My life is contained in a round, beautiful snow globe.
The kind no one has bothered to pick up from the dusty shelf in years. Unshaken. Quiet and still. From the outside, my manicured Swiss village looks perfect. And it is. Kind of. At twenty-six, it appears I have my life together.
Well, they’re not lies, per se. All my accomplishments are real. I worked hard for them. Problem is, I promised eight years ago to give them all away in the blink of an eye if I bumped into him again. But back then, I wasn’t the same person I am today.
I was lost. Grieving. Broken. Confused.
Not that it matters, because that was then, and this is now, and it’s not him I’m staring at. Nope. There’s no way.
…Then why can’t I tear my eyes from the mysterious stranger who glides through the doors of The Beerchman Hotel’s ballroom, turning every head along the way?
Ruddy cheeks tarnished by the unforgiving winter, an aristocratic square jaw, Roman nose, and lips made for the darkest sins and most sordid pleasures—all framed by tousled, coal black hair curling at the ears like ivy, rumpled in a thousand different directions. His slanted, brooding eyes, broad shoulders, and narrow hips make him more than handsome. He’s perfect. Too perfect.
As with all cruel, fairy-tale princes, I long to spot something that would indicate his immortality, a lack of humanity. Something that would prove his perfection truly is impossible.
Pointy ears. Long fangs. A little tail.
C’mon, God, give me something to work with here. Anything.
He is tall, but not enough to demand any special attention. No, Malachy Doherty doesn’t need imperial height, fancy clothes, or millions in the bank to justify the awe he triggers in people. His existence alone is enough to make women fall to their knees. I saw it then. I see it now.
All eyes at the ball are on this enigmatic man, mine included.
Stop it, Rory. It’s not him.
If only I could see his eyes. Then I’d be able to put this to rest, to know for sure. No one else has those eyes. A rare shade of violet, like crushed crystal candy.
“Lack of melanin mixed with light reflecting off red blood vessels,” Mal explained the night he took my innocence, heart, and panties all in the same breath.
I watch as the man strides past security and into the VIP area without missing a step, ignoring the curious glances and lip-biting female admirers. Even celebrities throw themselves at him, chasing his lazy stride, trying to strike up a conversation as the large, bald bouncer unhooks the red velvet rope separating the mortals from the deities.
The man who cannot be Mal ambles toward the bar, his eyes zeroed in on something. Or rather someone: record label tycoon Jeff Ryner, who has up-and-coming R&B darling Alice Christensen, known onstage as Alicious, sprawled in his lap. Jeff’s forty-something face is hued pink by excessive drinking and cocaine.
As the man approaches, Ryner stands, letting Alicious slip from his lap, her ass hitting the floor with a thump. Stepping over her body, he rushes to Mystery Man, falls to his knees theatrically, and plucks a large stack of cash from his breast pocket to wave in the stranger’s face. The man who is not Mal lets loose a cold smirk, plucks the money from Ryner’s sausage-like fingers, and slips it into his coat pocket, saying something that makes Ryner stand up in a rush.
Well, that puts a lid on things.
Mal would die before making a deal with a bigwig like my boss. Set himself on fire before attending a glamorous gala. Drink cyanide straight from the bottle before associating himself with the likes of Jeff Ryner.
Mal is not cold, or arrogant, or high-browed. He cuts his own hair and high-fives strangers and thinks brown sauce is the cure for all of the world’s problems. Mal hates lavish events, entertainment journals, mainstream record labels, and elegant food. He loves his mammy, having the craic, getting shit-faced, and songwriting while lying under the flawless night sky in his backyard. He refused a check for sixteen-grand a pop sweetheart tried to give him to buy one of his songs, simply because he had a good laugh watching her confused manager and agent try to decipher the word no.
But that was eight years ago, a little voice inside me points out. For a period of twenty-four hours.
What do I know about today’s Malachy Doherty?
What did I ever know about him at all?
“There she is.”
Callum’s arms wrap around my waist. I jump in surprise, his posh, English accent startling me for a second.
“The belle of the ball.” His lips, still cold from the outside, brush my ear from behind.
“You made it.” I turn around, wrapping my arms around his neck and giving him a peck on the lips, like punching a time card. He’s still wearing his pale gray suit from the office.
“Don’t I always?” He scrunches his nose.
