The Game Plan for December 31st
√Come up with resolutions for the New Year.
√Finish chapter one of my debut novel.
√Put on a happy face and pretend I’m excited to go to the Dallas Demons New Year’s Eve party tonight.
√Get dressed and try to project confidence in an evening gown while pretending I don’t care I’m surrounded by the players’ wives and girlfriends who are practically supermodels.
√Refrain from staring at Matt Rhinelander like a lovesick tween from a Disney Channel show from across the room.
I furrow my brow as I stare at the list written in my Things To Do Today! planner. I absently tap a gold pen against my lips, knowing I can’t place the final checks next to the last three items on my list. I toss the planner aside and anxiously twist my long brown hair into a knot, securing it at the nape of my neck by shoving the pen in it.
It’s already six o’clock.
And I’m still sitting on my bed with my computer on my lap.
I haven’t even showered yet.
And I have to say, my Harry Potter Ravenclaw T-shirt and yoga pants are way more comfortable than the cocktail dress hanging on the back of my door.
I would be much happier writing for Calla, the fairy heroine in my manuscript, than standing awkwardly in the corner of a party, trying to act like I belong. I’d rather stay here in my brother’s guest bedroom in Dallas than go to a New Year’s Eve shindig in ritzy Highland Park.
Besides, if I weren’t Holly Johansson, little sister of Demons superstar Nate Johansson, I wouldn’t even be invited tonight. Not that I want to be. I’m not into parties.
Or getting drunk.
Since graduating from Northwestern this past month, I’m focused solely on my post-graduate life.
Which means finding gainful employment.
Yes, I am working—and working hard—at writing my debut fantasy novel, but since that won’t even cover a ketchup packet at a fast-food restaurant, I need to get a day job. And since Dallas rent is more than I can afford, I’ll move back home with my parents in Minnesota after the holidays.
I sigh. So far my website, which I designed to offer editing and proofreading services, has gathered fewer clicks than I care to think about. I’ve already inquired at the local library in my hometown, and they don’t need anyone. And I’ve applied for entry-level jobs in all areas of communication in Dallas, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Chicago. I’ve had some interviews. But no offers.
But the truth is, all I want to do is write novels. I know becoming an author is a marathon, not a sprint. Even if it’s my dream, I need a day job to earn money now and stick to squirreling away whatever free time I have for writing.
I glance down at what I’ve written:
Calla knew she shouldn’t venture across to the North Woods. That land was beyond Flagstone Forest. Fairies were feared there. Normally Calla would never dream of stepping over the line, but the towering redwood trees and waterfalls were so beautiful, and for some reason she couldn’t explain, she was drawn to enter it this December evening.
North Woods inhabitants considered fairies evil, but despite knowing the dangers, Calla flew across the boundary as if no one was there. She soared between the redwoods, hiding between leafy branches, admiring the beauty of the foreign land below her. She would simply take in the view, that was all. See if danger truly lurked there as her older brother often lectured. But she needed to experience this for herself. She would observe quietly from high above, then leave. Nobody would notice she had been there.
That was when she saw him.
I blink as I hear Kenley say my name, followed by a rap on the door.
I quickly close my laptop. “Come in.”
My brother’s girlfriend enters, already dressed in a gorgeous black evening gown. She’s wearing a maxi dress, floor-length with spaghetti-straps, but embellished for formal wear with a sexy V-neck mesh insert. Her blond hair is long and flowing, her makeup soft and subtle.
As always, Kenley is stunning.
“Are you going to get dressed?” Kenley asks. “We’re going early so I can supervise set up of the dessert table.”
Kenley has a business called Confection Consultations , where she helps plan desserts for parties. She coordinated the display for tonight, so of course, she has to be there early.
But maybe this can be my out, I think hopefully.
“You can go ahead without me,” I say. “Obviously I’m not in New Year’s Eve form yet.”
Kenley cocks an eyebrow. “You promise you’ll show up later?”
“Uh,” I say, testing the waters. “I’m not a big party person. It’s the writer-recluse personality in me. And I have so much work I want to get done before I have a full-time job. It really makes more sense for me to stay home and work.”
Kenley studies me. “You know my mother will not allow you to skip out on this.”
Kenley’s mother is CiCi Hunter, who happens to be dating the owner of the Dallas Demons, Peter Deveraux. She is, in essence, the co-host of this holiday bash, an annual event thrown for the entire Demons organization.
There is no way CiCi would forgive me if I didn’t attend.
