Chapter 1 Peyton

Sixteen years, five months and twenty-seven days.

That was how long it had been since I’d gotten into the summer intensive in New York City and left Lubbock, Texas, behind forever for the sprawling, bustling world of professional ballet. I never thought sixteen years, five months, and twenty-seven days later that I would be back in Lubbock. Not for any dance-related reason at least.

“Peyton, over here!” My sister, Piper, waved enthusiastically as I stepped through the revolving door with my dance bag and carry-on tucked tight to my side.

“Pipes!” I called, dashing through the crowd as if it were New York City streets.

“Don’t call me that,” Piper cried. She threw her arms around me but not before I saw her roll her eyes.

“Someone has to keep you on your toes.”

“Ugh! And here I thought, I was happy to have my sister home for the holiday season.”

I released her with a laugh, pressing back one of my loose curls into the braided bun at my head. “You are happy.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Piper said, ignoring her own brown hair.

She’d gotten lucky with our mom’s thick, stick-straight hair. Straight hair would have been much easier than my father’s curls that went back to his proud Mexican heritage. All of our aunts and uncles had hair like me, which I couldn’t deny I loved, but straight hair would have been better for ballet buns.

“Let’s go get your luggage.”

“I’m good.” I gestured to my small carry-on suitcase and dance bag, which currently contained a dozen new pointe shoes, an equal number of leos and tights, as well as enough tape wrap, toe pads, and sewing materials to make it through a season of The Nutcracker.

Piper eyed my scant luggage. “You know that you’re going to do something other than dance while you’re here, right?”

“Not if I can help it,” I said with a smile.

“All right, fiiine,” Piper grumbled. She knew the shtick too well by now. “Let’s go, seester.”

We exited the Lubbock airport and stepped out into the dry, arid climate that was my home. Having grown up in the middle of nowhere West Texas, I’d gotten really good at disabusing people of their biases about what Lubbock was like. No, it was not technically a “small town.” Unless you considered three hundred thousand people small. Small compared to New York City, not to what most people thought of when they heard the words small town. Yes, we had cowboys, but it was really just a city like anywhere else. People wore their hats, boots, and pressed jeans as their Sunday best, but no one was riding their horses into town. Okay, only that one time, and everyone had taken pictures because it was weird, y’all. Fine, most of the town was a cotton field and as flat as a pancake, but it was still home. Tumbleweeds and all.

We reached Piper’s blue Jeep, as bright as a spotlight in the sea of black and white trucks. The words Sinclair Cellars were plastered on the side.

“How’s the winery?” I asked, dumping my bags into the back.

“As excellent as ever. Dad thinks we’re going to have a new vintage this year, a specialty blend that’s going to win us awards.” Piper beamed.

When I was little, the only thing that I’d known other than ballet was the vineyards at Sinclair Cellars. Our dad had worked there his entire life, starting at the lowest job and moving all the way up to the top. So, when Ray Sinclair finally decided to retire, my dad had taken over. His kids still weren’t particularly pleased.

Piper worked at the winery full-time. She had a real knack for it.

“That’s great,” I told her, dropping into the passenger seat.

She revved the engine and then gunned it out of the airport.

“And Peter?”

“With his boyfriend,” Piper said.

“Probably for the better. I have to head to the studio as soon as I get in.”

As much as I wanted to see my brother, Piper’s twin, it would have to wait.

“All right. You can probably borrow the Jeep.”

The Jeep. Right. I’d have to start driving again. I’d gotten really used to walking everywhere I needed to go, occasionally taking the subway or a taxi. I was going to have to reacquaint myself with driving.

“Maybe I should rent a car,” I said, which wasn’t something I’d considered before this moment.

“Nah. Dad’s probably already figured something out for you.” She veered onto 27 South and headed into town. “Mom wanted to have a tamale marathon for your first day back.”

I groaned.

“But I convinced her that you’d be too jet-lagged to helped make, let alone eat, seventy-two tamales.”

“Thank God.”

“I’m just so glad your home for what feels like…ever.”

I laughed. “It’s only for a month.”

“A month. You haven’t been home for more than a few days in over a decade.”

