Aubrey closed her eyes and although she could hear the sounds of last minute shoppers grabbing gifts at the Union Square market, she felt as though she were in her own little world, fenced off in the little garden as she sat on the damp bench, delaying her return to her cold, empty apartment. It was Christmas Eve but Aubrey was devoid of the festive spirit she was supposed to feel. Her heart wasn't in the season - her heart wasn't in anything at the moment. Her chest was as cold and empty as her apartment, which was also devoid of Christmas cheer. She hadn't hung her stocking by the chimney with care and she didn't even have a tree. How could you feel the glow of Christmas without the twinkle of fairy lights and the smell of pine? Aubrey couldn't help thinking of home, her real home in Chicago with her mum and dad, her brother and sisters and their extended family, gingerbread baking in the oven, kids playing in the snow, decorating the tree, her dad cursing as he slung fairy lights along the roof and threaded them through the fence at the front of the house. That was Christmas to Aubrey but instead she was sitting on a lonely bench, freezing her arse off as New Yorkers bustled around her. She'd seen New York in the Christmas films and knew she should feel magical but Aubrey couldn't muster any good feelings at all.
She opened her eyes and swiped a gloved finger across a rogue tear. And that's when she saw him, sitting on the adjacent bench, fascinated by a couple of squirrels as they raced up and down the tree in front of them. He hadn't been there a moment ago, she was sure.
Aubrey turned her head away quickly, focusing on the squirrels herself. A third squirrel had joined in the fun, running back and forth along a low branch. Aubrey stole another look at the man and her eyes widened in alarm. He was looking straight back at her. Her heart kicked up a pace and she thought about scurrying away to the dreaded apartment until she realised she recognised him. She didn't really know him and she'd never actually spoken to him but she did spot him on the subway most days as she travelled to and from work. He usually had his nose in a book, doing his best to ignore the cacophony of nutters around him. She'd never before noticed the intensity of his eyes, icy blue ringed by navy. He smiled at Aubrey and her heart began to gallop once again.
'Funny little things, aren't they?'
A giggle bubbled up Aubrey's throat and she covered her mouth with her glove before it escaped. "You're British." Not that there was anything particularly funny about being British - she just hadn't expected the accent.
'I am.' He shuffled to the end of his bench and extended his hand. 'I'm Stephen.'
'Aubrey.' She moved to the end of her own bench and leaned across to shake his hand. 'Where in Britain are you from?'
Aubrey smiled in recognition. Her ex-boyfriend had been a huge fan of soccer. 'Like Manchester United.'
'Actually, I'm a City fan.'
Aubrey didn't have a clue which city he was referring to but she nodded along anyway. 'What brings you to New York?' She knew he wasn't a tourist as she'd first spotted him three months ago, noticing the battered book in his hands. She couldn't see the title but her eyes had been drawn to his fingers as they turned the pages of the obviously well-loved and thoroughly read novel. She spotted him the following morning, lost in his book again and she found herself looking out for him each day, experiencing a buzz in the pit of her stomach when he arrived with a new book. What had he thought of the last book? Fantastic or boring? Superb or trash?
'I'm here for work,' Stephen told her.
'Me too. I'm from Chicago but I moved here for work.' That wasn't technically true - she'd found a job in New York after moving over with her boyfriend. But that relationship had gone tits up when Aubrey found Darnell with another girl. Darnell, whose name was on the lease, had done the gentlemanly thing and chucked her out of their apartment and now she was sharing with the slightly strange Zora, who had a whiff of damp straw about her and wandered around the apartment in her sleep.
'Haven't you got any family in New York?'
Aubrey shook her head and felt the full force of misery weighing down on her again. She had no family in New York and she couldn't go home with her tail between her legs either. None of them had approved of Darnell and they'd warned her not to go traipsing across the country to be with him but Aubrey had been adamant. Darnell was a good man who loved her. Or so she thought. Their relationship had ended eight weeks ago and Aubrey still hadn't admitted her stupidity to her family. They had no idea she would be spending Christmas alone.
'I haven't got any family here either. Tomorrow's going to suck.' Stephen rolled a stone beneath his foot before kicking it towards the centre of the little garden, towards the tree the squirrels had abandoned. 'A couple of the guys at work offered to take me in for the day but I didn't want to gate crash their family holiday. Kind of wishing I'd taken them up on the offer now though.' He lifted his head, his lips pulling upwards in a wry smile. His smile wilted when he spotted Aubrey's blue lips, her teeth chattering at top speed. 'You're freezing. Do you want to go and get a hot chocolate? There's a nice little place a couple of blocks away.'
'You know it? Great, that's settled then.' Stephen rose from his bench and took a couple of steps towards Aubrey, reaching out a hand to help her up.
Serenity's was warm and cosy with dark wood tables and burgundy upholstered chairs and sofas. Long, thick curtains hung at the windows, steamed up due to the heat radiating from the kitchen. A tree twinkled from the corner of the room and jars of mini baubles sat upon each table.
'I come here for breakfast every Sunday,' Stephen said as they sat at a table with giant mugs of hot chocolate piled high with cream and marshmallows. 'They do the best pancakes.'
