how nick and holly wrecked...saved christmas

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

About Carla Rossi

Day One - The Unwelcome Coincidence.

Day Two—The Terror Continues.

Day Three—Karaoke is Evil and Must Be Destroyed.

Day Four—Further Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Day Five—Hillbilly Cops Are Afraid of Old Ladies.

Thank You

How Nick and Holly
Wrecked
Saved Christmas

 

 

Carla Rossi

 

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.

 

How Nick and Holly Wrecked Saved Christmas

 

COPYRIGHT 2013 by Carla Rossi

 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author or Pelican Ventures, LLC except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.

 

eBook editions are licensed for your personal enjoyment only. eBooks may not be re-sold, copied or given to other people. If you would like to share an eBook edition, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with.

 

Contact Information: [email protected]

 

 

Cover Art by
Nicola Martinez

 

Watershed Books, a division of Pelican Ventures, LLC

www.pelicanbookgroup.com
PO Box 1738 *Aztec, NM * 87410

 

Watershed Books praise and splash logo is a trademark of Pelican Ventures, LLC

 

Publishing History

First Watershed Edition, 2013

Electronic Edition ISBN 978-1-61116-343-8

Published in the United States of America

Dedication

 

To Ashley, one of my favorite choir nerds.

 

About Carla Rossi

 

 

Carla Rossi is a multi-published, award-winning author as well as a cancer survivor, life-long music minister, and speaker. She has been writing inspirational romance for Pelican Book Group since 2007. Carla lives north of Houston with her husband and writing partner— a Maine Coon Cat. She has three grown children and one grandson.

 

 

 

 

Day One - The Unwelcome Coincidence.

 

 


You
!”

I blink hard because it can’t possibly be true. I must have my contacts in backwards, but how could I possibly tell? My face is swollen, my eyes are turning black, and the bandage on my nose obscures most important obstacles in front of me. “What are
you
doing
here
?”

“Holly...” he says all embarrassed-like and clearly as surprised as me.

“Forget it,” I say and attempt to drag my bright purple rolling suitcase up the last two snow-covered steps. “It’s the cherry on top of my Christmas vacay to find you here. Yay me.” I keep tugging, but the stubborn wheels won’t slide over the last slippery step. “This is insane! This is a senior complex. How do they expect the decrepit people to get up these stairs?”

Nick clears his throat. This causes me to look at him again which in turn hurts my face. He’s pointing to the center’s accessible ramp, and I can’t believe I haven’t passed out from the embarrassment.

“Let me help,” he says.

The snow crunches beneath his brown winter boots. My smashed nose barely works, but I can’t miss the scent of cigarette smoke and intense something-or-other men’s body spray he’s been squirting to cover up his habit.

“Stay away from me, Nick Zernigan. I’ve had enough of your help.”

I lunge forward with such force I lose my balance and fall to one knee. Nick’s boots are crunching snow again and I practically lie all the way down with my broken face to the icy porch boards to avoid his outstretched hand.

“I’ve got it,” I say and struggle to stand up, my gloves and jeans now saturated with wet, heavy snow. “Stay back.”

“Whatever,” he says and turns.

“Wait a minute. Why are you here? Your house is twenty miles away on the other side of the lake.”

“What are you, my probation officer?”

“Why? Do you have one of those?”

“No.” His breath swirls in front of him in the frosty air as he adjusts his hat over his stringy black hair. I swear his teeth are chattering. “My great-aunt and uncle live here. Well, my aunt does. My uncle died a couple weeks ago. My dad thought I should spend some time here while he... Never mind.” He nods toward my bag and stuffs his hands in the pockets of his coat. “Why are you here?”

“Sorry about your uncle.” The cold stings the inside of my sore nose. “My granny’s here,” I rush to add and finish the conversation. My anger bubbles again and I refuse to share with Nick Zernigan how my mother’s boyfriend has whisked her away to somewhere tropical while I’ve been banished to the old folks’ home to rot over Christmas. The situation is so unfair I know my teeth will crack if I keep gritting them about it. “Anyway.” I tug my coat closed. “I can’t believe we both have family here.”

“It’s no great mystery, Holly. Black Diamond West Virginia isn’t all that big.”

He must think I’m stupid. “Yes, I know. We have a mountain and a lake. The best of skiing for two seasons. Almost Heaven West Virginia and all that. I’ve been on this God-forsaken mountain my whole life too, you know.”

“Yeah, well, see you around.”

Nick hesitates.

