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Mistletoe & Margaritas

Mistletoe & Margaritas


    Claire Rutledge still believes in love, despite losing her husband. So, after two years, she's not surprised by the steamy dreams telling her it might be time to start moving on. But she didn't expect her friend Justin to have the starring role.
    Justin McCormick has loved Claire since the moment he first saw her, but his best friend got there first. Now that Claire is ready to move on with her life, Justin is finding it harder than ever to hide his true feelings. And when they both get caught up in the holiday spirits at a party, their simmering mutual attraction boils over into a night neither of them can forget…

Shannon Stacey Mistletoe Margaritas

    © 2011

    Dear Reader,
    In December 2010 we published our first set of three holiday collections. I hoped at the time it would become a Carina Press tradition, and I’m pleased that we were able to do this again in 2011.
    This year, I invited four amazing authors to participate in the contemporary holiday collection. Between them, Jaci Burton, HelenKay Dimon, Alison Kent and Shannon Stacey have decades of writing experience and have published books their fans have adored. I knew these four authors would bring together holiday stories that would capture our hearts and take us away from the holiday craziness for a few hours. And did they ever!
    I’m thrilled and proud to share the heart-wrenching and wonderful holiday stories of the Holiday Kisses collection with you. I hope you love A Rare Gift by Jaci Burton, It’s Not Christmas Without You by HelenKay Dimon, This Time Next Year by Alison Kent and Mistletoe and Margaritas by Shannon Stacey as much as I did. These are stories and characters that will live on for you, long after you’ve read the last page.
    I’m incredibly pleased to make these stories available to you both individually, and as a collection, and I hope you fall in love with them just as I did!
    We love to hear from readers, and you can email us your thoughts, comments and questions to generalinquiries@carinapress.com. You can also interact with Carina Press staff and authors on our blog, Twitter stream and Facebook fan page.
    Happy reading!
    ~Angela James
    Executive Editor, Carina Press

Chapter One

    When Justin McCormick was fourteen, a dirt-bike crash had put him in the hospital for two weeks, but even three broken bones and a concussion hadn’t hurt as much as loving his best friend’s widow did now.
    And yet, here he was, parking his truck next to her geriatric Volvo and walking up the exterior staircase to the apartment over her landlord’s garage, just like he’d gotten back on that dirt bike. Knowing there was a chance he’d get banged up again, but willing to take the risk.
    Unlike with the dirt bike, though, there wasn’t any chance about it. Justin knew he’d get banged up again every time he showed up on Claire’s doorstep. He knew it would hurt, but even if he didn’t have an empty Dunkin’ Donuts bag full of crumpled-up receipts he had to drop off with her, he would have stopped by. He always did. Because they were buddies. Instead of weakening after Brendan’s accident, their friendship had only gotten stronger.
    Claire opened her apartment door to him just as he reached for the knob, her pale blue eyes alive with excitement and her long, blond ponytail swinging as he flashed her the friendly smile he’d been perfecting since the day they met. A friendly smile so perfect, in fact, Claire had never guessed-through two years of dating Brendan and three years of marriage and two years of widowhood-how Justin felt about her.
    “You brought me doughnuts?”
    “Receipts.” He handed her the bag and laughed when she scowled at the contents.
    “Work disguised as doughnuts? That’s just mean.” She walked over to the corner of her apartment that served as her office and tossed the bag on her desk. “I should give Moxie your sandwich.”
    The massive tortoiseshell cat in question wound between his feet, pausing to headbutt his shin before Justin picked her up and scratched between her ears. “You don’t even like doughnuts that much.”
    “I like them more than I like handfuls of filthy, torn receipts you’ve scrounged from under the seat of your truck.”
    “Watch it or I’ll start to think bookkeeping’s not your true calling.”
    “Of course it is.” She gave him a smile that would have struck him dumb if he didn’t have so much experience resisting it. “There are only so many jobs I can do in sweatpants.”
    He set Moxie on the couch and moved toward the kitchen in search of the food Claire had said would be waiting. The only thing she did better than keep books for local small-potato contractors was cook.
    Since he’d warned her this would be a quick stop, Claire had thrown together some sandwiches. But they were thin-sliced honey ham with Swiss cheese on homemade whole wheat with butter and spicy mustard, just the way he liked it.
    She knew how he liked everything and most of the time knew what he was thinking before he even said it out loud, but she didn’t know how much he loved her. It puzzled him sometimes. He couldn’t see how, unless she was refusing to see it. Maybe she did know, but she’d never feel the same and the pretense preserved their friendship.
    While dumping some chips onto her paper plate, Claire looked at him and asked, “How are things going with…Trish, was it?”
    “Yeah, Trish. But we broke it off a few days ago.”
    “You mean you broke it off.” The look she gave him was a familiar one, full of womanly disgust. “What was wrong with her?”
    She wasn’t you. “It wasn’t going anywhere. I did us both a favor.”
    When she reached over and touched his arm, it took all of his willpower not to pull away. “At the rate you’re going, you’ll run out of fish in the sea, you know.”
    She was a touchy-feely kind of person, always touching his hand or grabbing his arm or resting her hand on his shoulder, with no idea how agonizing it was for him. He felt the warmth of her palm through his shirt and he ached to feel it against his bare skin.
    “We still on for Friday?” he asked, even though he’d told himself earlier in the day he was going to tell her he couldn’t make it.
    “Yeah. Since my only niece is turning three, I can’t back out.”
    “Do you mind if we take my truck so I can stop and have the tires changed? Since we’ll be going through Manchester anyway.”
    “That’s fine, but if you’re driving, I’m paying for the gas. Pizza tonight?”
    “Yeah.” Tuesday night was always pizza night. Pizza and pool at the local pizza house on the night least likely to have a bunch of kids running around. It had been a tradition forever-just Justin and Brendan in the beginning. “I have to pick up the contract for plowing that new plaza, so I’ll swing in and pick you up.”
    Taking a bite of her sandwich, she stretched her legs out under the table. Her ankle brushed his, but she didn’t pull it back. She just rested it there, comfortably and without any clue it was slowly killing him inside.
    He had to cut her loose.
    Not totally, maybe, but he needed to put some distance between them. He’d been telling himself that for months, as her natural humor and joy for life gradually overwhelmed her grief and she became more like the Claire he’d known-and loved-for years.
    No matter how often he told himself to distance himself, though, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. The thought of not having Claire in his life anymore hurt. And the question he couldn’t answer was whether living without her or continuing to live as her best friend hurt more.

    Nothing made Claire want to bust out the butt-wiggle dance like snowflake graphics dancing across the weather forecast grid portion of the evening news. The snowflakes were a couple of days away and they weren’t going to amount to much, but it was a start.
    Snow meant plowing and plowing meant she’d get to see more of Justin. He was a roofer by trade but, like a lot of guys whose work crapped out during the winter months, he plowed snow to make up the difference. Since his house was in the middle of nowhere and most of his client base was in town, he’d crash on her couch for power naps between plow runs. And, if she didn’t have any work backing up on her desk, she’d ride along and keep him company while he cleared driveways and parking lots.
    Now that the procrastinators had gotten their last-minute roof fixes and her customers weren’t quite ready to start freaking out about taxes yet, there was a window of several weeks where they could play a little harder than they worked and she intended to take advantage of it. Starting with pizza and pool tonight.
    First, she had to get some work done, though. Starting with the new bakery that had managed to make a horror show out of their books in less than two months of business by deluding themselves about their accounting abilities. Shaking her head and muttering under her breath, with frequent breaks to explain to Moxie yet again why she couldn’t lie on top of the papers, kept her busy for several hours and she only stopped because it was almost five o’clock and every Tuesday at five, Penny stopped by.
    Penny Danvers’ dad owned a plumbing outfit that employed Penny’s three older brothers, as well as a few other guys. Penny worked in the office, answering the phone and handling most of the paperwork, and she could keep basic books and balance the checkbook, but payroll was beyond her. So every Tuesday she dropped off the information and on Thursday afternoon she picked up the checks.
    Right on time, Penny knocked twice and let herself in. She was a very tall brunette who practically crackled with energy and, while Claire had considered her a friend for years, she could be exhausting.
    As always, Penny dropped the folder of timesheets onto the desk and then wandered over to drool over the framed photos of Justin Claire kept on the bookshelf. “When are you going to take pity on me and hook me up with him?”
    “When I don’t like you anymore and want to see you curled up in front of a Meg Ryan movie, bawling into a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.”
    “You’re so sure he’s going to break my heart. How do you know I’m not the one?
    “Justin doesn’t have a one. He has many and I don’t want you to be one of them.”
    Penny turned and gave her a speculative look. “Or maybe you want to keep him for yourself.”
    A blush heated Claire’s face and she looked down at the papers on her desk while shaking her head, hoping her hair would hide her pink cheeks. “Don’t be stupid. He’s my best friend.”
    “He was Brendan’s best friend.”
    “So…” So what? “It would be weird.”
    “What’s weird about it? You already know you’re compatible in almost every way. Why would sex be any different?”
    Sex. With Justin.
    Her body tingled like an extremity that had fallen asleep and was waking up in a blaze of pins and needles. And that’s all it was, she told herself. Her sex drive’s sudden fixation on Justin was just its way of letting her know it was ready for a man again, even if her heart wasn’t.
    She forced herself to laugh and look straight at Penny. “For somebody who wants to be hooked up with him, you’re awfully pushy about me sleeping with him.”
    She shrugged one shoulder. “I don’t necessarily want to keep him. Just play with him for a while. But I’d deprive myself of the toe-curling pleasure of multiple orgasms to see you happy, because I’m a good friend that way.”
    This time Claire’s laugh was genuine. “Gee, thanks. What makes you think sex with Justin would be toe-curling and multiorgasmic?”
    Not that it mattered, of course, since she wasn’t going to have sex with her best friend, toe-curling or otherwise. There was too much between them and the only thing she’d end up with when the alleged multiple orgasms were over was no best friend.
    “The guys with commitment issues are usually the best in bed,” Penny said, and Claire wondered if she spoke from experience or if she’d read it in a magazine. “They have a lot of experience with a lot of different styles on a lot of different models, if you know what I mean.”
    She didn’t even want to think about that. “You’ve known him longer than I have, anyway. Why do you need me to hook you up?”
    “We travel in different circles. Always have.”
    Penny was the reason she’d met Brendan and Justin in the first place. Claire and Penny’s senior year at UNH, they’d ended up roommates and friends. One weekend, Claire had gone home with her instead of heading to her parents’ and they’d gone to a party. A few minutes with Brendan had been all it took.
    Since Penny was giving her a funny look-like maybe she thought Claire wanting Justin all to herself wasn’t just a joke-she decided to wrap it up. “The checks will be ready by the usual time Thursday.”
    Once Penny was gone, Claire straightened her desk and fed Moxie. Then she did a little housekeeping and her thoughts turned to Justin.
    She couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was, but something was definitely wrong with him. Even though they were practically best friends, she suspected he was hiding something from her. And whatever that something was, it probably wasn’t very good.
    He’d be there any second to pick her up, so she slid her driver’s license and debit card into her back pocket and clipped her cell phone to one front pocket while dropping her keys into the other. She’d wait to pull on her favorite fleece pullover until he pulled into the driveway.
    On her way through the apartment, she paused as usual and looked at the row of photos sitting atop her bookshelf-the ones Penny had been looking at-her gazing coming to rest on the silver frame just to the left of her formal wedding portrait.
    It was a double frame, holding two 5x7 photos side by side. On the left was a picture of Brendan and Justin standing in front of the elementary school on their first day of fourth grade. Both of them grinned at Brendan’s mom, who’d held the camera, obviously excited to be embarking on a grand new school year together.
    The photo on the right, taken at her reception, was her favorite picture of the two guys together. They both looked outrageously handsome in their tuxes-both tall and athletic, but Brendan was blond and fair-skinned, while Justin had darker hair and the tanned complexion of a man who worked outdoors. She’d looked at the photo a hundred or more times since Brendan died.
    This time, though, her gaze lingered on his best friend. The photographer had captured them laughing and Justin’s honey-brown eyes practically sparkled out at her from the frame.
    She’d been noticing his eyes a lot lately. The warmth in them when he looked at her. The something-almost sadness-in them when she caught him watching her. And he watched her a lot.
    No, she wasn’t sure what was up with him, but she had to admit-even if only to herself-that she watched him a lot, too.
    It was a natural thing, she told herself. With a little over two years for her heart to come to grips with Brendan’s death, her body was awakening again. She missed sex and Justin was a very good-looking guy. It was only natural she’d sometimes wonder what it would be like if he touched her-or so she tried to convince herself.
    She jumped when the chime on her cell phone alerted her to a new text, as if she’d been caught doing something wrong. Grabbing her sweatshirt, she pulled up the message as she locked her door behind her.
    She rolled her eyes and slid the phone back into its holster. Justin hated texting. He claimed his hands were too big and his fingertips too callused for the small buttons, but she loved his hands. They were the working hands of a capable man, strong and rough, and for a few seconds she found herself wondering what they would feel like against her soft, naked skin. Then she shove the errant, confusing image away and went down the stairs to the driveway.
    He smiled at her as she climbed up into his truck and pulled the door closed. “Hey. We might need two pizzas. I’ve been thinking about it all afternoon.”
    While she’d been thinking about him. “If we get two, you can have mushrooms on yours and we’ll both have leftovers for supper tomorrow.”
    The smile spread into a grin. “You might have leftovers. I’m starving.”
    He used his mirrors to back down her driveway, but to see down the busy main road, he twisted his body to look out the back window of the truck, resting his arm across the back of the seat. He’d done it a hundred times, but this time she was aware of how close his fingertips were to brushing her shoulder. This time she had the urge to shove his pile of paperwork and business cards and supply house slips onto the floor and slide to the middle seat, into the shelter of his arm.
    She didn’t, though. Instead she looked out her window and cursed Penny for putting the thought in her head.

