Country music’s golden boy Colton Wheeler felt the most perfect harmony when he was with Gretchen Winthrop. But for her, it was a love him and leave him situation. A year later, Colton is struggling to push his music forward in a new direction. If it weren’t about to be the most magical time of year and the support of the Bromance Book Club, he’d be wallowing in self-pity.
It’s hard for immigration attorney Gretchen not to feel a little Scrooge-ish about the excess of Christmas when her clients are scrambling to afford their rent. So when her estranged, wealthy family reaches out with an offer that will allow her to better serve the community, she’s unable to say no. She just needs to convince Colton to be the new face of her family’s whiskey brand. No big deal…
Colton agrees to consider Gretchen’s offer in exchange for three dates before Christmas. With the help of the Bromance Book Club, Colton throws himself into the task of proving to her there’s a spark between them. But Gretchen and Colton will both need to overcome the ghosts of Christmas past to build a future together.
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One year later
Colton Wheeler lived by very few hard and fast rules, but one of them was when someone asked you to keep a secret, you took it to your grave. So it was with no small gut punch of betrayal that he realized that these guys, of all people, would go back on their word to him. They were supposed to be his best friends.
Colton adjusted the strap of his duffel bag on his shoulder with an annoyed jerk. "You swore you wouldn't tell anyone."
"Come on, man," said Gavin Scott, a yoga mat tucked under his arm. He wore a sleeveless training shirt that showed off the line across his bicep that separated pasty-white shoulder from perpetual farmer's tan. "It's not like we told total strangers."
"It doesn't matter who they are. I promised her I would keep this quiet."
"We didn't mean to put you in a bad position," said Del Hicks, jumping in. "Honestly."
"And we didn't even think you'd be here anyway," Gavin added, officially pouting.
"Why wouldn't I be here?"
"Because of the meeting. Isn't that today?"
Ah, yes. The Meeting. It had taken on such infamous significance that it was now preceded only by the followed by a capital M. The Meeting in which he would find out if he still had a career left. But his friends didn't know that. They only knew he was meeting with the music label to discuss his next album after a two-year recording hiatus.
And now he was the one who felt guilty, an emotion he'd become all too familiar with in the past year. How could he expect these guys to live up to some standard of friendship when he was betraying them every single day with the things he'd been keeping from them?
For a global music star, true friendships were hard to come by. The more famous he got over the years, the lonelier life became. It was hard to trust who really wanted to be in his life and who just wanted the bragging rights of being associated with a superstar.
But these guys, they were the real deal. The best friends he'd ever had. And they'd met in the unlikeliest of ways-through romance novels. They called themselves the Bromance Book Club, a group of men who read romance novels to learn how to see the world through a less toxic lens than the ones that all cisgender heterosexual men are taught to look through. Braden Mack was the one who had started it all and pulled Colton into it. He'd been skeptical, as most of the guys were when they first joined the book club. But Colton quickly learned it was about a lot more than books. It was about camaraderie and brotherhood. The lessons of romance novels had taught them all how to be better men, better partners, and better friends to one another.
"It's okay," Colton finally sighed. "I'll talk to-"
"Mr. Wheeler, what is the meaning of this?"
Shit. Colton steeled himself as he turned around and looked straight into the eyes of one of the most intimidating people he'd ever met. Peggy Porth. Retired elementary school principal. Certified ballbuster.
Silver Sneakers instructor.
"Hey, Mrs. Porth." Colton's voice squeaked like the time in fifth grade when he'd been caught selling PokŽmon cards during recess for twice their market value. In his defense, he'd needed the money for Christmas presents for his siblings.
Mrs. Porth stood just five foot three but somehow managed to look down at him when she spoke. "Need I remind you, Mr. Wheeler, that when you asked if you and a couple of friends could attend our classes, I agreed to just a small group. This class is supposed to be for people over fifty exclusively, but you talked me into it. But now I see three others standing by the door waiting to come in."
The others in question were huddled in a nervous circle a few feet away, occasionally casting furtive glances as if to gauge whether they were about to be tossed out by a bouncer. Colton knew them, of course, but not well, and only because they were Gavin's and Del's teammates on the Nashville Legends professional baseball team. His circle of friends included several athletes. Besides Gavin and Del, there was Yan Feliciano, another Legends player. And Vlad Konnikov, a player for the Nashville NHL team, and Malcolm James, who played for the city's NFL franchise. Which was why Colton had invited them in on this secret in the first place. Silver Sneakers was the most effective workout he'd ever had. He'd never been as strong, fit, or flexible, and it had all started by accident. He'd thought he was taking a Six-Pack Abs class but had gotten the room wrong and instead found himself sweating his balls off as he tried to keep up with the sixty-something-year-old women who made step aerobics look like a mere jaunt through the park. He'd been sore for days but kept coming back because, damn, but also because no one in the room gave a single flying fuck who he was.