'Have you tried their chocolate chip bagels?' Aubrey closed her eyes and exhaled slowly. 'Heaven.'
Stephen plucked the menu that was propped against the bauble jar. 'Are you hungry? I'm starving and all this talk of pancakes and bagels is too tempting.'
Aubrey ordered the pancakes while Stephen decided to sample the chocolate chip bagels but they ended up trading after a couple of bites, preferring to stick with what they knew best.
'What's your favourite Christmas memory?' Aubrey asked, licking jelly from her fingers.
Stephen narrowed his eyes, thinking back over Christmases past. This would be his first Christmas alone. 'It was probably when I was eight or nine. My best friend came over on Christmas Day and it was so cool hanging out with him and playing with our new toys together.'
Aubrey smiled. 'That sounds so sweet.'
Stephen laughed. 'I should have picked something more manly, shouldn't I?'
'No. It was a perfect memory.'
'What about you? What's your favourite Christmas memory?'
Aubrey didn't even need to think about her answer. She was twelve and her dad had been promoted at work. Money had always been tight but that year they splashed out. Aubrey received a ten-gear bike and a stereo for her bedroom and they had a massive party, inviting the entire neighbourhood. But Aubrey's favourite part of that Christmas had been the tree. They'd all piled into the car and driven to the Christmas tree farm, picking out a huge, fat tree which they lugged into the house and decorated with fairy lights, tinsel and baubles. Used to tiny trees, they didn't have enough decorations so they'd piled back into the car to buy more in town. Once it was finished and the tree didn't look so bare, Aubrey had stood in front of it, taking in huge lungfuls of festive air. It was truly perfect.
'But this year I don't even have a tree.' With Zora away for the holidays, it had seemed pointless decorating the apartment.
'I don't have one either.'
Aubrey shook her head as she pushed her empty plate away. 'We're like a couple of Grinches.' Her eyes widened and she gave a gasp. 'We should go and see the tree at The Rockefeller. You don't get trees much bigger than that.'
They took the subway, crammed with last-minute shoppers and commuters desperate to get home to their families. Music and laughter could be heard from the ice skating rink long before they rounded the corner and the giant tree came into view, multicoloured lights twinkling in the dark. It was even colder now but their cups of takeaway coffee warmed their hands.
'It's magical, isn't it?' Aubrey craned her neck, almost tipping backwards as she attempted to see the very top. How could she live in Manhattan and have failed to come here before now? What else had she neglected to do this Christmas? She'd planned to take a romantic horse drawn carriage ride through Central Park with Darnell but she couldn't do that now. Stephen was nice enough and Aubrey was enjoying his company but a romantic ride was going too far.
'It's even bigger than I imagined.' Stephen rubbed his neck, aching through gazing up at the magnificent tree. He looked at Aubrey who, sensing his eyes on her, turned to face him. They'd finished their coffees and seen the tree - what now? They were strangers and were suddenly reminded of the fact.
'I suppose I should be getting home. It's late.'
Stephen thought she was probably right but couldn't ignore the pang of disappointment. He didn't relish the idea of returning to his empty apartment on Christmas Eve and he was enjoying spending time with her. He wondered what would happen after tonight. Would they go back to being random commuters on the subway?
They picked up pretzels and coffee refills from a street vendor on the way to the station, which was quieter now but still had the odd people waiting for trains or settling themselves on benches for the night. Aubrey and Stephen chatted during the return journey but the easiness had abandoned them now that they knew their encounter was coming to an end. They emerged at Union Square, the market now packed up, and wandered through the little garden where they'd met, pausing at the exit. Here they would go their separate ways.
'I've had a lovely evening. Thank you.' Aubrey couldn't believe how pleasurable her Christmas Eve had been considering how bleak she'd felt such a short while ago.
'Me too. It's been fun.' Stephen was also surprised by the evening's events. He'd expected to eat alone before Skyping his mum and sister for a quick chat before sitting in front of the television and hoping Christmas would pass quickly. But instead he'd met Aubrey.
'Bye then, Stephen. And Merry Christmas.'
'Merry Christmas.' Stephen watched Aubrey move away and knew he had to stop her. Stephen had never been particularly impulsive. He'd pondered over the job in New York for so long that he'd convinced himself the position would have been offered to someone more decisive by the time he'd made up his mind. But watching Aubrey walking away gave him a jolt. He couldn't allow somebody else to swoop down and pluck her away while he dithered. They were strangers who had barely spoken of anything non-festive. They'd barely scratched the surface of who they actually were but Stephen knew he wanted to find out more.
'Aubrey!' She stopped and turned back towards him, her eyebrows rising along with her hair that whipped around in the wind. 'Do you fancy meeting up for breakfast tomorrow?'
She smiled then and Stephen felt himself warming up from the inside despite the severe chill. 'Serenity's at nine?'
Maybe Christmas wasn't going to be so bleak after all. And maybe, just maybe, Aubrey would be rumbling through Central Park in a horse drawn carriage on Christmas Day after all.