Owen Burnett planned on a quiet, easygoing Christmas, hanging out with his best friend and neighbor, Gabby Michaelson. So when his mom pressures him to come home, he tells a little white lie...that he’s spending the holidays with his new girlfriend. But after his family shows up unexpectedly, Owen pulls the best friend card and asks Gabby to play his fake girlfriend.
Gabby’s been hopelessly in love with her best friend for what feels like forever, but playing Owen's "fake" girlfriend when the entire boisterous Burnett clan visits is easier said than done. The more she tries to deny the attraction between them, the more obvious their chemistry becomes. But even though she's not the only one feeling it, putting their friendship on the line is a risk she can’t take.
Each book in the Kendrick Place series is a STANDALONE story that can be enjoyed out of order.
* More than Friends
* The Bad Boy Next Door
* Hate to Love Him
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More Than Friends
A Kendrick Place Novel
By Jody Holford, Stacy Abrams, Alexa May
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Jody Holford
All rights reserved.
It'll be fine. Just one friend asking another friend for a favor. The joyful clang of Christmas music was easy to hear through the closed door. Owen Burnett clenched his jaw. If things went as planned, he'd have to convince Gabby to swap out her bubble-gum pop for something more sedate. A little bit of Bing crooning "White Christmas" seemed like a good compromise.
If she agreed. Owen was mostly confident his best friend would give him exactly what he needed.
But just in case, he'd brought pizza.
In his socked feet, said pizza in hand, he took a deep breath and let himself into her apartment, kitty-corner to his, as he had a hundred times before.
"In here. Do I smell pizza?"
"Jesus, you have a bionic nose," he said over the thumping mash-up of different singers. Making his way down the hall, he arched a brow at the several boxes she had stacked in the living room, all marked "Christmas." None were unpacked.
Gabriella stood at her easel, her hand swirling colors on a palette. The canvas was a blur of dark shades blending into one another. Owen loved watching her work take shape and turn from nothing into something extraordinary. As someone who could draw only stick figures, it fascinated him. When she painted, drew, or doodled, her face would take on the emotion of whatever she was creating. And sometimes, like now, Owen got lost watching her.
A long strand of dark hair danced in front of her eyes despite her efforts to blow it out of the way. There was too much of it to ever stay tucked back completely. She'd obviously changed out of her day clothes — as an administrative assistant at a local community college, she regularly wore business casual. She hated every minute in them, and Owen couldn't blame her, as wearing what he wanted was a perk of his own job.
She smiled at him over her shoulder. "Knew it. Give me a sec, I'm starving. If I have a bionic nose, you have a sixth sense for when I need food."
Owen laughed and set the still-hot pizza on the coffee table. "Pretty easy when the answer to that is 'always.'"
He turned the music down, ignoring her protest, and went to get a couple of beers from her fridge. Napkins and beers in hand, he realized the tightness in his chest was nerves — something he never felt around Gabby. She'll be fine with it. She'll probably think it'll be fun. Of the two of them, she was definitely the more adventurous one. Still, he gave himself an extra moment to take a few deep breaths.
She'd settled into the corner of her couch, a slice of pizza already in hand when he walked back in. Laughing, he passed her one of the beers.
"Don't wait for me." She grinned and took a huge bite.
Owen sat beside her and pulled a slice for himself. His glasses fogged briefly when he took a bite, making Gabby smile. The corners of her eyes crinkled when she smiled at him like that, making it impossible not to grin along with her. Her easy-going, almost-always-happy personality was just one of the things that made her a great friend.
He gestured to the pile of boxes. "I heard you dragging this stuff down the hall first thing this morning. Thought for sure you'd have all your decorations up by now."
In reality, he thought the contents of the boxes would have been everywhere. He figured she'd have dug in, gotten a good start, and then been distracted. She was often hit with bursts of inspiration in the middle of something and everything else around her tended to fall away. She had no trouble working in a cluttered space.
"Maybe I was waiting for you," she said around a bite of pizza. Then she laughed at her own joke.
She knew full-well he thought Christmas was a time for overspending and chaos, how he wasn't a fan of the crowds tripling and even the prices of everyday items shooting up. Gabby enjoyed teasing him about what she called his "Scrooginess." He, in turn, liked to point out she was a cross between Pollyanna and Julie Andrews.
Gabby took a long swallow of her beer, then wiped her lips with her napkin. Owen watched her, paying more attention to her features than he had in the past — particularly her lips. His mother would love her. She was the kind of girl his family dreamed about him settling down with — the kind he couldn't have imagined being with, other than as a friend. Best friend. That's exactly what Gabriella Michaelson had become over the past couple years. Small moments and conversations had turned into shared pizzas while watching the Celtics. The conversations got longer and the time they spent together increased to the point where they spent more time with each other than without. They'd become part of each other's routine.
Other than work and sleep, they did most things together. Sometimes their friend Brady — who also lived in the building — joined them, but whether he did or didn't, Owen and Gabby were comfortable. Which makes this not a big deal.
"Do I have pizza on my face?" When she touched her cheeks, checking for sauce, he saw the dried paint on her nails and fingers.
