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“That was the best Christmas dinner ever,” Alex Kirkland said, patting the red tie draped over his stomach.
Amelia scowled at her brother. “You say that every year. The compliment loses its potency if it’s automatic. Especially since I haven’t changed a thing. So it can’t be the best ever. At most, it can be just as good as last year.”
Was that cranky? Yep.
But the joy of sharing the holiday dinner with only the three people closest to her in the world meant that she didn’t have to be on her best behavior. She could be real, instead. And real absolutely included poking at her older brother.
“Well, my last decade of Christmas dinners were in a tent in Afghanistan or Iraq.” Teague Sullivan, her brother’s best friend, raised his wineglass in a silent toast. “So Alex may be blowing smoke, but I can unequivocally state that this was the best one I’ve had in years. Thanks, Amelia.”
She warmed at the compliment. Sure, comparing her to the cooks in his Army Special Forces unit was a pretty low bar. But any compliment from Teague set her pulse thrumming and her cheeks heating.
Because of her stupid redhead’s complexion.
And because she’d had a crush on him for her entire life.
Everleigh nodded, sending her long dark hair flipping over her shoulders. Because pretty much any motion she made involved her hair. “It was delicious. And I know how hard you worked to put it all together. Mostly because I was right next to you, helping.”
“That’s right. Ever gets half the credit, everyone.” Amelia threw an arm around her bestie’s shoulders.
Alex cleared his throat. “All I meant is that the potatoes, the green bean casserole, the yams and ham and pie—it’s all just like Mom used to make.”
“Really?” It was what Amelia was going for, every year. Ever since she was eleven and their parents had been killed. Chances were good that those first few years had not been anywhere close to excellent. There’d been the time when she didn’t peel the yams. Oh, and put Christmas tree Peeps on top instead of marshmallows, turning the whole dish nuclear-waste green.
Alex’s eyes, the pale blue of the ice on the edges of the Allegheny River, beamed at her. “It tastes exactly the same and makes me think of her. So, thanks, sis.”
“I can’t so much remember, for sure, what her meal tasted like,” she admitted. It stung. Sense memories were supposed to be the strongest. But fourteen years later, her nose and taste buds couldn’t remember if their mom had used more cinnamon or nutmeg in the cranberry apple pie.
“Well, you’ve eaten your potatoes more years than you ate hers at this point. It makes sense. And I know it might bore you guys—” Alex gestured at Everleigh and Teague “—but I’m really glad you keep up the tradition of this meal.”
“What if you’d gone all fancy and made some weird French thing? Or made lasagna—which I love—but should never be served on Christmas?” Teague shuddered in horror. Which made the jingle bell she’d forced around his neck—if he put up with the jangle of dog tags all these years, he could wear a bell for twelve hours to be festive—tinkle. “Christmas means ham and potatoes, carols on the speaker, pine candles, and a tree. That’s what I wanted for my first holiday as a civilian, and you delivered. This dinner is the only thing keeping Christmas from sucking.”
Ever stood to start clearing. And, evidently, to thwack Teague across the back of the head. “Hey. Don’t talk about Christmas like that. The four of us are here, in one piece, together. That ought to be enough of a celebration.”
“Don’t pretend you’re not materialistic, Ever. You’ve never met a purse you didn’t want to buy or a necklace you didn’t want to wear. Wouldn’t you have been happier if there’d been a shoebox under that tree with your name on it? Instead of zero presents?”
“Yes. Of course.” She stacked the plates with a decisive clink. “But it isn’t like Santa forgot us. We agreed on no presents due to…” she bit her lip before continuing “…recent events.”
“Jesus, Ever—it’s not like saying Voldemort’s name out loud. Things won’t get any worse if you say that your jerk of a cheating boyfriend fired you and kicked you out of the apartment.”
“I’m trying not to give Randall any mental space whatsoever,” she murmured. Except that Amelia knew that wasn’t entirely true. Because Ever had shared her bed for the last two nights and had cried herself to sleep.
Teague barreled on. “And that Alex got unjustly fired from the hotel and lost his suite there.”
Alex shoved back from the table to collect the empty wineglasses. “Hey, I’ll find a new place to live. It’s just impossible to get appointments to do walk-throughs at the holidays. Nobody wants to take time away from wrapping and baking to let me assess the strength of a showerhead.”
Holding up his hand to prevent Alex from explaining any more, Teague continued his litany of pathetic-ness. “That Amelia got downsized out of her job and is about to lose this place for not affording the jacked-up price of it going condo. And that I just mustered out and have no place to live besides Amelia’s couch and no job prospect that fits my special skills involving sniper acuity and bombs.”