“I know.”

And I did, but I had a demanding job.

It had been hard enough to balance life and dance when I lived here. I’d made time for Isaac, and that was about it. My heart panged when I thought about him, and I forced myself to look out the window as we passed through Piper’s neighborhood.

Isaac Donoghue had been my first everything. My first love, my first kiss, my first…time. He’d taken my heart wholly and completely, and I wasn’t so sure that he’d ever given it back.

I hadn’t seen him since that day sixteen years ago when I got on that plane to make my dreams come true. He’d encouraged it, even convinced me to go to New York. I couldn’t say I regretted it, but I still wished that there had been a way to have both.

Now, I was going to be home for a month, and our circle was too small not to run into him. A quick smile darted to my face in anticipation. Would it be so wrong to hope to see him again? Even if I knew nothing could come from it? He had his own life, and mine was back in New York.

But he was still Isaac Donoghue. The boy who had changed my life. The boy I had loved unconditionally. The boy who had let me go.

“Here we are,” Piper said, killing the engine once we were in front of her one-story white brick house in Tech Terrace. She’d gotten it for a crazy steal right out of college and spent the last six years renovating it. It helped that her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Bradley, had work part time in college for Wright Construction, the biggest construction company in the US.

I carried my dance bag inside as Piper carted in my suitcase.

“You’ll be in the back bedroom on the right. Blaire recently abandoned it for the bonus room because she—quote—needed the natural light for her Instagram pictures.” Piper shrugged. “Anyway, it has a connected bathroom.”

“Thanks, Piper. I appreciate you putting me up. Your house is way closer to the studio than Mom and Dad’s.”

“Yeah, I should have considered that when buying this house. It would be convenient to be farther south, so I’d be closer to the winery,” she contemplated. “But at the time, I was only thinking about proximity to the bar scene.”

I snorted. “And since when has that changed?”

Piper grinned. “It hasn’t.”

“Okay, I’m going to get ready. You’re sure I can use the Jeep? I don’t mind catching an Uber.”

Piper waved her hand, already walking into the kitchen and popping the top off a Mexican Coke. “By all means. Blaire should be home soon, and if there’s an emergency, I can always ping Bradley.”

“Are you two still a thing?”

“No,” Piper said. I arched an eyebrow. “What? We’re friends.”

“Uh-huh,” I muttered and then headed into the back room to change.

After being in travel clothes all day, it felt right to get back into tights and a leotard. Sleep beckoned after such an early flight, but I had my fitting for the Sugar Plum Fairy costume, and I couldn’t miss it.

I put street clothes over top of my dance garb, grabbed my bag, and then headed out to the Jeep. It took me a few minutes to get used to the hulking beast of a car. I’d learned to drive on my dad’s hooptie—a truck that took too much force for me to be able to open the driver’s side—so I always crawled in from the passenger. This should have been easier than that old hunk of junk, but it was still intimidating. After carefully backing out in the road, I got the hang of it and drove to the new Buddy Holly Hall downtown.

With the creation of the new performing arts center, the Lubbock Ballet Company had moved from their longtime space on 34th Street, where I had first been introduced to ballet, into the new facility. I was anxious to see the building, which had been modeled off of the NYC Ballet studios that I was used to. A slice of the city in my hometown.

I parked out front of the massive complex and ambled in through the studio entrance. The artistic director, Kathy Brown—who had just been a budding director when I danced here as a kid—was supposed to meet me here, but I was still a few minutes early. I headed down the row of studios. My heart soared when I saw the enormous rooms with ballet barres lining the floor-to-ceiling glass windows that faced equally large mirrors. This did indeed feel just like home. Most of the rooms were empty, save for a baby ballet class taught by a high school–aged student. I continued forward until I found what I was looking for.

In the studio were a handful of advanced students—one Black girl at the front with her partner, a fair-skinned young man with red hair and freckles; a Latina girl gossiped in the back with two white girls; and another brown male dancer stood off to the side, idly doing rond de jambes on the floor. Honestly, I was surprised there was this much diversity. When I had been here, I’d been one of the only non-white dancers.

