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Jingle Balls by Waltz, Vanessa (1)

Gigi

Christmas sucks. Bah humbug. Everything about this holiday blows—the candy canes, mandated time with family, the banal decorations, and the insipid songs.

God, I wish the neighborhood carolers would fa-la-la off a cliff.

If it were possible, I’d wake up after all this nonsense was over.

Unfortunately, my mom’s hell bent on forcing the holidays down my throat. Nobody gets to skip Christmas festivities.

"You’ll feel better. I promise." Mom grips my elbow, frog-marching me across the lawn.

"I’m fine." It feels like I’ve repeated that phrase a hundred times to her, my friends, everyone. The world thinks I’m on the verge of a meltdown because my fiancé dumped me.

"You need company, sweetie. Sitting in front of the TV all day isn’t good for you."

Neither is being force-fed peppermint humbugs and hot cocoa. I open my mouth and close it just as fast. There’s no fighting Mom’s patented don’t-argue-with-me-because-I-know-what’s-best look.

When they find out, the first words out of everyone’s mouths after Merry Christmas will be what happened? I won’t have a clue what to say.

Honestly, I have no idea what went wrong. One minute I was picking a caterer for our wedding, and the next James was dumping me. He sat me down, wearing a lumpy sweater his grandmother knitted, and said nothing for a whole sixty seconds. He literally couldn’t spit out the words. When he did, the bottom dropped from my stomach.

I don’t think I want to be with you anymore.

That was all he said.

It was as if someone had vacuumed out my insides and replaced them with cotton balls. He followed me like a concerned puppy as I silently packed my bag without another word.

There were no tears. No drama. Only James’ soft, reassuring voice asking if I was okay, if I wanted to talk, if I needed any money. More than anything else, that pissed me off. After he offered me cash, I finally looked at him.

I have my own money, asshole.

An hour later, I was lugging my giant suitcase onto the train station, headed back home. I thought it’d be a chance to lay low, stuff my face with eggnog and gingerbread men, but no. Mother has other plans. She’ll haul me to as many social events as possible.

Starting today.

The Smiths, our next-door neighbors, are throwing a holiday party. We’re arriving early to help prepare. As we approach the snow-dusted porch, she releases my elbow. I’m caged in by the wraparound railing.

Nowhere to run.

"Hurry up," Mom snaps. "It’s cold."

Steeling myself, I knock. A Christmas wreath bounces with my fist and crashes to my feet. "God damn it."

"Gigi, don’t swear!"

I pick up the tangle of pine branches, needles scattering all over my jeans, and dust snow from the leaves. I hastily replace it. Seconds later, the door flies open.

"Welcome!" My rosy-cheeked neighbor booms. "Come inside."

Mom walks in first, bumping her bony cheek against Violet’s. Arms wide, Violet envelopes me into her flour-caked bosom.

"How are you?" She squeezes my bicep and makes a scandalized gasp. "You’re so thin. Poor thing."

Here goes nothing. "I’m doing great. You?"

"Good," she says. "But I don’t believe you for a second. You don’t have to pretend." She disengages, blue eyes piercing through me. "If someone broke off an engagement with my child like that—" she clamped her lips tight suddenly, cheeks going pink. "It’d get ugly."

I smile at Violet, who is about as threatening as Jack Russell terrier. All my life, I knew her as the single mom next door. She was sweet, except for the occasional outburst, "Ronan! Put down the china!"

"Yes, it’s been awful." Mom’s heels rapped the foyer, her ponytail swinging like a pendulum. "We already paid for the engagement party. Two thousand dollar deposit at the country club—gone."

Violet gasps. "Oh dear."

He’s reimbursing us, at least. "She doesn’t need to know all the details."

"Vi’s not a stranger, Gigi." Mom click-clacks into the red-and-green kitchen, sliding her minced meat pie over the counter. "She’s lived next door your whole life. We’re practically family."

Violet beams at Mom, moving the pie into the packed fridge. Mom stands beside Violet. Flour dusts the marble countertop as my mousy mother slabs apricot jam in tiny, square pastries before folding them into pillboxes. She sprinkles powdered sugar, bumping her wrist lightly against the sieve.

