No Time for Traditions by Kaci Lane

 

 

Chapter 1

He was just about to kiss her for the first time when Brittany’s alarm went off. She sighed, making a note of where to pick up in the manuscript.

Her boss, Cassandra, ran the boutique press more efficiently than any business Brittany knew, even her family’s timber and farm company in Alabama. That left little excuse for Brittany showing up late to her annual work evaluation. Even if she’d just gotten to the good part in a new story.

Brittany fumbled her feet until they connected with the Steve Maddens resting under her desk. After smoothing out her slacks, she took a deep breath and headed for Cassandra’s office.

Evaluations happened every year, but they always gave her jitters. Last year, the evaluation had ended in a promotion from copy editor to editor, which came with an office and a nice pay raise. Maybe Cassandra would show her favor again this year. Lord knew she’d earned it.

Aside from Cassandra, Brittany spent the most time at work. Of course, this was her choice. Most of the other women had families waiting at home, or at the least a dog or cat. Brittany had nobody or nothing to concern herself with aside from her career.

And for the most part, that was the way she liked it.

Brittany tapped lightly on Cassandra’s closed door. She knew better than to wait around and let Cassandra assume she’d come by later than expected. Even if another evaluation had carried over beyond schedule, Cassandra would honor her promptness more than not interrupting. Brittany liked to think her ability to read people and notice the tiniest of details gave her an edge as an editor, and before that, as a writer.

“Come on, Brittany.”

Brittany smiled, knowing she’d made the right choice in not waiting. She opened the door and walked into the room, decorated more like a library than a CEO’s space.

Cassandra’s small frame hid behind a huge antique desk with shelves of books on either side. It was amazing how someone so small and pleasant looking could strike fear in an instant. The fact that she wore navy blue ninety percent of the time made her appear even more militant. Still, Brittany respected Cassandra and had come to like and admire her over the past five years.

“Hi, Cassandra.” Brittany took a seat on the mid-century sofa facing Cassandra’s desk. Another feature that gave the room a library feel.

“Hello, Brittany. Let’s see here.” Cassandra put on her bifocals and glanced down at some papers in front of her. Brittany made her eyes focus on her boss rather than the papers. “I’ve saved you for last today.”

Despite learning to read Cassandra well, Brittany wasn’t sure what she meant by that. One thing she did know, however, was Cassandra didn’t waste words. Everything she said had some underlying meaning.

“Let’s see.” Cassandra clicked her tongue and held up a paper for closer review. “You’ve met all deadlines. Writers respond well to your methods of communication. And all your books sell well. You’ve done a phenomenal job this year as editor.”

“Thank you.” Brittany smiled as she relaxed her shoulders.

“But . . .” Cassandra let the page float from her hand to the desk and eyed Brittany over her spectacles.

And there it was. The “but.” This woman couldn’t give straight compliments. She liked to build people up before tearing them down. Some people appreciated the niceties accompanying a critique, but Brittany never was one for sugar coating any news. Just get to the point and don’t dance around the real issue.

“But?” Brittany repeated, trying to prod Cassandra into finishing her thought.

Cassandra set her glasses on top of her notes. She folded her hands on her desk and narrowed her brown eyes.

“In all honesty, I need more help with acquisitions. I’m thinking of creating a position that focuses more on that, with some editing involved, and I think you’d be perfect for it.”

Brittany bit her bottom lip, still unsure of where this was going. She wanted to ask if the new job was a promotion or, hopefully not, a demotion. Her gut instinct told her to hear Cassandra out before asking any questions. She’d learned over the years, especially through books, that sometimes a question would answer itself if you stuck around long enough.

“It would come with a pay raise and essentially be a promotion. Of course, that would mean more responsibility as well.”

Brittany nodded. There was her answer.

“I know you’re going to The Hills tomorrow for Christmas.”

A slight laugh escaped. “Hillside.”

“Yes. I clearly know nothing about the South.”

“That’s fine.” Brittany smirked, happy to see Cassandra’s lips curve a bit. They’d spent enough time together for Brittany to see a more human side of her now and again.

“Anyway, think about this over the holiday, as will I.” Cassandra started stacking papers on the edge of her desk, indicating the evaluation was complete.

