BOOK ONE:

Love in 

    the City

Is happily ever after just a dream?

 

Turning thirty has a way of making you take a good, hard look at your life. And I think we all know what any sensible adult does in that situation: tequila shots. Lots of them.

It’s okay, though, because I’ve finally escaped my tiny New Zealand home town and my negative parents. And New York is better than my wildest fantasies. 

So is Michael, the sexy single dad who lives in the apartment upstairs. And he’s featuring in my fantasies more and more—even if he’s a grump and I only ever seem to make a dork of myself in front of him. Ah well, a girl can dream.

Anyway, I’ve got a writing career to build, and writing about being single is fun. If that means swearing off men for a bit, that’s fine. I can totally do that. It’s just a tiny crush. 

Besides… happily ever afters aren’t real. Are they?

 

Love in the City Excerpt

Chapter One

I’m dead. That’s what this feeling is. My whole body aches and my head is about to explode.


With great effort I manage to crack one eye open, wincing as the light shoots straight through to my brain.

How much did I drink last night?


I spy the almost-empty tequila bottle on the counter and my stomach lurches. Fuzzy memories start to surface: Face-timing my best friend Emily, drinking tequila shots, something with my laptop… What happened? And why am I here alone? Usually Travis is—


Oh. Travis.


The scene in the parking lot behind the Italian restaurant comes rushing back to me, his words hitting me all over again: You’re happy with a small life, but I need more.


Right. He’s leaving me to travel the world. Five months together—our whole future together—gone, just like that.


My chest tightens as a wave of misery washes over me. I pull a pillow over my head, desperate to fall back asleep and forget everything, but there’s a sudden thump on the door.


I lower the pillow and gingerly peel myself from the bed. I notice I’m still wearing last night’s dress, the fabric rumpled and creased from where I passed out. I catch sight of my reflection as I stumble towards the door and pause to try and tidy myself up, but it’s no use. My short brown bob is matted up on one side, mascara is smeared down my face and my hazel eyes are bloodshot and puffy.


Shit, I hope it’s not Travis at the door. The last thing I need is for him to see me like this. My stomach lurches again and I realize that at least if it is him, I can puke in his face. You know, to thank him for dumping me on my birthday.


But it’s my parents. Or rather, it’s my mother, marching my father in by the arm. He closes the door behind him with an apologetic look, while Mum stands there, hands on her hips.


I groan. This is the problem with still living in this tiny, rural New Zealand town: my parents live five minutes up the road and feel like they can pop in any time they bloody well feel like it.


Mum gives me a stern look. “What on earth is this New York nonsense?”


I press a hand to my forehead. The room is spinning and my head is thundering and last night’s tequila is hovering near the back of my throat. “Hold on.” I stumble into the bathroom to grab a packet of painkillers, then stagger into the kitchen for a glass of water.


“Honestly, Alexis,” Mum’s voice drifts into the kitchen, “this is crazy.”


No, fuck the glass. I lower my mouth and drink straight from the tap, gulping back huge mouthfuls of water.


“So Travis ended things. That doesn’t mean—”


“Wait,” I say, straightening up and turning to them. This catches my attention because I don’t remember telling them that. It only happened last night. “How do you know Travis ended things?”


Mum’s brow creases. “You announced it on Facebook, darling.”


Oh shit. I can’t have done that, surely?


I push away from the kitchen sink, glancing around for my phone. Maybe if I can just delete the announcement, there’s a chance no one else will have to see it.


Jesus, Alex. Way to go down in flames.


“But that’s no reason to throw your whole life away,” Mum huffs.


“What?” I mutter, yanking up the couch cushions, groping around for my phone. Where did I last have it?


“I just think quitting your job and moving your whole life overseas is a very dramatic response to a little break-up.”


I stop, turning back to Mum. “What?” I ask again, feeling an icy chill run down my spine. Mum can be theatrical, sure, but she’s not one to make stuff up.


I glance between her and Dad. They both look anxious and there’s a twist in my stomach.