Kathy stood at the front of the room, heavily pregnant but still lithe and moving with ease around the studio. The couple started again, and my eyebrows rose. I hadn’t expected to be impressed, but watching the girl at the center, I only saw potential.

Kathy clapped her hands, ending the rehearsal, and came out to find me. “Peyton! I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Kathy, it’s so good to see you,” I told her, drawing her into a hug.

“I can’t believe I finally convinced you to be my Sugar Plum Fairy. It is going to be so amazing to watch you on that stage again.”

I smiled at her. “And look at you,” I gushed. “Going to have another ballerina?”

“God willing,” she told me. “Don’t worry. She’s not due until Christmas. We’ll make it through the next month together.”

I laughed, and my eyes wandered to the company members who exited the studio, landing on the Black dancer once more as she trailed the other dancers, who clustered together like a unit. “She’s really good.”

Kathy nodded. “Too good for here,” she said wistfully. “Bebe is only in high school.”

My eyebrows rose. “High school? You mean, this isn’t the professional company?”

“Nope. Just my pre-professional. Katelyn Lawson, her understudy,” she said, pointing out a tall, trim blonde, “has already been accepted to Joffrey for the summer. Bebe doesn’t think she’s ready. She’s only been dancing for two years.”

“Oh my God, Kathy,” I whispered.

“I know.” Kathy patted me on the arm. “Don’t worry about the company. I’ll keep working on her. She’s a little prodigy, just like someone else I know.”

I flushed. Even after dancing professionally for fifteen years, hearing that word—prodigy—made my heart leap. “Thank you, Kathy.”

“Now, come. Let’s get you fitted.”

I followed Kathy into the costume room, happy to fall back into the old, familiar feeling. When I’d decided at seventeen to move to New York, I’d left so much behind—this town, my family…Isaac. It felt almost right to be here again as my career wound down.

 

Chapter 2 Isaac

“You wanted to see me?” I said, sticking my head into Jensen Wright’s all-glass office.

Though Jensen Wright Construction was technically a separate entity from Wright Construction, in practice, they were one and the same. Jensen running the architecture and his younger sister Morgan working as CEO of the construction side. The best and the brightest of the Wrights came together in the largest construction company in the nation.

“Isaac, yes. You got my email?” Jensen glanced up from his twenty-seven-inch computer monitor.

“Sure did.”

“Come on in. This will be quick.”

I stepped inside, securing the first available seat in front of him. Jensen was the oldest of five, and after his parents had passed, he had all but raised many of his younger siblings. The Wrights had a ten-year age gap between Jensen and his youngest sister, Sutton, with Austin, Landon, and Morgan in between. Even though I’d grown up with Landon and known Jensen my entire life, I couldn’t help but idolize him. I was thirty years old and still saw him as the too-cool older brother I never had.

“You might have heard rumors about a new facility Wright Construction is working on,” Jensen said.

I nodded. There were always rumors. “A sports team is coming here?”

“Since we have Tech, it’s normally just petty gossip. Everyone wants a Minor League Baseball team or the like to come to Lubbock, but it never pans out.”

“Right, because we’re not on a major highway. Highway 27 doesn’t connect all the way down to 20, and we’re smack between 20 and 30.”

“Yeah, well, that’s all about to change,” Jensen said confidently. “Last week, Wright Construction got the green light to build a soccer facility for a Division II professional league.”

My jaw dropped open. “Seriously? That’s…incredible. I never thought that would happen in Lubbock.”

“Honestly, neither did I,” Jensen agreed. “But since I know you have the most experience with the sport and my architecture company is running the design specifics, I want to get your input on design, and Morgan agreed to put you in charge of the project team.”

I nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, of course. I’m happy to help.”

I’d been recruited all over the country for soccer right out of high school and played two years of DI soccer at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. But nothing had really panned out like my dreams had always hoped they would, and I’d quit the team before my junior year, moved back to Lubbock, and graduated from Texas Tech. I still had mixed feelings about the whole thing.

“Excellent. We’re in early stages, of course, but let’s put you on the books for all the main planning meetings with me, Morgan, David, and Jordan.”

“Will do.”