“Thank you, Cassandra.”

Cassandra nodded. “Have a safe flight.”

Brittany stood and made her way toward the door. Halfway across the creaky hardwood, she stopped and turned to her boss. “Cassandra?”

“Yes?” Cassandra looked up from organizing her files.

“I hope you have a Merry Christmas.”

“Thank you, Brittany. You as well.” Cassandra offered her a genuine smile this time. A closed-lip, non-excited smile, but nonetheless a heartfelt one. At least for her.

“Close the door, please, on your way out.”

As Brittany made her way down the hall to her own office, she couldn’t help but feel a little sad for Cassandra. For all Brittany knew, Cassandra might have a calendar filled with events and take in all the Christmas magic New York City had to offer. That sounded pleasant in theory, but the Cassandra she knew would most likely go to the office every day except Christmas and maybe Christmas Eve, doing little more for the holiday than dinner and a play with her elderly parents.

Back at her desk, Brittany checked her email once more, making sure all her away messages were set. She messaged an author, assuring her she’d be available should an emergency arise. Then she packed her laptop bag and locked up everything for the well-earned vacation days she saved up each year for Christmas.

Sometime tomorrow, she would relax on her mom’s couch with a hot chocolate and a holiday movie playing in the background. It would be the first Christmas since her grandpa died, which might make things a little hard. Still, she couldn’t wait to see her brother’s family and catch up with all her cousins, as most of them lived in or near Hillside.

Brittany pulled her wavy brown hair back with a ponytail holder and buttoned her overcoat. Perfect timing to meet her friends for one last dinner before the holidays.

* * *

Before heading out to dinner,Brittany stopped by her studio apartment to drop off her laptop. Brittany admired the Christmas decorations throughout the building on her way to her floor. She loved everything about the holidays, from the decorations and music to the food and family gatherings. When she made it to her door, she spotted Alice, who lived in the apartment next to her, juggling a few rolled yoga mats in her arms, along with a duffle bag and purse.

“Let me help.”

“Thanks, Brit.” Alice let Brittany grab the mats so she could fish out her keys.

“Long day?” Although Brittany worked a lot, she didn’t envy Alice’s schedule. She taught Pilates at a hip fitness studio and often worked all morning and again late in the evening, with her off time in the afternoons.

“Just busy. Most women seem to think if they pack in as many classes as possible right before Christmas, it will somehow counteract all the turkey and cheesecake.”

Brittany laughed.

“Aren’t you headed out of town?”

“Tomorrow morning. I’m going to dinner in a minute.”

“Oh yeah. Thursday. No Brides friends.”

“Yep.” Brittany handed Alice back her stack of mats once she’d opened her door. “Hey, you should come with me. I think you’d like them.”

“Thanks, but I have an impending date with a hot shower.”

Brittany sighed. “I understand that.”

“Maybe when things slow down.”

“So when we’re retired?” Brittany raised an eyebrow.

Alice bobbed her blonde head and scrunched her pierced nose. “Uh, yeah . . . How about after the holidays, then?”

“Deal.” Brittany opened her own door. “Have a Merry Christmas.”

“You, too, girl.” Alice smiled and ducked inside her own door.

Brittany set her laptop on the small table beside the entry and glanced in the mirror hanging above it. Tired circles cupped her blue eyes, but she didn’t have time to touch up her makeup. She pulled her ponytail out and tousled her hair. That would do. It wasn’t like her appearance mattered much, anyway. The No Brides Club didn’t exactly ooze a vibe of wanting to attract eligible bachelors. Thus, the name of their group.

Brittany locked up and made her way out of the building, deciding her time was better spent enjoying the walk to Briarwood Tavern. It was just a few blocks from her apartment, and something about the quiet, cobblestone streets gave her a bit of solace from the hustle of New York City. Even better, this time of year, all the storefronts and street-side landscaping sparkled with tiny white or multi-colored lights. Brittany soaked in all the snowiness of her surroundings. Nothing beat going home for Christmas, but white Christmases in Alabama were about as common as a first novel becoming a classic.

In true NYC holiday fashion, the Briarwood Tavern had lights as well. From the front entrance to the rooftop bar, white circular lights draped over every entryway. Brittany entered, and was pleased to see festive greenery adorning the staircase as she made her way to the top floor.

