Holiday WishesJill Shalvis
To say Sean felt stressed was a huge understatement. Give him a cliff to scale or a bar brawl to break up. Hell, give him a freight train to try to outrun, anything but having to pull off being the best man for his brother Finn’s wedding—including but not limited to keeping said brother from losing his collective shit.
It’s not like Sean didn’t understand. Getting married was a big deal. Okay, so he didn’t fully understand, not really, but he wanted to. He really did. And how funny was that? Sean O’Riley, younger brother, hook-up king extraordinaire, was suddenly tired of the game and found himself aching for his own forever after.
“We almost there?” Finn asked him from the backseat of the vehicle Sean was driving.
“And you double checked on our reservations?”
“No, I’m serious, man,” Finn said. “Remember when you took me to Vegas and when we got there, every hotel was booked and we had to stay at the Magic-O motel?”
“Man, a guy screws up one time . . .”
“We had a stripper pole in our rooms, Sean.”
Sean sighed. “Okay, but to be fair, that was back when I was still in my stupid phase. I promise you that we have reservations—no stripper poles. I even double and triple checked, just like you asked me a hundred and one times. Pru, I hope you realize you’re marrying a nag.”
Pru, Finn’s fiancée, laughed from the shotgun position. “Hey, one of us has to be the nag in this relationship, and it isn’t me.”
Sean held up a palm and Pru leaned over the console to give him a high-five.
“Just so you know,” Sean said to Finn, “I didn’t pick this place, your woman did.”
“True story,” Pru said. “The B&B’s closed to the public this entire weekend. Sean booked the whole place for our bachelor/bachelorette party weekend extravaganza.”
“I superheroed this thing,” Sean said.
Finn snorted and let loose of a small smile because they both knew that for most of Sean’s childhood, that’s what he’d aspired to be, a superhero—sans tights though. Tights had never been Sean’s thing, especially after suffering through them for two seasons in high school football before he’d mercifully cracked his clavicle.
After that, he’d turned to fighting, and not the good kind either. Finn, physically older by seven years, mentally older by about a hundred, had single-handedly saved Sean from just about every situation he’d ever landed himself in. Thanks to Finn, there’d been a lot fewer situations than there should’ve been and it hadn’t been for lack of trying.
Fact was, everyone knew Sean had taken the slowest possible route on his way to growing up, complete with plenty of detours, but he’d hit his stride now. Or at least he hoped so because Finn was counting on him in a big way over the next week and Sean had let him down enough for a lifetime. He wouldn’t let him down now.
Sean pulled into the B&B’s parking lot and turned to face the crowd he’d driven from San Francisco to Napa. And he did mean crowd. They’d had to rent a fourteen-seat passenger van to fit everyone, and he was the weekend’s designated driver.
Oh, how times had changed. “Ready?” he asked.
Finn nodded. Pru was bouncing up and down in her seat with excitement. Willa, her BFF, was doing the same. Keane, Willa’s boyfriend, opened the door for everyone to tumble out.
It was two weeks before Christmas and the rolling hills of Napa Valley were lined with grape vines for as far as the eye could see, not that they could actually see them right now. It was late, pitch dark, and rain had been pouring down steadily all day, which didn’t detract from the beauty of the Victorian B&B in front of them. It did, however, detract from Sean’s eagerness to go out in the rain to get to it though.
Not Pru and Willa. The two raced through the downpour laughing and holding hands with Elle, Colbie, Kylie, and Tina—the rest of Pru’s posse—moving more cautiously in deference to the preservation of their heels. Sean, Finn, and Finn’s posse—Archer, Keane, Spence, and Joe—followed.
They all tumbled in the front door of the B&B and stopped short in awe of the place decorated with what had to be miles of garland and lights, along with a huge Christmas tree done up in all the bells and whistles. This place could’ve passed for Santa’s own house.
Collectively the group “oohed” and “ahhhed” before turning expectedly to Sean.
This was because he was actually in charge of the weekend’s activities that would lead up to the final countdown to the wedding happening next week at a winery about twenty minutes up the road. This was what a best man did apparently, take care of stuff. All the stuff. And that Finn had asked Sean to be his best man in the first place over any of the close friends with them this weekend had the pride overcoming his anxiety of screwing it all up.
But the anxiety was making a real strong bid right at the moment. He shook off some of the raindrops and started to head over to the greeting desk and twelve people began to follow. He stopped and was nearly plowed over by the parade. “Wait here,” he instructed, pausing until his very excited group nodded in unison.
Jesus. He shouldn’t have poured them that champagne to pre-game before they’d left O’Riley’s, the pub he and Finn owned and operated in San Francisco. And that he was the voice of reason right now was truly the irony of the century. “Stay,” he said firmly and then made his way past the towering Christmas tree lit to within an inch of its life, past the raging fire in the fireplace with candles lining the mantel . . . to the small, quaint check-in desk that had a plate with some amazing looking cookies and a sign that said: yes, these are for you—welcome!