I do, too, but try to avoid his coal black gaze. The length of his lashes defies the laws of nature. He looks like a catalog model, and I look like I’ve been hit by a bus—all because of him.

“I’m sorry again about the... You know.” He waves his finger in front of his face and then points it my way.

My glare is as cold as my swollen face will allow. “Forget it.”

He opens the door for me. “Merry Christmas, Holly.”

Humph. Christmas is wrecked.

“Merry stinkin’ Christmas, Nick.”

 

****

 

I love my granny. She is the rock star of all grannies everywhere. But she didn’t deserve to have me dumped on her doorstep at Christmas any more than I deserved being the dumpee.

“Knock knock,
cheri
,” she chirps. “You awake? I heard your phone going off.”

I pull the buds from my ears and peek out from under the six quilts she heaped on me to keep me from freezing to death. “I’m awake,” I say and glance at my phone. “It’s 9:00 PM and I’m in bed. I’ve reached a new level of pathetic.”

She laughs, and I see she’s brought another blanket.

“Step away from the quilt, Granny. You’ve already buried me so deep in the patchwork avalanche that I’m losing signal.”

“This entire complex is wireless. You should have plenty of signal unless the snow’s picked up. Sometimes it gets slow when there’s heavy snow on the mountain.”

I produce a nasally half-snort. The mountain. Hate it.

I adjust my pink and black flannel bottoms and twist my tank into place.

She shivers and makes sure the blinds are all the way down. “It’s always so cold in this room. Are you sure you-”

“Positive.”

She laughs and pulls away layers of bedding and neatly folds and stacks quilts at the end of the dresser. “How’s that?”

“Better.” I pat the bed.

Granny settles in on the end. “Were you talking to Amanda?”

“Texting.”

“You know there’s no reason Amanda can’t visit you here or pick you up to go out. I’d be happy to send you for a Christmas luncheon together at the tearoom. My treat.”

“Thanks, Granny, but Amanda is in Ohio with her family.”

I imagine my best friend crammed in an SUV with her slutty older sister, obnoxious younger brother, and her over-protective parents. It’s a wonder her head stays attached with all the information she stores. Her sister does this, her parents don’t know that, her brother got in trouble there... No one but Amanda seems to know what’s really going on. But at least she’s with her family at Christmas. Her
whole
family.

“Now,” Granny says. “What do we need to do about that nose? Do you need acetaminophen? Or do we need to change the tape? It’s starting to peel around the edges.”

I growl. I grunt. I groan and flop myself into the deep downy pillows. “There’s nothing left to do,” I wail. “It doesn’t hurt anymore. All this dressing can come off in the morning. As of now, it’s supposed to be healing on its own. I have a decongestant and some antibiotics.” I crawl toward granny and put my head in her lap. “I’m hideous.”

She gathers my hair in her slightly crooked fingers and runs her red nails across my scalp and through it like a comb. It feels so good I curl into a kitten-like ball and lean into her hand. It is the best feeling.

My mother never does this.


Mon cheri
, you are not hideous. There is no permanent damage and you will heal. The bruising will get lighter every day. You will be good as new when school starts again.”

“Ug... School. They’ll gawk at me anyway.” I moan and twist. I am so irritated and angry with the whole situation I can think of little else. “I was the only junior with a solo in the holiday show. The only female vocalist with
two
Christmas classics—and one of them was that duet with Tyler Hallmark.”

“I was there,
cheri
. I remember.”

“Then I’m sure you also remember how that freak-show loser Nick Zernigan, assaulted me with the
Baby, It’s Cold Outside
set-piece and ruined the show. And quite possibly my life, career, nose, and vocal reputation.”

“A terrible accident, I agree, but certainly not a career or life-ending tragedy.”

“Nick and his crew were in charge of set construction and design. They should have made sure that poorly painted piece of plywood was secure. Instead, I get pounded with a falling two-by-four, mid-song.”

“There was faculty supervision,
oui
?”


Oui
.”

“It’s not Nick’s fault. You don’t know for sure what happened, and someone should have been double-checking the work. That’s common safety procedure.”


Oui, mamie
,” I answer again, but my French phrases don’t sound eloquent and natural like my nearly one hundred percent French granny. I sound like a hillbilly mountaineer trying to be chic.

Granny shrugs and runs her hand along my bare arm. “It was a magnificent performance.”

“It was a nightmare of public humiliation.”

“Agree to disagree,” she says. “And by the way, this is not an old folks’ home.”

“I know.”

“I heard you call it that when you were sassing your mom on the phone earlier. It’s a senior community. I’m not old.”

