AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: Renée Carlino
Excerpt from SWEET THING by Renée Carlino.
Falling in Love at Christmas Time
We drove to Will’s parents’ house, which was located in a little Detroit suburb. After their kids moved out, they downsized from what Will called the six-bedroom craphole he grew up in to a modest three-bedroom tract home. The first thing I noticed when we pulled up was an inordinate number of Christmas lawn ornaments scattered across the snow-covered yard. The driveway was full of cars, so we parked five houses away and carted our stuff up the street while Reina dragged the twins along. When we got to the front door, people started pouring out to greet us. Will turned to me and raised his eyebrows. “Are you ready for this?”
I nodded. It would be a very eye-opening experience to spend the holidays with such a huge family. I felt the warmth spilling out to us as his family members embraced him with twenty minutes of hugs and kisses.
The next several hours were a blur. There were a hundred kids running around and no real organized meal, just a bunch of food on a table for people to graze. Will’s mom, Rita, was a sweetheart—she complimented me over and over and seemed truly happy that Will had brought someone home. She said the next morning would be a quieter time for us to get to know each other, but she did tell me they used to worry about Will when he was younger because one of the sisters dropped him on his head as a baby. “He just always seemed different than the other kids,” she said.
He clearly didn’t fit in with the rest of the group. His dad was quiet and somewhat unsocial. He basically sat in a recliner while all the kids jumped around him. He was kind when Will introduced us, but he made very little effort to talk to me after that. Will’s brother Ray was literally his polar opposite. I could see immediately why they weren’t close.
“Mia, this is my brother Ray. Ray, this is Mia.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said, holding my hand out. He shook it robotically while Will stepped away to get us a drink. Ray stood a tad taller than Will and was about sixty pounds heavier. What was left of his severely receded hair was very short, and if it weren’t for his dark eyes, the family trait, he would have looked nothing like Will. All the family members dressed in a kind of typical suburban, conservative attire. Compared to his family, Will seemed very edgy with his tattoos and silver-studded belt, but to me it was just Will, my sweet and sensitive Will.
“So you’re the girlfriend?” Ray said with a patronizing smile. “Are you a bartender, too?” I could tell right away he was one of those people who always had a hint of condescension in his tone.
“No, I’m not. I own a café in the East Village and … I’m a musician, as well.” My own admission surprised me, but I wanted to remind Ray that Will wasn’t just a bartender.
“Ah yes… the music. Kind of an oddball thing to pursue, don’t you think?”
“Why is that?” I said with a smile of my own.
“I don’t know, just seems like more of a hobby.”
I waited a long beat before responding. “Well, I disagree. I’ve studied music most of my life and your brother is by far the most talented musician I’ve encountered. It would be a crime if he didn’t pursue a career in music. And really, there is nothing odd about it.”
He studied my expression. “Hmm. Well, he’s always had a knack for it; I’ll give him that. So what do you play?”
“Piano,” I said and he nodded with a smile.
Will appeared and threw his arm around my shoulder after handing me a glass of wine. “Watch out, Ray, this one’s a firecracker,” he said as he kissed me on the forehead. Ray smiled warmly at both of us. I knew he meant well, but I wasn’t sure if anyone in Will’s family would truly appreciate the magnitude of what he was about to tell them.
Will glanced around the room and then cleared his throat loudly. “Ahem. I have an announcement to make.” Everyone immediately quieted. I noticed several sets of eyes surveying me, first my left hand and then my stomach. Clearly most announcements in this family were either engagements or pregnancies.
“Everybody, I want to let you know that Mia here… has never had turducken.” Huh? The first thing I thought was that Will was right, I had never had turducken; he told me it was his family’s Christmas Eve tradition to roast a deboned chicken inside of a deboned duck inside of a turkey. It sounded disgusting to me, but that wasn’t the point. I thought he was going to announce his record deal—instead Will threw the attention to me and then stared off smugly while his entire family started talking at once about how much I was going to love the freakin’ turducken.
I elbowed him and then narrowed my eyes. “You’re in trouble,” I whispered.
