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Miss Daily, in the game store lobby, with the microphone.
“We’re ready,” Harper says.
I shift my attention in the bathroom mirror to focus on the Sloane sisters slumped in the doorframe. They’re my—usually—sparkly eyed and buzzing best friends and business partners. Though, today, they’re probably regretting putting me in charge of our grand reopening festivities. And attire.
Harper and Rox are fully dressed in “Sassy Santa” costumes. At least, that’s what the tag called the red crushed-velvet leggings with a belted white faux fur-trimmed jacket and hat. It was my idea to add the Crimson Queen lipstick, heeled black patent leather boots, and Scarlett bulb ornament earrings to pull it together.
I figure, if we’re celebrating five years in business, doing it big is the only way to go.
“One sec,” I say through closed teeth as I finish gliding on deep-red lipstick to add the finishing touch to my costume.
A thunderous roar of laughter drifts from the front of the store.
Harper stretches back, angling her body into the hallway. “Oh my God, there are so many people here.”
“Mm hmm,” I mumble.
I had a hunch we’d have a nicer than usual turnout.
Yesterday, I strategically shared a sneak peek of my costume on the Love & Games social media pages. It was my first post in months alluding to anything specifically about me. Usually, it’s all about board games, sales, recipes, and random tagged testimonials from our customers around the world.
This year, the shop has become a full-fledged San Diego tourist site.
Both our sales and our employment applications are through the roof. We’ve gone viral so many times it’s hard to keep track. It’s the sort of thing that tends to happen when people are under the impression that we’re peddling happily ever afters with every board game purchase.
Of course, by “we,” I mean Harper and Rox, and by association, me.
Back in March, Harper’s now fiancé, Declan, did a live post asking her to meet him before the annual city Monopoly tournament if she loved him. In July, he proposed. Then, the following month in August, with Jennifer Ling from Channel 5 Action News reporting, my brother, Murph, with a Red Vine bouquet in hand, swapped out the Trivial Pursuit deck with custom cards to confess his undying love for Rox. With their sickeningly adorable dates and move-in posts, it’s not far-fetched to assume a proposal is forthcoming.
Which, as the famously single third owner in this business, firmly positions the public eye in my direction.
Let’s just say the world is chock-full of suckers for love.
“Maybe there’ll be three weddings before long?” a local reporter, Jennifer Ling had said. Still says, on repeat, on every blog, post, and meme discussing the free-flowing love at Love & Games.
Never mind the fact I both like and choose to be flirty, fabulous, and free because love can’t be trusted. Apparently, it doesn’t matter what I want because the world is determined to shove me into a fairy tale.
I can’t be completely mad at Jennifer Ling, though.
While the news network’s increased viewership got her promoted to anchor and made me the most eligible bachelorette in the greater San Diego area, she also sent a ton of business our way. We went from struggling to save our store from financial ruin to stabilizing and sustaining the growth. Now we’re set for expansion.
If everything goes right—by which I mean I upgrade our website and our landlord agrees to let us rent out the empty retail pad next door for a themed business anniversary party—I’m golden. After all, it’s my turn to take the baton from the Sloane sisters. Somehow, capitalize on our newfound popularity, and try not to screw it up.
“You’re gorgeous, beautiful, stunning…” Rox sighs with an impatient tilt of her head as I perfect my lipstick. “Now, can we hurry this along, so I can burn this costume?”
With a firm press of my lips, I give my reflection a final once-over, then twist the tube, cap it, and pivot to face my favorite Sassy Santas.
“Hmm, let’s see…” I squint, dragging my gaze up their velvety curves and cinched waists, making my way northward. “Something’s missing—”
“No, ma’am. We most certainly are not.” Harper tugs together the lapels of her fur-trimmed collar in a futile effort to hide the bronzed cleavage her corset is doing an excellent job of lifting. “Nothing else is going to fit, so…”
I laugh, glancing over at Rox.
“Seriously,” she scoffs. “We already look like Mean Girls Grow Up. The only thing that could make this worse is if the next thing you suggest is face paint—”
“Close,” I say. “But I was thinking more along the lines of a smile. We’re celebrating, spreading cheer. Santa Claus is coming to town. Try to look like it, please.” I suck in a lungful of air, drawing my shoulders back and pushing my chest forward. “Now take a deep breath because they’re waiting for us.”
