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“Oh, this isn’t good. We’ve let the power go to her head,” Jack said. He pushed Maisie forward a little, his hand warm through the back of her sweater.
“Are you using me as a human shield against your sister?” she accused, laughing a little.
“I plead the fifth.”
Iris, Jack’s sister, had just plunked a bag of props down on the table in the dogs’ playroom. A fireman’s hat had spilled out, along with a pair of glittery red suspenders and pair of glasses (only the frames).
“I’m right here, you know,” Iris said. But she didn’t sound annoyed—she was much too pleased with herself for getting everyone to go along with her latest scheme to raise money for the dog shelter. Maisie might have put up more of a fuss if it hadn’t been working so well. This latest scheme was photographing a calendar, picturing adoptable dogs with the “men of Dog Is Love”—Iris’s words. Maisie had objected that if the calendar were to truly represent the shelter, it should include photos of Dustin, their outreach manager, eating his infamous blue cheese Danishes; Beatrice, their business manager, scowling and swatting the camera; and Maisie and Jack making out in the playroom. Iris had scoffed and said, “No one in their right mind would buy that, Maisie. It sounds like the third circle of Dante’s Inferno.”
Maisie’s second objection was that it was somewhat ludicrous to put out a calendar in January, after the year had already begun, but Iris had batted that objection down too. “These’ll be the kind of pictures they’ll want to keep up year-round. You’ll see. I’ve been planning this for weeks.”
She’d gotten her way, of course, and now they were standing in the playroom, waiting for the photo shoot. The shelter had been closed for the day to allow for it. Iris cocked her head. “You know, I don’t take any more pleasure in this than you do.”
“I seriously doubt that,” Jack muttered, rubbing the base of his neck with his free hand.
“Oh, please,” Iris said, glancing up at them. Her position was somewhat undermined by the dancing of her dark brown eyes. “It’s seriously gross to think of a bunch of women drooling over you, and I can’t imagine Maisie’s happy about it either.”
“I’m not.” Maisie gave his hip a little squeeze and then pushed him forward like a lamb to the slaughter. “But I do want to see those pictures. Besides, it’s for the dogs. You’re a real trooper.”
“Yeah, yeah, so you keep saying,” he muttered, grabbing the bottom of the props bag and emptying it out onto the table. “Seriously?”
He lifted up a flimsy yellow vintage apron that had Maisie spouting laughter. Most of the stuff was from the drama department at Iris’s school, but this gem had come courtesy of Maisie’s own kitchen. She’d slowly but surely been boxing up her parents’ old things. Bringing them to women’s shelters and other organizations in need of gently used items. In some cases, she’d cringed and thrown the less gently used items away. Old dish rags. Chipped plates. And, on one memorable occasion, a tattered Santa hat and beard. Things she should have gotten rid of long, long ago.
Jack was helping her with that, and Iris too…so in exchange she’d let her have her pick of anything she wanted.
“Hey,” Iris said, shrugging. “I’ve done my research. Women like a man who’s good in the kitchen. Besides, I don’t know why you’re complaining. I gave you an advantage. You came here with me, so you get first dibs on costumes.”
“We gave you a ride, short stuff,” Maisie said.
Iris just gave her a look, as if to remind her of what they both knew—they were the same height.
Jack dropped the apron. “Thank God. Finn or River can wear it.”
“What about Lee?” Maisie asked mischievously.
All three of them laughed, but Jack’s laughter cut off first. Because Lee, for all his flaws—there were many, and Maisie would happily list them if asked—was, after all, his half-brother.
Still, it was pretty funny imagining Lee, who’d never met a suit he didn’t like, wearing nothing but her mother’s yellow apron.
It would make for a hell of a picture.
Of course, she was pretty sure Lee would rather take an ice pick to the brain than participate in Dog Is Love’s calendar.
“So,” Maisie said, nudging Jack. “What’ll it be? Pick your poison.”
He gave her a look that shot straight to her ovaries. “No, you pick yours. What’s it gonna be, Red?”
“Double ew,” Iris said, although her lips twitched a little, like she was hiding a smile. “Most of these things are props for the school, remember. No sullying them.” But after arranging the things on the table, she glanced at the door and said, “I’m going to go see if Dustin’s here with the backdrops yet.”