“Yum,” Pru said and took one for each hand.
She hadn’t “stayed.” And neither had Finn. They both flanked Sean, munching on the cookies.
A woman sat at the check-in desk with a laptop, her fingers a blur, the tip of her Santa hat quivering as she typed away. She looked up and smiled as she took in the group. That is until her gaze landed on Sean and she froze.
He’d already done the same because holy shit—
“Greetings,” she said, recovering first and so quickly that no one else seemed to notice as she stood and smiled warmly everyone but Sean. “Welcome to the Hartford B&B. My name’s Charlotte Hartford and I’m the innkeeper here. How can I help you?”
Good question. And Sean had the answer on the tip of his tongue, which was currently stuck to the roof of his mouth because he hadn’t been prepared for this sweet and sassy redheaded blast from his past.
It’d been what, nearly a decade? He didn’t know exactly because his brain wasn’t functioning at full capacity, much less capable of simple math at the moment. The last time he’d seen Lotti, they’d been sixteen-year-old kids and at a high school football game. It’d been back in those dark, dark times after he and Finn had lost their parents and Sean had been at his most wild. Still, he’d somehow managed to sweet-talk the kindest, most gentle girl in school out of her virginity, losing his own in the process.
Finn nudged Sean, prompting him to clear his throat and speak. “We’re here to check in. We’re the Finn O’Riley party.” He smiled. “It’s really great to see you, Lotti. How’re things?”
She cocked her head to the side and looked out the window. “Well the storm’s certainly been challenging. I heard the roads were bad, so wasn’t sure you’d all even be able to get here. I’m glad you made it. So, the O’Ryan party . . .” She turned to her computer. “I’ll get you checked in.”
“O’Riley,” Sean corrected. And why was she playing like she didn’t know him? “Lotti, it’s me. Sean.”
“O’Riley,” she repeated, fingers clicking the keyboard. “Yes, here you all are. Twelve guests, two nights. Wine tast
ing tour tomorrow. Bachelor/bachelorette here tomorrow night. Checking out Sunday morning.” She then proceeded to check them in with quick efficiency, managing to avoid Sean’s direct gaze the entire time.
It wasn’t until she handed him a room key and their fingers touched that she actually met his gaze, her own warm chocolate one clear and startled.
Again she recovered quickly, lifting her chin and turning away.
“You really going to pretend you don’t remember me?” he asked quietly.
She didn’t answer. This, of course, delighted Finn to no end. He grinned wide at Sean as they all turned to head up the stairs to their rooms.
“What’s so funny?” Sean snapped.
“It finally happened. You being put in your place by a woman. And she was hot too.”
Pru cuffed Finn upside the back of his head.
“I mean she was smart and funny and had a great personality,” Finn said.
Pru rolled her eyes.
“And,” Finn went on, “she didn’t remember you. That’s the best part. Where do you know her from anyway?”
Sean shook his head. “Never mind.”
The ass that called himself Sean’s brother was still chortling to himself when they all vanished into their respective rooms. Because the B&B had only six guest rooms total, and eight of their group were coupled off, the four singles had been forced to pair up. Sean keyed himself into the room he was going to share with Joe. They both tossed their duffle bags onto each of the two beds.
Twin beds. And shit, those beds were small.
Sean stood there hands on hips, the bedding that was thick and comfortable looking, but done up in a girlie floral print, situated way too close to Joe’s bed to please him.
Joe was looking less than pleased himself. “Damn.”
“Yeah. Sucks to be single in a wedding party.”
“Yeah,” Joe agreed. “But hey, positive spin—it doesn’t suck to be single.” He flopped onto his bed and grabbed the remote, bringing up an MMA fight.
Sean blew out a breath and turned to the door.
“It’s nearly midnight,” Joe said to his back. “Where you off to? Back down to the hot chick who didn’t recognize you?”
“She totally recognized me,” Sean said.
“Dude, then that’s even worse.”
Sean flipped him off and left as Joe laughed, heading back down the stairs. Because Joe was right, being recognized and ignored was worse. And it was all his own fault.
The night had gotten noisy. Wind battered the old Victorian, rattling the windows, causing the trees outside to brush against the walls, which creaked and groaned under the strain. Sean hoped like hell that the carpenters back in the day had known what they were doing and that the place would hold.
For the second time in ten minutes, he strode up to the check-in desk. Pru had been the one to insist on this B&B because it’d been built in the late 1800s and had a cool history that he’d been told about in great detail but couldn’t repeat to save his life because he hadn’t listened. All he knew was that Pru had wanted to stay here so badly that he’d made it happen for her.
But it didn’t mean he had to like it.
Lotti was no longer in sight. There was a small bell for service on the desk and just as he reached out to hit it, he heard a male voice from inside what looked to be an office.
