A standalone novella
Release date: 9/29/22
Novella, e-book, contemporary romance
Faced with a broken engagement due to her guarded heart and her family expecting to meet her fiancé during the first Christmas without her Gran, Lia Taylor decides to take her friends’ advice. She’ll take a fake fiancé home for Christmas.
Ryan Barton grew up in foster homes, unaware he had a family until he met his grandmother at sixteen. Lia’s offer of a noisy family Christmas with a big elaborate meal sounds like heaven, even the part about pretending to be her fiancé.
As Lia and Ryan get to know each other and practice casual touching, hugs, and kisses, their feelings grow. They decide to try for a real relationship with the promise that when either of them withdraws due to old fears, the other will pull them back.
But what will save them when they both withdraw in fear? Are their recent feelings strong enough to save their budding relationship or will they hide within the safety of their guarded hearts?
Lia Taylor was late meeting friends and all because Brian, her fiancé—ex-fiancé now—had insisted they chat. Three freaking days before she was to introduce him to her entire family, he’d suddenly decided they needed to take a break. Three freaking days.
Some chat they’d had. Brian had done all the talking, said his bit while she stood slack-jawed with shock, wished her a Merry Christmas, and left. And now she was late. She hated being late.
Outside the bus, the light waned, and strings of tiny lights came to life. She tugged her coat off the adjacent bus seat as an arriving businessman plopped next to her and observed the passing holiday decorations with bleak eyes. Yeah. Right now, she had no taste for them either.
The commuter bus’s airbrakes wheezed and spit as it slowed to a stop. She stood and exited. As she stepped into the crossing, the “walk” figure changed from solid to blinking. Lia raced across the far lanes of the busy Denver street and blended into the thick 16th Street Mall foot traffic for a block before reaching Barney’s Pub, a favorite hangout among her peers.
She stood for a moment, catching her breath in the frigid December air, not yet prepared to put into words what she’d barely absorbed. Christmas was ruined. A wave of disappointment hit her, and she blinked hard. “Bastard!”
“Excuse me?” A guy passing her suddenly halted and stared. His gaze flicked over her hair spilling out of the cabled beanie, before homing in on her eyes.
“Sorry. Not you. I meant my fiancé.” She gritted her teeth. “Ex-fiancé now.”
His gaze turned wary. “Ah, I see. Well… His loss, I’d say.”
She gave him a wry smile as he opened the pub door. “Thanks.”
He performed a jaunty salute off the brim of his tweed newsboy cap and swept his hand toward the noisy interior. “You coming? First drink is on me.”
She swept past him, thinking he looked like a professor in his wide-wale cords and navy vee-neck sweater over a pale blue button-down. “Thanks, but I’m already late meeting friends. I just needed a second, y’know?”
He nodded, and she couldn’t decide if he was a nice guy to stop and check on a stranger or a creep for halfway hitting on her after discovering her newly single status. Either way, he was cute with silvery blue eyes shining with humor.
Maya waved with wide sweeps of her hands from a table against the wall where she sat across from Jeff and Rob.
Lia started forward, then Jeff stood, still in his business suit, and waved, too.
The guy stayed on her heels.
She gave him a quelling look over her shoulder, but he grinned and kept following.
Jeff stepped around her, his hand extended. “Glad you could make it, man. Looks like you’ve already met Opie, and this is my fiancé, Rob. Everybody, Ryan Barton. Maya met Ryan here last week when he joined us. He’s good people.”
“It’s Lia, actually, not Opie,” Lia amended.
“Hey, Ryan.” Maya scooted over and patted the wall bench beside her. “Come sit. I’ll scooch over so Lia has room, too. Our waiter should be back in a sec.”
Sporting choppy ink-black hair with silver streaks this month, Maya leaned forward to see around Ryan as he took his coat off, then helped Lia with hers. “What the heck, girl? Brian stand you up again?”
Lia shook her head after giving Ryan a smile of thanks. She displayed her ringless hand. “For good, essentially. We broke up.”
“He dumped you right before Christmas?” Maya’s rising voice drew looks from other patrons.
