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North of Light by J.M. Paul (1)

The Grinch

It’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. If that’s true, then I want to know why it’s also the most depressing and annoying.

My name literally means Christmas, and I hate it. I’m bah humbug all the way. If my parents could hear me say that about their most treasured season, they would roll over in their matching silver urns. God bless their souls, but I can’t stand the cheesiness and cheerfulness that accompanies this time of the year. It seems that, for four weeks, everyone forgets how stressful their lives are, and they put on jolly masks and pretend everything is enchanting, delightful, and wonderful.

Bah humbug.

Life still circles in the same monotonous cycle it always does; people are just too self-absorbed to realize it. Or too blinded by the glitter and blinking lights.

A roar of cheers interrupts my grouchy contemplating. I glance up from the journal I’ve been writing in and discover what’s causing the ruckus.

Some guy wearing a stuffed turkey hat enters behind the spacious bar and lifts his arms in a victory stance. Then, he starts posing like he’s a bodybuilder. Laughs echo, and high fives between the customers and the intruder ensues.

Men.

Turkey Head starts collecting empty glasses and pouring drinks, and it’s apparent that he’s a bartender coming on shift at Harry’s. It’s Thanksgiving eve—the biggest bar night of the year.

My eyes wander around the crowded room, looking for the only person I brave this scene for, but I come up empty-handed. Running late is the forte for that one, even when it’s work-related.

I duck my head and start scribbling my thoughts down again—trying to ignore the festiveness, laughter, clinking glasses, and chatter—when I suddenly sense an unmoving presence in front of me.

“Whatcha drinkin’?”

The warm, deep voice runs over my skin in an almost physical sensation. The hair on my arms stands to attention, and a delicious shiver slides down my spine. I lift my eyes to the person standing before me, and it takes great effort to ensure my mouth isn’t hanging open and drool isn’t dribbling down my chin.

Turkey Head stands tall, his attention focused on me, and holy hell, he’s divine. I only got the backside view of him earlier—and his rear’s nothing to sneeze at—but the front version is yummier. He has to be at least six foot; he’s muscular, and he fills out his Harry’s T-shirt perfectly. His jaw is sharp and adorned with stubble, and his lips are perfectly plump and sinfully enticing. He has winking dimples, and his eyes—sweet baby Jesus in a wicker basket, those eyes—are a unique shade of jade I will definitely see in my dreams tonight. From what I can tell, his hair is a rich dark brown, possibly bordering on black, but it’s covered by the stupid bird hat.

I wonder what he’d think if I asked to sample his stuffed thigh meat.

“Water.” I’m not sure if that’s an answer to his question or if it’s a request for more liquid since my tongue suddenly feels like sandpaper.

“That’s boring.” Turkey Head flashes his pearly whites, crosses his thick arms over his wide chest, and leans his hip against the counter. “It’s the biggest bar night of the year.”

“News flash.” I give him a well, duh expression before I doodle in the margin of my notebook.

“Here’s a news flash for you, Journal Girl. Your drink is lame.” He snatches my glass and empties the ice into a sink below the bar. “No one drinks water the night before Thanksgiving. Order something real.” He rubs his hands together. “What’s your poison?”

“So … you’re not into peer pressure or anything.” I purse my lips in mockery.

“Of course I am.” He spreads his arms wide. “I’m a bartender. It’s what I get paid to do.”

“What if I’m an alcoholic? You just asked this poor, recovering addict to wash away all her hard-earned years of sobriety because you think water’s lame.” I flutter my eyelashes at him.

“Are you an alcoholic?” he asks point-blank.

“Well, no.”

“Then, shut up and order a drink.” He wiggles his brows.

Turkey Head’s face is expressive and cocky, and I have to suppress the laughter wanting to bubble in my chest.

Who does this guy think he is?

Whoever he is, I instantly like him, but he doesn’t have to know that.

“You’re rude. And I’d like more water since some fartknocker just dumped mine out,” I gripe.

He chokes out a laugh. “As I’ve stated, drinking nonalcoholic beverages the night before Thanksgiving is sacrilegious.”

