Stacy slumped in her seat at the dining room table, casting bored eyes at the happy morning scene in front of her. Her father sat at the head of the table, devoting more concentration than was strictly necessary to cutting his stack of pancakes into precise pieces. Her mother was at the other end, her breakfast mostly untouched as she devoted the entirety of her attention to her grandchild.
“Who’s a good girl?” she cooed, her eyes dancing with delight as she played with the baby’s fingers. “Who’s a good girl?”
“You’re not really helping, Mom,” Renee sighed, momentarily giving up the attempt to get more of her daughter’s applesauce in her mouth than on her clothes. She placed the spoon on the baby’s tray, pushing her hands through her hair with an exhausted sigh. “How did you ever get us to eat when we were kids? This is impossible!”
“Nonsense,” her mother teased, granting her daughter a sympathetic smile. “You just need a little practice is all.” She picked up the spoon, stirred it around in the applesauce, and lifted it to the baby’s mouth, continuing all the while with her playful cooing.
Renee sat back in her seat, looking glum. “I’ll never get the hang of this,” she muttered mournfully.
Oh, please, Stacy thought, suppressing the urge to roll her eyes. You’ve never failed at anything in your life. She almost immediately felt guilty for the petty thought, however, as she watched her sister’s husband hurry over and fold her into a supportive embrace. She took no joy in watching her sister suffer the frustration of new motherhood – it was just the fact that this wasn’t a new scene. Nearly every morning for the last week, some variation of this conversation had taken place, and it was enough to get on anyone’s nerves, as evidenced by her father’s mental walkabout, and her brother-in-law’s dark under eye circles.
I have to get out of here, Stacy thought to herself, feeling her spine stiffen over the idea of suffering yet another long, aimless day in her family’s presence. She loved them dearly, but she needed her space.
“Have you given any more thought to your party, dear?” her mother piped up, turning her attention back to her elder daughter as she wiped applesauce from her granddaughter’s chin.
“I really just like the idea of a nice, quiet dinner somewhere,” Renee replied, heaving another exhausted sigh. “Somewhere where I’m the one being waited on, for a change.” She shrugged, twisting a bit in her husband’s embrace so that she faced the table once more. “What do you think, Stace? It’s your birthday, too, you know.”
Yeah, except it isn’t, Stacy thought, absently tracing the lines of the tablecloth with her thumbnail. It was a tradition as old as her family, and one she was only now beginning to resent. She and her sister didn’t share a birthday; quite the contrary, actually – her birthday was the second, Renee’s the fourth. Long ago, her parents had decided to celebrate the girls’ birthdays on the same day, a decision that had been fine when they were children, but one that Stacy had started to begrudge as she’d grown older.
Even now, she could feel the old bile of irritation rising in the back of her throat. Having “a nice, quiet dinner somewhere” was not her idea of a good time, and ordinarily she’d say as much – but Renee, harried new mother, cut a far more sympathetic figure in their parents’ eyes. Stacy felt she’d be overruled if she did anything less than agree.
“I think…” she started, looking up into her family’s expectant faces. Her words choked in the back of her throat. “I think – I need to get out of here,” she said, abruptly standing up and pushing her seat back.
Her mother followed her sudden movements with a watchful gaze, concern lacing her features. “Where are you going?” she asked cautiously. “Your sister and I made plans today – ”
“Out,” Stacy ground out, interrupting her mother, but not really caring. “I – I just need to be by myself for a little while.” Taking in her sister’s wounded expression, she softened her tone a bit. “I’m just going to my apartment to pick up a few things,” she continued. “I’ll be back this afternoon, okay?”
Her mother opened her mouth to reply, but this time it was her father who cut her off at the pass. “That’s fine, Stace,” he said, standing up and patting his youngest daughter on the shoulder. “I know you wanted to take care of some things before you jet off again to parts unknown.”
“Oh, Dad,” Stacy laughed, “Europe is hardly ‘parts unknown’!” Still, she was grateful for her father’s intervention – he always seemed to understand when she needed to escape from the family dynamic. Her mother had developed this tendency to treat her now-adult daughters like baby chicks, gathering them under her wings at every opportunity. Stacy had never done well under that sort of scrutiny, and she was feeling especially sensitive today.
Because today was her birthday.
