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Alex Kirkland fisted his hands deeper into his pockets. December in Pittsburgh was no joke. At least, he wasn’t laughing about the below-freezing temps. Although he wasn’t in the mood tonight to be laughing about, well, anything.
“Alex, you’ve kept us in suspense long enough. Tell us what happened at your interview,” his sister pleaded, with a sharp tug on his coat sleeve.
One look at her hopeful face reminded him he wasn’t alone. The moping could wait until he was. But right now, Amelia looked like a smiling angel with her pale skin and her red hair dusted with flakes from the snow she’d tried to throw at him. These Christmas Eve strolls to look at the downtown lights were one of her favorite holiday traditions.
Damned if he’d ruin it for her.
“I went in, I charmed ’em, and proceeded to wow them with my in-depth knowledge of the hotel industry.” He tossed her an exaggeratedly slick, smarmy smile that he would never, ever actually use in an interview.
“So you got the job?”
“Doubtful,” Teague Sullivan cut in, scrubbing his hand over his close-cut light brown hair. “He’d have led with good news. Alex here was stalling on sharing his shit news—am I right?”
The problem with a best friend who had known you since a third-grade playground battle? They knew all your tells. All the ways you hid yourself and your feelings from the rest of the world.
There was no hiding anything from Teague. Especially after his Army Special Forces training. The man could sniff out a weakness or a lie faster than Alex could identify a smoking barbecue grill with T-bones from six blocks away.
“I didn’t get the job,” Alex admitted with a shrug. Then he stopped to stare at a storefront window decorated with elaborate swags of snow and holly. Jolly. Festive. It set his teeth on edge.
“Oh, no!” Everleigh Girard, his sister’s bestie since forever, threw an arm around his shoulders. “How could they possibly ignore the total package of experience and movie-star good looks that you’d bring to their hotel as manager?”
“Maybe that’s what killed his chances.” Amelia waved a fuzzy green-mittened hand at his face. “The chiseled jawline, the icy-blue eyes. The man who interviewed you would’ve felt insignificant, and a woman would’ve known you’d be impossible to resist.”
Alex appreciated the teasing compliments. Because they all knew the real reason he’d been passed over. Again. “Thanks, guys. But it was obvious my résumé didn’t matter. Someone had read the damned article between setting up the interview and today. They know I was fired for covering up a theft at the Grand Orion.”
“You didn’t cover it up.” Amelia poked her finger into his sternum to punctuate each sentence. She could be fierce with her love and her defense of those she loved. Good thing his black wool coat cushioned her attack. “You protected a battered woman in need. You let her get away to save her life, and then you called the authorities. I’m sick of the world treating you like a co-conspirator instead of a hero.”
“The damn magazine made sure that I came off sounding like a criminal in that article. Enough so that nobody will give me a chance to tell my side of the story, let alone hire me.” He bent forward to put his shoulder at Amelia’s waist, and then hefted her over his shoulder. “No big deal. As long as you think I’m a hero, I’m golden.”
What’s more, Alex meant it.
Yeah, his prospects of lining up another hotel manager job were slim. No, he had no freaking idea what else to do with his life. But it had been him and Amelia against the world for years now. The three people kicking at the sidewalk snow with him were all that mattered. As long as he had them, Alex would be fine.
Sure, the Orion had given him a place to live as a sweet manager perk, which meant he was now sleeping in Amelia’s spare room. No job, no home…but he’d make sure his sister still had a magical Christmas Eve.
After Amelia squealed, laughed and kicked while he spun her around twice in yet another tradition performed every time it snowed, he set her back down. And hoped the break was enough to shift the focus off of him.
But her laughter cut off abruptly. This time she was the one who turned away to stare at a window display of nutcrackers, oversized mice and overflowing bowls of walnuts covered in red glitter. “If it makes you feel better, you’re not the only one with bleak holiday tidings. I’m losing my job as of the first of the year. Home Warehouse is closing twenty stores, and mine is one of ’em.”
“Oh, nooooo,” wailed Everleigh. “Amelia, that’s terrible.” She threw her arms around Amelia. Her heavy dark hair swirled around them both like an actual cloak of sadness as they rocked back and forth.
Yeah, Ever could always be counted on to bring the drama. For good and for bad. But this time Alex agreed with her reaction. Amelia loved Christmas time. She was one of the nuts who started watching holiday movies by Halloween. Losing her job was bad enough. Finding out today would ruin her holiday.
It’d been a lot easier to protect his little sister before she grew up.
“I heard you hated that job?” Teague said, lifting one eyebrow. “I mean, I’m bunking on your couch. Thanks for that, by the way. Christmas is a crap time to job and apartment hunt. So I don’t eavesdrop, but I heard you venting to Alex every night this week.”
“I don’t have any secrets from you.” Amelia beamed at him from over Everleigh’s shoulder. “You’re practically my brother! And I do hate it. It was supposed to be a stopgap after college until I got a full-time gig doing landscaping. But it’s been three years now.”
“Maybe this is a good thing. Karma kicking you in the ass to find a better job.”
“Hey, you know the rule,” Alex barked sharply. “No mention of my sister’s ass. Or any body parts, come to think of it.”
Amelia disentangled herself from Ever. “Teague, I appreciate a good Karma kick as much as anyone. But I’ve been trying. Doing side-hustle solo projects to build my résumé while applying at every landscaper in town. Alex was going to try and hook me up at the Orion, but I get the feeling they don’t want to do any favors for someone with his last name…”
Hand slapping at his forehead, Alex said, “Shit. I’m sorry, Amelia.”
