“Hmm,” Chase replied, putting the bags down by the tree.
Chad turned, hoping to make a hasty escape before his brother could start asking more questions. He was enveloped in a warm hug.
“I’m so glad you could make it,” Mrs. Daniels said, squeezing the damn life out of him, but man, he loved those hugs. She pulled back, the skin crinkling around her eyes as she smiled. “Is it possible that you get more handsome every time I see you?”
“Ew, Mom!” Maddie’s voice carried from the kitchen.
“It’s entirely possible, Mrs. Daniels.” Chad winked.
Mr. Daniels swung an arm over his wife’s shoulder. The man was as huge as a bear. His apocalypse-ready Santa was at least three times bigger than Chase’s. “Sorry, Chad, I try to keep her paws off you.”
“Oh, he knows my eyes and hands are for you.” To prove her words, she grabbed Mr. Daniels’ ass.
Mitch poked his head out and curled his lips in horror. “Not something I wanted to see. Ever.”
Mr. Daniels huffed. “Yeah, well, you’ve obviously been grabbing a lot more than your wife’s—”
“Dad,” Mitch groaned. “Really?”
From beside the Christmas tree, Mitch’s wife Lissa grinned and rubbed her swollen belly. “It’s true.”
“My family’s insane.” Mitch disappeared back into the hall.
They were, but Chad loved them—loved the whole warm atmosphere. It was one of the reasons why he and his brothers had been drawn to their family. It was the complete opposite of theirs.
Speaking of family, Chandler came out and shoved a cold one in his hand. He noted that he wasn’t rocking a Daniels’s Christmas sweater. “Where’s your woman?”
Chad sighed, not wanting to think about Bridget. “She’s not here.”
His brother nodded curtly. With his hair pulled back in a small ponytail at the nape of his neck, Chandler looked like the kind of guy people hired security to protect them from. “What about the other one?”
“Yeah—the one with glasses?” he clarified.
Chad’s brows shot up. “Miss Gore—my publicist? Who knows? I’m just hoping it’s far away from me. Wait. You’re not—”
Before he could finish that nightmare of a sentence, Maddie appeared with a platter of cookies, eyes narrowed. “Oh, what the hell? Where is Bridget?”
“She couldn’t make it,” Chase tossed over his shoulder, sending Chad a look as he took the tray from Maddie. “Or that’s what Chad claims.”
Maddie looked like she was about to throw something. “Every year I invite her, and this was the one year I figured she had no way of escaping.”
“Sorry.” Chad shrugged. “I guess she’s scared you guys will lock her in a bomb shelter or something.”
She rolled her eyes. “That’s not why she won’t come.”
Curiosity was definitely piqued. “You mean she’s not afraid you guys are going to force feed her freeze-dried survival food?”
“Ha. Ha. No.”
“Then why does she bail?” he asked.
Maddie glanced over her shoulder. At that moment, Mr. Daniels had Chase and Chandler cornered, showing them some survival magazine. Maddie winced and grabbed his arm, pulling him into the empty kitchen. On the stove, a huge pot of shrimp steamed.
“Bridget doesn’t like Christmas.”
Chad crossed his arms. “I figured as much.”
“Do you know why? Probably not, because she doesn’t talk about it.”
“Are you going to tell me?” He leaned against the counter.
She sighed. “I’m only telling you this because I love that girl to death, and she had a really crappy day yesterday.”
“Wait. What do you mean?”
Maddie looked dumbfounded. “She didn’t tell you? Of course not.” She shook her head as Chad’s patience stretched. “You know how we’ve been working on the Gala and it’s been our life for almost the last year.”
Chad knew Bridget’s job hung on the line.
“We’re still a lot of money short, which has the director insane about the Gala. He pulled her into a meeting yesterday,” she said. “She’s not allowed to attend the fund-raiser.”
“What?” He straightened his arms. “Why the fuck not?”
Maddie looked uncomfortable. “It’s because of you.”
She cringed. “See, the director is concerned about you two kind of taking over the event, it becoming more about you being there than raising money, and there’s going to be a lot of conservative people there who won’t want their pictures taken—”
“Bridget came by yesterday and asked that I not go, but she didn’t say anything about this.” Anger had his hands clenching. “I’m not going. It should be an easy fix.”
“Yeah, that’s what Bridge said, but he knows the press still could be there. He’s not going to let her go.”
Why hadn’t Bridget told him this? “That’s absolute bullshit. She deserves to go.”
“I know. I totally agree, but what the director says goes. There’s nothing I can do.” Maddie turned her head to the side a bit. “I should’ve figured she wouldn’t tell you. Probably didn’t want you to feel bad.”
Fuck. He felt like an ass. Bridget hadn’t given him a reason for asking him not to attend, but if he’d known it had been because of him…
“Anyway,” Maddie said. “This time of year isn’t good for her. So the whole Gala thing is definitely adding to it.”