Shit. Please tell me I didn’t do something stupid last night.


I return to my phone search, desperate to find it. Then I spy my laptop on the coffee table and lunge at it, turning it on. Mum and Dad are just staring at me with concern and I almost want to cry. Because by the looks of it I did do something stupid.
I open my browser and go to Facebook, loading the notifications. Apparently I made a post last night and everyone has something to say about it. With a wave of trepidation, I open the post and read it silently.


Happy 30th to me! Got dumped by loser Trav the Man so it’s time to move on. Goodbye New Zealand, hello New York! Leaving in a week,, going to become a best sealing author if you don’t like it you can go duck yourself—


Oh God.


Mortification washes over me in hot waves. I don’t even remember posting that. I must have been drunk out of my mind—the multiple errors are proof of that. I wouldn’t be caught dead using such poor grammar in real life. And I actually tagged Travis in the post? I shudder in horror.


Glancing up at my parents, I give them a weak smile. “I was a bit drunk last night. Yes, Travis and I broke up, but the rest of this is just a joke.” I gesture to the screen with a nervous laugh. People post shit on Facebook all the time—maybe I can just say I was hacked? That happens, right?


Mum straightens up. “Really?”


I scroll down through the comments. A few people are asking if I got hacked—there you go, it’s totally plausible—then there’s one from Emily saying, Yes! You go girl! This is going to be awesome!


Well. I’ll need to have a word with her about that; encouraging me when I’m drunk out of my mind. What kind of best friend is that?


I shake my head, scrolling further. Then my eyes land on a comment by my boss Julie and my stomach turns over. She’s said, We’re going to miss you girl, but this sounds like a wicked adventure.


Oh fuck. No. I didn’t actually quit my job, did I?


I open my email sent folder, and my heart sinks. There’s an email to my boss, announcing my immediate resignation from the role of “Asitant Manger.” My heart rate accelerates and the tequila swirls treacherously in my stomach. Because now, this is starting to feel a bit too real.


With shaking hands, I log into my bank account, and my fear is confirmed: last night, I spent $6000—almost all of my savings—on a one-way ticket to New York and something called the Wilson Rental Group.


The Wilson Rental Group? The words register somewhere in the depths of my brain and everything starts to come back to me in fragments: I found a last-minute fare to JFK Airport a week from now, I put down a massive deposit on an apartment in the West Village, I applied for some kind of expedited visa thing… and yes, I quit my job as assistant manager at the local bookstore before announcing to the world what I was doing via Facebook. I distinctly remember deciding to announce it—so I couldn’t back out.


Holy hell. I bury my head in my hands as the room starts to spin around me. I can’t believe what I’ve done. What was I thinking? I mean, I wasn’t thinking, obviously. I was wasted.


I look up at my parents, feeling my stomach heave. Tossing my laptop aside, I push to my feet and flee the room, making it to the bathroom just as the tequila exits my stomach.

I spend a good few minutes with my elbows on the toilet seat, the cause of last night’s mental breakdown pouring out into the toilet.


Because that’s what this is, right? A mental breakdown. It has to be. No one does this sort of shit when they’re sane.


I sink back onto my heels, reaching for a towel and dragging it across my mouth. Then I spy my phone sitting up on the bathroom vanity and grab it. There are a million notifications on the screen, but one jumps out at me—from Emily. I unlock the phone and read through the message thread.


Emily: I just read your Facebook post. Sorry about Trav.


Alex: Yeah he’s a deck. But I’m   exited about New York!!!


Emily: Are you seriously going?


Alex: Yes!!!! I just bought ticket!!! I’m going!!!


Emily: How drunk are you?


Alex: Really drank.. But I know what I’m doing. I’ve wanted this forever and now’s the time!!!


Emily: Are you sure?


Alex: I’ve never been more curtain of something.. In my life.


Emily: I think this will be really good for you.


Alex: I know, I can’t wait!!!


Emily: I’ll message my friend Cat, she can show you around.


Alex: Great!!!!