“Bastard.” Ryan said, winking at her.
She had to blink back tears when both Jeff and Rob agreed in unison. “Thanks, guys. All of you. To be honest, I think I’m more bummed about not having him as a buffer at home than I am over the engagement. What does that say about me and our relationship?”
“That he didn’t deserve you, he’s not The One—obvi—you’re all still grieving your gran, and it’s going to be a tough holiday.” Rob, sitting across from Ryan, reached across the table and squeezed her forearm. “Want us to come with? Having engaged gays with you would shake things up.”
“You’d be welcomed, but this is my mess. They’re expecting to meet my fiancé, to see me happy, and a ring on my finger. They think we’re going to start planning the wedding together.”
“So? Take a fake fiancé home. They haven’t met him. Unless they follow you on social media or you’ve sent a ton of pics, how would they know it’s not Brian? You can break up later.” Maya performed air quotes around the words break up.
The harried waiter arrived with a heaping mound of fried pickle chips, took her and Ryan’s drink orders, and sped off. It gave Lia time to think. Maya meant well but Lia couldn’t see herself doing something like that. She shook her head and muttered. “Crazy idea. It would never work.”
“Why not? They do it in books and movies all the time.” Maya dipped a pickle into ranch dressing. “Has your family ever seen pictures or met Brian?”
“Well, no. They’re not big on social media, but I’ve told them about him.”
“Ooh, hot, hot!” Maya pursed her raisin-colored lips and blew in and out.
“Thanks for noticing.” Rob patted his perfect hair and picked imaginary lint off his cashmere sweater, drawing laughter from them all.
Lia took a deep breath and relaxed as she released it. This was why she hadn’t called to cancel. Her friends were like family. Close, and they trusted each other with their baggage, like Rob struggling with coming out to his family until he was twenty-one, only to discover they’d already figured as much and accepted him as is.
Jeff’s parents had said they couldn’t control what he did in private, but not to bring “it” into their home, so he rarely saw them. Rob, Maya, and Lia were his family now.
Maya was the most independent of the bunch. She had to be, as the only child of well-heeled parents who were preoccupied with their careers, but Lia worried Maya was a bit too aloof when it came to guys. Warts and all, Lia loved them. She needed this bond and their support tonight.
While Maya took a sip of scotch, Jeff nudged Lia’s hand. “How much have you told them?”
“I don’t remember. You know how it is. Snatches of this and that during conversations or texts. I think I described him as tall and athletic and may have mentioned he’s in advertising.”
“Wow, Opie, you really gushed, didn’t you?” Rob threw in his two cents.
Lia rolled her eyes. “Okay, maybe I wasn’t effusive, but there’s been no time. We had other things to talk about.”
“See? They know very little, so you get someone with similar coloring and height. Hey, what about Ryan? He could pinch-hit.” Maya turned to him. “It’s not like you’re doing anything for the holidays, right?”
Lia grimaced at the startled look on Ryan’s face. “Seriously? Maya, it’s rude to put him on the spot. Who wants to go to a stranger’s house and on a holiday, at that?”
Maya shrugged, unruffled. “Wasn’t that what you were asking of Bastard Brian? Besides, last week Ryan said he was on his own this year.”
“No different from last year.” Ryan gave her a look she couldn’t decipher. “I’m right here, ladies, and can speak for myself. Not that I’m agreeing to anything, but I’m willing to consider it if there’s a big, home-cooked meal.”
“You’re really spending Christmas alone?” Lia couldn’t imagine not being with family for the holiday. “What about a…significant other?”
Jeff chuckled. “Don’t trip over your tongue trying to be tactful, Opie. He’s straight and single.”
“And not looking to change the single status on a permanent basis,” Ryan added.
The waiter chose that moment to plunk down their beers, took refill orders, and was gone before Lia’s color had settled.
“What’s Christmas like at your house?” At Ryan’s question, Maya, Rob, and Jeff ceased their chatter and tuned in.
