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Alex Kirkland paced around the room; his energy compressed like the rubber bands inside a golf ball. It could be assumed it was due to the massive—or massively weird—lottery the four of them had just won, but Everleigh Girard knew better.
She’d known Alex her whole life. Considered him an almost brother, since he was the brother to her BFF Amelia. And thus she knew that Alex carried that level of intensity every single day. But she loved him to pieces anyway.
Alex pulled at his navy turtleneck. Like he was sweating. Even though, hello, December + Pittsburgh equaled brrr-ific temps on a good day. “Okay. We won. We somehow won this freaking lottery. What do we do now?”
Yep. That was Alex.
Plans and to-do lists up the wazoo, whether it was to take sandwiches and beer on a picnic at Point State Park, or planning the elaborate, multi-site scavenger hunt for Amelia’s twenty-first birthday that culminated in a massive party at the rooftop Biergarten overlooking all of Pittsburgh. Everleigh loved him for doing it, but the endless emails and itineraries and spreadsheets he’d sent in the weeks before almost pushed her to just take Amelia to Philly without telling him.
“Why does that sound like a trick question?” Amelia frowned at her brother, red braids falling over her shoulders as she shook her head. “I gave you the best Christmas present ever with that lottery ticket.”
“Best potential present,” Teague corrected. He was Alex’s bestie (not that either of them would dream of using that term), and thus another pseudo-brother to Everleigh. In general, he’d be the least likely of all of them to pick on a technicality, but he was probably cranky from rocking a brutal hangover.
Once they got the call—on Christmas!—that they’d won the lottery gifting them not with cash, but a freaking historic inn, they’d, well, celebrated. Because they’d only bought the tickets on Christmas Eve. And because, for various stupid or pathetic or just plain wrong reasons, they were all in need of a life preserver for, well, life. So then they’d run out to buy champagne.
Since Teague had spent the last decade as a member of the Army’s Special Forces, champagne was not his, ah, go-to drink. Everleigh had no doubt the sugary bubbles had done a number on him.
Sleeping on Amelia’s couch probably hadn’t helped, either. But since he’d just gotten out of the Army a few weeks ago, he didn’t have his own place.
So instead of calling him annoying, she’d pivot the conversation away from him. And refill his coffee. And hand him the green afghan the Kirklands’ grandmother had knitted a lifetime ago.
Squeezing his sister’s arm, Alex said, “It was a great potential present, especially once we all chipped in and bought more lottery tickets. But now that we’ve won, it is the best actual present of all time. Amelia, I can’t wait to see how you top this for my birthday.”
Amelia rolled her holly-green eyes. “No. No way. That’s why I think an engagement ring for a Christmas present is stupid. You can’t ever come close to replicating that special a gift.”
Alex slammed his palm down on the mantel, making the pine-tree-shaped candles jump. “No one’s getting engaged. Talk about a nightmare complication.”
“That is a messed-up way to talk about love,” Ever scolded.
Even fresh off of getting dumped, she still firmly believed that a walk down the aisle should be in everyone’s future. Why wouldn’t you yearn to share your life with your best friend who gave you awesome smooches?
“Falling in love takes time. Opening a hotel will take all of our time. And I’m not doing this alone.” Alex pointed his finger in a slow circle around the room. “We have to agree.”
Amelia bumped him with her shoulder. “We did already. When we bought the tix.”
“Yes, but that was a fantasy. Fueled by too much cocoa and perfect snowflakes and, I don’t know, the freaking magic of Christmas.”
“It is still the season of joy and love. Don’t be disrespectful of the holiday.” Everleigh grabbed a handful of tinsel from the tree and threw it at him. Being tinsel, it only sailed about a millimeter through the air before drifting to the ground, but she was sure he got the idea. “I can’t believe the best present ever is making you this cranky.”
Alex sat down—gingerly—on the papasan. Gingerly, because his super-tall frame tipped it over nine times out of ten when he made the attempt. “Sorry I slipped into a rant zone. But the fact is that out of the blue, with zero warning or preparation, we suddenly own a huge historic inn. Do we really want it? The responsibility?”
“What the hell else would we do?” Teague pointed at each of them in turn. “Alex, you got fired—unjustly fired,” he quickly corrected, “and the Grand Orion kicked you out of your sweet pad in the hotel when you lost your job as manager. Amelia’s about to be laid off, and her apartment’s being repossessed.”