I could just imagine myself in a room with all the most important people at Wright. Morgan, CEO of Wright Construction, was a total badass at her job. David had come in from San Francisco to be our newest CFO. And Jordan was a Wright cousin. He and his father had been in charge of the Canadian division of the company, headquartered in Vancouver, but he had moved down to Lubbock with his mom and younger brother three years ago. He was a total shark, and I could see why they wanted to bring him in on this new project.

And while I’d worked my way up at Wright straight out of college and been the project lead on the new Buddy Holly Center downtown, this felt different somehow. I wasn’t just implementing what others had created. I was in the room where it happened.

I stayed in Jensen’s office for the next hour, going over everything that I would want to include in a professional soccer stadium. Of course, we already had a baseline for what we had to include, but the Wrights never did anything half-assed. So, this had to be the biggest and best.

“God, is it already four thirty?” I asked, checking my watch. “I have to get out of here. I have to pick up Aly.”

Jensen leaned back in his chair and laughed. “I do tend to get a little carried away. Emery is probably going to want me home at some sort of reasonable hour today.”

“That seems likely. When is she due?”

“Not until the spring.”

“Well, congrats, man,” I said, shaking his hand. “Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?”

He sighed heavily. “Girl.”

I tried to cover my laughter at his dismay. “You’re going to do great. Girls are easy.”

He raised an eyebrow. “I don’t think anyone can say children are easy.”

“True.”

“Well, get out of here. I’m going to finish this up.”

I tipped my head at him and headed out the door. I was probably going to be late. Again. I dashed across the parking lot and into my truck. My mom usually picked Aly up from school and took her to the studio, but I was responsible for picking her up after work. I didn’t normally get caught in philosophical discussions with Jensen Wright.

Luckily, no cops caught me speeding through downtown Lubbock to pull into the Buddy Holly Center parking lot. I’d actually managed to arrive two whole minutes early. I loosened my tie and tossed it onto the seat next to me, unbuttoned the top button of my shirt, and ran a hand back through my auburn hair. Good enough.

With a sigh, I exited my truck and headed inside the Lubbock Ballet Company’s studio. Aly had been dancing here for the last three years. Everyone thought I was crazy for putting her in ballet at only two years old, but honestly, the kid had come out dancing. She cried if she didn’t go straight to the studio after school. It felt a bit like a curse to me, but she loved dancing so much, so how could I ever deny her?

The lobby was full of parents that I recognized from Aly’s classes. I tipped my head at a few of them. I knew basically everyone in the city. In my line of work, it was hard not to know everyone. But it was Angelica and Bart Lawson, Lubbock’s resident high-profile lawyer team, who approached me. Kill me now.

“Angelica,” I said with a head nod. I took Bart’s hand. “Bart.”

“Isaac, just lovely to see you,” Angelica said.

“You too.”

“How’s Aly?”

“You know Aly. Always happy to be in dance tights.” I laughed with the couple. “How’s everything going with Katelyn?”

Angelica pursed her lips. “Well, they gave the Clara role to Bebe.”

She made it sound like it was an affront. I knew enough about ballet to know that Bebe was the best dancer we’d seen in over a decade. My heart panged at that thought. Being here always reminded me of Peyton. I tried to hide it all away, but there was a reason I knew how the ballet world worked.

“They should have given it to our Katelyn,” Bart said.

“She’s worked so much harder for this,” Angelica agreed. “Don’t you think so?”

There was no winning here. I couldn’t say that Bebe was the better dancer. Katelyn did work hard, but she had the added advantage of parents who cared way too much.

“What part is Katelyn playing?” I asked instead.

Angelica waved her hand. “She’s a soloist in the snow scene, and she’s one of the flowers. But it’s not the same as being Clara, especially the way that Kathy choreographs the role.”

“Of course. Those are both great parts.” I glanced over their shoulders. The baby class hadn’t let out yet. “Excuse me. I’m going to go check on Aly.”

I brushed past the couple and headed toward the studio space. Just as I was nearly to Aly’s class, Kathy stepped out of the costume room with another woman.