Iris was seventeen, and her language of choice was texting. Dustin’s too, actually, and he was well into his sixties, but Maisie had long since decided he was an anomaly. So it was clear Iris was giving them some space without coming out and saying it. She slipped out of the room, letting the door close behind her.
“Is this the kind of thing that warrants a special favor?” Jack asked, giving Maisie a look that somehow brimmed with both amusement and lust.
“I’d say so.” She came toward him, walking into his arms. God, she loved him…and them. His arms really were things of beauty. She didn’t doubt Iris when she said the calendar would sell faster than flowers on Valentine’s Day. “What do you have in mind, cowboy?” she asked, plopping a hat from the table on his head. Leaning into his ear, she whispered, “Would you like me to give you a ride?”
He growled—actually growled—and pulled her to him, claiming her mouth so thoroughly, she felt her knees shake a little. When he pulled away, both of them were panting. The look he gave her told her he’d like to lock the door to give them some real privacy, but they both knew it was a no-go. Dustin was on his way. And Finn and River. And the shelter was about to be even more of a madhouse than usual.
So she leaned in to kiss him—and then instead slid the lens-less glasses onto his face.
“Yep, this is the look. Scholar-cowboy. I’m sticking to it.”
“You’ll have to see if you can get it past management,” he said, tipping the hat to her. “But I’m down as long as I don’t have to wear the apron.”
“Remember, each of you needs to do three months since Lee’s not helping. So…fireman. We both know you excel at putting fires out.”
“And starting them, I hope,” he said, palming her butt.
She met his eyes as she leaned back into his touch. “Well, obviously. But what about your third look?” She picked up a beret and made a face. “French schoolboy?”
“Stop helping,” he said, moving his hand—sadly—so he could take the hat and glasses off. “And Lee might come. He didn’t say no.”
“No, he made a grunting noise and walked off to his room.”
He sighed. “Yeah, he’s not coming around as quickly as we’d hoped.”
That was putting it mildly—Lee was a hot garbage fire, a living disaster, a human embodiment of Eeyore—but the last thing she wanted to do was make Jack feel worse. He wanted to see the best in his brother, and she truly hoped he was right.
“Well, if you don’t want to pose for three pictures, I suppose we can loop Dustin in for one of them. You know he’d be very pleased.”
“But Iris wouldn’t be,” he said with a smirk.
She waved a hand. “She’ll live. And as far as the apron goes, make Finn wear it. It’ll be payback for how much he talks about cooking lately. If I hear him talk about his Thanksgiving squash recipe one more time, I’m going on a hunger strike.”
Jack huffed a laugh, but she could tell he still hadn’t shaken their talk of Lee, not totally.
So she tugged her to him by the belt and put a Santa hat on his head. It wasn’t the Santa hat—the one he’d worn for the Instagram pictures last fall. She’d gone out and got a new one as part of her whole purge.
“Well this one is obviously a must,” she said. “I have very good memories of you in a Santa hat.” She kissed him sweetly. It was starting to get a little less sweet when Iris shouted, “Incoming,” and they pulled away from each other laughing.
The door burst open, and River and Finn came in, carrying a massive backdrop of a burning barn. It was expertly rendered, but…it was a burning building. A chicken and a few chicks were racing from it. The glowing eyes within suggested animals were still stuck inside.
“A little to the left!” Dustin said from the doorway, where he stood next to Iris.
Clearly the backdrop was intended as a match for the fireman outfit, but was this supposed to be January?
“Um, Iris,” she said, “do you really think people are going to want to start off the year by staring at a disaster? Isn’t that a little dark?”
It’s edgy,” Iris said. “Plus, this is all about wish fulfillment. The photo will be of Jack, or whoever, saving those animals. Which dog do you think would do well with this one? I vote for the one who looks like a sewer rat.”
Maisie gave her a pointed look.
“What? I meant that fondly.” Turning to Finn and River, Iris said, “By the way, I gave Jack first dibs on the props. You can fight each other for the rest of them.”
Dustin had his phone out, and Maisie had more than a passing suspicion he hoped it would come to a fight—one he could immortalize on camera.
Hey, good publicity.