Kinsley, the club’s founding member, waved her over to their usual booth. Brittany grinned when she saw Melody sitting across from her.

Brittany adored all the women in the group—more than a dozen total—and their tight-knit bond that she hadn’t found otherwise in New York. But she had instantly connected on a deeper level with Melody since they both grew up in the South and both wrote. Well, Melody wrote songs and music, while Brittany mainly daydreamed about writing a novel.

“Hey, girl.” Kinsley smiled at Brittany as she picked up her cocktail. “How was work?”

Melody patted the leather bench next to her, and Brittany plopped down, letting out a sigh. “Let’s just say I’m overdue for my vacation.”

“There’s nothing quite like a hometown Christmas to reset your system.” Melody’s green eyes glistened as she spoke.

“I agree.” Brittany smiled at her friend as the waiter appeared. After spending every Thursday night here for the past two years, Brittany didn’t need to look at the menu.

“I’ll have the Poinsettia and fried shrimp.”

“Thanks. I’ll be back with your drink.” The waiter rushed away through the crowd.

“How are you still so small eating like that all the time?” Kinsley shook her head and laughed.

“Running Central Park and Pilates, I guess.” Brittany shrugged. “Besides, of all the things I’ve had here, the fried shrimp is an instant mood lifter.”

Brittany remembered well the night she stumbled upon Briarwood Tavern for the first time. She’d walked by after work one Thursday and decided to stop and grab a bite to eat. The place was crowded, so she’d sat alone at the bar. Big mistake.

By the time Brittany had taken only a few bites of her shrimp, at least three random men had come by and tried to chat. Brittany brushed them all away, the last not quite receiving the message. That’s when Kinsley came out of nowhere and invited her to sit with the group Brittany would soon learn called themselves the No Brides Club. Like a guardian angel in designer fashion, she’d swept in and saved Brittany from a bunch of smarmy suits.

Ever since that night, Brittany had made Thursdays at Briarwood a thing and enjoyed getting to know all the ladies. Some had since married, including Kinsley and Melody, but the bonds they formed kept their camaraderie intact despite changes in life.

The waiter placed Brittany’s Christmas cocktail in front of her. A sprig of mint adorned the red drink, giving it a festive feel.

“Where’s everyone else?” Often, they had to pull extra chairs over to accommodate everyone.

“A few of the girls are popping in later, but everyone else is either at a holiday event for work or out of town,” Melody said.

“I’m surprised you’re in town.” Brittany hadn’t expected Melody to show up this week since she now lived in Kentucky and was married, with a little girl.

“I have a Christmas album event tomorrow and flew in early to catch up.”

“Well, I’m glad you did.” Kinsley tucked her blonde locks behind her ear and took another sip of her drink. “I’m heading back to the reserve sometime tomorrow after a few closings and won’t be back in town myself until the New Year.”

Like Melody, Kinsley spent most of her time out of town. She now lived a few hours away upstate at a wildlife sanctuary she inherited from her aunt. While her husband ran Forever Wild, Kinsley still owned King Realty and traveled into the city often for work. Brittany sometimes envied how both women found a way to balance their personal and professional lives while living in more rural areas. It wasn’t like she never wanted to have a family or return to Alabama. But for now, her career wouldn’t allow her to do so.

“So, Brittany, when do you leave?” Kinsley asked.

“Tomorrow morning. With any luck, I’ll land in Birmingham around noon.”

“Small towns are the best at Christmas.” Melody’s gaze went dreamy again. “It’s even sweeter once you get to relive all those traditions through the eyes of a child.”

“I’m sure my brother will have all kinds of activities planned for us to do with his son.”

Brittany popped the last piece of shrimp in her mouth about the time a few other women were headed for the table. They exchanged greetings, and the conversation shifted to what each had planned for the holidays.

In all her excitement, a bit of worry welled up in the pit of Brittany’s stomach. This would make the first year her grandpa wasn’t next door. And every year, she spent less time with her cousins. Between busy careers and new marriages and more children, her family didn’t celebrate quite the way it once did. A small part of her worried she would arrive to find they had no time for traditions.