Where the hell are you, you foot-crippling little devils?"
Maya rummaged in the passenger-side footwell among various bags in order to find her heels, kicking off her trainers in favor of the more fitting party footwear.
Upon opening the car door to a blast of ice-cold air, she paused to put on her jacket before climbing out. How is it possible for the temperature to drop about fifty bloody degrees when I've only traveled forty miles north? Goodness knows how much colder it'd be when she continued on up the road later that evening.
As she strode out along the gentle incline of the driveway, she was distracted by the imposing size of the massive mansions on the cul-de-sac. Her feet went out from under her, and she only just managed to grab hold of a railing, narrowly preventing a fall onto her backside. "Shit!" Looking up, she checked that none of Kirsty's posh neighbors were around to hear her yelling that expletive. A glance back down confirmed the subtle shimmer of ice on the paving. "Bloody hell. Stupid winter weather."
A thought crossed her mind-was it a good idea to leave all her worldly possessions in the boot, outside, in the dark? It's a nice area. Should be okay.
There was something sad about the fact that her whole life fit in the back of her car. Sacrificing all the big items of furniture to Rich had seemed sensible when they divided it up-he was going to a new flat after all. No point wasting money on storage when I'm going to be a sad twentysomething living in my childhood bedroom for the foreseeable future. It's not as if there had been loads of stuff anyway. Their flat and ultimately their mortgage had been modest with her having chosen to work at a small accountancy firm and Rich opting to take on a finance role for a charity.
Though there had been a couple of items that had sentimental value, and were smaller. Such as the vintage Royal Albert afternoon tea plate that she would have loved to bring home in order for her and Liv to place scones upon it and pretend to take tea with Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley. But it had been a gift from Rich's mum, therefore Maya had relinquished it to him. Rich didn't even like afternoon tea, or scones. And he certainly wasn't partial to either Darcy or Bingley. But still, it was the right thing to do and, in any case, she was getting too old to be pretending that she was a character in a Jane Austen novel.
Maya picked her way to the front door, arms outstretched and legs akimbo, like the most inept trapeze artist in existence. There were a couple more slips, and she heartily wished that she'd kept those damned trainers on, but she'd come too far to turn back now.
"Come on, Maya. Grow a pair of ovaries." Fixing her gaze on the doorway, and wondering where this newfound habit of talking to herself had come from, she continued on her mission. Without further incident she managed to complete her quest, and arrived on the sanctity of the doorstep, in order to ring the bell.
Blowing out a relieved breath, she watched it puff into little clouds of condensation, misting up the beautiful stained glass window embedded in the door. The realization that she wouldn't know anybody at the party except for Kirsty hit, and she fiddled with her charm bracelet.
The door opened with a flood of warmth. "You made it." Kirsty grabbed hold of her in a tight hug.
"Hi," Maya said, her voice muffled by Kirsty's sequined shoulder. "You look fab. And your new house is fantastic."
Kirsty released her with a smile, transitioning into a curtsy. "Why, thank you." Straightening up, she winked. "Come in. That's everybody here now. And I do mean everybody."
Maya stepped inside to secure less slippery footing. Before she could ask why Kirsty had emphasized the everybody, she was ushered down the wide hallway and into a large living room. The surroundings resembled something out of a show home, all clean lines and glass.
Kirsty pointed to each of her friends in turn. "These are my neighbors Donna and Karen. And this is Isabelle and Una from work . . ." She went on, introducing Maya to around ten women.
Fixing a smile on her face, Maya attempted to cover the fact that the names were immediately slipping her mind like water through a sieve.
Kirsty held out her hands. "Let me take your coat."
Maya removed it, adjusting her gold off-the-shoulder top. "Can I help with anything in the kitchen?"
"Absolutely not," Kirsty said, giving her a mock-stern stare. "It's all in hand."
For some reason, that statement raised a raucous cheer from the small crowd of women, which almost made Maya jump. It was nice that everyone was able to relax and not be on kitchen duty, but she wasn't sure why it merited such an energetic response. What were they all on? Snowballs and Christmas cheer, most likely.
The others began chatting among themselves, and Kirsty touched Maya's arm. "What drink order can I put in for you?"
Maya wished she could get a hearty slug of whatever was fueling the rest of these women, but there was driving to be done, and disapproving fathers to be faced. "Just a Diet Coke, please. I'm not staying over."