He does. Callum is the most precise, trustworthy man I’ve ever dated. The exact opposite of spacey, unreliable Mal. When I look again, I see that my boyfriend has remembered to wear my favorite tie. Dark green with strings of gold. When we spotted it in the store, about two weeks into our relationship, I told him it reminded me of Ireland, and he immediately bought it.
I yank the Nikon D18 he bought me for my birthday from my purse and snap a picture of him, capturing his rich-boy, pouty smile as he searches my face for approval.
I’ve been freelancing as a photographer for Blue Hill Records ever since I got my arts degree four years ago. It pays next to nothing, but next to nothing is still better than actual nothing, which is what I got paid when I interned here for the first three years. I work a part-time job as a bartender to pay my astronomical Manhattan rent.
It’s not that I have to live the poor Manhattan girl cliché. I have an inheritance from my late father, but I refuse to touch it. Using it never even crossed my mind. I’d burn the money if I could, but that would give my mom a heart attack, and I don’t want that on my conscience.
I never wanted the money. I only ever wanted my dad in my life.
“You look gorgeous, love.” Callum captures my chin with the back of his thumb, tilting my head up.
Do I, though? I’m the opposite of what a man like Callum would usually go for. I have pale, borderline-sickly skin, big green eyes always framed by an industrial amount of eyeliner, a nose hoop, and an undying love for everything punk rock, which is probably getting a little old at my ripe age of soon-to-be twenty-seven.
Right now, my red-gold roots are showing at the top of my long, silver-ombre hair. Like strawberries in the snow, Callum says when my roots are showing. I’m wearing a messy ponytail, and I have on a striped red and white dress, which I paired with Toms and a studded choker. Put simply, I could pass as a Victorian ghost who got lost at Spencer’s.
Sometimes I suspect that’s what drew Callum to me in the first place. That eccentric, vibrant shell that could elevate his status more than any plastic trophy wife could.
“Look how open-minded and hip Callum is, with his hipster, artistic, holds-on-to-an-actual-job girlfriend. Her breasts are unenhanced, and she is not on a first-name basis with the saleswomen at Neiman Marcus.”
“I look like something from the cast of Beetlejuice.” I laugh, kissing his neck. His low rumble vibrates against my body.
Callum removes a lock of my hair that has escaped my hair tie with the back of his palm and presses his lips to the flesh he just exposed at the base of my neck.
“I like Beetlejuice.”
He’s never watched it. He told me so on our first date, but correcting him seems redundant, and like I’m trying to find non-existent issues in our relationship.
“You know who else I like?” He dips his head down for another kiss. “You, in that Tiffany’s necklace I bought you.”
Eh, yeah. The one he gave me, along with a sensible dress, because I’m cool, but not always cool enough to look the way I do next to his friends.
“Careful. I’m turning twenty-seven in a couple months. You might give me ideas,” I tease. The words feel empty on my tongue, but I know how much pleasure he takes in hearing this.
“My father told me not to threaten a whore with a dick. Do you know what that means, Aurora Belle Jenkins?”
That’s my tall, stockbroker, Wolf of Wall Street boyfriend. With his Eton and Oxford education. With his impeccable manners and dirty mouth.
The man whose only fault is being exactly what my mother wished for me.
Rich. Powerful. Well-bred.
Stable. Sweet. Boring.
What Mom doesn’t know is I like Callum despite all of those things, not because of them. It took me six months to relent to his persuasion, because I knew she’d like him, and the things my mother likes are usually artificial and shallow.
He’d been chasing me around for months. Finally, he showed up at the bar located beneath his apartment—coincidently the one I work at—and slammed his palm against the counter.
“Tell me what it’d take to make you mine,” he slurred that night.
“Stop looking put together and on the sanity spectrum,” I deadpanned. “You remind me of everything my mother wants. And my mother wants all the wrong things.”
“Is that why you keep saying no?” He frowned, confused. “I come here every night, begging for a chance, and you turn me down because your mother could like me, God forbid?”
I shrugged, reaching for another steaming-hot glass, wiping off the condensation.
“I’m a clusterfuck, love. I failed my first year at Oxford. Miserably. And not for lack of trying.”
I arched an eyebrow, giving him a really? smile. I needed more to work with.
Callum blew out air, shaking his arms like he was getting ready for a marathon.
