***Please excuse the block formatting and lack of editing. This is a very early sneak peek. Enjoy!
Chapter 1: Y2K
Michelle fast-walked down the hallway, nearly breaking the no running rule. The hallway was alive with holiday paraphernalia and students walking to their buses, chattering about Santa and toys they coveted. Teachers and aides were posted strategically to help and chaperone the little ones. Michelle normally had bus duty too, but her principal let her leave a few minutes early. As the gifted support teacher, Michelle didn’t have a class at that time anyway.
Mrs. Levitt gave her the evil eye as Michelle rushed past. The rumor was that Mrs. Levitt was jealous of Michelle’s beauty, wealth, and connection with the students. Michelle never thought of herself as beautiful. Her brown hair was too straight, and her breasts were too small. She did have large blue eyes, a symmetrical heart-shaped face, and an athletic build. It was more than enough to win the imaginary beauty pageant among the Radnor Elementary School staff. Mrs. Levitt made Michelle pay for her good fortune by scheduling recess during gifted support time, forcing Michelle to explain to the kids why they couldn’t go to recess. And Mrs. Levitt wasn’t the only one. There was a gaggle of the old guard secretly wishing for Michelle’s demise.
Michelle stepped outside, the cold air nipping her nose. The wind whipped her peasant dress around her legs as she hurried to her car. Her new car was part of the problem too. She pressed her key fob, her 1999 BMW flashing in response. She’d been the star of the rumor mill.
One teacher had been bold enough to say, “Must be nice to have a rich husband.”
Another had asked, “Why do you even work?”
She drove from Radnor Elementary School to her neighborhood in Villanova, Pennsylvania less than three miles and seven minutes away. It was a dream commute, one that saved her from being late each morning. She drove into her exclusive neighborhood of mansions on two-acre lots. The trees were barren, yet not a leaf covered the dormant lawns. The landscapers had cleaned every last leaf in the neighborhood in preparation for Christmas.
Her house was faced with stone and stucco, with multiple peaks, multiple chimneys, and a four-car garage. Michelle parked her BMW inside. She sighed and thought, I should’ve known. Her husband’s M3 wasn’t in the garage. Michelle went inside, tapping the beeping keypad, disarming the alarm. She walked past the laundry room, into the open plan kitchen, with a center island, commercial grade appliances, white cabinets that touched the ten-foot ceilings, and hardwood floors. She set her keys and her purse on the granite countertop, grabbing the cordless phone from the receiver. She called Jason at work. His administrative assistant, Tori, put her through to his desk.
“I’m sorry,” Jason said in lieu of a greeting.
“Does that mean you won’t be home soon?” Michelle asked.
“I’m swamped. I have clients freaking out about Y2K. They should be freaking out about the tech crash that’s coming. I’ve been on the phone all day trying to convince my biggest clients to sell their tech stocks before the end of the year. It’s insane. Anything with a dot com in the name is selling at ridiculous valuations. It’ll end in tears.”
“I’ll be in tears if you’re not home soon. We’ll be stuck in holiday traffic.”
“Would it be okay if we left tomorrow morning?”
Michelle slumped her shoulders. “Don’t do this. You promised. I left work early.”
“I know. I’m sorry. If I finish my work, I won’t worry about it over Christmas. We can leave early tomorrow morning. What difference does it make? We’ll still be there on Christmas Eve.”
“I told my mom I’d help her with dinner. She’ll have everything done by two, then she’ll complain that I didn’t help.”
“We’ll leave early tomorrow morning. I promise.”
Chapter 2: Girl Meets Boy
Jason drove Michelle’s BMW on 322 West through the Allegheny Mountains. Michelle sat shotgun, content to be a passenger. Normally, they’d take Jason’s M3, but her four-door sedan was more suitable to haul the mountain of presents in the back seat.
Jason turned down the music: Christmas flavored R&B, Michelle’s choice. “We’re not going out to any bars, are we?”
“We might. A bunch of us are planning to get together at Maguires on Christmas night.”
Jason shook his head. “I’d rather not.”
Michelle pursed her lips. “You never want to go out.”
“All they do is talk about high school. Nobody talks to me. If you’re not from Loganville, it’s like you don’t exist.”
“You just need to open up a little. Let everyone see what I see.”
