These newlyweds are in for a big surprise in this delightful holiday novella from the USA Todaybestselling author known for her “unputdownable contemporary romances” (Booklist).
Elise Maxwell is loving her first Christmas with her husband, Jay Smith. So far, newlywed life has been filled with laughter and lots of steamy marital “bliss.” But when Elise discovers she’s accidentally, against-all-odds pregnant, happily-ever-after screeches to a halt. Although she sees it as a Christmas miracle, Elise knows her new husband might not agree…
Jay never wanted to be a father. In fact, he’s avoided it his entire life, worried he’d repeat the patterns of his own messed-up childhood. He’s madly in love with Elise and, until now, he thought they were on the same page about not having children. But her surprise pregnancy changes everything. Elise is suddenly committed to parenthood, and Jay knows he can’t lose her. Facing his deepest fears will be difficult, but with a little holiday magic, Jay might be able to prove to Elise that – as a family – they’re destined to live merrily ever after.
Please God, please God, please God, please God.
When Elise Maxwell peed on a stick one gray Friday morning in December, she wasn’t sure what outcome she was praying for. They both seemed equally terrible.
One of them might have a teeny-tiny bit of wonderful mixed in with all that terrible, though.
But she refused to think about that. There was no way. It was impossible. If anything, she was in freakishly early menopause, her poor beleaguered reproductive system deciding to just hang it up early.
And even if it was, by some bizarre miracle, possible, it was still impossible. Her entire life—her lovely, hard-earned, self-made life that she loved—was based on not having kids.
Dang. She was going to throw up—and who even knew why? Morning sickness or the imminent and terrifying end of life as she knew it? Potato-potahto.
She reached for the stupid test to put herself out of her misery.
“Not yet!” Elise’s phone was propped up on the vanity in the bathroom so her best friend, Gia, could watch the proceedings from Milan. Gia was in a bathroom, too, a tiny, dingy one, but at least it was private. She was wearing a robe, her full face of makeup featured weird glued-on purple rhinestone eyebrows, and her hair was half up in an elaborate updo. “It’s too soon! The directions said it would take a minimum of three minutes. There’s no point in doing this incorrectly. You want to be confident in the results, whatever they are. So don’t sabotage them.”
“Elise! Do not get sloppy now! Leverage some of those perfectionist tendencies you’re so famous for, for God’s sake!”
Right. Okay. But what was she going to do for the next—she toggled over from Gia on FaceTime to check the alarm she’d set—two minutes and seven seconds?
“I just need a minute!” It was Gia, calling to someone outside her door in Milan.
Gia was working, and Elise couldn’t expect to monopolize her indefinitely. “If you need to go—”
“Are you fucking kidding me? I don’t need to go.” An insistent knock on her door suggested otherwise, but Gia just rolled her eyes and shouted, “Hold your damn horses!”
Maybe Elise’s defenses were down, but Gia’s salty language, combined with her utter dedication to seeing Elise through this whole peeing on a stick trauma, gave her an attack of the BFF warm fuzzies. One thing she could absolutely count on in this world was Gia. And Wendy and Jane, too—she felt a little bad for leaving them out of this loop, actually. Usually they faced momentous life events as a foursome. They’d all been in attendance when Jay proposed to her. And, of course, they’d all been in her wedding.
So they should probably all be here when she found out if Jay was going to divorce her.
“What’s the job today?” she asked Gia, both to distract herself and to pretend for one second that the morning’s proceedings were not only about her.
“Never heard of them.”
“Which is probably the only reason I got a booking.”
The way she said it, with a self-deprecating tone that was not usually in her repertoire, snagged Elise’s attention and actually managed to hold it. There had been a few hints lately that Gia was…not unhappy exactly, but maybe not as enthused about her job as she used to be. “Why do you say—”
“Is there any snow there yet?”
Gia’s attempt to change the subject was painfully obvious. But Elise would roll with it, because that discussion would take more than the few minutes they needed to fill. And the best friends shared a love of winter, so snow was a welcome topic. “No. It’s gray and cold here, but not cold enough to snow. You know, your typical Toronto December.”
“I hope we get some snow before Christmas. It can hold off until my flight lands and then really dump down.”
“Don’t hold your breath. They’re saying it’s the warmest winter on record so far, and—”
The alarm on Elise’s phone was only a gentle tinkling sound. She had picked it specifically because she and her husband, Jay, were proponents of morning sex, and being woken gently rather than jarringly was better for setting the mood. But right now it might as well have been an air raid siren. She jumped so violently, she knocked Gia into the sink.
“Sorry!” She righted the phone.
“The moment of truth!” Gia made an exaggerated funny face and performed a jazz hands gesture. She was trying to put Elise at ease.
It wasn’t working. Nothing would work.
Except a negative result.
Gia’s jazz hands morphed into drumming hands, and she added a theatrical drum roll noise. Elise’s heart felt like a drum, a snare drum in a demented orchestra gone rogue.
