If he had known the new neighbor’s dogs were going to continuously bark, Julian would have invested in noise-canceling headphones. How was he supposed to get any work done? Okay, it might be the middle of the afternoon, but he worked remotely, so his home was his office. Deadlines needed to be met, and he’d been awake with the kids since early that morning. Julian yawned and removed his glasses to rub some crusty gunk from his eyes. Some days, there wasn’t enough coffee in the world for a single parent.
How many dogs did he have, anyhow? His new neighbor moved in a week ago, and there had been constant barking, ranging from high-pitched yips to throaty woofs. Their two homes stood alone on the dead-end street. Unlike the others who lived closer to the lake, Julian and this house were clustered together, only a small fence and some flowering bushes separating their properties. Yesterday, Julian noticed the street was lit with Christmas lights and red garland, and a stab of guilt went through him because he’d fallen behind on decorating his property. He and the kids had only done the family tree, keeping it simple with mini candy canes and shiny ornaments, while the rest of the house remained bare.
Julian rose from his office chair to look out the window. At least this new neighbor hadn’t decorated yet, so the kids wouldn’t have to point to the house and ask Julian why their decorations were still in the garage. The truth was, Julian’s to-do list was overwhelming. He needed to complete his workload before he could even begin shopping for the holidays.
And now these dogs were barking, which totally broke his concentration. He’d planned a successful workday, and at this rate, he’d get nothing done. Suddenly an enormous, shaggy dog was running down the street, and Julian’s new neighbor, dressed in board shorts, a tank top, and orange flip-flops was giving chase. He was tall. Built. He had the type of blond highlights in his hair Julian’s sister paid good money for. Nevertheless, he wasn’t at all Julian’s type. Julian preferred men whose muscles weren’t so…obvious.
Should he go over there and say something? Julian didn’t move since he didn’t enjoy interacting with strangers. That was why he handled his job from behind a monitor. Julian was still peering out the window when his phone rang.
“Hey, whatcha doing?” his sister, Brooke, asked. “Solving our latest tech problems?”
“No, although I have a phone call with a group in Palm Beach in fifteen minutes. I’m actually watching my new neighbor. He’s chasing these annoying dogs down the street. They won’t stop barking.”
“Quick, go call the cops.”
“Hey, he’s causing a ruckus. His house is the only one close to mine, and it’s been blissfully empty since the summer.” Julian knitted his eyebrows together. When the house sold and nobody had moved in, he’d thought it might be vacationers—ones he’d rarely have to see. Or even an investment firm that would never have an actual person living on the premises. Oh, those options would have been heavenly compared to…this. Julian’s scowl deepened. “And why would some single guy buy a house in a suburban neighborhood on a dead-end street? The action is blocks away from here with tons of ocean rentals.”
“I don’t know. Maybe to flip it? Why are you giving this so much thought?”
“It simply caught my attention.”
“Uh-huh. When the children ask why Daddy’s being arrested for voyeurism, what do I say to them?”
“That their aunt corrupted me long ago.”
“Only with cheap beer and Doritos.”
“I’m hanging up on you. Gotta go and fetch my binoculars.”
“Ha. Finally, Julian, you found your sense of humor. I was worried it was buried too far under your zip drives along with your sex drive.”
What sex drive? Even before his divorce, Julian had been exhausted a lot of the time from work and the kids, and he’d hesitated at Robert’s “solutions” to their lacking sex life.
A hesitation that drove Robert away.
Julian knew one thing about himself: no one would ever accuse him of being too exciting. Even so, Julian valued his independence. With the exception of his family, that was. Remaining in his hometown, close to his mom and sister, had been what was best for Sadie and Charlie. Thinking of his kids, Julian relaxed a little. They were amazing, the two of them, and Julian was prouder of being a dad than he was of anything else, even if Robert wasn’t. His loss. Still, Julian tried with Robert, for their sakes, because he was their parent too.
“Why don’t you go talk to the neighbor? Drop the binoculars and try flirting in person?”
Julian’s relaxation fled at her words. Even the idea of flirting turned his stomach. No, better to be boring and alone than risk being a fool.
“Easy for you to say. You flirt as you breathe. Good-bye, Brooke. I love you, but you’re a pain in the ass.”
