A True Love Classics Short Story
A Hanukkah miracle is the only hope for transforming this small-town second chance reunion into true love.
It’s Hanukkah in the small town of Harmony Springs, and Abigail Cohen is surrounded by latkes, holiday candles, and a mother who seems determined to push her into the arms of the one man she’s vowed to forget.
Abby got over Ethan Weiss years ago. She moved away. She became a doctor. She hardly ever thinks about her first true love.
But when her mother has a medical crisis, Abby must return to West Virginia. And when Ethan shows up on the first night of the Festival of Lights, long-buried secrets are revealed.
The Jewish holiday celebrates an ancient miracle. But can any miracle heal a broken heart?
Previously published in the anthology, Eight Kisses.
In retrospect, it was a good thing Abby Cohen wasn’t holding a skillet of boiling oil when she answered the front door.
In fact, when the doorbell rang, she was standing in the kitchen, sprinkling salt over the first batch of latkes. “Seth!” Abby called out to her good-for-nothing twin. “Could you grab that?”
But Seth was leading a take-no-prisoners game of dreidel in the sunroom, crowing with victory as he cleared out the pot of gold-wrapped chocolate coins. He tuned out Abby as completely as he ignored the outraged wails from his trio of kids.
“Bubbe!” shouted Abby’s youngest niece. “That’s not fair! Daddy’s taking all the gelt!”
Deborah laughed from her grand-maternal roost on the couch. Her right foot rested on the battered leather ottoman, toes peeking out from an overstuffed nest of gauze and elastic bandage. In Abby’s expert opinion, her mother was still a week away from a hard cast. One month from a walking cast. Three from a full recovery. She’d mangled her ankle with one hell of a bad break.
Deborah shushed her granddaughter’s pouting, pointing to the plastic top in the center of the floor. “That’s the way the game is played. Now it’s your turn to spin. Maybe you’ll land on the gimel too.”
As all the players ponied up to restock the pot, the doorbell rang again. Abby cast a weathered eye on her distracted family, adults and children alike, before she turned off the flame under her skillet of hot oil. The next batch of latkes would have to wait.
Her annoyance faded as she glanced into the parlor on her way to the door. The familiar brass menorah sat on a chipped white serving dish, secure in the middle of the card table Seth had carried up from the basement.
The blue candle in the first cup was already burned halfway down. The white shamash, the servant flame the kids had used to light the blue one, had burned even lower. Still, both candles flickered in the window, a beacon of welcome to the town of Harmony Springs.
Abby wiped her hands on her apron and opened the door.
And she barely managed to keep from slamming it closed again.
To be fair, Ethan Weiss looked as surprised as she was.
She hadn’t seen him in twelve years. She’d never imagined his beard would grow in that full, with a lot more red than the brown curls atop his head. She’d never thought he would have six whole inches on her own five foot ten. And she’d definitely never dreamed that his shoulders would be that broad or his waist that narrow. He looked like he spent his spare time swimming butterfly in the Olympics.
“Abby,” he said.
His voice was the same—a calm, rich baritone. His eyes were the same, too—a brown so dark they looked black in the indirect light on the front porch. And his smile… His smile hadn’t changed a bit. His lips curled in genuine glee, as if she were the only person in the world he’d ever hoped to see on the first night of Hannukah.
“What the hell, Ethan?”
He cleared his throat. “Your mother invited me over to light candles.”
Abby looked over her shoulder at the menorah in the parlor. “You’re a little late for that.”
“There was a tree across Highway 10, came down in the storm. I had to circle around to Hammond’s Grove to get here.”
She didn’t care about traffic. She didn’t care about weather. The only thing she cared about—the only thing she wanted in the entire world—was to get Ethan Weiss off her porch and out of her life, the way he’d been for the past twelve years.
“Abby?” Deborah’s voice came from the sunroom. “Is the front door open? There’s a draft back here.”
Is the front door open? Ethan had just said Deborah invited him. Abby’s mother knew damn well the front door was open.