"You're driving back to Glenavie tonight?" Kirsty asked.
Maya played with her charm bracelet, her stomach tightening. "I figured it was better to face the music sooner rather than later."
Kirsty embraced her, giving her a squeeze. "Hopefully you'll settle in quickly. But are you sure you can't stay? The roads are icy."
Maya shook her head, plastering a smile on her face. "I'm in the mindset to get there now."
Kirsty nodded. "You can backtrack at any time if you have a change of heart. Maybe you'll fancy joining in the fun a bit more once you see what I've got in store."
Maya raised her eyebrows. Kirsty certainly seemed rather cloak-and-dagger this evening.
"Have a seat," Kirsty said, with a wink. "I'll be back in a sec."
Maya sat on the massive, soft gray sofa next to a couple of the other guests. The room was so stylishly decorated that it was difficult to keep her envious eyes off all the furnishings. It was clearly a new build, and Kirsty had the place done out to the nines.
A smiling woman wearing a black jumpsuit shifted over to take Maya's hand in a shake. "I'm Isabelle."
Maya returned her smile. "Maya. Nice to meet you."
Isabelle sipped her wine as she nodded toward the large living room window. "I can't believe how cold it's getting."
"I know," the woman next to Isabelle piped up. "I can't believe that it's so soon until Christmas." She leaned across Isabelle to address Maya, her black tasseled top nearly dangling into Isabelle's drink. "Hi, I'm Una."
Maya shook Una's hand across Isabelle's front, nearly clotheslining poor Isabelle in the process. "Great to meet you."
Una let out a loud sigh. "I haven't gotten nearly enough Christmas shopping done yet."
"Tell me about it," Isabelle replied, rolling her eyes. "I'm never going to get it done in time."
Maya's shoulders relaxed a little. Typical Scottish winter conversation made talking to new people easier. "Same. I've not even bought one present yet, because I'm in the middle of moving home. Literally. All my stuff is outside in the car." She stopped talking, aware that her mouth was running away with her.
"Really?" Isabelle asked, raising her eyebrows. "You're moving house tonight?"
"Yeah," Maya replied. She wished she had a drink in order to soothe her feelings of inadequacy-something stronger than the Diet Coke that Kirsty was fetching. She cleared her throat. "I'm moving home because I lost my job."
"Aw," Una said, reaching across Isabelle to take Maya's hand and nearly falling into Isabelle's lap. "Sorry to hear that. Especially at Christmas."
"Ah, it's fine," Maya said, waving her other hand and plastering on a grin. "Worse things happen at sea."
Why she was comparing her plight to a maritime incident, she had no idea. Since when did sailors lose their jobs, boyfriends, and flats, plus have to go home with their tails between their legs to face their disappointed fathers? Though, granted, Moby Dick probably would be worse. Or Jaws. Or Godzilla.
Isabelle leaned back, shooting Maya a sympathetic look. "But still. That must be very stressful. Where's home?"
"Glenavie," Maya replied, coming out of her sea monster ruminations. "Not too far from Glencoe."
"Ski country," Una said, a dreamy expression on her face. "Lovely. At least it'll be nice and Christmassy."
The image of her Highland hometown entered Maya's mind, adorned in twinkly Christmas lights and dusted with snow. Christmas in Glenavie was her favorite time of year. The idea of that infused a little comfort into her veins.
Kirsty reappeared with a couple of plates of nibbles, passing them around the room. "There's more stuff in the oven, so help yourselves. Oh, and, Maya, your drink's coming."
"No rush." Maya sat back to listen to her new acquaintances. It occurred to her that Kirsty had said her drink was "coming," so who was fetching it if not Kirsty?
She heard the door open behind her. The other women's voices rose by a number of decibels, plus an octave or two. Turning her head to find out what the kerfuffle was about, Maya was greeted by the sight of a firm and perfectly shaped naked male bottom across the huge floor space. A well-toned man had his back to her as he handed out drinks, not wearing a stitch of clothing except for a tiny apron around his waist, the strings of which were entwined with tinsel.
Maya laughed, finally realizing why Kirsty had been behaving in that "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" manner. Plus, why the women seemed drunk on more than just alcohol. They were also high on the sight of a hot naked man. She raised her eyebrows, turning back to Isabelle and Una. "Kirsty's hired one of those naked waiters, I see."
