Rules for Second Chances by Maggie North (Excerpt)

Chapter One

Action begins with the disruption of a routine.

—Truth in Comedy

The first minute of my thirtieth birthday party is everything I want it to be.

My mother-in-law’s house spills noise and warmth when I ease open the front door. Gusts of laughter cast an unexpected glow over the chic, pale (and frankly sort of sterile) decor, which has always given me the feeling of sharpened corners lurking everywhere. Tonight, bright GORE-TEX coats and trail shoes trashed by April mud soften the foyer’s pointiness. Much nicer.

Though I’m late, I dawdle my way through the jumbled footwear, seeking a patch of floor to toe off my boots.

This is my favorite part: right before I join in. Before the classic introvert’s fantasy of effortless conversations lit by the perfect tipsy buzz turns into the real thing: conversational faux pas that morph into awkward pauses that tumble me down bottomless crevasses of social death.

Before I remember how I’m always so lonely at these parties.

This time will be different, I tell myself, sliding into my black flats. I’m thirty, ugh; it’s past time I sorted out my socializing phobias. Besides, I’m interesting. I have topics of conversation picked out. How hard can it be to hold a glass of champagne and say something sparkling?

I pull my shoulders out of their self-defensive hunch and practice a smile that goes up on both sides, like both halves of me are happy to be here. None of the right-side-up, left-side-down smile that makes people ask whether I’m joking or serious.

“Liz! I can’t believe you’re late to your own birthday.” My sister, Amber, sweeps into the foyer to rummage through the outerwear. She looks beautiful with her streaky blond hair twisted into a pretty, puffy low bun. “Or maybe I can. Why did you let Tobin throw you a party, anyway? He should know you don’t like them.”

“I like parties,” I lie. And then, more truthfully, “He asked if I wanted a party, and I said yes. And I’m late because I got stuck at work.” Combing through my “ideas” folder in a sweat, pummeling myself into reaching for the brass ring one last time. “And then Mom called right as I got here to sing ‘Happy Birthday,’ and insisted on an encore when Dad got on the phone. Why are you leaving? It’s barely six.”

“Eleanor’s babysitter bailed. I have to pick her up from aftercare and take her home for dinner.”

“You could bring her here.”

She raises an eyebrow. “Ha. The only person who hates parties more than you is my kid.”

“I don’t hate parties, Amber!”

“Sure. You plaster yourself to me and your husband all night because you’re having so much fun. I wish you wouldn’t do this to yourself, Liz. See you tomorrow night for auntie/niece time. Five thirty sharp,” she adds, swirling out the door in a gust of April cold.

I’m sure she meant to wish me a happy birthday. She was stressed and distracted; it doesn’t mean anything. Still, a chill wraps around my throat. Our parents are wintering in Arizona, and my best friend, Stellar, is away, so I was counting on Amber to smooth out any rough spots in my Very Successful Party. She’s never much liked me following her around, but we’re sisters, so she has to include me in the conversation when I materialize at her elbow.

But she’s gone. I’m down to just my husband as a social haven, I guess.

I hear him before I see him: a golden voice drifting down the stairs, slightly ahead of the golden man himself. Tobin Renner-Lewis is the human version of a cloudless day on a coastal mountain: longish, dark whisky hair still tipped with last summer’s sunshine, Viking cheekbones, rosy winter tan, eyes of glacier blue. His tall, lean-muscled frame speaks to a life spent paddling and mushing and lifting heavy things.

He looks unusually serious, a softcover textbook in one big, rough hand. Probably one of the business books he reads but won’t talk about.

“I don’t know if I’m in one place enough to get this going,” he says, phone to his ear. “But I appreciate the offer. Can I have a couple days to think?” There’s a tempered hope in Tobin’s voice I haven’t heard in a long time. I melt against the wall, eavesdropping harder.

Whatever he hears prompts a grin with a quirk that hooks my heart. I forgot he had that smile, rueful and real. For a second, I don’t think about how far apart we’ve grown, and only remember the man I fell in love with underneath the summer stars.

Everything about Tobin changes when he sees me, morphing from something true into something perfect. A photograph of stars instead of the real thing.

“DIZZY LIZZIE!” He tucks the book under his elbow and vaults one-handed over the railing. A gentle breeze of knockout-level pheromones and cedarwood beard oil wafts across my body. I feel it right through my coat, which I’ll have to return because this shit was supposed to be windproof.

“You got my note?” He knocks my toque from my head with his hug. I try to be soft in his arms. Happy the way he wants to feel we are, pretending our hearts have no doors we use to lock each other out.