And now, Abby couldn’t send Ethan away, not without letting him into the house, into her life, at least for long enough to satisfy Deborah. Sighing with exasperation, Abby stepped back. Ethan ducked his head, something between a nod and a bow. She sucked in her breath as he passed by, determined to keep from brushing against him in the tight confines of the foyer.
She watched, furious, as Ethan strode down the hall to the sunroom. Of course he knew his way around the house. He’d practically grown up here.
“It’s not Hanukkah without latkes!” he said as he passed through the kitchen. As Abby gaped, he plucked one of the crisp potato patties from its snow-white bed of paper towels. Without waiting for sour cream, even without waiting for applesauce, he pursed his lips—those lips!—and blew on the fried treat. Two bites, and it was gone.
And Abby was left screaming at herself not to think about Ethan Weiss’s lips. Or any other part of his absolutely unwelcome anatomy.
“Ethan!” Deborah cried from the sunroom. “Come give me a kiss! You can see I’m in no shape to stand up and greet you like a civilized woman.”
As Abby glared from the doorway, Ethan obeyed, brushing a kiss against her mother’s cheek. Seth climbed to his feet, muttering something under his breath. Abby didn’t catch the exact curse, but she understood the sentiment when her youngest niece shouted, “That’s the really bad word, Daddy! Two quarters for the swear jar!”
Seth ignored his daughter. Instead, he whirled on Abby. “Is this your idea of a joke?”
Anger flared hotter than the oil she’d abandoned on the stovetop. Before she could invoke a few curse words of her own—swear jar be damned—Deborah spoke up. “This is my house. I ran into Ethan at services last week, and I invited him to join us for First Night.”
“Mother—” Abby began.
Deborah interrupted her. “Seth, please get Ethan a beer. Abby? I think we’re ready for latkes.”
Making the best of a bad situation, Ethan crossed to the kids and their abandoned game. “Hey!” he said, as if he’d just discovered the most exciting toy in the world. “Have you ever played Nuclear Dreidel?”
“What’s that?” Abby’s nephew asked, suspicion pinching the space between his eyebrows. He clearly considered Ethan a threat to steal his modest pile of chocolate gelt.
Ethan started to explain the rules, something involving double spins of the top and carefully hidden bets. The kids were immediately entranced. Seth muttered another fifty-cent word and stalked into the kitchen.
Abby crossed to the table beside her mother’s throne. It only took a moment to get the child-proof cap off the bottle of pain pills. She shook out the evening dose and poured a glass of water from the carafe she’d placed on the table specifically for that purpose.
Once she was certain the kids—and Ethan—were fully occupied, she spoke to her mother in a harsh whisper. “What are you trying to do?”
Deborah’s eyes opened wide with innocence. Or with something close enough that Abby couldn’t claim otherwise. “Please, sweetheart. This rift between Seth and Ethan has gone on long enough.”
“Between Seth and Ethan?” Abby almost choked on her effort to keep from shouting.
“Those boys were inseparable from their first day of kindergarten. It’s high time they shook hands and made up. Whatever they fought about, what was it? Twelve years ago? It can’t mean anything this long after the fact.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Abby said darkly.
She knew exactly what they’d fought about. They’d fought about her.
Ethan Weiss had jilted her on prom night, senior year of high school. He’d left her standing in the very same parlor where the menorah burned. She’d worn a cobalt blue dress, with a tight bodice and a skirt short enough that she’d fought with her parents for weeks. She’d stood there waiting as the tall case clock in the foyer struck seven, then eight, then nine.
And the worst part had been, even as she’d fought to keep from sobbing, she’d known exactly why Ethan hadn’t come. He’d stood her up because he’d already gotten what he’d wanted.
In his high school bedroom, on his high school bed, both of them nervous and trembling and whispering even though his parents were out of town for the weekend.
She’d known she loved Ethan, and she’d thought he loved her back. He wouldn’t walk out on her after weeks, months, years of screaming matches, the way her father had done to her mother, just the weekend before. Ethan would never pretend to be one thing—a loving, caring, family man—only to ditch her for a prettier girl, a better-paying job, and a more exciting home than Harmony Springs.