    Justin had a slice of pizza in one hand, a pool cue in the other, and was trash-talking Claire’s shot when the Rutledges walked through the front door. Brendan’s parents saw him immediately through the big window to the game room and he felt the same quick flash of shame he’d felt every time he saw them since Brendan had introduced them to Claire. Then he smiled and waved with the hand holding the pizza.
    Claire turned to see who he was waving at and he didn’t miss the way her face lit up. There had been no in-law drama surrounding the Smith-Rutledge wedding since the families had hit it off almost as well as Claire and Brendan. It was storybook, really. Except the ending. The ending had sucked.
    “I forgot Tuesday was pool night,” Judy Rutledge said as she and Phil turned the corner into the game room.
    Claire kissed them each on the cheek, then it was Justin’s turn to get a kiss from Judy and a handshake from Phil. They’d been like second parents to him since they’d moved to town the summer before Brendan and Justin started fourth grade and struck up a friendship. The Rutledges had a family room, two televisions, a never-ending supply of freshly baked cookies and no time limit on video games, so the boys had hung out there a lot more than at the McCormick house. Justin’s mom worked a lot of hours at her hair salon and was just as happy to have her only child out of her hair as much as possible.
    “All ready for Christmas?” Phil asked, because that was the usual conversation opener two and a half weeks before the big day.
    “No,” Justin and Claire said together.
    Claire laughed. “I’m going to get a Christmas tree on Saturday and I’ll probably get around to shopping next week. Maybe.”
    Judy shook her head. “I expect to see you both Christmas Eve.”
    “Wouldn’t miss it,” Justin said. That was the plan. An appearance at the Rutledge family Christmas Eve party, then he and Claire at her place, watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. It was a tradition.
    The Rutledges went to order their take-out and since Chris Jones was just walking in, Claire handed her pool cue to him and went to sit with Judy and Phil while they waited.
    Chris had youth and a pretty face on his side, but not much in the way of book smarts. And his work ethic was a little iffy at best, too, which Justin knew since he employed the kid off and on during the summer. When Chris’s beer and video-game money ran low, he’d help out on a roof or two, then take off again.
    “Must be about time for you to head north,” Justin said. In the winter Chris worked and lived at one of the fancy resorts because an almost freakish natural ability to teach rich people to ski was another thing he had on his side.
    “Monday. But for the fifteenth, I managed to score a few hours off in the middle of the day. You in?”
    “Hell, yeah.” That was the day the gates were officially opened on the snowmobile trails. “A few hours is better than nothing. I’ll text you when I get there and we can head out.”
    “So you get with that yet?” Chris asked, and Justin realized he’d been watching Claire through the window as she laughed at something Judy said.
    He forced his attention back to the pool table. “I told you, it’s not like that.”
    “I don’t know what the problem is. She’s hot and you hang out more than a married couple.”
    “We’re friends, Chris. It’s possible for a man and a hot woman to be friends without having sex.” It wasn’t easy, but it was possible.
    Judy and Phil poked their heads in to say goodbye when their food was ready and Justin gave Chris a warning look behind Claire’s back. That subject was closed, at least as far as the other guy was concerned. It was never closed in Justin’s mind.
    “Who won?” Claire asked, grabbing another slice of pizza from the tray.
    “Me,” Chris said. “Smoked him, actually. His mind must have been on something else.”
    Since her back wasn’t turned, he couldn’t send another glare in Chris’s direction, so he concentrated on keeping his expression neutral. “I let you win. Figured your ego could use the boost.”
    “Whatever, dude. Claire, you in?”
    “Rack ’em up.”
    Since watching the two of them play really meant watching Claire bend over the table to line up her shots, Justin lined some quarters up along the edge of the pinball game and set about taking out his frustrations on the metal ball. The action was loud and fast and just what he needed to distract himself from the game behind him.
    Until Claire moved up beside him to watch and he smelled the slightly tropical scent of her soap and shampoo and imagined he could feel the warmth of her body standing so close to his and the metal ball went down the chute with an electronic flushing sound of failure.
    “Good timing,” she said. “I just kicked his ass, so you’re up again.”
    “Be right there.” He picked up the quarters he hadn’t used and shoved them back into his pocket, taking the opportunity to adjust the crotch of his jeans.
    Time to have another talk with himself about cutting back on the time he spent with Claire. Tomorrow.

Chapter Two

    It was still dark when Claire woke feeling flushed, a little breathless and a lot confused.
    She dreamed about sex a lot, which was probably normal considering she was a twenty-eight-year-old woman who hadn’t had the real thing in two years. But this was the first time the dream had been so deliciously potent and the imaginary sex so mind-blowingly good she’d awakened with her body aching for more.
    Which wasn’t good because it also happened to be the first time she’d dreamed about having sex with Justin. That couldn’t be a coincidence.
    Moxie, sensing she was awake, strolled up the bed to bump heads with her, but Claire rolled onto her stomach and buried her face in the pillow. She’d just had the best sex of her life. Too bad it wasn’t real. And it was with the one person she shouldn’t be thinking about having sex with.
    Everybody knew the quickest way for a man and a woman to ruin a friendship was to have sex.
    Moxie mewed plaintively, kneading Claire’s shoulder, and she sighed. Five-thirty or not, it was time to get up. If she went back to sleep she might have imaginary sex with her best friend again and her nerves said once was enough.
    “It’s Penny’s fault,” she muttered to the cat as she sat up. “She planted these thoughts in my head.”
    She started the coffeepot brewing and hit the bathroom, but the shaky, off-kilter feeling didn’t fade. The first cup and the early morning news didn’t help, nor did Moxie nudging her, wanting to know what was wrong. She wasn’t so far gone she was going to try to explain being blindsided by an erotic dream about her best friend to her cat.
    Maybe she didn’t want to have sex with Justin. Maybe it was her body’s less-than-subtle way of telling her it was time to wade back into the dating pool. Actually, her body wanted her to cannonball off the diving board, but her heart wasn’t up to more than dipping her toes into the shallow end.
    She realized she was twisting her wedding band around on her finger and forced herself to stop. Nobody wanted to explore even the shallow end of the dating pool with a woman wearing a wedding ring. Well, not any guy worth dating, anyway.
    Maybe it was time to take it off and put it away. Quick and painless.
    Or it would have been if the band didn’t hang up on her knuckle. Dish soap didn’t do it. Butter didn’t help. When even a liberal application of olive oil didn’t budge the ring, she leaned against the counter, tears running down her cheeks unchecked because her hand were so gunked up she couldn’t wipe her eyes.
    Maybe it was a sign. If she couldn’t get the wedding band off, she didn’t have to think about dating again. She laughed through the tears and Moxie, who’d been watching her with disdainful interest, retreated to the back of the couch.
    “It’s not a sign,” she said out loud. “It’s all those potato chips I ate watching The Biggest Loser.
    After ten minutes with her hand stuck between two baggies of crushed ice and another dousing with olive oil, she was able to work the ring over her knuckle.
    Claire set it, slimy and glistening, on the counter while she washed her hands. Even though winter was setting in, she’d spent a lot of autumn outside and the white circle of flesh was stark against the tan that had yet to fade. When her hands were clean, she washed the ring and then rubbed it dry.
    Brendan’s wedding ring was on her dresser, in a small wooden box covered in tiny shells-a Cape Cod honeymoon souvenir so tacky they’d had to have it. She opened the lid and took out the gold band that was identical to hers, except larger. It had gotten hung up on his knuckle during the ceremony, though potato chips probably weren’t to blame. They hadn’t had to resort to begging hand lotion from a guest, though Justin had told her in a low voice to spit on it. Instead she’d shoved, Brendan winced and they all laughed about it at the reception.
    She had vague memories of being asked if she wanted it left on Brendan for burial, but she hadn’t been able to part with it. For a long time she’d worn it on a chain around her neck, but she wasn’t a necklace person and when the time came that she was annoyed by it more than comforted, she’d put it away.
    Now she dropped both rings into the box and, after sucking in a deep breath, closed the lid and waited to feel different. Maybe lighter or more free or…something.
    But all she felt was a little hollow. And she wasn’t suddenly hit with an urge to sign up for an online dating service. All she could do was hope that one small step would be enough to satisfy her subconscious and put an end to the deliciously naughty dreams about Justin.
    A few minutes later, her phone rang and she almost spilled her second cup of coffee down the front of her T-shirt. To make matters worse, Justin’s name was flashing at her from the caller ID window. Praying her voice sounded close to normal, she answered. “Hello?”
    “You awake?”
    “No. I answer the phone in my sleep.”
    “Smartass. Just wanted to see if you’d be up to leaving earlier than we’d planned. If you’re awake.”
    “I’ve been up since five-thirty, thank you very much.”
    He laughed. “You? Did the smoke alarms go off or what?”
    “Very funny.” She couldn’t very well tell him she’d been awakened by exceptionally good sex with him. “We don’t have to be at my parents’ until two.”
    “I’m going to buy breakfast. I don’t know how long it’ll take to get my tires changed, and I still need to pick up a gift for Nicole.”
    “She’s turning three and my parents probably bought out the toy store. You don’t need to bring a gift.”
    “Can’t go to a birthday party without a gift. Then I feel guilty taking a second piece of cake.”
    Claire laughed, letting his easygoing normalcy chase away the last of the lingering weirdness. “Fine. What time do you want to leave?”
    “I’ll pick you up at eight?”
    “Sounds good.” She hung up the phone, feeling better. It was just a stupid dream.