“What are you gonna do to me, sweet thing?” He grinned.
I yanked him away into the bathroom and shut the door. “What was that? Why didn’t you tell them about the deal?”
“Mia, did you see how many little kids were running around out there?”
I shot out my hands. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“In my family it’s just kind of a funny thing when one of the couples goes into the bathroom and locks the door.” He smirked devilishly.
I gasped, appalled. “Oh my god. First of all, we’re not a couple, and second, that is ridiculous.”
He just shrugged and held his shit-eating grin. “Will Ryan, I am mad at you.” I stomped my foot like a petulant teenager. “And furthermore, you still haven’t answered my question.”
He leaned in, dropping his head down near my cheek and putting his hands on my hips. Any inkling of a gap between us was closed. I took in a sharp breath and shut my eyes as I felt his body against mine. His lips grazed my jaw and then his mouth moved up along my neck. He tugged at my ear with his teeth and whispered, “We’ll talk later, okay, baby?”
I pushed his shoulders away. “You have to stop touching me like that!”
He took a step back and gazed at me sorrowfully. “I thought you liked it.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“I just don’t want to complicate things, Will, that’s all.”
“By letting me touch you?”
I nodded. “Yes.”
“Listen, I changed my mind. I’m not going to tell them about the record deal now. I don’t want to have to explain all the fine details to every member of my family on Christmas Eve. Let’s just be together… okay?”
He looked so pathetic standing there, rejected. He corrected himself a couple of times when his body made involuntary movements to reach out and touch me. He was fighting the urge to just simply take my hand or kiss my cheek. I didn’t know why I was being so harsh; he hadn’t really crossed the line, although the soft kisses on my neck were certainly testing the limits. The charade and the constant touching created so much confusion. I couldn’t tell anymore what we were to each other.
Maybe Will wanted me to come home with him and meet his family just to pretend for a few festive moments that I was his girlfriend and he was just like the rest of them: loved. I buried my head in his chest and hugged him around the waist; he wrapped his arms around my shoulders. “Okay, you’re right, let’s just enjoy this time off. And we can hug, like this, all you want. This is what friends do,” I said as he squeezed me tighter.
When we returned to the living room everything was back to usual business. Rita displayed the cut-up turducken and everyone cheered. I wasn’t sure what all the hype was about—it tasted like turkey, duck, and chicken. No surprise there, but it was charming how the entire family got so excited over it.
After everyone left, Will’s dad went off to his bedroom and Rita and I cleaned up while Will made a bed on the pullout sofa.
“Will, you’re almost thirty years old. I think your father and I will be okay if you and Mia want to sleep in the guest room.” Will looked over and waited for me to make a decision. It wasn’t like sleeping in the same bed was anything new for us, but I think after the episode in the bathroom he didn’t want to make any assumptions.
“That’s fine, thank you, Rita.”
She looked at me and then cupped my face and said, “I’m glad you’re here.”
“Thank you. I’m glad to be here.” I truly meant it. I studied Rita’s features. She had the same dark eyes as Will and the same full lips. She wore round glasses and her gray hair was in a bob. She was much older than my mother, but she had a youthfulness about her that I was sure Will had inherited.
In the guest room Will stripped down to his boxers, slid into bed, and rolled away, facing the window. I dug through his bag and pulled out one of his white T-shirts and slipped it over my head.
“Night, buddy.” He said with a tinge of irritation. He made no attempt to touch me.
The next morning, I woke up to an empty bed. I threw on some sweats and went to the bathroom and brushed my teeth. When I got to the living room, Rita yelled out, “There she is. Merry Christmas, Mia!” Will’s parents were dressed in matching red pajama sets and Santa hats. His dad did not seem the least bit amused; it was clearly his mom who was the festive one. Will had on flannel pajama bottoms that I had never seen—they really made him look domestic and I think it turned me on. His white T-shirt was a stark contrast against his tattooed forearm and his hair was wet and brushed back away from his face. He looked unreasonably handsome for first thing in the morning.