“All right, let’s see. I have a birthmark the size of my fist on my arse. I still eat Lucky Charms for breakfast. Every. Single. Day. My personal trainer says I have the arms of Rhys Ifans, also known as Hugh Grant’s roommate in Notting Hill. I…I…I can’t swim!” He threw his arms up in the air, triumphed, as everyone around us lifted their heads from their drinks and smiled.
I chuckled, shaking my head. Maybe he was imperfect, but he was far from the kind of mess I was usually attracted to. Debbie, AKA Mom, had always complained that I only went for the last of the litter. The broken, misunderstood, messed-up ones who couldn’t offer me more than a heartache and STDs.
It wasn’t untrue. I didn’t look at men very much, but when I did, they always came with more issues than Vogue.
Callum had leaned forward then, his entire torso plastered on the counter, and framed his mouth with his hands, pretending to whisper in my ear.
“Can I tell you a secret?”
“I’ve a feeling you will, anyway.”
“I think you were put on this earth to destroy me.”
I laughed, taking a step back. The conversation with Mal from all those years ago floated to the front of my mind, reminding me I’d heard those words before. Things Mal and I said to each other always lurked in the recesses of my thoughts.
Mal had told me I could kill him.
He didn’t know that in a way, he’d killed me, too.
Every day I lived without him slugged by like a snail, leaving a trail of slimy goo in its wake.
“Okay, fella. Time I call you a cab.” I tapped the back of Callum’s hand.
That was before I knew he owned the penthouse upstairs.
“I’m serious,” he pouted again.
He knew he was attractive. Knew his angles, the charm in his accent, how to work a girl into giving him her number. Unfortunately, I was immune.
Putting another clean glass aside, I threw the cloth over my shoulder.
“Can I tell you another secret?” He dragged his thumb across his lips.
That’s when I noticed his lips were ridiculously kissable, even without the pout.
“Do you always ask for permission before you say things?” I cocked my head.
He laughed. “Usually, believe it or not, I’m the one people ask permission from. Anyway, I’m not even drunk. This beer? It’s the only pint you’ve served me tonight, and it’s full. I don’t come here to get pissed, Aurora. I come here because of you.”
I paused, my eyes glued to his pint. He was telling the truth. I knew because I served him every night. It occurred to me that he was the exact opposite of Mal—the fancy clothes, the properness, the sobriety. Maybe he was what I needed to rid my mind of lingering thoughts of the Irish poet.
Which meant Callum was also the exact opposite of my father.
Which meant that for the sake of my sanity, I should at least give him a chance.
He was my redo. My second chance. My redemption.
“So? Would you give me one date?” he begged. “I promise to prove to be wonderfully unstable, with a dash of incompetence, and provide you with plenty of unpredictability.”
“Fine.” I rolled my eyes with a giddy smile.
“Ha!” He slapped the bar in triumph. “It was the unstable bit that did it, wasn’t it?” He settled himself back down, pushing his beer away like he finally could, like it revolted him. “Always gets the ladies,” he said.
I take a deep breath, meeting Callum’s eyes in the ballroom. “I’m sure you’re about to tell me all about the whores and the dicks,” I say, his erection throbbing between my legs through his cigar pants and my dress.
For the record: Callum lied that night at the bar. Not one bone in his entire body is messy, risky, or uncalculated. As for the birthmark? His skin is as unmarred as a blank new sheet of paper.
Callum Brooks is attractive in a Nantucket-summer-house, two-point-five-children, Polo-shirts-and-golf-tournaments kind of way, with his pulled-up white socks, sandy blond hair, impressive height, and runner’s body. Summer, my best friend, likes to joke that he looks like David Duke’s dream candidate.
He looks into my eyes. “I’m a serial monogamist, thirty-two, and have been dating you for almost a year. Commitment doesn’t scare me, Rory. If I have it my way, you’ll move in with me tomorrow morning.”
I unbutton his blazer and loosen his tie, just to do something with my hands. I like Callum, too, but a year is still early in our relationship.
It took you twenty-four hours to promise Mal your forever, says the voice in my head.
I was also new to dick and non-self-induced orgasms. I proceed to make excuses for my eighteen-year-old self.
Callum ushers me to our table. We sit down next to a bunch of suits from accounting and marketing, who munch on their first-course ceviche and talk about hedge funds and newly popular beach towns that are driving people out of the Hamptons. Callum slides into the conversation effortlessly, sticking to his club soda—as he does, still without a drop of alcohol. I focus on my colleagues, trying to put the man in the VIP area behind me.
