Gabriela Romero stood in front of the big block of gray mailboxes with her key in the keyhole of her box. She drew in a shaky breath, shoved aside the knots twisting in her belly, and opened the door. Atop a pile of bills and junk mail lay a plain white envelope. It had no postmark, no address or return address; just Gabriela’s name and that stupid stamp her landlord loved to use so much—URGENT in red ink.
She had known the notice would come. Hell, it had probably been sitting in her mailbox for a week by now.
It didn’t matter how much she’d hoped that envelope wouldn’t arrive, it didn’t matter that she’d prayed her landlord would show an ounce of compassion and understanding so close to Christmas and cut her a break. That had all been nothing more than wishful thinking. She didn’t have that kind of luck.
That wasn’t how real life worked. Problems didn’t just disappear, they didn’t just resolve themselves. If anything, ignoring them only made things worse.
And it wasn’t even like she was always late paying rent. She’d been getting those payments in on time for years. But this past year had been rough, and money was tighter and tighter every month. She’d cut expenses every way she could just to make sure she and her daughter had the essentials.
She knew exactly the unhelpful advice many people would’ve offered her—that she should just find a new job or move to a more affordable area if she was struggling so much. But high-paying jobs weren’t exactly abundant in areas that thrived on tourism, and it wasn’t exactly easy to move when you had no money in your bank account to cover first month’s rent and security deposits.
This house had been a steal when she’d started renting it, but when Allen Jensen, her current landlord, had bought it from the old owner a few years ago he’d immediately raised the rent. He’d bumped it up a little more every year since. And the ridiculous thing was that her rent was still considered cheap for this town.
Gabriela reached into her mailbox, removed the envelope, and quickly tore it open, just like ripping off a band aid. She removed the letter from within and unfolded it. Tears filled her eyes as she read. Though there were many words, only one, written in bold letters, stood out to her—eviction.
This was her fault. Rather than scrimping and saving for just in case, like she’d known she should have, she’d made a decision based on money she had expected to earn. Buying a Christmas tree and a few decorations should’ve been no big deal. It should’ve fit into her budget.
But then a property management company had cut a deal with one of Gabby’s clients and taken management of four vacation homes she normally cleaned—switching those properties to their own housekeeping service. The blow to her income had been too much. Had nothing changed, she would’ve been able to cover her bills, buy the Christmas stuff, and have a tiny bit left over. Now she was a hundred dollars short on rent, and Allen Jensen had made it clear that he would not accept partial payments.
All Gabriela wanted was for her daughter to have a good Christmas. Ana rarely asked for anything. She was an amazing little girl; bright, sweet, funny, and so compassionate. Gabby wanted to give her something more than the few small presents she’d purchased during the fall, but she didn’t know how she was going to accomplish that with Christmas only a week away.
Gabriela sniffled, chest constricted as tears spilled down her cheeks. The cold winter air made those tears burn.
“You okay?” someone asked in a deep, gruff, familiar voice.
Gabriela started, keeping her face forward.
“Oh! Yeah,” she said as she hurriedly wiped her cheeks and eyes with her coat sleeve. She forced a laugh. “It’s the cold. Kind of burns my eyes sometimes, you know?”
She took in a deep breath that stung more than her tears had and she turned toward Mason Lee, her sexy neighbor from across the street.
He stood several feet away from her, but that distance couldn’t disguise how big the man was. At five foot two, Gabriela was used to looking up at people, but Mason towered over her. She swore he was over six and a half feet tall. Though he’d lived across the street for a year, and she saw him on a regular basis, she was always stunned by his size.
Mason wasn’t simply a tall man—he was big and broad all over, like a bear. And he was beautiful in an otherworldly kind of way. Long black hair framed his masculine face, hanging well past his square jaw. Dark, thick brows rested above his unique violet eyes, and he had full, sculpted lips that Gabby had dreamed of kissing.
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