GiGi’s Magic Christmas

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From Chapter 1...

The yard looked just the same, winter-brown grass with juniper and pecan trees in the corners of the chest-high, wooden fence. At the back, thirty feet away, stood the old basketball goal, its backboard weathered and silvery and its net long gone.

The cold air of December on the plains bit through her burgundy tunic sweater and black leggings, but it also helped cool her temper. She’d known what to expect. Hoping she’d finally gotten through to them had been a futile—

“Heads up!” a familiar voice called from her right.

GiGi wheeled toward it, hands rising to catch the basketball rocketing across the fence on course toward her face. The ball smacked into her palms. She pivoted toward the goal at the end of the yard, bounced the ball once, and fired it.

Her shot arced toward the hoop and…veered right. Frowning, she twisted her head left, trying for body English even though it was futile. The ball hit the rim and bounced off.

“A little magic, and you would’ve made it,” her childhood nemesis turned trusted friend, Matt Giordano, stated from his yard.

Her heart did its usual happy hop at the sight of him. Hanging with him was one of the best parts of coming home.

“If you have to use magic, you didn’t really sink it.” Shaking her head, she jogged over to get the ball. The ground was frozen hard, so she dribbled as she strolled back to Matt.

Between visits, she forgot how broad his shoulders were, but they filled out his gray hoodie. His biceps strained the fabric. He looked good, tall, black-haired like his Italian family, with a ruggedly handsome face, usually clean shaven, but now…

“Why the beard?” she asked, passing the ball back to him.

He caught it easily. “Got tired of my face.” He rolled the ball toward the back porch of his house, a clapboard ranch. That style and split-levels like her folks’ house dominated this housing development.

“Yeah, right.” They met at the fence, as they always had. She’d been selfishly glad when his parents moved to Portland, Oregon, and he returned to live in his childhood home. It made seeing him when she came back easier.

She gave him her best skeptical look. “Ten to one, you’re growing it to please that woman you’re dating. What’s her name—Kelly, Karen, something like that?”

That heart pinch at the thought of him with a woman didn’t belong in the friend zone, so she squashed it. As she’d had to do a lot on her past few visits, but that was a worry for another time.

“Kendra, but that’s over.”

“Are we sorry?” GiGi wasn’t. No way, which was petty and selfish, so she would try if he was sad about it.

Matt shrugged, his brown eyes rueful. “We weren’t a good fit. She wanted someone more focused on her than I was prepared to be.”

“Pop always says if you own a small business, it actually owns you.” Matt’s photography studio was always busy, especially during the summer wedding season and the winter holidays.

“He’s right. Between the studio and gigs and teaching at Dorcasville Tech, I don’t have a lot of time.”

There was also another factor. Crossing her arms on top of the fence, she asked, “How’s the family?”

Another shrug. “Mom and Dad love life in Portland, especially the many opportunities for spoiling Tony’s kids. Bella’s still here in town, going through yet another intense breakup with a guy she rebounded to after yet another failed reconciliation with Ron, their kids are confused and unhappy, and Nonna’s stubbornly clinging to her house even though she really should move into a condo.”

“In other words, business as usual.” His family had always leaned on him, but this sounded more intense. Not only that, but he looked more frustrated than usual.

“I saw your photo spread of Acadia National Park in Nature’s World,” she said, hoping to distract him. “It was gorgeous. The way you caught the light at different times of the day, through the trees and on the water, was just…unbelievable. So beautiful, Matt.”

“Thanks.” The stress smoothed out of his face, and he smiled. “I love going out with a camera and a backpack, sometimes even with a tent. It’s so quiet in the wilderness.”

With no one making demands on him. She knew, even though he didn’t say it.

“We have wilderness in Georgia.” Why had she said that? He had a job. He couldn’t just go jaunting off to the east coast.

“You mean the mountains,” he said.

“Those too. Also beaches, but I meant the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. It’s 400 square miles of blackwater peat bog. When the water’s smooth, it’s like an obsidian mirror. Lots of gators, water birds, deer, otters, and turtles. Even the occasional bear. But no cell towers, no phones or faxes.” Now she was blathering. Great. But he looked intrigued.

Lightening the moment, she said, “No screaming kids who don’t want their picture taken.”

He winced. “I had one of those yesterday. Just turned three and was totally not with the program.”

“Did you get the shot?”

“Please.” He gave her an offended look. “I always get the shot. Had to deploy my secret weapon, though, a stuffed tiger that talks.”

“Does it really talk, or did you gimmick it?”

“It talks. I don’t know how to do that with magic. Do you?”

“Not so far. I—”

“GiGi, Pop just pulled in,” Connie called from the back door. “And Travis is right behind him. Hey, Matt.”

He lifted a hand in greeting. “Hey, Connie.”

“Coming,” GiGi called. As Connie went back inside, Gigi turned to Matt. “It was great to see you.”

“Same. How long are you here?”

“Day after Christmas. Are you closing for the holiday?”

“End of the day on the twenty-second, as usual.”

“I’ll see you around, then.” Better not hug him. The idea was just a little too attractive, and starting something with this guy who was so dear, so irreplaceable, would be beyond stupid.

“See you,” he said, also not reaching for a hug.

Being disappointed about that was silly. As she turned away, he said, “Meet me for breakfast.”

“Okay.” Startled, she stared at him. They’d never done breakfast. Lunch, sure. Family meals, since they’d grown up in and out of each other’s houses. Coffee, lots of times, but not breakfast.

“Rosen’s Deli, the one that used to be Albert’s, on Front Street, 9 a.m. Don’t be late.” Matt loped back to his house, leaving her stunned behind him.