I push the laptop aside and stand up. “Okay. But this party only. I’m not going to the party at Harrison Flynn’s afterward,” I declare, referring to the after party being hosted by the Demons’ captain.
“I know you don’t like parties, and you’d rather be in your writing world,” Kenley says. “But sometimes it’s good to do something different. One night won’t throw you off your timetable, I promise. You can talk to me all night. And Lexi,” she adds, referring to her best friend who is dating the Dallas Demons’ producer. “You won’t be standing in a corner by yourself.”
My heart fills with gratitude for Kenley. I misjudged her in the beginning, fearing she was dating Nate for all the wrong reasons. I swallow down the shame I feel for treating her poorly. She is good for Nate, and I have to admit, she’s been good for me, too.
“How did I get so lucky that Nate fell for you?” I ask.
Kenley begins to blush. “Oh, stop it.”
“She’s telling the truth,” Nate says, grinning at us from the doorway and looking sharp in a black tuxedo suit.
“Nobody is luckier than me.”
I see the gaze exchanged between Nate and Kenley and I have no doubts of how much they love each other.
I clear my throat. “Okay, I’ll get ready, but only for this party. Nothing more.”
Nate smiles at me, his dark-brown eyes dancing. “I wouldn’t ask for more. It’s a miracle Kenley is prying you away from your laptop as it is.”
I grab a throw pillow off the bed and lob it at him. “Shut up.”He laughs and catches the pillow mid-air, like his famous in-flight puck grabs on the ice.
“Get ready,” Nate says, tossing the pillow back on the bed. “Don’t make me give you penalty minutes for being late. Earn enough and I’ll force you to go to Flynn’s party.”
“Okay, okay,” I say, laughing. “I’ll get ready.”
“I’ll leave my car keys on the countertop for you,” Kenley says, “along with the invitation. Directions are inside.”
“Thank you,” I say.
“You’re welcome,” she replies. “We’ll see you there.”
“Right?” Nate adds, eyeing me.
“Yes, yes, I’ll be there,” I reassure him.
After they leave, I get up off the bed, and Nate’s dog Marabou comes bounding into my room, his puppy tail wagging in excitement.
“I know, I’d rather stay at home and play with you,” I say, bending down and stroking his head with affection.
Because it’s true. I’m much better with animals and books than I am with people.
I close the door to my room, and my New Year’s Eve gown is hanging on the back of the hook, a reminder that I can’t escape tonight.
I sigh. At times like this, I wish I were normal. That I didn’t suffer from social anxiety in group situations. Nobody knows this secret. Not even Nate. He thinks it’s a writer thing, and that I’m shy, but it’s more than that.
In reality, I feel inadequate in party settings. Like I’m being judged. Like people know I’m only there because of Nate. I know they are all wondering how super-cool Nate Johansson has such a socially inept sister. I’m the picture in the Sesame Street bit where one of these things is not like the others.
The setting tonight will be worse than usual. Surrounded by women who are not only gorgeous—some of them actual models—but also supremely confident. Confident in being social, letting loose, and having fun at a party. In being able to date hockey players and interact in a high-profile scene.
While the mere idea of being at this party sends me into a mild panic. I’ll wait to hit full-blown panic until I get there.
It’ll be something to look forward to. I smile. Okay, despite having crippling social anxiety, I at least can joke about it, even if it’s only with myself.
Once I get to the party, though, the anxiety will kick in, along with the physical symptoms. I’ll start sweating. Oh, this ought to be lovely in an evening gown. Good thing I use clinical deodorant on nights like these. Nervousness will overcome me. I’ll shake. As soon as that symptom pops up, I’ll make sure I put down any drink I’m holding.
But the best is when my eye starts twitching and I look like my contact is stuck—entirely possible in my ongoing war with my contact lenses—and I take on a similarity to a certain cartoon character who is a sailor man.
I hold up the dress and carefully remove the plastic.
Kenley helped me pick out the one-shouldered silver gown by Laundry, and I have to admit it’s gorgeous. It is made of silver sequins, embroidered in an art-deco-inspired pattern, with a long straight skirt and slit up the side.
I study the dress, wishing it could give me some kind of superpower to be normal at the party. But while I could write this superpower into a book, it’s not going to happen in reality, so I hang the dress back up and head into the guest bathroom to get ready.
I turn on the hot water to the shower to let it warm up.
While I wait, I remove my tortoiseshell glasses and place them on the countertop, knowing tonight calls for contacts.
Maybe for once they’ll cooperate and I’ll be able to get them in without dropping one down the drain.