“Well, we have a big meal, huge actually, with lots of leftovers. Tall, decorated tree, enough presents to go around, eggnog, guys playing touch football in the yard, late-night movies, enough desserts to make you groan, stories of Christmas past.” She shrugged. “Pretty typical.”
“Sell it, girlfriend.” Rob sassed.
“I wasn’t. I just answered his question.”
Ryan studied her for a few seconds while the rest remained silent. “It sounds nice.”
Nice? Christmas was awesome, usually. Minus her engagement distraction, it could be disastrous this year. “Yeah, it’s pretty wonderful. I like it.”
Could she sound any more defensive or his eyes get any more intense? His lashes were dark around those attention-grabbing eyes. Tanned skin, too, or maybe dusky by nature?
“No, I meant it really does sound nice.” Now it was he who shrugged, his gaze trained on his fingers drawing streaks in the condensation on his bottle. “So, why do you need a buffer?”
Maya swallowed. “It’s the first Christmas without Gran. She, ah, passed a couple months ago.”
“Right. You mentioned that. So, your family was close with her?”
What an odd question. “Of course. She’s our gran, and she lived with my parents for the last few years after her health declined.”
“I see. Well…” He shrugged. “I could stand it for a few days, I guess. If you need me to. Maya was right. I don’t have any plans.”
She glanced at the other three observing them with rapt attention. “Maybe we could talk about it later.”
“Sure. I could see you home when you’re ready.”
“Yeah, maybe. That could work.”
For the rest of the evening, Lia couldn’t help glancing at Ryan, gauging his sincerity, looking for signs he was joking or regretting the offer. She’d given him the perfect out and fully expected later would never come.
He couldn’t be serious, could he? She shouldn’t be contemplating this preposterous idea of Maya’s, but she was.
Her mom desperately needed the distraction. If they had a guest or guests to entertain, there’d be less time to dwell on her gran’s vacant chair at the table. The whole family could use the distraction. She’d never brought a guy home. This was significant.
Ryan had no one to spend Christmas with. How awful. Lia couldn’t imagine. She’d always had family. Sometimes more than she wanted, all up in her business. Busy and loud, sure, but dependable, too. Steady. Warm. How could someone not have that? It made her want to hug him.
Lia gave Maya a slight head jerk and she nodded. “Time to break the seal. You coming, Lia?”
“Sure.” Grabbing her purse, she hurried after her friend.
Inside the ladies’ room, Maya grinned as she entered a stall. “I really do need to pee.”
“Me, too, now that I think about it.” She took the adjoining stall.
“Give it to me straight. How are you holding up?” Maya’s voice echoed a little in the room.
“I’m not sure it’s sunk in yet, but right now I’m hanging in there better than I expected.”
“Oh, sweetie, the writing was on the wall. Didn’t we talk about this when your last relationship was winding down, how you should dump before getting dumped for once? Promise me that next time you’ll do the dumping.” Maya always called her “sweetie” when delivering an opinion or advice, as if that softened it.
“You say ‘next time’ as if it’s a foregone conclusion the relationship won’t work out.” Twin flushes made further talk futile until they met at the sink trough to wash up.
“Sweetie, we’re alike in that we only let others get so close, then we put up walls. The difference is, I dump. You tolerate until you get dumped.”
“I know. I’m too much a people pleaser and will try to do better. I promise. But, I signaled you so I could get a stranger danger check. What do you know about Ryan?”
“Just that he’s really cute, kind of quiet, and seems a bit of a loner.” She grabbed towels from the dispenser, handed Lia a couple.
“Thanks. That makes him either an intriguing guy or a serial killer. Lots of help you are.”
“Jeff has known him for a while. Ask him.”
Lia leaned a hip against the wall and did so via text. Jeff’s response came back fast. “He says, ‘I’d trust him with my sister if I had one.’”
“Well, there you go.” Maya leaned toward the mirror, scrutinizing herself. “Jeff endorsed. That’s high praise.”
“Then why am I still anxious about being alone with him?” Lia flicked a critical glance over her own makeup. Passable, with a fresh application of lip balm.
