Short and sweet, loosely edited, and completely fun.
I couldn’t stop the little voice in my head telling me that I should have known it would turn out like this. Through all my planning to perfection, spending a little extra to get a little extra, time spent on the precision coordination of some appetizer or drink with the seemingly time slick jabs between me and my sisters – anything to occupy or mouths – I should have known.
Should have expected that Virginia – bitch – would choose the moment after I’d announced the completion of my flawlessly prepared crab mini-quiches to make her… proclamation. The family was – for once – about to fawn over my culinary expertise. I was already bursting to the seams with compliments from my parents and my sister’s spouses, and jealousy from my sisters that their kid-filled households wouldn’t look like mine again until those kids hit puberty.
I even had a contingency – I mean, fun filled activity – planned for my nieces and nephews. While the adults had Christmas morning mimosas and impeccable mini-quiches, the kids were in my building’s rec room, with two young early-childhood development students I’d paid to play babysitter for the morning.
My quiches were on beautiful gold-rimmed plates, and matching gold flatware finished out my table setting. Big gorgeous poinsettias were my centerpiece. I’d adjusted a petal back into its place, then stood back to admire my work. Spiced sweet potato mini-waffles and indulgent smoked gouda grits complimented my main dish. Fresh orange juice in every glass.
I clasped my hands together, smiled, and then called, “Brunch is served” to my family waiting in the living room.
Two seconds later, goddamn Virginia called out – “Oh! I think my water just broke!”
And that, I would say, was the end of the imaginary, one-day-only, TV-One special in my head.
Christmas with Gia was no more.
They’d all left.
Mama and Daddy, Carolina and her husband Joshua, and Virginia and her wife Penelope. And all the kids. And of course, I went too, because the optics of me not going to the hospital while my new niece or nephew was born wouldn’t have been good. But I was pissed.
Oh God, I was so pissed.
I should probably explain a bit of the dynamic, lest I seem like some narcissist who only cares about appearance. Don’t get me wrong – I definitely care, a great deal – but it’s not the only thing I care about.
I care about my friends. Love Iris and Brandi to death. I care about my job, as executive assistant for an asshole lawyer who – also – thinks he’s the star of a nonexistent TV show. Manny is tough, and demanding, but he pays really really well. Not to mention, he was very, very nice to look at. Tall, smooth brown skin, hazel eyes. And freckles.
God he was gorgeous.
But also, my boss. And also, my best friend’s brother, so no.
Anyway… I was listing things I cared about.
Family. Last but not even a little bit least, I would cut a bitch over any of them. Even my sisters. Hell, especially my sisters. We may fight like feral cats if we were around each too long, but that was for us to do to each other. No one else.
There were three of us, in order – Carolina (Lina), Virginia (Nia), and me, Georgia (Gia). All ten months apart, because… of an explanation that makes me a little uncomfortable, but I think you get in. In any case, aside from the small age difference and slight variances in looks (I’m the gorgeous one. Those other two are aiight.), my sisters and I were essentially triplets.
And the competition ran strong between us.
Who could graduate from Spelman with the highest honors, who could be most popular, get the finest boyfriend, the best starter job, the best starter home, who’d find the finest, most-potentialed spouse and have the prettiest chocolate drop babies?
Everything that could be a (mostly friendly) rivalry, we turned it into one – effortlessly. And usually, the opposition was stiff, because my sisters were, by my own admission, pretty damned amazing.
Too damned amazing.
I was so, so far behind.
Lina got married first, to a gorgeous pediatric surgeon who worshipped at the temple of Carolina Aldridge, in a champagne and silver ceremony that earned her a feature in all the wedding magazines. Then it was Virginia and Penny, in the lesbian wedding of the century. Penelope Vasquez was making waves in the tech community, because not only could she code and design her way out of anything, and had a trail of successful apps created and sold to prove it, she was fine.
And I… well… I was Gia.
No prospects, unless we counted my ex, Ethan, who… we just shouldn’t count.