“Shit, which ones did you choose?” River asked.
“Well, he’s literally wearing a Santa hat,” Iris said. “So that’s December. Are you writing this down, Dustin?”
It was the kind of thing a high-powered executive might say to an assistant, but even though Dustin had almost fifty years on her, he didn’t seem offended in the least.
“I’m filming everything,” he confirmed, giving a thumbs-up.
“Because that’s not creepy at all,” Jack muttered under his breath.
“Should have brought him Danishes,” she commented.
“What else has been claimed?” Finn said, looking through the props.
“Cowboy-scholar,” Maisie said as she nudged aside the two she’d chosen. “Two props. One look.”
Iris rolled her eyes. “You can’t just combine them, Maisie. There’s a method to all of this.”
She was a bit afraid to ask any follow-up questions. But she hadn’t been raised to be a pushover, even to someone she loved as much as Iris.
“My animal shelter,” she said, raising her eyebrows. “My boyfriend. Cowboy-scholar.”
“Ugh. Fine.” Iris rolled her eyes. “He can shoot that one in front of the dystopian landscape.”
“Aunt Dottie hooked you up with these artists, didn’t she?” River asked.
“How’d you know? I figured it would be a two-for-one—people will buy the calendar for local art and…you know.”
Maisie and River exchanged a look, both of them biting back laughter. It felt good to laugh with him. To be able to do something like this together without it feeling weird or awkward. Because miraculously, even though everyone now knew about Maisie’s former and very long-lived crush on River, it didn’t feel weird at all. He felt like what he was—her oldest friend.
Jack felt like the cowboy-scholar/Santa of her dreams. She reached for his hand and squeezed it, and he squeezed back, meeting her eyes with no hesitation when she looked at him.
“Rock-paper-scissors for fireman?” River asked Finn.
Maisie tilted her head at Jack—a silent question.
“Let one of them have it. I still have flashbacks of the fire at Thanksgiving, and the burning barn backdrop’s not helping.”
“You can have it, man,” Finn said to River. “You’ve fought two fires within six months. That has to be a record for a civilian.”
Maisie glanced back at River and grinned. “Plus it’ll piss off that fireman who has a thing for Georgie.”
“I’ll do it,” he said, as if there’d ever been any doubt. “But I’m not wearing the apron.”
Everyone looked at Finn as one, and he shrugged. “What the hell. Sure. I’m comfortable in my masculinity, and Addy likes a man who cooks.”
“I really, really wish I’d put money on that,” Maisie muttered to Jack.
“That’s okay,” he said, his eyes dancing. “We can arrange some special favors for you too.”
* * *
They were almost at the end, having photographed River in front of the burning barn with Sorcha, who really did look a bit like a sewer rat, poor thing; Finn in the apron in front of a stove in a gingerbread house that smacked of Hansel and Gretel; Jack as a cowboy-scholar in front of a city made of trash; and several more increasingly ridiculous combinations. The guys were shirtless for all of the photos—one of Iris’s rules for maximum salability of the calendars—although Maisie was beginning to wonder if they’d actually sell or if this whole debacle would only be a hilarious joke that she and Iris could bring up for years to come.
They were all feeling a little punch drunk—literally in the cases of Jack, River, and Finn (they’d plied them with Lurch’s new punch creation to make them less nervous on camera) when Addy showed up with Lee in tow.
Maisie almost swallowed her own tongue, and River, who was dressed up in the beret in front of what looked like a sentient Eiffel Tower—what this had to do with adoptable dogs, Maisie didn’t know—suddenly looked like someone had collapsed his soufflé.
Then again, River had his own reasons for not being in the Prescott Lee Buchanan fan club. Lee was a New York businessman who cared more about dollar signs than people, or at least he put on a good show of it, and he had nothing but contempt for this town. For the home River had chosen and loved. On top of that, he’d accused River of marrying Georgie for all the wrong reasons—which she knew River was having a harder time forgiving.
Lee blanched when he caught sight of the guys. All of them were still shirtless, Jack with the Santa hat on his head in preparation for the last shoot, Finn still wearing the apron over his boxers because he’d decided it was hilarious.
Adalia burst out laughing as Finn scooped her up and whirled her around. He kissed her before letting her down.