With another promise to return soon, Stacy grabbed her coat from the hall closet and very nearly sprinted out the front door of her parents’ Brooklyn brownstone. The early January breeze was heavy and stinging against her skin as she quickly added a hat and gloves to her ensemble, but she forged ahead nonetheless, navigating the still-icy steps down to the sidewalk and hurrying towards the nearest subway station.
She loved her family, but she had chafed under their bridle for most of her life, always longing for freedom and adventure. Only now, at twenty-five, did she have her first true taste of independence – and she absolutely loved it. Her life over the last year had been a whirlwind, so to come back to her parents’ house and be under their watchful eyes once more made her feel stifled and restless.
The subway station was warm and brightly lit, the fluorescent lights overhead buzzing with an incessant whine. Stacy took the first train into Manhattan, feeling her mood lighten and the tension begin to seep out of her body as it began to roll forward.
So much had happened over the last year that she could barely keep track of it all now – even thinking about it made her adrenaline rush. She’d graduated from university with a hard-earned degree in fashion design, and almost immediately, her career had taken off – and taken her around the globe. She’d been signed to a modeling contract, one that gave her the opportunity to walk the finest runways around the world, to participate in Fashion Weeks in Paris, Milan, London, and LA. She’d rubbed elbows with some of the finest and most famous names in haute couture, and even had the opportunity to work with a designer at Givenchy on a line of handbags that would be released in Japan come spring. She’d lived for most of the year in Europe, coming back to the States only long enough to set up an apartment in Manhattan before taking off again. Her world had filled with fashion, culture, celebrity, and fame, and it had been a sudden jolt, a shock of reality calling, when she had realized it was nearly Christmas – and that meant going home.
All of the traditions her family had were centered on the winter holidays. Every year for as long a she could remember, her entire extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents had gathered at her parents’ brownstone in Brooklyn, all arriving in time to celebrate Christmas Eve with midnight mass, an amazing dinner that lasted for two days straight, and an overflow of gifts. The family would stay for another week, visiting and catching up and making plans for another blowout celebration at New Year’s, where, for the second time in as many weeks, they would go all out, bidding farewell to the old, and ushering in the new.
The extended family would leave on New Year’s Day, scattering back to their homes across the country, but for Stacy, her sister, and her parents, it was not yet the end. Stacy’s birthday was January second, and Renee’s was two days later, on the fourth – which meant attending a third large celebration in the space of three weeks. It was the reason their parents had made the decision they had – it was easier to plan one party instead of two, two days apart, so they simply split the difference and celebrated both girls’ birthdays on January third. It was a tradition that had endured, even as they grew beyond childhood, and one that Stacy had grown to resent.
Stacy sighed as her train pulled into its destination, quietly joining the straggling line of travelers in disembarking and climbing the station steps to the surface. She turned down the street towards her apartment, casting her eyes to the gloomy gray sky above and wishing for a little sunshine. It was a typical day for wintry New York – cloudy, windy, and cold – but her sense of melancholy didn’t come from the weather, or even her sparsely crowded post-holiday surroundings.
Her pace was leisurely as she started down the street, keeping her eyes mostly focused on the sidewalk in front of her. It was just a little amazing how quickly a bustling metropolis like New York could turn around after a major holiday. The streets weren’t packed with people as they had been scarcely twenty-four hours before; there were no more Christmas decorations in the windows of the shops or restaurants. It was a little sad, really, as if the sheen of vibrancy had worn off – there were just people, going about their daily lives, undercutting the magic of the holiday season that attracted so many to the city.
Just as she reached the cross street that would’ve taken her to the residential part of town where her modest apartment was, she changed course. There was nothing worse than feeling depressed in the middle of New York City, and she knew just what would cheer her up, birthday or no birthday – Fifth Avenue, the heart of the Manhattan glamour district.
It had been her favorite part of the city ever since she was a child, looking around in awe at the high fashion shops and tony restaurants that lined the famous boulevard. She could lose herself there for hours, simply looking at the displays in the windows. Even now, on a cold January morning, there was a spark of familiarity, of comfort. The sidewalks were empty, the slush of the previous night’s snow swept off into the street, but the somber atmosphere was just what she needed to be alone in her thoughts, and to sort through her conflicting feelings.
