An excerpt from The Holiday Movie!
Lauren Trevor hefted her suitcase onto the scale at the American Airlines counter at LAX and held her breath. Please let it be under the limit. Please, please, please.
She’d have to pay the surcharge for the overweight bag. A hundred bucks. She was too tired to care. She had already shipped two boxes of clothes and shoes home already, but she’d had to leave enough in the apartment until the last minute so Cole wouldn’t notice that she was packing up.
Wouldn’t notice that she was leaving for a longer trip than just a funeral for an old teacher and a week with her parents and sisters.
Wouldn’t notice that she—finally—was leaving for good.
There was a certain metaphorical sense in the overweight suitcase. After ten years with Cole Morley, she was going home with a metric crap-ton of baggage.
She slid her license across the counter to the agent and waited while the woman pulled up her booking.
“Where are you traveling, ma’am?”
“Business or pleasure?”
If a funeral could be called pleasure. Or going home with your tail between your legs.
“I can upgrade you to first class. You’ll get a higher weight limit on the bag.” The agent looked up from her computer. “No charge for the upgrade. The flight isn’t full.”
“Oh. Thank you?” Lauren wasn’t sure she heard right. She was being upgraded for free? She discreetly pinched her thigh to wake herself up. She had to be dreaming. In what alternate universe did things go right in her life?
But the woman tagged her bag and handed her a boarding pass with a first class seat assignment, so apparently this was real life. Or she was still asleep, but with extra leg room now. She thanked the agent again and wheeled her suitcase over to the giant x-ray machine.
She was just through security when her phone pinged with a text from her mother: Have a good flight! Can’t wait to see you! She liked it with a heart emoji. It was after midnight on the east coast and her mother was normally an early-to-bed person. There would be plenty of time to talk when she got to St. Caroline. Her mother hadn’t probed too deeply when Lauren said she was coming home “for awhile.” She had left Cole too many times in the past for anyone to take it seriously this time.
But she really was serious this time. Dead serious.
Her sister, Cassidy, on the other hand, had probed until it hurt. They were twins; it came with the territory. At the gate, she took a seat and pulled out her phone again. Boarding was scheduled for 10:30, takeoff at 11:04.
She texted Cassidy. Made it through security. At the gate. It was only 11:15 in Texas. Cassidy would still be up.
You blocked him?
You could count on Cassidy to cut right to the chase.
Cole had been out with his coworkers—excuse me, co-stars—when Lauren left the apartment and boarded the rideshare shuttle to the airport. He was probably home by now, but she doubted he would notice before morning that her side of the closet was empty. That’s when her phone would start blowing up with messages—messages she wouldn’t see because she had, in fact, blocked him. It was the only way to make this time stick, to prevent him from hoovering her back with remorse and promises of change.
Change that never seemed to happen.
Got upgraded to first class.
Her sister’s reply was immediate. See? Your fortunes are improving already!
She smiled. She hoped that were true. Cole wasn’t the sort of person to be deterred for long by simply blocking his calls and texts. Even putting two thousand miles between them wouldn’t be enough, unless he was well and truly done with her this time. With every fiber of her being, she hoped he was.
I’ll call you tomorrow, okay? Charlotte is picking me up at the airport. Say hi to your hubs.
Her twin was still in the throes of newly wedded bliss, a state that Lauren could no longer imagine for herself. Sure, she and Cole had spoke of marriage over the years, but the idea had never progressed beyond the talking stage. And a good thing that was. A very good thing. It was difficult to end a longtime relationship, but it was easier than divorce.
At 10:30, she boarded and nearly trudged right past her new seat assignment and into coach. She stopped herself just in time, pulling a book from her carry-on before stowing it in the spacious overhead bin. A flight attendant came through, offering juice. What happened to champagne in first class? Maybe that was always just an urban myth. Having never flown first class before, Lauren couldn’t say. She took the glass of juice, though, which came in real glass—not plastic like in the rest of the plane. Then she swaddled herself in the scratchy airline blanket, hoping no one else in first class was looking at her and wondering, “who let her in?” Or worse—recognize her.
