“Check out these frozen balls.”
Grimacing, Hudson McKay adjusted the seven-foot spruce in its display stand before fetching his Super Tool from his back pocket. “Goddamn it, Cal. I’m not checking out your balls. Frozen or not.”
“No, I mean these balls. See, this one has Olaf.” Without the courtesy of a warning, a large shiny ornament nearly smacked Hudson’s nose. On the bright side, at least it wasn’t the other type of balls.
Hudson nudged his best friend’s hand away from his face and squinted up at Cal. “Shouldn’t you be over there helping Stacia and your grandmother?” He pointed in the direction of the tree lot adjacent to the West Acres store entrance.
“Nana already picked out her concolor. Biggest one in the lot, naturally.” Cal scratched his nape, his hazel eyes pleading. “You’re, uh, still up for helping me get it up and decorated for her, right?”
“Only if you promise to leave me alone for the next five minutes so I can get this tree up.”
Before Cal could answer, a young girl outfitted in a puffy powder blue coat shuffled up to them. She craned her neck to peer at Cal and twitched her nose. “Is you a real reindeer?”
“You bet.” Cal shook his head, spurring a soft jingling from the tiny bells attached to the felt antlers clipped to his baseball cap. “Don’t tell Santa you saw me, though, okay? He doesn’t know I snuck out.”
The little girl giggled. “Can I show you to my mommy and daddy? They won’t tell Santa either. Promise.”
“In that case, of course.” Giving a conspiratorial wink, Cal allowed her to grab his hand and tug him toward the store.
Thank God for that Christmas miracle. Bracing his knee against the heavy-duty metal stand, Hudson clicked open his blade. Now he could actually get some work done. Provided he didn’t fall victim to his second biggest distraction after his kooky business partner.
Right on cue, a melodious laugh drifted from the tree lot and caressed his ears. His willpower disintegrating, he glanced toward the two women currently enjoying a stroll through the snow-dusted Fraser firs across from him. Striking as Cal’s seventy-two-year-old grandmother might be, Stacia Colton held Hudson’s rapt attention.
There were days it was impossible to look at her without guilt sinking its teeth into him. His stupid kid brother was the one who’d left her sobbing alone at the altar six years ago, but Hudson had to live with this secret, selfish relief tucked away in his chest. He was a colossal prick for harboring even the tiniest bit of gratefulness over August stealing the title of McKay Brother Fuckoid of the Century. Especially since he’d set the tarnished standard for August to live up to.
But today wasn’t one of his guilt-ridden days. Christ. He’d damn well prefer that. A little guilt never hurt anyone. Some days it was the only thing keeping him on the straight and narrow. Considering the forbidden and messy thoughts running through his noggin lately, he could use whatever defense mechanisms he could get his hands on, no matter how questionable or asinine they might be.
Helene Haverstock ducked her head close to Stacia’s and said something that triggered another outburst of laughter from her. With her creamy complexion kissed pink from the chilly air and a white knitted pom-pom-topped beanie scrunched low on her wavy, honey blonde locks, Stacia looked like she’d stepped straight off the set of one of those cheesy holiday movies. He knew better than to share that description with her. For starters, she’d probably accuse him of making fun of her and knee him in the family jewels. Secondly, he’d likely do something epically boneheaded—such as confess how unbelievably beautiful she looked and how the raging status of his blue balls would put Cal’s frozen ones to shame.
So yeah, best to keep his fucking yapper shut.
His jaw tense, he returned his focus to the behemoth tree in front of him. A quick slice through the baling twine, and the prickly branches sprang free. He yanked his head back in the nick of time but his Carhartt bibs didn’t fare so well. At this rate, he was going to be a massive walking sap stain. Any ability to fully concentrate on the task at hand went to hell when the soft notes of Stacia’s floral perfume seduced his senses. He had no idea what brand she wore, but the scent had been tormenting him for months. It’d even started creeping into his dreams. A few times he’d awoken and swore he could smell it on his pillow. Like that helped with his morning wood situation.
“Hey, look who stopped in.”
Keeping his gaze safely off of his employee, he hefted to his feet and offered Helene a hug. “I hear you nabbed our best tree on the lot.”
“Chalk it down to you coming to your senses and hiring the top saleswoman in the state.” Helene returned his squeeze with an even heartier one before releasing his arms. “Now don’t get me wrong. You know I enjoy all of the male eyecandy around here, but Stacia is exactly what you boys needed.”
Though it was damn hard, he ignored his brain’s insistence on twisting her words to suit its perverted preferences. “Couldn’t agree with you more.” And it was the god’s honest truth. Though she’d been working for them a few weeks shy of six months, Stacia had become an invaluable member of the West Acres Nursery team. The store was the most organized he’d seen since opening its doors to the public four years ago. She had a real eye for design too, and their seasonal displays had benefited as a result, bringing in more foot traffic that in turn converted to a shit load more customers. He would have been satisfied and thrilled with that outcome alone, but she’d also readily proved what an amazing saleswoman she was. Even the tree lot was unusually picked over. With a full month to go until Christmas, they’d probably have to put in another order with the farm up north. First time ever, but shit, it was a great problem to have.
