Cain Maddox stepped into the elevator, and then just as the doors were about to close he heard a woman call out.
“Hold that for me.”
Cain thrust out his arm to keep the doors from sliding shut. He inwardly groaned when he saw the woman who lived across the hall come racing toward him. He kept his eyes trained straight ahead, not inviting conversation. He’d run into this particular woman several times in the last few months since he’d moved into the building. She’d stopped several times to pet Schroeder, his Irish setter. The one he’d inherited from his grandfather when Bernie had moved into the assisted-living complex. She’d chattered away, lavishing affection on the dog. Not the talkative type, Cain responded minimally to her questions. He liked her all right, but she was a bit much, over the top with that cutesy smile. Okay, he’d admit it. He found her attractive. He wasn’t sure what it was about her, because usually the chirpy, happy ones didn’t appeal to him. Regardless, nothing would come of it and that suited him. He knew better. Yet every time he saw her a yellow light started flashing in his head. Warning, warning. Danger ahead. Cain could feel this woman was trouble the first moment he saw her and heard her exuberant “good morning.” Even her name was cheerful: Julia. Looking at her, it was easy to envision the opening scene from The Sound of Music, with Julie Andrews twirling around, arms extended, singing, joyful, excited. Even the thought was enough to make Cain cringe. He could do happy, just not first thing in the morning.
To put it simply, he found little good about mornings, and second, he’d learned a long time ago not to trust women, especially the types who were enthusiastic and friendly. Experience had taught him well, and having been burned once, he wasn’t eager to repeat the experience.
“Thanks,” she said a bit breathlessly as she floated into the elevator. Yes, floated. Her coat swirled around her as she came to stand beside him. On her coat’s lapel she wore a pretty Christmas tree pin that sparkled with jewel-tone stones. “I’m running late this morning.”
Pushing the button to close the door, Cain ignored her. He didn’t mean to be rude, but he wasn’t up for conversation.
“Didn’t I see you walking Schroeder in the dog park the other day?” she asked.
“No.” He hadn’t seen her. Maybe he had, but he wasn’t willing to admit it.
“Really? I’m pretty sure I saw you.”
He let her comment fall into empty space. Could this elevator move any slower?
Fortunately, the elevator arrived at the foyer before she could continue the conversation.
“You aren’t much of a morning person, are you?” she asked as he collected his newspaper, tucked it under his arm, and headed for the door.
Julia reached for her own and followed him. Would he never shake this woman? They were welcomed by the Seattle drizzle that was part of the winter norm for the Pacific Northwest. Cain’s office at the insurance company where he worked as an actuary was within easy walking distance. Julia matched her steps with his until she reached the bus stop outside the Starbucks, where, thankfully, she stopped.
“Have a good day,” she called after him.
Cain would, especially now that he was free of Ms. Sunshine.
“Excuse me?” Julia Padden stood in the foyer of her apartment building the following morning, astonished that her neighbor would steal her newspaper while she stood directly in front of him. She braced her fist against her hip and raised both her finely shaped eyebrows at him.
Showing his displeasure, Cain Maddox turned to face her, newspaper in hand. He had to be the most unpleasant human being she’d ever met. She’d tried the friendly route and got the message. Even his dog had better manners than he did.
“I believe that newspaper is mine.” Her apartment number had been clearly written with a bold Sharpie over the plastic wrapper. This was no innocent mistake. For whatever reason, Cain had taken a disliking to her. Well, fine, she could deal with that, but she wasn’t about to let him walk all over her and she wasn’t going to stand idly by and let him steal from her, either.
At the sound of her voice, Cain looked up.
Irritated and more than a little annoyed, Julia thrust out her hand, palm up. “My newspaper, please.”
To her astonishment, he hesitated. Oh puleese!! She’d caught him red-handed in the act and he had the nerve to look irritated at her. How typical. Not only was he reluctant to return it, but he didn’t have the common decency to look the least bit guilty. She’d say one thing about him . . . the man had nerve.
“Someone took mine,” he explained, as if that gave him the right to steal hers. “Take someone else’s. It doesn’t matter if it’s technically yours or not.”
“It most certainly does; it matters to me.” To prove her point, she jerked her hand at him a second time. “I am not taking someone else’s newspaper and you most certainly aren’t taking mine; now give it to me.”