She can call it what she wants, but she had to be at least fifty-five to get an apartment here. “I know it’s not like a nursing home or anything... And I was only making a point with mom. Point being I can’t eat dinner at four o’clock and I’m sure I’m the only person visiting at Christmas who’s under sixty.”

“This is like any other apartment building. We can eat dinner when we want because we make it—or order it—ourselves. Lots of residents have visitors at Christmas.”

“And lots of residents vacation in southern climates at Christmas. Maybe your old neighbor Carl will run into my mom and Jake.”

Granny stretches out and rests her head in her hand. Her lavender sweat pants and matching zipped hoodie bring out the blue in her eyes. With her perfect upturned nose, shiny hazelnut-from-a-box hair color, and near-flawless skin, it is impossible to determine her age. She refuses to disclose the assumed advanced number and I refuse to make like a detective and ruin the game.

“You know your mother and Jake are planning to arrive home on Christmas day.”

“I know. She insists they will be back and we’ll have family Christmas at our house, but what’s the point? We will have already missed everything. Caroling with the church, Christmas Eve service... And I was supposed to sing the cantata with the chancel choir until
this
happened.”

I point again at my repulsive disfigurement. Granny snatches my hand from mid-air.

“You are beautiful,
mon amour
.” She reaches for a strand of hair that has dropped across my shoulder. “Look at this. Long, dark, thick. So much like your mother’s at your age. And those eyes. So blue. Everything will heal, and your mother will be back for Christmas, and we’ll have a wonderful time.” She sits up and adjusts the huge sapphire ring that has slipped out of place on her small finger. “Now. I did not decorate for Christmas because I thought I would enjoy the decorations at your house. But since you’re here for a few days, would you like to deck the halls? Would that put you more in the holiday spirit?”

I would rather thread my eyeballs onto a strand of tinsel.

“Fine, fine,” she says and heads for the door. “We don’t have to put up a tree.”

“Oh no, Granny, did I say that out loud? Sorry.”

“No you did not, but I can read that beautiful face. We can enjoy the decorations in the recreation center downstairs. There will be festivities all week for the residents. There’s a Christmas film festival with everything from
It’s A Wonderful Life
to
Elf.
There’s a Christmas dance, karaoke... You name it.”

“I thought you said this wasn’t an old folks’ home.”

“It’s not. But there’s an activity director who plans events to keep residents involved. And that reminds me. Don’t call me “granny” in front of my friends here.”

“Excuse me?”

“That word makes me sound old.”

I gasp and fake distress. “Why Granny, are you ashamed of me? It’s this train wreck of a face, isn’t it?”

“Oh no,
cheri
. You are the brightest gemstone, the most brilliant and fiery diamond of my existence.”

Must. Stop. Her. Now. Once she’s making gemstone references, it’s only a short hop to memory lane and hours of stories about her work as an international jewelry, er, something-or-other. It remains a mystery what she actually did for a living once my grandfather disappeared.

“OK, lady, take your foot off the gas. What would you like me to call you?”

She shrugs. “Call me by my first name. Call me Collette.”

“Done. Anything else I should know? Do you have a boyfriend hidden around here? You didn’t by chance find us a nice new wealthy grandpa for Christmas now, did ya?”

“Oh, Holly, don’t be gauche.”


Wh-at
? You know I need a car. A wealthy new grandpa might come in handy.”

She pauses near the door to smile at me.


Je t’aime,
Holly,” she says and blows me a kiss.


Je t’aime
, Collette.”

 

 

 

 

 

Day Two—The Terror Continues.

 

 

“Nick? What are you doing back here?”

“Hey, Holly,” he says as we press against the crowd at the popcorn machine. “It is a free country, you know. I can visit my aunt any time I want.”

“Sorry.” I don’t know what it is about this guy that gets on my last healthy nerve and makes me forget my good manners. “I’m surprised, that’s all. I mean, I’m stuck here because I don’t have a car and my mom’s out of town. But you have transportation. You have a choice.”

“No, I don’t. But yes, I’m free to come and go—as is everyone here, Holly. It’s not a prison.”

I scan the rec room. There is no one else near our age. “Debatable,” I snap back and then once again feel the need to apologize. “Sorry. What do you mean you don’t have a choice?”

“My dad’s out of town. He wouldn’t let me stay at home alone. I’m staying with my aunt for a few days.”

And now I feel sorry for Nick the way I’ve been feeling sorry for myself.

We push forward with the crowd. Nick towers over the others and stretches around them to grab bags. “I’ll get it,” he says. You should step back. Someone might bump your nose.”