Her birthday had always been tinged with a bit of sadness and fatigue; by the time it rolled around, she was simply tired of celebrating. It was bad enough that it fell close enough to a major gift-giving holiday that she rarely received gifts; what was worse, in Stacy’s estimation, was the fact that she couldn’t remember the last time she’d celebrated her birthday on her birthday, and without her sister. It was hard for her to feel special and loved and celebrated when the day passed without notice; when it was time to celebrate, she could never escape the comparison of her life with her sister’s – a comparison that inevitably ended up in Renee’s favor.
Stacy loved her sister, but she’d never measure up to her standard. Renee had been the perfect daughter – good grades, academic awards, volunteer work that made her parents absolutely shine with honor and pride. Things had just continued to come up roses as she’d gotten older – flying through undergraduate and graduate studies at Columbia, earning her degree with honors, before slipping easily into a faculty position in the very same department. She’d met and married a wonderful man with an equally impressive background, and they’d settled into a quaint little townhouse close to her parents’ place in Brooklyn.
Stacy, on the other hand, craved her independence, and had rebelled against her parents’ standards. She was as wild and carefree as her sister was cautious; her lifestyle now was evidence enough of that. School had been a mere formality; she’d done well enough, but had struggled with academics, preferring to use her time there as a gateway into her social life. She’d left the moment she was able, focusing on her passion and going wherever it took her – and the further away from her parents’ nest, the better. She loved jetting off to exotic locales, working closely with the most innovative fashion minds in the world, and being exposed to a life she could only just dream of as a child. Coming home filled her with a sense of restlessness. She didn’t want to be here, and she didn’t want to feel obligated to be here, either.
Stacy glanced up at that moment, feeling the rush of warm air as a couple exited one of the storefronts in front of her. Her gaze lingered on the pair for a long moment, the way they huddled together against the biting breeze, the way the man casually wrapped his arm around the woman’s shoulders. She averted her eyes as a tide of jealousy and loneliness rose within her at the sight. It was petty and irrational, but it was all too natural a feeling these days. She could barely stand to see happy couples these days, because it only made her miss her own other half even more.
Her life might’ve been akin to controlled chaos, but there had always been one constant – her boyfriend, Ryan. He was the anchor in her raging sea, the steady yin to her wildcard yang. Their relationship had been a long and complicated one, but the agony always proved worth the ecstasy. Whenever she was with him, the rest of the world faded away, its petty problems and annoyances and anxieties melting into nonexistence. She could cry and rage and laugh and sing in his presence, and he would always know the right words to say or the right actions to take to make her feel like she was the only person in the universe who mattered.
A small smile rose to her lips as her thoughts shifted to him. She’d known him since she was nine years old, when he’d first moved into her neighborhood. She had been in absolute awe of him at first – he was unlike anyone she’d ever encountered before: confident to the point of near arrogance, rebellious but intelligent, and kind-hearted under all that rough-and-tumble charm. The fact that her sister had been so vehemently unimpressed with him didn’t hurt, either. He’d been invited to join a neighborhood band that she and Renee were also members of, and had quickly risen through the ranks, proving himself a natural leader and a talented musician.
It was rather easy now, in hindsight, to admit that she’d always been in love with him, but it had taken the better part of five years for her to work up the courage to confess her feelings to him. They had become very good friends, bonding over their shared love of music, and he was the first boy she’d ever considered having a serious relationship with. She’d always thought him out of her league – he was three years older than her, sinfully gorgeous and well aware of it, charming and flirtatious with a crowd of girls trailing after him – so she was more shocked than anything else when he admitted to returning her attraction.
Their friendship had blossomed into romance very quickly, but like most teenage relationships, it had suffered under the volatile emotions and hormones of adolescence, leading to an explosive breakup shortly after his graduation from high school. They reconciled a few years later, after her own graduation, having spent the interim rebuilding their friendship through the band. This new, mature bond was more intense and fulfilling than anything she’d ever experienced before. He was wonderful to her – kind, thoughtful, considerate, impulsively romantic at all the right moments (and a couple of wrong ones) – and she did her best to be everything to him, but what held them together was just how well attuned they were to each other – their schedules, their habits, their likes and dislikes and sore spots.
Like her birthday.
I should call him, she thought suddenly, spotting a phone booth at the end of the block.
