Holiday wishes, p.2
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       Holiday Wishes, p.2
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         Part #4.5 of Heartbreaker Bay series by Jill Shalvis
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  His brows went up and she sighed. “Don’t ask me how, it just is. It has to be.”

  She could see him smiling through the glow. It was that patented bad boy smile and in spite of herself, her heart gave a treacherous little sigh. She hardened both it and her voice. “Thank you,” she said with as much dignity as she could muster, leaning on her desk in order to keep her hands off the guy who still had a solo starring role in her every sexual fantasy, and had since high school. A fact she’d take to the grave, thank you very much. And okay, not every single fantasy—the Chrises had occasional starring roles as well; Chris Hemsworth, Chris Pine, Chris Pratt . . .

  With a sigh, she turned to her desk, a hundred-year-old hand-carved piece, the top inlaid with time-worn leather, the edges rough with life’s battle marks. It’d been her father’s, a man who’d never wavered in his love for her mom, not once in the thirty years they’d had before he died last year. And yet he’d died of cancer that he hadn’t told a soul about, not her mom, not Lotti, no one, nor had he had it treated.

  Because that thought led to a dark tunnel that she hadn’t yet found a light for, she shook it off and pulled open a desk drawer to grab a Maglite and a box of matches. She’d already had a bunch of candles lit on the mantel so they weren’t in the complete dark, but she needed to check on everyone. “I’m sorry, but I don’t have a different room to switch you to,” she said to Sean. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to go check on the other guests.”

  “It’s late,” he said. “Everyone’s in their rooms. Trust me, they’d come out if they needed something from you.”

  She cocked her head to listen, but not a soul was moving.

  “Not even a mouse,” he said with a smile, reading her mind. Then he took her Maglite and beamed it up the stairs. “See? No one. They’re all in bed. Tell me what else you need to do, I’ll help.”

  “Hmm,” she said.

  “And that means . . . ?”

  “The last time you ‘helped’ me, it’d been to remove my jeans,” she said, then bit her traitorous tongue. Where had that come from? Oh yeah, it’d come from her very, very stupid side.

  He winced, like the memories of their past hurt him as much as they did her. Whatever. She wasn’t going to be drawn in. She’d lost more than just her virginity that night. She’d lost a chunk of her heart. Not that she wanted it back . . .

  Grabbing her flashlight back, she headed for the stairs. “I want to walk the hallway just in case someone needs something.” When he followed her, she gave him a long look. “I can handle this.”

  “Humor me,” he said.

  So they walked the hallway together, didn’t hear a peep out of anyone, and went back downstairs. Because the house was so old, she moved to the front door. She needed to go outside to check the electric panel to see if she’d blown any fuses. She pulled on her jacket and was surprised when she opened the door to find Sean once again coming with her.

  He pulled up her hood for her, tucking her hair in, which felt oddly . . . intimate. “You don’t have to do this,” she yelled. She had to. The wind and rain had whipped up the night so that she could hardly hear her own voice.

  “You blame me for this mess. The least I can do is see it through with you.”

  They ran along the path and around to the side of the house, all while being pelted by the storm. Under the roof’s overhang, Lotti stopped, panting for breath. “Here,” she said, handing him the flashlight to hold for her so she could pry open the electrical panel. “And I don’t really blame you for tonight,” she admitted grudgingly to the panel, not wanting to let him off the hook entirely.

  Sean moved in closer so that his front brushed her back, protecting her from the worst of the storm with his body. “But you blame me for hurting you, as you should. Trust me, I blame me too. I wish that I’d done things differently.”

  She closed her eyes against the onslaught of emotions that battered her at his close proximity. “No,” she said. “It’s not all on you. I wanted you that night. But I do blame you for turning me into a serial monogamist.”

  He turned her to face him. He’d made sure to pull up her hood, but he didn’t have one. His dark hair was drenched and looked midnight black, his way-too-handsome face a perfect backdrop for those startlingly sharp green eyes. “Explain.”

  “No.”

  “Try again.”

  She tossed up her hands. “Fine. You were my first one-night stand and it didn’t work out, okay? I mean not even a little! First, it wasn’t all that great and second, I thought we were going to be a couple, which you clearly never intended. Because of you, I learned to be cautious and careful and became a—”

  “—serial monogamist,” he repeated, eyes narrowed. “I get it. But back up a second. It wasn’t . . . ‘all that great’?”

  Okay, so she’d totally lied there. She’d thought it might put a halt to this awkward conversation. “This conversation is going to have to get in line behind my other more pressing problems.”

  “‘Wasn’t all that great,’” he was echoing to himself. “Yeah, I’m going to need you to explain that.”

  Oh boy. She wracked her brain for a legitimate gripe. “Well it was over pretty fast and—” She broke off when his eyebrows shot up so far they vanished into his hair.

  “It was over pretty fast?” he repeated, so obviously stunned at this tidbit that she had to laugh.

  “You’re starting to sound like a parrot,” she said.

  “Just coming to terms with what an asshole I was back then. But in my defense, I was sixteen and pretty stupid.”

