All I Want for Christmas Is Her Excerpt 3


Monday had been a shit day full of long meetings, family emails about the logistics of my mom flying in for Christmas in a couple of weeks, and ribbing texts from my fellow wedding attendants about how I was now considered the groomsman most likely to lose the wedding bet. Then I got caught in a downpour on the ride home, and I had to walk my bike for the last two blocks because the streets were so slippery.

I was soaked to the skin by the time I entered the apartment building through a side entrance. I dragged my dripping-wet bike up the five flights of stairs and across the carpeted hallway, leaving water in my wake. Mrs. Welby would have a fit if she found out, so I hoped it dried quickly. Inside my apartment, I stood on the doormat and peeled off my wet clothes, then carried my bike to the spare bedroom that served as a home office on one end and an in-home gym on the other. I set up my bike in its trainer, then pulled out towels from the guest bath closet, using one to dry myself and a second to wipe down my bike.

By the time I was finished, I was shivering, so I hopped into the guest room shower and stood under the steamy water until I was warm again. I used a third towel to dry off and wrap around my waist since all my dry clothes were in my bedroom at the opposite end of the apartment. I grabbed a fourth towel to gather up my wet clothes from the front mat and transport them to the guest bathroom, where I hung them to dry.

Great, now I’d have to do another load of laundry this week to deal with all the towels I’d amassed. Mondays really could be a bitch.

My phone rang. The caller ID said it was Will. He hadn’t been on the wedding-attendant text chain, but he was close to all the groomsmen. He would have been one himself if his wife weren’t about to pop out their second kid any minute. If a groomsman had to ditch the wedding last minute because his wife went into labor, Rex’s mom would never forgive the man or her son or anyone else associated with the massive spectacle she was planning for her second born.

Odds were, my brother knew about all the ribbing I’d taken that day, and he was definitely not calling to take my side. Such was the nature of brotherly love.

I answered the phone. “Go to hell.”

“Hi, Gage,” my sister-in-law said. “Rough day?”

I rubbed my hand over my face. I’d just cussed at a pregnant woman, who also happened to be one of my favorite people in the world. Of course, Will was another of my favorites, but he wasn’t pregnant.

“Sorry, I saw Will’s number.”

“Yeah. My phone’s in another room. I have a toddler hanging off my back and an alien crushing my organs. This was just easier.”

I smiled. Despite the exasperation in her voice, Stacia thrived on the chaos. She made keeping up her busy law practice schedule while corralling her growing family look easy. “What do you need, Stace?”

In the background, Will said, “Is that my brother?”

“Yes,” Stacia answered.

“Tell him to ditch his stupid rules and have some fun with his sexy neighbor.”

The fun I wanted to have, which I’d stupidly confided to Will after our soccer match, was having a no-strings-attached fling. The rule he wanted me to ignore was not banging someone in my building. That was almost as bad as dipping your wick in the company ink, another hard and fast rule I’d never broken and never would.

“He says go to hell,” Stacia relayed my earlier message.

“Not in front of you-know-who.” Will’s voice drew closer as he chatted with Max, so I assumed they’d done the kid handoff.

“Yeah, I probably should have cleaned that up,” Stacie said. “Anyway, Gage, now that both my toddlers are out of the room, we can talk like adults. Remember when you said I could store Max’s big Christmas gift at your place?”

“The indoor jungle gym? Yes. Bring it over any time. Or do you need me to pick it up?”

“No. It’ll be ready later this week. I’ll swing by the store and have them load it into my car. I’ll just need your manliness on your end to unload it.”

“No problem.”

“Tell him,” Will called from a distance, “to use some of that manliness to go find his neighbor and get la—”

“William Halifax, you are holding your toddler,” Stacia said, cutting him off. “Your toddler who likes to repeat everything. That one would be fun to explain to your mother over Christmas.” She sighed and spoke to me again. “Sorry about that.”

I grinned. “He’s not your fault. He’s been like that all thirty-three years I’ve known him.”

“He’s not wrong, though,” Stacia said.

“Et tu, Stacia?”

“I mean, it’s none of my business about you getting laid,” she said quietly. “But it wouldn’t hurt you to have some fun, maybe with your new neighbor. And before you say it, as an attorney specializing in labor law, it is not the same as sleeping with a coworker. But if you’re really averse to a building romance, I do have a friend with a little crush on you.”

Trying to have a no-strings-attached fling with someone crushing on me sounded like a recipe for disaster. “We’ve discussed the downsides of my sister-in-law setting me up.”

“And you’ve said no, and I respect that. But maybe just for the wedding? That could be fun.”

Yeah, no pressure in taking a woman with a crush to a wedding. I loved my sister-in-law dearly, but sometimes she really didn’t get guy-speak.

In the background, Max squealed, and then there was a boom.

Stacia sighed again. “I have to get back to my three-ring circus. But seriously, Gage, my offer to set you up only lasts another forty-eight hours. It would be rude to wait any longer to ask someone on a date for a wedding that’s the weekend before Christmas.”

I wasn’t going to win an argument with a woman who made her living arguing, so I thanked her and wished her good luck with her circus. “Kiss my nephew for me, and give my brother another go to hell from me.”

As I hung up the phone, someone knocked at my front door. Mrs. Welby must have discovered the wet trail that started on the stairs and led straight to my door.

I groaned. “Will this damn day never end?”

If 5B was coming to yell at me about wet carpeting, she was going to see me half-naked while she did so. I pulled open the front door.

Well, hell. Now the universe was just playing games with me, serving up a tasty dish on a very beautiful platter because standing right in front of me was the aforementioned sexy redhead who lived next door. Her hair hung loose down her back, and her eyes looked even bluer with the soft, same-colored sweater that perfectly hugged her curves. I did my best to glance and not stare. I noticed she was holding a bottle of wine. I considered it a win that I’d noticed anything beyond how beautiful she looked. If I played my cards right, maybe I could convince her to share that wine with me.

No, no, I would not.

Then I realized she was looking down at my towel slung low over my hips. Her gaze moved up over my naked torso. Shit. It was too late now to pretend I hadn’t yanked open the door while half-naked. I had to own my choice. I leaned against the doorjamb, cool, casual, and collected.

“Hey, 6B. Can I help you?” I nodded toward the wine bottle. “Do you need an opener?”

“Uh… I just realized about ten seconds ago that I do, in fact, need one. But I really stopped by to invite you over to share this.”

Damn you, universe, because that was just mean. Then again, it was just a glass of wine. It’s not like she was the one standing there in a towel. She glanced down at my chest again, and I didn’t half-mind her interest. She looked back up and held my gaze, almost not blinking, fighting not to look down again. At least, I hoped she was having trouble keeping her eyes on my face.

Yeah, this was a terrible idea. “Sounds great,” I said anyway because sometimes I think with the wrong head.

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