I had no problem finding Jennalyn’s house that windy night in early December. The two-story charmer stood out from the other Costa Mesa ranch-style houses on Ventura Street. I even made it as far as the welcome mat by her front door before a rising sense of panic pressed in on me, causing me to stop and draw in a deep breath.
You don’t have to do this, Emily. You can leave now. No one inside knows you’re here.
My gaze went to the meandering red ribbon that looped through the fresh evergreen wreath hanging on the door. The wreath had an artistic assortment of bright silver bells, clusters of holly berries, and strategically placed starfish—a charming blend of beachy, artistic, and classy. Just like Jennalyn.
Nervously, I pulled her handmade invitation from my shoulder bag as if another glimpse at it would bolster my courage.
Come to a Favorite Things Party!
7 p.m. on December 5
Jennalyn’s new home.
Bring a plate of Christmas cookies
5 gifts of your favorite thing that costs under $5.
(No whiskers on kittens or bright copper kettles, please.)
It was all so cute. The idea, the invitation, and now the charming wreath on Jennalyn’s front door.
Why did I say I would come? I can’t do this. I won’t fit in with these women.
My feet didn’t move. In my pounding ears, I could hear the echo of my husband’s calm voice right after we moved to California. He had to coax our daughter out of the car on her first day of fifth grade.
“You gotta be brave, sweetheart. You’ve gotta take the first step. Truth is, I don’t know anyone in this wide world who wouldn’t want to be friends with you. Go on, you can do this.”
Audra took that first step, and she had made lots of friends at school over the past three months. Now it was my turn. If Trevor were standing beside me, I knew he would slip into his most adorable southern drawl and say, “Go on, Emily, darlin’, ring the bell. You’ll be glad you did.”
You better be right, Trevor Winslow. You better be right about a lot of things.
I rang the doorbell and waited. When the door opened, cheerful Christmas music spilled out. Jennalyn’s dark, silky hair hung over her shoulders, and she smiled at me in her welcoming way.
“I’m so glad you came! Come in.” She offered me a pregnant mama side hug.
I held out my plate of cookies with an apology. “They’re not homemade. I hope that’s okay.”
“Of course it’s okay.” She took the plate and led the way past the garland-festooned staircase. The fragrance of fresh pine mixed with cinnamon and cloves hung in the air.
I could hear the other women’s voices coming from the large open area at the back of Jennalyn’s beautiful home. They were laughing the way friends laugh when they know each other well.
I hung back slightly, my heart pounding. The conversation paused when we entered. I counted the women seated on the plush sofas. There were only three, but they were all looking at me.
“This is Emily.” Jennalyn placed her hand on my shoulder. “We met at the grocery store a few weeks ago and ended up having such a great conversation, I knew I wanted to include her for our Favorite Things party.”
A chorus of greetings followed as each woman said her name. I gave a nod and a “hi” and placed my gifts on the end of the long marble kitchen counter where the other gifts were. Jennalyn added my plate of cookies to the snacks.
“Would you like something to drink?” One of the women had stood and was now coming toward me. Her long hair had a pretty nutmeg-brown tint to it and was tucked behind her ears. Her oval face seemed to be framed like an open window with the curtains pulled back to each side.
“I was going to make some hot tea,” she said. “We have cold drinks too.”
As she came closer, I read in her distinct blue-green eyes a gentle sincerity. Or maybe it was compassion, as if she instinctively knew how nervous I was.
“Tea sounds good,” I said.
“Do you like peppermint tea?”
“Yes. Sure. Anything.”
“I’m Christy. I know it’s hard to remember names when you hear them all at once.”
She motioned to the other women on the couch. “So, again, that’s Tess. And Sierra is in the chair.”
My eyes went to Sierra first because of her beautiful, wild, curly blond hair. She wore a stack of gold bangles and beaded leather bracelets that shimmered and clinked together when she lifted her slender arm to wave at me. She reminded me of a mermaid.
“I love your sweater,” Sierra said. “It looks hand knit. Is it?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.” There was no way I was going to admit to her that I’d found it at a local junktique when I was hunting for lamps for our small apartment.
