|With art by my amazing co-author, Dee J Holmes!|
Picture it: Gwen’s parents’ Salish Sea island home. Yule. The sage cocktails have been flowing freely…
The inside is a work of art and is decorated to the nines. Swags of cedar boughs, with mistletoe hanging from each fastening point. Lights and candles grace every wall and tabletop. Bowls of candy beckon.
|I reach up, trailing my fingers along a delicate garland of ribbon, twine, and tiny berries. “What is this?”|
Gwen blushes. “A family legend.”
“A family promise,” Rhiannon adds. “Kiss under the mistletoe on the Solstice and you’ll be together forever.”
The sprig of green, dotted with berries, taunts me from above our heads.
|“Druids believed the berries represented sperm!” Stone booms, voice cracking with a cackle as he joins us in the foyer, the others trailing in behind him. |
What is it about family gatherings and abject humiliation? They’re like sharks, drawn by the blood of embarrassing moments.
“Stone Darling!” Rhiannon scolds. She turns to me. “Ignore him, Noel.”
“It’s true!” Stone protests.
“You’re trying to get a rise out of our guest.”
“No, Gwennie’s trying to get a rise out of him,” Aunt Sylvia says from behind.
By the look of mischief on her face, I half expect her to mime a hardening dick with her pointer finger.
“Ooh ho. Don’t mess with the berries.” Tod chuckles.
“Or nuts!” The kid nearly doubles over with laughter.
|“Would you all just stop?” Gwen snaps. She’s rigid, stiff underneath all the soft layers of her clothes. “We are getting settled, then we’re finishing our decorations. That’s it. Nothing to see here.”|
This is it.
The moment to take this mostly enjoyable gathering and make sure she absolutely doesn’t enjoy herself. I shouldn’t do it, not when this family has been nothing but kind since the moment I climbed out of the car.
But I play to win.
“Hey.” I cup her cheek. “They’re just teasing.” Granted, the Darlings are teasing in a ribald, interfering way, but there’s love under the jokes and gestures. A comfort with each other that makes me miss the days when things were easier between my sister, Mom, and me. We might not have had much—and Mom and I had to work hard to create something special for Autumn—but we made it happen.
Now I have lots, and I wish they’d still let me try.
Gwen’s cheek warms my palm.
“I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable,” she murmurs, gaze luminous and earnest, not resisting my thumb idly stroking her soft skin.
“My team spent many a season learning about inclusive locker-room conduct, but let’s be honest—it’s still eighty percent twig-and-berries related.”
Speaking of berries.
I glance pointedly up at the mistletoe.
She grips my arm. “Don’t get any ideas, Beck. I was not kidding about the family legend thing.”
“You don’t want to kiss me?”
Her lips part. “I didn’t say that, but—”
|I lean down, taking her lips with mine.|
Her small gasp is worth the gentle harassment her family dishes out behind us. She tastes like sage, tastes like more. With a hitching breath, she surrenders, rising on her tiptoes, melting into my embrace. I splay my hands on her hips, holding her to me, soaking in the pleasure rippling through my limbs. Building in all the places her soft body is pressing into mine. And I don’t give a shit that we have an audience and we’re just doing this because of silly holiday tradition. All I need to do right now is kiss this woman until it’s time to get back on the ferry and return to the city.
Wind teases my hair and curls around the back of my neck.
She jolts away from me, hands flying to hold down her skirt against the back of her thighs. “Beck. What are you thinking?”
Shit, did she think I was going to start groping her or something?
I rock back on my heels, off kilter. I touch my fingers to my tingling lips and lift and eyebrow in what I hope comes across as that was fun and keeps the oh, and it also blew my mind part under wraps. Swallowing hard, I do my best to pretend it was no big thing. “You wanted to show me the magic of the season.”
“Not that kind of magic.” Color spills into her kiss-flushed cheeks.
“My skirt flipped up.”
“It was just a draft.” Swiveling my gaze, I check for an open window or door that could have been at fault. But everything seems secure, and it isn’t windy outside, so a sudden breeze makes no sense.
“No such thing as just a draft, Noel,” Rhiannon calls over her shoulder, and I notice she’s ushering the watching family members back outside. “Life and love don’t come with dress rehearsals.”
“Nope.” Stone gives me a clap on the shoulder. “You’re done, son.”
Another inexplicable breeze rushes through the closed window, as if to punctuate the statement. I stare at Gwen, at those perfect lips I’ve just kissed.
All the skepticism in the world doesn’t stop me from wondering if Stone is right. I’ve happily avoided relationships for the past few years.
But I have no idea how to walk away from Gwen.
THE HOLIDARE made the USA Today Bestseller list in the Holiday Fake-Out collection! Allllll the happy dancing. The collection is now out of stores, but Dee and I are working on releasing THE HOLIDARE as a standalone novella (with plans for Beck’s sister Autumn’s story, too!)
Be sure to sign up for our newsletters and be the first to know when THE HOLIDARE will be released! (Side benefit to signing up for Dee’s newsletter – she includes drawings of her Great Dane, Fable, in most of her emails!)
In the meantime…
Read Chapter One of THE HOLIDARE!