Off the Market at Christmas by Chelle Sloan

1

Gavin

“Ho! Ho! Ho! I heard there are some boys and girls here on the nice list!”

I chuckle as I lean against the wall as Santa Claus—or as I know him, Dan from legal—announces his presence as he makes his way through the halls of the children’s hospital, doing his best St. Nick impression. Once he turns the corner, the kids from the floor are already gathered around a massive tree, anxiously awaiting his arrival. I think one of them might be crying in excitement.

Sometimes the world of banking and finance is horrible. Money can bring out the worst in people. It can be cutthroat, stressful, and downright evil.

Then there are days like today, when my bank, Pittman Dean, sponsors the annual Christmas party at the Nashville Children’s Hospital, and I’m reminded that people, and money, still do good things in the world. We supply the presents, food, drinks, cupcakes, cookies, and of course, a special appearance by the big man from the North Pole.

“I’ve been waiting all year for this,” Brendan says as he slides up next to me on the wall. “Do you think that hot nurse still works here?”

It takes all I have not to roll my eyes at the guy who has somehow become my best friend in Nashville. “Is that seriously why you came?”

He shrugs. “No. It’s also because the Fury cheerleaders are coming. They are the highlight of this party every year.”

I shake my head as we walk closer to where Santa is holding court with the children. Each year, one person from each department comes to represent Pittman Dean. Last year, I planned on attending, but I caught a nasty bug and was out of work that week. I was disappointed because I was looking forward to it. We didn’t do anything like this when I worked at the Pittman Dean in Charlotte. The closest we got to giving back to the community was holding a fundraiser with a thousand-dollar-per-plate price tag. So when no one else from the internal audit department volunteered this year, I gladly stepped up again.

Brendan represents the loan officers every year. I was curious as to why, because to be frank, he doesn’t seem like a “goodwill toward men” kind of guy.

I should have figured it had something to do with a woman. Or women.

“I can’t believe you’re trying to pick up women here. It’s a children’s hospital, for God’s sake,” I whisper. Far be it from me to interrupt Dan reading ’Twas the Night Before Christmas.

“Yeah, yeah,” Brendan says. “I can spread holiday cheer and get a date. It’s called killing two birds with one stone. You should try it sometime.”

I ignore Brendan and pretend to become enthralled in Dan’s reading of the famed holiday story. Anything to get me out of another conversation with my manwhore best friend about my dating life.

Or lack thereof.

When I moved to Nashville nearly two years ago, I had just gotten out of a four-year relationship. Since uprooting my life and moving here, I can count on one hand how many dates I’ve been on. At first, I wasn’t ready and tried to dip my toe back in the dating water too soon. It was the best worst first date in the history of first dates.

So I decided to wait for a bit. Then I waited. And waited some more. I’m not exactly great when it comes to women and dating, so convincing myself to take a break wasn’t that big of a stretch for me.

Next thing I knew, it’d been a year, and I forgot what dating even was. When Brendan found out about this, he took it as a personal mission to find me a slump buster—his words, not mine.

I told him I was fine.

He didn’t listen.

He rarely does.

He tried setting me up with a girl from marketing. She was nice enough, but there was no connection. We barely made it past drinks.

After that, he made me an online dating account and pretended to be me. When I showed up to the restaurant, I was greeted by a barely legal girl. I didn’t understand anything she said all night long, and I had never felt more millennial as I did when I had to ask her what “snatched” meant.

I thought there might be hope with a woman I went out with a few months ago. We made it to a third date, so I invited her to my place for a romantic dinner. She said she was cold and asked if she could grab a sweatshirt from my closet.

That was the beginning of the end. I wasn’t even able to get out an explanation before she bolted from my apartment after what she saw inside my closet.

Her loss. I made a mean pesto chicken pasta that night.

See, if the third date goes well, that’s usually when I confess my secrets. The things I only tell to my trusted circle.

Considering how she reacted to the sight of my custom-tailored, official Harry Potter robe, which is in the closet next to the full-life Stormtrooper costume on a mannequin, I’m glad I didn’t waste my pesto chicken pasta on her.

If she can’t handle my inner nerd, then she isn’t the one for me.

And I’m not just talking a little nerd. I’m as nerdy as they come. I’m the guy who not so secretly loves Star Wars, has never missed a Comic-Con, and is in a very active Harry Potter meet-up group.

And yes, I am a Hufflepuff.

“I’m not going to be trying to pick up women at a children’s hospital,” I say, hoping my whisper doesn’t carry.

“Why not?” Without a single ounce of subtlety, Brendan checks out a nurse as she walks past us. “It’s not like your current way of meeting women is going so well. Tell me, how many phone numbers have you gotten from your daily trips to the grocery store?”

I ignore him again because he knows that answer is zero, and I don’t want to say it out loud. But in my defense, it was worth a shot. On more than one occasion, I heard of people meeting their significant other at the grocery store, so I decided to give it a try.

I’ve met zero women, but I am on a first-name basis with all of the cashiers.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Brendan says. “I’m going to grab a slice of cake and a drink. When I come back, you’re going to have a woman picked out, and we’re going to get you a number. Deal?”

I just shake my head. “Is there anything I could even say to overrule this plan?”

“Not even a little bit.”

As Brendan walks away, I turn back to listen to Dan finish the story. As much as I wish I could be like the children, lost in the tale about Santa sneaking into a house, I can’t help but think about how another year has come and gone, and I’m just as alone now as I was this time last year.

I thought by this stage in my life, I’d be looking for the perfect gift for my wife, not trying to make it to a third date in hopes the woman I’m seeing isn’t scared away because of my monthly Dungeons and Dragons games. I hoped I’d have my own children to read Christmas stories to by now. Hell, I can’t wait for the days of matching Christmas pajamas and those annoying family photo Christmas cards.

I want it. I want it all.

But apparently, nice guys, and nerds, finish last. Or so I’m learning.

“So, who did you pick out?” Brendan takes back his place next to me. But before I can tell him that I didn’t bother looking, my focus shifts to the sound of the arriving elevator.

“I wonder who that could be,” Santa Dan says as he stands from his chair. “Maybe it’s my elves coming to bring the presents.”

The kids start to scramble, each trying to get a look at who’s in the elevator as the doors open.

“The Fury! The Fury are here!”

The kids start going crazy as four Fury football players, wearing their jerseys and Santa hats, wave to the children. Next to them are four beautiful cheerleaders, wearing matching jackets, skirts, and Santa hats, all in red and orange. It’s hard not to be starstruck right now, and I’m not even a football fan.

It’s also hard to take my eyes off the cheerleaders. Correction—one specific cheerleader.

Her Santa hat doesn’t completely cover her strawberry blonde hair that rests just below her shoulders. The fitted jacket and skirt melt to every sensuous curve on her body. And the smile she gives to a patient who asked for a hug and a picture? My knees almost give out at the sight of it.

But it’s not just her physical beauty that is drawing me in. I can’t shake the feeling that I know her, though that’s ridiculous. I’d remember her. She’s one of those unforgettable types of beauties.

Of course, I won’t forget you.

I shake my head as a scene I haven’t thought about in years comes flooding back. It was summer at my grandparent’s house on the outskirts of Nashville. I was maybe ten years old, and I had my first crush on the neighbor girl who taught me how to fish and climb a tree.

The girl next door.

The girl with strawberry blonde hair.

The woman standing in front of me.

“Presley?”