The crowd goes wild as we make our entrance to the impossibly loud tune of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”
In fantastical holiday-themed character suits, the actors we hired fall in line behind us. One by one, Santa, Rudolph, Frosty, Grinch, an elf, and a nutcracker dance around, waving at the kids, news reporters, and cameras aimed at us. We make our way to a long, rectangular ten-seater table dressed for the occasion in a red tablecloth with peppermint-striped flatware and linens, and accented with fresh garland, candles, and ornaments. At the center, a shiny red gift box basks in the spotlight.
Love & Games is decorated in its holiday best, too.
Strings of snowflakes fall from the ceiling, adding to the snowy cotton draped over the pine shelves and display rounders. In the corner, a decorated balsam fir with wrapped gift boxes at its feet is peaked with a golden star.
“Thank you all so much for coming today,” I say into the microphone, centering my attention on the wall above the door. “It’s the week before Thanksgiving, and boy do we have a lot of thanks to give. For starters, this December, Love & Games will have been in business for five years thanks to you.”
Whistles and cheers of applause erupt over the people packed in the store and pouring in from the street.
I wait for the noise to die down, smiling as I search the beaming faces.
“We have so much planned to celebrate and show our appreciation,” I say, pausing while the characters weave through the crowd passing out flyers. “Beginning this coming Tuesday, the twenty-second of November, we’ll be running a toy drive, giving away games and goodies, and online, we’re unveiling what I’m affectionately calling, 25 Days of Christmas Clue.”
I take a few minutes to review the event calendar, ending on the sixteenth day of December with our grand reopening and the thousand-dollar cash grand prize giveaway. I’m just about to go over the toys acceptable for donation when a bright light flashes in my face.
“Nadia, we all saw your post on the Love & Games Instagram page yesterday.” A female reporter’s voice cuts through the rising chatter. I catch sight of the Channel 5 Action News logo on her microphone, expecting Jennifer Ling.
It isn’t her.
This one’s tall with sleek red hair falling in curtains down her back, younger, louder. By the determined glint in her blue eyes, hungrier. “Brynn Daily reporting for Channel 5 Action News.” She glances back at the cameraman. “I’m live here at San Diego’s own Love & Games with Nadia Sikes. We’re all dying to know. Is the outfit for someone special?”
All at once, I’m inundated with a barrage of shouts and questions coming from every corner of the room.
“Nadia Sikes, pose for your fans at GameforLove.com!” a honeyed male voice shouts.
Another one, “Are you seeing anyone special, Nadia?”
“Who’s the designer?” a woman down front asks.
They’re all some version of the same questions. They ask about guys I’ve dated or been seen out with recently. What I’m wearing, beauty secrets, what I want for Christmas, who I want for Christmas.
It’s in their eyes and the slight, desperate edge forward as they hang on our every word. Is there something special the women of Love & Games have done? Perhaps a spell or seance. To them, it must be some whacky sorcery going on. One in which they’d willingly participate if it meant there was even the smallest chance they’d get caught in the crosshairs of love.
I laugh when a young, shaggy-haired guy, can’t be older than seventeen, asks if there’ll be a Women of Love & Games Calendar.
Sure, I’m dying to star in some kid’s late-night fantasies.
“Oh my God,” someone gasps, and the crowd shifts and bends like two sides of a zipper coming undone.
When I follow their lines of vision, so do I.
I suck in a breath, my heart rapping against my ribs as the people taper to either side. I’m at one end of the zipper opening with my private thoughts exposed for everyone to see because on the other end is my heart in the shape of a human.
A woman’s voice pierces the silence, but his name spreads like wildfire burning bright in the air. “It’s him. It’s Micah Hamilton.”
The hum of chatter picks up, tilting my world on its axis.
My skin prickles with awareness, electricity racing through my veins as Micah’s gaze settles on me, and it’s…unsettling.
Harper and Rox whisper my name. I imagine they’re trying to get my attention, but I can’t look away from him.
If we’d just met. If I hadn’t already memorized the tightly shorn curls and the sharp curve to his jaw. The outline of his full lips, and the hard slope of his nose. Or his dark eyelashes fanned against flawless rich brown skin and a depthless honey-colored gaze. I’d be tempted to let my eyes get lost in his shadows and lines.
I know the man behind the stoic silence and charmingly festive cardigan, though.
