Rainbow-hued strands of lights mock me from the rickety balcony above.
No lights, twinkly or otherwise, have any business being that cheerful, which means I’ve arrived at my sister’s party. I head up the narrow stairs from the garden entrance to the second-floor suite, trying to convince myself I can grin my way through the first holiday party of the year.
Music thrums through the treads, followed by peals of laughter.
Don’t get me wrong—my sister throws a great party.
I’m just not one for the holidays.
I reach the top and grip the railing for a moment before entering, steeling myself for the full-frontal festive assault. Then I plunge into a whirl of color and cheer, tinsel and tree-shaped hats and T-shirts printed with Kevin McAllister’s face or Cousin Eddie’s motorhome. Blue, gold, red, and green martinis and cocktails crowd every surface. I find a club soda for myself. Night before a game means no booze. I’m wearing a black button-down and dark jeans, aiming not to stick out. But standing between a masc-presenting burlesque dancer in full naughty-elf getup and an older gentleman with a long, white beard, a blinking tie, and plaid pants, I’m the one who looks out of place.
My phone buzzes in my pocket.
Autumn: One of these things is not like the other.
I peer through the crowd for my little sister. She’s lost somewhere in the elbow-to-elbow holiday mayhem filling the upper floor she rents in one of the many heritage houses converted into apartments off Commercial Drive. The place is one broken support away from listing worse than the leaning tower of Pisa, the main reason I agreed to come tonight. I want to convince her she needs to move somewhere that doesn’t need plumbing repairs every two weeks.
Probably would have been better if I’d started on her good side by wearing an ugly sweater or festive lederhosen.
Me: Didn’t realize it was a holiday-dress party.
Autumn: Your shirt’s fine. Your RGF needs work.
The burlesque dancer spins and winks at me. “Sour look for a pretty face.”
No immediate recognition—maybe not a hockey fan? Back when I played in Florida at the beginning of my career, I was anonymous. But not so much in Vancouver as their star forward and team captain.
I force a smile. “Bit warm, is all.”
Plausible excuse. The heat’s always wonky in this infernal house.
“I’d say you’re hotter than warm, honey, but I’m not sure you’d welcome the attention,” the dancer says.
I lift a shoulder and pocket my phone. “Always appreciate a compliment from a stylish individual.” I move my club soda to my left hand so I can offer my right. “Sorry, I didn’t catch your name. Beck. He/him.”
“Bruce. They/them.” They accept my handshake with a rough-palmed squeeze, metallic tassels tinkling like tiny wind chimes. “You still feeling that check you took against Chicago last night?”
Ah. They do recognize me.
I shrug and shoot them a half-smile.
“So stoic.” They unravel a length of silver garland from a spool hanging off their thick elf belt and drape it around my neck like a feather boa. “There. On point for Christmas, and between your black shirt and the tinsel, it’s your team colors.”
My phone buzzes. Not wanting to be rude, I leave it in my pocket. “Thanks,” I say to Bruce, just as a diminutive person dressed as a glowing snowball gloms onto them. One of the teachers from the school where my sister works, I think. I’ve been a couple of times to do presentations with the students, and the woman’s face looks familiar.
I’d make polite excuses, but Bruce and the teacher have started kissing like they invented the activity, so I slip away and check the message.
Autumn: Seriously. The RGF is an issue.
No, the issue is that my sister insists on living in a neighborhood where she takes her life in her hands every time she goes to the basement to do her laundry. Her parties are great, the people crammed into the apartment are a riot, and I’d love to enjoy it—but all I can think about is the multiple break-ins they’ve had in that basement. Twice in the past month alone. Completely unacceptable.
A two-bedroom just opened up in my Yaletown high-rise, and all I want for Christmas is for Autumn to agree to let me rent the place for her. A place with in-suite laundry, a dishwasher that doesn’t sound like a malfunctioning Zamboni, and a door attendant that will make sure her Amazon packages don’t get ripped off her porch five seconds after delivery. She’s not going to go for it unless I finesse it like I’m threading the puck through a five-hole.
Better than my stick work, actually. I win awards for that.
Not so much for convincing my sister to do what I want.
That changes tonight. As soon as I figure out my play.
I flick open a second button at my neck and head for the back door, elbowing past ridiculous sweaters and Santa hats and Autumn’s roommate, who’s taking up three people’s worth of space with the frilly layers of fabric poofing out the skirt of her red, sequined dress. She twirls to a chorus of whistles, and the short skirt flares outward like White Christmas had a torrid affair with a disco ball.