I stopped dead in my tracks, my stomach dropping to the floor. It couldn’t be. This made no sense. I was having a hallucination. That was the only possible explanation for this. Because what would Peyton Medina, a principal dancer in New York City, be doing in Lubbock?

But there was no denying it.

No one else had her grace or poise. The slicked-back bun that had wisps of brown curls constantly escaping, no matter how much hairspray or gel she applied. The lithe frame with her tan complexion. The dimple that appeared just on her right cheek when she really smiled, as she was now. The widening of her big brown eyes as she saw me for the first time, too.

“Isaac?” she gasped.

Her eyes swept up and down my form, just as I had done to her. Something ignited inside me. She’d left so long ago, and still, that connection between us sparked. I took a half-step forward for a moment, remembering all the times I’d held her perfect body and kissed her perfect lips.

Before I ripped myself away from who we’d been at seventeen and back to the present, an ache settled in its place. An old, familiar feeling of missing her. One that had never truly gone away.

“Hey, Peyton.”

 

Chapter 3 Peyton

Isaac Donoghue was standing in the Lubbock Ballet Company lobby.

I blinked and blinked again. This wasn’t going away. He was really there. Right there. As if I had conjured him out of thin air. I’d anticipated seeing him but not on my first day back. Not here, like this, where I was so unguarded.

God, I had been so hopelessly in love with him. And looking into those green eyes, I could see it happening all over again. Just how easy it would be to get lost in my first love.

He was somehow even more gorgeous than I remembered. He towered over me, as he always had. And while he’d been tall and lanky in high school with his intense soccer schedule, plus running cross-country, he had completely filled out. His shoulders were broad and defined in his suit, his waist tapered in, and his chest had expanded considerably. But it was the bright green of his eyes, the red scruff along his defined jawline, and the warmth of that smile that had always drawn me in. Just as they did now.

“Hi,” I said, flustered.

He laughed softly, and something in my chest eased at the sound. “It’s good to see you. What are you doing in town?”

“I’m…well, Kathy invited me out to perform as the Sugar Plum Fairy for the season.”

Kathy deviously grinned at us both. “We’re so lucky to have her. If you’ll excuse me…”

“That’s incredible,” Isaac said. “You’re not performing in New York?”

“I rearranged my schedule to dance the last week of the year in New York so that I could be here for the entire LBC Nutcracker season.”

“Wow. So, you’ll be here for a month?”

I nodded. A whole month…and Isaac was here.

He stepped forward, shedding the distance between us. Fire shot through me.

“That’s amazing. I’m sure your family is glad to have you home.”

“They are,” I said at once, fidgeting with the loose curl at my temple that I still couldn’t get into place. I dropped my gaze and then lifted it to his again. I wet my lips. “I thought we might run into each other.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Kind of a small circle.”

“True.”

“I just…didn’t guess it’d be on my first day,” I said with a small shrug.

“Yeah, what are the chances? So, you just got in?”

“Yeah, Piper picked me up from the airport. I’m kind of beat, and I’m still supposed to have dinner with Peter and my parents.”

“Oh, well, don’t let me keep you.”

“You’re not,” I insisted, a faint blush touching my cheeks. “I just mean…this is nice. It’s good to catch up with old friends.”

Something shifted in his face.

Friends. Why had I said friends? What was I even thinking?

“Sure. Definitely. It’s been a long time.”

I wanted to say more. Being around him felt…right. It always had. Fate had twisted us together again. Could I even deny that I’d wanted it to?

“It has.”

“Do you need a ride or something?” he asked, always the gentleman.

“Oh, no. I took Piper’s Jeep. I’m sure she’s counting down the minutes until I bring it back. You know how she is.”

He laughed. “I do. I was just surprised to see you.”

Me too.

Just looking at him, I could tell that it had been so very long since I’d seen him. We weren’t teenagers anymore. Things had changed. And ballet still stood between us…as it always had.

He seemed to be willing to let me walk right by and out of his life again. And for a second, I decided that I didn’t want that.

“Maybe we should meet up,” I blurted out.

My blush only deepened. There was no reason not to get a drink with Isaac. We hadn’t seen each other in sixteen years. It wasn’t like I wanted to start a relationship or anything. I was going back to New York in a month anyway.