I glance at the old guy beside me and then smile at Nick. “It’s not exactly a mosh pit, but OK.”

“How many?”

I want to say two, but then I’d look like a pig. “One. For Granny.”

“Meet me at the drink table.”

I slide my phone and bottle of green glitter nail polish into my pocket as I approach the table. I catch my reflection in the large silver coffee maker. Granny was right. The swelling is down and the angry red streak across the bridge of my nose is slowly turning pink.

“I got what I could.” Nick has six small paper bags trapped between his fingers. “These old guys are serious about their popcorn.”

I push hair away from my face and unsuccessfully try to take a bag from his grasp.

“Uh... Sorry,” he says and pulls his hand away. “If I let go of one, I let go of them all.”

“I’ll get the drinks,” I say and pick up a cup. “May I offer you red stuff or yellow stuff? Or there’s coffee.”

“No coffee. My uncle used to say this coffee is like Army coffee. He suggested I stay away from it. That one looks good.”

“Red stuff it is.” I fumble with the spout on the large plastic dispenser. “I know what you mean. My granny drinks some crazy-strong brew so I’d do about anything to see a venti red holiday Starbucks cup right now.”

“Anything?” He is teasing-slash-flirting with me. His smile is wide and shy and I turn away because semi-bad-boy and rumored loser, Nick Zernigan, must never know I think he’s a hottie. Especially since I’m wearing navy yoga pants and a vintage—meaning tattered—WVU sweatshirt. Who knew he’d be back?

“I’m sorry about yesterday, Nick. I was upset about something else and was rude to you.”

He shrugs. His oversized mustard-colored thermal shirt moves on his slender body as he now cradles the popcorn bags in his arms. “A hard blow to the nose with a board will do that to a person.”

“About that,” I continue and separate two more cups from the stack. “I’m over it. I know it wasn’t your fault. It was an accident.”

His eyes get so big I want to laugh. Leave it to me to make any guy feel completely uncomfortable.

I look away. “So... Does your aunt want red stuff, too?”

“No. She brought something.”

I pick up the full cups.

“It looks good,” he says too fast as if the words were trying to escape from his mouth.

“What?”

“I mean you look good. Your nose.”

“Thanks. It feels better with the tape off. I tried dusting some powder around my black eyes and adding some make-up, but I don’t think it helped. I look like a seriously deranged raccoon who knows how to use lip gloss.”

He laughs. “No. It’s not—”

His words are cut off when a short—like real short—woman slaps him on the back. A few pieces of popcorn bounce out of the bags.

“Nick! Glad you could make today’s movie.”

From the polo shirt with the complex’s name on it to the ID badge and coiled key ring bracelet at her wrist, I know this is the great activity director I’ve heard so much about. And I have to say it. She has a man’s haircut. I’m not saying it looks bad or anything, but if she’s trying to look like a female Ryan Seacrest, she’s pretty much nailed it.

“You must be Holly.” She extends her hand. “I’m Tanya Bates, the activity director here.”

I put the cups back down. “Nice to meet you, Tanya.”

She motions over her shoulder. “I’ve been visiting with your grandmother and Nick’s Aunt Ivy. I understand you’re a very talented vocalist.”

I look their way. Granny and the assumed Aunt Ivy are cozied up in a cluster of chairs around a small table not too far from the big screen. Granny waves and, like a dork, I wave back before I remember how embarrassed I am.

“Thank you, but no, I’m not that big a deal.”

“I hope you’ll consider participating with us this week. Tomorrow is Christmas karaoke. We’d love to hear you sing.”

Wow. Just
wow
.

Nick is no help at all as he looks at the ceiling as though he doesn’t hear.

Tanya returns her attention to him. “We’re on for tomorrow morning?”

“Sure. I’ll be there.”

“Great. We have karaoke tomorrow night and the dance is the day after. We can also talk about setting up the room for the interfaith Christmas Eve candlelight service. Father Jonathan and Pastor Allen are going to let me know what they need.”

“Sure thing.”

“And Holly. Glad to have you. I hope you’ll consider performing for us. A lot of our older residents don’t get out much in the winter. They have an understandable aversion to the snow and ice on the roads. They would consider it an honor and a real treat to hear you sing.”

“If the nose permits,” I say with a smile and point to my face like it’s not obvious what I mean. “It’s much better, but I still sound like I’m stopped up.”

Tanya pats me on the arm. “We appreciate the effort,” she says and moves on.

Nick tries to maneuver a piece of popcorn into his mouth. “You’re going to sing?”