At Nia’s wedding reception, my mother had leaned in, hooking a finger in my direction to get my attention. I gave her my ear, thinking her glossy eyes were about happiness that her second child was married.
That woman said, “Georgia Aldridge, gay marriage has only been legal five seconds, and your sister has already been married for three of them. Get a boyfriend, girlfriend, hell, one of each, but you need to figure it out. You’re getting too old for all that sleeping around.”
Besides the fact that my mother had implied I was a hoe, she had me a little worried… was I getting too old to not have a marriage prospect? Personally, I loved my life. Single, only responsible for myself, a disgusting amount of disposable income… life was good.
But… they seemed so happy. Lina and Nia thrived under their new marriages, and then they started having kids, and building houses, and becoming… real grown-ups. Or at least, that’s how it felt. Every holiday at their homes, with their beautiful families nourished a seed of discord in me, until it started feeling like… I was losing.
And uh… couldn’t have that.
I didn’t do anything too drastic. I took cooking and decorating classes, so that in the little spare time I had outside of work and friends, I was enjoying not having kids to go home to. When my boyfriend (at the time) got on my nerves, I reminded myself how lucky I was that I could just go somewhere else. His silly ass didn’t have to be anywhere near me.
Oh, and I moved out of my tiny studio apartment and bought a condo. Right in the city, in the middle of it all. And I comforted myself with the fact that my sister’s big gorgeous homes were in the suburbs, because they had to be concerned about things like schools, and where the closest parks were.
But it still didn’t feel right. I didn’t feel any further ahead. I wasn’t anywhere near catching up.
So I asked to host Christmas dinner. In years past, it had always been one of my sisters, but this time, it was going to be me. I planned, and primped, and polished, and it was going to be impeccable.
I couldn’t stop hearing Virginia’s smug little voice in my head, couldn’t stop seeing her smug, perfect smile. “Sorry baby sister. Maybe you can wrap it all up in foil and bring it to the hospital?”
This was her second kid, and labor had gone fast.
I was already back home, four hours later, with my unnecessary double oven on. Most of my dishes were prepared the day before – meaning I’d spent Christmas Eve slaving over the stove – and just needed finishing today.
This, Christmas dinner, had been my big plan to catch up. I was going to show my mother and sisters that I had a beautiful life, even though I didn’t have the spouse, the kids, and the two-story house. This was supposed to show all of them, that I was happy, and thriving, and fabulous, my own way.
But… I didn’t feel very fabulous at all.
While my oven warmed the food I would use to take over to my family at the hospital, I walked to my dining room and stood at the door. The waffles were cold and soggy, grits congealed, quiches were no longer fluffy.
Tears welled in my eyes as I looked over my abandoned, perfect brunch. All that work for flawless execution… gone down the drain because Virginia and her baby – a little girl that they named Sofia – decided to release amniotic fluid all over my white suede couch.
A tragedy, really.
I shook my head.
I didn’t really mean that. In a few hours, I’d be surrounded by my family again, and I’d be happy. My sisters would test the water, knowing that my ruined Christmas dinner plans were going to be a sore subject with me, and then they would tease the life out of me about it. It would go down in our Christmas memories, and next year, I’d probably smile about it instead of cringing.
But today, in this moment… I was disappointed.
And hell, it was Christmas. My gift to myself was allowing these moments alone to be spent wallowing in my honest feelings.
I let out a little sigh, then started gathering the plates from the dining room. One by one, I emptied my food into the garbage disposal, flinching as every serving went down. I rinsed the dishes, loaded the dishwasher, and then tackled the living room where everyone had been, gathering glasses of eggnog and the plates of butter cookies that I’d laid out.
Next, I disinfected the floor, then turned my attention to my couch. My poor, poor, ruined couch. I found some rolls of the plastic I’d used to cover my floor when I painted my closet, and used that to just… tape off the crime scene. There was no saving that.
I was putting the plastic away when I heard the doorbell. I rushed to get to it, thinking it could have been someone from my family, but when I peeked out, I saw… Manny.