    Justin noticed it right away-the soft ring of pale skin where the gold band had been-and his heart turned over in his chest like a sluggish engine on a sub-zero morning.
    He knew he should say something-like maybe hello-but he was frozen, watching that tan-free ring of skin as she zipped her coat, and the only coherent thought in his head was what the hell does it mean?
    Five years ago, he’d watched Brendan slip that wedding band onto Claire’s finger and he’d never seen her without it since. It had served as an unmistakable, highly visible reminder she was Brendan’s wife and now it was gone.
    “You feel okay?”
    No, he didn’t. His pulse was racing. His palms were sweaty. And the chronic ache that was his constant companion had flared into a throbbing pain.
    She was ready to move on.
    “Justin? Hello?”
    “Yeah. Sure. You ready?”
    Without waiting for an answer, he turned and went back down the stairs, needing to put some distance between them. It didn’t do any good, of course, since she was going with him and a few minutes later Claire and her naked ring finger were sitting next to him in the suddenly claustrophobic cab of his truck.
    Having a girl for a best friend was challenging enough. They didn’t have the upper-body strength to help a guy change out an engine. They cried during movies. They needed blenders and umbrellas for their drinks instead of just a cold bottle of beer. Hell, he’d even bought a box of tampons once. Claire had been sick and thank God she’d texted him a picture of the right box or he’d still be standing in the girl aisle because, holy crap, women had options.
    But having the girl you were half-or more-in love with as a best friend was a special kind of hell. He’d endured it well enough so far, but there was no way he was going to sit on her bed and watch her dig through her closet for something to wear on a first date. He didn’t want to watch her sigh over a text from some guy. And no way in hell was he going to giggle over the morning-after details if she invited the asshole up for “drinks.”
    “What’s got you so pissed off?”
    “What makes you think I’m pissed?”
    “Oh, how about the fact you’re strangling the steering wheel? Or that your eyebrows are practically touching over your nose? Or the fact you just burned off half your tires in my landlord’s driveway pulling out?”
    He made a conscious effort to relax his grip on the wheel, but faking even a half-assed smile was out of the question. “It’s nothing. Rough day.”
    “It’s eight o’clock.”
    “Fine. Rough morning.”
    “You sounded fine on the phone earlier.”
    She wasn’t going to let it go until he gave her something. “Hot water heater’s crapping out on me. Cold showers aren’t a happy way to start the day.”
    It was only half a lie, since he’d taken more than his fair share of cold showers. The falsehood, of course, was that it was the hot water heater’s fault.
    By the time they’d hit their favorite diner for breakfast and had his tires changed, he was finding his footing again. Except for when that band of pale skin caught his eye, which was a problem since she used her hands a lot when she talked.
    They were in the toy store, looking at shelves of preschool board games, when Claire crossed her arms and sighed. “Just say it, Justin.”
    “Okay. Nicole’s three. Why can’t I just buy her a doll? No pieces to lose.”
    “Fine. Buy her a doll, even though she asked for games. And that’s not what I’m talking about. I lost count of the times I’ve caught you staring at my hand about two hours ago. Just say it.”
    “You took your wedding ring off.”
    She looked at him like she was expecting more, but he didn’t know what else to say. It was a big deal for her and, even though she didn’t love him the way she’d loved Brendan, he knew he was important to her. What he said mattered.
    “It doesn’t mean I’m going to forget him,” she said in a quiet voice.
    “I know that.”
    “And nobody’s ever going to take his place in my heart.”
    Oh, he knew that, too. “I’m not upset you took it off, Claire. It’s just different, so it catches my eye. Makes me think about him, you know?”
    Tears welled up in her eyes, but she was doing her best to blink them back as she nodded. “I know. Me, too.”
    “One of the things he loved most about you is the way you’re always happy about things. He’d want you to, you know… Move on. Be happy…and stuff.” Justin wanted it for her, too. Just not with some other guy. Especially the and stuff part.
    She laughed and swiped at a stray tear with the heel of her ringless hand. “You’re not the best with words, but you’re a really good friend, you know.”
    Great. That’s what he was shooting for. Really good friend. He held his arms open. “You better? Need me to hug you so you can wipe your face on my shirt?”
    “No, I’m good,” she said, and he hid the disappointment. “Let’s get something for Nicole and get out of here or we’ll be late.”
    Justin found a stuffed cat that looked exactly like Moxie and, even though it wasn’t a board game, he decided Nicole would like that. Then, according to Claire, he had to pick out a card. And a gift bag. And bows.
    By the time they pulled into the Smiths’ driveway, Justin was beat. All he wanted was a steak, a beer and a game on the flat screen. What he got was a houseful of people, a wound-up little birthday girl with a horde of wound-up friends, and Debbie Smith-who noticed immediately her daughter had taken off her wedding ring.
    He was hiding in the kitchen, pretending to look for more paper cups, when Mrs. Smith walked in. “Oh, Justin. I was wondering where you’d gone to.”
    “Looking for paper cups.”
    “Hiding.” She laughed when he blushed. “We’ll hide together. When Kelly asked me if they could have Nic’s party here because I have more room, I should have asked how many of Nic’s playdate friends she was going to invite. And at two o’clock on a Friday afternoon!”
    “You should make Mr. Smith take you for a nice dinner after everybody leaves. Have a drink. Or two.”
    “Trust me, I’ll be telling the waiter to leave the bottle.” She pulled out a stool at the kitchen bar and perched herself on it. “How’s Claire doing?”
    Since he knew she’d noticed the lack of gold on her daughter’s finger, he didn’t bother hedging. “I think she’s a little wobbly today, but she’s good. It was just time, I guess.”
    The smile she gave him was warm and sincere. “I don’t know how she would have gotten through this without you, Justin. If only everybody could be blessed with a friend like you.”
    He gave her a return smile he hoped showed nothing of the guilt eating away at his gut and thanked his lucky stars when one of the moms flew into the kitchen looking for a roll of paper towels.

    Her now three-year-old niece was one of the people Claire loved most in the world, but she wanted out. Badly.
    Watching her sister, Kelly, and her brother-in-law fussing over their daughter and her little friends did nothing but remind her she and Brendan were going to start trying for a baby as soon as they signed on their new house. She kept trying to fidget with her wedding ring, only to find bare skin. And Justin was nowhere in sight. Not the most fun she’d ever had at a party.
    “Ohmigod, you took your ring off!”
    Claire curled her left hand inside her right and cursed herself for picking this day of all days to take that particular step. “Gee, Kelly, I’m not sure they heard you next door.”
    “Sorry.” Her sister plopped down on the couch next to her. “So does this mean you’re thinking about dating again?”
    “No.” As she said it, Justin emerged from kitchen and she watched him as he scanned the room until his gaze found hers. Then he smiled and she rolled her eyes at him.
    “What does he think about it?” Kelly asked.
    “He just wants me to be happy…and stuff.” Claire smiled, remembering his awkwardness in the toy store.
    “I bet he does.”
    She turned to look at her sister. “What do you mean?”
    “Nothing.” And there was the fake innocent face Kelly did so well. “Hey, J.J., watch out for that-crap.”
    A herd of adults converged on the shattered vase, shooing kids away from the broken glass, and Claire laughed when Justin slid into the seat Kelly had vacated in a hurry.
    “Not that I’m not having a great time but how much longer?”
    “Maybe ten minutes. After they clean up this mess, but before some kid makes the next one.”
    It was closer to forty minutes before they were able to sneak goodbyes in and make their escape. They both buckled their seatbelts with a sigh of relief and then Justin pulled out of the driveway and took a right.
    Claire closed her eyes and tried to tell herself it was no big deal. Turning right led to the back roads that led to Dunkin’ Donuts, where Justin would grab a coffee. Then that back road led into a bigger back road which led back to home. A road that went right by the house she couldn’t bear to look at.
    She’d been so excited about signing the papers for their dream home she’d called Brendan three times in the span of a half hour the day of the closing. To ask if he was on his way. To tell him to hurry up. He’d laughed at her and told her she was worse than a little kid on Christmas morning. Then he’d told her he loved her and he wouldn’t be late.
    The State Police said speed was definitely a factor in the accident that turned Brendan’s Camry-and Claire’s life-upside down. The roads were slippery and he’d been driving too fast for the conditions. Because he’d loved her and he’d promised he wouldn’t be late.
    She’d walked away from the house. Walked away from everything and everybody as she sank into a black pit of despair and guilt she couldn’t kick her way free of.
    It was Justin who’d taken her hand and wouldn’t let her drown. Justin who’d refused to accept that it was her fault Brendan was dead and who’d washed her face with a cold washcloth when she cried so hard she threw up. He’d told her over and over it was an accident until she finally started believing it herself. And he didn’t leave her side until she agreed to drag herself out of her apartment and go out with him for some cheeseburger therapy.
    They’d come out of those dark days better friends than they’d ever been and not a day went by she wasn’t thankful she had Justin in her life. And she was thankful enough today she decided not to stand in his way if he wanted a coffee.
    She felt the truck pulling off the road and opened her eyes just as he jerked the wheel around and did a U-turn in the road. “What are you doing?”
    “With all those kids, I didn’t get a chance to take a leak before we left and I’ll never make it to Dunkin’ Donuts. I’ll stop at the gas station up the street and I can grab a coffee there, too, before we jump on the highway.”
    He’d remembered and now he was lying. She thought she should call him on it-tell him it was okay and it was just a house. But she’d had just about enough for today, so she let him get away with it.
    When the day came she did go looking for another man, she hoped she could find one as good as Justin. Only without the whole best friend thing.

Chapter Three

    Having the garage door open let in the morning chill, but it let out the four-stroke exhaust as Justin revved the engine of his snowmobile, warming it up so he could transfer it to the trailer for the riding season. When he could sneak a free day, all he had to do was hook the trailer up to the truck and drive to a trailhead.
    Once he’d loaded his machine up, he pulled back the cover on the sled in the back corner of his garage. It wouldn’t go on the trailer and the registration sticker was long expired, but Justin set the choke and fired it up anyway.
    It was Brendan’s sled and he couldn’t bring himself to sell it, but he couldn’t let it sit and gather dust, either. So he kept it covered, did the maintenance it really didn’t need and ran the engine every so often. Now, listening to his best friend’s pride and joy, he wondered if it was time to let it go. If Claire could take off her wedding ring, he could pass the sled on to a new owner.
    He’d have to talk to her about it, of course. Technically, she owned it. But she had no interest in snowmobiling and, since her apartment didn’t come with any garage space, she’d asked Justin to hold on to it. So that’s what he’d done.
    The cell phone vibrated in his pocket, so he hit the kill switch on the sled and pulled it out, thankful for any distraction right now. He smiled at the name on the screen and flipped the phone open. “Hi, Mom.”
    “Hi, sweetie. Are you busy?”
    “Never too busy for you. Where are you?”
    “I don’t know. Del, where are we?” Justin heard the low rumble of his father’s voice. “He says we’re about four hours away from Branson, Missouri. We’re going to spend a few days there and then head down to Texas.”
    “You guys don’t even like country music,” he said as he put a red thumbtack into Branson on the huge map hung on the garage wall. Then he took a fine-tipped permanent marker and wrote in the date.
    “I know, but your father heard there’s a Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum there, so off we go.”
    That had been their motto-Off We Go-since they’d sold the house to Justin, bought an RV and hit the road a year and a half before. After decades of hard work and accumulating stuff, they’d made the decision to have the mother of all yard sales, gave away what was left over and became nomads.
    At the time, Justin had been sharing an apartment with a guy he didn’t like and that was so small most of his stuff was still at his parents’. Since he didn’t seem any closer to finding a wife or starting a family, buying the house he’d grown up in seemed like a good idea. And they’d given him a helluva deal on it, too.
    “How’s Claire?” his mother asked as he walked through the mudroom that connected the garage to the kitchen.
    “She’s good. I’m taking her to get her Christmas tree in a while.”
    “Give her our best, of course. Anything else interesting going on? The house okay?”
    “Everything’s fine, Ma. I can’t think of anything that’s changed since the last time I talked to you.”
    Except Claire’s newly bare ring finger, of course, but he was trying to convince himself it didn’t mean anything and therefore wasn’t newsworthy.
    “Your father’s pulling into a gas station and you know how he is. He makes me turn off the cell phone while he pumps gas, even when I stay in the RV.”
    “Better safe than sorry.” He rolled his eyes, thankful she couldn’t see him do it. “Tell Dad I said hi and I love you both.”
    “We love you, too, sweetie. I’ll talk to you soon.”
    After they hung up, he dropped a couple slices of bread into the toaster, then smeared the popped toast with peanut butter. He’d need the protein to survive Christmas tree shopping with Claire. Her taste in decorations ran to Better Homes and Gardens. Her budget and her apartment didn’t.
    If there was one thing he knew for sure, it was that the first tree she tried to buy would be at least eight feet tall.