“Why?” I’m not sure what makes me encourage him to keep annoying me. I have work to do, and if the person I’m waiting for doesn’t show soon, I’m leaving.

“It’s an age-old tradition for everyone to get drunk and stupid, so they can forget about being forced to spend an entire day with their family tomorrow. In Alcoholville, they can deny the fact that getting a slobbery kiss on the mouth from ninety-year-old Great-Aunt Mea is okay and enjoyable.” He shivers dramatically. “The women bitch about cooking while the men grunt and yell at football games on TV. The mini humans run around, screaming, touching everything, and spreading their germs so that we get sick a couple of days later. It’s fun times.”

“Sounds like you have anger issues with Turkey Day, dude.” I tap my pen against the bar top.

“No way. My family’s awesome, and I love Thanksgiving. The holidays rock.” The twinkle in those gorgeous green eyes informs me he’s not kidding.

I roll my eyes.

He points his finger in my direction. “I saw that.”

“You saw nothing. I don’t know you, but I can already tell you’re as blind as a bat.” I bite my lip and start to shade in the 3-D heart I doodled.

“I’m not blind. I’ll have you know, I have twenty-twenty vision”—he points at his face—“and it just saw you roll your lovely brown eyes at me.”

“Listen, Bat Eyes, you saw nothing.” I fold my arms on the shiny surface in front of me in an attempt to challenge him.

“What’s your name, Journal Girl?” Turkey Head leans his elbows onto the bar and stares at me. When I don’t answer, he starts drumming his fingers against the hard granite.

“Noel.”

“No shit.” His full lips take their time in curving into a delighted grin. “Well, isn’t that fitting?”

“Fitting for what?” I sit back in my stool and pull at the cuff of my sweatshirt.

He waves his arm around, indicating the people, noise, and festive mood swirling around the bar.

“To encompass the spirit of the holidays.”

His grin grows, and my Grinch heart shrivels further.

“No.”

“No?” Humor is evident in his voice.

“No,” I repeat.

“Why is it a no?”

He tilts even closer until he’s encroaching into my space, and there’s no way I can ignore him.

“It’s not just a no.” I sigh, slap my pen down on the notebook, and glower at him.

“Hmm,” Turkey Head hums before a smirk twists his mouth. “I like specifics.”

He straightens, adjusts the bird thighs on his hat, cracks his knuckles, shakes out his arms, and then rests back on the counter, waiting … for something.

I don’t know him, but I’m a pro at reading people, and his type will let me know what he expects me to say.

Butterball stares at me with interest, and I lift my eyebrows.

“Explain,” he says.

“There’s not much to explain.” I shrug. “I don’t like the holidays, Christmas specifically. And having a name that literally means the garish day you can’t stand? Well … it sucks.”

His eyes almost bulge out of his head, and his jaw drops open.

“You hate Christmas?” It comes out in a horrified whisper.

“Yep.”

“Oh my God. You’re one of those.” Turkey Head points and gapes at me like I’m some sort of science experiment gone wrong.

Then, it hits me, and my eyes widen. He’s a Christmas freak, and I don’t play well with his kind of crazy.

There goes our cookie-cutter house with a white picket fence, two-point-five children, and a dog.

I pick up my pen and draw a large, sharp arrow piercing my scribbled 3-D heart along with droplets of blood dripping down the page.

We could have had such a wonderful life together.

“How can you not like Christmas? It’s magical, spiritual, and festive, and everyone’s just a little bit happier.” His smile turns gleeful.

“It’s just … not my favorite anymore.”

I used to love Christmas, but ever since things drastically changed two years ago, December is the worst month of the year for me.

“Anymore?” Turkey Head’s eyebrows pinch together, and all traces of his smile are gone.

“Mmhmm,” I hum as if I were distracted, but I’m so totally not. I’m completely tuned in to my idiocy of letting too many words that welcome questions to exit out of my stupid mouth.

I start jerking my pen across the page to give the illusion that I’m busy. I don’t want to talk about that horrible period in my life, especially with Butterball.

It doesn’t work.

“Tell me about your anymore, Noel.” Turkey Head places his hand over mine to stop my insistent scrawling, and our gazes clash together. His expression tells me he’s concerned, but more than that, it also says he genuinely cares about my answer, and that scares me.