“I don’t think that’ll work. I think the whole town wanted you to marry Danny.”
Michelle turned in her seat toward her husband. “It’s not like that. If you go into every social situation with a negative attitude, what do you think will happen?”
Jason frowned. “Fine. I’ll do my best.”
“Who’ll be at dinner tonight?”
“The usual suspects. My parents. Obviously. Then probably just Susie and Cody and Becky.”
“Why does everyone in Loganville have a name or a nickname that ends with the E sound? Danny, Susie, Cody.” His eyes flicked to Michelle. “Shelly.”
She mock-frowned. “People think it’s cute. Susie thinks Cody might propose over Christmas.” Michelle emphasized the E sound at the end of their names.
Jason nodded. “Good for her.”
“You like Cody, don’t you?”
“I don’t know him very well, but he seems fine.”
“My parents are over the moon. Susie hasn’t had the best of luck with men.”
Jason changed lanes, passing a pickup truck pulling a camper. “How much of that is her fault?”
Michelle shrugged. “She’s had her struggles, but I think she finally has her life together.”
“I hope so, for Becky’s sake.”
“Speaking of Becky. She was disappointed that we didn’t make it up last night. My mom told me that she wanted to play with you. She said to my mom, ‘I like Jason but don’t tell Aunt Shelly.’” Michelle giggled.
“You two have a special connection.”
Jason nodded, thinking for a moment. “I’d like to think I understand what she’s going through. It’s not easy growing up without a father.”
“I love that you spend time with her.”
Jason nodded and flashed a small grin toward Michelle.
They drove in silence for a minute. Michelle looked out over the gray mountaintops.
Jason interrupted the silence. “Who else will be there on Christmas Eve?”
Michelle turned from the window, back to Jason. “I think that’s it.”
Jason glanced at Michelle with raised eyebrows and said, “You think that’s it?”
“You know my mom. She opens up the house on Christmas Eve, so we might have some friends and relatives stop by.”
Jason glared at the road. “Friends like Danny?”
“Probably not, but maybe.”
“That’s bullshit and you know it. He’ll be there like always. Do your parents not understand how disrespectful it is to me to have your ex-boyfriend over when we’re visiting?”
Michelle let out a breath. “It’s not like that. They don’t even think about it.”
“Because they like him better than me.”
“That’s not true. He’s just more open. More outgoing. And he has that police connection with my dad.”
“You’re making my argument for me.”
She reached over and placed her hand on his thigh. “You’re missing one very important thing.” She squeezed his leg. “I love you, so my parents love you.”
He smiled, showing his dimples.
Michelle leaned over, stretching her seatbelt, and kissed him on the cheek. She sat back in her seat, admiring her husband. He was thirty-six, eight years older than Michelle. Danny and some of her old friends had made fun of the age difference, playfully chiding Michelle for marrying for money. But he wasn’t rich when they met five years ago.
It was the summer after her first year teaching at Radnor Elementary. Michelle had heard a woman yelling outside her window on a Saturday afternoon. She had parted her curtains. The middle-aged woman had pointed and yelled at a tall, dark, and handsome man. They stood in front of an old Honda Accord, parked with the hood raised.
The woman had said, “You can’t work on your car in the parking lot. I’m calling the homeowner’s association.” She stomped back to her condo, slamming the door in her wake.
The man had stood, stunned for a moment, but he hadn’t lashed out at the woman. He was thin, but his arms had muscle definition. He was cleanshaven, his brown hair cut short. His nose was a little off kilter, but he had a handsome face and dark eyes. Michelle had imagined sleeping with him. It had been over a year since she and Danny had broken up. She’d only been with one man in the interim, and he had been a distant second to her massaging showerhead.
So, she went to the mailbox, checking the empty box, and checking him out on the way. He had been installing a battery, not noticing her. Michelle had stopped behind him and cleared her throat. He had turned from the engine bay, his eyes narrowed.
Michelle had smiled and asked, “You need any help?”
“No, thank you,” he had replied.
“That’s good because I don’t know anything about cars.”
He had laughed and that was it. They were off to the races, spending every second together since.
As she stared at her husband, she thought he was still that handsome man that she’d fallen in love with.
He glanced from the road and said, “What are you looking at?”