    Claire took one look at the Douglas fir and fell in love. “This is my Christmas tree.”
    “No, it’s not.” Justin nudged her, but she planted her feet. “Keep walking.”
    “What’s the matter with this one?”
    “It’s too big.”
    “There’s no such thing as a too-big Christmas tree.”
    He eyeballed the fir, then shook his head. “Even trimmed up, this is at least an eight-foot tree.”
    “I have an eight-foot ceiling.” She folded her arms, determined to be stubborn about it, but he laughed at her.
    “You have sloped ceilings. The only place it’s eight feet is smack dab in the center of the living room.”
    “Then I’ll put it there.”
    “And when you call me because you couldn’t tether it and Moxie pulled it over swinging from the branches, I’ll laugh before I hang up on you.”
    “Keep walking, Rutledge.”
    “Maybe I could tether it-”
    “No, you can’t tether it to the ceiling.”
    “Grinch,” Claire muttered. After a final, mournful glance at the Christmas tree of her dreams, she kept walking.
    After fifteen minutes, he’d vetoed several more trees and Claire’s holiday mood was slipping like a thirty-year-old transmission. “What’s the matter with this one?”
    “When you touched it, half the needles fell off. It must have been cut in an earlier batch because it’s not going to last and you’ll end up with lights hanging off naked branches.”
    She flicked one of the branches and watched the needles flit to the ground, hating when he was right. “So my friend Penny was asking about you.”
    “Not interested.”
    That was as far as she usually would have taken it, but she hated the way his expression closed off and felt an urge to poke at him a little. Plus, maybe if he was seeing a friend of hers she’d stop having decidedly nonplatonic thoughts about him. “You could ask her to Cal’s Christmas party tonight. It’s last minute, but pretty casual.”
    “You’re going with me to Cal’s. Like always.”
    And he’d crash on her couch, like always. The problem was the fact she didn’t always have hot, sweaty dreams about him. She didn’t always toss and turn thinking thoughts she had no business thinking about him.
    “Whatever,” she said. “I told her I liked her too much to hook her up with you, anyway.”
    He turned to scowl at her. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
    “I like Penny. Why would I set her up with a guy that’s going to take her out a few times and then dump her?”
    “What makes you think I’d do that?”
    “It’s what you always do.”
    “That’s a pretty rotten thing to say.”
    “It’s the truth, and you know it.”
    He turned his back on her, then walked to a stand of four-foot trees, which made her sigh. She knew he was being practical-he did practical so well-but these trees weren’t going to be gracing the pages of magazines any time soon. “This one’s good.”
    What it lacked in height, the tree made up for with full, symmetrical branches and needles that didn’t scatter when she breathed on them. “At least I won’t need a stepladder to put the star on top.”
    “That’s the spirit.”
    Leaving the lot attendant to wrap the tree in netting, Claire and Justin made their way through the crowd to the cashier at the back of the lot. Pinned to the stack of wooden crates serving as a makeshift stand for the cash box were sprigs of mistletoe bound by red string. On impulse, Claire grabbed one and added it to her total.
    “What’s that for?” Justin demanded as she shoved her change in her pocket.
    “It’s mistletoe.”
    “I know what it is. Why did you buy it?”
    “Because it’s a Christmas decoration and because it’s fun. Same reason you have a snow globe with a picture of your snowmobile in it.”
    “I have a snow globe with a picture of my sled in it because you gave it to me last Christmas. And I don’t kiss a girl every time I shake it and make the snow fly. You’re supposed to kiss somebody under the mistletoe.”
    That was true, which meant she really needed to have a talk with her subconscious. First sex dreams and now an excuse to kiss a guy in her apartment. “I thought it would look cute. Stop overanalyzing my impulse buy.”
    “Who are you planning to kiss?”
    “Moxie,” she snapped, just to shut him up.
    They found her wrapped tree and, after showing the attendant her receipt, she took the light end-careful not to bend the top branch where the star would rest-and Justin took the heavier base end and they carried it to his truck. He probably could have just swung the thing over his shoulder and carried it alone, but she liked to at least pretend to do her share. He took the heavy end again to carry it up the stairs to her apartment and then helped her center it in the stand she already had waiting.
    When he started working on tethering the tree to the wall, necessary thanks to Christmas trees bringing out Moxie’s inner kitten, Claire went to the kitchen to wash the sap off her hands. Unfortunately, the kitchen was more of an area than an actual room, which meant she could see him from the sink. Tethering the tree required a lot of leaning and stretching and the leaning and stretching kept making his T-shirt ride up, and she wondered how she’d never noticed how incredibly sexy the small of his back was.
    And now that she was looking, that exposed strip of skin wasn’t the only thing sexy about him. There was the way he filled out his blue jeans. The way his broad shoulders moved under his T-shirt. The way his hair curled just a little at the base of his neck because he was overdue for a haircut. And when he turned and grinned at her, she went ahead and mentally penciled that in at the top of the list.
    “Moxie would need a chainsaw to take this sucker down now.”
    She tried, as a rule, never to compare Brendan and Justin, other than a natural curiosity at times as to how two such opposite men had been best friends for almost their entire lives.
    Justin was worn jeans and faded T-shirts, usually with a hole at the back of the collar where the tag sometimes stuck out because rather than grab the hem, he took off his shirts by grabbing the back of the neck, bunching the fabric and hauling it over his head. If she needed a repair done, Justin would load the supplies in his truck, show up and get it done in exchange for food and all the iced tea she could pour. He liked country music and liked to watch movies at home, where he could pop the button on his jeans and put his feet on the coffee table.
    Brendan was khakis and button-down shirts. He listened to classic rock and loved going to the movie theater to experience films the way the directors intended him to. If a repair needed doing, he would call somebody to fix it, write the check and then take Claire out someplace on the town so the construction wouldn’t bother her.
    Such different guys with an unbreakable bond. And they both meant everything to her.
    “You want me to hang that mistletoe?”
    “No, thanks. I’ll hang it somewhere later.” If he hung it, then he’d end up standing under it and she might be tempted to kiss him.
    “This is the part where you offer me food,” he reminded her.
    “We’ll be at Cal’s party in a few hours and there’s always tables of food.”
    “The keywords being in a few hours.”
    She rolled her eyes and pulled open the refrigerator. “I don’t have much. Haven’t worked up the ambition to go grocery shopping in a while. Deli meat. A leftover chicken breast. It was a little dry the first time around, so I don’t think a microwave is going to help it any. I could slice it thin, maybe. Make a sandwich with lots of mayo.”
    “You got any chocolate pudding?” His voice so close to her ear made her jump.
    He was standing behind her, looking over her shoulder. With one hand on the open door and the other braced on the fridge itself, she was trapped by his body and awareness of it crackled through her like an August wildfire.
    It had to be that stupid dream, she told herself. Now that she knew her body was thinking about sex again, she was fabricating desire where it didn’t exist. She didn’t feel that way about Justin.
    He moved closer, trying to see around her, and when his hip bumped hers, it took every ounce of self-control she had not to react. Okay, so maybe she felt that way about Justin a little. But it would pass. As long as he didn’t catch on, things wouldn’t get weird and eventually her body would find somebody else to lust after.
    She hoped.

    “Next right,” Justin told the cab driver, who put on his turn signal and slowed the car. Then he sent a quick text to Claire to let her know they’d arrived.
    Neither of them were big drinkers, but the booze flowed freely at Cal’s Christmas parties and Justin would have at least a couple of beers and Claire would have some kind of sparkly, fruity drink. Before Brendan’s accident, he would have risked it, telling himself two drinks was nothing. But, even though alcohol wasn’t a factor in the accident, Justin had been the one to visit the impound and collect any personal items from the mangled wreck that had been Brendan’s car. Since then, he did what he could to make sure his family wouldn’t have to do the same.
    When the cab was in Park, Justin got out and walked around to open Claire’s door for her just in time to see her making her way carefully down the staircase in red high heels he’d never seen before. And, holy crap, her legs. He’d seen her legs before. Kicking around in shorts and flip-flops. Hell, he’d even seen them at the beach a time or two, when she wore nothing but a modest, one-piece suit.
    But they looked different tonight. He’d never seen her long, curved-just-right legs going on for what looked like forever, from her short black skirt to those red high-heeled shoes that would make any hot-blooded male instantly hard just because they were red high-heeled shoes.
    “You ready?” she asked, and he realized he’d watched those amazing legs walk right up to him and stop.
    “Aren’t you cold?” he asked, thinking maybe being concerned for her health would sound like a legitimate excuse for the staring.
    She hesitated, looking like she was going to say something but changed her mind. Then she shook her head. “Not really.”
    “The dress code for Cal’s party’s pretty casual.”
    “So I felt like dressing up a little.” Her hair was up in some sparkly red clip thing and she had on just enough makeup to keep his gaze bouncing between her gorgeous eyes and a mouth just begging to be kissed.
    As she walked past him to get into the cab and he closed her door for her, he thought about that mouth and those legs and those shoes and swore softly, but very earnestly, under his breath. She looked like a woman who was hoping to find a man.
    What the hell was he supposed to do if she found one? He wasn’t sure he had the willpower to watch her leave with some other guy.
    Especially once he was in the cab and those legs were in his peripheral vision. The skirt wasn’t indecent by any means, but it had ridden up and when she shifted in her seat, he got a painfully delicious glimpse of her smooth, pale inner thigh. He turned his head to look out the window and was thankful it was only a ten-minute drive to the small resort hosting the party.
    Cal Reading was a builder who specialized in building overpriced custom homes for people with way too much money and he threw one hell of a Christmas party every year. Justin’s invite was thanks to the occasional roof he’d do if the regular Reading Builders roofing crew was held up on a big job. Claire worked with a lot of the outfit’s subcontractors and Cal appreciated how well she coordinated with his big-city accountant.
    They both knew pretty much everybody in the big banquet room, so it wasn’t long before they’d gone their separate ways, each with a drink in hand. It was only when he heard her laughter over the crowd and the music that he realized the men really outnumbered the women in the room. By a lot. And too many of them didn’t appear to have women to leave with.
    No wonder Claire was practically surrounded. Okay, maybe not surrounded, but there were a few guys who seemed to be orbiting her like they were just looking for an opening to land their lunar modules. And the shimmery, flowing red blouse that matched her shoes and hugged her curves wasn’t helping any.
    “Hey, Justin.” A woman slid up next to him at the cash bar and it took him a few seconds to place her. She ran the contractor desk at the local home-improvement store and he was pretty sure her name was Jen. Usually she had a name tag on pinned to her work vest, but tonight her dark hair was teased and hairsprayed to what looked like its breaking point and her V-neck sweater was a little more V-necked than it should have been.
    “Hey, how’s it going?”
    “Not bad. Running empty, though.” She set an empty glass on the counter and waved to the bartender.
    “Next one’s on me,” Justin said, because he wasn’t sure if she was fishing for him to buy her a drink or not, but he thought she might be. It seemed the polite thing to do, plus she always took good care of him at the store, so he pulled out his wallet.
    Jen was smiling at him over the rim of a fresh rum-and-Coke, when it belatedly dawned on him she might be looking for some extra-curricular company, so he looked around the room until he spotted Claire again.
    This time, she wasn’t laughing at something one of her clingy male satellites had said. She was looking at him. Or rather, she was looking at Jen. And she looked annoyed, which wasn’t like her. Then a tall plumber who’d once screwed up one of Justin’s roofs with a bad venting job walked up and handed her a glass of something red, and she smiled up at him.
    “I think you have to have a claim on the lady before you can beat the crap out of the guy hitting on her,” Jen said and he scowled at her, which made her laugh. “Don’t bother denying it. You looked like you were mentally ripping his head off his shoulders.”
    “He hacked up a roof I did once.”
    “And then he bought a drink for the woman you arrived with.”
    “We’re just friends.”
    “Sure. Hey, I see somebody I want to say hi to. Thanks for the drink.”
    “No problem. See you around.” He took a sip of his beer and looked around for somebody-anybody but Claire-to talk to and spotted a few guys he knew standing around in the corner shooting the bull.
    On his way over, he caught sight of Claire through the corner of his eye. She was still talking to the idiot plumber, but she was watching Justin. And her expression looked a lot like Jen’s expression before she caught on she wasn’t holding his interest, but he told himself it was just his imagination.
    Just friends. That was all they were.