I pick up the cups again and head for Granny. “I will try. Why are you so surprised?”

“For starters, you haven’t seemed like you’re in a Christmas carol singing mood.”

“Well, first of all I love to sing. There’s always stage fright and nerves, but I try not to miss an opportunity. I have to practice and you never know what will look good on a college application. I can’t get off this mountain if I don’t get into a good music school.”

“You know what would really look good on a college application? If you came here every week and led the sing-a-long. Colleges love that community service cred. They talked all about it at our last class meeting. What’s the second thing?”

I pause and turn to look up at him. I’m not ashamed of my faith, nor do I hide my relationship with Christ. I don’t, however, Bible-thump in the halls of Black Diamond High. I’ve already committed enough social suicide simply by being a choir nerd. But I have to ask myself: Do I care what Nick Zernigan will think of me when he hears I’m a Jesus freak? Not really. Especially since the highlight of my Christmas vacation will not be a party or a date, but rather a senior citizen Christmas dance—where I will probably bust a move with my granny. Or some old guy named Otis.

Shame is no longer a concern here.

“The second thing is the Parable of the Talents.”

Nick twists his gorgeous face into a question mark. “Parable. That’s Bible talk, right?”

“Yes.” I start walking again.

“Cool, cool,” he says and catches up. “Uh... What does—”

“Over here,” Granny shouts and waves and I find this hilarious because we’re ten feet away and walking right toward her.

“Wait,” Nick says and stops again.

“What?”

“I have to go check on my house later and get the mail. Do you want to come? We can go by Starbucks.”

I try to stay calm, but Christmas bells are going off in my head, and my inner choir nerd is singing about gingerbread lattes at the top of her lungs.

And it’s not Nick I’m excited about. I know he’s only asking me because I’m the only woman on the premises with seventeen-year-old breasts—which he doesn’t get to touch, by the way, no matter how many red Starbucks Christmas cups he hooks me up with. No. I’m excited because I might actually get to leave this place for a couple glorious hours out of five long days.

I shrug and walk on. “I guess so. If my grandmother doesn’t mind. Thanks for asking.”

I set the cups on the table and Nick hands out bags of popcorn.

“Nick, this is Gran…uh...This is Collette.”


Bonjour
, Nick,” Granny says.

I roll my eyes as Granny flirts with Nick. I whip out my phone to text Amanda.

Christmas might be saved.

 

****

 

“I’ll get it,” Nick says and jiggles the passenger door handle of his old truck. “Sometimes it sticks when it’s this cold.”

I smile politely and catch his return smile in the glow from the street light in the complex’s parking lot.

The door creaks like ancient metal as it comes open. I toss my small backpack inside and pray I don’t slide off the frozen running board.

Nick’s hand is steady at my back. “Got it?” he asks sweetly and waits for me to settle in.

“Got it.”

He hops in the truck and flings off his gloves. “Takes it a minute to heat up.”

I nod, but I’m already cozy in my boots, scarf, vintage wool coat, and jeans.

And I’m far too excited for this outing. Note to self: Lose the goofy grin. You haven’t won a walk-on appearance in a Broadway show. You’re riding around the mountain in Nick Zernigan’s old truck.

A new cigarette drops from somewhere, bounces on the seat, and lands near my foot. I grab for it in the dark before it finds moisture from the slush dripping off the bottom of my boots.

“Here,” I say.

He puts the truck in reverse and holds out a lighter. “Fire it up.”

“I’m not firin’ it up, Nick. I don’t smoke. Do you know what that does to your vocal cords? And what it would do to my nose? It’s yours. I found it on the floor.”

He laughs as he wedges both items in the visor. “Chill,” he says. “I didn’t think you smoked.”

“You shouldn’t smoke either,” I blurt out before I can stop myself.

I mumble under my breath and turn toward the window. I shiver from embarrassment more than the cold, and realize I just sounded like my mother and Nick Zernigan is laughing at me.

Is Starbucks worth this humiliation?

If I only had a car...

“I don’t smoke all the time,” he says. “Sometimes I do when I’m out with friends. Or at a party.”

He drums his thumbs on the wheel as he waits for an opening at the exit. “Did your grandmother give you a list?”

“Yes. She and your Aunt Ivy must’ve talked because when I left she handed me an envelope and said we would be picking up a few things. I hope that’s OK.”

Nick shrugs. “Doesn’t make any difference to me. I’ve been running a lot of errands for my aunt. She doesn’t have a car and relies on the shuttle.”

