Monday, December 10th
Winter in Minnesota didn’t rate high on my list of seasons, but I couldn’t imagine spending Christmas anywhere else. The pristine snow, the crisp, fresh air and the rainbow-colored lights decorating snow-covered roofs reminded me of a Hallmark movie. I loved shopping at the Mall of America for gifts and watching the Holidazzle electric light parade in downtown Minneapolis, but my favorite event always happened on the second weekend in December. That’s when I met up with my best friends for three days of good wine, more food than we could ever eat and lots and lots of laughter. We’d grown up in the same northeast Minneapolis neighborhood—Ellie, Jeanette, Ginny, Sarah and me—and through the years, were inseparable until our careers took us in different directions. Now that we’d hit our mid-thirties, it had become more difficult than ever to schedule a “girls only” weekend, but we’d made it a priority.
We always spent the weekend at Ellie Stone’s family cabin in Breezy Point, Minnesota. Frankly, I didn’t know why they called it a cabin. The multi-level monstrosity had six bedrooms, four baths, a den, two kitchens and two living rooms. In the lower kitchen, the Stone family cooked all their meals. The upper kitchen, the one with the beautiful view of Gull Lake, they used to stock all their booze.
I decided to drive up to Breezy Point a few days early this year. Ellie’s family had always considered me “one of the bunch” and had no problem with my coming up ahead of time. I needed to take a break from my photography business, something I hadn’t allowed myself to do for a long time. Lately, though, I’d begun to question the price of success. I had a thriving business, but the toll it placed on my life was slowly burning me out. The thought of spending four days alone in that big house with nothing to do but sip wine in front of a crackling fire would be good for me; it would also force me to give some serious thought to the dismal state of my love life.
I arrived at the house around noon. Driving up the snow-covered alley, I pulled into the back and parked in the driveway in front of the tuck-under garage. Thankfully, someone had cleared away the snow and shoveled the sidewalks. I slid out of the car and drew in a deep breath of fresh air, taking a much-needed stretch from the two-hour drive from Minneapolis. Even though the sun shone brightly in a clear blue sky, the temperature hovered around twenty degrees. Anxious to get out of the cold, I grabbed my bag and the tote containing my four-week-old kitten and bounded up the cement stairway. The Stone family always hid a spare key under the planter next to the back door. I let myself in through the screen porch to the lower level kitchen and living room.
The tote with my sleeping kitten fit on the seat of the rocking chair. The rest of my gear landed on the sofa in front of the fireplace before I dumped my coat and made my way to the bathroom. I turned on the water in the tub and stripped down to my undergarments. A nice hot bath sounded like the perfect way to kick off my vacation.
Suddenly, a loud thumping noise echoed from inside a room across the hallway. My heart slammed into overdrive as a frightening thought raced through my head.
Is there someone else in this house?
No time to get dressed—I grabbed the fuzzy robe hanging on the back of the door and wrapped it around myself then peeked through a narrow crack in the opening. I didn’t see anyone in the living room but finding the immediate area empty didn’t bolster my courage. I needed to call 9-1-1 and my phone lay tucked in my purse across the room.
Now what do I do? No way can I lock myself in here and hope the intruder just goes away.
My brilliant, lightning fast mind said, “Get the phone. Run. Now.”
Slowly, I opened the door and crept out, hoping the rushing water from the bathtub faucet made enough noise to mask my footsteps. I scurried over to my purse and snatched the phone then made a beeline back to the bathroom. Got the door open and almost made it inside when a large hand gripped my shoulder.
“A-h-h-h-h-h!” The shrill scream shot out of me so fast I hardly knew I’d opened my mouth. My body shuddered and the phone went flying as the strong hand pivoted me, bringing me face to face with my aggressor.
My breath caught in my throat as the fear gripping me transformed into jaw-clenching anger.
“Christopher Stone! You scared me half to death! What are you doing sneaking around the house?”
