I ran through the silvery bursts of my breath as my arms pumped at my sides in pace with my legs. My ponytail swung from side to side. Despite the frozen temperatures, sweat dampened my hairline. The path ran along the river. The ice reached from one bank to the other, but the flowing water hadn’t frozen over yet. The city traffic elevated at the top of the embankment.
To my left, Owen’s feet landed in perfect stride with mine. His hazel eyes fixed to the middle distance, his face stern and lovely.
“What are you doing for Christmas?” I asked. We were more than halfway through our five-mile jog, and he’d been even quieter than usual.
“Family stuff. You?”
Another runner approached from the opposite direction, and Owen fell back behind me, before joining at my side again.
“Same. Spending Christmas Eve at Mom and Dad’s—it’s tradition. My brother Malcolm and his husband Tom do, too. So, we celebrate for about forty-eight hours. It’s… a lot of family time.” The cold air bit my lungs, but we kept an easy pace. “You going back home?”
I caught Owen’s nod out of the corner of my eye. “Around Grand Rapids, right?”
He nodded again.
If I wanted a chatty running partner, I should have befriended someone else from the running group where I met him. Owen and I had gotten to know each other over the past eleven months, but this level of silence was a bit much, even for him. I’d told him about my work week and a TV show I had watched, a book I wanted to read, and the holiday shopping I still had to get done. It was all a shortened running version, but that was hardly the point. And all he’d said was hello and “Family stuff. You?”
I was due some reciprocal conversation.
“What’s your deal?” I slowed my pace slightly. “You need to slow down?”
He glanced at me for the first time in about a mile before he focused back on the trail ahead. “No. Why?”
I meant to elbow him, but we weren’t close enough. Instead, I passed through the air between us. “You’ve hardly spoken.”
His sculpted chest rose with an inhale.
We were almost the same height, though he was possibly an inch taller than me. In our many jogs together, I’d collected knowledge about his lean frame. He was attractive, if compactly built men were my type. I tended to go for tall and lean, but over the past few months, Owen had tipped the needle in his direction.
Owen was becoming my type.
Not tall or lean, not compactly built.
I hadn’t even realized my crush on him had gradually developed until I noticed how often I caught myself thinking about him and smiling—or how much I wondered what he looked like under his clothes. Unlike other men I knew, Owen always wore a shirt while working out, even on the hottest days—even if it clung to him like a second skin carving along the ridges of his chest, stomach, and arms.
Of course, currently, he wore layers under a slim-cut coat, unzipped to his waist to ward off the bitter cold.
“I have a donor’s New Year’s Eve party. I didn’t go last year, and he mentioned it to my boss.” A crease formed between Owen’s eyebrows. Long black eyelashes lowered over his hazel eyes.
Even through Owen’s the strong-silent-type, it was obvious he was passionate about the dog rescue he worked with. As a veterinarian, he could probably make more money elsewhere and he wouldn’t have to deal with donors, but he loved the dogs.
wove around a frozen puddle. “Do you have to go?”
“Is it really that big of a deal? It’s just an appearance, right?”
“I hate these things. The donor is a volunteer as well, and…” A muscle flexed in his jaw. “He tried to set me up with his daughter.”
I didn’t think Owen had gone on a single date in the time I’d known him. He wasn’t really open about it—what with him being such a chatty guy and all. He’d mentioned an ex-girlfriend from vet school that had gotten serious, but nothing else. I spotted a hickey on his neck once, and when I picked on him about it, he just shrugged and replied, “Hookup.” It was hard to picture him having casual sex, but it wasn’t unthinkable—a puzzle piece I was sure belonged if I could just turn it the right way.
If I just examined it…
And I did.
From. Every. Angle.
Even knowing that, no matter how it fit, casual sex wasn’t a good fit for me.
“Yeah, he was persistent,” he said.
“He tried more than once?”
Owen snorted. “I don’t have a relationship on the radar, but some loud, pushy guy’s mystery daughter doesn’t appeal to me.”
“Can’t imagine why not.”
“Shocking, I know.”
“So, you show up and say you have somewhere else to go.”
He nodded, and we ran in silence for a few strides. He looked straight ahead while I stared at him until he noticed. The wind shifted, sending his wintergreen scent my way.
When he raised an eyebrow at me, I suggested, “Wanna do New Year’s Eve together? We could be each other’s plus-ones.”
He focused forward again. “You have a party you have to go to?”
“Work always throws one. I don’t have to go, but I probably should. And there’s all that mess with Sam… I really don’t want to go alone.”
Sam and his stupid, good-looking face his with blue eyes and sandy brown hair. He was tall and leanly built. We shared an office, and that had been enough for our coworkers to make clumsy insinuations that we should date—no one had less finesse than fifty-year-old men. I would have probably agreed to a date with Sam, but he was obviously not interested.
Did that stop the old men from continuing to make comments about how good we’d look together?
