All I Want for Christmas

By: Jennifer Gracen

A Christmas in New York Novella


Chapter One




Standing on the crowded, bustling sidewalk of Seventh Avenue, Cassandra Baines sipped her peppermint hot cocoa as she waited for her best friend. She’d placed herself at the center of the top step so when Bree came up the escalator, out of Penn Station, she’d be right there and easy to spot.

The familiar smells and sounds of Manhattan barraged her from all sides as she stood in the midst of frenetic activity. So many people—hustling into Penn to make their trains, coming out of Penn eager to roam the city, or just trying to get through the crowds to wherever they were headed. Cars and taxis bulleted down the street, horns blaring, the exhaust fumes mixing with the smoky smell of pretzels and chestnuts in the cold air. A group of teenage girls hustled by, all of them talking simultaneously.

Cassandra wasn’t fazed by the chaos. She was a lifelong New Yorker, born and raised on Long Island, less than ninety minutes away from Manhattan. She’d spent her undergrad years at NYU and done her graduate program at Columbia, and now she had a tiny apartment in Chelsea and taught English Lit at NYU. Noise didn’t register and crowded sidewalks didn’t make her claustrophobic. The only thing ruffling her at the moment was wondering where Sabrina was. She should have been here by now.

A cold gust of wind blew, lifting the ends of Cassandra’s shoulder length hair. She shivered, glad she’d chosen to wear her fuzzy wool hat, thickest scarf, and heavier wool coat. The temperature hadn’t gotten above forty degrees that day, and sure felt like it was dropping into the low thirties now. She took another sip of the hot chocolate to keep warm.

“Cass!”

She turned in the direction of the familiar voice, and there was Bree, coming up the escalator. In a few seconds, they were hugging and chatting and all was bright again.

Going to see the lighting of the tree at Rockefeller Center had been an annual tradition since the girls were babies. Four women had been sorority sisters in college, became the closest of friends, and bonded for life. After graduation, they’d made a point of getting together several times a year, which had been fairly easy, since all four of them lived in New York. So when those four women had their own daughters—Cassandra, Sabrina, Jade, Kara, and Elena—the next generation of girls were practically raised as sisters. They’d become an expanded loving network that shared in each other’s lives as one big family.

Some of Cassandra’s best childhood memories were of huge Thanksgivings with everyone at Aunt Enza’s house, out east on Long Island. A few days later, they’d all meet up in the city for the tree lighting. The four moms especially loved holidays and loved creating celebratory traditions . . . but things had changed after Aunt Marie had died in the Towers on September 11th. A black hole ripped all of their lives open. Kara and Elena no longer had a mother, the other moms had lost their sister, and the sorrow was a tangible thing none of them had been able to shake off for a long time. Having one another to lean on had gotten them all through those dark days.

And the years passed, and the girls all got older, and some of the traditions had changed slightly. Elena, the youngest, had refused to set foot in New York City after her mother died and she moved away with her father—and really, no one could blame her. Jade had moved to Tampa a few years ago. Even though they had all made it to Aunt Enza’s for Thanksgiving this year, not all of them were going to the tree lighting ceremony. In fact, for various reasons, Cassandra and Bree were the only ones making the pilgrimage.

And they planned to make the most of it.

Bree had dropped her young daughter off at her mom’s for the night so she could make it into the city. Now, she and Cass made their way to Rockefeller Center, heads down against the cold gusts of wind. They walked up 33rd Street so they could look at the holiday displays in the picture windows of Macy’s. After that, they walked up another few blocks and made the left onto Fifth Avenue. It wasn’t a short walk from Penn Station to Rockefeller Center, but they loved to do it every year, even in the cold.

They passed all the big department stores that decorated their window displays for the holidays. The scent of sugared nuts and pretzels and smoke floated on the frigid air. Cassandra looked around and smiled happily. There was a different energy in the city at this time of year; it was like the holiday season itself had sprinkled magic and light all around, and everyone just seemed to be . . . brighter. Happier. Excited. The vibe was a tangible thing, and Cassandra loved it. Every year, it revitalized her and filled her with joy.

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