There was a fire going and the lights on the Christmas tree were twinkling. I sat down on the couch next to him and put my hand on his leg. “Merry Christmas, honey,” I said softly and then I puckered my lips. His parents’ eyes were glued on us. Will focused on my expression as I gave his thigh a squeeze.
His eyes kissed mine and then he let out a barely audible sigh as he leaned over and pecked my lips. “Merry Christmas, baby.” His mom gave me a steaming mug and I wrapped my hands around it and folded my legs onto the couch, curling up into Will as I sipped my coffee.
Rita sat back on her heels, next to the tree. “Okay, it’s time to open presents,” she said as she handed me a box with a big red ribbon on it.
“Thank you so much—you didn’t have to get me anything.”
I tore the wrapping open and lifted the lid to find a gray, high-necked cashmere sweater. I put it up to my face. “Wow, I’ve never had cashmere, this is beautiful. Really, it’s too much.”
“Don’t be silly, Mia. Will has never brought a girl home for us to meet, we’re thrilled to have you here and we wanted to get you something you would like. I sent Will a picture of the sweater and he gave me the thumbs-up,” she said, pleased. She looked at Will, who was smiling at her with love.
“Thank you so much.” I got up and handed Rita the present I’d bought for her and Ray.
“Look, Raymond, a French press! I’ve always wanted one of these. Thank you, Mia.”
Will and his parents exchanged some gifts; he bought his dad a Civil War anthology and a baseball documentary DVD box set… very Americana stuff. For his mom he had a book called How to Write a Cookbook and a gift card to Williams-Sonoma. When she opened it he said, “You have to do it, Mom. Write the book, people will love it!”
Rita looked over at me and said, “I’ve been saying I want to write a cookbook since before Will was born.”
“You should, Rita, you’re a fabulous cook. Will has made so many of your dishes for me and I can’t get enough. I’m really going to miss it when he’s gone.”
As soon as the words came out of my mouth, it hit me that Will hadn’t told his parents yet.
“What do you mean, when he’s gone?”
Will chimed in. “I’m going to California on New Year’s Day; I’ll be there for a month. I’ll be opening up for a band called Second Chance Charlie.”
“Never heard of ’em.” Ray Sr. finally decided to join the conversation.
Will continued, “It’s just for three concerts. I’ll be back in New York the first week of February.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful, honey,” Rita said with a smile. Will didn’t elaborate and I knew why. There was really no point. His parents were not into music and probably never would be; it was like speaking a foreign language to them.
I jumped up and handed Will my present for him. He pulled the leather-bound black notebook out of the gift bag and slowly ran his hand over the cover.
“Open it,” I said. On the inside cover I had taped a black-and-white picture that Jenny had taken of me, Will, and Jackson sitting on a blanket in Tompkins Square Park on the Fourth of July. I was leaning back on my hands with my legs out. Will was lying perpendicular to me with his head on my lap and one arm reaching behind him around my waist and his other hand petting Jackson’s head. The three of us looked like a little family, completely relaxed and at ease with one another. On the first lined page of the notebook I had written a message:
Here is a little something to write your thoughts in, or perhaps lyrics or your inspiring poetry. All of it is amazing and beautiful and I’ve felt so lucky to have been privy to it. I wanted to include the picture as a reminder that you will always have us to come home to if ever you need a break from being super famous and swooned over… you know how well I can bring you back to earth… wink. But seriously, the whole group from Kell’s loves you and we’re so proud of you. I know I’m going to miss you like crazy. You’ve been the biggest comfort to me since I moved to New York. You’ve been a great friend; you’ve been the best and I won’t forget it.
Don’t forget about me, okay?
Will narrowed his eyes at me and shook his head slightly. “What?” I said.
He glanced over at his parents and then back at me, swallowing before he spoke. “Thank you, Mia.” As he reached in to kiss my cheek he whispered, “We need to talk.”