His bookstore is around the corner, but as agreed, we haven’t seen each other since August. Yet, my heart stutters in my chest and my pulse races like it was just yesterday that I trailed my greedy hands through the scruff of his beard down to the broad shoulders on his tall, lean frame. That his warm mouth moved against mine…
“Micah, this way for the camera,” one person says.
“Are you together?” another asks.
Still another. “Are you here to support Nadia?”
The room spins as people shout rapid-fire questions at Micah. Though I’ve been both expecting and dreading it, I’m taken by surprise when the scarlet-haired reporter asks the one question I’ve failed to answer since August.
“Nadia Sikes are you and Micah Hamilton in love?” she asks.
The faces, phones, and cameras swivel to face me, waiting for the simple one-word answer with the power to fix what I broke.
Our eyes connect.
A few awkward seconds tick by.
My head swims as I stare, captivated, transported, remembering another time.
I spiral into memories of the self-professed bookworm and seller who adorably calls bookmarks quitter strips and stashes peppermints in his coat pocket like he’s sixty-six instead of thirty-six. The endearingly quiet, kind-hearted man whose raspy tone always felt like there was a story hidden between his soft syllables. The man who spent the summer playing board games and kissing me on the beach while we watched the sun set…and who looks at me like I’m the answer to all life’s questions. Looked.
We were never supposed to be anything beyond a carefree connection.
No strings, no loose ends. That was always the plan.
Only, after a little more than five months, he broke the rules. We both broke the rules. But he doesn’t know that.
“I…” My voice cracks and I release a self-conscious laugh.
The entire room stands on edge, and I feel like the wind’s been knocked out of me and my legs might buckle. My heart is in my throat as my inadequate answer clings to the tip of my tongue. I might be, but I’m still not sure. I think so—
“Nadia, your fans and followers want to know, are you and Micah Hamilton in love?” Brynn Daily repeats, her tone pointed, sharp.
I’m about to say it. Confess my maybe to the world. But then I notice the grooves of Micah’s expression deepen and twist until an unamused mask reflects at me, and yes, loses its grip on my tongue.
My mouth goes dry, and for a moment, Micah and I are at an impasse.
Every nerve ending on my body zips and crackles like a live wire dangling above open water. I scour his guarded gaze for signs of us, but he turns away. He shifts his attention to a group of kids at his right, and I know even before Micah says it…
“We’re friends. I’m here to support her business.” He lifts his chin against the flow of new questions.
All I hear is the hard finality anchoring in his tone as he looks back at me with an intensity so strong, so weighted, my knees weaken. His chest rises and falls. The rigidity of his posture. The stiffness jagged in the slope of his shoulders. But it’s the low register to his tone that tells me we’re way past the point of no return.
Restless, I smile and swallow back my growing uneasiness.
“Exactly, we’re friends,” I parrot.
He scrubs a hand over his beard and nods. “Yeah, I came to congratulate the team on the grand reopening. I didn’t mean to cause—”
“No,” I cut him off, finding my words. “Absolutely, you’re welcome to be here. Like anyone else,” I force myself to say. “Ladies and gentlemen, the owner of our local bookstore around the corner, Booked Up. Thanks, Mr. Hamilton for helping us celebrate.”
I open a round of applause, smiling nervously.
Because I can’t bear another second, I toss a glance back to Harper and nod. She takes her cue and counts down before she flips the light switch.
A collective gasp rumbles over the store as the entire room goes pitch black.
The actors take action, scrambling to their assigned seats around the table.
When Frosty drags out a long, reverberating “achoo,” Harper brings up the lights again. Then Rox kicks into gear with her lines.
“Oh no!” Rox exclaims, giving an Oscar-worthy performance that would put Dorothy and her Emerald City getaway to shame. “Someone’s stolen the Christmas Magic Gift.” She slaps her hand over her mouth, rushing to each character. She punctuates each question with a glance back to the audience on pins and needles. As the drama unfolds, she asks if they saw who did it, how they did it, and where they could be hiding it.
Surprisingly, they eat it up like there’s been a real crime instead of a hoax committed by a holiday-themed character in our Christmas Clue game.
Like it isn’t a perfectly timed distraction.
As Harper stalks through the breaks in the crowd passing out the customized Clue sheets and asking them to, “Help us figure out whodunit,” I keep smiling. In a tailspin searching, I hold up my shaky chin, draw my shoulders back, and pretend I don’t notice the void in the crowd.
End of Excerpt