Gwendolyn Darling is a glittering marvel. One who always knows what to say to my sister.
I get out onto the balcony and suck in a deep breath. In true Vancouver fashion, it’s cold and as damp as a bin of used hockey jerseys. Smells about the same, too, given the dumpster in the adjacent alley.
I make my way to the empty corner of the balcony and brace my hands on the wood railing. It jiggles under my grip. Fucking deathtrap. How long do I have to stay to convince Autumn I’m willing to have a good time? Tonight’s throwing off my home stand routine: protein dinner, second workout, hot tub, bed.
Comforting. Effective for my game.
And perfectly devoid of Christmas.
“Baby Jesus in a manger, Beck, don’t stand in that corner!” Not Autumn’s voice. Gwen’s.
I turn and cock an eyebrow. My sister’s life-of-the-party, unpredictable roommate stands halfway across the deck, hands on her hips above the giant, glittery poof of a skirt.
“‘Baby Jesus in a manger’?” I echo. “Of course you go for holiday-themed profanity.”
She purses her lips. Not red, like one would expect, but gold. “Problem with that?”
“I lean toward a plain-old fuck myself.”
“Maybe if you got a plain-old fuck, you’d be less of a grumpy asshole,” Autumn interjects, coming from behind Gwen, standing close enough to smoosh her skirt to the side. A fake, flashing ice cube blinks in the bottom of her glass. “And would you get out of that corner? There’s a damn sign.”
I glance over my shoulder.
Railing Loose. Do Not Stand Here for Fear of Death. Literally is printed in block text on a piece of poster board tacked to the rail.
My teacher sister strikes again.
And the shitty house strikes, too. Shuffling down the porch and away from the danger corner—better avoid giving the local sportswriters the headline of a lifetime by falling off a balcony and ending my career—I scowl at Autumn. “I thought your landlord was going to fix this.”
“Yeah, he will. You know Hugo.”
“No, I don’t know Hugo, but I hate him.” Fizzy water sloshes in the can as I point my drink at her. “He should not be making you live in unsafe conditions. Christ. How many times has your laundry room been broken into this year? And is the dishwasher even fixed yet?”
I stop myself. I came to coerce, not to argue.
Come on, Beck. Game plan. Show her you can be happy at the party. And use the goodwill generated to convince her to move to Yaletown, where she can stand on a deck or wash her fucking towels without facing imminent peril.
Forcing a smile, I say, “Great party, though.”
“You wouldn’t know a great party if it bit you in the ass,” Autumn says.
Gwen elbows her. “Now who has the resting Grinch face?”
I blink at them. “Is that what RGF means?”
A laugh bubbles from Gwen’s lips, and for a second, her smile suggests she’s genuinely enjoying my company.
And I’m genuinely enjoying that smile. An image of a metallic lipstick trail down my neck and chest blazes across my mind, and I startle.
Since when do I think about Gwen’s mouth on my skin?
She’s pretty and everything, but nothing about her floating-through-life-on-a-whim ways meet my need for disciplined victory. She’s also never given me any indication that she’s into men. Even so, I don’t feel bad appreciating that gold smile. It’s sweet and glowing and not just for me.
She doles those smiles out like candy from a Santa Claus parade float.
Autumn isn’t half so cheerful. “RGF means grab a drink more festive than a club soda and mingle, Noel.”
I grit my teeth. My mom and sister are the only people who get to call me Noel.
“I have a game tomorrow. I can’t drink.”
“Fine.” Autumn takes a dramatic sip from her own drink. “But you’re drinking a goddamn martini at Mom and Dennis’ on Christmas Eve.”
“I’ll be driving,” I remind her.
Her eyes widen. “You’re not sleeping over?”
“Wasn’t my plan, no.”
Autumn’s looking at me like I kicked her dog, which makes no sense; the happy trio will hardly miss me when I’m gone. I glance at Gwen, expecting the same. But I only see curiosity in her amber gaze. Empathy, too.
Something twinges along the back of my neck. “I’ll stay late, AJ.”
“Or you could crash in Mom’s carriage house like a normal person.”
And wake up to the Mom-Dennis-Autumn display of holiday unity? No thanks. I’d rather sleep in my SUV than be reminded my family unit doesn’t include me.
Gwen peers at me. “Beck?”