Brooke was smart as hell and didn’t take any bullshit. Julian admired that about his sister…except when her skills were focused on him. That was the trouble with talking to Brooke—she knew him. Unlike Brooke, who was naturally confident, Julian could be self-critical. How Julian envied his sister’s no-nonsense view of life.
Julian was much more cautious. And during the divorce, Robert had used that insight about Julian to make everything worse. He’d made fun of him, belittled him, and Julian had rarely stood up to him. Instead, he had buried a lot of himself under piles of work. Even now, Julian couldn’t shake the habit. Maybe it was for the best.…How long had it been since he’d gone on a date? Julian couldn’t recall. And he didn’t want to go on one, not after seeing how selfish Robert could be—not only with Julian but with Sadie and Charlie. He all but ignored the kids these days. Maybe he would be better over the holidays.…Julian would keep at Robert. His anger wasn’t worth hurting Sadie and Charlie. Their happiness was all that truly mattered, even if it meant biting his tongue around Robert.
Julian shut his eyes. Suddenly, the whole thing was too much to contemplate. Julian missed being in a relationship, but he wasn’t the same guy he’d been before when he’d naively wed Robert and thought it would mean forever.
“I’ll talk to you later.”
“Wait! Don’t go yet. I’m sorry for teasing, all right? The reason I called wasn’t to analyze your new neighbor. It was to tell you I’m doing Christmas dinner at my place.”
“What about Mom?”
“She’s bailing. Since Mom did Thanksgiving, I couldn’t find a persuasive argument for her to do it, so I’m stuck. I’m thinking of keeping it simple.”
“You don’t sound happy about it.”
Understatement. His sister was not the domestic type, especially when it came to cooking. The last time Brooke had made a family dinner, she’d left some meat frying in the pan while she went to her computer to track the latest political polls. Thank goodness, her smoke detector, which Julian routinely checked the batteries of, had saved her from burning her place to the ground.
“The timing sucks, but I already said yes to Mom.”
“I can do Christmas dinner,” Julian offered. “I know you’re busy this time of year with fund-raising parties.”
He and Brooke had worked together for many years in the nonprofit field, and Julian loved his job: researching donors, being a detective of sorts, armed with his databases. He spent most of his day managing information. Julian learned all types of things about their donors—from who they socialized with to their politics to their dogs’ names. He didn’t love Brooke’s side of it. He hated the face-to-face schmoozing. Luckily, Brooke enjoyed milking donors for money.
“Are you sure?” Brooke hesitated. “I hate to take advantage. You’re always so busy with the kids. But it’s a crucial time for us. I’m making over a hundred phone calls a day trying to get folks to open up their wallets for children in need. You’d think since it’s the giving season, it’d be easy, but it’s not. And I have a feeling that Mom might object to frozen pizza for Christmas.”
“I’m sure. It’ll be fun, and the kids will be excited to have it at our house. You know how Sadie always prefers to be home.”
“Thanks. You’re the best brother ever.”
“What about Pierce?” Julian laughed, referring to their baby brother. Pierce was young and at that carefree stage of life, which Julian envied. He couldn’t remember the last time he felt carefree. Cranky and tired, yes, but not carefree.
“Oh, please. He’s useless. Pierce is in college, which means the only contribution he’ll make to our holiday is to hand us a load of his smelly laundry. As if I’d do it for him. No, you’re the best I’ve got. And if you want me and Oscar to babysit some weekend, we’re so there. Or you could get Mom—she’d love it. You should totally go out and meet a real guy, and stop spying on the neighbors.”
“I appreciate the sisterly concern, but I’m doing fine.”
“You never listen to me. Why is that? I’m always right, Julian. Accept it.”
Julian tried never to argue with her. In a family of strong personalities, he was the one to usually yield. But he wasn’t ready for the clubs, and he wasn’t twenty anymore. He was way past the acceptable ass-shaking club age. Even when he had been twenty, Julian wasn’t the type to want the attention.
You’re lucky to have a guy like me.
Robert had always said that when comparing their looks. Maybe Julian was average-looking—hell, he knew he was—but he found that knowledge acceptable. He had his family, a great job, and most importantly, his kids. Julian didn’t need more. He was kind of a loner.…Well, he would be if not for his family.