Maya paused in the process of applying her raisin-colored matte lipstick, amusement in her eyes as she watched Lia blotting her lips. “Maybe you’ve got the hots for him.”
“Stop it.” Lia snagged the exit door with an elbow as two women came in chattering. “He’s cute, but I’ve been single for half a second.”
Back at the table, the guys were clearing out the tab.
Ryan’s silvery gaze raised to her own as she approached, and he smiled. “You ready to go?”
They became the center of attention again. Lia ignored three pairs of eyes for one set more magnetic than any she’d encountered before tonight. “Sure. Let’s do this.”
He was out of his mind. That must be it. Brain cells frozen from his first Denver winter. Ryan walked beside Lia, sauntered actually, as fat flakes fell around them, drifting lazily into the pools of light from streetlamps to dust the 16th Street pedestrian mall with white.
His mind whirled with thoughts. He’d only returned to meet Jeff and Maya again this week because he thought she’d looked at him with interest, and she was sort of pretty in a high-fashion-slash-goth kind of way that was more interesting than enticing. Oddly, driving twenty minutes in the cold to downtown Denver tonight had appealed more than a quick trip from closing his classroom to his warm apartment.
Now, he was sure it was a good move. All thoughts of Maya had fled when he’d seen hurt and disappointment in a willowy, auburn-haired beauty’s eyes. Now he was seeing her home, and he’d offered to pretend to be engaged to her.
He never did stuff like this. High altitude must be a factor.
She sighed, a vapor cloud dissipating into the thick mass of auburn waves before her gaze locked with his. Green eyes, but they’d appeared brown in the bar. Hazel then, he decided. She definitely had a hot-girl-next-door thing going on.
“You’re staring,” she accused.
“Sorry. It’s just… You’re easy to look at.” And he was a fool. Hadn’t he learned a long time ago that he wasn’t good with relationships? Of any kind.
“Oh.” Her cheeks pinked as she stilled. “Thanks, but flattery will get you nowhere.”
He turned to face her. “I wasn’t trying to put the moves on you. Honest.”
Her brows rose and fell, indicating she was undecided about accepting his word. She stepped past him, resuming her leisure pace.
He rejoined her. “Why do they call you Opie?”
Her lips pursed in a pout. “The red hair reminded one of them of a kid named Opie Taylor in an old TV show. Same last name, plus Lia is short for Ophelia.”
“Ah. Ophelia Taylor.” He tested the sound of it on his tongue and liked it. “I’m guessing the southern drawl factored in, too.”
Her lips twitched and she shrugged. “Said the pot to the kettle.”
“Atlanta area. You?”
“Same. Wow. Small world.” She bit her lip, crossed her arms. “Back there. Maya’s idea. I mean, crazy, right?”
He wished he could see her eyes again, but she stared straight ahead. “Maybe. So you’ve decided against it?”
“Were you serious? You’d actually do that for a home-cooked meal?”
“Sounds pretty pathetic when you say it that way, but it’s not just the food. I know what it’s like to lose a grandmother.”
He nodded, hating that her little worry frown had returned. “However, we are talking Christmas feast, right? The big home-cooked spread like in the holiday commercials. That’d be worth it.” And it would be, because he’d never known one.
“Except in real life, they’re rarely perfect. At least at my house, they’re not. We dress comfortably. There’s a crowd. It’s noisy. Someone always spills something and the big clean up after is a slog when you’re stuffed.”
“Is there tension and fights or laughter?”
“Siblings are going to have occasional squabbles. That’s a fact. Just let one of my brothers get up in my business and I push back, but mostly there’s laughter, I guess. Hadn’t thought a lot about it.”
People tended to remember the bad times. Lord knew, he had his share of them in his head. At her place, there must be a lot more laughter than tension. Sounded near perfect. “How many?”
“You mentioned a crowd. How many?”
“Mmm. Let’s see. Mom, Dad, me.” She unfurled gloved fingers as she continued counting silently. “Eight or nine, plus any spur-of-the-moment guests. You and I probably couldn’t keep up the pretense, anyway, seeing as we’re little more than strangers.”