“My granny has a car, but she doesn’t drive in the winter. It’s a classic car so she stores it at Melvin’s Body Shop to keep it out of the weather and off the treated roads.”

“What is it?” His huge, dark eyes shimmer as he glances my way at a stop sign.

“It’s a red 1970 Camaro Z-28.”

“No way! That is
sweeeet
.”

“It is,” I agree. “Mint condition. Not many like it.”

“That’s... Wow.”

“I know. It’s pretty awesome.”

“Do you know what’s under the hood?” He’s smiling now like a happy baby or like my mom when Jake hugs her in the kitchen and says he’ll clean up.

“I’m not sure. Maybe something with a three in it?”

“Gotta be a 350. Gotta be.”

“I can’t believe you haven’t seen it around town. Or heard it. It rumbles like a thunder storm when she rolls up to an intersection.”

“You are killing me.”

“Sorry,” I say and laugh. “When the mountain thaws out you can ask her to go for a ride.”

He is still smiling and when he does, Nick Zernigan doesn’t look so much like a dangerous-smoking-loser-bad-boy. I try to relax.

We start down the two-lane highway from Granny’s little community to the great metropolis of Black Diamond. Grey, slushy snow piles appear at random along the side of the road and large yellow road signs with blinking lights warn of hazardous curves and falling rocks. The dense woods on either side envelope the truck in darkness and only the occasional beams from oncoming traffic and our own headlights interrupt the black night ahead of us as we travel down the mountain.

Nick clears his throat and messes with the radio. “I thought we’d stop at the store first, and then swing by my house. Then I have to make one other stop, and then we’ll drive out to Starbucks.”

“Sounds good,” I say and fidget with my phone. Why Amanda thinks I have something to report this early in our non-date is beyond me, though I can already say I’ve embarrassed myself at least once. I tuck my phone in my coat pocket. “Are you working for that activity director or something?”

“No. My aunt told her I was staying a few days and volunteered me to help out. I don’t care. It gives me something to do.”

“So you’re the head of the senior Christmas dance decorating committee? Have you been cutting out snowflakes and attaching fishing line to them to hang them from the ceiling?”

“No,” he says and pulls into the grocery store parking lot. “Collette volunteered you for that.”

“You lie!”

“It’s true. I’ll be moving chairs and wooden platforms and hooking up a lame sound system. You get to hang the snowflakes.”

He dips his head and grins, and I don’t know how serious he is about anything.

I chew my bottom lip. “As long as she didn’t sign me up to call BINGO. She did that one time. I’m not over it yet.”

Nick laughs and hops out of the truck. He rushes around to make sure I’ve gotten out OK. It’s sweet the way he checks on me.

I stomp the slush off my feet amidst the whoosh of the automatic doors. It’s nearly as cold inside the store as it is out. I pull my scarf closer to my face to hide my deformity, knowing full well only a ski mask would cover it.

I grab a red plastic basket and hook it on my arm. “Granny doesn’t need much.” I take an awkward step toward the produce section because I don’t know if this is supposed to be a couples’ activity or if he wants to shop alone.

He looks around and pushes his hat further down on the back of his head before he grabs a shopping cart. “Uh... OK. I’ll meet you back up front in about ten.”

“Sure,” I say and tackle each aisle as if I’m on a scavenger hunt at youth group.

But twenty minutes later, there’s no sign of Nick at the checkout. I consider texting him, but opt to do the next logical thing—creep on him from the end of every aisle until I casually run into him.

I eventually spot him in front of the meat case along the back wall. He is leaning on the handle of his cart and popping the front wheels as he studies his list.

I push my scarf away from my mouth. “I’m done,” I say. “About to head up front.”

He passes me his list. “What does this look like to you?”

“Whole chicken.”

“That’s what I thought. But which whole chicken? The Sunday roaster or the fryer.”

“No idea. Can you call her?”

“Bunco night. She won’t answer.”

We stare at the bags of poultry as it sloshes around in its own pink juice and looks more unappetizing by the second. I study the massive cases of meat running as far as the eye can see. “I guess there aren’t many vegetarians in this part of West Virginia.”

“I’m going to get one of each,” he says and dives for the chickens with both hands.

“Wait!” I grab his sleeve.

“What?”

“I remember this from my Food Science and Nutrition elective. Here,” I say and rip a couple plastic bags off the spool above our heads. “You’re supposed to put poultry in these bags. There’s nothing but bacteria on those things.”

“Then why do we eat it?”

“It dies when you cook it.”

“I think the chicken’s already dead, Holly.”

