“In Fisherman’s Wharf?” she asked, having studied online maps of San Francisco’s famed neighborhoods. She was dying of curiosity about this man who was so private.

“The Tenderloin.”

An area, she now knew, that had once been one of the toughest and most degenerate places in all of San Francisco. “Does your mom still live there?”

“No, these days she lives on the coast about an hour south of here.”

He didn’t mention his grandpa again. Maybe he’d passed away too. Or maybe they weren’t close. She didn’t want to pry. Okay, she totally did want to pry but she didn’t want to open it up in a way that would require her to do the same back. She’d told him all she’d planned to. In fact, she’d told him more than she’d planned to. And in any case, she was here to not think.

He was watching her. “So if there was a Santa Claus, what would you ask him for?” he asked.

You, she nearly said. She’d want him for Christmas and no take-backs. “I’d like my book to write itself,” she said instead.

He smiled.

“And you’d want what?” she asked. “Maybe your project to invent itself?”

“That would be high on the list.”

When she yawned, they headed back, stopping for dessert at a cupcake shop.

“Did you know that once you lick the frosting off a cupcake, it becomes a muffin?” she asked. “And muffins are healthy.” She leaned in and took a lick of his frosting. “You are welcome.”

He laughed and so did she because she loved the sound of his laugh.

When a sprinkle got stuck in the stubble of his jaw, she had some fun with him, playfully misdirecting him as he tried to get it.

“Maybe you should shave,” she teased.

“You have no idea how lucky girls are that they don’t have to shave every day,” he said. “You’ve all got it easy.”

She choked on a laugh. “Says the guy who’s never had to navigate a razor around his kneecaps or . . .” she paused “. . . any other specific areas.”

He laughed.

“Not funny,” she said. “It’s a suicide mission.”

He guided her into the cobblestoned courtyard of the Pacific Pier Building. It was midnight and the place looked like a holiday dream with the strings of white lights and each of the potted trees lining the walkway decorated with colorful ornaments.

“Elle went overboard this year,” he muttered.

“So she works for you?”

“More like she allows me to pay her to be bossy.”

She laughed. “They say friends and business don’t mix.”

“She’s family,” he said simply.

She nodded, thinking that sounded . . . lovely. Really lovely. “So what are your holiday plans?” she asked. “Will you spend Christmas with your mom?”

“Probably not.”

She glanced up at him, startled. “No?”

“She went back east to see friends. I’ll probably spend it at the pub with Finn, Elle and Archer, and the others. We’re a sort of misfit ride-or-die self-made family.”

Coming from a family that was close only because she’d kept them together by sheer force of will, she envied the whole family-by-choice thing in a big way.

“How about you?” he asked.

She shrugged. “I’ll spend it at home with my brothers and mom, like always. We’ll fight, also like always, but old habits die hard.”

He cocked his head and studied her. “You do know you’re allowed to do whatever you want, right? It’s the only perk to this whole adulting thing.”

She let out a small laugh. “Never mind me. Christmas sometimes makes me a little . . .”

“Hollow?”

She met his gaze. “Yes. How did you know?”

“Let’s just say I’ve been there.”

A little off her axis, Colbie looked at the pretty fountain. “Do you really not believe in the legend?”

He lifted a shoulder.

She turned to him. “How about love? Do you believe in love?” And for some reason, she held her breath for his answer.

He paused. “I believe it’s out there for most.”

“Gee, that’s only a little cryptic.”

He gave a rough laugh. “Here’s the thing. My family . . . when it comes to work and love, we tend to only do one of them well. Not both. So we choose.”

She raised her brows. “And you chose . . . work?”

He shrugged again. “It’s what I do best.”

“So you’ve tried love before, then,” she said. “And . . . failed?”

“Big-time.”

“Do you think you could possibly explain that with more than two words?” she asked.

A smile touched his lips. “I told you about my grandpa. He was a workaholic. His entire life was the job—to the detriment of his family, which he completely ignored. My dad learned a lesson from that. He chose love. I was raised by two loving, if not a little baffled-by-me, parents who did the best they could. They had each other, if not always the rent money. But I always knew that what they shared wasn’t going to be for me.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m shitty at love.” He paused. “And I hated being poor.”

“You really believe you can only have one or the other?” she asked in disbelief.

“I know it. In college, women would give me their phone numbers and I’d forget to call.”

“Forget?”

“Well, I was sixteen,” he said.

She raised her brows. “At that age, you’d have been both physically and emotionally behind everyone else.”

“Yeah. I definitely preferred labs over women, which didn’t help me out any.”

She grinned. “That seems to have changed.”

His smile was wry. “Yes, but not by that much. My last girlfriend, Clarissa . . . she was positive she was going to be the one.”

“And she . . . wasn’t?”

“We met when I was working for the government,” he said. “She was in medical school at the time, and just as busy as I was. At first, everything was fine between us because we didn’t ask much of each other. Though in hindsight, I think I asked nothing of her because my head was always in my work and she didn’t ask anything of me because she knew that and didn’t try to compete. Which really meant that I shortchanged her at every turn, even though I really cared about her. I tried to put her on my radar, I really did. We moved into an apartment, the theory being that at least we’d sleep together every night.”

Colbie was working at not feeling the teensiest little bit of jealousy. No one had ever tried that hard to keep her. She got that the point to this story was that Spence had shortchanged Clarissa, but all she saw was that he’d at least given it everything he’d had at the time to give. “What happened?” she asked.

“We stayed together for several years. She began a charity organization that brought meds and doctors to remote corners of the world, desperate remote corners, which meant she was gone a lot. Which worked for me. It became easy to forget her needs, to forget to put her first. I got out of the habit way too easily. And then came a huge fund-raiser she’d cochaired, and it was incredibly important to her. As it was the only thing she’d asked of me all year, I promised to go.” He shook his head. “She reminded me every day for two weeks and I brushed off her concerns that I’d forget.”

“And . . . you forgot,” she guessed.

“I did.” He looked pained. “I didn’t show up and she went without me, and I didn’t realize I’d forgotten the most important night of her life until she got home late that night dressed to the hilt, steam coming out her ears.”

“She dumped you,” she said, surprised. Up until that moment, she’d assumed he’d been the one to break it off.

“Oh yeah, she dumped me,” he said ruefully. “She said I was going to end up a lonely old man someday. Actually, she yelled that part, right after chucking a shoe at my head. Then she packed her things and moved out, leaving my sorry ass in her dust.”

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