“My version used way less words,” Everleigh said with a sniff and a hair toss.
Teague guffawed. “You’ve got me there.”
They’d all put in an effort to make it a fun Christmas. Amelia had made a house rule that you had to sing a carol to gain admittance to the bathroom. Teague managed to prove it was possible to toss red and green M&M’s into Alex’s mouth while standing at complete opposite ends of her apartment.
But it felt weird not sharing presents, not surprising each other. Not feeling like it was the culmination of a great year. Not making plans over dinner for how epically they’d celebrate New Year’s Eve.
Amelia couldn’t let Teague cap the night with a recitation of their woes. He’d been factual, sure. Things…sucked right now. For all of them. Didn’t mean they had to wallow in it. Looking toward the future was the only way to not be drowned by despair.
“Look, things are bleak. For all of us. But it’s only temporary.” Amelia forced a smile she didn’t feel—classic ‘fake it til you make it’—and tried to raise her voice with hopefulness. “In a year, I’ll bet we look back and laugh about how our lives imploded at exactly the same time. Because in a year, things will be much, much better. I feel it.”
Teague gave her a look. A look of supreme pity. Like a tween would give a seven-year-old who insisted that Santa couldn’t be his parents. Then he dropped a casual kiss on the top of her head. A brotherly kiss. Something he’d done their entire lives, mirroring Alex’s gestures of affection.
Oh, how she loathed those casual, zero-heat pecks.
It wasn’t death by a thousand cuts. It was an absolute reassurance that he’d never see her as a fully-grown, boobs-’n’-all member of the opposite sex, by a thousand chemistry-free pecks.
Each one laid another brick in the you’re like a sister to me wall between them.
Each one was a fifty-yard, unimpeded drive directly into the Friend Zone.
Then Teague cradled the pie plate to his chest like it was a precious newborn. “I feel like I’m going to take maybe an hour break, and then finish off this pie unless anyone else lays claim to a piece, right here, right now.”
“No break,” Alex bellowed from right behind Teague. It made the hardened soldier jump, and the women giggle. “Amelia and Ever cooked all afternoon while I kicked your ass in NFL Xbox. That means you and I are on cleanup duty.”
Oh geez, she couldn’t love her brother more. “Thanks, Alex.”
“Like I said, thanks for upholding the traditions.”
“They matter. Because you’re all I’ve got.” Having been a technical orphan since age eleven, Amelia was used to the idea. She didn’t get too worked up about it anymore. But the holidays always brought out her weepy side. Probably because of all the commercials, movies and TV shows that depicted jolly, enormous family gatherings.
“And you can’t do anything to shake me,” he responded, as always. Once their parents died and Alex became her guardian, they’d gone through some, ah, rough patches. Which was putting it mildly. But no matter what she did and how long he yelled at her, they always finished by repeating those two phrases to each other, to smooth things over.
Amelia’s phone vibrated across the mantel. Everleigh slapped a palm on it. “No. No way. This is put our feet up and gossip time. Plus, in case you hadn’t noticed, it’s a holiday. Nobody should be emailing at nine p.m.”
“Exactly. That’s why it must be important.”
“Sure. If you count an automatic raise on your credit card limit important. Oh, wait—right now, maybe that would be.” Ever slid the phone down to her.
Amelia swiped open the notification.
Then she started running in place. Jumping and running. Then she clutched the phone to her chest and shrieked. Because ‘important’ didn’t begin to describe the email.
“What? What is it?” Ever asked.
From the clatter and splash, Alex dropped the scrub brush into the roasting pan. He and Teague hot-footed it in from the kitchen. “Are you okay?”
“No. I’m not okay.” She twirled in a circle. “I’m fantastic.”
“For God’s sake, then don’t scream like you’re being axe-murdered,” Alex grumbled.
“As opposed to the very specific and quite different sound of being machete-murdered?” Everleigh snarked back.
Amelia grabbed her brother’s hands and tried to make him jump with her. Alex wasn’t a jump and squeal type of guy. He was focused and responsible and rarely let it all hang out.
So he did not, in fact, jump with her.
She could change that, though. “Alex. Merry Christmas.”
“Yeah, you said that twelve hours ago when we started the day.”
“No, I’m giving you your present now.” Amelia pushed the phone into his hands, but he wouldn’t take it.
“We agreed to no presents this year.”
“Except for those lottery tickets we bought last night,” Teague said with a smirk.