“Sure,” he said with a half-smile. “My number hasn’t changed.”

I swallowed. “No. Mine hasn’t either.”

“Then, call me or send a text. We can figure something out.”

“I’ll do that.”

His smile never wavered.

Then the door to the baby ballet room opened, and a surge of little dancers in pink tights and leos and skirts came bounding into the lobby. A smile crossed my face at the excitement on all the little dancers’ faces. I loved this moment. Not all, probably not even very many, of these little ones would make it past the next couple of years. But for the few who loved dance so much that it was in their very bones, they’d keep dancing. And it was in their faces that I saw myself and boundless opportunity. Any one of them could be the next star.

“Daddy!” a little girl with ginger-red hair screamed as she rushed toward Isaac.

My heart stopped.

I hadn’t even wondered what Isaac was doing in the lobby of the ballet company on a Thursday afternoon. It didn’t even occur to me. I’d been so dumbstruck by his presence that I didn’t even consider his real reason for being here—he had a daughter.

“Aly Cat!” he cried, scooping up the little girl and pulling her in close. He covered her face in kisses until she squealed with delight.

And as much as my heart ached to see it, it also glowed. Isaac was a great father. Just as I’d always known that he would be. My own disappointment clouded my mind.

For a second, I was seventeen again and standing at a crossroads. In one direction was everything I’d ever wanted—New York City, principal ballerina, dancing in front of thousands in Lincoln Center. And in the other direction was Isaac, a family, a life. I’d chosen one, and standing before me now was the other. But it wasn’t my family or my life. He had made that with someone else. As he had every right to.

I stepped back, a lump forming in my throat. I was happy for him even if, outwardly, I struggled to show it. He deserved a beautiful child and wife and the life he’d always dreamed of for us. But it didn’t hurt any less.

“Aly, let me introduce you to an old friend of mine,” Isaac said, swinging the little girl around. “This is Peyton Medina.”

“Hi, Peyton,” Aly gushed, wiggling out of Isaac’s arms to stand next to me. She only came up to my hip, but she was full of energy. “I’ve heard all about you. You’re a ballerina. A real ballerina.”

I startled out of my own melancholy. “You’ve heard about me?”

“Of course! My daddy only knows one real ballerina. One day, I’m going to move to New York and dance on a stage, just like you!”

I squatted down to her level. “I believe that you will.”

“Of course I will. Daddy tells me that I can be anything I want when I grow up.”

“He’s right.”

“I’m even going to be a mouse in The Nutcracker this year.”

“That’s quite impressive,” I encouraged. “And how old are you?”

She held her hand out. “Five. But I’m going to be six in April.”

“Wow. That is quite an accomplishment for a five-year-old.”

“I know. I’m smart and a good listener,” she boasted.

I cracked a smile.

“And modest, too,” Isaac said with a laugh, ruffling Aly’s perfect ballet bun.

“Dad, don’t mess up my hair!”

“Do you want to know something, Aly?” I asked.

She nodded vigorously.

I tried not to laugh. “I am going to be the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker here in Lubbock this year.”

Aly screamed in delight. Isaac shushed her with an eye roll as the parents who were still nearby looked over in shock. “That is going to be ah-may-zing! Daddy, did you hear?”

“I did, Aly Cat. Now, you should probably let Peyton go. I’m sure you will see her around a lot at rehearsals.”

“I can’t wait,” she said, clenching her hands into fists and shaking with joy.

I straightened up and hauled my dance bag back over my shoulder. “Well…I’ll see you around.”

Isaac nodded at me. “Looking forward to it.”

I swallowed back my disappointment and all the questions I wanted to ask. First and foremost among them: Where’s her mom?

I was deeply regretting not being on social media. For so long in my career, it had meant direct access to my critics, and I just hadn’t been able to handle that. Now, I was wondering how I could be so out of the loop.

With one more backward glance at Isaac holding Aly’s tiny hand, I hastened out of the Lubbock Ballet Company lobby and away from all my what-ifs from the past.

A Wright Christmas
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