He glanced out his window again. The big dog dodged out of his neighbor’s reach and barked, almost sounding as if it were laughing at the man. It paused for a moment nearby, wiggling its furry rump.
His neighbor crouched low to try and coax the dog to him, his words soft and indistinct, all while giving Julian a nice view of his back and ass. Julian swore the man’s ass was wriggling in time with the dog’s.
“Fuck!” His drink sloshed on his lap.
He wiped the coffee from his pants just as the dog ran off again, and his neighbor continued his pursuit. Shit, why couldn’t he stop looking at him? “He’ll never catch the dog in those shoes,” Julian mumbled, watching.
“What’d you say?”
“Um, nothing. Look, Brooke, I gotta go. Talk soon.”
He hung up over Brooke’s protests.
The man’s tanned shoulders and broad back were facing him and based on how quickly he moved his long muscular legs, he definitely saw the inside of a gym more than Julian did. Considering Julian never worked out, that might not be too impressive.
“Stop it. You are not attracted to him.” Julian lectured himself sternly. “You aren’t dating until the kids are in college and even then, it will be a sensible man with low expectations and no pets.”
But maybe Brooke was right. If he didn’t start socializing outside of the house soon, he really would become some creepy voyeur.
Julian returned to work. Since nonprofit researchers didn’t always make enough money, Julian also did some freelancing in the IT world, but protecting firewalls for corporations did not have his heart the same as his charity work did. Years ago, Julian had worked full-time until his sister lured him away, and he was so glad that she had. As Julian exported files, his mind drifted to the upcoming holiday.
Having Christmas dinner at his house would be easy enough. Julian enjoyed cooking on special occasions—as long as it was just for his family or intimate friends. He mulled over the food possibilities. He might serve cider, with nutmeg and dashes of cinnamon, despite the hot temperature outside. Should he do a honey ham this year? Unless he did turkey. And dessert? Multiple sweets for sure. Desserts were the most important part of any meal. Maybe he’d ask Brooke’s boyfriend, Oscar, to bring one. His family owned a bakery, after all.
Or he could do his dad’s famous sugar pie this year…Julian smiled. On Christmas, Dad had always made his special pie that tasted of warm caramel and butter and had a crunchy brown sugar topping. He’d have to ask his mom for the recipe—if she even knew where his dad had kept it.
Food was high on Julian’s list of what he loved about Christmas. Not only was it all delicious to eat, but the food reminded him of family, those alive and those no longer with them. Brooke and his mom teased Julian that he was the most sentimental one, wanting Christmas to be traditional like their dad had, and it was true. His favorite thing about Christmas, though, was the joy on Charlie’s and Sadie’s faces when they woke to their stockings full. They still believed the world could be magical during the holidays. Maybe the divorce had hurt them, but Julian could still make their Christmas wonderful.
Julian was glad when the clock reached four, and he had an excuse to stop working and see the kids. He’d be back on his computer once Charlie and Sadie went to bed around nine, working until his neck couldn’t take it anymore. Meeting the bus, though, was something Julian never missed. He walked out to the curb and waited. He glanced at the new neighbor’s house once, wondering if he’d caught his dog. Sadie might react poorly if he hadn’t.
“Daddy!” Charlie flung himself into Julian’s open arms with exuberance. Julian laughed as he took Charlie’s heavy Captain America backpack from him. “How was school, kiddo?”
“Good! I got all green.”
Green was one of the colors used at Shelby Beach Elementary to determine behavior. Last week, Charlie had gotten a yellow for talking out of turn. “A slip or two happens to us all,” Julian had told Charlie, who’d come home in tears.
“I’m always green,” Sadie told her little brother before giving Julian a ladylike kiss on the cheek. “Hi, Daddy.”
“Sadie Lady.” Julian hugged her hard. At nine, Sadie was suddenly so much more grown-up than Charlie’s six.
“If I want to be safety patrol captain, I need green all year,” Sadie lectured her brother in her best no-nonsense voice.
Separately his kids were fantastic, but together the bickering had increased and was wearing Julian down. He knew, though, that being on safety patrol next year—making captain—was high on Sadie’s list. Julian was already preparing his speech if Sadie didn’t get what she wanted. She was sensitive and took failure very hard.
