfriend. I’m moving in with him on the first of the year. I told you about him, didn’t I?”
“Obviously not since it’s the first I’ve heard his name. You called on Thanksgiving complaining about your bills again. Just like you were last weekend.”
That was the norm with their mom. She was always trying to hit one of them up for money. Normally Mick since he had a lot more, but Mick had put his foot down years ago and only did things to shut their mother up.
Julia couldn’t remember the last time she helped her mother out with anything since her teacher’s salary didn’t stretch that far and when she wasn’t working over the summer things were tighter. She normally got a job then but this past summer she had moved and was getting settled. She’d figure out next summer as it got closer.
Because even though her rent with Stella was manageable, she had a feeling she might be looking for another roommate at some point. She could handle the rent on her own, but it’d be tighter than her fitting into her skinny jeans after Thanksgiving dinner and she liked to have some breathing room without popping a button.
Worries for another day. Now she just wanted to get her mother off the phone.
“It doesn’t matter. Don and me, we had a nice lunch in. He had to work last night and didn’t get up until two hours ago. He didn’t want to go anywhere today.”
Which was just another contradiction with her mother like always. She wasn’t even going to ask what Don did because in a few months Don would be replaced. Either the guy would move out because he got sick of her mother, or her mother would find someone better.
When Carolyn made the comment about Bryan having no respect for women and being out for fun, she thought of her mother. Those were the men her mother attracted, but she was at fault too because she did the same thing.
No one was ever good enough. There always had to be someone out there better in her mother’s mind.
Her head fell back on the couch. Was she like her mother? Was she so fussy with men because she felt like there was more out there than she was attracting?
She hated to think that. The main difference was the fact that she normally only went on a few dates with a man before she made her decision to move on. She never moved in with them. Hell, she barely slept with a fraction of them.
“It sounds like you had a nice holiday then,” she said. Julia tried to keep the peace if she could. Must be because she spent enough time doing that in her job too.
“I did,” her mother said. “I’m sure you spent it with the Fierces.”
“Actually, no,” she said. Just to be ornery though, she added, “I did go to Carolyn’s yesterday, but today I was with Lindsey’s family.”
“Same thing,” her mother said.
“If you say so. Did the sweater I give you fit?”
“I haven’t tried it on,” her mother said. “You could have just given me a gift card or money like Mick does. Then I could buy my own things.”
“That’s impersonal,” she said.
“No, it’s not,” her mother said. “I gave you gift cards.”
She rolled her eyes. She guessed that about summed up this call. “I can send you the receipt if you want to return it,” she said.
“No. I like it. It’s a pretty color and texture. I didn’t try it on yet.”
“Then why did you have to make the comment about just giving you money?”
“Money or gift cards are always nice and easy,” her mother said.
Again, no surprise out of her mother’s mouth. “I try to put a little effort into gifts for people.”
“So you’re saying I don’t?” her mother snapped. “I should have known better than to try to call either of you today. Neither of you can be bothered with me.”
Her mother hung up before she could say another word. That was about as lovely as she thought it’d be. She tossed her phone down on the counter and got up to get a glass of wine.
That was her life now. Alone on Christmas day. Her and her wine because she was too picky to find a man. She was surprised her mother didn’t find time to slip that statement into the conversation like she normally did.
Thinking about that made her realize it wasn’t that bad of a conversation after all.