Dating a musician had never been easy – his life was just as transient as hers, going wherever the music – and the money – took him. He’d gone west in pursuit of his career after graduating from college, and the resulting time apart had been incredibly hard on their relationship. They were determined to make it work, however, neither willing to let go of the tangible love that had bound them together for so long. They made time for each other, working long visits into their schedules and talking on the phone as much as possible. It had been five years since the beginning of their second, adult romance, and neither were about to let distance rip apart what time and togetherness had so lovingly built.
Ryan always came back to New York for Christmas, because his family settled in her neighborhood, and his presence was the steadying force that got her through the holidays with her family. Her parents were hesitant about their relationship, but she didn’t care – she loved him, and that’s all that mattered.
It would’ve been the same this year – if anything, Stacy felt like she needed him even more, considering her own whirlwind of travel – but his parents had decided to retire to California, in part to be closer to him. Their move precluded him coming ‘home’ to New York for Christmas, and he’d taken a gig in LA for New Year’s. She knew what it meant for him to be with his own family – and what it meant for his prospects to play a high-profile holiday event in LA – but that didn’t stop her from aching for him anyway.
He promised he’d be there in time for her birthday party, but he couldn’t get away any sooner.
It was the first year that he’d miss her actual birthday, and that was what hurt the most. He was the only person who’d ever gone out of his way to do something just for her, on the actual day of her birth, instead of waiting a day like everyone else. It was never anything big, but it was enough to make her feel beautiful and special and loved in her own right, as opposed to merely being part of a package deal.
She ducked into the phone booth, digging into her pocket for some change. She ignored the grimy keypad, pushing the coins into the slot and dialing the number she’d long ago memorized. There was nothing she would’ve liked more in that moment than to hear his voice – even a simple “hello” would’ve been enough to soothe her wounded feelings.
She listened as the line attempted to connect, ringing once, twice, three times. After the eighth ring, she gave up, reluctantly replacing the receiver on the hook. Tears welled behind her eyes as she stared at the bottom of the payphone.
She’d never felt so alone.
She stepped out of the booth, crossing the street with a quickened pace, as if she was trying to outrun her tears. She drew to a halt as she came upon the glass display case at Tiffany’s, her eyes lingering over the glittering pieces of jewelry as she wrapped her coat tighter around herself. This was perhaps her favorite place in the whole world. There was something about standing here, in this exact same spot, that made her feel like everything was going to be okay, no matter how chaotic her life had become. Maybe it was all those years she spent staring at those shimmering diamonds, seeing the excitement their accompanying ropes of gold and swirls of silver seemed to promise. How many wishes had she made on this display over the course of her life? How many dreams had she had, of living a life fabulous enough to include such beautiful works of art?
How many times had she stood there, hoping to have someone to share those dreams and wishes with?
Stacy’s eyes slipped shut, and for a moment, she allowed her heartache to consume her. She felt guilty for wanting her boyfriend at her side, selfish for wanting to tear him away from everything else in his life simply for the comfort of his presence. Ryan wasn’t just any boyfriend, however – if her year of globetrotting and fancy parties and hobnobbing with the elite had taught her anything, it was that he was the love of her life.
It didn’t matter where she was, or who she was with – no other man could turn her head. She counted down the days until they were together again, even if the visits were necessarily short. The best week of her life had been Fashion Week in LA – not because of the designers she’d met or the corporate executives she’d schmoozed, but because he was there, and he was with her, and even being in his mere presence made her glow with happiness – a radiance so brilliant it had landed her the deal with Givenchy to design handbags.
That event had cemented so many things in her mind, including the strength and importance of their bond. She hated leaving him then, and every time it only got harder and harder…but there was no other way. Having a long-distance relationship was far from ideal, but if it was a choice between that and nothing, she’d take it.
She opened her eyes, staring down at the romantic display, releasing her guilt and feeling emptiness in its stead. She glanced up at the sky, noting the encroaching darkness, and realized she’d been gone far longer than she’d meant to be. She shifted, turning back the way she came, when a heavy hand landed on her shoulder.
“I figured I’d find you here,” a voice intoned, breaking her from her reverie.
Stacy turned swiftly, instinctively breaking away from the unfamiliar hold, ready to lash out at the person who’d interrupted her brooding. Her eyes widened when she recognized her erstwhile companion, her jaw dropping open in absolute shock.
“R-Ryan?!” she breathed incredulously, unable to believe her eyes. Her breath caught in her chest as she stared at him, wondering for a moment if he’d simply materialized from her thoughts. “Am I dreaming?” she whispered, more to herself than him.