“I thought this was going to be at our house.” When he offered to throw me a party, I mostly said yes because people think you’re weird if you don’t want to celebrate milestone birthdays in the loudest possible way. Also, I may have imagined a magical fantasy glow-up party that would make me belong, like in 13 Going on 30. Perhaps I secretly hoped he’d decorate with a “Central Park in spring” theme, after my beloved Nora Ephron rom-coms. Then I’d know he saw straight into my heart, and we’d be okay again.

“It was, but my mom thought it made more sense not to carry everything next door.”


“Wait till you see the food! Mom outdid herself. I’ll put in a day in her garden to pay her back.”

I tamp down a hot flare underneath my ribs. He could’ve ordered food. And the party didn’t have to be scheduled in the eighteen hours between him finishing one dogsledding trip and starting the next. But he wanted to celebrate on my actual birthday, even if it meant spending one of the few days we have together working for his mom.

“Let’s go.” He zips me out of my coat. “I invited a couple of the new guides. Couldn’t leave them out, you know?”

“Sure. Wait. Do I look okay?”

“You look perfect.” He admires me like I’m not the camouflage-colored mate to his bright-feathered goldfinch, my hair and eyes and freckles all the common copper brown of a tarnished penny.

“Are you sure?” I smooth damp palms over my black skirt. My blouse is builder beige, the ideal color for people to project themselves onto during the successful conversations I will be having tonight.

“You look perfect, Diz.” He puts his arm back around me, hollering, “Birthday babe’s heeeeere!”

The guests cheer for way less time than I anticipated; I wave half a second after everyone turns back to their conversations. Underneath my high collar, my neck itches. Stress hives already. It’s fine. Amber’s gone, but Tobin will stay with me, and people love—

“Tobin. I need you in the kitchen, schatje.” My mother-in-law, Marijke, is looking particularly tall, blond, and Euro-hot in a white ensemble trimmed with silvery faux fur that matches her current line of handmade children’s wear.

It’s hard to believe I once dreamed of having intimate, huggy relationships with my in-laws. Marijke bakes and sews and looks like Heidi Klum, but huggy, she’s not. I’d say Tobin got his looks from her, if his dad, Tor, weren’t also blessed with truly regrettable physical attractiveness.

“I can help, Mrs. Renner.” I look forward to pronouncing her name correctly—Ma-RYE-ka, rhymes with “I like ya”—the second I’m permitted to use it. In the meantime, maybe I can sneak into the kitchen. I could pass a tray of hot appetizers using a trusty script: “Spring roll? Have a napkin.” Later, I could ask how people liked the food. It’s not exactly a conversational dream come true, but it’s something to say.

“Nonsense. Enjoy your party.” She sweeps her son away.

Now I’m truly alone. I catch myself rubbing my fingers together and stuff my fists in my pockets in a way I hope looks casual. Alone is good. I should stop relying on Tobin to grease the social wheels for me. I’m sure I can do this on my own. And if this is my year to enter—no, to win—the company’s pitch competition, I have to do this on my own.

I activate a favorite party ploy: browsing the food table while I fake-casually scan for a conversational circle with a gap where I might fit. There’s a tight cluster of guides (Tobin’s underlings, since he became head guide at West by North, the wilderness adventure company where we both work), some neighbors discussing zoning ordinances, and a few of my colleagues from head office. Not promising.

Naheed, our head of marketing, wanders over to the sandwich station. “Hey, Liz. Tell Tobin he throws a great party.”

Okay. It’s happening. Conversation, take one. “I will! Thanks for coming.”

“He’s home for one night between trips, right? Better make it count. Lady in the streets, freak in the spreadsheets, am I right?” Naheed never runs out of pointed one-liners about popular, outgoing Tobin being married to me, the operations coordinator—the human version of a calculator.

“Ha. I get it.” I like my job, but not the way it gets pegged as boring work done by boring old me. But even if my laugh is fake, Naheed makes the dude bros in the C-suite chuckle for real. I should pay attention to his technique. “That reminds me. Can I ask you—”

“Happy birthday, Liz. You entering the pitch competition again this year?” Naheed’s marketing minion David Headley has followed his boss here, as usual. He’s one of the people who said he’d definitely come to my board game night. I organized it after our CEO, Craig, told me I was “hard to read” and “looked angry,” before offering the immortal advice to “be more likeable.”

In David’s defense, no one else showed up either.

“I’m thinking about it. You?” I trace a finger over the skin above my collar. The hives haven’t escaped. Yet.

“Oh yeah. This is my year. Naheed and I have been prepping my pitch since January. I’ve joined every project that ticks off a leadership skill and invested in a golf membership at White Oaks. If my boss here wasn’t also my mentor, I’d almost think he wanted to get rid of me by winning me the competition and getting me that promotion.”

A layer of crushed ice lands hard on my soul.