“Okay, fine.” He slapped the newspaper into her open palm, then reached over and snagged some other unsuspecting apartment owner’s.
Julia’s jaw sagged open. “I can’t believe you did that.”
He rolled his eyes, tucked the newspaper under his arm, and headed toward the revolving door, briefcase in hand.
This wasn’t the first time her morning paper had mysteriously disappeared, either, and now she knew who was responsible. Not only was Cain Maddox unfriendly, he was a thief. Briefly she wondered what else he might be responsible for taking. And this close to Christmas, too, the season of goodwill and charity. Of course theft was wrong at any time of the year, but resorting to it during the holidays made it downright immoral. Apparently, her grumpy neighbor hadn’t taken the spirit of Christmas to heart.
That shouldn’t surprise her.
Cain and Julia often left for work close to the same time in the morning. Three times this week they’d inadvertently met at the elevator. Being a morning person and naturally cheerful, Julia always greeted him with a sunny smile and a warm “good morning.” The most response she’d gotten out of him was a terse nod. Mostly he ignored her, as if he hadn’t heard her speak.
Julia waited until she was on the bus before she called her best friend, Cammie Nightingale, who now lived outside of Denver. They’d attended college together. Cammie had graduated ahead of her when Julia’s finances had dried up and she’d been forced to take night classes and work full-time. After seeing so many of her friends struggling to pay off student loans, Julia had opted to avoid the financial struggles. Yes, it took her longer to get her degree in communications, and no, she hadn’t found the job of her dreams, but she was close, so close. Furthermore, she was debt-free. Currently she worked at Macy’s department store, where she’d been employed for the last seven years.
“You won’t believe what happened this morning,” she said as soon as Cammie picked up. Her friend was married and had a two-year-old and a newborn.
“Hold on a minute,” Cammie said.
In her irritation, Julia hadn’t asked if Cammie could talk. She waited a couple minutes before her friend picked up again.
“What’s going on?”
“My disagreeable neighbor, the one I told you about, is a thief. He tried to steal my newspaper.”
“I caught him red-handed, and when I confronted him and demanded he give it back he took someone else’s.”
“What? You’re kidding me.”
“No joke. Not only that, he was rude again.” Come to think of it, he’d never been anything but unfriendly. It was men like him who put a damper on Christmas. Julia refused to let him or anyone else spoil her holidays.
“Are you talking about the guy who lives across the hall from you?”
“The very one.” The more Julia thought about what he’d done, the more upset she got. Okay, so he wasn’t a morning person. She could deal with that. But to steal her newspaper? That was low.
“What do you know about him?” Cammie asked.
“Nothing . . . well, other than he has a gorgeous Irish setter that he walks every morning.” She’d tried being neighborly, but Cain had let it be known he wasn’t interested. She’d started more than one conversation only to be subtly and not so subtly informed he took exception to small talk. After several such attempts, she got the message.
“Maybe he’s shy.”
Cammie possessed a generous spirit, but this time she was wrong. Anyone who’d take her newspaper without a shred of guilt wasn’t shy. “I doubt it. Trust me on this. Cain Maddox isn’t shy, and furthermore, he’s not to be trusted.”
“You don’t know that.”
“You’re wrong. I have this gift, a sixth sense about men. This one is sinister.”
Cammie’s laughter filled the phone. “Sinister? Come on, Julia.”
“I’m serious,” she insisted. “Just what kind of man steals a newspaper? I don’t know what I ever did to offend him, but he’s made it more than clear he would rather kiss a snake than have anything to do with me.” That bothered Julia more than she was comfortable admitting. He was kinda cute, too, in a stiff sort of way. He was tall, a good six or seven inches above her own five-foot-five frame.
His hair was dark and cut in a way that said he was a professional. The shape of his jaw indicated he had a stubborn bent, but that could be conjecture on her part, based on what she knew about him. And as best she could tell, he didn’t possess a single laugh line, although he did have beautiful, clear dark chocolate eyes.
The only time she’d seen him in anything but a suit was when he was at the dog park. He wore a jacket with the name of an insurance company and logo, which she assumed he was connected to in some way, and jeans. Even then he didn’t look relaxed, and he held himself away from others.
“Are you attracted to him?” Cammie asked.
“You’ve got to be kidding me. No way!”