I bite my tongue as I wander the house, assaulted by pine and candy canes everywhere I look.

Mom rolls up her sleeves. "Place looks beautiful, Vi."

"Thank you!" She smiles at the garland of postcards hanging over her head. "It wasn’t any trouble. I love the holidays."

I’m at that stage where Christmas is no longer the big affair it used to be, but Vi clearly still thinks her kids are eleven-year-olds. I wander into the family room, which looks like Santa Claus barfed everywhere. Glitter sparkles from fake snow strewn around a towering Douglas fir pine, which fills the air with the stinging scent. I wrinkle my nose, staring at golden baubles dangling from branches. A picture frame revolves, revealing a decades-old photograph of Violet and her two sons. Liam and Ronan.

My stomach clenches at the sight of that little bastard’s shit-eating grin. Ronan and I have a history. The arrogant ass taunted me in elementary, high school, and at home. Standing in my sworn enemy’s house gives me goose bumps. His cheese-eating smile flashes everywhere I look. Among the pine branches and bright red berries, he’s there. He smiles at me from a prepubescent photo. Even with braces, he’s smug.

He’s probably still in college. I heard he went to Northwestern—which was typical. I could totally see him partying it up in a frat, arms wrapped around a sorority chick. The Ronan I knew was a total bro. A half-witted troll who could summon women with a lecherous wink. In high school, he strutted through the halls. I hated him then, and I hate him now.

Whatever.

I follow the progression of his adolescence. Ronan in braces. Ronan in a cap and gown. Ronan throwing a football. Shirtless Ronan, no longer stringy and lean, but filled out.

Hot.

Despite living here my entire life, I can count the times I’ve been inside this house on one hand. Once, when we moved into the neighborhood and the second after the incident, when Ronan was forced to apologize. Fifteen-or-so years later, I’m able to laugh it off, but I still hate his guts.

I wouldn’t have come at all if it weren’t for Mom’s insistence. You need to get out of the house. Stop eating so much candy. You’ll get fat.

"Gigi, can you wash the dishes?" Mom’s request is more like a growled command. "We have a lot to do."

A jingle erupted from the television playing a looping video of a cracking fireplace. Santa Got Run Over by a Reindeer boomed from the speakers.

Someone get me out of here. "Sure."

"No, no, no," Violet chimes after shooting my mother a horrified look. "Don’t trouble yourself, dear. I can’t imagine how you must be feeling."

"I’m fine." A smile staggers across my face. "Really. It wasn’t a match made in heaven. If it was, I’d be a lot more upset, but I’m not."

Shockingly calm, actually.

"Well, at least you’re taking it well." A deep frown creases Violet’s forehead, as though my lack of emotion is concerning. "If I were you I’d cry my eyes out. He left you on Christmas."

"That’s stretching the truth." A pang strikes my chest at her scandalized tone. "I mean, he broke up with me on December first."

"Still."

Mom shakes her head. "He’s a jackass."

I face the sink to avoid our nosy neighbor, diving into the dirty dishes.

Frankly, I don’t want to think about my ex-fiancé.

"So how are the boys?" Mom asks in between mixing flour and water.

Violet stirs something in a pot, her blonde head bobbing. "Good. Liam got a teaching job in the city."

Manhattan just gained one more jerk. Liam is an even bigger douche than his brother.

"How nice." Mom cuts cold butter into the flour and kneads the sticky dough. "And Ronan?"

I listen hard.

"He’s Ronan. Playing college football. Coach Carter thinks NFL scouts will offer him a contract."

"Wow, how exciting." Mom works the dough, skinny arms white with flour.

"What about you, Gigi?"

"Doing okay. Still at Rutgers finishing my premed classes." I should be studying for the MCAT, but I’ve been using the prep books as doorstoppers.

"Gigi wants to be a doctor," Mom gushes, as though premed doesn’t give that away. "She’ll be the first in the family."

"Well, that’s just wonderful. I wish my boys had shown an interest in—oh!" Violet turns toward the mixing bowl, scowling at her dirty hands. "We’re out of condensed milk. Gigi, could you be a dear and get some in the garage?"