Shit, did that show on my face? Or did she read my mind or mood or whatever it is she does? Gwen Darling has an odd knack for knowing things about people. Autumn swears her she’s a witch—or her mom is—and faced with that knowing gleam, I believe it. The last thing I need is Autumn’s witchy roommate spilling my secrets.
I need to change the subject. Now.
“A place opened up in my building,” I blurt.
Smooth, Beckett. Way to ease her into it.
Autumn’s jaw drops. “What’s your point?”
Well, I’m in the game now. Better set up the shot. “You could move in. It’s a great suite, view of downtown and a slice of ocean. Renovated. I’d help make up the difference in the rent.”
My sister gasps with horror. “Oh, no effing way. You’re not ruining my party by trying to convince me to move. I’m not leaving Gwen like that.”
Irritation makes my short beard itch. I scratch my cheek. “Christ, bring her with you, for all I care.”
“Excuse you. I’m not some suitcase you get to cart around.” Gwen backs up a step, the heel of her strappy, sexy shoe clicking on the decking. She glances between us. “I’ll leave you to your argument.”
Autumn snags her arm. “No, stay. I have nothing else to say on this. You know I’d never leave you hanging without a roommate.”
“I don’t want to argue,” I say, “but it’s a nice place.”
“This is a nice place.”
“Really?” I wave at the loose railing and the fragrant dumpster.
She draws a circle in the air with her middle finger. “You’re a snob, Noel.”
Oh, for fuck’s sake.
I rub the back of my neck. “I want you to be safe. Is that so wrong?”
“We’re perfectly safe here,” Gwen says. “Double deadbolts and everything.”
“And you’re deflecting,” Autumn adds. “Avoiding talking about your anti-holiday bullshit. What the hell is that, Noel?”
The two of them couldn’t look more different—Autumn’s tall and slender, Gwen’s barely pushing five-one and has curves that define luscious—but their piteous expressions match.
They chafe, too. Why is not getting excited about the holidays worthy of pity?
“It’s nothing.” I lift a shoulder. “Christmas is just another day, Autumn.”
Gwen frowns. “That’s… sad.”
I scoff. “I’m completely content.”
Two pairs of eyebrows arch at me.
“Okay, fine, I’m mostly content.” I take a hasty sip of my club soda, trying to soothe my suddenly dry throat. “The only things I want right now are for you to move into my building and to be on the last team standing when the playoffs end in June.”
Autumn scoffs at my perfectly logical position. “There is nothing that will compel me to move into that building of yours.”
“Nothing?” Shit. My sister really has her heels dug in. But I can’t stand leaving her in this place. I haven’t worked my ass off my entire life, haven’t reached the top tiers of hockey for my family not to benefit. So what if I’m not part of the trio? If Mom and Autumn are taken care of, that’s all that matters.
Time to fight dirty.
“Then you won’t mind a friendly wager…” I trail off, leaving the bait. My sister can’t resist a dare.
She hisses a low curse. “What kind of wager?”
“Oh, you know.” Come on, brain. Come up with something good. Who can get on the front page of Vancouver Now? No. Drinking contest? Not since college. “Let’s see who can hit the most pucks into the net from the center line. If you lose, you move into my building.”
“That’s a bullshit dare, Noel,” she says.
Yeah, it really is. I won the shooting competition at the All-Star game last year.
“Like you could come up with something better,” I goad her.
An almost vicious smile crosses Autumn’s face—a feat given her elf-ears and long, silver eyelashes. “Of course I can.”
“Oh, yeah?” I lean forward. “Lay it on me.”
“Autumn…” Gwen’s gaze darts between us, alarm visibly building on her features. She fusses with the disco-ball skirt of her dress. The Christmas lights hanging from the large overhang shine off the sequins. Colorful sparks dance across my shirt and the wall of winter kale growing up one side of the deck. “Come on. Let’s not ruin the party.”
“No, no.” My sister waves off Gwen’s warning. “I’ve got this.” She turns to her roommate, shooting her a wild, watch-me-win look. A satisfied breath rushes out of her. “Actually, no. It needs to be someone who loves the holidays as much as I do, but who didn’t grow up fighting over who got to be the blue Hungry Hippo. That’s you, Gwen.”
“Uh…” Gwen visibly gulps. “What’s me?”
I’m with Gwen. Nothing ends well when Autumn gets that bone-chilling expression of one-upmanship.
Autumn elbows Gwen and points a finger gun at me. “What does this guy hate?”
