by Gerri Hill
Abby Carpenter is in a tailspin knowing she is about to spend ten days in the company of her ex-girlfriend—who is now engaged to her brother—for a family holiday gathering in Red River, New Mexico. The same ex-girlfriend who last year at Christmas had lured her into bed. Abby’s solution? A pretend girlfriend for the holidays would surely keep her ex away and in her own room at night, right?
Nic Bennett’s life has been far from ideal and Christmas is her most dreaded holiday of all as she relives horrors from the past. When an attractive stranger approaches her with the offer of a chance to get away for ten days, she agrees. But with a counteroffer that brings both anxiety and excitement to the desperate Abby.
Among the holiday lights and snow-covered grandeur, the lines between pretend and reality blur as the two women have the time of their lives. Soon Abby learns it isn’t her ex she can’t resist. And Nic learns what it means to be part of a family for Christmas.
|Publication Date||December 16, 2021|
|Cover Designer||Heather Honeywell|
Abby nearly cringed when “Mom” popped up on her cell. Normally, that would bring a smile to her face. But it was November, after all. Her call could only mean one thing.
“Hey, Mom,” she greeted, forcing some cheerfulness into her voice.
“Good morning, Abigail. Am I catching you at a bad time?”
Abby eyed the three monitors on her desk, all with different data and spreadsheets. Could she lie and say she was absolutely swamped and had no time to chat? No. That would only delay the inevitable.
“No, it’s good.” She paused. “What’s up?”
“Well, it’s almost Thanksgiving.”
“So it is.”
“And you know what that means.”
“Yes. Christmas is right around the corner.” Again, the forced cheerfulness hid her chagrin. “Can’t wait.” The words were out before she could disguise them, and she sighed. “I meant that sincerely, of course.”
“Oh, Abigail. Are you still not over it?”
“I’m over it, Mom.”
“You can’t blame your brother, honey. It’s as much Holly’s fault as anything.”
She closed her eyes as if that would make the situation go away. “Do we have to talk about it?”
“Of course not. We’ll sweep it under the rug like we did last year. We’ll all have a joyous Christmas, just like last year,” she said sarcastically.
“Oh my god! You’re blaming me, aren’t you?”
“I said no such thing.”
“I can tell by your tone.” She grabbed the bridge of her nose. She wondered what her mother’s reaction would be if she knew that she and Holly had slept together last Christmas? But no, she couldn’t blurt that out. She was too embarrassed by the whole thing to ever tell her mother about that transgression.
“So, Aaron and Holly are coming up on that Thursday, the twenty-third. I know that’s when you normally come too, so—”
“Surely to god you’re not suggesting we ride together?” she asked sharply.
“Well, it seems a waste. You all live in Dallas. Why take two vehicles on a ten-hour trip?”
“Because if we took one vehicle, one of your children would not survive the trip and there’d be a funeral to plan.”
“Oh, Abigail, so you’re really not over it?”
“Have they set a date yet?” she asked in a clipped tone. “I mean, it’s been two years. What are they waiting on?”
“Well, he did hint that they might have some news. I can only hope that means they’re finally getting married.” Her mother cleared her throat. “I know you don’t want to talk about that. So…when do you plan to come up?”
She could opt for the day after. The later she got there, the less time she’d have to be around them. Or she could go the day before and get settled in and establish her territory before the happy couple arrived. She leaned her head back and slowly shook her head.
“I don’t know yet, Mom. I’ll let you know.”
“But, honey, it’s only six weeks away. I have meals to plan. Your father is going to take a few days off from the ski lodge, or so he says. I wanted him to take the whole ten days off—I mean, he is retired, after all—but he insists they need him there. I swear, he’s working more than ever. Do try to come on that Thursday, honey. We’ll do our annual Christmas lights tour on Christmas Eve. Of course, we’ll do our fancy Christmas Day dinner, like always. And you’ll need to let your father know what days you want to ski. He’ll get lift tickets in advance for you.”