“I hope not,” he smiled, touching her cheek with a gloved hand, his fingers trailing along the side of her face and the line of her jaw. “You seem real enough to me.”
“I can’t believe you’re here!” she cried happily, wrapping her arms around him and pressing herself close. “The party isn’t until tomorrow, and I thought – ”
“I know,” he said, returning her fervent embrace in kind. “I wanted to surprise you – and, well, when you weren’t at your apartment, I figured this was the next best place to look.”
She burrowed closer to him, reveling in the warmth of his embrace. “Well, consider me surprised,” she replied, burying her face in the shoulder of his heavy black peacoat. She breathed deeply of his heady, familiar scent, and suddenly she felt like crying all over again. “Oh, God, I’ve missed you,” she whispered against his neck, tightening the brace of her arms around him as she lifted her mouth to his.
She felt the surprise of her kiss course through him, but she ignored it, focusing instead in the sensation of being back in his arms again, of the heat that flickered between them, stoking the fire in her core. He yielded to her urgency, drawing her body into his and returning the intimate caress, but still, she could sense the tension in his frame, the way he held himself on guard for some mysterious reason.
She drew away, her heart pounding in her chest as she looked up into his eyes. “Is everything okay?” she asked hesitantly, furrowing her brow slightly.
He was looking at her strangely, as if he was trying to etch her face – and this moment – into his memory. A small smile played at the corners of his lips, and he fidgeted nervously with a stray lock of her hair.
“Perfect,” he finally said, his voice so soft she could barely hear him. “Everything’s perfect.”
Stacy opened her mouth to question him further, but her words deserted her when he took a step back, his hands drifting lightly over her shoulders and down her arms to clasp hers hands. He took a deep breath, his gaze lingering on hers for a long moment.
“Anastasia Elizabeth,” he began, letting go of her hands as he sank down on one knee, “will you give me the honor and pleasure of becoming my wife?”
Stacy couldn’t breathe.
She blinked rapidly, becoming aware of the fact that he was holding a ring, a sparkling platinum band held aloft between his thumb and forefinger. A one-and-a-half carat oval cut royal blue sapphire glittered in the soft, reflected glow of the lights from the Tiffany’s display. The gorgeously unblemished center gemstone was flanked on either side by brilliant-cut half-carat white diamonds. It was a ring reminiscent of the one she’d spent countless hours staring at as a teenager, one that had spent many years behind the display case at Tiffany’s, one she never in a million years dreamt would be her own.
Her gaze shifted away from the exquisite ring, coming to rest on his equally beautiful dark green eyes. Of all his strikingly handsome features, she’d always loved his eyes the most. They had an almost piercing quality, making her feel like he could see straight into her soul at times – though never moreso than now. His eyes could sparkle with love, darken with desire, cloud with concern, and dance with mirth. They were his giveaway, and now – she could only see her own surprise and hope reflected there.
“Yes,” she finally whispered, her initial shock of the surprise proposal melting into joy as she pulled him to his feet. He tried to take her hand, but she stayed him, one hand fisted around the coat at his shoulder, while she touched his face with the other, tracing her fingers over the crest of his cheek. “Just your being here today was enough for me,” she confessed, her voice shaking slightly, “and now…?”
“And now,” he vowed, drawing her close with a confident smile, “I’m never going to leave you again.” He lifted her chin, capturing her mouth in a sweet, ardent kiss, one she felt in her very bones.
Emotion cascaded through her – love, lust, need, desire – pure, unadulterated elation. I love you so much, she thought, her hands shifting and curling around his neck, pulling him close, pressing her body into his, all the while wishing there weren’t layers of winter clothes between them. There were so many things to love about this man, but nothing was more amazing in that moment than just how well he knew her. He knew her well enough to know exactly where she’d be – he knew her well enough to pick exactly the right ring – he knew her well enough to say exactly the right words, at exactly the right moment.
He knew exactly how to make her feel singularly special and beloved on a day most others forgot was her own.
He was perfect, and in that moment, she felt perfect, too.
“Happy birthday, Stacy,” he whispered, hugging her close. “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” she replied softly, punctuating her statement with another sweet kiss. She lifted her eyes, her gaze lingering on his as a small smile curved the corners of her mouth. “And I can’t wait to spend the rest of my life with you.”