Shoot. He'd been staring. Owen laughed. "No. Just paint, as usual. What are you working on?"
Gabby pulled her bottom lip between her teeth, then looked down. She spoke low, a sign that she was nervous and had something important to share. "I got asked to do an exclusive showing in the New Year. Five pieces at the Carter Klein Gallery."
"Gabby! Wow!" He set his beer down and, beaming at her, grabbed her by both arms to yank her close. The Klein Gallery was a big deal, and to be asked to do an exclusive was even bigger. She more than deserved the break. "This is awesome!"
She gave a carefree laugh and hugged him back, her chin resting on his shoulder. He'd hugged her before, but he couldn't remember ever being so aware of the sweet smell of her hair or the way her body fit against his. It felt comfortable. Natural. His family wouldn't question the relationship if it were this easy to hold her. And why wouldn't it be? She was Gabby. His Gabby. She'd have no issue with what he was about to propose.
He winced at the word "propose." If his mother had her way, he'd be down on one knee before his thirtieth birthday in January, which was why he hoped his idea would hold her off. She'd see he and Gabby were great together. She didn't have to know they were only buddies — too different to be anything else to each other. Gabby would probably slap him for even thinking otherwise.
She sat back, shifting so she was on her own cushion again. "Thanks. I'm pretty pumped, but it's short notice. They called around nine, right after I'd brought the boxes up, and I couldn't wait to get started," she said, gesturing to the canvas.
Her smooth skin was tinged pink with the excitement of her news, and her brown eyes literally sparkled. When he'd met her a couple years ago, he'd thought she was attractive in a disheveled kind of way, but hadn't paid close attention. He'd had Vanessa-vision; a rare condition where he believed he'd found the right girl based on her perfectly coifed hair and immaculate style. It had taken him far too long to figure out how imperfect their relationship was.
Gabby tilted her head and smacked his shoulder, snapping him out of his own thoughts. "Okay, for real, why are you looking at me like that?"
Unaccustomed to the flurry of nerves playing in his stomach, he picked at the label on his beer bottle and kept his voice nonchalant. "I'm actually glad you haven't gone Christmas-crazy yet." Owen chuckled when she scoffed.
Grabbing another piece of pizza, Gabby leaned back on her side of the couch. "Really? Did you have a change of heart, Mr. Grinch? You wanna get all Christmassy with me?" She fluttered her lashes exaggeratedly.
Owen's stomach tightened. He set his beer down harder than he meant to, making foam rise up a bit. Pulling it back, he sipped off the top, set it down more carefully, and leaned forward, his forearms resting on his knees as he met her gaze. "Yes, actually."
Gabby laughed and continued to chew her food. She stretched her feet out, crossing her ankles on the coffee table. His eyes wandered the length of her legs to her ankles. Had he ever noticed how delicate her bones were? Like a dancer's. What's wrong with you? Focus. Just ask her.
Her brows furrowed as she looked down at his hand. "What's the catch? You hate Christmas — which doesn't get you out of buying me a gift, by the way."
He groaned, realizing he'd need to hit the mall for more presents — not Gabby's; he'd had that for a while. It was too late to shop online and be sure of delivery. He'd probably need to go to the grocery store as well. He didn't have enough food for six people for the holidays. Owen stood abruptly and bumped the table, jostling Gabby's legs. She startled and stared up at him.
"What the hell, O?"
Owen ran his hands through his hair. He needed a trim, but his barber was on vacation. No way was he trying someone new. Better long than hacked off. He paced a little, then pulled off his black-framed glasses, using the act of cleaning them on the tail end of his button up shirt to align the words properly in his head. It was a simple proposal. No — proposition.
When he looked back at Gabby, she'd put her pizza down and watched him with a wariness he didn't often see in her eyes. "What's going on?"
"My parents are coming for Christmas. Actually, my parents and my sister." He took a deep breath. The pressure in his chest returned. "And my aunt."
Gabby's eyes went wide right before she burst into laughter. She wrapped her arms around herself and laughed until he saw tears gathering at the corner of her eyes.
Owen glared and put his hands on his hips. Of course she'd find humor in this. "Shut it. It's not funny." It was true — there was nothing funny about the thought of his family coming to stay with him for a week or what his mom had shared with him, but Gabby's laugh always got to him, and a smile crept through. Dammit, she had the best laugh. He picked up one of her funky throw pillows from a chair and tossed it at her head.
Gabby ducked and the pillow fell to the floor. She shook her head and wiped her hands on a napkin. "Not funny? Which part isn't funny? The part where you, King of Clean — Master of Order — has to share your apartment? With four other people. Or is it the fact that you hate Christmas and tried to get out of it by telling them you had to work — which I told you would backfire — and now you're hosting it. Sorry, O. This is more than funny. It is serves-you-right hilarious!"
Hands back on his hips, he continued to glower at her, but she only laughed harder, like she was immune to him.
"Stop. Laughing. I don't hate Christmas. Well, maybe the malls. My mom doesn't know the meaning of 'small get-together' or 'family only.' I didn't want another Christmas like the last one. People I don't know everywhere. They played Charades, Gabby. The holiday version."