I quickly shower and wash my hair before stepping out into the now steam-filled bathroom. I wrap two towels around me, one for my hair to help soak up the water and keep the damp strands from my face and the other around my body.
I proceed to moisturize, deodorize, and blow out my long, brown hair with a big round brush. Once I’m primed, I zip myself into the dress.
Next step: contacts.
The one thing I’m in a love-hate relationship with. I wear my glasses all the time—hardly ever choosing these thin torture devices—but I feel like this dress calls for the contacts.
If I can successfully get them in, that is.
I mean, really, how hard can this be? In addition to social anxiety, I’m dealt the card of being utterly inept when putting contacts in.
Life is cruel.
I know I’m being dramatic, but I’m a writer. I think it’s in the writer’s handbook. The license to be dramatic.
I open the case. I pick one up and put it in my right eye, praying it doesn’t slide off into the corner. I blink a few times and holy shit, it’s in! I’ve successfully put in a contact before an event!
“Okay, down to the left eye,” I say to myself. I tip my finger into the left contact holder and go to lift it, and rip! It catches on my fingernail and tears in half.
“Damn it!” I yell. “Damn it, why? Why can’t I do this?”
Marabou barks in response. I’m lucky he can’t speak or he’d tell Nate I’m a loon who talks to herself.
I focus on my reflection in the mirror. My vision in my right eye is perfect, the left is completely blurred. So much for thinking I could skate by with one contact in. Too bad I’m out of replacements.
I take the lone contact out, conceding defeat. I put on my trusty glasses and scrunch up my nose. Not quite the look I was going for, but it will have to do. I grab my silver sequined clutch, and anxiety begins to build in my chest, knowing it’s almost time to leave. I rationalize with myself as I enter the kitchen and pick up the invitation and Kenley’s keys.
I’ll know people there. I know Kenley, Nate, Kenley’s sister and mom, and her best friend, Lexi. I hung out with all of them at the Dallas Demons Casino Night last month, and I did okay at that event. It helped that I was working as an operative to help get Lexi and Niko together, so I had a role to distract me, but still. I didn’t get twitchy until later in the evening.
I lock the door behind me and head to the elevator.
And I know Matt Rhinelander.
As soon as I think of him, my stomach does a loop-the-loop. Heat radiates across my cheekbones, and my throat goes dry.
I’ve known Matt for years now. He’s always been a teammate of Nate’s, from their start in Minnesota to when they were both traded to the Dallas Demons last summer.
Nate has brought him home for dinners, cookouts, and holidays when he couldn’t go back home to Wisconsin. He’s always been sweet to me, asked how I was doing and how school was going.
I know he was only being nice. A good guest.
And yet I have this stupid crush on him that won’t go away.I hit the down button on the elevator and close my eyes. The dumbest crush in the history of all crushes in the universe. Matt is never going to see me as anything other than Nate’s sister. Besides, he likes gorgeous girls who have no problem throwing down shots in a bar and dancing on tabletops.
I’m not his type.
Yet here I am. Dealing with stupid butterflies because I know I’ll see him tonight.
Ugh. I should stop the elevator. I should go home. I should— The chime of my Harry Potter ringtone fills the air of the elevator. I snap out of my thoughts and retrieve my phone from my clutch. It’s Nate.
God, he really could have a second career as a psychic.
“Hello?” I answer.
“Are you on your way?”
“Yes,” I say as the elevator doors open. “I’m in the parking garage right now.”
“You’re not bailing?”
I swear Nate knows me better than anyone.
“No. I considered it, though,” I admit.
“CiCi would send security out to retrieve you if you pulled that stunt,” he says, referring to Kenley’s strong-willed mother.
I don’t laugh. I could totally see CiCi doing that.
“No, I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
I hang up with Nate and make the drive over to Highland Park, an exclusive suburb of Dallas. My GPS helps me along, as Dallas is still foreign to me. Before I know it, I’m pulling up to a line of cars that are waiting for valet service in front of Peter Deveraux’s luxurious French-style estate.
I can’t help but laugh. Thanks to Nate’s hockey career, I’ve ended up in a completely foreign universe.
The car in front of me comes to a stop, and I see Demons’
forward JP Rochat step out of a sleek black Maserati. He hands his keys to one valet, while another runs toward me.
He opens my door and helps me step out into the freezing December night.
“Good evening, may I have your name, Miss?” he asks me. “Good evening, I’m Holly Johansson,” I say.
He picks up a walkie-talkie and repeats my name, and I know he’s having someone ensure I’m on the guest list, which is quickly confirmed.