“I have a feeling this is why you’re thirty-one and not in a serious relationship. How long are you going to hold on to Dylan, Julia?”
“That again?” Julia didn’t have time for relationships and she for sure wasn’t going to drag Dylan into the conversation. She was over him and had been for a long time. The problem was she had no time to date, between working and volunteering at church and for the Boys and Girls Club. Cammie knew that.
Besides, she had more important matters on her mind.
The blog. The challenge.
She’d gone through two intense interviews at Harvestware, a major software company, and the list had been narrowed down to two people. Because the job was in social media, the company had suggested a competition between the two candidates in the form of a blog. The one who could generate the largest following in the month of December would be awarded the job.
Julia had gladly accepted the challenge. Unfortunately, she hadn’t had a lot of success so far; her following was minimal at best. This was her chance to prove herself.
“Maybe your neighbor is the man of your dreams.”
“Cain Maddox? He’s cold, Cammie. You haven’t seen him. I have. Trust me—he’s not the kind of man you’d want to meet in a dark alley.”
The more Julia thought about it, the more convinced she became that her neighbor was some disreputable character. A chill went down her spine just thinking about the cold look in his eyes.
Cammie laughed out loud. “Your creative imagination is getting away from you, my friend.”
“Maybe, but I doubt it.”
“Julia,” her friend said in that calm way of hers that suggested Julia was overreacting. “He took your newspaper; he didn’t threaten to bury you in concrete.”
“It’s the look in his eyes, like he sees straight through people.”
“You’ve noticed his eyes?”
“Yes, they’re brown and dark. Real dark and distant.” Okay, Cammie was probably right. To see him in criminal terms was a bit of a stretch, but Julia wasn’t exactly having warm, cozy feelings toward her neighbor.
“If that’s the case, then I think you should kill him,” Cammie suggested.
Julia gasped. She couldn’t believe her bestie would even hint at such a thing.
“Kill him with kindness,” Cammie elaborated.
“This guy needs a whole lot more than kindness.” Leave it to her tenderhearted friend to suggest something sweet and good.
“It’s twelve days until Christmas,” she added after a moment, sounding excited.
“This is it, Julia. You’ve been wanting an idea that would generate interest in your blog. Your neighbor is the perfect subject.” Cammie seemed to be growing more enthused by the second. “Weren’t you saying just the other day how you were desperate for an over-the-top idea?”
“Well, yes, but . . .”
“This is perfect,” Cammie continued. “Kill him with kindness on your blog and report your progress for the next twelve days.”
Julia wasn’t keen on this. The less exposure to Cain Maddox she had, the better. “I don’t know . . .”
“The countdown is sure to attract attention to your blog. All you need to do is to be kind to him. You’re naturally friendly and funny. This guy won’t know what hit him. And then you can document what happens on your blog. Mark my words, readers will love this.”
“Did you even hear what I said?” Julia reminded her friend. “I can tell you right now kindness isn’t going to affect him one way or the other.”
“You won’t know until you try.”
Julia bit down on her lower lip as visions of winning that highly paid position swirled in her head. Maybe Cammie was right. Maybe this idea would be just what she needed to generate a following that would show off her communication and writing skills.
“I think people are responding to my blog about Christmas decorations.”
“Julia, do you have any idea how many people blog about making homemade tree ornaments? You’re no Martha Stewart. You need something fresh and fun. A subject that will pique interest, something different—and frankly, wreathmaking isn’t it.”
Surely there was a better way to tackle this challenge. Showing kindness to someone she disliked wouldn’t be easy. In addition, she sincerely doubted it would make any difference. The man was annoying, disagreeable, and stubborn.
“You aren’t saying anything,” Cammie said, interrupting her thoughts. “Which, from experience, I know is a good sign. You’re actually considering doing this, aren’t you?”
Bouncing her index finger against her mouth, Julia said, “I suppose killing him with kindness is worth a try.”
“It totally is. And you can title your blog ‘Twelve Days of Christmas.’ ”
Truthfully, Julia wasn’t convinced this would work.
Cammie had no reservations, though. “It could inspire an entire movement.”
“I’ll give it some thought.”
“Good. Gotta scoot. Scottie’s eating the cat’s food again.”
Copyright © 2016 by Debbie Macomber. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.