He didn’t know why it was so important to prove her wrong. He snagged her arm to halt her progress and pointed to the storefront of a pricy jewelry store, festooned with tiny twinkling lights around each window and a big wreath on the door. “Want to test your theory? We could go shopping for a ring.”
“Pretend, you mean.”
“Of course.” What was he doing? Was he so desperate to experience what it seemed everybody but him had?
She shook her head. “I can’t.”
His chest caved in relief as they began walking again. “Yeah, of course. Crazy idea.”
“No, not if we were going to put on such a charade for my family. It would be a decent trial run. But not on the same night…”
“Right.” He winced at his own stupidity. “My bad.”
She rubbed her left ring finger covered by a glove. “I was so shocked I didn’t think to return the ring. He asked for it back.”
Ryan didn’t know what to say. He was relieved when her cell rang, and she dug it out of a voluminous purse hanging off her shoulder.
Lia shot him an apologetic smile, before turning away. “Hey, Mom, what’s up? … Um, about that—What? …Well, shoot. I’m bummed. I would’ve loved to see them. … No, it’s sweet of you. It’s just…”
She turned distressed eyes Ryan’s way, then lowered her head, shuffled her booted feet in the soft layer of snow. “Nothing. I was just distracted here for a second. …I’ll ask him and get back to you. …Yeah, it’s going to be great. … Love you, too. Bye.”
She dropped the phone into her purse, her face set in bleak lines.
“Are you okay?” What an ass-crack question. Any fool could see she wasn’t.
“Look, it was great meeting you. You’ve been a good sport about all this, but I’m not very good company tonight. I’m just going to go.” Her voice was thick with emotion, and she wouldn’t look at him. She took a quick swipe across her cheek and kept her head down.
He remained still as she struggled with her emotions, wondering about the other side of her phone call, but it was none of his business. Hadn’t he learned repeatedly that folks didn’t like to involve outsiders? And he’d almost always been an outsider, though this girl had let him in more readily than most. Pushing his usual caution aside, he tucked her hand through his elbow. “No arguments. Lead the way because I’m seeing you home.”
They negotiated a busy street, then walked another block before she spoke again. “I don’t suppose you have a favorite recipe for a side dish?”
At his blank look, she elaborated. “You know. A vegetable or casserole.”
“I know what a side dish is. The question caught me off guard for a second, but sometimes I miss Mayleen’s breakfast casseroles.”
“Not exactly what I was expecting, but that would work. Breakfast is usually on the fly, so a one-dish meal would come in handy. Do you have the recipe?”
“Not sure there ever was one, but they were a one-dish meal. Why do you ask?”
She waved dismissively with one hand. “My mom asked for Brian’s favorite dish to add to the meal. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I didn’t know, and he wouldn’t be there to enjoy it anyway.”
“Tell me to butt out if you’d like, but you were upset after the call. Did she have bad news?”
Lia stopped walking. For a second, he thought he’d screwed up, but she pointed to the steps leading to a condo building behind her. “This is me. Um… Apparently, my dad’s brother and his wife can’t make it because of work schedules. I could tell it upset Mom. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be looking to add to the workload with another dish.”
“Does that mean you still need a fake fiancé?”
She exhaled, her breath a white vapor floating away. “I don’t know. I mean, I do, but don’t know if we should. It’s such a crazy idea. I’d planned on staying a week, but of course, you wouldn’t have to. I just don’t know.”
“Let’s exchange phone numbers. and if you need me, give me a couple of hours advance notice so I can throw some stuff in a bag.”
“You guys.” She shook her head. “It takes me a full day to pack and decide whether to check a bag or… “Oh, crap. What am I thinking? We’d never get you a flight this time of year.”
“Won’t know unless we try.”
Her eyes lit, and his heart squeezed almost as hard as her sudden grip on his hand. “You’re right. Let’s do this. Come on!”
Lia knew exactly what had made her decide to embrace the fake fiancé scheme and drag Ryan into her condo building. She’d do anything not to add to her family’s pain this holiday, especially her mom.