“Not the chicken, the bacteria. It can be on there if the packaging leaks. Take the bag, please.”

He does and loads the fryer and tosses it in the cart. I pass him another one.

I’m laughing into my scarf because I’m nervous, and this is the funniest thing I’ve seen since Amanda tried to wax her own bikini line.

Now he’s laughing because he can’t get the bag open. In the struggle, the roaster drops out of his hands and slides across the tile floor.

“Forget it,” he says and grabs another one like a football and tucks it under his arm. “Let’s get out of here.”

I swing around so fast I knock a box of diapers off the edge of a display.

“Winner, winner, chicken dinner,” Nick calls out like a goofy ten-year-old as he rushes ahead with his cart.

“Wait, Nick!” I wrestle the diapers back onto the wobbly stack.

He spins with the cart, nearly knocking over more groceries. “What?”

“Aren’t you gonna pick up that chicken?”

“And do what with it? Put it back in the case with the other chickens that
haven’t
taken a slippery trip across the germy floor?”

He has a point.

“Oh, all right, Holly,” he says with a smirk. “If the chicken means that much to you, I’ll let someone up front know I dropped it and didn’t want to put it back with the others.”

“The chicken doesn’t—I mean I don’t care that much about the chicken…”

But Nick Zernigan is teasing me and races away with a snort of laughter while someone else’s Sunday dinner still sits on the floor of the meat department.

 

****

 

I stare into the inky blackness toward the lake as Nick speeds around Lakefront Drive toward his house. The moon shimmers between bare trees and dances on the water’s surface. I am dizzy from watching it move and change in the night.

He pulls into the driveway which is the size of my whole yard. I’ve arrived on the wealthy side of the lake with its shimmering outside lamps that illuminate huge houses with balconies that overlook the frozen waters of Black Diamond Lake.

I wait. I don’t know if I’m supposed to come inside or simply sit in the truck while he does what he needs to do.

“C’mon in,” he says. “I have to do a couple things and get my Aunt Ivy’s Christmas present I forgot.”

He lets us in through the garage and punches in codes on a large panel. I hear clicks and see lights flicker on elsewhere in the house and I wonder if his father is somewhere watching us from a phone app. Nick bends to remove his boots. I do the same and we pile the rest of our winter gear on a table by the door.

There are long wooden stairs and large vases of odd bushy stalks I’ve seen only in my mother’s magazines. Nick tosses his keys on the kitchen counter. He makes his way around the huge island and glances at a note.

And then pulls a six-pack of longnecks out of the fridge.

“Want one?”

I tuck a piece of hair behind my ear. “No,” I say, as if I don’t care. “No, thanks.”

The glow from inside illuminates his face as the door bumps against his leg. He studies the carton as it dangles from two fingers and I hold my breath. If he drinks that whole thing, I’ll have a situation.
I don’t want a situation, Lord. I just want my Starbucks...

“OK,” he says. The bottles clank as he puts them back. “There’s other stuff in here.”

“Something diet,” I say. “Or water.”

He kicks the door closed and hands me a can. “C’mon. I want to show you something.”

I follow him closely up unfamiliar stairs. We arrive on yet another level of this monstrous house. He leads me to a near-dark space.

Nick brushes my arm with his hand. “Hang on a minute.”

His shadow crosses in front of me. He touches a lamp in the corner and soft light wakes up the room.

My feet sink into the carpet as though I’ve stepped on warm summer sand. “This is a bedroom,” I say stupidly.

“Yes. It is.”

He opens the drapes across a wall of glass and nudges an oversized leather chair into position.

He motions for me. “C’mon.”

I don’t move. It’s a bedroom. Clearly not
his
bedroom. It’s much too perfect, too neat, too... too...
It’s a bedroom
. “This is your
dad’s
bedroom. Should we be here?”

“Geeze, Holly, don’t be such a spaz. You should see your face. And here I thought we’d reached a new level in our relationship after that whole chicken incident at the grocery store. Get over here.”

I go like a dutiful puppy.

“Have a seat,” he says.

I hesitate.


Sit
,” he commands and takes the drink from my hands. “C’mon, you’re gonna miss it.”

I sit. He rushes to turn off the lamp and then squeezes in beside me.

“Watch,” he says.

I blink as my eyes adjust to the dark. Suddenly the world opens up before me through the glass doors. I see the water, the sky, the moon. A million stars twinkle and kiss the shadowy tree tops across the lake as they take turns exploding and streak across the night sky. Piles of undisturbed snow on the deck outside frame my new view of the mountain. I suck in a breath and hold it, knowing I’ve lived on this ridge my entire life—and I’ve never appreciated it quite like this.