He’d screwed up. Alex had been ready to be the hero and hand her the job on a silver platter by the new year. But he’d never even asked his boss.
That had slipped his mind what with the police questioning and the firing so that the hotel could have a scapegoat for the disappeared money. Even though they knew full well—because he’d given the confessional letter left on his desk to the police—that Elena Vasquez had stolen the money using his passcode to escape a violent husband who’d been abusing her and her children for years.
She patted him on the arm. “It’s fine, Alex. I don’t want to work for a place that would throw you under the bus like that.”
“If we’re going all in on the pity party tonight, rather than chugging eggnog…um…I got fired today, too,” Everleigh admitted. Her head drooped down, swinging her long black hair to cover her face. If Ever was feeling an emotion, chances were you could peg it by reading the motion of her hair.
“How could Randall fire you?” Amelia pulled Ever closer to the storefront. Then she looked left and right at the deserted sidewalks. “Weren’t you guys…you know…”
Alex found it adorable—and reassuring—that his little sister, even at twenty-five, blushed and stammered when talking about sex.
“Do you have to make me say it?”
Teague raised one ungloved hand. Guess after spending the last three years stationed in the desert, he was happy to trail his fingers through the snow. “I’ve been gone, remember? I need somebody to say it.”
Alex emailed the guy regularly. But he hadn’t bothered to fill him in on Everleigh’s latest romance because…well…they never lasted. He’d assumed that by the time Teague shipped back home, this idiotic move of dating her boss would be over.
This was one of the rare times, though, that Alex hated being right. “Randall was Ever’s boss at the art gallery. They were a thing. Dated for a couple months, then just moved in with him at Thanksgiving.”
“And he fired you? While you’re living together? Man, that’s cold.”
Ever tossed her head. Tried to look stoic, but that fell apart when she sniffed and her lower lip trembled. “We’re not living together anymore. His, ah, fiancée found out about us.”
After a quick is she for real exchange of looks with Alex, Teague said, “Did you know about her?”
“Omigosh, of course not! There’s no excuse for cheating…unless you don’t know you’re doing it. I’d never consciously hurt someone like that. Randall’s a two-timing snake.”
Seconded. Alex wanted to pull a reverse Santa on the guy. Go break in, grab all the presents under his tree, and give them to a homeless shelter. Everleigh was a walking and talking bleeding heart who always ended up with men who treated her badly. It killed him to watch it keep happening.
“Did you love him?” Amelia asked quietly.
“No. But I thought that I could. So my heart’s in one piece, pretty much. I’m just out a job and an apartment. My car’s loaded up with all my stuff. I was hoping I could move in with you until I can sign a new lease?”
“You’ll have to share my bed. But it won’t be the first time we’ve had a sleepover. The only thing is…my lease is up in a week. The building is going condo. They’re raising the rents by two hundred percent to drive out the people who don’t want to buy in. We’ll all be out.”
Worst. Christmas. Ever.
Alex rubbed a reassuring hand along her back. Even though she probably couldn’t feel it through the world’s puffiest coat. “Amelia, don’t worry. We’ll find a place. The internet doesn’t close for the holidays. We’ll start looking tomorrow.”
“I got a jump start. Here.” She dug in the pocket of her forest-green jeans, then handed him a piece of cardstock. “Merry Christmas.”
“What’s this?” Holding it diagonally to catch the flashing red and green lights in the display window, all he could make out was a drawing of a large brick building and a number.
“A lottery ticket. I bought it at the coffee shop while waiting for you all to show up tonight.”
“It doesn’t look like a lottery ticket.”
“Not for money.” She rubbed her hands together. “For something much better.”
Even Everleigh rolled her big blue eyes at that. “Like what? Magic beans?”
“A distillery?” And Teague’s guess resonated with a lot more hope than Ever’s.
“It’s to win a historic inn. It’s my present to Alex, so he’ll have his own hotel to manage that nobody can take away.”
“Aww, that’s so sweet. Thanks, sis.” Alex leaned down a good six inches to drop a kiss on the top of her head.
Teague plucked the paper from Alex’s fingers to examine it. “The coffee shop’s running a lottery? Beautiful girl, I think you got played.”
“No, it’s real. The owner’s helping out a cousin of a friend…” she circled her hands in the air “…there was a long story. But it’s definitely for real. The drawing’s tomorrow.”
Alex agreed with his friend. It sounded sketchy. More like a half-assed plan to bilk customers of a few extra dollars.
On the other hand, it’d put a smile on his sister’s face. It gave her hope on this shitstorm of a day, which was priceless.
From the only two cells of his brain allowed to be spontaneous, an idea emerged. “How about we frontload our luck? Let’s walk back to the coffee shop right now and we’ll each buy a ticket.”
“Yeah. I mean, we’ve all hit rock bottom, right? There’s nowhere to go but up. We’ll count on some old-fashioned Christmas magic to reboot our lives.”
Teague and Amelia hard-packed snowballs as they walked, winging them at the ornate light poles. Everleigh started singing ‘It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.’
And for some weird reason, Alex felt hope, too. Despite not having a job. Or a place to live. Not to mention the crap coincidence of the other three being in the same situation.
They were together. That counted for a lot, especially with Teague just having returned from deployment in one piece. They were all smart and stubborn—which also counted for a lot. Sure, life had yanked the rug out from under all of them. Things couldn’t get any worse.
So the next year had to be better…
End of Excerpt