Chapter Four

    Claire sipped at her cranberry margarita-a lovely and potent holiday concoction of tequila, orange-flavored liqueur, and cranberry and lime juices-and watched Justin over the rim of her glass. She wasn’t sober anymore, but she wasn’t drunk, either. She’d hit that sweet spot of inebriation where she could check out the man’s ass and not feel weird about it.
    And what an ass it was. Every woman in the room had checked it out, even the ones who’d had to be sneaky about it because they hadn’t come to the party alone.
    Claire hadn’t come alone. And she wouldn’t be going home alone, either. The hot ass in the tight jeans would be leaving with her, since Justin intended to crash on her couch, as he always had in the past.
    Warm and flushed and basking in a mild alcoholic glow, she watched Justin laugh at something one of the other guys said and thought about how, a few hours from then, he’d be stretched out on her sofa in his sweatpants and the Bruins T-shirt that always rode up in his sleep and exposed his abs. And then, because her hormones and the margaritas had lit a fire in her belly, she thought about him stretched out on her bed, minus the sweats and T-shirt.
    He turned at that exact moment and caught her staring. Or devouring him with her eyes, as the case may be. Judging by the way his eyebrows rose and a soft flush of pink crept up his neck, whatever look she was giving him wasn’t one he’d seen her give him before.
    Without breaking eye contact, he took a long swig of beer and she realized he was giving her a look she hadn’t seen from him before, either. Hot. Hungry. The kind of look a man gave a woman when he was considering his chances of getting naked with her and hoping they were good.
    She gave him the wrap-it-up signal and he smiled at her over his bottle. He extricated himself from the conversation and then pulled out his phone to call for a cab. And as he made his way over to her while saying a goodbye here and there, she tried not to think about the fact they were going home together. Which they’d done before, of course. Quite often. But not after exchanging sizzling glances over the tops of their drinks.
    He did most of the talking on the ride home, telling her a funny story about a drywaller accidentally closing a homeowner’s Chihuahua up in the wall, but she was barely listening. And when they got home, she unlocked her door and picked up Moxie to get her welcome-home love in a daze. Not an alcoholic daze, but a daze caused by the now undeniable fact she really, really wanted to have sex. With Justin.
    When Moxie squirmed in her arms, Claire set her down and found herself with nothing to do but stand in the middle of the living room and look at Justin. Who was looking right back at her.
    He shook his head, even though she hadn’t said anything out loud. “You should go to bed.”
    Oh, she intended to. The question was whether or not she was going alone. Sleep wasn’t going to happen. Not with dreamed images of his hands on her filling her head while her body trembled for his touch. She wanted to feel him against her. Not fleeting nocturnal imaginings, but hot and hard and real.
    “Jesus, Claire, stop looking at me like that,” he said in a low, rough voice she wanted saying naughty things against her ear.
    “I’m a little bit drunk.”
    “So am I, which is why you need to stop looking at me like that and go to bed.”
    “Or…” She paused to catch her bottom lip between her teeth, which was a nervous habit rather than intentionally sexy, but she saw his jaw tighten.
    “There’s no or. Go sleep it off.”
    “But you’re standing under the mistletoe.” Kind of. Close enough, anyway.
    “You told me it was just a fun decoration. Go. To. Bed.”
    She didn’t think-just acted. Standing on her tiptoes, she pressed her mouth to Justin’s.
    His body stiffened and his lips were unyielding against hers. The butterflies of delicious anticipation turned to stone, dropping like lead weights in her stomach as she realized what she’d done.
    She pulled away, turning so she didn’t have to look at his face, while desperately scrambling for words to fix what she’d done-words that could salvage the most important relationship in her life.
    Then Justin swore viciously under his breath and she gasped as he spun her back to face him. Before she could even read his expression, he slid his hand behind her neck and hauled her against his body.
    His kiss was hard and punishing and she surrendered to it completely. When she wrapped her arms around his neck, he moaned quietly against her mouth and she knew she wouldn’t be going to bed alone. But then, just as suddenly, he ended the kiss and tried to take a step back.
    “God, Claire. Go to bed before we do something you’ll regret in the morning.”
    Instead she moved closer and pressed her palms to his stomach because she didn’t miss the fact he didn’t think he’d regret it in the morning. His abs tightened as he sucked in a breath and she slid her hands to his hips. When he did nothing but stand there frozen with his hands fisted at his sides, she gathered up the bottom of his shirt until she could get her fingers under it. She wanted skin.
    “Claire.” She ignored him, busy as she was exploring the hard expanse of his chest, but he grabbed her wrists through the fabric. “Claire, listen to me.”
    “I don’t want to.”
    “Because you know what I’m going to say.”
    He might have her wrists, but she could still slide her fingertips over his skin. “Are you going to say you’re not attracted to me?”
    “Uh…no.” His heart was thumping under her fingers and his quickened pulse made her brave.
    “Are you going to say you don’t want to make love to me?”
    “I do want to make love to you, but-”
    She kissed him again before he could finish the thought. He’d already said everything she needed to hear. It was a few long, seemingly endless seconds before his lips parted under hers and he gave in to the kiss.
    They managed to make it to her bedroom before the clothes came off, but it wasn’t quick enough for Claire. It had been such a long time and she wanted him and seeing him strip off his boxer briefs as she unhooked her bra just made it so much worse.
    “You’re so beautiful,” he said as he picked Moxie up off the bed and set her on the floor. She gave him a disdainful mewl before walking out of the room with her tail held high.
    Claire was going to close the door to make sure she didn’t come back, but Justin took her hand to pull her onto the bed and she forgot all about the cat.
    He took his sweet time getting down to business, stroking every part of her that ached to be stroked and stopping a lot to kiss her as if she was the oxygen he needed to breathe and he was starving for air.
    She’d probably seen him shirtless a hundred times, climbing a ladder with a bundle of roofing shingles over his shoulder, but looking was nowhere near as good as touching and she touched him a lot. His muscles were hard under her fingertips and his skin was warm and…God, how she’d missed this.
    “I hope you’re ready, Claire, because you are so hot and I’ve been watching you all night and I can’t not do this now.”
    She smiled at the desperation in his eyes and lifted her head to kiss him, nipping at his lower lip before she let him go. “I am so ready.”
    She heard the crinkle of a condom wrapper as he sat back on his heels and she closed her eyes, stretching like a cat on a sunny windowsill. She hadn’t felt so good in…a long time, and she savored the loose, languid feeling in her muscles. She could get used to this again.
    Justin’s mouth closing over her nipple made her jump and she opened her eyes to find him smiling down at her. She ran her heels up over his calves, letting him settle between her thighs. She gasped as he slowly filled her, lifting her hips as he pressed deep.
    She ran her hands over his shoulders and back, feeling the fine sheen of sweat coating his muscles. “Justin…”
    “God, you feel amazing.”
    She wanted to say more-something about how he felt pretty damn amazing, too-but he was quickening his pace and she couldn’t breathe and it was all she could do not to scream his name.
    The orgasm hit her and maybe she did scream then. She didn’t know. Didn’t care. All she knew was that her body was screaming yes yes yes like Meg Ryan in that movie and she didn’t want it to stop.
    When it did stop, Justin collapsed on top of her and panted against her neck, she sucked in a deep breath and held it for a long second before letting it back out. Oh, yes, she’d wanted that. Needed that.
    And once he made a quick trip to the bathroom and returned to wrap himself around her-after fighting Moxie for the pillow once she deemed it safe to enter the bedroom again-she drifted off to sleep with a silly smile on her face.

    Justin opened his eyes just long enough to register where he was and focus on the empty pillow beside him, and then closed them again. Shit. He was in Claire’s bed.
    Brendan’s bed.
    “Son of a bitch,” he muttered, even as memories of the night before played through his mind like an X-rated slideshow. It had been nothing short of amazing and he wanted to do it again. As soon as possible. Now would be good, though from the mouthwatering aromas drifting into the bedroom, she was already up and working on breakfast.
    After rolling onto his back, he stretched his arms up over his head and opened his eyes again. He’d been in her bedroom before and remembering that made him realize he hadn’t technically spent the night in Brendan’s bed. A few months after the accident, Claire had gotten rid of their queen-sized bed and replaced it with a double. When he’d shown up to help her set it up, she’d explained she wanted the extra space in the room. To his eye, the difference wasn’t worth the effort and he suspected she’d been hit by a need to be rid of the bed they’d shared.
    He jerked sideways and almost fell off the bed when something furry brushed his armpit. “Jesus, Moxie! Meow or something before you do that.”
    The cat headbutted him in the chin a few times before jumping off the bed. When she squeezed through the slightly open door, it opened wider and let in the mouthwatering aroma of a good, old-fashioned breakfast. With bacon.
    As good as it smelled, he hoped it wasn’t ready to go on the table yet because he needed a few more minutes before he could face what they’d done. What he’d done.
    “Ten minutes,” she yelled from the kitchen.
    He didn’t have to wonder how she knew he was up. If there was a sleeping human to be found, her cat wouldn’t be budged from his or her side. As soon as Moxie left the bedroom, she knew he was awake.
    Thankfully, he managed to slip from the bedroom into the bathroom without having to make eye contact, since she was busy at the stove. He shaved and showered, pulling a set of clean clothes from “his” shelf in her linen closet. He crashed on her couch often enough so it make sense for him to keep some stuff there, but it was a one-bedroom and they couldn’t very well share a dresser drawer. That would be weird.
    Like sleeping together.
    He put off facing the music as long as he could, even taking an exceptionally long time brushing his teeth, but when she banged on the door and told him breakfast was on the table, he finished up and took a deep breath before opening the door.
    She didn’t look any different. The hair he’d buried his face in only hours before was piled on top of her head in a messy knot. She’d thrown on a T-shirt and sweatpants, along with the clunky, sheepskin-lined slippers he’d bought her for Christmas last year. The garage under her apartment wasn’t heated, so the floor tended to be cold. As she set two mugs of coffee on the table, he watched her and, no, she didn’t look any different than the last time she’d done it.
    But everything was different because now he knew. He knew what it felt like to hold her. He knew what her body felt like under his and what her long legs felt like wrapped around his hips. And he didn’t know if he’d ever get to feel it again.
    And he already wanted to.
    Since she already had everything on the table, he took his seat and dug in. They’d burned more than a few calories before falling asleep. But, hungry as he was, he wasn’t so intent on his breakfast he missed the fact she was avoiding eye contact. In his experience, when a woman you’d spent the night with wouldn’t look you in the eye, she either had a bellyful of regret or you sucked in the sack. Or so he’d heard.
    “I guess I should thank you.”
    He paused with a forkful of home fries halfway to his mouth. That was an odd thing to say. “Thank me for what?”
    “You know…for last night.”
    “Then I have to thank you, too, because it was mutually amazing. I think. I…hope.” Before he’d been sure it had been just as good for her as it had been for him, but now he was sitting across from a woman who didn’t look like she’d had her socks knocked off between the sheets.
    “It was!” She said it a little too quickly for his taste. “It was definitely amazing. And that’s why I said thank you.”
    “Okay. You’re welcome, I guess.” He couldn’t shake the feeling he was missing something in this conversation.
    “It meant a lot to me to…test the waters, so to speak, with a guy I trust so much.” She took a deep breath and smiled at him. “You’re a good friend.”
    Oh, hell no. He was…what? A test drive to make sure all her parts were in working order before she went on a real date? “Tell me you didn’t just say that.”
    “You are a good friend.” She looked confused. “You’re my best friend.”
    “If you want a buddy, get a golden retriever,” he muttered, and then he shoved the home fries into his mouth to shut himself up.
    Claire dropped her fork onto her plate with a clatter. “I knew it. This is why friends shouldn’t have sex. Now it’s going to be weird.”
    “No, you thanking me like I gave you a tire and lube job so you can go on a road trip is making it weird.” As he watched her expression change to one of restrained amusement, he replayed his words in his mind and groaned. “You know what I mean.”
    “Lube job isn’t the sexiest euphemism I’ve ever heard,” she said, her voice heavy with suppressed laughter. “But you did give me one helluva tune-up.”
    He laughed and then shook his head. “Wise ass.”
    With amusement written all over her face, Claire dug into her breakfast, so he followed suit. But, as the food slowly disappeared, the tension grew thick again.
    Pretty soon it would be time for him to go and he had no idea where they stood. Was she even expecting him to go or was he supposed to spend the day with her? And, if he went, did he kiss her goodbye?
    The only thing he knew for sure was that he’d made one hell of a mess of things.
    He was swallowing the last bite of his veggie omelet when she said softly, “Did I wreck everything? Is it going to stay weird now?”
    “You didn’t wreck anything.” Except maybe him, since there was something that sounded a lot like regret in her voice.
    “I haven’t been with anybody since Brendan.” She wouldn’t look at him, concentrating instead on moving a mushroom around her plate. “I just wanted to…I just…I shouldn’t have put you in that position.”
    “Hey, that happened to be my favorite position.”
    She rewarded him with a laugh, but it was a quick one and then she grew serious again. “I mean it. You were Brendan’s best friend. You’re my best friend. It was wrong of me to throw myself at you because I was a little lonely at night. Your friendship means everything to me and I just hope I didn’t screw it up.”
    He forced himself to look her straight in the eye. “Our friendship means more to me than anything, Claire. You know that. And I shouldn’t have let it happen. You were my buddy’s girl and that makes you off-limits. It won’t ever happen again.”
    “Let’s chalk it up to too much to drink.” She was full of crap and they both knew it. He’d seen her drunk before and she was nowhere near plastered last night. And neither was he. “Forget it ever happened.”
    Forget what was seared into his very soul? Not freakin’ likely. He suspected when he was ninety years old and couldn’t remember where he’d left his teeth, he’d still remember the jolt of her blue eyes looking into his and the whisper of his name on her lips as he moved inside her. “Forget what ever happened?”
    She grinned and the world felt mostly okay again.
    By the time they’d cleaned up the breakfast dishes and put everything away, the awkwardness between them was almost gone. She went on and on about Christmas and shopping and what she wanted to buy for Nicole now that she was old enough to really get a kick out of the holiday. He said the right words in the appropriate places, but his mind refused to concentrate on the mostly one-sided conversation.
    He’d managed to royally put the screws to himself this time, and there was no way out of it.
    If he walked away from her, she’d not only be hurt, but she’d probably blame herself for not going to bed-alone-when he told her to. He couldn’t bring himself to do that to her. But if wanting her and not being able to have her was hard before, now it was going to be downright torture. Now he’d know without a doubt what he’d be missing.
    He’d deal with it, though, for Claire’s sake. Even if it killed him.