Emily: I’m so excited for you! I think this is exactly what you need. It’s going to change your life.


Oh God. So many exclamation points. But I remember, now—I remember sending those texts. I recall the buzz I felt last night when I made the announcement, when I bought the ticket. I did want to do it. And in my wildly drunken state it seems that I, too, thought it was a good idea.


“Alex?” a voice calls through the door. It takes me a second to recognize it.


What the hell?


“Harriet?” I stand, flinging the door open, and come face to face with my sister.


Her eyes are wide behind her black-rimmed glasses. “Are you alright? Mum said there was some sort of emergency. What’s going on?”


“Oh for God’s sake,” I mutter, pushing past her into the living room. “Everything’s fine. I just… did something silly while I was drunk.” My empty bank balance flashes into my mind again and dread washes over me. I sink down onto a chair, pushing the thought from my mind. This has to be a bad dream, surely.


Harriet drops onto the sofa beside my parents, still looking bewildered. Dad pulls a tiny box out of his pocket and hands it over with a smile.


“This is for your birthday, sweetheart. Open it.”


I hesitate, then take the box. Inside is a silver necklace with a book charm on it and I smile. I do love my books; I’ve always wanted to be a writer. This is a nice surprise, because the last time I mentioned to my parents I wanted to write novels they brushed it aside and told me I wasn’t being realistic. But now that I’ve made this Facebook announcement about wanting to write, maybe they’re finally taking me seriously. Are they giving me their blessing?


“It’s because of the bookstore,” Mum explains. “Well, it was.”


There’s a ripple of disappointment in my chest. Of course.


“I know you’re not feeling great about things right now,” Dad says. “But we’re very proud of you, Alex. Assistant manager is a good job. You’re hardworking and you don’t expect too much.”


I frown, glancing down at the necklace. I know he’s trying to pay me a compliment, but somehow it feels like he’s pointing out a flaw. So I was assistant manager at our crummy little bookstore—big deal. It’s hardly the writing career I imagined myself having at thirty.


I look at Harriet for support. Her hair is wound up tight in a bun on top of her head like she always wears it, her brow furrowed in thought. Of course she doesn’t get it; she’s worked at the same cafe since leaving high school and never complained. Is it just me who’s so ungrateful?


Dad smiles at me warmly and I feel a pang of guilt. “Thanks, Dad,” I mumble. They’re so proud of me and I quit, just like that. Did I make a big mistake?


“Thirty is a big milestone.” Mum pats me on the arm. “It can be a bit scary, but you’ve achieved a lot, darling. You have a lot to be proud of.”


“I do?”


“Yes!” Dad chimes in. “You have your flat.” He gestures around the room and I wince. The peeling salmon-pink wallpaper and stained carpet do nothing to support his enthusiasm. Why the hell is he mentioning my flat? It’s a tiny, run-down crapheap and I don’t even own it.


“And you live alone, an independent woman!” he adds with a proud smile. Mum is nodding in agreement, her eyes gleaming.


I exhale. Yes, I’m thirty and I live alone. What a bloody achievement. And now I don’t even have a choice in the matter, what with Travis taking off.


“Yes, well. Thanks.” I eye them warily. They must be really panicked about this New York thing if they’re feeling the need to scrape together this pathetic highlight reel of my life. But in all honesty, it’s just making me feel worse. Because none of the things they’ve pointed out are what I imagined for myself at this age. They’re all piling up to create a very dire picture, indeed.


“And of course you have your degree,” Mum says.


God, they’re still going.


I mean, okay, the degree is good: a Bachelor of Communication. I worked really hard for that, even if it wasn’t quite what I’d wanted to do. What I had wanted to do was get a degree in literature then a Masters in Creative Writing, but my parents assured me that was pointless and wouldn’t get me a job. I compromised with the communications degree, figuring I could still write. And while I did work a few years at the local paper, I was made redundant from that job and have been at the bookstore since. So again, not something I’m extremely proud of.


Mum leans forward to squeeze my hand. “I’m sorry about what happened with Travis, darling. That was awful—and on your birthday, of all nights.”