Turns out, he was sort of into not being fawned over because he was Colton Wheeler.
It was one of the things that had attracted him to . . . Fuck. The Number of Days Since I Thought About Gretchen Winthrop board in his mind went back to zero.
"It's our f-fault, Mrs. Porth," Gavin said, his lifelong stutter emerging in fear of the woman. "We just wanted to share it because our teammates are getting jealous of how flexible we've become."
To prove it, he dropped his yoga mat and sprang into a deep lunge that would've sent Colton straight to the emergency room.
"See," Gavin grunted, voice strained. "I could practically play first base now if I wanted."
Mrs. Porth pursed her lips. "Stand up, Mr. Scott. You're making a fool of yourself."
Del grabbed Gavin's elbow and helped him up. Mrs. Porth sighed and looked again at the men waiting nervously by the door. "Fine," she said. "They can join. But let me remind you that if you disturb anyone-"
"They won't," Gavin said quickly. "I mean, we won't. Thank you, Mrs. Porth." Gavin raced to the door and gave the guys the good news.
A moment later, Gavin returned with his teammates in tow, all wearing variations on the standard professional athlete uniform-basketball shorts, moisture-wicking shirt, and kinesiology tape on whatever body part hurt today. After depositing their yoga mats and duffel bags, they shuffled over to Colton.
One of them extended his hand. "Hey, man. Thanks for letting us join. Jake Tamborn. We met at Gavin's birthday party last year."
"I remember," Colton said, accepting the handshake because it was the polite thing to do. He still wasn't thrilled about them being here, but he repeated the gesture with the other two men-Brad Eisenberg and Felix Pinas. Both men were in their midtwenties and had the confident posture of two dudes who had no idea what they were in for.
"Did you warn them?" Colton whispered to Del as the three men walked away.
"That they're about to get their asses kicked? Yeah."
"Did they believe you?"
Colton grinned for the first time since arriving at the gym. "This is going to be fun."
The door to the fitness room opened, and Vlad ran in, flustered. He dumped his yoga mat next to Colton's and shoved a Santa hat on his head. "How does this look?"
"Surprisingly good. Why?"
"Elena says I have to dress up as Santa for our Christmas party to hand out presents to all the kids."
Vlad and his wife, Elena, were hosting their first-ever Christmas party in a couple of weeks. Normally, Vlad would never have had time because of his hockey schedule, but he was still recovering from a broken leg suffered during last year's Stanley Cup playoffs. So when the guys decided to organize a Bromance family holiday party, Vlad jumped at the chance to host it because it might be his only chance.
"I've never played Santa before," Vlad said. "We don't do Santa in Russia."
"No Santa?" Gavin gasped and looked up from stretching his quads as if Vlad had just admitted to barking at the moon on Christmas Eve.
Del smacked the back of Gavin's head. "Damn, dude. Get out of your American bubble every once in a while."
"We call him Grandfather Frost," Vlad said.
Gavin sat all the way down, crossed his legs under him, and began to bounce them butterfly-style. "How is he different from Santa?"
Vlad started stretching as he spoke. "Well, he has a white beard, so that is the same. But he does not wear a red suit. He wears long robes. And he does not have reindeer. His sleigh is driven by three horses. And he is not just about giving gifts. He is about good deeds. He gets cold when he is around bad people."
"I like that. Maybe you should play him, instead," Colton offered. "No reason to change your own traditions."
"But Elena says that will confuse the kids and make them question if Santa Claus is real."
Del shrugged. "Tell them that he and Santa are friends and help each other out."
"I don't know," Gavin said. "I do kind of want to see Vlad in a Santa suit."
Vlad got a panicked look on his face. "What if I screw it up?"
Colton patted him on the back. "You'll do fine. We'll help you get ready. Just practice saying 'Ho, ho, ho.'"
Mrs. Porth clapped her hands loudly and walked to the front of the room. Next to her stood a woman about ten years younger. "Those of you who are new to the class," she said, staring directly at Jake, Felix, and Brad, "can follow a modified version of all of our exercises."