  And grieving. She had to give him that. He’d lost both of his parents in a tragic car accident. At the time, she couldn’t imagine the pain he’d been suffering. All she’d wanted to do was take his mind off things.

  She was pretty sure she’d done that, at least for a few hours. First, they’d shared some pilfered alcohol, and then he’d kissed her. And oh how good that had felt. Until that night, she’d never gone further than a kiss before. Everything Sean had done had turned her on. Everything. Until he’d tried to slow her down.

  But the alcohol had been like liquid courage and she’d been on the very edge of her first social orgasm. Slowing down hadn’t been an option for her and she’d pushed for more. She’d gotten her wish and he’d been sweet and gentle. He’d gone slow, so achingly slow that in the end, she’d been begging him. But they’d been drinking and he hadn’t wanted to go all the way. He’d been worried and concerned for her, but she’d pushed the issue, taking the lead, taking him into her body. He’d been buried deep and trembling with the effort to hold back for her when from the front of her dad’s truck she’d heard her cell phone going off.

  She’d been way past curfew.

  It’d been the call to bring her out, to dash her with the proverbial bucket of ice water. The fear of her parents finding out what she’d been up to with “the horrible, rotten, no-good O’Riley boy,” and she’d lost her mojo.

  Not exactly his fault . . .

  “I love you,” she’d whispered and she’d never forget the look of panic on his face. She should’ve suspected it then, but it’d still been such a shock when after she’d moved out of the city he hadn’t followed through with his promise about seeing her, not once. With all her ridiculously young heart she’d wanted forever with him. She’d called, written him letters, and she’d poured her heart out in each and every one. He’d never responded and she’d never seen him again.

  In hindsight, she knew they’d been far too young for anything serious. They’d both needed more life experiences and maturity. Not that her heart appreciated the reasoning.

  “I can promise you,” he said, “I’ve learned a whole lot since then.”

  The words made certain parts of her anatomy quiver, which she ignored. “Whatever you say.” She turned from him and eyeballed the electrical panel. Just as she thought, she’d blown a fuse. She pulled it out and replaced it with one of the spares she had tucked into the p
anel for just such incidents.

  The electricity came back on.

  “Impressive,” Sean said.

  “What, that a woman might know how to work an electrical panel for her hundred-plus-year-old house?”

  “No,” he said. “I know how smart you are. I meant it’s impressive the lengths you’ll go to in order to avoid a real conversation with me.”

  She blew out a breath. “There’s nothing left to talk about.”

  “I disagree. There’s the matter of the ‘not that good’ thing.”

  “Oh for God’s sake!” She turned to face him. “I take it back, all right? I’ll put an ad in craigslist and shout it from the rooftops. Would that make you feel better?”

  “No. But getting a chance to make it up to you would.”

  “In bed, I’m guessing.”

  “Preferably. But a bed isn’t required.”

  She stared at him and then had to laugh at his audacity. That was all she needed, to get too close and fall for him again. “Pass, but thanks for the offer.”

  “See,” he said. “You did mean it.”

  “Look, I’m sorry if you’re insulted by my memory of our one night. But I’m not interested in revisiting it or in having this conversation.” She moved around him and dashed back toward the B&B.

  With him right behind her.

  They stood inside the foyer and did their best to shake off from the rain. Unfortunately, the foyer was small. Too small, and sharing it with him made it seem to shrink even more. She inadvertently brushed against him removing her jacket and another bolt of awareness zinged her.

  Back in high school, Sean had been lanky lean, almost to the point of being too skinny. But he’d filled in since then, big time. There was nothing boy-like about him anymore. The Sean she’d known was now all man.

  Tearing her gaze off of him, she hung up her jacket and couldn’t help herself. She dropped her forehead to the wall and banged it a few times. It’d been a long day, and a longer night.

  Sean put a hand on her shoulder. “Hey,” he said softly. “You okay?”

  No, dammit. She wasn’t. She lifted her head. “Fine.”

  “I’m sorry about that ass-munch who dumped you.”

  She found a laugh. “How do you know he was an ass-munch?”

  “Because he called you Charlotte.”

  She let out another low, rough laugh. Better than tears. “Yes,” she said. “Because that’s my name.”

  “You hate being called Charlotte.”

  “That’s what I go by these days.”

  He held her gaze captive. “Why?”

  She shrugged. “It’s more professional, I guess. It’s a woman’s name, not a girl’s.” She inhaled deeply and managed to keep the eye contact, no easy thing to do. He could charm secrets out of a nun. “No one’s called me Lotti in a very long time.”

  He surprised her by taking a step toward her, closing the already small distance. “I’m sorry if you’re hurting,” he murmured with a surprising amount of compassion in his voice.

  “I’m not.” She paused and let out a breath. “At all, actually. Which is the problem.”

  His gaze never left hers. “I’m still sorry. For a lot of things.”

  The Sean of old had been a lot of things; wild to the point of being practically feral, as rough and tumble as they came, and way too smart for his own good. Deep in his own head because of his grief, what he hadn’t been was particularly aware of anyone’s pain but his own. “Who are you and what have you done with Sean O’Riley?” she asked.