And on top of everything else? His crew adored Stacia. Sure, the guys gave her their typical obnoxious BS in the beginning, but she’d ultimately won them over. Hell, that was putting it mildly. She’d completely wrapped them around her little finger. The assholes barely crabbed now about pulling in overtime or having to come in at midnight to plow snow—but that only applied if she called them in. If it was he or Cal on the other end of the line? Bitch city.
As if he’d been mentally summoned by that thought, Cal ducked out the front door. Or at least he attempted to. His right-side antler snagged in the doorframe, nearly ripping his hat off.
Grumbling under his breath, Hudson kicked the door open with his foot, dislodging the antler. “No wonder the other reindeer laughed and called you names.”
“Don’t listen to Mr. Grinch.” Stacia stood on her tippy-toes and patted Cal’s cheek. “Those other reindeer are jealous jerks.”
Cal immediately morphed into the awkward, moony-eyed state Stacia’s mere proximity always left him in. Thankfully she didn’t seem to notice and instead turned her attention to Helene. “Come on inside. I’m dying to show you the shipment of Christopher Radko that came in yesterday.”
The second the door closed behind Stacia and Helene, Hudson stepped on the toe of Cal’s boot, breaking him out of his trance. “Wipe the drool from your chin before you embarrass yourself.”
Cal dutifully obeyed and Hudson exhaled heavily, clouding the air in front of his face. “What the hell are we going to do with you?”
“Hey, I’m doing the best I can under the circumstances.” Cal’s expression remained only minorly chagrined, which annoyed the hell out of Hudson. The least the dipshit could do was stew in a sea of guilt like the rest of the shmucks around this place.
Or this shmuck, anyway.
“When did you last get laid?” Slim chance that would kill Cal’s infatuation with Stacia—shit, Hudson could more than attest to that sad reality—but maybe Cal would have better luck than him.
Cal stacked his arms over his chest, his features set with sheer obstinacy. “When did you last get laid?”
“What the…? This is not about me.” He shot a quick look through the front window, ensuring Stacia and Helene were all the way in the back of the store before he whipped his glare back onto Cal and proceeded to lay into him. “In case you’ve forgotten, I’m not the one who loses his train of thought whenever she smiles at me. I’m also not the one who looks for excuses to loiter near the register so I can sniff her hair like some kind of creeper. And I sure as shit am not the one who has to hide the flagpole in my pants whenever she bends over in front of me.”
Lies. All fucking lies. He did every one of those things and a helluva lot worse. But there was no way he’d admit as much to Cal. Not when he and Stacia were the leading stars of Hudson’s most fucked up fantasies.
Lusting after the woman his brother jilted? Complicated didn’t begin to cover the headspace his feelings for Stacia put him in. That alone was bad enough. But of course bad enough was never an adequate place for him to land. Hell no. Why not go for the gold and really make things FUBAR by throwing his loony-tunes partner into the mix?
His massive boner for the aggravating weirdo made zero sense. His blue balls for Stacia? Absolutely understandable. Her wicked sense of humor and off-the-charts sexiness routinely got every red-blooded male in the county tenting their jeans. But Cal? The same bizarre kid who’d worn a cape to school every goddamn day in elementary school? The same guy who presently insists he can telepathically communicate with squirrels and the occasional enlightened chipmunk? Yeah. That Cal Motherfucking Haverstock.
The annoying kicker? Somehow all of that extra-ness grew on him over the years. Cal’s abnormality was now completely normal. Even worse, there were times when it was oddly attractive. Skating on a thin ice of…hotness.
Maybe he’d officially lost his goddamn mind. A thirty-one-year-old dude wearing a pair of Rudolph antlers shouldn’t score high on his fuckability meter, for Christ’s sake.
Hell, who was he kidding? He wouldn’t even make Cal take the antlers off while shafting him six ways to Sunday.
No. You are not that guy anymore. So don’t even think of sweet-talking your best friend into fondling your Santa sack.
“I don’t sniff her hair.” Cal backed up the surly lie with a sniff.
“Whatever, hair sniffer.”
A lengthy silence ticked by. He could practically hear the wheels grinding in Cal’s brain while he searched for a fitting come back. Snuffing a sigh, he patiently waited it out. Rushing these things did no good. Finally, Cal’s smug grin slipped into place. “Bite me, asswipe.”
“Good one. I highly recommend bookmarking it for future usage.”
Cal nodded exuberantly, sending his antler jingle bells into a festive musical tizzy. “Way ahead of you, buddy.”
Jesus. Fucking. Christ. This giant weirdo was gonna be the death of him. Or possibly it’d be Stacia. Even more likely? Both of them. Because if he did the unthinkable and gave in to his depraved, moronic impulses? It wouldn’t just be reckless. Or idiotic. It’d be disastrous. The kind of epic dumbassery that destroys friendships and carefully laid life plans.
He didn’t commit those kinds of boneheaded sex crimes anymore.
But fuck if his quest for redemption didn’t feel like a jail sentence some days.