Just when she thought she might end up having the entire row—all two seats of it—to herself, a woman in an expensive St. John suit stopped in the aisle, shoved her wheeled carry-on into the overhead bin, and sat down next to Lauren.
“Whew! Seriously thought I was going to miss this flight.” She pulled what was clearly a script from a smaller bag, then shoved the bag beneath the seat in front of her.
Lauren averted her gaze. She was going home to escape Hollywood. The last thing she needed was a reminder of her dashed dreams for the next four and a half hours. But instead of diving into the script, the woman began scrolling on her phone. Lauren turned toward the window, watching the airport vehicles outside as they crisscrossed the tarmac in the dark.
The woman chuckled. “Have you seen this?” She pointed her phone screen at Lauren, who took a quick glance.
So much for enjoying the comfort of first class.
“No, I don’t think so.”
The woman continued to hold the screen so Lauren could watch. “Wait ‘til you see what happens at the end.”
Lauren sunk down into the scratchy airline blanket until it was up over her jaw and mouth. She knew what happened at the end.
“It’s Cole Morley’s girlfriend,” the woman continued. “The star of Dreaming in Pig Latin. I love that show.”
“Mmm hmm.” Lauren turned her head away. Her seatmate was either a bitch or she didn’t recognize Cole Morley’s girlfriend while sitting right next to her. Thank god for being a generic blonde—as numerous casting execs had told her—as well as someone who looks completely different without awards show hair and makeup.
At the end of the video, the woman barked out a short laugh and turned the phone back around. She started scrolling. “I love all the comments. ‘Best twenty seconds of the entire show.’”
“Flight attendants, prepare for departure,” came the captain’s voice.
As the plane pulled away from the gate, Lauren turned her head back to the window and feigned sleep.
* * *
Riley Campbell was exhausted. Actually, “exhausted” didn’t nearly do justice to how he felt, but he was too tired to think of a better word. Two days ago, he was settling into a new temporary job assignment—taken with the promise of a promotion to vice president by Christmas. Then Harper called. Since then, he had flown from Dulles International Airport to Heathrow on a redeye, helped his nine-year-old daughter pack up her things, and boarded another redeye back to the States. Currently, he and Evie were somewhere over the Atlantic.
Evie was drifting in and out of sleep, her dark head resting against his arm. In addition to being exhausted, Riley was also annoyed and elated. Annoyed at being yet again the backup parent for his ex when she wanted to do something where having a child was inconvenient. Like accept a three-month assignment as assistant bureau chief at the cable news network where she worked.
In Johannesburg, South Africa.
At the same time, he was elated that his daughter was coming home and would be living with him full time. At least until Harper’s life changed again and she wanted Evie back.
He gave a little smile in the dark cabin. Harper was so shocked when Evie put her foot down about not moving to South Africa. She and Harper had been living in London for the past year. In that time, Riley had seen his daughter once.
Next to him, Evie stirred.
“Dad?” Her voice was thick with sleep.
“Mom said I’ll be living at the beach.”
He gave another tired smile into the dark. “Well, sort of. I’m working in this town called St. Caroline. It’s on the Chesapeake Bay, not the ocean. But it kind of looks like the ocean. It’s big. And there is a beach.”
“Does it have sand?”
He could tell she was drifting off again.
“It sure does, sweetie.”
“Okay. That’s all I need.”
He listened to her breath fall back into the even, measured cadence of sleep. Evie loved the water. Any kind of water. Ocean, pool, lake. Every summer since she was a toddler, he had taken her to Ocean City, Maryland for a week. He looked forward to those weeks all year. Playing in the surf, building sandcastles, eating Thrasher’s fries and Dumser’s ice cream, and then lying to Harper about the week’s diet. One week of eating non-organic, non free-range whatever wasn’t going to kill a kid.