As I said before, it’s not Mal. And, okay, fine. Let’s humor the craziest part of my brain and say that it is him—so what? He didn’t see me. And I’m not going to approach him, either. He’s probably in town for a few days. Mal’s extremely devoted to his family, his farm, his country. I knew that when I met him. That man wouldn’t move to America. Not even for a girl.
Especially not for a girl.
Definitely not this girl.
As for money? He doesn’t care for it. Never did.
I nibble on a breadstick, down two glasses of wine, and find myself engrossed in a heated conversation, which has taken a turn from beach houses to the best public restrooms in Manhattan (Crate and Barrel on the corner of Houston and Broadway is in the lead), when Whitney, Ryner’s bitch-from-hell assistant, sashays over to our table, her hips swinging like a pendulum. Her short, platinum bob is cut with a precision that implies her hairdresser uses a ruler. She is wearing some sort of BDSM gown made of leather stripes that cover her nipples and midriff, and not much more. She cocks her head, pouting her scarlet lips.
Everyone stops talking, because Whitney knows how to keep a secret like I know how to stay away from carbs. Exhibit: breadsticks and wine.
“Aurora,” she purrs, parking a manicured hand on her waist.
Everyone calls me Rory, but Whitney calls me Aurora. I made the mistake of expressing my dislike for my name once during a pop star’s photo shoot she attended with Ryner. Since then, I’ve been Aurora to her. If I told her I was allergic to money, she’d immediately wire the company’s entire budget into my bank account.
There’s an idea.
“Whit.” I pop the last piece of breadstick into my mouth, not bothering to meet her eyes.
“Mr. Ryner would like to have a word with you on the balcony.” She glances at me under pinched eyebrows. I swear Whitney takes orgasmic pleasure in clearing her throat and adding suggestively, “Alone.”
Squeezing my shoulder blades together and tilting my chin up, I head toward the VIP area’s terrace, knocking back my third glass of wine for liquid courage. Ryner is always two hundred pounds of sexual harassment, but especially when he is high and drunk. Which he definitely is right now. I tuck the napkin with the hotel logo into the pocket of my dress. Glancing back, I see Whitney sliding into my seat and casing her red-nailed claws on Callum’s shoulder, shooting him a sugary smile. Whitney would love nothing more than to prove she’s better than me. And she certainly is, if the criteria is best Desperate Housewives imposter from a plastic suburban neighborhood.
The last thing I catch is her whispering something intimate to Callum. He frowns and shakes his head, no. Whatever she told him, he seems upset by the suggestion.
Walking through the double doors, I find the balcony completely empty. It’s colder than my mother’s heart in here. I rub my arms, cursing myself for leaving my coat inside, and gait to the railing, admiring the view.
Not only is it freezing, but I’m always cold. Ever since I was born, ever since I can remember, I wear sweaters and fluffy jackets everywhere. It’s like there’s an invisible layer of ice coating my skin at all times.
I look up, blinking back at the stars, admiring their beauty even in this weather.
Approaching footsteps clack on the floor behind me. Something heavy falls on my shoulders. A rich wool coat, still warm from body heat. It smells masculine and expensive: clean earth, pine, smoke, and the type of cologne that’s too pricey for mass retail. A shadow looms by my side. He puts a glass of whiskey on the wide marble bannister, his elbow next to mine, almost touching, but not quite.
I twist my head, expecting to see Ryner, and come face to face with…Mal.
My Mal. It is him after all.
Malachy Doherty, with the lilac eyes. With the hypnotic smile. With the contract I signed on the napkin.
With the piece of my heart he never gave back.
Only he is not smiling anymore. It doesn’t look like he’s happy to see me.
He said if we ever met again, he’d marry me, no matter what. But that was almost a decade ago—under the influence of alcohol and lust and youth. Of possibility.
Mal opens his mouth. “Hello, darlin’.”
At his rough Irish accent, my knees buckle, and I find myself grasping the bannister.
The first flakes of snow fall around us. On my nose. Eyelashes. Shoulders. A storm is brewing inside my snow globe.
She lives in California with her husband, son, cat and eccentric fashion choices, and enjoys good wine, bad reality TV shows and catching sun rays with her lazy cat.