Gwen darts a look at me. “Smiling at parties?”
“Yes,” Autumn says. “And… the holidays.”
Slowly Gwen’s expression changes from alarm to glee. “You’re right. He didn’t earn that Resting Grinch Face label for no reason.”
“So?” I take a step back, even if it means getting close to that balcony and that inevitable Decrepit Back Deck Ends Life of Renegades Star Forward headline.
“You hate the holidays as much as I hate you ragging on our apartment,” Autumn says.
I laugh. “Those are not comparable.”
“Why not?” Gwen’s amber eyes are glinting more than my sister’s.
“And what?” I’ve come too far to retreat now, so I cross my arms. “You’re going to dare me to move in or something? Survive the holidays in this wreck? How’s that going to convince me to stop pointing out the obvious?”
“It wouldn’t. And you’re way off.” Gwen shoots a look at Autumn, who motions for her to continue.
With a grin, Gwen steps right into my face and jabs a sequined nail into my pec.
I flinch but straighten, silently daring that nail to press further into me.
I’m also tempted to nuzzle her hair to see if the addictive scent teasing my nose is coming from her near-black curls or her pale skin. With her spangly Christmas getup and frou frou drink, I’d expect to be smacked in the face by a mint or cranberry fragrance, but all I’m catching is a hint of bourbon and something uniquely Gwen. Not quite a flower. Herbaceous… Rosemary? No, maybe—
“Beck?” She cuts into my thoughts.
Shit, I was staring. My face burns. “Yeah?”
She throws out some jazz hands. “Focus. The dare.”
“You two never lack theatrics, I’ll give you that.” Unsurprising. The two of them volunteer at the neighborhood theatre on a regular basis.
The corners of her gold-painted lips quirk. “Theatrics, brilliance, take your pick.”
“What’s the dare, Wendy Darling?”
That earns me a flicker of annoyance, and I smile.
“That I show you the joys of the season. Go with you to whatever work functions you have. My family’s Yule. Your family’s Christmas. And when you have fun, you have to stop pushing Autumn to move.”
I snort. As if having a date will make this miserable season easier to tolerate. She’s dreaming if she thinks that’ll take me down. “And when you realize the holidays aren’t all they’re cracked up to be?”
“Buddy, I love the holidays. But”—she holds up a hand— “in that unlikely event, I’ll agree to move with Autumn into your soulless glass tower.”
Autumn hisses. “Gwen!”
Gwen shrugs. “What? It’s fair.”
I grin widely at the pair of them. Hells yeah, it is. Never let it be said I don’t appreciate a woman with a sense of fairness. “You’d better get ready for all the joys of the corporate season, then,” I tell her. “Because the day after tomorrow is the Renegades’ annual Christmas charity fundraiser. Nothing says misery more than rubbing elbows with a bunch of half-sloshed corporate donors who want to live vicariously through my fame.”
Gwen’s chin lifts. “Dress code?”
“Black tie. ‘Soulless,’ if you prefer.”
That pretty chin goes up another fraction of an inch. “Oh, I can do black tie.”
I bare my teeth at her in a fierce grin. She thinks she’s got me by the short and curlies, but this is a bet I can’t lose. My sister’s safety is too important.
And Gwen has no idea what she’s in for at that corporate function.
“I’ll pick you up at seven,” I say. “Be prepared to be shown the worst the holidays have to offer.”
Gwen matches my grin.
A frisson of warning—with a hint of lust—snakes down my back. But I can’t back down now.
I’m not the only Beckett who can’t turn down a dare.
The Holidare by Laurel Greer and Dee J Holmes will be available in the Holiday Fake-Out anthology on October 19, 2021. Order your copy today!
In The Holidare, pro-hockey star Noel Beckett is determined to avoid his family’s holiday chaos and anything remotely festive. Enter his sister’s roommate Gwen Darling, a curvy artist with a heart of gold who lives for the season. Wanting to sprinkle some glitter over Noel’s Grinchiness, she dares him to be her holiday plus-one.
Noel’s not one to back away from a dare, and he expects his grumpy ways to be validated. But Yule shenanigans and flirty Christmas games with Gwen break through the hot athlete’s commitment to all things Scroogy. Why does she feel like the dash of magic he’s been missing? Is this a Holidare they both can win?
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Michele De Winton
Melanie Rose Clarke
Dee J Holmes
Emma Lee Jayne