I nodded and then sat back on the couch. He reached down and grabbed a box from under the tree and handed it to me. I opened it to find a framed black-and-white picture of Will and me onstage at the string festival. It was a timeless picture that could have been taken in the sixties and I loved that about it. We were both smiling and looking out to the crowd with magic in our eyes. The plain black frame matched so many of my father’s from the apartment; I knew Will intended it to be an addition to the collection. On the cardboard back, Will had written:
“There’s something else in the box,” he said. I looked down to find a necklace with a lotus-flower design carved into a round, silver pendant.
I looked up at him and smiled. “I love this.”
“It’s a lotus flower.”
“It symbolizes purity of the heart and mind.”
I reached in and gave him a long hug. “Thank you. You know me so well.”
“Do I?” he whispered.
I leaned back to gauge his expression. His lips were bent into a small, tight smile and there was sadness in his eyes. I immediately put the necklace on and haven’t taken it off since. We spent the next day acting like everything was fine. I knew on the drive to Ann Arbor we would have a chance to talk, so we made the best out of our time with his parents. While speeding out of Detroit in our rented car, Will blared The Adolescents, singing along to the music at the top of his lungs. I finally turned it down during the song “I Hate Children,” when it occurred to me that Will was working out some of his frustrations; some that were clearly brought on by me and my harmless gift.
“What’s up, buddy?”
“Yeah, what’s up, buddy?”
Ah, it was neurotic Will. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t understand you. There, I said it. How many times do I have to tell you? What do I have to do to prove to you that I’m not going anywhere? I’m leaving for a month; I’m coming back. I live with you, for God’s sake. You’re my best fucking friend, Mia. I wish it were more and I think you know that. You are the most guarded person I have ever met, yet everything you feel is right there on your face and you don’t even know it. Whatever you need me to be, I’ll be! Friends? Fine! Best friends? Great! I’ll do it, because I want you in my life more than anything I have ever wanted. So please stop with the don’t-forget-me shit!”
“Okay.” I meant to say it softly, but it came out as more of a whine.
He glanced over at me and his expression softened. “Okay? I’m sorry, baby, I just… I don’t want to leave, either, and I don’t want you to put up your defenses because you think I’m going to run off and forget about you.”
Will knew I had always been worried about the rock star life and all the faceless, foregone conclusions that would come into his life. He was reassuring me that I wasn’t that, no matter what label we gave to each other. Really, Will wasn’t the rock star, at least not the stereotypical image I’d had in my mind when I first met him. He was nothing like that. Sure, he could flirt with women, but he was never smarmy and he didn’t sleep around… per se. He liked people, he liked women, he was a lover, but he was honest with everyone he came in contact with and he was especially honest with himself--a quality I needed to work on.
I reached over and squeezed his hand; he pulled my hand to his mouth and kissed it, never taking his eyes off the road. He changed the CD, turning up Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman.” He accelerated and we flew toward Ann Arbor without another word. He bobbed his head and tapped his hand on the steering wheel to the fast, jazzy beat. The music set my mind into spiraling motion, thinking about what he had said. I never considered myself guarded; I thought of myself as strong, but I was wrong. Life had thrown me for a loop when my father died. I’d gone to New York thinking I would straighten things out with the café, then go to grad school, further my education, meet some strapping doctor or business man and let my life follow the square rules I set forth, but the moment I stepped onto that plane back in March, I’d started to feel a different pull. There was a magnetism I felt from Will, the music, my new friends, the café, and the city itself. It felt right and it felt good. How could I have been so wrong about myself before? If I was guarded it was because I was realizing how little control I had over my feelings and it scared me.
When we got to my mother and stepdad’s in Ann Arbor, I gave Will a brief tour and introduced him to David, whom I called Dad. It was a Sunday and the Detroit Lions were playing, so my stepdad was wearing his normal NFL garb. Will struck up a conversation about the team and the two hit it off right away. I didn’t even know Will followed football, but there were so many things I didn’t give him credit for. He may not have been a sports fan, but Will read the newspaper every single day. He knew a little about everything and his own curiosity and desire to better himself and grow as a person had given him a far more valuable education than I had gotten from a fancy, Ivy League college. My mother and I caught up in the kitchen while we prepared dinner.