Immediately, I put a hand to my chest, forcing myself to calm down. Even through the distortion of the peephole, he looked good. So, so good.
When I opened the door, somehow he looked even better.
Immanuel Hill was the type of man who practically lived in perfectly tailored suits. It was very rare that I saw him in anything else. But today, underneath his open wool pea coat, he was in nice jeans, casual shoes, and a thick, rich green sweater that made his eyes look particularly beautiful.
Nonsensically fine, is what I would call him. Perfectly sculpted nose, perfectly sculpted jaw, and those perfectly, perfectly kissable lips.
He’s your boss, Gia, I reminded myself. And your friend’s brother. And damn near ten years older than you! Down girl!
I smiled. “Manny, hello. What can I do for you?” I opened the door, stepped aside enough for him to come in, and took a deep inhale of his cologne as he passed. He took off his coat and hung it up, while I closed the door, then waited for him to turn around, but he peeked into the living room first before he did.
“Where is everybody?” he asked, looking around. “I was expecting a crowd in here.”
“Oh! Nia went into labor this morning, and had the baby. So everybody is at the hospital now.”
His eyes went wide, and he smiled, which warmed me from my head to my… toes.
We’ll go with toes.
“That’s great! Was she due today?
I shook my head. “Nope. Not for another two weeks, but… babies come when they want to, not when we want them to.”
“Like… after your big Christmas dinner that you’ve been planning and obsessing over for the last two months?”
I returned his smile. “Right.”
“So… why aren’t you at the hospital?” he asked as he walked into my kitchen, putting his briefcase down on the already crowded counter. I frowned at it briefly, then recognition struck me, and I looked away from it. “Why are you here alone?”
I shrugged. “Somebody has to make sure everyone gets fed, right? My dad grabbed everyone bagels for breakfast, since we didn’t get a chance to eat, and now I’m finishing up dinner so I can make plates to take to the hospital.”
“Ah, I see.” My breath caught in my throat as he sprawled his large frame into one of my bar chairs, looking completely at home as he turned back to me. “So how do you feel?”
I turned away from him, busying myself at the stove. “What do you mean? How do I feel about what?”
“About getting upstaged by your new… niece or nephew?”
“Niece,” I answered, replacing the top on the big pot of greens. “Sofia. And… its fine, you know? What better Christmas gift than a baby?”
Behind me, Manny chuckled. “Come on, now. You know you don’t have to bullshit me. As a matter of fact, I demand it.”
“Oh you demand it,” I laughed, turning to face him. “Are you really pulling rank with me right now?”
He shrugged. “Only because it’s necessary.”
“Nothing to spill.”
But those words were barely out of my mouth before Manny shook his head, fixing me with the same stare he used in the depositions. Those piercing hazels stuck to you, looking through you, just daring you to tell anything except the truth. And when he was looking at you like that, you didn’t have any choice except to assume that he already knew, he was just waiting on you to tell. Manny read people, and then he dared them to say anything that contradicted.
This time, I was the defendant.
“Fine,” I said, folding my arms. “I’m pissed. I wish the little peanut had waited another day before she made her debut. This was my grand chance to be the one doing something special. And… I got outdone. By a baby. Pitiful, huh?”
“A little bit,” Manny agreed, smiling. “Just means you have to go bigger next time.”
I snorted. “There won’t be a next time. I’m… done with this.”
“Done with what?”
“Trying to impress. Trying to prove to my parents that I’ve made a good life for myself, that I haven’t just wasted my education. I want them to see me as whole… like I am now. And really… I think I’m done trying to compete with my sisters. Their lives are their lives, not mine.”
Manny nodded. “That’s true. You can’t live your life on a comparative scale with theirs, I absolutely agree. But if you were whole… you wouldn’t feel that need to compete anyway. And as far wasting your education…”
“Don’t start with me, Mr. Hill.”
“Oh, it’s like that? You don’t want to talk about this, so I’m Mr. Hill now, instead of Manny?”