I always hear bartenders make good therapists, but this isn’t occurring. I don’t talk about what happened to me, especially to hot strangers who serve alcohol and make my lady bits tingle in pleasant ways.

“There’s nothing to say. I just don’t care for this season. End of story.” I shrug again.

“Bullshit,” he says bluntly. “Anymore suggests you used to like it, so something changed your mind. Tell me.” He squeezes my hand. “I’m a good listener.”

Sighing heavily, I slouch in my seat. “Don’t you have work to do?”

His attention doesn’t waver from mine. “Sure, but that doesn’t matter right now. Talk to me.”

“Why do you care?” I pull my fingers out from under his grasp and tuck a lock of brunette hair behind my ear.

“Because, when a beautiful girl sits at my bar with deep sadness emanating from her gorgeous brown eyes, I want to know what put it there and what I can do to help her.” The concern in his voice is evident.

I scoff. Beautiful girl, my ass.

Darting my eyes around the room, I know he really is as blind as a bat. All of the women in here are dressed to the nines, and their hair and makeup are immaculate. And then there’s me. I’m in an artfully worn gray sweatshirt, burgundy scarf, shredded jeans, knee-high leather boots, and my hair and makeup are most definitely not perfect. I’m here to support a friend, not to impress people.

“Well, Turkey Head—”

“Turkey head?” He interrupts.

I gesture towards the stuffed bird he’s wearing as a hat and he smirks.

“Your Spidey bar-therapist sense is failing you. Now, run along”—I wave my hand at him—“and bother someone who wants your attention.”

I’m put off by his ability to read me so quickly.

The corner of his lip lifts, and he nods his head. “Ah …”

Ah what?”

“You’re a girl with no filter. Whatever runs through your head pops right out of your mouth.” He bends closer to me. “That’s my favorite type of people. You always know what they’re thinking.”

“Great,” I say sarcastically. “You can leave now.”

Butterball flashes his dimples before he knocks against the bar top and heads down the way to harass some other unsuspecting customer.

The loud chatter around the room is comforting after living in so much silence, but I’m oblivious to the actual happenings around me. I know people are eating, drinking, and flirting. I’ve seen the mating call a million times over, and it makes me wonder if it’s the chase everyone’s after or if anything substantial ever develops from the hunt.

My hand is in a furious motion across my lined pages when a glass slaps against the dark granite, interrupting me.

“What the hell?” I lift my fiery brown eyes to see Turkey Head smirking. My attention drifts to the green drink still in his grip.

“This is for you.” He pushes the concoction closer, and a slosh of liquid splats on the bar.

“Wrong customer. I didn’t order anything.”

I start writing again, but he plucks the pen from my hand and sets it on the paper.

“Dude.” My gaze pins him to the spot.

“Drink it. You’re the only one allowed to have this cocktail tonight.” His eyes sparkle with mischief.

“What is it?” I examine the green mixture with uncertainty.

“The perfect drink for you.” His dimples dent his cheeks.

“That’s not an answer.” I spin the glass around and try to decipher if he’s poisoned it since I’ve been such a bitch.

“It’s called The Grinch,” he says.

I narrow my eyes at him.

“The cherry garnish represents your shrunken heart.” He looks so proud of his joke that I could smack him.

“You’re not very good at your job, Butterball, or with people for that matter.”

That’s a total lie. No one in this place is in want for a drink because he’s fulfilled all the orders, and when he walks by, people immediately respond to him with cheers or high fives.

From the little time I’ve observed him, I can tell he’s the life of the party wherever he goes. It’s my job to study people, and I’m good at what I do.

He chuckles. “I’m the best bartender around, and my people skills are top-notch. The name’s Connor, by the way.”

“Congratulations. I didn’t ask for your name.” I arch a brow.

He shakes his head. “I like you.”

“I’m the bomb. What’s not to like?” Despite my effort to conceal it, the corner of my mouth twitches, and then I raise the glass to my lips to take a tentative sip. Cool melon liquor bounces around my tongue and warms my stomach as I swallow.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a drink, and I could use one, especially this time of the year.