Whatever days Aaron and Holly weren’t skiing, that’s when she’d go. But she would save that request for later.
“I better get back to work, Mom.”
“That’s it? But we haven’t decided anything yet.”
“I will be there on or before the twenty-third. How’s that?”
“Before? Oh, that would be wonderful. I’ll tell your father.”
She smiled at her mother’s exuberance. “Love you, Mom. Talk soon.”
She rested her head in her hands, wondering what in the world she was going to do. It had been nearly unbearable last year. That is, until the morning she’d found herself in bed with Holly, her ex of two years now. That had pushed her stress level to new heights, and she’d fled Red River four days early, blaming some crisis at work that demanded her attention. She’d not seen nor spoken to her brother nor Holly since then.
And now Christmas was rolling around again. Oh joy.
At noon, Abby hurried into the courtyard, the common area between the three towering office buildings, hoping Sharon had beaten her there. The lunch crowd was crazy today as the first real cold front of autumn had chased away the lingering summer heat that had been holding on for dear life, it seemed. She saw a few empty tables but instead of grabbing one, she scanned the area, finally seeing someone waving at her. She smiled at her friend, then sidestepped two men who rushed to grab one of the remaining tables.
“I almost like the heat of summer better. At least we get our pick of tables then.” She looked longingly at their usual spot, the table under the big oak that provided them shade even during the hot summer months. Four chatty ladies were there, all talking at once as they gossiped.
“It’s like they just crawled out of the woodwork. I don’t even recognize half these people.”
Abby eyed Sharon’s lunch as she sat down. “You went to the cafeteria?”
“Yeah, I slipped out early. What did you bring?”
“Same old boring turkey sandwich.” She pulled it from her backpack along with the small snack bag of chips. Instead of eating, though, she let out a heavy sigh. “My mother called this morning.”
Sharon stabbed a fork into her salad. “And?”
“And it’s November.”
Abby rolled her eyes. “She wanted to talk about Christmas.”
“You love Christmas.”
Abby looked at her pointedly.
“Oh.” Sharon waved her hand in the air. “Because you can’t control yourself with your ex, you’re afraid to go?” Then she laughed. “Can’t believe you slept with her last year.”
“I can control myself. I told you, she flirted with me the whole time I was there. Right in front of my brother, too. What was I supposed to do? Ignore her?”
“Umm, yeah. Or tell your brother what she was doing.” Sharon shook her head. “That whole thing is so messed up. I can’t really see you two together anyway. Can’t believe you’re still hung up on her.”
“You’ve never even met her.”
“I saw pictures and I’ve heard stories. She’s not you. You didn’t fit together. I see you with someone a little more…sporty.”
Abby smiled at her friend. She and Sharon first met out here seven years ago and became fast friends. “Courtyard friends” is what Sharon called them. They knew everything about each other’s lives, yet they’d never once met up after work or on weekends. They were the epitome of work friends, even though they not only worked for different companies, but they also worked in different buildings.
“Yes, you’re right. We didn’t fit. We had little in common, true.” She finally opened her sandwich. “It was just one of those things. Besides, we were together all of six months. I’m over it.”
“If you’re over it, then why are you dreading Christmas for the second year in a row?” Sharon grinned at her. “Afraid you’ll end up in bed with her again?”
Abby groaned. “Yes. I’m…I’m still attracted to her, I guess. But it’s been a year. Maybe it’s gone away. Regardless, I had too much wine and, like I said, she flirted with me nonstop . I finally broke.”
“Are you sure you didn’t sleep with her just to get back at your brother?”
“Get back at him? If Aaron is stupid enough to date a lesbian, then it’s his own damn fault that she cheated on him.”
“Cheated on him with you, let’s don’t forget.”
Abby held up her hand. “I don’t want to talk about it. That was a year ago. My problem now is this year.”
“So don’t go. Simple as that.”
