A Cross-Country Christmas – Courtney Walsh

S C H A P T E R 1 pending a few days alone in a car with Will Sinclair was just about the worst way to kick off a holiday. Lauren Richmond could not believe she had agreed to Spencer’s ridiculous solution to her fear of flying. Sure, her brother had done a Mom-level job of guilting her into coming home for Christmas, but his plan on how to get her there was faulty at best. “What’s the big deal? You’ll spend a few days road tripping with a hot guy, do your obligatory Christmas rounds, and you’ll be back here before you know it.” Her best friend Maddie slurped her milkshake, even though the cup had been empty for a solid five minutes. And a milkshake was not an appropriate breakfast. “I think you got it all.” The booth in the diner on Santa Monica Pier felt suddenly cramped with her packed suitcase sitting next to her. Another slurp. “Now I got it all.” Maddie pulled her feet up underneath her, sitting cross-legged, knees tucked under the table. She looked calm and amused. She thought this whole thing was “fate” or “magic” or “destiny.” Lauren thought it was ridiculous. Maddie didn’t know the truth.


Not about this. Not about him—the “hot guy” who would be driving Lauren from Southern California to Northern Illinois in T-minus twenty minutes (or whenever he showed up.) Heck, even Spencer didn’t know everything, so it’s not like she could really fault him for suggesting she hitch a ride with his best friend. If you wanted to get technical, even the hot guy himself probably didn’t remember everything, but her memory was good enough for the both of them. Certainly good enough for her to know that this plan only made her hatred of Christmas that much stronger. Lauren came back to the present and noticed that Maddie was still talking. “You had a crush on him when you were a kid, so what?” She made it sound so simple. So trite. If he was the same now as he was when Lauren knew him. the flirting, the charm— scientists probably used his smile to calibrate their instruments—would she be as powerless in his presence as she’d been ten years ago? Stupid smile. Stupid dimples. Stupid Will Sinclair. Adjectives aside, she knew the truth about Will, and that’s what she’d be reminding herself of. Over and over again, she’d drill it into her head. She’d wasted more years than she would ever admit out loud pining over her brother’s best friend.

She was a lot older—and she felt, wiser—now. She knew better. Common decency didn’t make him a good guy. “Lo?” Maddie had stopped talking—what was she saying again?—and now stared at Lauren from across the table. “You didn’t hear a word I said, did you?” Lauren sighed and pushed her plate away from her. “This is going to be a disaster.” “Did he even know you had a crush on him?” “Yes.” Lauren looked away. “No.” She groaned. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t know how he could’ve missed it. I wasn’t exactly stealthy in middle school.” “Middle school?” Maddie rolled her eyes.

“Like, as in when you were twelve? Please. I bet he doesn’t even remember. I don’t even remember what I did last week.” Lauren smiled. “Yes, but you’re really flighty.” That was probably true. Not the Maddie being flighty part, that was a proven fact—but the Will not remembering part. And, if it weren’t for Spencer, Will wouldn’t even know Lauren existed. “It. wasn’t just middle school.” She winced. “It was all through high school and even a little bit in college.” “That is the most Lauren Richmond thing I’ve ever heard.” The bell over the door jingled, and Lauren’s eyes darted to the entrance. Her heart skipped a beat, and she inadvertently gasped.

“Wow.” Maddie shook her head. “You’re kind of a mess.” “Sorry,” Lauren said. “I don’t want to go. Like, not just with him, but at all. You know how I feel about Christmas. And my parents. And traveling. Do you think it’s too late to back out? I could tell them I have too much work. That’s not a lie.” She’d been working so hard, and she finally felt like she was making some progress with her boss. It really was a terrible time to leave. Never mind that her boss had insisted she go. Sitcom set decorators apparently needed holidays too.

Whether they wanted them or not. Maddie shrugged and jabbed her fork into a piece of omelet from Lauren’s abandoned plate. “I mean,” mouth half full, “do you really want to tell Spencer you’re not coming?” Lauren groaned. No, she thought, like a little kid being asked a question they already knew the answer to. She did not want to tell Spencer she wasn’t coming. She couldn’t do that to him, and she knew it. Not only had she left him alone to navigate the ongoing civil war between their parents, but his wife was about to give birth any day now. Spencer and Helen were counting on Lauren being there to meet her first niece or nephew. Despite the impending road trip from hell, Lauren really didn’t want to miss it. Besides, it had been three years since she’d been home for Christmas. Spencer would disown her if she tried to stretch out her hiatus from her family any longer. She’d left him squarely in the middle of her parents’ unending feud, like silly putty being pulled back and forth between them in an unfair game with no winner. “Spencer was really sweet to set up this ride for you in the first place,” Maddie said. “He misses you. I wish my brother missed me, but he’s so stoned most of the time I don’t think he even remembers he has a sister.