I giggled. “Oh, excuse me, Dr. Hill. Since I guess you’re what, a psychiatrist now?”
“I’m a man of many talents,” he said, and if I didn’t know better… I would think he was flirting with me. Or … maybe he was flirting. Over the years, I’d learned that it was just a natural thing for him, and understandably, women loved his effortless charm.
“Whatever it takes. Don’t deflect. You’re going to stand in my face and tell me the lie that your education isn’t being wasted as my assistant? You probably know the law better than I do.”
I smirked. “Probably?”
“See?” he said, shaking his head. “And you have the nerve to be cocky about it.”
“My mother brought a cake,” I said, trying to shift his attention to something else. I pointed it out on the counter, under the glass display plate. “Caramel. Your favorite.”
“It hasn’t been cut yet.”
I sucked my teeth. “Now you know Angela Aldridge will not mind her beloved Manny Hill, Esquire, being the first to get a piece of this cake.” That was so true it wasn’t funny. My mother had only been around him a few times, loved Manny, and often lamented that I hadn’t yet “snatched that eligible man up.”
Never mind that he looked at me as more a protégé, maybe a friend, than anything else.
He chuckled. “Slice me a piece of the cake, and then talk to me about your B.A. in International Studies from Spelman, and your J.D. from Howard.”
“We can certainly talk about how neither of them matter if you fail the bar… twice.”
“Now that’s what doesn’t mean anything,” he said, accepting the plate I offered. “Some of the best lawyers I know failed the bar.”
“But you didn’t.”
He shook his head, then forked off a piece of the cake. “No, I didn’t. But what does that have to do with you?”
“I don’t know. Nothing. Everything? But I look at you, Kincaid, and I look at… all the other lawyers, the associates, who are doing what I want to be doing. They made it past the bar, and I can’t. So… maybe that’s just life trying to tell me something, you know? Maybe it’s not meant to be.”
“Or maybe you’re just a coward.” Manny’s tone was cool, and I had no choice but to pay attention to those eyes as they pierced through me. “You didn’t fail the bar because you’re not smart enough, or talented enough. You failed because you’re young, and scared, and not whole enough on your own yet to not tie this test to some grand, nonexistent measure of your self-worth. Maybe you ought to examine that. Why your “big plans to show your family” never end up coming to fruition.”
I swallowed. “What are you suggesting?”
“I’m not suggesting anything,” he said, halfway through the slice of cake. “I’m directly addressing the fact that yes, life is trying to tell you something – to stop trying to impress anyone except your damn self. Don’t become a lawyer to “show your family”, do it because you love it, and you’re good at it. Do it because you know your shit. Don’t host Christmas to prove you can do it, host because you’re proud of the home you bought, proud of the skills you learned in those classes, and you want to share. You want to enjoy the fruits of your effort with your family. Don’t entertain the undependable affections of a man who doesn’t even deserve you looking in his direction just because you want to show your sisters you can get married too. Give your time and energy to someone who can’t get enough of you, and makes your heart race. Stop bullshitting, Aldridge.”
When he finished that little monologue, he went back to his cake, but my head was swirling. Where had that comment about my dating life come from? And was he talking about Ethan? He’d hated Ethan.
In any case, I really couldn’t argue with anything Manny had said. It struck a nerve that made me feel incredibly uncomfortable – so much that I turned away, busying myself with the stove again to turn everything off.
“What are you doing here anyway?” I asked, still not looking at him.
“I needed to drop some paperwork off to you,” he said, sounding a little too rehearsed, and I smiled. I’d given him his customary liquor the day before, at the office.
“Why do you always do this?” I turned around, hands on my hips, trying not to laugh at the expression on his face.
He shrugged. “Do what?”
“Every Christmas for the last six years, you have pretended you need to give me work, when what you actually give… is a Christmas gift. And I wasn’t even surprised the first time. I know you too well, and I’m around you too much.”
His handsome face wrinkled into a frown. “So, you’re trying to tell me I can’t surprise you.”