"Sure." Glad to leave the Christmas explosion behind, I head into the hallway, which might as well be a gallery of Ronan and Liam.

The exit is ahead, but a door cracked open seizes my attention. I squint through, glimpsing steel-blue walls that clearly haven’t been updated since the boys moved out. A quick glance inside reveals a double-sized mattress, a bookshelf filled with brass athletic awards, a poster for Coheed and Cambria, and dirty clothes thrown in a hamper.

My heart stops.

He can’t be here.

Of course he is, you idiot.

His things are strewn over the floor. I imagine Ronan’s smirk materializing, popping from the closet with an a-ha! I recoil from the vision and back away, heart hammering.

Ronan’s here?

I never would’ve come if I’d known.

Prickling anxiety raises a row of goose bumps on my arms. I jog the hall, searching for the bathroom. A light glows under the door. I seize the handle, ready to spend the rest of the evening locked inside. The doorway yawns open.

A naked man leans over the sink, lifting a razor to his stubbled jaw, covered with cream. He drags it down his neck and douses the razor, the simple movement rippling his muscled arm. He resembles one of those Greek statues in the Louvre. Perfect proportions. A beautiful but powerful body. One built for physical labor or beating men to a pulp or sweeping women off their feet.

A sprinkling of chest hair leads down, darkening into a happy trail. The mouth-watering physique shifts so that I see all of him. He shaves down there—not that he needs any more emphasis around his huge cock.

Well, that’s one difference between him and the statues.

The man barely moves. He doesn’t hide himself as he turns, and then I finally tear my gaze from his sculpted ass to his face.

Ronan.

It’s been years, but that dimpled smirk haunts my dreams. A mess of black waves tousle over his head, still damp from the shower. Time stole most of his baby fat and his round cheeks, leaving him lean, hollow, and devastatingly gorgeous.

"Hey, Good Girl. Long time no see." He grabs the washcloth and slowly mops his jaw, making no move to cover himself.

Mortified, I slam the door and fly to the garage. Facing the cupboard, I bang doors, creating enough noise to bury my shame.

Why did I stand there and stare?

My cheeks burn as a growing shadow throws me into darkness. I don’t want to look, but I look.

Ronan leans across the doorway, towel wrapped around his trim waist. He wears the same condescending grin he wore through high school.

"I see you haven’t changed. It’s just a penis, Gigi. No big deal. I’m sure you’ve seen a few by now. Or haven’t you?"

"Shut up."

"Whoa, relax. I’m just teasing." The stairs creak as he joins me. "What are you looking for?"

"Condensed milk." I was prepared to deal with Asshole Ronan, but I’m woefully unprepared for Hot Ronan.

Towel hanging dangerously low, he grabs a can. "Here."

"Thanks." I’m distracted by the fresh smell wafting from his skin. That, and the fact his eyes have incredibly long lashes.

"I didn’t think you’d be here."

"Thought the same about you."

He laughs, a deeply contented sound that makes my toes curl. "You can’t be still mad."

"I’m not. I just don’t like you. Can you blame me?"

His sexy body blocks my exit. "It was just a stupid prank. I’ve grown up, Good Girl. Haven’t you?"

"What is that supposed to mean?" More and more needled, I crush the can.

"Aren’t you engaged?"

I grit my teeth. "Not anymore. Fiancé got cold feet."

"Oh shit." Surprise flickers across his stony features. "Sorry. I didn’t know."

"It’s fine. I’m not upset."

He raises an eyebrow. "You look like it."

"That’s because you’re in my face." I push him aside, walking out of the garage. "Why don’t you go do some pull-ups?"

"Ooh, you’re in a feisty mood. Good. We’re going to have fun."

This is more than I can bear. I will not spend the whole evening being teased by this jackass. "Look, I’m headed home. I’ll tell your mother I’m coming down with something."

"If I have to endure this party, so do you."

I whirl around. "Ronan, I’m serious."

"So am I, Gigi." He crosses his arms, sapphire eyes drinking me in. "I’m looking forward to catching up."

"Hell no."

"Oh, come on, Gigi. I’ll be nice." His lips curve. "Promise."

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