” Maddie’s wild hair poked out from behind the sunglasses she’d stuck on top of her head. Her nose piercing glimmered in the sunlight streaming through the window. “Do you want to come with?” Lauren asked. “That would make the whole thing more bearable.” “Yeah, I feel super sorry for you that you have to be locked in a car with a guy that looks like Chris Evans after the super soldier serum.” “Maddie.” “Are you going to almost touch his sweaty pecs like Peggy Carter did? Because I think you should almost touch his sweaty pecs like Peggy Carter did.” Maddie waggled her eyebrows. “You’re not helping,” Lauren said. The last thing she needed to be reminded of was what Will looked like. As if she’d forgotten. As if she would ever forget. The door swung open and Maddie let out an audible gasp. “He’s here, isn’t he?” “If I hadn’t promised Dylan I’d meet his parents this Christmas, I’d be in that car so fast the Olympics would have to pin a number on me.” “Wipe your mouth, you’re drooling.

What would Dylan’s mother think?” She shrugged, still looking at the door. “Maybe he’s different.” “People don’t change, Maddie,” Lauren said. She looked right at Lauren. “Sometimes they do,” she said. “And considering what he looks like, you might want to give him the benefit of the doubt.” She paused. “He’s looking around, Lo. Wave or something.” Lauren’s stomach rolled over. She couldn’t bring herself to face him. The humiliation of the last time she saw him was so fresh it haunted her. And it had been years ago. He probably doesn’t even remember. The words did little to comfort her.

Yes, he’d been very drunk, but still—how could she assume he’d so easily forgotten something that had stuck with her so vividly? “Hey, Will!” Maddie stood up and waved both hands, got his attention, and mouthed the words, Over here! while pointing at Lauren. If Lauren could’ve burned a hole through Maddie’s face with a stare, she would’ve. Maddie sat back down grinning open-mouthed, like her face was giving a thumbs-up. She reached across the table and put a hand on Lauren’s. “Even if he hasn’t changed, you have. You’re not that kid anymore, Lo. You’re a smart, intelligent, successful woman— who just happens to be terrified of flying.” Lauren rolled in her lower lip as Maddie’s words sunk in, followed by a wave of conviction. “You know what? You’re right. I am all of those things. I’m not the girl who used to kiss her pillow and pretend it was Will Sinclair.” Maddie’s jaw went slack as she looked over Lauren’s shoulder. Oh, no. He’s right behind me. Lauren’s heart raced like a dog in a house with an Amazon Prime truck pulling up outside.

Heat crawled up her neck to her cheeks. “Uh, Lauren?” The voice behind her stirred all the memories, the embarrassment of years of torch-carrying. The rejection. The foolish way she used to make up stories about how Will had to keep his true feelings for her a secret because of his friendship with her brother. It all seemed so stupid now. She’d been such a fool! She’d learned the truth about Will a long time ago—he was the same as everyone else. He couldn’t be trusted. She turned toward the voice and threatened her heart to stop skipping beats, so help her God. It would definitely be easier to remember why she hated him if he didn’t look like that. As was customary with men, Will had only gotten better looking with age. He’d filled out, and according to a recent text from Spencer, he was coaching collegiate baseball. Must be one of those coaches who worked out with his players. She paused for a minute to let herself imagine what he looked like with his shirt off. How well-defined was his sixpack and what would it feel like under her fingers? And how had Peggy Carter resisted the temptation to find out? “Lo,” Maddie kicked her under the table, and Lauren realized she was staring. She cleared her throat.

“Hey, Will.” He smiled. Darn that dimple. “You grew up.” “Uh, yes,” Lauren fumbled with her words. “I take it you work out. uh. I’m glad you were able to work this out, this trip. out.” She pointed a finger at him, praying it would stop her mouth from flapping. Mortification. Heat-flushed cheeks. Sweaty palms. Keep it together, Lauren. She felt—not saw—Maddie’s horrified wide-eyed gaze on her.

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Updated: 24 November 2021 — 02:27

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