“I’m not trying,” I said, shaking my head. “I just am. I know you forwards, backwards, and upside down, Manny.”
He chuckled a little, scrubbing a hand over his jaw. “Yeah… you do. I guess you’ve got me there.” He pulled his briefcase toward him and opened the top, reaching inside. When he came up again, it was with a flat, black velvet box, tied with an elegant blue metallic ribbon. He held it to me, and I tried not to let it show on my face, but… I was a teensy bit baffled.
For once, I had no clue what he’d gotten me.
“Take the box, Aldridge.”
His words spurred me into action, and I took the box from his hands. It was heavy, and he was watching me so intently that it made me feel nervous. Shaking my head, I put the box down in front of me and untied the ribbon, then lifted off the top. Tears welled in my eyes as I realized what it was.
I picked one of the business cards up, testing the feel of the thick, velvety paper in my hands. Thickly coated black matte, just like the cards that sat in the tray of his desk and in his wallet. Only instead of his name in embossed silver, these said,
Georgia Aldridge, Esq.
Law offices of Hill Kincaid
On top of them was a note written in Manny’s barely- legible hand.
You’ll be needing these in 2017, correct? – Manny
When I looked up, scrubbing tears from my face, Manny was already snapping his briefcase closed. “I’ve got to get out of here,” he said. “Meeting Iris and Ivy and we’re going to try to go see Dad.”
I nodded, trying to pull myself together. “Thank you,” I whispered, gesturing towards the box of cards. “And um… we’ll see.”
“No we won’t,” he said, shaking his head. “You’ll need them. Trust me.”
Instead of arguing, I simply walked him to the door. It was quiet between us as he put his coat back on, then turned to me. Something made him glance up, and he grinned as he pointed.
I followed his gaze, then laughed. “Really Manny?” We’d ended up standing right beneath the mistletoe I’d hung for cute family photo ops.
“Follow the rules, Aldridge,” he teased, and I playfully rolled my eyes as I pushed myself up on my toes and offered my cheek.
But that’s not what he kissed.
Before I could process what was happening, Manny’s hands were cupping my face and his mouth was so close to mine that if I breathed, we’d be touching. Our eyes met – his determined, mine stunned, as then his lips were on mine, just as deliciously soft as I’d always imagined. He brushed my mouth with soft, gentle little kisses that weakened my knees before he pulled my bottom lip between his. I opened my mouth, just enough for a little whimper of pleasure, and his tongue slipped between my lips, taking my mouth with long, slow swipes that made me feel dizzy.
I didn’t resist as he pushed me back into the wall, bracing me there as he kissed me harder. His hands drifted to my waist, then my ass, where he gripped me, pulling me closer into him.
I couldn’t breathe and I didn’t care. All I cared about was the hardness pressing into my stomach, and the fact that it belonged to Manny. He groaned into my mouth, obviously enjoying me as much as I was enjoying him, but then… it was over.
He ended the kiss with a lingering press of his lips, then stepped back, and picked up his briefcase. “Merry Christmas, Gia,” he said, and then he was gone, and I was… going to pass out.
Did Manny really just kiss me? And then… leave?!
I didn’t have time to answer that question in my head before the unlocked door was opened again, and Lina and her husband came bustling through the door.
“We didn’t want you to have to cart all those plates back to the hospital by yourself,” Josh said, kissing my cheek as he passed me, still standing under the mistletoe. “And we brought some lunch box things that should help with the packing.”
He moved on to the kitchen, but Lina stayed there in the foyer, with a sneaky little smile on her face. “So, we knew the door would be open because we passed Immanuel Hill in the hall,” she started, slinking up to me. “And… his mouth… it looked so… red. Nice, baby sister. Very nice.”
She winked at me, then joined her husband in the kitchen while I took a detour to the bathroom, where my eyes went wide.
My lipstick was smudged all over my mouth.
I raised a hand to my lips, and tried in vain not to smile.
Guess Manny can surprise me after all.