Better Watch Out
Bells! Literal jingle bells rang out as if the city of New York was saying, “Welcome to your holiday dreams, Francis Frost, where romance sparkles brighter than the lights in Times Square.”
Frannie’s shoulder jerked backward, pulling her out of her rom-com daydream to where the wheel of her luggage was caught on the threshold of the baggage claim exit. The bells stopped ringing as the woman wearing a red Salvation Army vest glanced over, her expression full of pity.
Behind her, Frannie heard people telling her to move out of the way. She apologized, smiling at the harried travelers who were sending less-than-understanding looks her way. She yanked her bag free and rolled it out of the way, allowing those she’d blocked to move past her.
“Better watch out, Frannie. New York City isn’t Walton.” Her mom had said it like a warning, as if it would be enough to keep Frannie from spending the majority of her savings to fly to the Big Apple and surprise her boyfriend, Calvin.
Frannie’s stomach fluttered with excited anticipation as she checked her phone to see how far away her Uber driver was. Two minutes. Perfect. Buttoning the top of her new North Face coat, an early Christmas gift from her mom and Evan, she stepped the rest of the way through the sliding doors, and her breath froze in her lungs.
The frigid air burned the inside of her chest, stinging her eyes and blurring New York’s stunning cityscape. Well, if she could actually see it, but from where she stood outside the airport, her focus shifted to the overwhelming number of cars, taxis, and people moving in every direction like ants.
“We’re not in Georgia anymore.”
When she’d left her apartment in Walton, Georgia, it was a balmy sixty-two. Pulling her scarf and gloves out of her carry-on bag, she felt the icy air cutting straight through her clothes to her bones. Frannie shivered and made a mental note to thank her mom for making her pack the long underwear.
Frannie followed the signs to the rideshare line, feeling her excitement grow with each step. I am here. In New York City!
For as long as she could remember, New York City had been the place where dreams came true. When she’d studied immigration in her history class, the images in her textbooks of the people who traveled thousands of miles by boat and then landed at Ellis Island to sign their names as new residents of the United States and begin a new life had stayed with her.
Her lips pulled into a wide smile again, and she couldn’t help it. In just a few hours, she might begin her own new life with Calvin.
Mrs. Calvin Prescott. It had a nice ring to it. She was about to fan out her ringless left hand again, imagining the beautiful solitaire that might be on it in a few days, but her Uber arrived. Settling into the back seat, suitcase in the trunk, she pulled out her cell phone and reread her messages with Calvin.
Frannie: Guess what?
Frannie: I’m coming to New York City!
Frannie: I know you said you were going to be there with your family for a few days and worried about making it out to Walton before returning to London but I couldn’t wait to see you!
Frannie: And you know how much I’ve wanted to go to NYC for the holidays …
Frannie: Are you surprised?
Calvin: Very. Um, do you have a place to stay?
It wasn’t the response she’d been hoping for but Calvin had never been very demonstrative in his affections—still, the question stung a little. Frannie had been hoping Calvin would invite her to stay in one of the extra bedrooms at his family’s home, but the Prescotts were a respectable family and Frannie was sure the unextended invitation had more to do with propriety than anything else.
Frannie: I’m staying at a Marriott in Times Square.
Calvin: I’ll meet you there when you get in. 6:30 work?
Perfect. Frannie put her phone away and stared out of the window as the driver pulled into the city. Giant buildings towered over and hundreds of cars and people filled the city like every movie and picture of New York City she’d ever seen. Garlands, red bows, ornaments, and thousands of twinkling lights decorated storefronts, windows, and the outside of buildings, making everything feel perfectly magical. Just the right setting for—Frannie shook her head. She couldn’t get ahead of herself. But it was so hard not to imagine how this week was going to change everything.
It’d been more than a year since she’d seen Calvin and while the long distance had made it hard to maintain their relationship, she knew once they saw each other again, their feelings would be rekindled, and maybe, just maybe … a proposal.
Two hours later, Frannie had unpacked her suitcase, hanging the clothes she’d carefully curated for the trip and looking over her bucket list of must-do winter activities here in the city—activities she was sure would bring back the spark they’d been missing lately.
For tonight, she’d chosen a black faux-leather skirt with black tights and black boots that were hiding the pink wool socks she’d slipped on her feet. Her sweater was a cashmere blend, a splurge on her after-school teaching salary, but it was the same color blue as her eyes and kept her warm. Or at least that’s how she’d justified the purchase.
Checking her reflection in the mirror, she tousled her strawberry-blond waves with her fingers before raising the thermostat for her room again. Grabbing her purse and coat, she made her way down to the lobby, her cheeks aching for a break from all the smiling she was doing.
This is it.
The 1911 lobby was a quaint boutique hotel that had at one time probably appeared sleek and modern with its dark wood, marble, and brass. However, anyone looking close enough would notice the chips, frays, and cracks that indicated a need for long overdue renovations. Frannie wasn’t concerned with those things. She chose to admire the age of the hotel and be grateful it was at least clean. And it came with views of bustling Times Square. She would need to thank the mother of one of her students who recommended a discount travel website because there was no way she’d have been able to afford this place otherwise.