“It isn’t a car, Teague. And I sure as heck haven’t missed a single payment.” Amelia started another pot of coffee in the galley kitchen. “They’re turning it into condos and cranking the rates up sky-high with an impossible-to-meet deposit requirement.”
“Whatever. My way’s less words. Everleigh got dumped, fired, and tossed out of her jerk boyfriend’s place. I’m already on your couch, and have no job, no idea of what I want to do, or what the hell I can do with my special skill sets around bombs and sniper rifles.”
If she wasn’t so annoyed, Everleigh would spend a moment being genuinely concerned for Teague. How on earth was he supposed to transition from government-ordered violence to a normal life behind a desk?
But she was annoyed. Nobody liked their problems aired, let alone trotted out and waved like banners of awfulness pulled behind a prop plane. “Did you really need to drill down into our pathetic-ness?”
“Yeah. I did. Because this lottery win is the solution to all our problems. With the candy coating of all of us getting to work and live together.” Teague threw up his arms. “Why are we debating? Why is Alex pacing again with that line between his eyebrows? Why the hell aren’t there donuts?”
Oh, yay—Alex had made it out of the papasan without overturning it.
See? That was proof that luck was still on their side. Or that they were turning over a new leaf. Something good was in the air.
“You’re not in the Army anymore. There’s no mess cook here.” Amelia hooked a thumb at the front door. And simultaneously aimed a very pointed side-eye at Teague. “If you want donuts, go get ’em. I’ll take a chocolate glazed old-fashioned.”
Alex came to a stop in the middle of the living room. Commanded the space, was more like it. “Running a hotel is my dream job. Doesn’t mean it’s fair to inflict it on all of you.”
“Your hotel was about to hire me as a landscaper right before they so, so wrongly let you go. I was on board with doing the grounds there. I’m even more on board with doing all the landscaping at our very own inn. Heck, since it isn’t in the middle of downtown Pittsburgh, there’s probably lots more acreage for me to play with.” Amelia spread her arms wide.
Alex held up his right hand. Ostentatiously flicked up his index finger. “So that’s one yes vote to keep the inn.”
“Two,” Teague corrected. “I already made my case.”
“I need to hear from each of you if we’re going to move forward.” All three of them turned to her. She was trapped between the tree and the brick wall. No escape.
And how bad was it that she wanted to escape from the three people she loved most in the world?
“Everleigh?” Alex asked. His ice-blue eyes sparkled, like he knew she’d say yes and they could start celebrating again.
Rats. She’d been worrying about this moment all night, barely sleeping after their celebration. “I’m really happy for you, Alex.”
“For all of us, you mean?”
“For you. Getting your dream. I love you to pieces, so I want to help. I just…I don’t think you want me to.” Then she slid sideways against the wall, like a cartoon villain trying to blend into the shadows.
It didn’t work. Everleigh got to the doorframe. Well, her shoulder got there first, fell through, and she did a starfish thing with her right leg and left arm to catch herself from hitting the floor.
Which meant instead of slinking away unnoticed—already hard to do in a two-window-wide row-home—her friends were staring at her with all of their attention.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Teague asked with his usual bluntness.
At the same time, Amelia rushed over, counterbalanced her arm and Teague’s brusqueness by saying soothingly, “Ever, what’s the matter?”
Alex didn’t move. Or say anything. He did something worse.
He watched her. Studied her. Like he could figure out what burbled in her head without her even speaking.
He could do it, too. At nineteen, he’d become Amelia’s guardian when their parents were killed. Overnight, he’d somehow acquired the skill set of a parent: eyes in the back of his head, the ability to see through the most foolproof lie, and the uncanny knack of sensing when Amelia and Ever were talking about boys instead of doing homework.
That freaky mental mojo only got stronger as they got older. It felt like he rolled it out more on Everleigh than on his actual sister. Probably because she: 1) got in way more trouble, 2) made far worse decisions, and 3) had a well-deserved reputation as a hot mess.
Which came right back around to the present moment. Excusing herself from the most amazing opportunity to ever fall in her lap.
She and Alex had a stare-down, Wild West duel style.
Obviously, she cracked first. “You guys don’t need me.”
Amelia threw an arm around her shoulder, looking confused that Everleigh would say such a thing. “Of course we do.”
Yeah, yeah, they were besties. The support and the love was automatic. In this particular case, though, it was misguided.