As predicted, the three new guys snorted because, of course, professional athletes would have no reason to follow a modified workout routine. They had no fucking idea what was coming.
The guys spread out in a long line extending from one side of the room to the other. In front of them, roughly thirty-five other exercisers took their places next to their own mats and bottles of water. Later, they would all grab an aerobics step for the part of the class that truly separated the women from the men.
"All right, everyone. We're going to start with some light stretching and warm-up," Mrs. Porth said. The speakers began to play a quiet, calming music, like the kind you'd hear in a day spa. "Let's get those arms loosened up with some nice, easy shoulder shrugs . . . That's it. Now start to roll them back and forward . . . Very good. Now some arm circles."
Colton spread his arms out wide and smacked hands with Felix. Colton gave him a sharp look, and Felix inched sideways with a quiet Sorry.
"Okay, everyone," Mrs. Porth said. "Now for some easy yoga poses to get those legs nice and ready to work."
Colton followed her instructions into goddess pose and several others. A moment later, he looked up from his mat to a disturbing sight. "Dude, get your downward dong out of my face."
"Isn't it called downward dog?" Brad whispered back, his face upside down between his legs.
"Not when you do it."
Brad crab-crawled a few inches away.
"Okay, everyone, excellent job," Mrs. Porth said. "Now, everyone grab your step and place it in front of you. Remember that you can adjust it to whatever height is most comfortable for you."
Mrs. Porth had the highest setting.
A moment later, Jake groaned. "Shit, you didn't tell me it would be this hard."
"What did you expect?" Colton snorted. "This is the Jazzercise generation. They've been kicking asses in leotards since the dawn of MTV."
"So what time is the meeting with the label?" Noah grunted.
Colton glanced over quickly. Did they suspect something? "No. Why would I be worried?"
Noah shrugged. "I don't know. I mean, just that you've never had a meeting like this since I've known you."
"It's just a formality," he said, adopting the no big deal attitude he'd perfected at ten years old. No one wanted to see him worried. Or mad. Or anything other than the carefree, aw-shucks playboy who had sold millions of records around the world.
Because Colton Wheeler had one job, and one job only. To make other people happy.
Even if it killed him.
"Your honor, may I approach?"
Gretchen Winthrop fought to keep her tone neutral as she waited for the federal judge to respond to her request. Inside, however, she was raging. It never ended, the indignities that her clients were forced to suffer. The judge nodded and waved his fingers in an annoyed make it quick way, and both she and the attorney for the government left their respective tables. The judge looked down from his desk, hand over the microphone that recorded the deportation proceedings of the Memphis Immigration Court.
"Your honor, my client is ill. She has a fever of 102 degrees and can barely sit up."
Judge Wilford raised an eyebrow and looked at Assistant U.S. Attorney Justin McQuistan. "It would seem Ms. Winthrop is correct. Why is the defendant in court sick?"
"Your honor, it is my understanding that-"
Gretchen cut him off. "My client cannot possibly be expected to contribute to her own hearing without proper healthcare. I request a postponement until Ms. Fuentes can be treated properly."
The judge waved them back to their tables. A moment later, he spoke into the record. "The court grants defendant's request for a postponement pending proper medical treatment for Ms. Fuentes."
He banged the gavel, and Gretchen let out the first full breath in over a half hour. She sat down next to her client, Carla, a fifty-six-year-old woman who'd crossed the southern border with her parents at the age of seventeen. Carla's parents had already been deported, and the court had denied her request to stay even though she'd lived in the United States nearly all her life. But she had children now. And grandchildren. A boy and a girl, both under three. An American family who loved and needed her.
Gretchen squeezed her hand. "It's going to be okay. A postponement is good. We're going to get you healed up, and I will bring you proper clothes and shoes."
Tears leaked down Carla's cheeks. "My babies . . ."
"I will request a visitation."
Too quickly, deputies took her away through the door at the side of the courtroom. Back to the detention facility where countless others waited their fate. People who came to the United States out of desperation and found the Land of the Free did not always live up to its ideals. The clerk called the next case as Gretchen shoved her files back into her bag. As she walked out, another lawyer waiting for another client took her place. An endless cycle of cruelty that tore parents from their children, wives from husbands, friends from friends. And for what reason? Because they weren't lucky enough to win the lottery of birth? Because they wanted a better life for the people they loved? Because they were too desperate to stand in the impossibly long line for legal entry while they watched celebrities and athletes and supermodels cut to the front of the line?