That was why he shouldn’t go looking for a relationship. Sadie and Charlie—they were his focus. Robert had let them down so much, Julian didn’t have space for anything but securing their happiness.
They went inside the house, and Julian made them some snacks. Goldfish and apple slices for Charlie. Due to his aggression issues, Charlie wasn’t allowed too much sugar, except on special occasions. Sadie had some yogurt that came with little chocolate chips to mix in.
“Daddy,” Charlie said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Use a napkin, please.”
“Daddy, guess what?” Charlie ignored the napkin. “The whole town is having a Christmas lights contest! Can we enter?”
“A lights contest? I don’t know…”
“Please! Look.” Charlie dug a slightly crumpled flyer out of his backpack.
“I’m better at computers than creative things,” Julian hedged.
“How hard could it be?” Sadie piped up suddenly. “And you can do anything, Daddy, if you try. That’s what you always tell us.”
“You want us to enter too?”
Sadie bit her lip and shrugged.
She so rarely wanted much from Julian these days. He glanced at the entry form.
“There are prizes?”
“Uh-huh. We could win a Nintendo Switch!” Charlie beamed.
“Or the American Girl doll collection,” Sadie said.
“Ugh, who wants some dumb dolls?”
“Nintendo rots your brain,” Sadie informed Charlie in a lofty voice. “Everybody knows that.”
“Daddy, Sadie’s being mean!”
“You started it. American Girl dolls aren’t dumb!”
Julian ignored them, still skimming the form. First prize was three thousand dollars?
Julian did well, but Christmastime was always tough, especially this year. His credit cards usually took a while to pay off after buying presents, and he refused to ask his mother for help. She was far too generous already. Robert paid child support, but nothing else. No extras. He was too busy spoiling the dancer he’d shacked up with in South Beach. And the divorce hadn’t been a cheap process for either of them. Julian might not be creative, but he did know how to hang lights.
“Daddy, can you take us to the new ice rink this weekend?”
“Sure,” Julian replied absently, still gazing at the entry form. If Julian wanted to spoil his kids a little at Christmas—and he longed to—he was on his own. He wanted to take them to Disneyland this spring and make that their big present, but he couldn’t justify the cost. But if he won…
“Daddy, can we enter the contest?” Charlie whined, clutching Julian’s sleeve. “Pretty please?”
“We’ll do it. Let’s make the best Christmas display ever.”
Julian placed the entry form on the fridge and secured it with a dolphin magnet as the children cheered.
After reading Charlie a fifth story and reassuring Sadie the door was locked, the children were finally asleep. Because Charlie was fond of using soap markers on the walls of the tub, Julian cleaned the bathtub before heading downstairs to tackle the dishes. Maybe he shouldn’t let Charlie scribble on the tub walls, but it always made him giggle, and if there was any sound better than hearing his kids’ laughter, Julian didn’t know what that was.
He flicked on the television and watched a few news programs while he cleaned the kitchen—anything that wasn’t The Disney Channel would do. He worried that in the space of twenty-four hours, he’d agreed to do Christmas dinner and a Christmas lights contest. Maybe Brooke was right. When was the last time he’d said no to anybody he cared about? But he didn’t mind doing Christmas. He would make it festive and happy for the kids, and it would help Brooke out tremendously. The contest was more daunting. Julian would have to figure something special out there. Or the kids might have some ideas. If Julian didn’t always have faith in himself, he did have faith in his kids.
Eventually, when the house was tidy and he had no more excuses, Julian returned to the computer, working steadily until midnight on freelance projects. He hunched over the computer, only stopping when his fingers cramped and his eyes got too heavy to focus. Julian sat back in his chair, massaging his temples. Once again, he could hear the distinctive sounds of barking.
He resented it. Nighttime, when the kids finally settled down, was supposed to be his time. Julian did his best thinking at night because it was usually silent. Was getting a few hours of peace too much to ask? On the nights he didn’t work, which were rare, Julian enjoyed stretching out on the sofa with a good book. Maybe it was a bit of a routine, but so what? Julian got by on his routines.
Outside, a lone dog howled.
“There goes any chance of my quiet nights now,” Julian grumbled.