She didn’t usually let guys into her private space that easily, but her inner voice said she could trust him, and besides, he came Jeff approved.
Inside, the area felt more intimate with him in it. She chattered like a fool about the thickening snow and flights and holiday travel as they removed and stowed outerwear.
“Mmm, the heat in here feels good. I didn’t realize how cold I was. Give me a second and I’ll put on some water for tea or cocoa.” While pulling off her last boot, she turned to him, and inquired, “Who’s Mayleen?”
“She was my grandmother’s housekeeper.”
“Oh. Her name sounds very southern.” A housekeeper, eh? Was he rich or…
“It is.” He didn’t elaborate but glanced around the open space which encompassed her living-dining area, kitchen, and a short hallway with two doors to the bedroom, bathroom, and a set of bi-fold doors to the laundry area. “This is nice. Homey.”
“Thanks. It came furnished but the lines are very modern, so I tried to cozy it up with bright accessories and artwork.” She talked as she put the kettle on. “Make yourself at home. And if soft rock doesn’t suit you, change the channel. I leave the cable music on low so it’s more welcoming when I come home.”
“This is fine.”
“I’ll be right back. I’m just going to make a quick pit stop.” Sheesh. Why not just go whole hog and announce that the cold had made her need to pee again?
Lia snuck a look at him before she entered the bathroom. He was staring at the large, framed artwork she’d installed above her couch. A bright white paperboard with an intricate laser-cut dragonfly covered a kaleidoscope of colored tissue paper affixed to artboard, giving it a beautiful stained-glass appearance.
Brian had remarked it looked like something a kid made for art class, but Ryan seemed as taken with it as she was.
This was the first time Lia had observed him from a distance. He wore a sweater well. Not every guy could. He was rangy. Yes, that description fit him. Nicely muscled, but rangy.
She was a little attracted. That didn’t mean she should act on it. The timing was all wrong, but they could be friends.
Much later, after pouring over flight schedules until her eyes felt gritty, they high-fived above her laptop. “We did it!”
“Yeah, we did,” he agreed. “Though it was a stroke of genius, you thinking to call the airline.”
“It was sheer luck they’d just added another flight. I wish you’d reconsider and let me reimburse you.” Lia cleared away their mugs and put them in the sink.
“No way.” Ryan shook his head and checked his smartwatch display. “I should go. It’s after ten.”
“Do you live close?”
He pushed to his feet and stretched as she went to the window. “No, but my truck is parked near the bar.”
“Is that the wind howling?” Lia opened the blinds. “Holy crap. We should’ve checked the forecast. The lovely trickle of flakes has turned into a whiteout. There’s at least a foot already, and it’s coming down fast.”
“What? No. That wasn’t supposed to hit for hours yet.” He peered over her shoulder, his expression turning grim at the drifts of white piled against vehicles on the street. Before she’d hardly registered the warmth of his body next to her arm, he’d moved away. “I’d better get started.”
“Wait. How far away do you live?” She tapped on her cell.
“Out west by C-470 and 6th Avenue.”
“Travel advisories in effect,” she reported, then summarized. “Storm picked up speed. High winds on C-470 by the foothills. Whiteout conditions—Duh!—icy bridges. Motorists encouraged to stay off the streets until road crews can get them treated and cleared.”
She lifted her gaze as he speared a hand through his short nut-brown hair. “It’s fine if you want to crash on the couch.”
“No. I mean, the couch would be appreciated, but I couldn’t. We’re practically strangers.”
“How can you say that? You’re my new fiancé.” She pretended to be affronted, pressed a hand across her sternum. “How would it look if I literally turned you out into the cold?”
A wry smile twisted his lips. “You don’t have to do this.”
“You’re doing me a huge favor and at considerable expense. By comparison, this is nothing. I’ll get you a pillow and a blanket.” It wasn’t until later, snuggled in her own bed, that Lia replayed the scene with Brian. One statement stood out to her as she drifted into sleep. Her fiancé had said she was putting too much pressure on their relationship by asking him to meet her family. Even so, a stranger was willing to do the same out of kindness and the promise of a big family meal.