Sierra patted the underside of the simple scarf-like cocoon strapped to her front. “This is Ella Mae. She was four weeks old yesterday.” Sierra folded back the tie-dyed fabric so I could see the downy head of her little one.
I hadn’t realized she was cradling a newborn in her wide scarf. I smiled back but couldn’t manage a comment because a lump had swelled in my throat. I blinked so I wouldn’t tear up.
“Do you like honey in your tea?” Christy poured the boiling water into a white china teapot shaped like a pineapple.
“I’m the same way. I like my peppermint tea unsweetened. Now, if we were having English breakfast tea,” Christy confided, “I’d have both milk and sugar in it. And at least two cookies for dunking.”
“At least two,” Jennalyn chimed in. “Although I think we’ll all need more than just two cookies tonight, by the looks of this assortment.”
Christy and Jennalyn were treating me as if we were already friends. I wished my emotions hadn’t gotten so elevated.
Jennalyn reached across the counter to uncover the plate of cookies I’d brought.
I couldn’t tell if Jennalyn’s exclamation was one of surprise and delight when she saw my contribution, or if she was appalled. I stayed fixed on her expression as she examined the thumbprint cookies. They each had a chocolate kiss in the middle, popping up like an elf’s cap. At least that’s what Audra said they looked like when she helped me pick them out at the grocery-store bakery that afternoon. That’s why my daughter had taken it upon herself to meticulously cover each kiss with green frosting and add a tiny red candy dot on top.
“How clever.” Jennalyn, the artist, understood my daughter’s attempt right away. “Christmas elf caps. These are adorable!”
I noticed that Christy was observing the lopsided cookies the way I had, with polite skepticism.
“Hey!” Sierra called from the couch. Her sleeping baby stirred, and she lowered her voice. “I vote that you guys bring the cookies over here and share the bounty.”
“Great idea.” Jennalyn went to the coffee table and cleared her artistically arranged decorations, looping the expensive-looking table runner over the back of a kitchen chair and carefully transferring the nativity set.
Tess stood to help transfer the cookies to the coffee table, and I was surprised at how tall she was. She carried herself as if she had runway experience. As she gracefully reached for the plates of cookies on the counter, I felt short compared to her.
I also realized I was the only one in this group who had short hair. Problem hair, as my mother used to call it. My baby-fine strands never grew up nor had they managed to grow out. My light brown, wavy hair fell to just below chin level. Most of the time I felt like I looked as if I’d gotten caught in a springtime shower without an umbrella. I think that’s why I always noticed other women’s hair. My four sisters-in-law had often said they envied my flat stomach and shapely legs. For me, I admired other women’s hair.
I watched Tess out of the corner of my eye and wondered what it would be like to have thick, dark hair like hers. She wore it folded into a loose braid that hung down her back and then fell to the side when she bent to put the first few plates within easy reach for Sierra.
Tess caught my gaze and smiled. I smiled back. Her pale blue eyes stood out in a mesmerizing way against her toasty brown skin. She was stunning in an exotic, complicated way.
I took a seat next to Christy on one of the leather sofas. As the other women chatted, I drew in a slow breath. Christy was kind and a little shy. Jennalyn was outgoing and hospitable. Sierra was the free spirit in the group who had no trouble speaking her mind.
Tess would be the mystery. That was fine with me. After being the only introvert around Trevor’s big clan for all the years we had lived in North Carolina, I found it nice not to be the only quiet woman at a party.
“Emily, how did you come up with the idea for the elf-cap cookies?” Sierra asked.
“It was my daughter’s idea. She decorated them.”
“Clever girl. How old is she?” Sierra asked.
“Ten. Well, almost eleven.”
“What’s her name?”
“What a pretty name.” Tess spoke for the first time. Her voice had a warm, lilting tone. “Audra,” she repeated as if my daughter were a storybook character.
Sierra helped herself to a second cookie. “Do you have only one child?”
My stomach tightened. I don’t think Sierra intended for the word only to stand out in her question, but it did.
“Yes. Just one.” I put the cup of peppermint tea to my lips and hoped the subject would change. My heart was racing again.