“I’ll take care of your car,” he says, smiling at me. I drop the keys into his open hand and thank him. “Have a good evening, Ms. Johansson.”
Right. Good evening. I’m sure it will be great with sweating and twitching and panic, but hey, it’s New Year’s Eve and time to celebrate, right?
I so know how to party.
I turn and see JP is waiting for me on the circular drive.
I smile. I met JP at Casino Night last month, and I have to say, he’s very handsome with his hazel eyes and dark hair.
Very sweet, too.
“Hi, JP, how are you?” I ask as I walk toward him.
I quickly realize these high heels are going to murder my feet tonight.
If I don’t fall flat on my face first, that is.
I concentrate on walking while JP waits, smiling brightly at me.
“I’m good,” JP says. “You look beautiful tonight, Holly.”
Heat rises again in my cheeks. “Thank you.”
We walk toward the estate, and as I see the swell of people outside the entrance, my social anxiety makes its first appearance of the night. I swallow hard. Maybe if I pretend I have a task like I did at Casino Night , I can be normal longer.
I’m a writer. I need to script something and act it out, and then I’ll be okay.
“Aren’t you cold?” JP asks.
I blink. “No. Why?”
“It’s thirty-five degrees out, and you aren’t wearing a coat.”
Ha! If he only knew I’d be sweating in about ten minutes, he’d understand why I don’t need to mess with a coat tonight.
“I’m from Minnesota, this isn’t that cold,” I say lightly.
Which is true. Compared to Minnesota right now, Dallas is practically tropical.
We step up to the sweeping entrance, and I’m surrounded by all kinds of people. I know this party is for everyone in the Demons organization, from ticket sales staff to players to the vice president of operations. Live jazz music floats through the air, and once I step inside, I’m greeted with soaring foyers and opulent marble floors. Servers walk around with trays of champagne and wine. There’s a coat check to my left, and I see a lavish buffet set up across the long hallway, complete with carving stations. The mansion is completely decked out for the holiday, too, with exquisite Christmas décor everywhere.
The halls are crowded with people celebrating as far as the eye can see.
So. Many. People.
I might set a new record for world’s worst panic attack.
People are talking and laughing around me. Drinks are being poured. A group is dancing across the marble floor in the living room at the end of the hall.
And I am frozen in place.
“Would you like a drink?” JP asks me.
My throat is going dry. Oh, shit. Shit. Symptom number one is already kicking in.
“Um, would you excuse me?” I say, realizing I’m about to hit complete panic very soon.
“Sure, of course,” JP says. “I’ll see you later.”
As I turn away, I see a group of players’ wives and girlfriends. They’re all gorgeous. Talking, laughing, being fun. Do I even know how to be fun?
Doubt riddles me. I see a familiar face from Instagram.
Her name is Lauren, and she’s dating the goalie. She has a modeling contract with a huge agency. I’ve seen her in magazine ads. She’s wearing a killer short dress that shows off her long, gazelle-like legs. Next to her, I see Kenley with Nate, laughing and talking with Niko, the Dallas Demons producer, and his girlfriend Lexi.
They aren’t freaking out about what other people think.
They aren’t feeling their chests grow tight in fear.
Why can’t I be normal? I know I’m being irrational.
But I’m powerless to stop it.
Sweat. Now I feel sweat.
The walls are already closing in, faster than usual. I need to regroup. I need air. My eyes dart around the room, like a secret agent looking for an escape.
I see it. A huge row of French doors that I know lead outdoors. I head to them on instinct. I’ll find a terrace or garden or pool on the other side. Some place where there won’t be as many people, I know that.
Sweat is starting to drip down my back. I’m burning up.
I feel like I might pass out.
I weave through the mass of people, feeling lucky that very few of the guests know who I am and I can retreat undetected. I reach the door handle and pop it open, greeted by a whoosh of cold air as I step into the dark Dallas night.
I find myself on a terrace overlooking a lush manicured garden, illuminated by strategically placed lights.
I shut the door behind me and draw a deep breath of air.
I’m shaking now. Every symptom is in play except for the eye twitch, which is going to happen any second. I fight back tears. I will not let my social anxiety be seen by anyone.
Nobody is here. I can collect myself. Then, when I’m calm, I can return to the party, talk to the people I need to talk to, and go home.
Shame fills me. Nobody can know about my problem.
Nobody would understand. People will think I’m insane.
But out here I’m alone.
My anxiety is my secret.
I drop my clutch.
I know that Midwestern-accented voice.
I find Matt Rhinelander emerging from the corner of the terrace, his blue eyes locked directly on mine.