Chapter Five

    Claire was doing nothing much but alternating between staring at the row of photos on her bookshelf and glaring at the stupid sprig of mistletoe when Penny showed up Tuesday afternoon with the timecards for payroll. She stood in the kitchen to take off her snowy coat and boots, but did a double take when she saw Claire.
    “The Sandman delete you from his GPS or what?”
    Always nice to know the lack of sleep was that visible on her face. “Rough couple of nights, I guess.”
    “It’s really coming down out there.”
    Which meant Justin would be out plowing and he hadn’t called her. Maybe it was because he knew she had a standing appointment with Penny. Or maybe it was because, since Sunday, he’d had more time to think about the night they’d spent together and he was putting some distance between them.
    She knew all she had done was think about it. Mostly while she was supposed to be sleeping. At the time, she’d tried to chalk it up to a raging case of libido neglect meeting being dosed with a steady flow of cranberry margaritas, but she was going to have to face facts. Any guy who knew his way around the female body wouldn’t do. The need that was building all over again and making her toss and turn at night was definitely Justin-specific.
    “I can’t stay and chat today,” Penny said. “Dentist. But call me later if you want to talk. You look like you need a shoulder. Or a drink.”
    “Last thing I need is a drink.”
    That got Penny’s attention and she looked at her watch. “You have three minutes to tell me what alcohol made you do. And who it made you do it with.”
    She didn’t need three minutes. She didn’t even need three seconds. “I got waylaid by a migraine, that’s all. And alcohol doesn’t help.”
    Penny would probably be hurt to know Claire was lying to her, but she didn’t think Justin wanted their business to become the latest fertilizer for the town grapevine. And neither did she.
    “No offense, Claire, but that’s boring as hell. You need to go out and have a good time.” She shoved her feet back into her boots. “How’s the migraine now?”
    “Better. Just need to catch up on my sleep now.”
    She tried, after Penny left. Curling up on the couch with Moxie, Claire tried to nap, but she could see the snowflakes falling outside the window and they made her think of Justin. Then she heard the big state plow truck go by and made herself close her eyes.
    If the town and the state were out plowing, so was Justin and she couldn’t stop herself from wondering if he’d stop by, looking for food-since he wouldn’t make pool and pizza night-or a power nap. Or maybe some company if he hadn’t been lying about their friendship still being solid.
    It was dusk when she woke to Moxie knitting her claws in her sweatshirt and the sound of somebody rummaging around in her fridge. For a long moment she just lay there, soaking up the normalcy. Then Moxie jumped down and sauntered over to figure-eight her way around Justin’s ankles and she knew the jig was up.
    “I stopped at that deli you like and got a couple of turkey bulkies and a bucket of German potato salad. Are you out of mustard?”
    “There’s a new one in the cabinet.” She sat up and tried to rub the lingering sleep from her eyes. “You should have called. I would have had everything ready.”
    “By the time I thought of it, I was almost here.”
    She went into the bathroom and when she emerged, he had everything spread out on the table so all she had to do was sit. “Has the snow let up any?”
    “It’s winding down. After I eat, I’ll probably make another quick pass for clients who have to get in or out before eight o’clock or so tomorrow morning and I’ll do the rest then.”
    She nodded and took a bite of her bulky, shuddering a little as he drizzled mustard over the top of his potato salad.
    Justin paused with his first forkful halfway to his mouth, looking at her. “You gonna ride with me tonight?”
    “Sure.” There, that was casual and to the point. Not even a hint of the insane relief she felt at this small sign they were back on track.
    And that was good, even if the track was going to have a few more potholes in it than it had before. All she had to do was pretend she’d forgotten the night they’d spent together and never thought about how amazing and wonderful the sex had been between them.
    If she lied to herself-and to him-long enough, maybe someday it would become the truth.

    She smelled so good. Even as Justin tried to concentrate on not hitting Mrs. Wilson’s car while backdragging the plow to clear the snow from behind it, he was aware of how delicious Claire smelled. Which, of course, led him directly back to those thoughts about how good she tasted he’d sworn he wasn’t going to think anymore.
    “How was opening day?” she asked, and it took him a few seconds to clear his head and realize she was talking about snowmobiling.
    “It was good. Chris and I put on about sixty miles. Not a lot, but they’re still getting the trails in shape and it was a good shakedown run.” Mrs. Wilson’s driveway was done, so he raised the plow and pulled out onto the road to head to the next place.
    “That’s good.” She was staring out the side window and he wondered what she was thinking about. “Is Brendan’s snowmobile still in your garage?”
    That answered that. “Yeah.”
    “I was thinking about learning how to drive it. Maybe go out with you sometimes.”
    He laughed and nudged her arm with his elbow. “You? Out in the woods in the freezing cold?”
    “I might like it.”
    “Or you might whine.”
    She turned away from the window to slap at him. “I don’t whine.”
    When he grabbed her wrist to keep her from hitting him, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to slide his hand down and interlock his fingers with hers. She didn’t pull away and he rested their joined hands on the seat between them.
    “If you really want to ride, I’ll teach you,” he said. “But Brendan’s machine’s too much for you. If you’re serious, I’ll take it and trade it in for something more your speed.”
    “Would that bother you? Letting it go, I mean.”
    He could see her watching his profile through the corner of his eyes, so he shrugged like it was no big deal. “It’s just a sled, Claire. I started it up the other day and was thinking it was a damn shame, the way it just sits there.”
    “You love snowmobiling more than anything,” she said softly. “I’d like to do that with you.”
    He squeezed her fingers. “I’ll call the shop and see what kind of deal they’ll give me.”
    Then he had to let her go, needing both hands to navigate down the dirt road that led to the Swenson house. The town did a half-ass job of plowing the road, but they didn’t touch the driveways. Harry Swenson lived in the last house on the road, isolated from his neighbors. He worked nights, so he’d already left. Justin would give it a quick swipe to make it easier for him to get home.
    While he worked, she went back to staring out her window, which worried him. She was usually a chatterbox while they were out plowing, to the point he’d sometimes regret taking her because she wouldn’t shut up.
    “What are you thinking about?” he asked her, putting the truck in Park and killing the headlights so he could give her his full attention.
    “Kissing you again,” she said to the window.
    He was surprised the windows didn’t fog up from the rush of heat that washed over him. “You pro or con?”
    “I’m still afraid it’ll ruin our friendship in the long run.”
    “I hate to say it, but having it between us all the time like the big, horny elephant in the room isn’t doing it any favors, either.”
    “So what are we going to do about it?”
    What he should do was put the truck in gear, put his foot on the gas and drop her off-alone-at her apartment. What he did instead was shove a whole bunch of crap onto the passenger side floor and then take her hand to tug her over to his side of the truck. “What do you think we should do about it?”
    “Maybe we just need to…get it out of our systems.”
    There was no way that was ever going to happen. “We could just play it by ear.”
    Since she was already kicking off her boots, he figured she was okay with that idea. “Can anybody see us?”
    “No.” It was getting warm in the truck all of a sudden, so he reached out and slid the fan controls down to low. So what if the windows fogged up? As a matter of fact, he was hoping they would.
    She kissed him, long and slow and sweet, while their elbows bumped into things because she was trying to shimmy out of her jeans and he was trying to get a condom from his wallet in the back pocket of his.
    “Slow down,” he whispered against her mouth.
    “Can’t. Don’t want to. I need you, Justin.”
    He didn’t need to be told twice. Once he got his wallet free, he lifted his hips enough to drag his jeans down and covered himself with the condom. Then she covered him with her and the windows steamed like a sauna.
    “I’ve been thinking about this since the night of the Christmas party,” she said, her breath against his cheek as she moved slowly, stroking him.
    He’d been thinking about it a lot longer than that, but it wasn’t the time for that discussion. Not when she was moving up and down like that, making him forget…whatever it was keeping them from doing this all the damn time. It wasn’t going to last long and then he’d probably remember, but for now all he knew was the feel of her body, her breasts in his hands and her mouth against his.
    He felt her body tensing and he wanted to slow her down, but she was in control and she quickened the pace until he thought he’d explode. She dug her nails into his shoulders as she came and, with a groan, he let himself go.
    It was a few hot, breathless minutes before Claire kissed his neck and climbed off him. With nowhere else to put it, he fished around under the seat for an empty doughnut bag, dropped the condom in it and balled it up.
    All he had to do was yank up his jeans, but he gave her an extra couple minutes in the foggy cocoon of the cab to get most of her clothes on before turning the defroster to high, just in case somebody was watching. She was laughing as she leaned down to find her boots, and he flipped on the dome light to help. Her left hand was braced against the dash and the unexpected glimpse of white skin where her wedding band had been killed any desire he’d had to laugh along with her.
    He’d done it again, dammit. And he didn’t feel any better about it this time than he had after the last time.
    Claire finally got herself straightened out and flopped into her seat, buckling her seatbelt. “I really needed that.”
    He turned off the dome light, thankful for the sudden blanket of darkness broken only by the dim dashboard lights. “Yeah, me too.”
    She was the one who took his hand this time and he started the drive back to her place with his head all screwed up. Part of him was happy and sated and wanted to curl up in Claire’s bed and fall asleep. The other part was disgusted. He’d not only slept with his buddy’s girl again, but he’d done it knowing it put his friendship with her back on shaky ground.
    “So you’ll call the dealership about Brendan’s sled?” she asked after a few miles. “Soon? I really want to go riding with you.”
    A hard jab of grief hit him in the gut at the thought of trading in the sled, along with a fresh rush of guilt. Taking Brendan’s girl. Getting rid of his sled. It was too much. “Yeah. I’ll let you know what they say.”
    She didn’t say anything else and, when she let go of his hand to hit the skip button on the CD player when a song came on she didn’t like, he shifted his right hand to the steering wheel. She didn’t seem to notice though. Just started singing along with the next song and pointing out her favorite Christmas lights as they passed the cheery houses.
    Tightening his grip, he concentrated on the road and fought the urge to pull over so he could beat his head against the steering wheel. He’d managed to screw everything up this time, only this time it was worse. Not only was there no alcohol to blame, no matter how flimsy that excuse had been, but she didn’t seem to have any regrets. He couldn’t let her think they were starting anything.
    When he finally pulled into her driveway, he put the truck in Park, wondering how the hell he was going to get himself out of this. He just wanted to go home, max out the iPod’s volume and beat the crap out of the speed bag hanging in his basement for a while.
    Claire was scowling up at her window, though, and not paying any attention to him. “I know I left the kitchen light on.”
    But the apartment was dark now, which meant he’d have to go upstairs with her. He shut off the truck and put his hand out. “Give me your keys.”
    She was on his heels as he went up the stairs and unlocked her door. The living room light went on when he flipped the switch and everything looked untouched. Moxie twisted around his ankles before moving on to Claire to be picked up and coddled. He peeked into her bathroom and bedroom and didn’t find anything out of place, so he dragged the kitchen chair over to the sink and climbed up to remove the light bulb over it.
    “Burned out. You got another one?”
    “Over the microwave. Hold on.”
    He watched her as she set the cat down and stretched to reach the box of light bulbs. She looked…happy. Relaxed. And she smiled up at him as he took the bulb from her hand. “You’re a pretty handy guy.”
    “Yeah.” He took his time screwing in the new bulb and replacing the cover, but it was still only a few minutes before it was time to face the music.
    She’d taken off her sweatshirt and was curled on the couch with her feet tucked under Moxie for warmth. Pausing in the act of reaching for the remote control, she gave him a funny look. “What’s wrong?”
    “I should get going. It’s been a long night.”
    The happy glow faded a little, but she was still smiling. “Why don’t you just stay here? There’s no sense in making the drive home when you’ve got to go out early in the morning to finish up.”
    “I can’t stay, Claire.” And that pretty much killed the last of the happy on her face.
    “Why?” He shrugged, not knowing what to say, but she shook her head. “Don’t. Tell me why.”
    “I can’t do this again. You and me, I mean. It’s not right.”
    “You seemed to think it was pretty right a half hour ago.”
    “I want you. I still do, but…Brendan…” He didn’t know how to explain it and all the words in the world wouldn’t make it any easier. Probably just hurt more. “I have to go. I’ll call you tomorrow maybe.”
    “Justin.” He paused, his hand on the doorknob, but he didn’t turn. “Don’t come back.”

