The second hand made yet another full lap around the face of my newest Rolex. I narrowed my eyes and polished the face with the cuff of my sleeve. We were going to be late.
“Jacob!” I bellowed.
“I’ll be down in a minute!” My brother yelled back from down the hall.
This was the time of the year when I was most nostalgic, wanting to be around my relatives and enjoy all the traditional events that heralded the coming holidays. When I was surrounded by all the family members and friends who’d been there every holiday season, I felt like I belonged, like I’d always have my place here. I seldom left my comfort zone, and the familiarity of the same faces in the same place was something I’d always treasure.
Lately, though, with the rate my family’s resort chain was blowing up and taking off with record bookings, I’d been on the go and busier than usual. This was a banner year, and it looked like it wouldn’t let up in the next one either.
If I wasn’t in meetings, I was flying out to check on our properties. And then there were the reviews, the marketing sessions, the planning marathons encompassing input from all the departments at the head office. As CEO, I took it to heart and gave it my all. I wanted to make sure I did my father proud. Heck, I wanted to do my grandfather proud, too, since the family business began with him.
Being a workaholic dragged on me, though, and that was why I’d planned to hang out at home around Thanksgiving for a few weeks to relax and be present. With the many events scheduled for December, I’d be worn ragged. It wasn’t just hosting the parties, but also the obligation to attend and show my face as the leader at them.
It never ends.
That was why I wouldn’t hold a grudge against my brother for taking his sweet-ass time getting ready to leave. Most times, he was here not as a mere roommate but as the sole inhabitant at my house. I was gone so often for work, I wondered if he considered this place his. He was clearly comfortable bringing women home, like he had last night. Someday, I was sure he’d tire of his Casanova habits, but that didn’t seem likely soon.
I needed to chill and soak up these last few days at home. Leaning back on the couch, I recalled the good times we’d had so far.
Thanksgiving dinner. All the leftovers. Football games, both watched and played. Helping with the canned-food drive the Garcias arranged. Edward, the oldest of the Garcias, and I hadn’t needed to go to the gym that week. Lugging around cans and boxes of nonperishables was a workout with the amount our community donated.
And tonight, once Jacob got a move on, we would attend the annual s’mores and hot-chocolate party. The neighbors who lived on Swanson Ridge went all out on these gatherings, and it was just one of the ways that made this place home. As a kid, I looked forward to this night to try out all the possible ways to melt chocolate. Joshua and I used to compare who could char their marshmallow the darkest and then Landon would dare us to eat them. Once we became teens, it turned into more of seeing our crushes and trying to look cool.
Now as an adult, I still looked forward to seeing everybody and catching up. It didn’t matter if I’d seen them for Thanksgiving or just watched the games with them.
But most of all, I was excited for another chance to see Hanna.
Hanna Smith. I’d always noticed her. It was impossible not to, but I never let myself get too close. Everyone who grew up on Swanson Ridge generally ran in the same circles, but she was younger than me. She was twenty-three to my almost twenty-nine. It didn’t seem like much now, but when we were younger, I repeatedly reminded myself why she was off-limits.
Jacob had mentioned last night that he’d heard Hanna would be at the autumn party, and since he shared that nugget of information, I got my hopes up high. I was either away too often to chat with her, or she was busy with her friends. Five years shouldn’t seem like a huge barrier, but that wasn’t all that kept me from approaching her.
The last time I’d put myself out there for a woman hadn’t ended well. Maybe it was pointless to linger with skepticism about ever opening up again, but I couldn’t change the way I felt. Being hurt once was bad enough. Risking my heart again would just be stupid.
“Ready!” Jacob jogged to the last step, hurrying. He grinned, exhaling hard.
“You didn’t have to rush.” I shrugged, still sitting.
“Yeah, I did. I didn’t plan on sleeping in all afternoon.”
I stood, chuckling at his gestures for me to get up. “Well, if you hadn’t stayed at the bar so late, you probably wouldn’t have.”
He shrugged. “And I struck out anyway.”
I raised my brows as we headed to the front door. The hot chocolate and s’mores would be set up on the backyard of the Nguyen’s house. We lived in a close-knit community, so it would be easy just walking there.
“Which is all the more reason not to miss out on a minute of this party.” He got into step beside me as we headed in the direction of the party.
“Wouldn’t it just be some of the same women who were at the bar last night?” I teased.
He shrugged as I reversed. “Maybe. But I don’t care. By the way, I saw Poppy and Arlo at the bar. Arlo said Hanna told him that she’d be coming tonight.”
I hid a cringe. Arlo Briar was more her age, and the idea of someone more “appropriate” or more her peer chatting with her about her plans made me uneasy.
He’d be an ideal guy for her, not too much older. Whereas I was not on the market anyway. Still, I had to wonder if age really was just a number.
“But I don’t get why you’d want to ask her out or anything now,” Jacob replied, checking his hair in the mirror. “You’re just going to be busy as hell at the office and traveling to the resorts for the rest of the year. Doesn’t sound like a smart time to start a relationship.”
“Like I’d take relationship advice from you,” I shot back wryly.
He chuckled good-naturedly. “I’m just saying. You’re too busy.”
I was, and I intended to keep it that way. Staying busy with work was a hell of an effective way to guard my heart. It didn’t do a damn thing for keeping Hanna out of my mind, though, and that was why I kept my eyes open for her once we arrived at the party.