“I can’t not go for Christmas. My mother would kill me. Besides, I love Christmas.” She leaned her elbows on the table, her sandwich forgotten. “I’ve kinda been thinking…maybe I should take a date along.”
“To Red River? Are you dating someone that you didn’t tell me about?”
“You know I’m not. And, yeah, that could be a problem. But what I was thinking was, I’d just get a fake date. Someone to keep me accountable and not let Holly get to me.”
Sharon stared at her. “That’s weird, Abby. Even for you.”
“I think it would be perfect. I won’t have to worry about Holly flirting with me then. I won’t have to go out of my way to avoid her and my brother. I know my mother would love it. Did I tell you how stressful it was last year? It’s like everyone was walking on eggshells the whole time.”
“I imagine so. This would be, what? The third Christmas with her?”
Abby sighed. “Yes. I took her with me two years ago. She and my brother hit it off so much so that they slept together. She broke up with me on the last day and rode back to Dallas with him.”
“And last year she and your brother came as a couple, yet she flirted with you, and you ended up sleeping together. Crazy, I tell you.”
“And this year, I want to go armed. If I have a date, then nothing out of the ordinary should happen. I don’t care how much she flirts with me.”
“I remember you dreaded going last year. If you think having a fake date will be better, then go for it.”
“My brother and I—well, there’s always been this edge to our relationship. He’s four years older than I am, yet there’s this competition there. I’m convinced that’s the only reason he went after Holly in the first place.”
“So, is she gay or not?”
“Who the hell knows? I only know that in six weeks, I’ll have to see them. Her. I don’t plan to go alone this time.”
“Who are you going to take? One of your friends?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about who I could ask, and it just seems weird to pretend to be in love with one of my friends. I’m not sure we could pull it off.” She took her first bite of her sandwich, then put it down. “What if I hired someone?”
Sharon picked out a piece of chicken from her salad. “Hire someone? You’re insane. Who does that?”
“I want to enjoy Christmas. I want to enjoy my time with my parents. I don’t want to have to worry about being alone with Holly or having her flirt with me whenever Aaron is not around. I’m weak when it comes to her. I’ll break. It’s too stressful. It took years off my life, I’m sure.”
“And like I said, if you really don’t want anything to do with her, call her on it.”
“That’s just it. I don’t know if I don’t want anything to do with her. Right now, of course, I can say emphatically no. But when we’re alone and she makes it clear that she wants to sleep with me, who knows?”
“So tell him what she does. Hell, tell him you slept together last year.” She waved her hand in the air. “You’re making too big a deal out of it.”
“He would never believe me. He thinks I’m obsessed over the fact that they are seeing each other.”
“And aren’t you?”
“I am not! I don’t even give them a thought.” That much was true. It was also true that she and her brother no longer had a relationship, but that was irrelevant.
Sharon tapped her arm. “What about that one? She looks like she’s gay.”
Abby frowned. “That one what?”
“For you to hire.” She casually motioned to Abby’s left. “Two tables over.”
Abby slowly turned, seeing a young woman sitting alone. She was wearing shorts and what appeared to be very dirty sneakers. Her hair was dark, cut short over her ears, and she was wearing sunglasses. The side view she had of her wasn’t enough to assess her looks, but she didn’t have to. She’d seen the woman before, earlier in the summer. And within the last month or so, she’d seen her about once a week, out here in the courtyard, always eating alone, always wearing shorts and dark sunglasses. Definitely not dressed for one of the offices that called the Las Colinas Towers home.
“Where do you think she works? I’ve seen her out here before.”
Sharon shrugged. “Her knees are dirty. Maybe she’s crashing the place. Looks like she’s got a tray from the cafeteria, though.”
Abby shook her head, pulling her gaze from the woman. “Anyway, no. When I said hire someone, I didn’t mean a complete stranger. I meant, you know, maybe a friend of a friend or something like that.”
“And they wouldn’t be a stranger to you?”
She took another bite of her sandwich. “You think I’m crazy?”