"Yes," said Isabelle, smiling. "He's been preparing and serving our drinks. What a treat."
Maya shook her head. "That's what she meant when I arrived. She was being all cryptic and like 'everybody' is here."
Isabelle laughed. "She is rather pleased with herself."
"I'm rather pleased too," Una said, eyeing the man's back. "He's bloody gorgeous."
"I wouldn't know," Maya replied with a shrug and a smile. "I've not seen his face yet."
Una sighed. "The back of him is as appealing as the front." She placed her hand onto her forehead in a mock swoon. "Sandy-brown hair, ravishing amber eyes, and a sexy closely trimmed beard. My favorite."
Isabelle snorted. "Don't pretend that you've been looking at his face, Una. Not with that perfectly chiseled torso."
Sandy-brown hair and ravishing amber eyes. Maya had known a man of that description before, minus the beard. Though she'd been eager to forget him, and that task had taken her a little while. The realization hit that, very soon, she might see him on a more regular basis. Another reason to dread going back.
Kirsty was gesturing to the naked waiter. "The Diet Coke is for the lady over there, on the sofa." Kirsty pointed toward Maya.
"Here you go," Una whispered. "Brace yourself."
Maya smiled, shaking her head. Who was this guy? Chris Hemsworth? She was sure he couldn't be that devastating.
The man turned. Maya's smile froze on her face, her jaw dropping as she took in his familiar, handsome features with a sinking heart. "Sam?"
His face fell, the creaminess of his cheeks staining pink. "Maya."
The chatter across the room continued, but Maya's section fell silent. Kirsty, Isabelle, and Una stared at her, clearly confused as to how she knew hot-naked-guy.
She glanced around, double-checking that there were no secret cameras and that she wasn't on one of those prank TV shows. Unfortunately, it seemed real.
A million questions ran through her mind. The most pressing of which was Why the hell are you naked in my mate's house? Though it was closely followed by Why did you lead me on, then dump me? However, she didn't feel able to voice those queries, not in front of all these strangers. Especially when she hadn't seen him apart from in passing over the last eight years.
Maya cleared her throat. "Hi. You look . . ." Naked? Hot AF? "Well."
Sam raised an eyebrow, assessing her with a cool stare.
She shifted in her seat. Despite him not wearing a stitch apart from that tiny apron, it felt as if he had the upper hand, towering over her while she stayed put on the sofa. Maya tried to get up, but for a moment she wasn't sure that her legs would hold her.
"I am well, thanks," Sam replied, his face perfectly neutral. "And you?"
Bloody hell, this is beyond awkward. "Mm-hmm. Fine, fine." That minuscule apron was practically at her eyeline, and she couldn't bear it any longer, so she summoned the power to stand. However, she was then greeted by a better view of his naked torso and muscular arms, not to mention his amber eyes, which were still penetrating her inner being like some sort of alien mind probe.
"Anyway," Maya said, fixing her eyes on the doorway. "I've got to pee. Just had a long journey from Glasgow, you know? Tiny bladder and all that." She squeezed her eyes tight in discomfort as she walked across the room, closing the door behind her to pause at the bottom of the stairs. Feeling that it was safer to retreat up there, she climbed them, heading into the bathroom and shutting the door. She perched on the edge of the bath, taking a breath. This was worse than Moby Dick, Jaws, or Godzilla.
There was a knock at the door, and Kirsty stuck her head around it. "Are you okay? What's going on?"
Maya blew her fringe out of her eyes. "Don't ask."
Kirsty entered, taking a seat next to her on the uncomfortable porcelain. "How the hell do you know the naked waiter?"
Maya rubbed her temples. "Remember freshers' week, when I told you I'd not long been dumped by that guy at home?"
"Hmm," Kirsty said, frowning. "Not really."
"It was at that tequila night at the students' union."
Kirsty pursed her lips, clearly not recalling.
"I got off my head and sang 'Wrecking Ball' by Miley Cyrus at the karaoke and then cried to you about it in the toilets," Maya said, raising her eyebrows at the apparent revelation that Kirsty hadn't been paying attention to her display of teenage angst. Or perhaps that was a good thing, given how she'd murdered poor Miley's song.
Copyright © 2023 by Zoe Allison. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.