This year was the first summer that hadn’t happened, on account of Evie being in London.
“Do they have saltwater taffy?” Evie’s sleepy voice piped up again.
He tousled her already messy hair. “I’m sure they do. I haven’t been there long, so you’ll have to help me explore.”
He wasn’t even fully unpacked yet in the house he was renting for the next few months. Harper had impeccable timing.
Yeah yeah, he got it. She worked in cable news. Natural disasters happened on a moment’s notice. Wars broke out in the middle of the night. Celebrities did stupid shit pretty much twenty-four-seven.
It was easier when Evie was a toddler. She didn’t have a schedule of her own back then or school or her own opinions on things. At nine, she wanted a best friend and gymnastics lessons and a life that stayed in one place. Harper was never going to be able to give her that.
Maybe it was time to push Harper to let him have … he couldn’t even let himself finish the thought. He hadn’t stood a chance when Evie was born. He and Harper were practically kids themselves back then. Evie was born a month after they graduated from Penn State. On paper, Harper had looked like the better parenting bet. She had lined up a flashy job with a local news station in Washington, DC, while it had taken Riley a couple years to find his career footing. And for Harper’s parents, Riley’d had a few too many tattoos to look the part of a responsible father to their granddaughter.
Twenty-two-year-old Riley had signed everything they put in front of him. Riley had joint legal custody of Evie, but Harper had complete physical custody. Not that it had worked out that way. In reality, before Harper moved Evie to London, Riley had Evie pretty frequently. Once Harper made the jump to cable news, she was jetting off on out-of-town assignments all the time. Sure, she could have done the politics beat, covered the White House, and been home for dinner and homework most nights, but that wasn’t what she wanted. She wanted the dangerous beat, the “oohs” and “aahs” she got from telling people incredible stories from her job. She wanted respect and admiration—two things that didn’t generally accompany day-to-day parenthood.
He rubbed his eyes, careful not to jostle his sleeping daughter on the other side.
Maybe it’s time.
He had never pushed for custody before. In fact, he bent over backward to be reasonable and accommodating—even when it meant Evie being an ocean’s distance away. Harper wasn’t a terrible mother. It was just that mothering wasn’t the most important thing to her. And yet Evie adored her mother. As did everyone. How could you not? She was smart, beautiful, ambitious, and undeniably talented. She could be over-the-top charming when she wanted to.
But Harper didn’t adore people back.
When asked, Riley always said that he and Harper had been too young to get married. That it had been a mutual decision. That wasn’t true, though. Riley would have married her in a heartbeat, for Evie’s sake. It was Harper who hadn’t wanted to get married. Of course, in retrospect, that was the right decision. There were no villains here in that regard. They would have been long divorced by now.
He and Harper wanted different things from life. She wanted the megawatt career, the money, and the high-flying lifestyle. Riley wanted a quieter life where he wasn’t always in a rush, where he had time to hang with Evie—playing at the beach or catching lightning bugs or just doing nothing much at all. That was the kind of childhood he’d had growing up in Pennsylvania.
To be honest, he wasn’t sure Evie wanted that. A year in London had left her with more than a faint British accent (which was kind of cute). She might be irredeemably a city kid by now.
He glanced down at her, still asleep. She’s grown so much in the past year. She’d be starting fourth grade soon, all coltish arms and legs. He added another item to the rapidly growing to-do list in his brain. Register Evie for school. Right after take Evie to Secret Beach. She was going to love Secret Beach. She’ll even love the name. His thoughts were getting jumbled, bouncing from one thing to another. He closed his eyes. He disliked sleeping on planes. It wasn’t really quiet and that space between sleep and consciousness made his body more aware of the fact that he was hurtling through time in a tin tube. But he was drifting off now anyway.
He was just so damn exhausted.