“Oh my God,” she said, grinning, “I can not wait to see why you’re wearing that.”
Lee shot her a wide-eyed look. “You didn’t say anything about being shirtless.”
She shrugged. “You didn’t ask.”
“I take it we have another recruit?” Iris asked, having taken a flurry of photos of a pissed-off River.
“Yeah,” Adalia said, pulling away from Finn to give Lee a little shove. “But this one’s shy about going shirtless.”
Iris glanced him over in silence, thinking, and then her eyes lit up in a way that promised something horrible.
“Well, you’re in luck, new recruit. Because we’re about to shoot November, and I think we’ll use all of you guys. You too, Dustin. I’m going to call it Thanksgiving Dinner.”
“As long as you don’t make them mime eating the dogs,” Maisie said with a shudder. She couldn’t help but think of the painting that hung in the dining room of the Buchanan house. It showed Lurch, the former head brewer of Buchanan Brewery, with his junk out, shaking hands with Diego, the goose whom the artist had roasted for Thanksgiving dinner. So not okay.
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Iris said, with another of her dismissive hand gestures.
Jack was right—the power had definitely gone to her head.
“I’m not taking my shirt off,” Lee said with a panicked look, eyeing the door. Adalia stepped in front of it, which was kind of funny, really. She was about half Lee’s size.
“You don’t have to,” Iris said. “You and Dustin will be in the back. The guys with the six packs go in front.”
Maisie swallowed a laugh, because Lee’s expression had gone from relieved to mortally offended. It was obvious he wanted to walk, but Adalia said something to him in a low whisper, and he sighed in an aggrieved fashion, letting them all know he was too good for this, and stepped further into the room.
“No props either.”
“That’s fine,” Iris said.
From the look on Lee’s face, Maisie wouldn’t be surprised if he either unbuttoned his shirt or bolted from the room, and from Asheville, and never came back.
But he didn’t leave—or disrobe; he stood aside as the guys carried in the November backdrop, which was ominously covered in a sheet. Iris nodded to River, who did a drumroll on the side of the wall, and Dustin proudly swept the cover off.
Although this wasn’t a rendition of the Thanksgiving Dinner portrait, this backdrop had clearly been painted by Stella. A dozen turkeys wearing goat masks carried an empty platter.
“You guys will be on the platter,” Iris said excitedly. “Get it?”
“Asheville has really gotten to you,” Jack said. He was studying her with no small amount of fascination, but it was obvious he wasn’t sorry about it.
“I’m almost afraid to ask,” Maisie said, “but where do the dogs fit into this?”
“There’ll be one of them for each of the guys,” Iris said, “and they’ll be on the outside of the group. They’re trying to help the guys out of their situation.”
“You storyboarded this, didn’t you?” Adalia said proudly.
Lee still had that look, like his feet were itchy and he was thinking of running.
Several minutes later, they were all in their places, Lee and Dustin in back, the guys surrounded by five dogs straining at their leashes.
It had all the earmarks of chaos, especially when River’s dog peed precariously close to Lee’s shoes—if he’d gotten even a splash of it, she was certain he would have found a way to leave, even though Adalia still stood at the door like a prison guard.
Maisie met Jack’s eye, winked at him, and pulled Adalia aside in the hall outside the door, calling in, “We’re still watching you. Any escape attempts will be stopped by our Great Dane.”
“Aren’t Great Danes super lazy?” Adalia asked.
“Sure, but they’re also big. They don’t have to know that.”
“What’s up? How the hell did you get Lee to come? Do you have dirt on him?”
“You mean more dirt?” Addy asked, rolling her eyes. “No. He was just moping again, and I essentially bribed him.”
Maisie smirked. “Do you have to bring him out for ice cream?”
“No. I told him I’d mock up a website for him. He’s still hoping to score another real estate job.”
It was sweet of Adalia to try, especially since all three of Lee’s siblings—Georgie, Adalia, and even Jack—inexplicably seemed to want him to stay in Asheville and work at Buchanan Brewery. But then Maisie and Adalia both knew there was about zero chance he’d find work in that field. Not now that his father had been investigated for fraud charges, owing to Lee’s intervention, and the company had been shuttered. No, he was more likely to get work as a male model.