“Ella Mae is our first,” Sierra said. “Jordan would love to have a dozen. I wouldn’t mind that. I came from a big family, so I’m hoping we have lots more. Babies are amazing, aren’t they? Such a gift.”
I nodded and took another sip of tea.
“Do you think you guys will have more?” Sierra asked.
A circus of emotions ran through me, doubling the uncertainty I had felt on the doorstep earlier. My hand wobbled as I held the teacup to my lips. I swallowed before making a noncommittal sort of “Mmm” sound in answer to Sierra’s question.
“Does anyone else want tea?” Christy lifted the pineapple teapot. “I think there’s enough for one more cup.”
“Sure,” Sierra said. “I’ll have some. It’s decaf, right? Unless, Tess? Do you want the last cup?”
“I’ll make another pot.” Christy rose from the couch.
I used the opportunity to quietly excuse myself and retreat to the powder room. As soon as I closed the door behind me, I let out a long, slow breath.
Why is this so difficult? These women are nice. What is wrong with me?
Putting my clammy hands in the sink, I let the cool water run over my wrists, grounding me, calming me. In the mirror, my solemn brown eyes seemed to be evaluating my reflection the way I’d evaluated all the other women. It had been easy for me to find something I liked in each of them. Why couldn’t I show myself the same kindness?
I’m not ready to have these kinds of conversations. Not with these women. Not with anyone. I need more time. I can’t do this.
I folded the guest towel and adjusted it on the countertop.
I need to leave. Now.
I returned to the great room and saw Jennalyn standing next to the kitchen counter. My plan was to discreetly tell her I wasn’t feeling well, which was true. I sidled up next to her, ready to make a quiet excuse and equally quiet exit.
Jennalyn looked up. “Perfect timing! We’re ready to open the gifts.”
I hung back. “Well, actually, I—”
“Don’t worry. You didn’t miss the instructions,” Jennalyn said. “I was about to explain how the favorite-things gift exchange works. Here.” She placed a basketful of gifts into my arms and pointed at the coffee table.
I found a spot for them next to a plate of cookies and hesitated before sheepishly lowering myself onto the sofa.
I’ll stay for the exchange. Then I’ll slip out. No drama.
I noticed that my teacup had been refilled, so I reached for it and held it like a prop, grateful to have something to look at other than the women in this close circle.
“It’s simple,” Jennalyn began. “Everyone takes a few minutes to talk about what she brought and why it’s a favorite item for her.”
“We have to stand up and say something?” Christy echoed my discomfort.
“You don’t have to stand. But you do have to explain why you chose what you brought. Then we all get one of the gifts to open, since everyone brought five of the same thing. Does that make sense?”
“Yep,” Sierra said. “Should I go first?”
“Yes, please do.”
“My favorite thing is shopping in funky thrift stores.”
She and Jennalyn started talking at the same time and laughing about a shared moment they had recently while shopping at a local thrift store. They had found a vintage dresser that Sierra had turned into a changing table for Ella Mae with the assistance of Jennalyn’s painting skills.
Their enthusiasm for “repurposing treasures” made me feel less self-conscious about where my sweater had come from. I also realized they called them thrift shops and not junktiques.
“I didn’t have time to wrap them, so here.” Sierra opened a zippered fabric pouch she had pulled from her diaper bag and displayed an assortment of at least a dozen bracelets on the coffee table. “I thought everybody could pick the one she wanted.”
I waited until the others had made their selections before settling on a lime-green, plastic bangle. Since I don’t wear a lot of jewelry and always felt like bracelets got in the way, I made my choice based on what I thought Audra might like.
“Thanks, Sierra.” Tess gave her wrist a shimmy. “I really like this one.”
“Good! I’m glad. Why don’t you go next, Tess?”
Tess handed out her gifts in small drawstring pouches. Sierra immediately knew what it was.
“Is this the same fragrance you brought over with the diffuser a couple of days before Ella Mae was born?”
“Yes.” Tess’s buttery voice sounded confident. “No surprise, is it? One of my favorite things is fragrant oils. These are roll-on tubes of my latest favorite combination. The base is cedarwood and lavender, so it’s earthy and calming. You might also pick up the faint hint of frankincense.”