It was very uncomfortable.
Sam was my type, but when I caught myself thinking about men, it was Owen who was on my mind more than anyone else.
But when I’d hinted that he and I should go out, he said he had to take care of his dog. It was disappointing, but sometimes interest isn’t reciprocated. He was a great running buddy and he made me laugh, and that was enough.
Considering my string of failed past relationships, it was probably better to remain just friends. With my track record, he was bound to have a red-flag then I’d cut ties, and he wouldn’t be in my life at all.
“Things still awkward there?” he asked.
I bobbed my head, considering how to answer. “I mean… I didn’t like, throw myself at him, but I made it clear that I would like to have dinner with him, and he’s definitely not interested. And the other guys at work haven’t gotten any more subtle in suggesting that we date.”
Falling into step behind me again, Owen waited until another jogger passed us. “You don’t want me there. I’m shit at these things.”
“I wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t want you there.”
“Em, I suck at small talk. I don’t dance unless I get way too drunk—”
“I’m awkward at parties.”
“You’re awkward, anyway.”
“Come on, man. I need some arm candy.”
He coughed out a laugh. “I can go with you, but you don’t have to come to this other thing with me.”
“What?” My eyebrows shot up. “You’re saying that you’ll go to my party, but I’m not expected—no, not invited—to your party?”
“It’s not like you’re not invited, but you don’t have to go with me.”
“Um, weird, but okay.”
We were almost halfway through our last mile as a comfortable silence settled with only the sounds of our footfalls on the frozen asphalt.
He came out of his shell once I got to know him, but he avoided crowds and people in general. It was out of character that he volunteered to go to my work event. Honestly, it was peculiar that he’d offered without any real pressure on my end at all.
I studied him out of the corner of my eye. His eyes were deep-set under his dark brows. The straight bridge of his nose cut to his perfect mouth. His lips weren’t overly full, but they were sharply ridged and defined. There was a soft knot where the joint of his jaw pushed against his skin. He was artistically beautiful. The ratio of his features would probably fit that “ideal” number for symmetry. And even though his face was distracting, I did not lose my train of thought as I watched him.
This time under my stare, he didn’t look back. “What?”
“Why will you go to my party, but I don’t have to go to yours?”
“Does there have to be a reason?” He kept his gaze straight ahead. If I needed any more proof that he was hiding something, it was there when his jaw muscle jumped.
“For you to willingly, and with very little convincing, come with me and get nothing for it? This isn’t, like, a movie I wanna go see. This is a pretty big social event.” I waited for him to finally look at me. “And you hate people.”
Dimples pressed into his tan cheeks as he smiled tightly. “It’s not that big a deal.”
“For some people, no. But for you, it’s huge.”
His eyebrows peaked like an inverted ‘V.’ “Can I take it back?”
“Oh no, you’re committed now. I’m already planning our coordinating outfits. But you also have to spill.”
“You know I don’t actually have to do either.”
“But you’re going to.”
Heaving a sigh, he puffed out a steamy breath. “You really don’t want to know.”
“Will I be implicated in a court of law or something?”
“I don’t think I’ve broken any laws.”
“Jesus, what’d you do, Owen?”
“I can’t believe I’m about to admit this.” He looked up at the gray sky as if it might hold the answers for him.
“Whatever you’re about to say, there’s no way it can live up to the suspense you’re building.”
He coughed another laugh, and with a challenging glance my way, he said, “My coworkers think I’m married.”
The toe of my shoe caught on the path. I couldn’t correct my balance, and I went down with my arms flailing. My gloved hands caught most of the impact, but there was a sharp bite of pain as my knee scraped against the asphalt.
“Shit,” Owen exclaimed, turning and running back to me. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I just tripped.” Rolling onto my butt, I shook out my hands. I looked down where the pain was emanating from my propped-up knee. There was a hole in my leggings, and the skin underneath was scraped, but it didn’t look or feel very serious.
He lowered to one knee in front of me. “Didn’t live up to the suspense, huh?”
He’d proposed to someone? What the hell… he was married?
“Shut up. You’re married?” Why did I sound so angry?
“No.” He slipped his gloves off.
My brain trudged through time at a slower pace than his. He wasn’t married… but his coworkers thought he was. The unexpected anger was replaced with unexpected relief. Mouth open, I blinked at him.
“May I check your knee?”
I waved him off. “It’s fine.”
“I’d still like to che—”
I leaned forward and cupped his face in my hands. I could feel his heat, even through the layers of fabric. His deep-set hazel eyes snapped to mine. Our faces were close enough that the mist of our breaths met in the space between us like a swirling tangle of steam. It was the closest we’d ever been. It probably would have felt intimate with anyone, and it had nothing to do with the fact that Owen’s face was only a foot from mine.
Letting go of him, I wrapped my arms around my thighs. “Why do your coworkers think you’re married?”