Harriet screws up her face. “Yeah, that sucks. What a dick.”


I give her a weak smile, swallowing against the bitterness in my throat. Because that’s the icing on the cake, isn’t it? My writing career is non-existent and my flat is awful, but at least I had Travis. And now I don’t even have that.


“Do you like the necklace?” Dad asks.


I glance down at it, giving him a little nod. “Yeah. Thanks.” It’s cute and it suits my love of reading and writing, but now it feels like a symbol of everything that’s wrong with my life. I pull it out of the box and slip the chain around my neck. It sits low on my chest and I stare down at it, my head spinning.


“See, darling? You don’t want to move to New York,” Mum says. “Your whole life is here.”


I look around at my shitty flat, feeling my body sag with disappointment. My whole life? This is my life? A job I don’t care about, a boyfriend who’s left me, parents who don’t understand me, this hideous flat—hell, even my best friend doesn’t live here, she’s in Auckland. Travis was right: I am living a small life. I’m living a tiny, insignificant life—one that doesn’t even remotely measure up to what I imagined for myself at this age.


“Why don’t you get dressed,” Dad suggests, “then we can take you out for a birthday breakfast?”


I want nothing more than to crawl under the covers and die right now, but they’re all looking at me hopefully and I feel another spasm of guilt. It’s hardly their fault I’ve fucked up my entire life, is it?


I give a little nod and push to my feet, shuffling off to the bathroom. The minute I’m out of the room I hear them start whispering, but I’m too hungover to care.


I slip the bathroom door closed behind me and stare at my reflection above the sink. I look dead. Actually, I feel dead. It’s not just the booze, or the fact that I did something incredibly stupid last night; it’s everything. I’m thirty and I’ve just been dumped. I never expected I’d be here; I figured I’d be married by now, maybe with a kid or two. And that’s on top of my successful writing career.


But I don’t have any of those things. As Mum and Dad so clearly pointed out, I’m alone. Alone in this shitty flat, with no man, no career—and now, I don’t even have a job.


I’m just about to peel my clothes off when I notice I don’t have a clean towel. There’s another surge of misery through me at the injustice of it all. It’s like nothing is going right in my life.


With a sigh I open the door and step into the hallway. I’m just about to grab a towel from the linen closet when Mum’s voice floats down the hall from the kitchen.


“That was close. Moving to New York, what a ridiculous idea!”


I can hear the kettle boiling as she makes a cup of tea. I know I probably shouldn’t stand here listening, but I’m rooted to the spot.


“And now she’s quit her job, the silly girl,” Mum continues. “Maybe I can call Julie and help her get her job back.”


Dad sighs. “I don’t think that’s what she really wants.”


I lean forward a little down the hall and see the back of Harriet’s head where she’s still sitting on the sofa. It must just be Mum and Dad in the kitchen.


“That’s the problem with this girl!” Mum huffs. “She wants things she can’t have. She gets one little job at the newspaper and suddenly she thinks she can be an author. She goes on one date with a boy and she thinks they’ll be getting married. And now this moving to New York business? I swear, she lives her whole life in a fantasy.”


I stand frozen in the hallway, a cold prickly feeling washing over me, suffocating the air from my lungs.


“I assumed she would have grown out of this by now. It’s those stupid bloody romance novels she reads,” Mum adds. I hear the fridge open and close. “They fill her head with nonsense. She just needs to learn that life isn’t like that, that it’s not realistic to expect—”


“Audrey,” Dad says soothingly, “why don’t we try and sit down with her—”


“That will never work. You know how sensitive she is. She’ll just fly off the handle.”


Tears sting my throat and I realize I’m almost shaking with shock. My parents have been saying this sort of thing to me for years—and I’ve always been derided for reading sappy romance novels—but there’s something about the way people speak about others when they think they’re not listening. Mum’s voice is laced with such disgust, such revulsion, that for the briefest second I wonder if she’s talking about someone else.


But she’s not. She’s talking about me.


