If practice makes perfect, I should excel at pretending that Heath Miller doesn’t affect me. That I’m immune to that wide jaw, taut body, and the unique woodsy-aftershave-engine-oil scent that makes my ovaries explode.
Since before I could walk, he’s been my champion. My best friend. The one problem I can’t solve. Why? If I tell him I love him, I’ll lose him and his adorable daughter. Maybe the best Christmas gift I can give him—and myself—is to turn in the keys to my B&B and put some distance between us.
I’ve made my share of mistakes. Lost my MIT scholarship, came home to fix cars and romance Kentbury’s female tourists—until I wound up a single father. For all eight years of Cassie’s life, Knightly’s been my anchor.
I’ve changed. Cassie’s the best part of me, and Knightly’s been there every step of the way. But as Christmas lays its mantle of magic over Kentbury, she drops a bomb—she’s following a dream to New York City. I’ve got one week to do everything, say everything I’ve never dared. To convince my best friend to be mine—ours—for all the holidays to come.
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I hate surprises almost as much as I hate Sunday brunch at my parents. My family and I don’t get along. It’s a cliché, but we’re like water and oil. I became everything they hate and I hate everything they represent. My parents are judgmental. During my late teens and up until a few months ago, I fucked around—a lot—in every sense.
Needless to say, I lost my scholarship to MIT during my sophomore year. The dean called me irresponsible. My parents wrote me off as a failure until I came back to Kentbury to take over my uncle’s car repair shop after he died. I try to keep myself out of trouble and off the town’s radar. I steer away from the women in town. But I do have fun with the tourists who stay at the lodge. It’s simple. They’re here for a week or a weekend. Then they’re gone for good.
“But I ran out of luck,” I sigh and look down.
In the bouncy chair lies Cassie, my one-month-old baby. The fuss of black hair is covered by a pink hat. Her arms aloft as if dreaming of cuddling her mother. I slide my pinky into her open hand and watch as her fingers curl around it. I feel her soft breath on the back of my hand. Already the tension is melting away as I watch my sweet little girl sleep in peace. She’s so innocent, she doesn’t know that our lives have been forever changed again.
“Maybe I just got lucky,” I whisper close to her ear. “You and I are going to make it work. I’ll make your proud little one.”
There’s a slight knock on the door. I kiss her tiny hand before I open it for Knightly.
“That must be, Knightly, coming to save the day,” I whisper to Cassie and kiss her tiny hand.
There’s so much I could tell her about my best friend, but not enough time. I only tell Cassie what’s important, “She’s going to become your favorite person. We call her Lee for short.”
When I swing the door open, I finally relax. Lee’s here.
Her big brown eyes narrow locking her gaze at me. “I need a big explanation,” she says handing me the shopping bags she carries with her.
“Hello, Lee,” I greet her and stare at all the bags she brought as she unzips her blue parka.
“I got everything that you asked for,” she says. Bishop is bringing the big items. What do you need that for?”
Her voice is neutral, but I know her well. She’s easy to read. The expression on her face matches her mood. I know when she’s excited about something. I can tell when she’s tired or cranky. Or, like right now, when she’s upset that I’m keeping her in the dark. As she takes off all her winter gear and sets her snow boots on the plastic tray, I close the door avoiding the sight of her body.
I like to think of Lee Harris as my best friend. One of the boys. She’s the kid who I hung out with since she could walk. I endless practice not noticing her sweet curves or the way her long, dark, curly hair cascades over her shoulders once she takes off her hat. I’m a shitty person and can’t do relationships. I’d never do anything to jeopardize my relationship with Lee. Ever.
I tilt my head toward the living room. “Follow me.”
“Oh my God, did Santa bring me a baby?” She claps once and takes out the tube of hand sanitizer that she always carries around.
Without asking, she snaps the belt of the bouncy chair open and takes her into her arms.
“Hey, beautiful, welcome to Kentbury. You’re going to love this place.”
Cassie snuggles closer to Lee who looks beautiful holding my baby. I swallow hard and remind myself that she’s a friend who deserves a lot more than a guy who sucks at life.
“You’re not going to ask anything?”
“The mom came to the lodge earlier, asking for you.” She sweeps my body with her gaze. “Tall, dark hair, light blue eyes and was friends with the Lodge’s owner.”
Lee rolls her eyes and sighs.
“You and Kingston need to stop sleeping around or…” Lee touches her mouth lightly with the tips of her fingers. “Oops, it happened.”
“You could’ve warned me.” I grit my teeth.
“I could’ve.” She shrugs. “Maybe next time.”
I glare at her. She’s not funny but I don’t have the energy to deal with her banter. Though, maybe she doesn’t have much energy either because she’s not as witty as usual.
“How are you handling the news?” She asks with a serious tone, though her gaze remains on Cassie.
“I’m dealing, I guess,” I close my eyes briefly taking a deep breath. “Can you picture me as a father?”
I gesture to myself, showing her the hot mess that I am. Then, point to the apartment I live in which is above the car shop.
“I’m a fucked-up guy who can’t finish anything. I can’t even get along with my parents. What am I supposed to do with a baby?”
“Love her,” she answers.
“You should give yourself some credit, Heath. She has the best dad in the world, and you two have me and my family.”
I smile at her and say the obvious, “I can always count on you.”
Lee studies Cassie. She smiles at her, but her face looks a little saddened. Her brown eyes are slightly red and watery. Was she crying? I’m sure it’s nothing. Later, when I’m not busy with my baby I’ll ask her what’s wrong. In the meantime, I have to learn how to be a dad.
Maybe I can find a book on how to be a father online. It worked with the car shop, and so far, I’ve managed it well enough.
Claudia is an award-winning, international bestselling author. She lives in Colorado, working for a small IT. She has three children and manages a chaotic household of three confused dogs, and a wonderful husband who shares her love of all things geek. To survive she works continually to find purpose for the voices flitting through her head, plus she consumes high quantities of chocolate to keep the last threads of sanity intact.
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