She closed her eyes, picked up the test, took a deep breath, and in a reverse squint of sorts, half opened one eye.
And when she saw the thing that was simultaneously her worst fear and the thing she had grown to secretly want more than anything else in the world, her eyes flew open so fast and so violently, she felt like she might have sprained her forehead.
“Oh my God.”
“What? What? What?” Gia’s voice got higher with every “What?” Adding to the cacophony, someone had started pounding on Gia’s door again. Or maybe that was just Elise’s heart, which had left snare drum territory in favor of booming, galumphing kettle drums.
“It’s positive,” she whispered.
Which was supposed to be have been impossible. Thanks to a lifetime of endometriosis, she was supposed to be incapable of getting pregnant. Which had made her Jay’s dream woman. They had joked about it, but Jay had spent his entire romantic life, up to and including her, with no kids as his main principle.
“Are you sure? Those things can be confusing. Are you looking for one line or two lines? Is that a really faint line or are you hallucinating it, you know?”
Elise did not know, never having had the occasion to take a pregnancy test before.
Because this was impossible.
But she’d purchased the test that looked the most foolproof. It had a digital display, so there were no lines. Just a single word written in English. Tiny block letters that carried a message massively out of proportion to their size: pregnant. And underneath that: 3+.
Which meant she was more than three weeks pregnant.
Which was impossible.
She picked up the phone, reversed the image, and showed Gia the results.
“Well, fuck me.”
Elise was frozen. She felt like it had snowed, and she’d been outside in it overnight. She was chilled to her core. Unable to transmit messages from her brain to her limbs.
“Turn me around,” Gia commanded from the phone. Elise did as she was told, but it took her leaden finger three tries to hit the button. Gia was leaning way into her phone, clearly trying to get a read on Elise’s mood. Join the club. Elise would like to know how she felt, too, but that was impossible because she was frozen.
Gia tried out a laugh. Elise could tell it was experimental because it sounded nothing like Gia’s normal, genuine laugh. “Well, who needs snow when unto us a child is born.”
Unto us a child is born.
Elise wasn’t religious, and neither was Gia despite her Italian-Catholic background. So she knew Gia was making a joke.
But it wasn’t funny.
It did, however, unfreeze her. She would have called it a thawing, but thaw brought to mind a gentle warming process. That was not what was happening to Elise. Her face felt like she had walked inside from that long night in the cold, and too much heat had hit her frostbitten flesh too soon. It hurt.
She burst into tears. A few barking, mortifying sobs she couldn’t contain. Gia made soothing noises, and Elise calmed herself enough to voice the question that had whooshed into her unfrozen mind, expanding to take up all the available space and frightening her with its hugeness.
“How I am going to tell him?”
“Don’t tell him if you don’t want to.”
“Are you crazy? She has to tell him!”
Wendy and Jane were facing off in Elise’s living room while Elise alternated between panicking and trying to figure out where she could cram a nursery into this house. She and Jay had bought it shortly after getting engaged a little over a year ago. It had been a fixer-upper, and Elise had renovated it to their precise specifications—their “we only need one bedroom, so let’s make the others into offices” specifications. They had created a home with one big bedroom and two small offices—one for each of them—on the second floor, and had converted what was meant to be a first-floor den into a studio space for her, where she could meet with clients and keep samples.
But, of course, if Jay left, she could use his office as the nursery.
She tried to smile. Dark humor was better than the river of tears she’d cried earlier. As an interior designer, her brain automatically went to the décor challenges associated with her predicament.
“She doesn’t have to do anything.” Wendy paced back and forth in front of the Christmas tree like she was addressing a jury—an occupational hazard, Elise supposed, even though Wendy was on a six-month leave from her job and was currently flitting all over the world with her fiancé, Noah.
Thank goodness she wasn’t flitting right at this moment, though—they’d come home to Toronto for the holidays—because Elise needed a quorum, and with Gia away, that meant she needed both Wendy and Jane. The girls had dropped everything when they’d gotten Gia’s emergency text and had appeared on Elise’s doorstep with lattes and pastries.
After an initial round of hugs and expressions of disbelief, the two of them had settled in to argue. Which was, at least, distracting.
“She’s his wife!” Jane exclaimed.
“Right.” Wendy pointed a finger at the tree like it was a jury. “She’s his wife, but that doesn’t mean she’s his possession.”
“I never said that!” Jane protested.
Despite her anguish, Elise chuckled. If you didn’t know them, it would be almost impossible to believe that Jane and Wendy were best friends, the other pair to Elise and Gia in their tight circle of four.
“But it’s his baby, too.” Jane was getting frustrated, which was the inevitable result of trying to out-argue Wendy. “He deserves to know what’s happening.”
Wendy turned and folded her arms as if preparing to deliver a closing statement. “All I’m saying is whatever she wants to do, we’re here for that.” Then, seeming to realize how absurd it was that they were arguing about Elise as if she wasn’t sitting right there, Wendy softened. She turned to Elise and said, “We’ll help you.”