“I mean, you guys don’t need me screwing it up.”
Alex kept up that assessing gaze for another few seconds. Then he pushed Teague’s feet off the couch. “Up.” Once the spot was empty, he patted the cushion for Ever to come sit next to him.
Oh, geez. He was going to be all thoughtful and make her cry.
She’d try to babble. If she did it fast enough and long enough, sometimes it distracted him. “Alex, you managed the most exclusive, swankiest hotel in Pittsburgh. You bring all the expertise. Amelia will do the same for the outdoors. Teague’s a workhorse. But what am I going to bring to the table? My worthless art history degree, not to mention my own personal history of failure and bad decisions? I don’t have useful skills. I’m a walking, talking jinx. You might as well have Scooby-Doo as your fourth partner.”
“Scooby sheds,” Alex said, almost absentmindedly.
“So do I.” Everleigh laughed, flicking at her long black hair. And felt relief that she had, indeed, steered him off of the lecture course.
“Scooby also poops. Everywhere. Whereas your bathroom is immaculate. A thing of beauty.”
“Geez. Thanks, I guess?” Alex was now getting weird. Why would he bring up her bathroom?
“Before you moved in with what’s-his-name—”
“Randall,” she supplied.
He glowered. Everleigh wasn’t sure she’d actually seen a glower before, but the deeply creased forehead and squinty eyes could be nothing else. “I know. I’m choosing to not say his name, because the man’s an idiot. He fired you and cheated on you. He’s lucky I haven’t grabbed Teague and gone over and bruised his heart, along with a few other body parts.”
Awww. That was sweet. Very big-brother-y. “Technically, Randall didn’t cheat on me. He cheated on his fiancée I knew nothing about, with me.” Even though she’d been in the dark about the other woman’s existence, Everleigh felt a sense of responsibility. Well, guilt. Massive guilt, at doing that to a member of her gender.
“Isn’t today Boxing Day?” Teague pushed up his sleeves. “I don’t know what the name’s supposed to mean, but how about we personalize it for our purposes. Let’s go over there and teach Randall that he can’t treat you so badly.”
“It’s over. There’s no point.”
“He was reckless with your heart,” Amelia said softly. “I’d like to give him a kick where it’d hurt the most myself.”
Her friends were the best. So supportive. A hundred times more than she deserved. A million times more so than her own parents were.
“Look, your bathroom was spotless.” Alex rotated a hand in the air. “And it had this amazing color scheme that was relaxing but not too feminine.”
“Sea foam,” she murmured.
“Sure. You have an eye for all that. Probably from all those art history classes you soaked up. You’ll be the best one of us at making the inn look right.”
Everleigh appreciated it, but that logic might be a bit of a stretch. “Oh, I don’t know…”
“You also have superior attention to detail.”
Now he was laying it on too thick. “You’re judging this all based on my bathroom?”
“And that you have an above average preference for cleanliness,” Amelia added with a snicker.
Right. They’d need someone to clean all the guest bathrooms. No wonder they wanted her on the team.
Everleigh immediately regretted the thought.
Her friends would never see her as only capable of wielding a scrub brush and bucket. It was unfair to them. That thought was entirely her own battered husk of self-esteem talking.
Alex glared at his sister before turning back to her. “That’s simply the first example I called to mind. For Christ’s sake, Everleigh, I’ve known you forever. I’m telling you that I believe you have talent and heart and grit and will be an excellent partner.” He leaned over. “I just wish you believed it.”
Yeah, a deep dive into her self-confidence issues was definitely a topic for another day. Because she was already welling up from his words. Everleigh fanned her hand in front of her eyes.
“Okay, yes. I’m in. Let’s do this.” She jumped up, gesturing for everyone to come in for a group hug. Of course, Amelia was first, bounding over to throw her arms around her. The big, brash ex-soldier was next, because he never turned down a hug.
And Alex slowly joined last, as if still shell-shocked by his good fortune.
“We own an inn.” Alex rocked back and forth, his long arms somehow encompassing all of them.
Amelia shot her arm straight up in the middle. “We’re going to make our guests so stinking happy.”
“We’re going to make them feel like they belong,” Teague vowed.
“We’re going to be a success.”
At least, the three of them were.
Everleigh would, of course, try her hardest. But she knew better than to truly believe she would succeed.
End of Excerpt