Chad thrust his fingers through his hair. “Why doesn’t she like Christmas?”
There was a pause. “Her parents were killed on Christmas Eve when she was in college.”
“I didn’t know how it was before then, but ever since I’ve known her, she doesn’t celebrate Christmas. Bad memories, I guess, but I’ve been trying to give her new ones, you know?” She looked crestfallen. “I was hoping since she was dating you, the holidays could actually be something nice for her.”
Chad stared at Maddie. Bridget had told him her parents had passed during one of their dates, but he hadn’t known how or the timing. Good God, no wonder Christmas sucked for her and on top of that, her director pulling her out of the Gala?
He was pissed and he was also…he was also upset.
Turning to the pot on the stove, he tried to imagine what it was like for Bridget right now and he could easily. Before he had the Daniels family, Christmas wasn’t celebrated. There were no goofy sweaters, gifts, laughter ringing through the house, or shrimp boiling on the stove. Christmas at the Gambles had been cold and as sterile as everything else. Except his mother was usually more doped up and his father would almost always be away on a “business trip,” but this was different.
Different on so many levels.
None of this should really affect him, but it did. He was upset for Bridget, and he didn’t want her sitting at home alone. He also didn’t want her not to be able to see a year’s worth of work not come to fruition
Chad wanted to fix this. Strange—really fucking strange, because typically whatever problems he faced, he either ignored them or blew right through them. Or someone else took care of them. He never really fixed them.
But he was going to fix the fuck out of this.
One thing he could do now. The other, which involved a phone call to his accountant and then to the rat bastard of a director, would have to wait.
“Chad?” came Maddie’s quiet voice.
He turned around, his mind made up. “I have to go. Can you pass my regrets to your family?”
Maddie blinked slowly, and then her eyes were aglow with happiness. “Yeah—yes, I can.”
He started past her, but she called out his name, stopping him. “What are you going to do?”
Chad wasn’t 100 percent sure, but he only knew one thing. “I’m going to go make new memories.”
It was damn near eight o’clock in the evening before Bridget decided she needed to shower and brush her teeth, but the marathon of The Walking Dead had kept her glued to the screen for most of the day.
And nothing, not even hygiene, was more important than the cray cray of a zombie infestation.
Seemed funny to be finally taking off her jammies to shower and put fresh pajamas back on, but that’s what she was doing.
Tying the sash on her robe loosely around her waist, she patted out most of the water in her hair with her towel as she crossed her living room and peered out on the streets down below. There was last-minute traffic congesting the streets, but in about an hour, there’d be nothing, and tomorrow, there’d only be a few cars carrying people to see their families.
Bridget had decided to go to the movies tomorrow and eat as much popcorn as she could stomach.
Moving away from the window, she dropped the towel on the back of the recliner and glanced at the coffee table. Her cell phone had been so silent that Pepsi had curled up around it.
She briefly toyed with the idea of texting Chad a Merry Christmas message as she planned on doing, but after the complete hideous bitch she’d been to him yesterday, she doubted he’d be happy to hear from her.
Chad had actually tried to be considerate and sweet with the food thing, and she had…well, she just had a really bad day.
Bridget sincerely hoped he was having a good time and tried not to think past the New Year, but it was inevitable. How many dates did they have left in them? Three. Maybe four, and then nothing.
And considering how she sounded yesterday, Chad probably thought she didn’t even care.
Sitting down on the couch, she picked up the remote and searched for something on the TV to distract her. When that failed, she tried searching out a favorite book of hers from the case.
A sudden, unexpected knock on the door caused her to drop the book. Pepsi popped up from the coffee table, kicking her cell phone onto the floor as he darted into the bedroom.
Having no idea who could be here other than a neighbor, she peered through the little peephole in her door.
Air punched out of her lungs, and her heart skipped a beat.
She’d recognized that back of a head anywhere.
Opening the door, she stared, dumbfounded and confused. What was he doing here? She couldn’t even fathom.
Chad turned around, holding a box in his arms. His eyes deepened to a midnight blue the moment they met hers. Without saying a word, he eased past her. She shut the door and turned around, leaning against the door.
It took her a couple of moments to remember how to speak. “What are you doing here?”
Chad glanced around her tiny apartment with interest. “It’s Christmas Eve.”
“Yeah, I know that.” God, she would’ve straightened up a little if she had known he was going to swing by. “Shouldn’t you be with your brothers and Madison’s family?”
He shrugged as he placed a box on the coffee table. Something festive-sounding jingled inside. Sitting down on her couch like he’d done it a million times before, he grinned up at her as he patted the cushion next to him. He grinned. “I like the paint by the way. Miss Gore said it looked like Sesame Street in here, but I don’t think so.”