Chapter Six

    Claire’s body trembled with the effort it had taken to force the words out, but she wouldn’t take them back.
    Justin’s hand slid off the doorknob as he slowly turned to face her. “Claire, don’t do this.”
    Did he honestly think she wanted to kick him out of her life? He was her best friend. And, despite her best efforts to deny and deflect, he was the man she was falling in love with. Or maybe she’d always been in love with him but she’d blocked it out.
    “I thought, after the Christmas party, we’d be okay,” she said in a quiet voice. “I thought our friendship survived. And tonight, in your truck, I thought we’d had some time to come to grips with…whatever it is we’re feeling and that we were taking a step forward together, but we’re not. You’re stuck riding some messed-up emotional rollercoaster and I want off.”
    “I’m not trying to hurt you.”
    “But you are. I’ve always loved you, Justin, but I think the way I love you is changing and it scares the hell out of me. Since you’re not in the same place, you have to walk away now before it gets any worse. Please.”
    “You were a beautiful bride,” he whispered.
    The shift in the conversation put her off-balance and, almost involuntarily, she glanced at the formal wedding portrait of her and Brendan. After taking a second to calm herself, she looked back at Justin. “This isn’t about the past. It’s about right now.”
    “How can it not be about the past? I stood there, at my best friend’s side, and watched you vow to love, honor and cherish him.”
    “’Til death we did part. I loved him, Justin. I still love him and if he’d lived I would have spent the rest of my life with him. But he died. That life is gone, but I’m still here and I have to make a new life. I want to make it with you.”
    “I can’t. You’re Brendan’s wife, Claire. I can’t get past that.”
    “No. I’m Brendan’s widow. I’m not his wife anymore.”
    “But you were. I loved my best friend’s wife. You know what kind of lowlife asshole that makes me? The worst kind, that’s what.”
    I loved my best friend’s wife. His words were slow to sink in and she was even slower to understand them. It would’ve made sense to her if he said I made love to my best friend’s widow. She knew their relationships with Brendan messed with his head. He wasn’t alone.
    But he made it sound like he was in love with her. And had been since before Brendan died. That wasn’t possible, though, because he was her best friend and she would have known if he had those kinds of feelings for her.
    “You never betrayed him,” she said, because she wasn’t sure of much at the moment, but that was one thing she didn’t doubt.
    “I did. In my heart. And when I closed my eyes at night, I tried not to imagine making love to you, but I did it anyway. I tried so damn hard not to.”
    The emotional cost of that confession was written all over his face and she couldn’t take it. She looked down at Moxie and stroked her fur, not sure if it was the cat she was trying to soothe or herself.
    “You don’t mean that, Justin.” It couldn’t be true because it changed everything she’d ever believed about their relationship.
    “It’s the truth.”
    “He’s gone now.”
    “We both loved Brendan too much for him to ever be gone. I…I just can’t do this.”
    “Then you have to go. I’ve had too much pain and unhappiness to hold on to something that hurts me, even if it’s you.”
    “Don’t. Please.”
    “I have to.”
    He looked like he had more to say-she could see it on his face-but then he opened the door and stepped out into the cold night. The first tear fell as he closed the door and, by the time the sound of his truck roaring up the street faded, she was bawling into the arm of the couch, Moxie trying to comfort her by batting at her hair.
    Claire knew making Justin leave was the right thing to do, but she hadn’t expected it to hurt quite so much. And she knew from experience it wasn’t going to hurt just for a while. It was going to hurt every time she wanted to pick up the phone and call him, but couldn’t. It was going to hurt every time she heard a joke she thought would make him laugh, but couldn’t share it. It would hurt when there was a movie she knew they’d both love and she had to go to the theater without him.
    Even if he came back, things would never be the same between them again. Now she knew he’d loved her-he’d used the past tense-and she loved him in the present tense, but he was right. They’d both loved Brendan too much for him to ever be gone. And, while she could accept she was lucky enough to love two great guys who happened to have been best friends, Justin couldn’t.
    When the tears had run their course, even temporarily, she spent a few minutes soothing Moxie and then washed her face. She turned on the radio to keep the silence at bay and then she grabbed a few of the empty shopping bags she always shoved under the kitchen sink and started gathering his belongings. There was no sense in having Justin’s clothes and toiletries and miscellaneous belongings lying around when he was never going to crash on her couch again. Or sleep in her bed.
    Unfortunately, the pain didn’t ease over the next several days. With Christmas bearing down, it was an especially depressing time to be alone and nursing a tender heart. Concentrating on work helped and, with tax season right around the corner, there was plenty of that. Not having to leave her apartment much also helped, as did talking to her family on the phone. But she missed Justin too much to have more than a few minutes pass without thinking of him. Even Moxie seemed to miss him, judging by the way she’d pace in front of the door and then rub against the legs of the kitchen chair that had been “his.”
    Judy Rutledge called her bright and early Christmas Eve morning to invite her to meet for breakfast and Claire considered pleading a headache. But in the end she showered and got dressed, even putting on a little makeup, and headed down to the diner to meet her mother-in-law.
    Judy had beat her there and Claire smiled as she slid into the booth. “I hope they’ve got a lot of coffee brewing.”
    She was rewarded with a look that could only be considered a maternal scan. “You look like you need it.”
    “You know how it is. Holiday exhaustion. And half my clients just realized it’s the end of the year and they’re panicking about taxes.”
    “You’re not so busy you can’t stop by the party tonight, I hope.”
    The party. Claire managed not to groan out loud, but she knew she’d be lucky to escape the diner without spilling her guts. Her mother-in-law had uncanny emotional radar and she didn’t take “fine” for an answer.
    “I’m not sure if I’ll make it or not,” she said honestly. She hadn’t decided yet if she could face it. Either Justin would be there and she’d feel like crap seeing him again, or he wouldn’t be there and she’d feel like crap knowing she’d come between him and the people he considered a second family. Neither really filled her with holiday spirit.
    “I hope you’ll try. It won’t be the same without you.”
    Claire was saved having to respond to that by the waitress appearing to take their order, which required her to pretend she had an appetite. She figured an omelet and home fries would be easy to mangle on the plate, making it look as though she’d eaten more than she actually had.
    Halfway through the meal and inane small talk, though, Judy set down her fork and gave her a hard look. “Tell me what’s going on, Claire. Don’t make keep trying to guess while imagining something horrible.”
    Looking her husband’s mother in the eye made it seem a lot more horrible than it had seemed before, though. It was going to hurt, no matter how much she tried to hedge around the truth of the situation.
    “Justin and I…we’ve had a falling out of sorts.”
    “I thought it might have something to do with him. He hasn’t quite been himself, either.” Judy took a sip of her coffee, looking thoughtful. “It must be especially hard having a falling out with a friend at Christmastime.”
    It was, though Claire only nodded, because it could always be worse. They’d both seen hard. Hard had been Judy’s hand gripping hers at the funeral so tightly she thought their bones would crack.
    “Claire.” Judy said nothing else until she stopped fiddling with her home fries and looked up. “I hope you know Phil and I love you like a daughter, but that doesn’t mean we expect you to spend the rest of your life mourning Brendan. You can talk to me, sweetie. I want you to talk to me.”
    “It’s too messy.” Claire shook her head, looking down into her nearly empty coffee cup. “It was just…I guess we were both lonely and we went to a Christmas party and had too much to drink and…it’s just too messy.”
    She hated playing the alcohol card because it was a lie, but it was easier than trying to explain the tangle of emotions her relationship with Justin had become.
    “You love Justin.”
    The statement, made so simply and without accusation, made Claire’s throat close up and it was all she could do not to break down into tears. Her feelings for Justin were so complicated she hadn’t thought it could be summed up so easily.
    “But Brendan’s coming between you,” Judy continued.
    “Brendan’s not between us,” Claire said, a little more sharply than she intended. She wouldn’t share Justin’s confession with Judy-that he’d loved his best friend’s wife-because it might damage Justin’s relationship with the Rutledges, but it was never far from her mind. “He’s with us. In our hearts and our thoughts and he always will be because we loved him. I miss him every day, you know. So does Justin.”
    “I do know.” Judy reached across the table and squeezed her hand. “I lost my son, but I don’t know how it feels to lose my husband so I don’t know the right words to say. But I hope you don’t give up on Justin-or yourself-just because it’s hard right now.”
    Sometimes it was too hard, but she didn’t want to drag Judy any farther into such a depressing topic. Especially the morning of her Christmas Eve party. “I’m not giving up on anything yet. But let’s talk about something else. Since you always figure it out, what did Phil get you for Christmas this year?”