“Exactly.” Connor runs the back of his finger down my cheek, and it startles me.

When I catch his eye, he’s gazing at me like he’s known me for years, not minutes. I’m not sure if it’s his voodoo bartender ways or if our connection is already that strong. Whatever it is, I like it, and I’m willing to admit to myself that I want more if it’s available.

It is the night before Thanksgiving, and a girl’s allowed to lose herself or act a little irrational before a hard holiday, isn’t she?

“I’m not usually this forward—or at least, not this quickly—but I was wondering if you’d like to …” I trail off because I’ve never asked a hot stranger to go out with me. The guys do the chasing because I’m all badass and shit. But, sometimes, it gets exhausting, acting like I don’t care about anything or ignoring what I want.

Connor leans closer. “If I’d like to what?”

I spin the stem of the drink he gave me around and around on the surface before I gulp down another mouthful for courage. Lifting my chin, I meet his stare. “If you’d be interested in grabbing coffee or something?”

The or something is left open to interpretation because, to be honest, I’m not exactly sure what I’m asking for at this point.

“Are you asking me to get you a cup of coffee or if I’d like to go get coffee with you sometime?” He winks.

I release an exasperated rush of air, and he chuckles.

“Never mind.” I shake my head and look anywhere but at him.

“No, no, no. I’m sorry.” He stands tall and waves his arms toward himself. “Okay, okay. Ask me again.”

“Connor …” I groan.

If he’s going to be this difficult, maybe I don’t want to go out with him after all. I’m an independent twenty-two-year-old woman, and unlike most girls my age, I don’t need male companionship to feel complete.

Connor bends closer and waits until I finally meet his gaze. A genuine smile lifts the corner of his lips, and his jade eyes turn soft.

“I would love to get coffee with you. I’m pretty sure I’d love to do just about anything you want,” he whispers loud enough so that I can hear him over the music and laughter vibrating around us.

When I answer his grin with my own, we stay lost in that moment for several seconds, staring at each other, until an excited squeal interrupts us, and a body crashes into mine.

“You came!” a singsong voice says as arms wrap around me and squeeze.

“Of course I came. I told you I would, CC.”

I turn my head toward the intruder but not before I notice Connor stand, lift his turkey hat to run his hand through his dark hair, and then place the stuffed butterball back onto his noggin. His eyes bounce between the newcomer and me in disbelief.

Strange.

Cami Camden—I call her CC—my best friend since fourth grade, wiggles me back and forth and beams in my direction. Her blue eyes sparkle, and her red hair is so shiny, I think it’s blinding me.

The whore doesn’t have to do anything for her beautiful strands; it’s all natural. I have to bathe my lady locks in mayonnaise for days, and my head still ends up looking like a frizzed-out bird’s nest half of the time.

“Have you been waiting long?” Cami sits on the stool next to me.

“Long enough.” I shrug and then look at Connor.

He’s still watching us with a blank face. I scrunch my forehead in question, but I don’t get a reaction from him.

“Oh, hey! You two have already met!” Cami beams at Connor and then me.

“Uh, yeah?” There’s a question in my tone, but then it dawns on me that she performs here semi-regularly, so of course she knows the staff.

Cami’s a talented musician—she plays acoustic guitar and sings—and does solo gigs at local bars around Michigan’s metro Detroit area. That’s why I’m here—to watch and support her.

“Awesome.” Cami stands on the bar’s footrest and tilts toward Connor, her lips puckered.

Connor’s eyes flash to me, and I know he can read the confusion written on my face because he has the audacity to look sheepish before he gives Cami a chaste kiss on the corner of her mouth.

What in the ever-loving hell?

“Mmm. You taste like peppermint.” Cami licks her lips as she plops back down onto the stool.

The silence between the three of us is heavy. Well, it’s weighted between Connor and me. I don’t think Cami has a clue that she interrupted something between me and him when she arrived.

“Connor, this is my bestie, Noel North. Noel, this is my boyfriend, Connor Vanstone,” Cami says cheerfully.

Boyfriend?

When we look at each other, I know Connor and I are wearing matching horrified expressions.

Shit just got real.

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