  He shrugged. “Maybe you’re not the only one who grew up.”

  She knew that very well could be true, but the odds were against him. And she told herself she didn’t care. She had two days left of work and then she was off for two weeks. Two entire weeks! It’d been forever since she’d had any sort of vacation. As in literally forever. She’d gone right from high school to business school, and from business school to running the B&B for her family.

  Her mom had happily retired to hand her over the reins and was on a cruise with her sister for the holidays. Lotti didn’t have any siblings, though she was as close to her cousin Garrett as she would be a brother. But he wasn’t around this Christmas. No one in her family was, so she and her mom had agreed to close the B&B for the next two weeks, allowing Lotti some desperately needed time off. It wasn’t a coincidence that she’d picked this time of year. Last Christmas had been a traumatic nightmare what with her dad’s passing right before and then getting un-engaged right after.

  Lotti didn’t just want to get out of town for the holiday, she desperately needed to go.

  “It’s a nice place here,” Sean said, looking around. “It suits you, running a B&B.”

  Why that made her want to glow with pleasure, she had no idea. “Thanks. I love it on most days.”

  His smile was wry, letting her know that he understood today wasn’t one of those love-it days. Which made her feel a little bit like a jerk. “So what do you do for work?” she asked, genuinely wanting to know more about him. Which was so not good.

  He looked a little surprised at the question, which made her feel even worse. “Finn and I own a pub in the city. O’Riley’s.”

  She had to smile. “Talk about a job suiting a person. That sounds perfect for you.”

  Their gazes met and held and warmth went through her, specifically her good spots, which sent off inner warnings. Danger, danger . . . “It’s getting pretty late,” she said. “I should lock up for the night and go to bed. I’ll see you all tomorrow morning for breakfast and then again for the party tomorrow night, as I’ll be your server. Then once more Sunday morning when you check out.”

  He gave her a small smile. “You don’t have to look so happy about that last part. Do you have Christmas plans, is that it?”

  Sure. That sounded much more logical than the fact that she needed to get far, far away from home and the memories here. “I do.”

  “Did you make a list and check it twice?”

  She had to smile at that. She’d always been extremely organized and a list maker. That he remembered such a thing surprised her. “Yes, I did as a matter of fact. I asked for kittens and rainbows and peace on earth.”

  “A cynic,” he said on a smile. “I didn’t see that coming.”

  She started to laugh but caught herself. “Listen. I don’t want you to take this personally,” she said. “But I’ve had a rough year. I’ve screwed up some pretty big things, I’ve worked too hard, and I’m tired. But life is short. Too short. I’m going to learn to eat some of the cookies I bake instead of giving them all away to guests. I’m going to read sappy books with happy-ever-after endings instead of book club reads that make me want to kill myself. I’m going to sing in the rain and jump in the puddles no matter what shoes I’m wearing. In fact, I’m going to do it barefoot without worrying about getting a gangrene infection from a cut. I’m going to live life to the fullest, Sean. No regrets.”

  He studied her for a moment and nodded. “I’m all for that.”

  “Glad you approve. I’m going on a two-week vacation when you all leave,” she said. “I’m going to Cabo. And you can trust me when I say that I’ve never needed anything more than this trip because . . .” She broke off both speaking and eye contact for a beat, realizing she was revealing far too much. “Well it’s a long story.”

  He looked at her for a moment and she thought maybe he was about to say something, but he seemed to change his mind, instead giving her another small smile.

  “I hope it’s everything you want it to be,” he said and she could tell he meant it.

  She nodded and gave him a far more genuine smile than she had before. “Thanks.”

  Twenty minutes later, Lotti lay on her bed in her nine hundred square foot studio apartment above the garage and storage building. Her dad had renovated it for her when she’d come home from college and she loved it. It gave her separation from the B&B, privacy, and yet was a huge convenience
if a guest needed anything after hours.

  She didn’t have much in it; a love seat, her bed, a small kitchen table, and her inheritance from her dad—Peaches the parrot.

  “You’re late!” Peaches yelled.

  She’d forgotten to cover him up for sleep time. She got out of bed and draped a towel over his cage. “Goodnight, Peaches.”

  “I can still see you!”

  Even after nearly a year together, Lotti and Peaches weren’t quite yet friends. “Quiet time,” she said.

  “The meat loaf’s dry,” Peaches yelled. “You ruined my meat loaf!”

  Lotti’s dad had thought it was funny to teach Peaches to be a nagging housewife. “Go to sleep.”

  Peaches sighed and didn’t utter another word.

  Lotti got back into bed. Her toes and fingers were frozen to the bone as she huddled under the covers warming herself up with thoughts of sandy beaches and endless sun.

  She slept deeply and the next day she worked on the accounting books while her guests took a wine tasting tour with Sean as their DD. That had interested her because the Sean of old hadn’t been a guy to stand back and let others have all the fun.

  But they’d come back with everyone but Sean feeling no pain and she’d had to admit, he appeared to be taking this best man thing seriously. Very seriously. It was . . . attractive, seeing him work
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