“Yeah, we bought those for half an hour of playing what-if after Amelia gave me the first one. Pretty sure we ran through all the scenarios last night.” Alex scrubbed a hand through his dark hair. “What if we win the lottery for the inn and there’s a treasure chest hidden in the attic? What if we win the lottery and discover that the president secretly celebrates every anniversary there?”
“Here’s one more, though. What if I told you that…you won?” Amelia let her jaw fall open in smiling shock.
Her pulse had sped up so much she felt dizzy. “Look.” She waved the phone in his face. “The email just came through. That first ticket I bought you—I put my contact info on it, out of habit. You won. You own the Three Oaks Inn now!”
And then her staid, respectable, pulled-together brother sank in a heap to the floor as if she’d just kneecapped him with the news. “That inn…it’s gotta be over one hundred and fifty years old. Dripping with history and potential.”
“I guess.” On this coast, everything was old. She had no idea how old. Just that the drawing of the sprawling brick inn had been pretty.
Alex gaped up at her. “It looked huge.”
“And it’s mine—” he slapped his hand against his heart “—because of a five-dollar lottery ticket you bought at a coffee shop yesterday. As a joke.”
She poked his thigh with her toe. Clad in her red socks covered with white reindeer. “No, I bought it so you could have a dream to cling to for twenty-four hours. Except that now you get to keep it. For real. Forever.”
His head lurched to the side with an audible snap. “How do you know it’s my ticket? We went back last night and bought three more, one for each of us.”
“Dude. You’ve been managing a hotel for years. Us?” Teague hooked a thumb at himself and Everleigh. “Not so much. We all wrote your name and Amelia’s email on the extra tickets.”
Everleigh nodded. “Yeah, it was Amelia’s present to you, after all. That was the whole point.”
“No. It’s ours. It belongs to all four of us, equally.” Alex scrambled to his feet to grab the pieces of cardstock with numbers and the drawing of the brick inn they’d tossed on the key table last night. “C’mon, we don’t actually know whose ticket won. So let’s say that we all did.”
Teague’s hazel eyes turned skeptical. “Really?”
Now Alex was light on his feet, practically floating across the floor to his friend. “Why not, man with no job, no house, and no plans? We’re all either jobless or about to be. We’re all either without a place to crash, or about to be. This is the perfect solution. We go there and run it. Together.”
Everleigh stabbed a finger into the air. “Go where, exactly?”
“Um…” Amelia scrolled through the email again. Her hand was shaking, so it took a few tries. “Maryland. Chestertown, Maryland.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Me, neither.” She tossed the phone on the couch without bothering to open Google Maps. Specifics were for later. This moment was for wallowing in almost unbelievable joy. “But Maryland’s south of Pittsburgh, so at least we know it’ll be marginally warmer? Less snowy?”
“I can’t do this by myself. No matter what, that place needs more than one person to staff it.” Alex threw his arms around Teague and Everleigh and jerked his chin to get Amelia to close up the huddle. “Why pay strangers when I can spend every day hanging with the people who mean the most to me in the entire world?”
“We’re inn owners.” Everleigh looked dazzled, her blue eyes a little unfocused.
“Dude, you’ve always had my back.” Teague’s voice was hoarse. “This…sharing this opportunity is…above and beyond.”
Alex locked his gaze on Amelia. He wasn’t fuzzy with shock anymore. No, his eyes were wide, nostrils flared, and anticipation tightening every inch of his face. Almost like he’d done three espresso shots and was about to parachute out of a plane.
“After being blackballed by the Orion, I didn’t think I’d be able to get any hotel to hire me. Owning my own hotel—that’s a dream that was twenty years down the road. You just gave me a chance at a new life, Amelia.”
“You just gave all of us a fresh start. This is the best Christmas ever.” Pulling out of the huddle, Everleigh raced for the kitchen. “I’m pulling out the champagne we were saving for New Year’s!”
Alex ran after her. “Let me open it. You get scared of the pop and take ten tries to push the cork out.”
Teague cradled Amelia’s shoulders in his big hands. “What you just did for your brother, for us, is amazing. Thank you, Ames.” He kissed her forehead and folded her into an embrace unlike any he’d ever given her before. It was more tender. Serious. Intense. Then he gave her the ultimately platonic Eskimo kiss with his nose and headed to the kitchen.
It’d been one thing to have Teague crash with her for a month. But living with him and working with him? For the foreseeable future?
How was she supposed to ignore her crush on him when he’d always be right there?
What had she done?
End of Excerpt