“Oh. Uh, I didn’t know I should do all that.” I don’t have a mentor. Or even a boss, since mine left West by North last fall. Ernie was a good supervisor, but he was coasting into retirement, blissfully unconcerned with the future of the company. Or the future of me. Since he left, I’ve been covering his duties on top of mine, so I should be fine on the job skills front. Coaching, though—that’s tough to find when you don’t have a supervisor and the company has no senior women.

And pitch presentations are a whole different game. Like parties, and job interviews, and any other unscripted social situation, they’re a field of garden rakes with the pointy side up: no matter which direction I step, a rake handle comes flying at my forehead.

“You’re lucky to have a mentor like Naheed.”

Naheed leans back. “I’m full up on mentees right now, Liz. Don’t have room for another.”

My neck burns. “Oh, no, I didn’t mean—”

“Not to embarrass you, but the mentor usually chooses the mentee—”

“Please, I wasn’t trying to suggest—” I wave my celery in a slashing “no” motion, sending spinach dip sailing onto my right foot.

“—and really, it’s about a good fit. Ask Craig to pair you with someone, maybe? Hey, I need a refill. David, come with.” They walk away, chatting brightly.

I could use a stiff shot of something before my next attempt at small talk, but I don’t think I’m supposed to follow them to the drinks station. Instead, I wipe dip off my shoe with a cocktail napkin. It’s been—my phone says only twenty minutes?! God.

I shouldn’t give up hope on the party of my dreams after one awful conversation, but the birthday present I most want after a terrifying day is to relax. Maybe watch a favorite movie. One where being hard to read and looking angry when you’re not makes you a sexy Mr. Darcy type instead of the colleague everyone loves to overlook. Or one with a miscommunication mishap, which I’ve always found intensely relatable.

The lights dim, highlighting Marijke’s candlelit figure in the kitchen doorway, Tobin and the guides assembled behind her. A white-frosted cake lit with a single silver taper makes a spectacular statement against her outfit.

Tobin hums a note; phones pop up in my peripheral vision. I put my mouth into the smile I practiced. No point looking like I just got told I’m not the kind of person people want to mentor. I should be able to brush it off by now. I know who I am.

“Happy birthday to youuuuuu,” the guides croon, like the servers in one of those musical family restaurants, but with fewer jaded eye rolls. Tobin runs singing practice for the guides twice a year. Nothing makes the tips flow better than “Happy Birthday” in four-part harmony around the campfire.

Marijke sets the cake onto the table. As Tobin’s troubadours hold the last note, I blow out the flame, then look up at the cameras.

They’re trained on Tobin. Every last one of them. My two-sided smile slides off my face and smashes on the wide-plank oak floors.

He’s more than earned everyone’s love; I can’t begrudge him that. It’s not like he deliberately uses his magic to draw every eye his way and leave me unseen. It just happens, over and over. He’s the likeable one, after all. My better half.

When the clapping dies down, I’ve already cut and plated four pieces of cake. Marijke gives an annoyed huff when she sees I’ve preempted the possibility of dramatic knife work, but I hand out slices as fast as I can, determined to wrap this party up in time to binge at least half a season of Bridgerton before I pass out.

“Excuse me. Are there any more of the sliders? They’re amazing.”

I look up from my robotic cake slinging. This must be one of Tobin’s new guides: young, polite, with a physique my elderly neighbors would call “strapping.” I’m about to point him in Marijke’s direction when it hits me.

“You … think I’m working this party.” It’s not a question. I look around the room. Tobin’s deep in conversation with the guides. Naheed’s holding court with a half-dozen listeners while David watches and learns. Marijke is the coldly beautiful snow queen. Nobody would mistake them for staff, even if they were handing out birthday cake. Hell, Tobin could jump out of a cake wearing a bow tie and a smile and most of the guests would mistake him for the birthday boy.

This is my birthday. This is my party. This is my life. And I’m playing a supporting role. If I can’t get noticed here, at my own party, what chance do I have anywhere else? How can I expect to win the pitch competition and get that promotion I’ve always been passed over for because nobody promotes dull, unlikeable Liz Lewis?

If I were a better person, I wouldn’t be angry. I’d listen to the world when it says, you don’t deserve to be seen. I’d accept that some people are born with that special magic, and I’m not one of them, and the best thing to do is stop wanting things I can’t have.

But I do want them. I want people to see me. I want them to stop dismissing me because the quiet, awkward spreadsheet nerd can’t possibly have ideas that don’t have to do with columns of numbers. I want to be someone in my own right, not just Tobin’s wife. And I want my husband to—well. Best not to go there. Not in public, anyway.

I realize with horror that I’m almost crying—something I swore at age seven I’d never again do at my birthday party. The best way not to cry at a party, always, is not to be at a party.

I push the knife at the startled kid.

“Do me a favor. Serve this cake.”

Copyright © 2024 by Maggie North

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