Jane moved from her chair to sit next to Elise on the sofa. “Totally. We’ll, like, shout down protesters at a clinic if that’s what you decide. Or if you decide to keep it, we’ll babysit! Oh! We’ll learn baby sign language! We’ll help you outfit the nursery!”
“But no baby crafts.” Wendy plucked something off the tree, then came over to sit on Elise’s other side. “I will drop-kick protesters if you need me to. I will hook you up with the world’s best family lawyers to help with any outcome you’re aiming for. I will even learn”—she leaned forward and glared at Jane—“baby sign language.” She slung an arm over Elise’s shoulder and squeezed. “But you, my beloved friend, have used up your lifetime supply of ‘Wendy does crafts.’” She held up the ornament she’d snagged from the tree. It was a Godzilla figurine with a tiny bridal veil pasted onto its head—a bridezilla.
“I’ve been meaning to ask which one of you gave me that.” Because why not change the subject to something totally irrelevant in the middle of this crisis? Elise and her friends and their husbands were doing a Secret Santa gift exchange, and the bridezilla ornament had been the first in a series of gifts from hers. It was, she assumed, a reference to how she’d gotten a little…intense during the run-up to her wedding. It was possible that she’d allowed herself to become slightly brainwashed by Pinterest and had turned her bridesmaids into a crafting army. She rolled her eyes, but good-naturedly. It was something she could laugh about now with the girls, so she didn’t mind being teased about it.
“Why do you think it came from one of us?” Wendy blinked her eyes with exaggerated innocence. “It could have been Cameron or Noah.”
“Oh, come on. The men didn’t even notice my…extreme devotion to planning. And the second gift from my ‘secret’ Santa was a mason jar full of Christmas candy—that joke is way too subtle for the men. It was one of you—or Gia.” When neither of her friends answered, she said, “Well, I’ll find out Thursday, and the culprit will be sorry.” Thursday was Christmas Eve. Gia was arriving the day before, and the friends were spending Christmas Eve together. The final Secret Santa gift exchange—and the big reveal—was on the agenda.
“I’m surprised you deigned to leave this on your otherwise perfect tree,” Wendy teased.
Elise’s tree was pretty damn perfect, and she would make no apologies for it. She was an interior designer. She was supposed to care about stuff like that. This year she’d done a peacock theme with lots of deep blues, aquas, and golds and a giant array of peacock feathers on the top in place of a star. But it wasn’t just professional obligation. She loved Christmas. Always had. As a kid, it had been a time when family tensions were lessened. And as an adult, after she’d broken with her parents, it was a time to gather her chosen family of friends around her.
And there was snow. Her beloved snow. Usually.
Damn, she wished it would snow. It wouldn’t change anything about her situation, but she’d always thought a dusting of snow did more than beautify the world. It softened it somehow. Slowed it down. Made the day-to-day grind of life feel less urgent, less demanding. Obscured the details in favor of the outlines of things.
“I didn’t hang that thing there,” she said to Wendy. “I left it in the kitchen after I opened it. Jay thought it was hilarious and stuck it on the tree. I keep taking it off, and he keeps putting it back. He’s messing with me.” Something she found amusing. She liked the way Jay challenged her need for control. He was the only one she would let mar her perfect tree.
Wendy moved to set the ornament on the coffee table, but Jane intercepted it. She smiled as she examined it. “I hate to say it, but I kind of have to agree about the baby crafts.”
Baby crafts. Elise had forgotten for a moment, had allowed herself to be distracted by this talk of Christmas tree ornaments.
“But, hey,” Jane added, squeezing Elise’s shoulder. “Gia’s not here. She snoozes; she loses. So if you decide to keep this baby, Gia can be in charge of crafts. I’ll do baby sign language. Wendy can do lawyers.”
“Lawyers,” Elise echoed.
Wendy swatted Jane behind Elise’s back, and not very subtly.
“You know, if you decide to go with adoption,” Jane said quickly. “Or, like, for wills and stuff.”
They all knew what Jane had meant, though. They all knew how committed Jay was to never having kids.
Which meant they all knew that when Jane referenced lawyers, she was talking about the divorce variety.
Elise sighed. “It was easier when I was barren.”
“Jesus Christ, Elise, barren?” Wendy snapped. “This isn’t the nineteenth century.”
She’d been joking. More dark humor. But Wendy, usually easy with a laugh, had taken her seriously. Which somehow only made it funnier. She giggled. It must have been catching, because Jane joined in. Wendy just glared at both of them, which only made them laugh harder.
Elise held her hands up in a gesture of surrender. “Okay. Not barren. Infertile. Do you like that better?”
“Except you’re not. Clearly.” The pregnancy test was resting on a paper towel on the coffee table in front of them, its pronouncement a tiny but potent billboard. Wendy nodded meaningfully at it.
Elise stopped laughing. Wendy was right. She wasn’t barren. She wasn’t infertile.
She was three-plus weeks pregnant.
And possibly in need of a divorce lawyer.