I cannot speak.

Nick Zernigan’s warm body is pressed against mine. I smell his masculine scent and feel him breathe beside me. My own heart flutters too loud and too hard and I am aware of the lack of space between us.

“Does this happen every night?”

“No.” He stretches and moves in the chair. “It depends. I have an app that tells me when the conditions are right for meteor showers or visible planets.”

“It’s a great view.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty decent. In the spring you can watch nesting pairs of hawks or bald eagles. My dad and I actually posted a YouTube video of that. OK... That sounded lame.”

“No it didn’t. Where is your dad, anyway?”

“He’s with his girlfriend in The Bahamas. I was supposed to be with my mom for the holidays, but her husband’s mother got sick in Germany so they had to go there. My dad already made his plans so here I am. Me and Aunt Ivy for Christmas.”

“Where does your mom live?”

“California.”

“And you choose to live here?”

“Yeah. Why not? I like it here.”

“Wow. I thought everyone who had a chance to get off this mountain would take it.”

Nick wiggles in the chair again and twists his body as though he’s trying to look at me in the faint light. “Not everyone hates it here, Holly.” He scoots up and rests his arm across the back of the chair. “Why do you?”

“I guess I don’t hate it, but it’s all I know, and I want to know more. My dad’s not a surgeon like yours, and I don’t live in a house with a view like this. I don’t have a car, I don’t have a passport, and I’ve never been as far as California. So let’s just say I’m anxious to get to college and see what else is out there.”

Nick is quiet and I want to disappear into the leather. I would say I’m sorry for dumping on him again, but it seems I say I’m sorry to Nick Zernigan a lot lately and I’m not sure why. I hug the armrest on my side of the chair and pray a shooting star bursts through the glass to change the subject.

“I don’t think I’m going to college.”

Or something like that will do it, too.

“What?” I practically choke myself.

“No need to waste my parents’ money. I’m not a good student. I should have graduated at the end of this semester, and now I can’t until May. I was ahead of schedule until I spent two semesters in California and got delayed.”

“Why, Nick? I know you’re smart. I saw your name on the honor society roster.”

“Some credits didn’t transfer, I was missing a required class, but mostly I hate school. It’s suffocating. I want to do things. Not read things. I don’t want to take a test about
why
the birds nest the way they do or
why
the stars explode when they do, I want to see it. Be a part of it. Observe and preserve it.”

“So get your butt to college and study science or birds or stars.”

“Never mind. I don’t want to study birds and stars.”

“All right. I know what you mean. I do. I want that, too. I want to sing and act and audition and perform, but I guess I can see myself doing that through college.”

Nick gets up and stands at the glass doors. “And I can see myself doing what I want to do through the military.”

“No. Way. Does your dad know this? He’s gonna freak!”

Nick shakes his head. “He doesn’t know. I’m thinking about the Army. I’ve been talking with the recruiter.”

“You mean that creepy Army guy who comes to the school during lunch? Don’t let that guy make you a bunch of fancy promises, Nick. They tell you you’ll see the world and fly helicopters but you can also end up serving roast chicken to your fellow soldiers in Kentucky. Or you can end up full of bullet holes overseas.”

“There are a lot of jobs in the Army, Holly. I have some say in what I do. They make you take tests, see what you want and what you’re suited for.”

Nick’s phone is blowing up on the nightstand. He hands me my diet cola. “We need to go and make that other stop. The Starbucks closes at midnight so we need to move.”

“Sure,” I say and help him scoot the oversized chair back to its spot.

My mind is reeling from our conversation. Nick Zernigan: Classic car lover, bird-watcher, star-gazer...
soldier
. Who knew?

“Hey, don’t say anything to anyone about the military, OK? No one knows and I need to talk to my dad. I used to talk to my uncle about it because he’s a veteran, but he’s gone now.”

“Sure, Nick. And it’s good you’re here for your Aunt Ivy. Granny says she misses him very much and is having a hard time.”

“Yeah. So how did you end up with Collette for the holidays? And watch your step,” he adds as we work our way back down the stairs.

“My mother’s boyfriend surprised her with a trip. He won it at work or something and they had to go at a certain time. I kinda think Jake wouldn’t have minded if I went along, but they couldn’t swing it financially. Either that or my mom didn’t want me to go. Then I broke my nose and I don’t know... Me and Granny for Christmas. Or at least until Christmas day. They’re supposed to be back.”