Here you go! All of Chapter One! Just for you!
“Tate! Don’t forget the ornament box!” Reilly Jameson yelled loud enough for Tate Riggs, her best friend/roommate, to hear from up in the loft space they used as a makeshift attic.
“Which one?” he shouted back.
“The one with the ornaments,” she muttered because she had no idea.
When they’d taken down the decorations at her parents’ house last year, Reilly had been too upset to pay attention to the ones her mother set aside for when they moved into their new place. If she had to guess, her mother hadn’t paid much attention either. Their hearts had been too heavy to deal with much of anything.
But she wasn’t going to think about that now. This year, the entire family vowed to keep their spirits up. Reilly knew it wouldn’t be as easy as it sounded, but she would certainly try.
To prove it, she was starting by kicking off her annual tradition of decorating the tree now that they’d scarfed down turkey, dressing, and a ridiculous number of pies, signifying that Thanksgiving was officially over. She’d even bypassed a second piece of pumpkin pie to ensure she wasn’t too full to move.
Of course, she’d snuck a couple of additional pieces when her mother wasn’t looking and put them in Tupperware so she and Tate could have breakfast tomorrow morning.
The kettle whistled on the stove.
“I’m makin’ the hot chocolate,” she yelled to Tate.
“Make mine a double,” he called, sounding as though he was no longer buried deep in their boxes of crap.
“A double. Pfft. Like I would ever be that stingy.”
After pouring the hot milk over the powdered chocolate in each cup, Reilly stirred and added a generous helping of Bailey’s chocolate liqueur. Next came the peppermint candy canes. She stuck one in each cup, then shoved her hand into the bag of miniature marshmallows and grabbed a handful. She held her hands over the cups and let the little white puffs of sugary, airy goodness rain down onto both cups, grinning as they piled up and tumbled onto the counter.
She was tossing stray marshmallows in the air and attempting to catch them with her mouth—most of them missing—and drizzling chocolate syrup on the ones in the cup when Tate finally appeared, huffing and grimacing as he carried two enormous boxes and one smaller one in his arms.
“Take one,” he grunted. “Please.”
Reilly set down the chocolate syrup and rushed over to help her best friend.
“Tell me one of those is the right one,” he said when she relieved him of the small box before grabbing one of the larger ones.
Tate dragged the lid off the box he had set on the coffee table and sighed. “Not this one.”
Reilly leaned over to look in the box and laughed when she saw the ugly Christmas sweaters they’d bought last year. She grabbed the one on top and unfolded it, holding it up to her chest.
“We’re wearin’ these this year,” she said adamantly as she fumbled for the little controller that would turn the dangling, colored bulbs and Rudolph’s nose on.
“Of course we are.” A goofy grin formed as Tate pulled his out and dragged it over his head. “What do you think?”
They’d gone all out last year and found a couple of rather hideous sweaters in an effort to cheer themselves up. It hadn’t worked—the cheering up part—but they’d struck ugly sweater gold. Tate’s was eye-catching green with little white snowflakes embroidered all over it and green tinsel draped back and forth from arm to arm. The miniature red and green ornaments that hung from the tinsel jingled when he moved.
In contrast to his, hers was red, with Rudolph’s face taking up the entire front. A string of lights was draped on the antlers, a big red bulb nose was in the center, and a green and blue striped scarf dangled down from around his neck.
“I think you look mah-velous, dah-ling,” she drawled dramatically as she shoved her arms into hers. “And me?”
“Mah-velous, sweetie,” he echoed before walking over to the Christmas tree to plug it in. “Oh, thank God. They all work.”
Considering the tree was twelve feet tall—something she had insisted on getting now that they had their new place—they would’ve been hard-pressed to string it with lights if it hadn’t been designed with them already on it.
Reilly chuckled. “Best invention ever.”
“The pre-lit tree?” He turned to face her and put a hand on his hip. “I’m not sure I agree.”
“Why?” Reilly reached for the other box and opened it to find their ornaments from last year. Her mother had given them the blue and silver ones. As she stared at them now, she wasn’t sure that was the theme she wanted to go with this year.
“For starters, I was thinking battery-operated boyfriends might be higher on the list.”