I hadn’t spoken to him since twelfth grade, but the gap in time did nothing to cool my foaming-at-the-mouth resentment of the kid who’d spent the entirety of his youth teasing me.
Ellie’s twin brother stood before me wearing nothing but a pair of skin-tight jeans, barely zipped with the top snap gaping open. I’d seen him wearing less at the beach, but even his favorite chino shorts had never looked this good on him. Before I knew it, my gaze quickly traveled from his slim waist to the width of his broad shoulders and smooth, muscular chest. Embarrassed by my obvious curiosity, I looked away. This body did not match the scrawny kid I used to wrangle with growing up. When did all this happen? I mean, I knew most ball players worked out to gain strength and boost their power to hit a baseball for a living. I’d watched Chris on television and on the big screen at the ballpark, but I never imagined him looking this good up close…
He didn’t seem to care about his half-naked appearance as he yawned and ran a hand through his tousled dark hair. “I wasn’t sneaking around,” he said in a smooth, deep voice. “I was sleeping. You woke me up.”
I glared at him to mask the sudden flutter in my stomach. “Are you—are you alone?”
“W-h-a-a-a…of course, I’m alone.”
I stared boldly into his deep blue eyes. “What are you doing here?”
He shrugged. “What I always do when I need to get away from the crowds—I crash. What are you doing here?”
“This weekend is our annual Christmas get-together,” I said matter-of-factly and raised one brow to let him know he’d better crash somewhere else.
He frowned. “Aren’t you a little early? It’s only Monday.”
“No, I volunteered to do the housecleaning and put up the decorations so the place would look great when the girls arrive,” I said lying through my teeth. He didn’t need to know my real plans.
“Okay, great.” He sounded amused as he leaned over and picked up my phone. “I thought for a minute there you were trying to get rid of me.”
My patience wore thin. “Look, Chris, you’re going to be in the way. Don’t you have to get back to the cities to get ready for a hot date with your girlfriend or something?” Whoever she is this week…
He didn’t rise to the bait, but I noticed a muscle twitch in his cheek, as though the whole “date” situation didn’t set well with him. It didn’t surprise me considering the high-profile women he chased—Hollywood starlets, models and pop singers—Queen Bee Central. He changed girlfriends with the same frequency most men took their shirts to the laundry. Okay, that might be an exaggeration, but just the same…
“Tell you what, I’ll stay in my room while you vacuum and do whatever it is you need to do.” His eyes flashed when I shook my head. “What’s your problem?”
“It’s not what, it’s who.” I took my phone from his hand. “I’m not in the mood to spend the next four days dodging a guy who likes to play practical jokes on me. You know, like throwing water balloons, unscrewing the top off the salt and pepper shakers, flipping my glass of soda upside down on the table, hiding a whoopee cushion under a blanket on my chair,” and his crowning achievement, “putting a live snake down my shirt?”
He burst out laughing. “Are you still mad about that? I did those things when we were kids.”
The fact that he still thought them funny still made me mad and I didn’t trust him one bit. “Yes,” I said in my snippiest voice, “and I’m soooo not in the mood for any of your antics this week.”
“I’ll be good.” He held up both hands. “I won’t cause an ounce of trouble. I promise.” His gaze suddenly dropped to the front of my body and his eyes widened. “Uh, but I can’t say the same for you.”
I looked down and found my robe gaping open, my pink with black polka dot Victoria’s Secret undies in full view. “A-h-h-h-h-h!” My scream this time had more to do with frustration than fright. I jerked my robe shut and stormed into the bathroom, determined not to give my childhood nemesis the satisfaction of seeing my face turn crimson like he had so often in the past.
His triumphant laughter propelled me all the way.
Denise Devine is a USA TODAY bestselling author who writes sweet romantic comedy and inspirational romance. She is currently writing two series, Forever Yours (Inspirational) and Counting Your Blessings (Christmas romantic comedy). You can visit her at www.deniseannettedevine.com.