I might not have a good reason to talk to her. Hell, I probably lacked a good line to begin chatting. I doubted we could have much in common. Still, she wasn’t harming me by always hovering in the back of my mind, the untouchable fantasy that kept me intrigued.
After arriving at the party and being directed to the backyard, Jacob and I fit right into the crowd on Swanson Ridge. Tables set up with s’mores ingredients that were fully stocked despite the many kids running around snatching them off plates. Our sister, Clare, was already near the fire helping kids roast the white sugar squares. We saw our parents talking to some of the other neighbors more than likely talking about their children.
It was one big happy crowd of families and friends, snacking on s’mores at the huge bonfire or sipping hot cocoas, just like it used to be when I was growing up. Nostalgia hit me right in the face along with the smell of the roasting marshmallows and burning wood. Everyone was here, it seemed. All but Hanna.
I gave up on hoping to see her, chatting with Joshua and Landon. I’d never understand how they could call themselves anything but Titans fans, but I supposed they did need to broaden their player preferences a bit when they were doing so lousy with their fantasy football selections.
Jacob tapped on my shoulder, pulling me from laughing about the guys debating quarterbacks.
“Mark my words, I just saw the most beautiful girl ever.”
I lifted my brows at his attempt to sound like a Lothario. Following the direction of his focus, I drew in a deep breath of the chilly, campfire-scented air.
There she is.
Like every time I sought her out, my heart beat faster at the first glance of her beauty. In high furry boots, tight jeans, and a flannel and denim coat, she looked like she’d walked out of an ad for fall fashion. A white knit hat covered her head, leaving her long brown locks to fall over her shoulders. I couldn’t help but smile at the look of amusement on her delicate face. Those deep-brown eyes sparkled with mischief and mirth as she giggled at something her best friend said. Gabriela Garcia strolled up toward the tables. Their arms were linked together as they walked, and I was immediately eager to know what could have entertained them so much in walking past the bar.
I chuckled, knowing exactly how my brother felt. As much as he liked to give me crap about my interest in Hanna, I could give him the same for how obsessed he was with Gabriela.
“I think I saw her too,” I told him without taking my eyes off her.
He patted the back of his hand against my chest. “Watch how it’s done, bro.”
I shook my head, sipping my spiked cocoa as he sauntered toward them. They were too far for me to hear a word, but I knew my brother. Whatever cheesy pickup line he thought was gold fell flat. Gabriela furrowed her brow and shook her head at him while Hanna laughed and looked away.
Rejected. Again. I hid my smile behind my cup as Jacob returned to my side. He didn’t look destroyed, but I wondered if that smirk was the tip of the iceberg for how he felt.
“Shut up.” His ego was burned, and I could only laugh harder. When I looked up, I caught Hanna smiling at me, likely just as amused as I was at my brother striking out again. I winked at her, excited with her attention on me.
Damn. Having her gorgeous smile directed at me was like being blasted with too much heat. She was radiant, but before I could try to go up to her, Liberty greeted her and they all started talking again.
While Jacob nursed his ego, soothed with other girls’ attention throughout the night, I made sure to always be aware of where Hanna was. I didn’t want to stare and stalk. But I didn’t feel patient enough to admire her from afar anymore. Glancing around, I made sure to spot her in case I could find an opening to approach her. Something about seeing her tonight gnawed at me. After such a long time of lurking and watching her from a distance, I felt like it was now or never. Why not? Maybe it was all this downtime from being at home. It wasn’t boredom, but more like a restlessness to do something for once.
I still didn’t know what I’d say. I wasn’t easy to intimidate, but later, when I saw her alone at the fire, rotating her marshmallow over the flames, I headed out there. It was private, and I didn’t want to miss an opportunity.
“Hey, Hanna.” I exhaled in relief, glad I sounded normal and casual. “How’s it going?”
“Hey! Hi, Luke. It’s going, it’s going—Oh, shoot!” She giggled when her marshmallow melted too much and plopped into the flames.
“Here you go.” I chuckled and handed her another one. She smiled her thanks. “What have you been up to lately?” Too nosy. I inhaled a deep breath of campfire air. “I’ve been home for a few weeks lately and haven’t seen you out and about.”
She scrunched her face. “Don’t be silly. You sat two seats over from me at the football game at Joshua’s. You’ve seen me.”
I raised my brows. Huh. That was a precise memory of knowing how close we were. I didn’t bother assuming she was watching me as much as I had done to her.
“But, yeah. I have been busy.” Her sly grin led into an even brighter smile. “I started up my own event-planning business back before Halloween. And I’m loving it! It’s been a blast.” She shrugged. “Starting small, you know. But I’m hoping to score some big jobs for December.”
I bit my lip and smiled. Perfect.
“I, uh, I might just know somebody who could use your help.”
“Seriously?” She widened her eyes at me in glee. “I would love that, Luke.”
I nodded, liking this idea even more. December was only days away, and she’d dropped the opportunity of a lifetime in my lap. I wanted to figure out a way to spend more time with her in any other way than just noticing her in the background. And I also needed significant help with my schedule for the resorts.
Talk about a win-win.
“Who?” she asked, already giddy and hopeful.
She didn’t know it, but I had just scored a whole month with her.