I suck in a shaky breath and Harriet twists around on the sofa, her eyes locking with mine. And I can tell she knows I’ve heard everything.


I duck back into the bathroom, dropping down onto the edge of the bathtub. I’m reeling from the sting of Mum’s words, from the way she so clearly laid out everything I’ve secretly believed to be wrong with me and said, in no uncertain terms, that it is wrong—that I’m wrong.


“Hey.” Harriet gently pops the door open, slipping inside. “You okay?”


I press my lips into a thin line and nod, unable to meet her gaze. I know if I do, I’ll start crying.


Yep, my parents are right: too damn sensitive.


Harriet takes a tentative step towards me. “Don’t listen to them. You know Mum’s always a bit dramatic.”


I stare down at the tiles, replaying Mum’s words in my brain. Because as much as Harriet’s right, I also know Mum wasn’t that far off. I had imagined I would be an author—that I was working towards that, eventually. And, as much as it hurts to admit this now, I had also imagined myself marrying Travis at some point in the future. Not just Travis, either—several previous boyfriends had dressed up in a tux and said heartfelt vows somewhere in the grand wedding venues of my daydreams.


And what happened? Nothing. It was all in my head.


A tear escapes down my cheek and I quickly brush it away. I’m thirty and I have nothing, but that’s not even the worst of it—the worst part is I’d convinced myself, somehow, that I did.


Harriet lowers herself onto the tub beside me. “Did you really buy a plane ticket to New York?”


I nod numbly.


“Do you want to go?”


I shrug. Because Mum’s right, isn’t she? That was just another fantasy.


“Maybe you should.”


I look at Harriet in surprise. Of all the people who might encourage this, I’d never expect it from her. She’s always been the more pragmatic one, the more sensible of the two of us. She’s never been one to get swept up in flights of fancy like me.


“You heard Mum,” I mumble. “It’s crazy.”


Harriet nods slowly. “Yeah, it is. And I’d never do it. But…” She adjusts her glasses, thinking. “If you’re not happy here, then maybe it’s time to do something different. You know they say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.” She gives me a nudge. “So maybe the crazy thing would be to stay here.”


I snort a little laugh and wipe my nose, studying her. She’s three years younger than me and we’ve never been especially close, but suddenly I’m glad to have her here, sitting in my bathroom with me while I attempt to battle a hangover and the very strong urge to do something life-altering.


She gives my arm a squeeze. “That sucks about Travis. I’m sorry. But that’s beyond your control. If you want to go to New York, or write, or make some other big life change…” She shrugs. “That’s up to you.”


I look down at the bathmat, absorbing her words. She’s right; I can’t control what Travis does, I can only control my own actions. Writing, moving to an exciting new city—those are things within my control. The only thing stopping me is, well, me.


My pulse quickens at the thought. Because I could actually do this, I could. Hell, I already have the ticket, and the apartment. It’s halfway done already.


“Harri…” I glance at her again. “Do you really think I should do this?”


“Well, do you want your life to change or stay the same?”


Emily’s words flash into my mind—this is exactly what you need… it’s going to change your life—and a thrill runs through me.

Because I think it’s about damn time to change my life.


“You’re right.” I stand, conviction gripping me as I stride into the living room with Harriet trailing after me.


Mum looks up from her cup of tea in surprise.


“You know what?” I raise my hands to my hips and look squarely at my parents. “I’m going. I’m going to New York to become a writer.” I look at their aghast expressions and feel another rush of conviction. They think my dreams are crazy, that I should stay here and live a small life, but they’re wrong. It’s one thing for Travis to hurt me, but for my own parents to not even believe in me…


But they’ve never really believed in me, have they? They don’t understand me at all—they’ve never even tried. And suddenly I realize that leaving here isn’t so much about not wanting to be here—it’s about feeling like I don’t even belong here.


I lift my chin. “I’m moving to New York,” I say again, glaring defiantly at my parents. “And if you don’t like it, you can go duck yourselves.”

© 2021 Jen Morris

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