But the very next night Ethan had missed her prom. And the morning after, she’d left for DC, for a long-planned internship at Washington Hospital, a once-in-a-lifetime prospect that Deborah had pulled every string in the book for Abby to land.
Of course Abby had heard about what happened next. Seth had beaten up Ethan. Broken his nose to punish him for standing her up. Fourteen years of being best friends, gone with a surprisingly quick left hook.
Even then, she and Ethan might have gotten back together—after she’d had time to forget the mortification of being jilted, after his nose had healed. She’d known he was terrified that things had gotten so serious so quickly between them, especially after he’d dated half the girls in high school.
But he’d sent her an email the first night she was in DC. Not just a text, a full-blown email, from Ethan.Joel.Weiss@gmail.com. Like she was some college admissions board considering his application, not her Snapchat friend, EDubTheFootballKing.
He called her names in that email. He blamed her for distracting him from his AP classes. He said she was the reason he wasn’t going to Harvard in the fall. She was the biggest mistake of his life.
The specifics were different from her father’s angry screed, but the effect was the same. Ethan was abandoning her, rather than confronting his own weak nature.
It had been easy to block further emails from her phone. It had been a hell of a lot harder to block him from her heart.
Abby had completed her convenient hospital internship. College. Med school. She’d settled into a lucrative concierge practice, providing elite medical care to a handful of overpaid lawyers in Washington DC. But in twelve long years, she’d never spent more than three consecutive nights in Harmony Springs.
Twelve years, a professional career, and half a dozen boyfriends, none serious enough to make her lose a minute of sleep. Ethan.Joel.Weiss may have ripped out her heart and stomped on the remains, but Abigail Cohen was doing just fine, thank you very much.
In fact, Abby wouldn’t be here now, if her mother hadn’t shattered her ankle by stepping wrong off a curb. Abby was her family’s speaker-to-doctors, the one everybody called when they needed test results interpreted, when they had to understand what was going on with their health.
Seth, a foreman over at the Baked Rite cookie factory, wouldn’t be much help in that department. And Deborah didn’t want her son attending to her most personal needs. Besides, Seth had his hands full with the kids, since this was his year to have custody over winter break.
Of course Abby had come home. Family, education, and guilt—the triple crown of Judaism. Those were the values Deborah had instilled in her from birth, literally driving the lesson home year after year, as she ferried Abby and Seth and Ethan to and from Winchester for Hebrew School.
“Aunt Abby?” She was pulled out of her reverie by Seth’s oldest daughter.
“What is it, Sophie-cake?”
“Are you going to make the rest of the latkes?”
Abby caught her tongue between her teeth, reminding herself that past was past, and she was in absolute, perfect control of her present. If her mother wanted Seth and Ethan to make up, Abby would stay out of it. “Absolutely! It can’t be Hanukkah without latkes, can it?”
The little girl giggled and turned back to the dreidel game. For just a heartbeat, Ethan’s eyes met Abby’s over the spray of golden coins. She hurried into the kitchen before either one of them needed to speak.
Along the way, she passed Seth, who was armed with a pair of IPAs in glistening brown bottles. She sighed and rolled her eyes toward the sunroom. “Have I ever told you that your mother drives me crazy?”
“Have I ever told you that your mother is an interfering old crone?”
She laughed because twins were twins, and she and Seth had always understood each other. Proof, if she’d needed it: He pointed back toward the kitchen with one of the beers. “I left one on the counter for you.”
“You know, you’re my favorite brother.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “And your least favorite too.”
She stuck out her tongue and returned to her work station. It took a while for the oil to heat up. Before the final batch of latkes was done, she convinced herself she had a headache.
After putting the last potato pancake on a plate, she clutched her phone in the front pocket of her jeans. She should check email from the office. And she hadn’t listened to voicemail since ten that morning. She should call Jess, too, make sure her neighbor had remembered to take in her mail.
That should keep her busy for a while. At least until the sunroom emptied out.
She glanced into the parlor as she headed upstairs. The candles had burned out in the menorah.