She nodded as she tried not to giggle, her teeth digging into her bottom lip. As always, it was bare — she rarely wore makeup. Not that she needed it. She was striking without. How had he never noticed how full her lips were? Drawing further attention to them, she pressed her lips together and scrubbed her hands over her face. Her muffled laughter came in small bursts. When Owen growled and stalked to the window, nearly tripping over two of the boxes, she jumped off the couch and launched herself at him.
Her arms wrapped around him from behind, her cheek pressing into his back. "I'm sorry. It has elements of funny, but I can see why you wouldn't think so." She took a few deep breaths, then let them out. "Okay. We've got this. You can borrow a few of my decorations, and when they're not looking you can sneak over here to escape the noise and mess. I'll even try to tidy up."
She moved around so she stood in front of him. With her hand, she pushed at his shoulder playfully and gave him a sweet Gabby smile, her attempt to make peace.
He knew from the way her lips quivered she was still working to keep the laughter at bay, but she held strong. "When are they coming? I can't wait to meet them. I told you your mom wasn't going to deal well with you not going home for Christmas." Tucking her chin down, she walked past him and began cleaning their dinner mess.
The room was too warm. Owen looked at the window, the frost decorating the outside corners, and thought of opening it. A tree filled the window directly across from Gabby's in the neighboring building. She hated that her place didn't have a view. Which is what makes this a great idea. The apartment was really stuffy. Do it, already. "Yeah. About that. Remember when I said I told them I couldn't get away because of work?" He faced her, knowing he couldn't avoid her eyes when he asked.
Pizza box in hand, she nodded, her smile quieter. "Yeah?"
"My mom was pressing so hard and I was feeling guilty. So I ... I told her I'd finally met someone. The one. I told her I couldn't come home because I didn't want to leave at the most romantic time of the year. I thought she'd accept it and back off," Owen said. He looked down at the carpet, digging his toes into the fibers. His own apartment was wall-to-wall hardwood — which he knew Gabby coveted. She mentioned it every time they hung out at his place.
"Oh my God, Owen. You're an idiot," Gabby said.
His head snapped up and he started to argue, but since he still needed her, badly, he figured it was best to stay on her good side.
Besides, she was right. He was an idiot.
Time to go all in. "There's more."
Gabby's sweater started to slip off her shoulder and Owen's eyes followed, drawn to the spaghetti strap of the purple tank top underneath. Her shoulders rose and fell with her deep sigh.
"They're coming to meet her. That's why they're coming. They want to meet the woman I'm in love with, so in love that I can't make it home for Christmas this year." Last year had been such a gong show. On Christmas Eve his mother had invited every one of her theater students for an impromptu sing-along.
Gabby shook her head, her eyes still smiling, this time with empathy and warmth. "Ouch. So what're you going to do? You're not even dating anyone. Where are you going to come up with your dream girl before they get here?"
He held her gaze and watched the laughter slip from her eyes. She tilted her head, scrunching her brows as she started putting the unsaid pieces together one second at a time. Her eyes widened. Gabby gripped the pizza box so tight the cardboard creaked. She took a step back, bumping into a pile of Christmas ornaments and stumbling. Owen didn't catch the pizza box when it fell, but he managed to grip her arms and stop her from following it down.
She looked at the box, which had landed sideways but stayed closed, and then up at him. "Me? I'm supposed to be the girl you love? The girl?" Her voice was nearly a whisper, and though he thought he knew almost every one of her expressions, he couldn't decipher the one she wore now.
He gave a half laugh, steadying her, then stepping back. "Well, you're a girl. One who knows me better than anyone. And I love you, so it's not a total lie," he said.
Gabby's face contorted and turned an interesting shade of red. She picked up the pizza box with jerky movements. "You love me?" The squeak in her voice didn't match the fire in her eyes.
Owen shrugged. Again, he rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. Had they never said that to each other? Probably not. Some things weren't necessary to say between best friends. Right? "Well, yeah. We're best friends. Of course I love you. Don't you love me?"
He wasn't sure how her face could go from red to white so quickly. With a shrill laugh, she yelled, "No!"
Owens throat constricted. "Hey!" What the hell? We're best friends.
She piled the discarded and extra napkins on top of the box and began to babble as she walked to the kitchen. "No. I mean I don't love-love you, but of course I love you, like ... like a best friend. But me? I'm totally not your type and your parents will know that. They'll never believe you'd fall for someone like me. I'm messy and disorganized. I didn't even remember to do my taxes until the last minute, after you nagged me. Hell, then I just got you to do them for me. I don't even separate my lights and darks. I'm actually the opposite of everything you have on your list of what makes a perfect woman."
Owen stilled. The air had been sucked out of the room. "How do you know about my list? Were you on my computer?"
She turned to stare at him, her mouth hanging open a little. With a shaky laugh, she tossed the pizza box onto the counter. His fingers itched to pick up the scattered napkins, to pile them neatly.
Excerpted from More Than Friends by Jody Holford, Stacy Abrams, Alexa May. Copyright © 2016 Jody Holford. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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