More Than Friends

By: Jody Holford

To Kalie and Amy ~ I love you





My soul whispers to me that it wishes to intertwine with yours so when the tides of life come crashing we are one–inseparable

Mustafa Tattan





Chapter One


It’ll be fine. Just one friend asking another friend for a favor. The joyful clang of Christmas music was easy to hear through the closed door. Owen Burnett clenched his jaw. If things went as planned, he’d have to convince Gabby to swap out her bubble-gum pop for something more sedate. A little bit of Bing crooning “White Christmas” seemed like a good compromise.

If she agreed. Owen was mostly confident his best friend would give him exactly what he needed.

But just in case, he’d brought pizza.

In his socked feet, said pizza in hand, he took a deep breath and let himself into her apartment, kitty-corner to his, as he had a hundred times before.

“Gabs?”

“In here. Do I smell pizza?”

“Jesus, you have a bionic nose,” he said over the thumping mash-up of different singers. Making his way down the hall, he arched a brow at the several boxes she had stacked in the living room, all marked “Christmas.” None were unpacked.

Gabriella stood at her easel, her hand swirling colors on a palette. The canvas was a blur of dark shades blending into one another. Owen loved watching her work take shape and turn from nothing into something extraordinary. As someone who could draw only stick figures, it fascinated him. When she painted, drew, or doodled, her face would take on the emotion of whatever she was creating. And sometimes, like now, Owen got lost watching her.

A long strand of dark hair danced in front of her eyes despite her efforts to blow it out of the way. There was too much of it to ever stay tucked back completely. She’d obviously changed out of her day clothes—as an administrative assistant at a local community college, she regularly wore business casual. She hated every minute in them, and Owen couldn’t blame her, as wearing what he wanted was a perk of his own job.

She smiled at him over her shoulder. “Knew it. Give me a sec, I’m starving. If I have a bionic nose, you have a sixth sense for when I need food.”

Owen laughed and set the still-hot pizza on the coffee table. “Pretty easy when the answer to that is ‘always.’”

He turned the music down, ignoring her protest, and went to get a couple of beers from her fridge. Napkins and beers in hand, he realized the tightness in his chest was nerves—something he never felt around Gabby. She’ll be fine with it. She’ll probably think it’ll be fun. Of the two of them, she was definitely the more adventurous one. Still, he gave himself an extra moment to take a few deep breaths.

She’d settled into the corner of her couch, a slice of pizza already in hand when he walked back in. Laughing, he passed her one of the beers.

“Don’t wait for me.” She grinned and took a huge bite.

Owen sat beside her and pulled a slice for himself. His glasses fogged briefly when he took a bite, making Gabby smile. The corners of her eyes crinkled when she smiled at him like that, making it impossible not to grin along with her. Her easy-going, almost-always-happy personality was just one of the things that made her a great friend.

He gestured to the pile of boxes. “I heard you dragging this stuff down the hall first thing this morning. Thought for sure you’d have all your decorations up by now.”

In reality, he thought the contents of the boxes would have been everywhere. He figured she’d have dug in, gotten a good start, and then been distracted. She was often hit with bursts of inspiration in the middle of something and everything else around her tended to fall away. She had no trouble working in a cluttered space.

“Maybe I was waiting for you,” she said around a bite of pizza. Then she laughed at her own joke.

She knew full-well he thought Christmas was a time for overspending and chaos, how he wasn’t a fan of the crowds tripling and even the prices of everyday items shooting up. Gabby enjoyed teasing him about what she called his “Scrooginess.” He, in turn, liked to point out she was a cross between Pollyanna and Julie Andrews.

Gabby took a long swallow of her beer, then wiped her lips with her napkin. Owen watched her, paying more attention to her features than he had in the past—particularly her lips. His mother would love her. She was the kind of girl his family dreamed about him settling down with—the kind he couldn’t have imagined being with, other than as a friend. Best friend. That’s exactly what Gabriella Michaelson had become over the past couple years. Small moments and conversations had turned into shared pizzas while watching the Celtics. The conversations got longer and the time they spent together increased to the point where they spent more time with each other than without. They’d become part of each other’s routine.

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