“Mom, I want you know that I don’t blame you for what happened between you and Pops. I’m getting things now… I guess I’m realizing we’re all just people trying to figure it all out.”
She walked over and wrapped her arms around me. “Thank you for telling me that. You’ll figure it out, Mia; I think maybe you already have.” She glanced over at Will. Somehow letting my mom know how I felt gave me a sense of closure regarding my father.
After dinner, Will sang and played his acoustic guitar. My mom and stepdad seemed really impressed by his ability to figure out a song in a matter of minutes. It wasn’t always perfect, but he would usually get the melody pretty close. My mom requested “The Girl from North Country” by Bob Dylan. He knew the song but he needed a little help with the lyrics, which my mom knew word for word. I was surprised since I had never known her to listen to Bob Dylan. I knew the lyrics as well; Pops had sung that song a thousand times and then I realized why my mom requested it; there was no question that Will had a spirit like my father’s. He sang the song passionately with his eyes closed. His soulful voice belted out the lines like they were his own. I’m wondering if she remembers me at all… many times I’ve often prayed. I looked up at my mom, who immediately looked away. I wondered if my father thought about her when he sang those lines.
I made an ill attempt at the harmonica solo, but it didn’t sound that great; Will chuckled at me and winked. He finished the song carrying the last line out, soft and slow. She once was a true love of mine. I looked at my mom again, but this time she didn’t look away and she didn’t hide the tears streaming down her face. She was mourning my father, too, and Will being there was healing for us all. The old music wasn’t Will’s style but he didn’t care, he just wanted to play for the people he cared about. He never asked if we wanted to hear an original song, even though I knew he had plenty of great ones, he just wanted to provide everyone with something that was personal. He played for hours; we laughed and cried and talked a little about Pops.
When it was time to go to bed, Will offered to sleep on the couch. “No way,” I said, “I want to cuddle.” He smiled and laughed.
Will looked at my mom, who shrugged and said, “She wants to cuddle.” I curled into Will under the covers of my childhood bed. I was asleep in minutes and I got the most restful sleep I’d had in months.
Opening my eyes, I realized I was using Will’s chest as a pillow. I peeked up and found him wide awake, staring at the ceiling. “You talkin’ to God?”
“Something like that,” he murmured.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I have a lot on my mind. We need to get home. I want to put another dead bolt on the door and make the sure the smoke detectors have batteries and the furnace is working before I leave. Plus, I need to get all my equipment together. I’m just stressed about the next couple of days.”
“Will Ryan, are you worried about me?”
“I’m always worried about you.”
“We’ll get it done. I’ll help, and don’t worry about me; I’ll be fine. Do you want to spend New Year’s Eve at the apartment? We can have Jenny and Tyler over to give you a proper sending off.”
“I’d love that,” he said with a conflicted look on his face. He smiled bleakly and then kissed the top of my head before rolling out of bed.
Renée Carlino is a screenwriter and bestselling author of romantic women's novels and new adult fiction. She lives in Southern California with her husband, two sons, and their sweet dog June. When she’s not at the beach with her boys or working on her next project, she likes to spend her time reading, going to concerts, and eating dark chocolate.
Visit Renée Carlino's Website: http://www.reneecarlino.com/Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorReneeCarlino/?fref=ts
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1. If money was no object what would take out the number one spot on your Christmas list?
A Solution to hunger and curable diseases.
2. What was the first book you read that made you think “wow this is what I want to do, I want to be an author”?
As a girl, “Tuck Everlasting,” As an adult, “The Time Traveler’s Wife.
3. What does Christmas mean for you?
Christmas means family and friends, sharing in food and fun, love and peace.
4. What’s your guilty pleasure, the one thing you hate admitting out loud?
My chocolate addiction for sure. I am chocolate dependent. I rely on it for my happiness.
5. What’s next for you in terms of writing?
I am currently revising Swear on THIS Life, which is slated for a May release. I am so excited to share this book within a book with the world.