Frannie chose an empty seat near the bar where she could see the entrance and ran her tongue over her teeth to make sure there was no lipstick on them. Her fingers trembled with anxious anticipation. She had tried and was failing to keep her expectations in check. Tonight might not be the night but her bucket list for the week gave Calvin plenty of opportunities to surprise her.
Patience was a virtue and she’d already made it a year after he left for London to work at his uncle’s publishing house. What were a few more hours or days?
When she transferred from USF to Anderson College in Savannah, Frannie felt like a failure. She barely lasted a year away from home before she returned to the familiarity of Walton. Of course, she heard the small-town whispers about her not making it but she did her best to ignore them and focus on finishing her creative writing degree if for no other reason than to prove the gossipers partly wrong.
She met Calvin her junior year when he was working as an intern for the Savannah Daily and doing a story on the tutoring program she was starting in Walton. He was funny and kind and exactly the opposite of who everyone thought she’d end up with. Unfortunately, she still had another year until graduation and Calvin had the opportunity to work in London and he assured her it was the perfect time for them to focus on their futures.
Calvin had been so busy and the time difference made it difficult to find a free moment that worked for both of them to talk. Their weekly conversations drifted into spare seconds that sometimes stretched several weeks apart before a quick text or email allowed them to catch up.
Brushing a piece of lint off her skirt, Frannie shook the melancholy feeling away. All of that was going to change this week. She just knew it. And in true serendipitous fashion, the hotel doorman opened the door and Calvin strode in, looking like he fit right in with fancy New Yorkers in his tailored suit and dark wool coat.
Frannie stood and the second their eyes met, she felt a zip of something shoot through her, but it wasn’t the electrical charge she’d expected. Had to be nerves. She smiled. It’s just nerves.
She hurried to meet him and wrapped her arms around him, breathing in the familiar scent of his musky cologne. Oh, she’d missed it. The sweatshirt she’d borrowed from him and brought to sleep in no longer held the scent but they would fix that this week.
“Francis.” She’d missed that too. Hearing him call her by her full name always made her feel more sophisticated than her small-town upbringing warranted. He gave her a quick hug before walking them out of the way of guests entering the hotel. “How was your flight?”
“Good.” His gaze moved behind him and then back to her. “Um, I’m glad you’re here.”
“You are?” Frannie started to reach around him for another hug but stopped short when he took a step backward. She met his eyes and realized they weren’t as warm as she remembered. His lips flattened, removing any hint of the smile … wait, had there even been a smile when he saw her? Her aching cheeks told her she’d been smiling but she couldn’t remember if he had been and why right now that was suddenly important. “Calvin?”
“We should talk.”
The fluttering in Frannie’s middle died with a thud that made her knees feel wobbly. “What’s wrong?”
Calvin rubbed the back of his neck, looking anywhere but at her.
Frannie took his gloved hand in her bare one and the barrier between their skin was as telling as the look in his eyes when he finally met her gaze.
“I was going to call you when I got back to the States but then you said you were coming to New York, and I thought it would be better to do this in person.”
This did not sound like the beginning of a proposal, but her stupid heart was hanging on to the shred of dying hope.
“I found someone in London. She works for CK Publishing and we’ve been seeing each other for a while. It wasn’t serious at first but then I was getting ready to fly back home and I just knew.”
No. This isn’t happening. Frannie swallowed, forcing the emotion building at the back of her throat to stay put.
“I’m asking her to marry me. Christmas Eve.”
Frannie dropped his hand. Why had she still been holding it? Maybe her heart wasn’t the only thing desperately clinging to the stupid hope she hadn’t been a fool for an entire year.
“I’m sorry. Before I left we talked about the break and I thought you understood what I meant, that we weren’t dating.” He spoke slowly, as if he was making sure that she understood clearly now. “But I got your text that you were coming to New York and I—”
“Decided to ruin the one place I’ve wanted to go my whole life and break my heart.” She managed to squeak the words over the lump in her throat, but it brought her dangerously close to crying—one thing she didn’t want to do in front of a crowd. Why wasn’t everyone in a rush to get around her now?
“I didn’t want to be a jerk, Francis. I thought it would be better to do this in person.”
“Right.” She let out a sarcastic snort and shook her head. “Definitely not a jerk move. At. All.”
“Francis, I’m sorry. We’re just in different places in our lives. You said you never wanted to leave Walton and—”
“I didn’t want to move to London, Calvin.” Her raised voice drew attention. “You said you wanted to come back to New York and I told you I’d move here if it’s what you wanted.”
“I’m returning to London. It’s where Gemma’s family is.”
Well, goodie for Gemma.
“I’m really sorry if I hurt you or made you believe there was more to us than—”
“Nope.” Frannie waved her hand as she started to step backward. “We had a good thing but like you said, we’re in different places in our lives.”
“I wish you the best, Calvin.”
Turning, Frannie hurried toward the elevators and pulled out her room key, anxious to get away from the man she’d given her hopes and dreams to. This was not how romantic holiday movies were supposed to go. Looking over her shoulder, a part of her hoped for that cinematic moment where she’d find Calvin watching her, contemplating whether he’d made the right decision and then realizing he couldn’t live without her … But he was gone.
Just like her dreams for a magical holiday in the city.