    Justin stood with his hands shoved in his coat pockets, staring down at the block of polished granite. Brendan Rutledge. Beloved Son, Husband, Brother and Red Sox Fan.
    He’d been sitting between Judy and Claire in the funeral director’s office, holding their hands, while they went through the long, painful process of planning their goodbye. But it had been Phil, sitting with his arms wrapped around Brendan’s sister and who’d been quiet up until the moment came to order the headstone, who had said his son would have wanted the world to know he was a Red Sox fan. The three women had laughed-weak, startled amusement that pierced through the suffocating blanket of unexpected, bone-deep grief.
    Claire had wanted to add friend, for Justin’s sake, but the funeral director was concerned about the amount of space on the small stone. Justin had squeezed her hand and told her brother said everything important about his relationship with Brendan.
    He stared now at that word etched forever into granite. Brother. “I slept with your wife.”
    There was no clap of thunder. No lightning strike or howling winds or deluge of icy rain. Just silence and the beating of his heart.
    “I tried not to. I tried so damn hard not to.” He swallowed hard. “We tried to blame the booze at first. But we weren’t drunk. It was just the excuse we used to make it okay. And…then we did it again.”
    He stopped. Blew out a breath. “I hurt her. You worshipped her and you made her laugh and smile and…I made her cry. I think, more than anything, you’d kick my ass just for that. God, I wish you could kick my ass right now.”
    Justin heard a strangled sob behind him and turned to see Judy Rutledge standing a short distance behind him. Her face was pale and streaked with tears as her leather-gloved hands strangled the stems of a small Christmas bouquet. The guilt of hurting another woman Brendan had loved almost crippled him.
    “He considered you his brother,” she said in a small voice that hit him like a wrecking ball.
    His shoulders hunched under his coat as he waited for the accusations and recriminations from the woman who’d been a second mother to him. He wouldn’t try to defend what he’d done or hide from the pain. He deserved to hurt as much as she did. More. Because he’d betrayed her, too.
    “I’ve loved you like a son, Justin. The boys. That’s how Phil and I always referred to you. The boys. You were probably closer than any real brothers could have been. And he’s gone now.”
    The agony in her voice and in her eyes made his heart clench and his throat close up until he could barely breathe. “I didn’t want this to happen.”
    “But I still have you. I still have one of my boys and I have Claire, who will always be a second daughter to me. And seeing the two of you like this hurts me.”
    He shook his head, his hands curling into fists in his pockets. He didn’t want her soft words and compassionate tears. She should be angry. She should pound her fists on his chest and yell at him for betraying her son’s memory-for betraying Brendan’s friendship.
    Instead, she stepped forward and opened her arms, but he shook his head again. His vision blurred with unshed tears as she cradled his cheek with one of her hands.
    “I get through each day by believing my son is in some wonderful better place,” she said softly, but firmly. “I believe he can feel my love for him and, since I believe that, I also have to believe he can feel your pain. He loved you and Claire so much. Both of you hurting would make him unhappy.”
    “I slept with his wife,” he whispered, and she dropped her hand.
    She stepped around him and set the bouquet of cheery flowers at the base of her son’s headstone. He watched her shoulders move under her coat as she took a deep breath and ran her fingers over Brendan’s name.
    Then she shoved her hands in her pockets and faced Justin again. “You have to stop telling yourself that. You have to stop believing it. You slept with Claire. You slept with the woman you love and who loves you and, as trite as it might sound, Brendan would want you both to move on. To be happy.”
    He might as well tell her the rest of it. Before she wished him any more happiness, she deserved to know it all. “I’ve always loved her, Mrs. R., even before he…before the accident.”
    “If I believed for a second you had in any way betrayed my son, I wouldn’t be able to look at your face, Justin McCormick. You know that, don’t you?”
    He nodded until she held his face between her hands again and made him look at her. “You can’t choose who you love. And you can’t will it away.”
    “I tried. I tried not to love her.”
    “And look where you’ve ended up. Both of you are miserable. Brendan might have been your best friend and Claire’s husband, but he was my boy and I know-I believe in my heart-that he would consider the two of you being happy together a blessing.”
    He wanted to believe her. But he’d spent so many years telling himself his feelings for Claire were wrong, and the guilt wasn’t a switch he could flip because Brendan’s mom said it was okay. He wanted to, though, and for the first time he allowed himself to imagine telling Claire he loved her.
    Mrs. Rutledge sniffed and then seemed to gather herself up emotionally. “Are you going to stop by the party tonight?”
    “Probably not. I’m not very good company and I’m not really up to pretending I am.”
    “That’s more or less what Claire said, too. You should go see her, Justin.”
    “I don’t know.” He wasn’t sure he could give her what she needed.
    The smile Judy gave him was warm, with only a hint of sadness. “You both lost Brendan. Do you really want to lose each other, too?”
    As he drove home, that parting question wouldn’t leave him alone. It echoed through his mind, over and over, until he wanted to beat his head against the steering wheel just to make it stop. He didn’t know what he wanted to do, but there was one thing he knew for damn sure. He didn’t want to lose Claire.

    When the knock at the door came, Claire knew it was Justin. She recognized the sound of his truck pulling into the driveway. She knew the sound of his boots on the stairs. And she turned up the television, determined to continue crying her way through one of the greatest holiday comedies ever made, even though National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation wasn’t the same without him.
    Justin knocked again. She ignored it. Ignored the pounding on the door and the pounding in her heart and the god-awful ache in the pit of her stomach.
    She heard the scratching of metal against metal and the ache intensified. His key wouldn’t do him any good. She’d changed the locks.
    He gave up after a few seconds and then resumed banging so hard she was surprised he didn’t dent the metal. Or maybe he did. Right now, she didn’t care. “Open the damn door, Claire, or I swear I’ll kick it in.”
    Since he’d helped Brendan install the thing, she knew there wasn’t much chance of that.
    She heard him kick the bottom of the door-not in a real effort to kick it in, but in frustration. “Claire…please.”
    The change in his voice went straight to her heart. But if she let him in and he pulled her close only to shove her away again, she wasn’t sure her heart could stand it. And he would because he couldn’t separate his friendship with Brendan from his feelings for her.
    “I’m not leaving, Claire. This time, I won’t leave.”
    Considering how long he’d been standing outside her door in the frigid cold, she was starting to believe him. And her nerves weren’t going to be able to stand much more, so she threw off the fleece blanket and walked to the door, flipped the deadbolt and opened it.
    “I saw you first.”
    He looked like hell and her heart twisted for him. “What do you mean?”
    “I saw you first.” He reached for her face, but she took a step back. “You should have been mine, Claire, and I’ve lived with that for seven years.”
    “When did you see me first?”
    “That night at the party, I’d been watching you and I was going to ask you to dance. But I made the mistake of going to take a leak first. When I came out, Brendan was talking to you. You were laughing and the chemistry was so obvious. Later that night he told me he’d met the girl he was going to marry.”
    She tried to wrap her mind around what he was saying. “I never knew that. And Brendan didn’t, either. Or he never said anything.”
    “I’ve spent the last two years telling myself I had to do right by my best friend’s memory. But hurting you doesn’t do right by him. Destroying myself doesn’t do right by him.”
    “A few days ago you were calling yourself a lowlife asshole. Now, all of a sudden, it’s okay?”
    “I found out the hard way I can’t live without you. And I realized Brendan would want us to be happy.”
    She shook her head, afraid he was simply at a high point on the emotional rollercoaster. “Until the next morning-after rolls around and you feel guilty and push me away again.”
    “I didn’t realize it on my own. I had some help from Brendan’s mom.”
    “You talked to Judy about…us?”
    “Pretty sure I didn’t tell her anything she didn’t already know. Or suspect, anyway.”
    While Brendan’s mother’s blessing probably went a long way toward easing Justin’s guilt, it was risky to hope it was some kind of magical wand that made everything better with a flick of the wrist and a bibbidi-bobbidi-boo. And it had hurt when he pulled away. A lot.
    But her own conversation with Judy wouldn’t stay buried in the back of her mind. Don’t give up on Justin-or yourself-just because it’s hard right now.
    He took her hand and she watched as he ran his thumb over her knuckles because it was easier than looking him in the eye.
    “I know I hurt you,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry.”
    “The past few days of not having you at all hurt more than anything.”
    “I don’t ever want to go through that again, Claire. It was pure hell.” Every minute of that hell was as evident on his face as she was sure it was on hers. “I can’t promise you there won’t be times it’s a little weird for me, but I can promise I won’t walk away from you ever again.”
    Those were the words she thought she’d wanted to hear, but they weren’t enough. “This isn’t about Brendan and that’s the problem. It has to be about us. You and me, Justin. Just us.”
    “I love you.”
    She froze, her heart pounding in her chest. “Justin, I-”
    “I love you, Claire. If you take away everybody else and everything else and it’s just you and me, that’s all there is. All that’s left is that I love you.”
    Looking into his eyes, that was all that was left. Maybe it wouldn’t be magically easy, but he loved her and he could say it and that was enough. “I love you, too, but-”
    “No but, Claire. I love you. You love me. And if we move just a little to the left, we’ll be under the mistletoe.”
    “A little to the left, huh?”
    “Yup. My left.” He pulled her sideways so she had to shuffle her feet to stay upright. Looking up, he took her by the shoulders and lined her up beneath the sad-looking sprig. “Right there.”
    “I’m not letting you kiss me until we’re finished talking about this. About the but.
    He slid his hands down her arms to her hands, where he threaded his fingers through hers. “Then let’s talk about it.”
    “I want it all. Marriage and a house, whether it’s yours or one we find together, and kids.”
    “Is that a proposal?”
    “I guess it is. Will you marry me and have kids with me and kiss me under the mistletoe every Christmas?”
    He closed his eyes for a second as the tension seemed to drain out of his muscles, and then he was grinning and lifting her off her feet. “Yes, I want to marry you,” he said just before he kissed her.
    When he was finished taking her breath away, he set her back on her feet. “I’d like to stay tonight, if it’s okay. Drive you down to your folks tomorrow and then stay tomorrow night. And the night after that.”
    “I’d like that.”
    He winced as Moxie started climbing his leg and, after disengaging her claws from his jeans, he cradled the cat and stroked her head.
    “She missed you, you know. So did I.”
    “I won’t walk away from you again, Claire. Ever.” Then the television caught his attention and he smiled. “You’re watching our movie.”
    They made it to the couch in time to watch the Griswold family’s Christmas tree go up in flames and they were laughing as she curled up in his arms, nudging a reluctant Moxie out of her way. The cat sniffed and curled up in her lap.
    “I love you,” Justin said against her hair. “I’ve waited so long to say that you’re probably going to get sick of hearing it.”
    “Never.” She tilted her head back so he could kiss her. “Merry Christmas.”
    “Merry Christmas. And did I mention that I love you?”

Shannon Stacey

    New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author Shannon Stacey lives with her husband and two sons in New England, where her two favorite activities are writing stories of happily ever after and riding her four-wheeler. From May to November, the Stacey family spends their weekends on their ATVs, making loads of muddy laundry to keep Shannon busy when she’s not at her computer. She prefers writing to laundry, however, and considers herself lucky she got to be an author when she grew up.
    You can contact Shannon through her website, www.shannonstacey.com, where she maintains an almost daily blog, or visit her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/shannonstacey, her Facebook page, www.facebook.com/shannonstacey.authorpage, or email her at shannon@shannonstacey.com.