Okay, she sort of felt bad for him.
Because the very next moment, he tripped over her feet in his haste to get out.
“Let’s go,” he said, ignoring Maisie. “I did what you asked.”
“Watch it, bud,” she said. “I’ve seen what you do to shoes.”
His first night in Asheville, he’d gotten drunk enough to yack on her friend Blue’s shoes. For some reason, Blue didn’t seem to hold a grudge. She actually asked about him every time they got together for girls’ nights, like she was worried about him.
But that was Blue—much to nice for her own good.
“See you later, Maisie,” Adalia said brightly, even though Maisie could see this wasn’t the outcome she’d hoped for. She’d probably hoped coming here would shake Lee out of his funk, or at least get some reaction from him.
She headed back in the room, just as Finn and River came out.
“Et tu, River?” she asked, something she always said in jest after they studied Julius Ceasar together in high school, each giving a different voice for the different characters, laughing hysterically as the tragedy ramped up for the characters.
“You have a problem with it, take it up with management,” he said.
“The boss lady cut us loose,” Finn added. “I’ll catch you guys later.”
He hurried away, no doubt to catch up with Adalia, and River trailed after him.
Maisie turned back to the room, just as Dustin and Iris came out with the dogs. She offered to help, but Iris just shook her head. “We’ve got this. You and Jack can bring the last backdrop in.” She nodded to where it was propped against the reception desk.
“Did Stella paint this one?” she asked.
“Was the Thanksgiving one not enough for you?” Jack asked, slipping out of the room. He put an arm around her, and she leaned into him, soaking in his warmth. How the hell could he be so warm when he was shirtless and it was forty degrees outside? If she asked, he’d just say it was his super power.
“Stella had nothing to do with this one,” Iris said.
Why didn’t that comfort her more?
“Ready, Red?” Jack asked.
“As much as I’ll ever be,” she said with a grin.
He tousled her curls, something she’d only ever let him do, and they grabbed the backdrop—covered in a sheet like the last one had been—and carried it into the playroom.
They set it down in front of the last one, because who had time to move it, and she asked, “You ready?”
“Want to bet it’s Krampus?”
“My money is on a workshop full of Jack-in-the-boxes. But, you know, they all have your face.”
She laughed at the blank look on his face—she’d thrown him with that one.
“Well,” he said, smiling again, “there’s only one way to find out. On three?”
They each took a corner and pulled it down together. Maisie gasped when it came into view. It was the only “normal” setting of the twelve—a Charlie Brown-type Christmas tree, decorated with ornaments, garland, and lights, with three people sitting gathered together in front of it, their backs to the viewer. One had curly red hair, and the other two had dark hair. Maisie. Jack. Iris.
It was the most beautiful painting she’d ever seen, and in the corner, two names were signed: Dottie Hendrickson and Adalia Buchanan. They’d done this for them.
“Did you know about this?” she asked, pulling him to her by his glittery red suspenders.
He lifted a hand to her cheek. “I asked them to do it.”
“You, Jack Durand, are one hell of a Santa Claus.”
“And you, Maisie O’Shea,” he said, releasing her face, and drawing her to him with one hand on her butt, “have been very, very naughty.”
His hands were on her, searing her now, the feeling of him burrowing into her as he kissed her in a way that gave her a very delicious preview of what her “punishment” would be. His lips traveled from her mouth to her neck, brushing against the sensitive spots that only he knew, before returning again to claim her mouth, to show her how much he wanted her, how much he loved her—something she also felt as he pulled her closer with the hand still caressing her behind, and—
“Gross,” Iris shouted. “Have you no restraint?”
“Not really,” Jack said, letting of Maisie but not pushing her away. “Can you give us a minute?”
“I thought I had,” Iris groused, walking away. Maisie got a glimpse of Dustin, beaming and giving her a thumbs-up, before the door closed, leaving Maisie and Jack with their painting and their tree. Leaving them with the memories of this past Christmas and the promise of all the years to come.
“I have to admit,” she said, reaching for him. “This calendar was a good idea. We’re totally doing this next year too.”
He groaned, and she captured it in her mouth. Because that was what naughty girls did.Return to Bonus Reads