“I’m sorry, Charlotte,” the unseen man was saying. “But you know we’re not working. You’re so closed off that I can’t get close to you.”
Sean froze for two reasons. One, Lotti had always hated her full name. Hated it to the bone so much she’d refused to answer to it.
And two . . . those words. You’re so closed off that I can’t get close to you . . . They reverberated in Sean’s head, pulling memories he’d shoved deep. That long-ago summer night they’d shared had been the accumulation of several years of platonic friendship, started when he’d needed help in English and she in chemistry. They’d tutored each other, the perennial bad boy and the perennial good girl, and then one night they’d been each other’s world in the back of her dad’s pickup on the bluffs of Marin Headlands.
Afterward, she’d told him she loved him. He could remember staring into her sweet eyes and nearly swallowing his own tongue. Love? Was that what this all-consuming, heart and gut wrenching emotion he felt for her was? And even though he’d suspected that yes indeed it’d been love, he’d wanted no part of it because it hurt like hell.
And then proving just that, she’d gone on to tell him that her family was moving away, but since they were in love, they could stay in touch and write and call and visit.
She was going to leave. Even with all he’d felt for her, he’d known he wouldn’t, couldn’t, be the guy she’d needed. She’d indeed written him, and being the chicken-shit, emotionally stunted kid he’d been back then, he hadn’t written back. Or returned her calls. Losing her had been like a red-hot poker to the chest but he hadn’t been able to see himself in a long-distance relationship, or in any relationship at all.
Hell, he couldn’t have committed to a dentist appointment back then.
He’d thought of her, always with a smile and an ache in his chest because he deeply regretted how he’d behaved. By the time he graduated, he’d grown up enough to try to find her to apologize, but he’d had no luck. He’d never seen her again—until now.
A guy came out of the office, presumably the one who’d spoken, and headed straight for the front door, walking out into the storm without looking back.
Sean waited a minute, but there was only silence coming from the office. No sign of Lotti, nor a single sound. Clearly it was the worst possible time to try to talk to her, but her eerie silence worried him.
Then suddenly came the sound of glass shattering, but before he could rush into the room, she came out.
She wasn’t crying, which was a huge relief. Her eyes were . . . blank, actually, giving nothing away. That is until she saw Sean. Then they sparked, but not the good kind of spark.
“You,” she said.
Yep, he had the bad timing thing down pat.
Of course Sean O’Riley would be the one standing there, witness to the fact that she had a problem letting people in. Gee, wonder where she’d learned such a thing.
Unfortunately, she couldn’t turn back time. He’d clearly overheard her being dumped by Trevor, a guy she’d gone out with six and a half times. The half date had been the other night when he’d brought her dinner and had pushed the issue of becoming lovers.
She hadn’t been ready and he’d been frustrated with her. She got that, she did, but intimacy was a big—and not easy—step for her and dammit, she’d just needed a little more time. Trevor had said he understood, but clearly that hadn’t been true. He’d dumped her.
In earshot of her first lover.
And that that was her only concern at the moment told her everything she needed to know about her real feelings for Trevor. Clearly, it would never have worked out. Not that this eased her embarrassment one little bit. Honestly, she couldn’t see how this night could get any worse and with a sigh, she met Sean’s gaze.
And holy cow, an age-old tingle of awareness and heat sliced through her. She decided to attribute this to the fact that he was still sex-on-a-stick, maybe even more so now. Back then he’d been trouble with a capital T, but with such charisma that he’d been like the Pied Piper. She’d followed him right to her own undoing.
And she had a feeling not much had changed.
“Is there a problem with your room?” she asked politely, hoping to get rid of him quickly.
But she should’ve known better. Sean smiled that smile that had once had her panties melting right off. “Yeah,” he said. “The bed’s too small.” He was taller than she remembered and leanly muscled. His hair was still dark but with some lighter streaks from the sun and messily tousled, most likel
y courtesy of his own restless fingers. His eyes still shined with more mischievousness than any one man should hold.
Not going there, she told herself just as a gust of wind knocked the house like a bolt of lightning. The lights flickered as the electricity surged and she held her breath. This old building could barely tolerate the electrical needs in decades past, so the demands they put on it in the here and now were always a gamble. Luckily the guests they had always seemed charmed if the electricity went out, and she made sure to keep lots of candles and lanterns around. Plus, she had a generator if she needed. But tonight she didn’t want any problems. Not when her biggest problem was standing in front of her looking good enough to eat, damn him.
Another gust of wind hit hard and again the electricity blinked on and off again. Please don’t go out, please don’t go out . . .
It went out.
“Are you serious with tonight?” she asked karma or fate, or whoever was in charge of such things.
She heard a rough laugh and then Sean accessed the flashlight on his phone. “This is your fault,” she said.