She peered up at him and nodded slowly. “You might have a valid point there, Riggs.”
“I do, don’t I?”
“Speaking of battery-operated boyfriends,” she said as she put the lid back on the ornament box and grabbed the small box. “I think—” She laughed. “Oh, damn. Look at this.”
Tate strolled to the kitchen, returning with both mugs of hot chocolate. “What is it?”
Reilly lowered to her knees in front of the couch, pulling out envelopes and dropping them onto the coffee table, pausing only long enough to accept one of the cups. Each envelope had a year scrawled across the front in either her neat, curly handwriting or Tate’s chicken scratch.
“Are those…?” He moved around and sat on the couch to her left.
“Our hot chocolate wishes. Yeah.” Her grin widened as she recalled how they’d sat down every year to write down the one thing they hoped Santa would bring them. It had become a tradition involving massive amounts of hot chocolate and a lot of serious consideration. After all, making a wish was a big deal, right? It had to be perfect.
“Holy shit.” Tate grabbed one of the envelopes. “This one’s from when we were eleven.”
Reilly glanced at the envelope dated 2011 as she licked chocolate off the rim of her cup. “I wanted…” She licked the melted marshmallow off her lip. “Probably an iPhone, but I bet I got Monster High dolls that year.”
Her parents had worked extra hard to ensure she didn’t grow up too fast.
Tate opened the envelope. “Yep. iPhone. Both of us.”
She laughed. They’d been best friends since they were in first grade, and for as long as she could remember, they’d wanted the same things for Christmas and birthdays. Mostly. Tate hadn’t been on board with the idea of four-inch sparkly heels she’d been eyeing when they were in ninth grade, but he’d been all over the pink tutu she asked for when she was eight.
“What about this one?” Tate asked, flashing the envelope with 2016 written on it.
“No doubt, a truck,” she said.
Tate opened it and looked at the card, then laughed before turning it around so she could see it.
“A brand-new Silverado,” she read. “I didn’t get that, either. But I did have an iPhone by then.”
“And 2018?” Tate said, holding up the envelope.
Reilly frowned. “We would’ve been seniors in high school, so… I don’t know. Open it.”
Tate opened the flap and pulled out the card. He barked a laugh and turned it so she could read it.
Reilly’s cheeks warmed. “For Brady McCord to fall deeply in love with me.”
Yeah. She’d pretty much wanted that every year, but that was the first year she’d been brave enough to write it down.
“Here’s mine,” Tate said, showing her.
“For Donovan Jameson to look at me like a man, not a cute little kid. And kiss me.” Reilly scrunched up her nose and did the same thing she did when he first told her he had the hots for her brother. “Eww. Gross. Boy cooties.”
Tate laughed, but his eyes softened as he stared at the card. “A ridiculous wish, huh?”
“Not at all,” she said with enough conviction she almost believed it.
It wasn’t that Reilly didn’t think Tate was capable of catching Donovan’s eye because she knew he already had, even if he didn’t believe it. She’d seen her brother watching him when Donovan didn’t think anyone was around to notice. And why wouldn’t Donovan be interested in Tate? Tate was mega-cute. She’d always thought so. And back in the fifth grade, she’d thought of him in a slightly different way. The romantic kind of way. Right up until she learned that Tate didn’t like her like that. He didn’t like any girls like that.
Reilly grinned. She still remembered their conversation on her parents’ back porch. Reilly’d been upset because the rumor started that she liked Tate, but he didn’t like her back. It was then that her very best friend in the whole wide world shared the truth with her. And maybe with himself. He’d been so sweet about it, taking her hand and holding it while he admitted he liked boys, not girls.
It was safe to say she’d fallen in love with him a little more that day, but it was the purest of loves without the complexities of physical attraction to muddy the waters. Reilly had long ago accepted that she would never be what Tate needed in a life partner and vice versa. Needless to say, they’d been even closer since.
But, hello, her big brother Donovan was gay, so why in the world wouldn’t he want Tate?
Tate was the sweet, boy-next-door kinda cute with his curly blonde hair, big blue eyes, and perfect lips. Not to mention a body even she was envious of. At five-six, Tate considered himself short, which, based on the men in this town, he was. However, his trim, compact body was what athletes everywhere would spend hours and hours attempting to sculpt. He didn’t have an ounce of fat on him, and his abs … washboard was an understatement. And yeah, she was jealous of how easily he’d been able to build that body. No matter how hard she tried, Reilly would never have a sculpted stomach. As far as she was concerned, her hips were too wide, her boobs were too big, and her belly was only flat when she sucked it in. But no amount of sucking it in was going to make her look good in a crop top.
Then again, she could rock a bikini. Or so she’d been told. It was her boobs. Men liked big boobs, and she would be the first to admit hers were rather voluptuous, even if she would’ve preferred a nice C-cup over the double Ds she’d been gifted with.
But their looks didn’t factor into their chances of landing two hot, older men. Her inability to land Brady McCord had nothing to do with her body type and everything to do with the fact that he was turning thirty-nine this year, and she was only twenty-three. There was the same age difference between Donovan and Tate, except Tate’s twenty-fourth birthday was coming up in three weeks.
Not that twenty-four was any different than twenty-three. Not when there was a fifteen-year age gap. To add a visual flare, Donovan and Brady were getting their driver’s permits the year Reilly was born. While her mom and dad were rocking her in a cradle, Brady McCord was out racing his friends on the backroads of Coyote Ridge. So it didn’t matter that Brady looked at her like he wanted to devour her in one bite. She knew he would never give in to that craving.
Not unless he was enticed to do so.
“You know what?” She turned to look at Tate. “I think we should go for it this year.”
Tate wiped marshmallow off his nose, setting his cup on the table. “Go for what?”
She canted her head and waited for him to catch on.
His eyebrows shot up. “You want me to make a play for Donovan?” He snorted. “Your brother’s not gonna give me the time of day, and we both know it.”
“You won’t know if you don’t try.”
She could tell he was intrigued by the idea, but she knew Tate. He was overly skeptical. Not to mention a little shy.
“Seriously,” she said, reaching for the envelope. “Give me a pen.”
Tate hopped up from the couch and hurried to the kitchen, rummaging through the junk drawer. He returned with a pen.
Reilly took it and looked at the logo. It was a pen from M-J Architecture & Interiors, the firm her brother and Brady owned. “Apropos.”
She grabbed the envelope from 2018 and put a line through the year, then wrote 2023 below it. She turned it around and showed Tate.
“You up for it?”
He stared at the envelope for the longest time while she licked marshmallows off the top of her cup.
“Come on, Tate. We’ve got to grab the bulls by the horns. We’re single. They’re single.”
“There’s only one problem with that, sweetie,” he said, his expression serious.
“We’re delusional. They are not.”
Reilly laughed, nearly snorting melted marshmallow out of her nose.
“Live a little, Tate.”
“And what if they don’t go for it?”
“We won’t give them a chance to back down. All’s fair in love and war, right?”
Tate smirked and rolled his eyes.
She added, “There’s no better time than the present.”
“You’re just a little ball of cliches today, huh?” Tate grumbled, his blue eyes glittering with amusement.
She grinned because she could do this all day. “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
“Yeah.” His grin widened. “I’m in.”
Reilly squealed. “Yay!” She reached for her hot chocolate. “Now let’s drink to the best hot chocolate wishes ever!”
He picked up his cup and clinked it against hers before taking a sip.
“Hwaahh.” His nose scrunched. “Is this straight liqueur? Jesus.”
“Lightweight,” she said before taking a generous gulp. Her nostrils flared. He was right. She’d overdone it just a little.
He set his cup down. “You know if we start drinking, we won’t get the tree decorated.”
She placed her cup on the table and reached for her laptop. “Right. Ornaments. We need new ones.”
“Wait. New? Wha—huh? What’s wrong with the ones we have?”
Tate shook his head as he lifted the lid on the ornament box. “Of course they are.”
“I think red and gold will be the theme for this year.” She pulled up Amazon’s website. “Ooh and look. There’s a sale on a fifteen-foot-tall inflatable snowman.”
Tate flopped back on the couch. “It’s a wonder we ever get anything done.”
(*Sale ends on release day!)