Authors: Karen Erickson,Coleen Kwan,Cindi Madsen,Roxanne Snopek
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #General, #Anthologies (Multiple Authors), #Collections & Anthologies, #friends to lovers, #playboy, #enemies to lovers, #sheriff, #firefighter, #opposites attract, #snowed in, #officer, #holiday romance, #Christmas, #rebel
She set down her can and scooted next to him, resting her back against the couch the way he was doing. Between the fire and the candles, the metal pieces of the tree reflected the light, giving the tree a glowing effect, even without the lights on.
It could’ve been any other Christmas, sitting in front of a fire, a glowing tree nearby. All that was missing was Mom, snacks, and a holiday movie playing in the background.
“What’s your favorite Christmas movie?” she asked.
A Christmas Story
“Typical. Every guy loves that movie for some reason.”
“Because it’s awesome.”
“I kinda hate it,” she said, and he gasped like she’d said she didn’t like puppies. “I’ve been forced to watch it too many times, and I just never thought it was that funny.”
“You’re lucky the power’s out, or I’d force you to watch it right now.” Nate set his empty can on the coffee table. “So, what’s yours, then?”
She twisted a strand of hair around her finger. “Normally, I don’t like the overly cheesy romance movies—got a tough chick façade to maintain and all that.”
He grinned and her heart went fluttery on her.
“But, when it comes to Christmas movies, I watch
the romantic ones, from the bigger Hollywood flicks, to the overly sappy, to the ones that make me cringe from the bad acting. When they reach a certain level of cheesiness, my mom and I call them Velveeta movies. That’s when I feel like it’s actually Christmas.”
Nate shifted, and she was acutely aware of his thigh against hers. He still had on the gray thermal shirt, giving him that irresistibly rugged look. He gave her an amused sidelong glance, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “I think we’re opposites on every Christmas tradition.”
Kelsey rested her head on his shoulder, inhaling his musky scent. “From now on, every Christmas, let’s have a tradition where we eat soup out of a can by the fire.” She was getting caught up in the glowing tree and holiday magic, but she couldn’t help herself.
“Deal,” Nate said, taking her hand in his. “And at least one ornament needs to be made out of scrap metal.”
“You’re committing to putting up a tree every year?”
He shrugged. “Why not?” His eyes locked onto hers, and she felt like he was holding back. She didn’t want him to pull away, so she decided to keep on talking—if there was one thing she’d learned from working in a hair salon, it was the ability to ramble on about anything and everything to fill the silence.
“If you could travel anywhere in the US for a vacation, where would you go?”
He reached up with his free hand and rubbed his jaw, two creases forming between his eyebrows. She wanted to take over for him, brush her fingers across his whiskers, make him groan the way she had earlier. But she decided to behave herself.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Yellowstone,” he said. “See all the wildlife. Maybe go fishing.”
“You live right next to the mountains.”
“But those are different mountains.” He bumped his shoulder against hers. “So where’d you wanna go, Judgy McJudgerson?”
Kelsey laughed, the way she’d been doing all day. She loved Nate’s humor, and how he pulled it out when she least expected it. She’d been with a lot of guys who were showy, demanding everyone look at them for their comments or songs or jokes. Finding out Nate was funny felt like a secret discovery she had all to herself. “I’d pick beach. Florida or California. Where I could be in my bikini more than not, rarely wear shoes, and wake up to the sound of the ocean.”
“Well, if you’re gonna be wearing a bikini, I’m switching to beach vacation with you.” Nate let go of her hand, and just when she was about to pout over it, he wrapped his arm around her waist, curling her into him.
“Okay, so foreign vacation,” she said, snuggling against him. “Then where would you go?”
He repeated the scrunched eyebrows, rubbing his jaw gesture. She took a mental picture, wanting to remember him like that later. He glanced down at her and one of his eyebrows quirked higher. “Let’s just cut to the chase and say wherever you’d go.”
“I like that answer.” She couldn’t take it anymore, so she reached up her fingers and trailed them across his jaw. “I’m thinking Paris. But would you be bored going to all the art places with me?”
“If I were with you, I wouldn’t be bored.”
The air thickened between them, every breath holding so much weight. He glanced away and disappointment flooded her chest. “I couldn’t leave here, though,” he said. “Not for that long.”
At first she thought he was pulling away, but there was something else in his tone. As if even thinking of imaginary vacations stressed him out. “What are you talking about?”
“The farm. My parents. They need me here. Maybe a weekend or something, but…I mean, I know we’re only talking, but those kinds of vacations just aren’t in the plans for me ”
Kelsey pushed up onto her knees. “You put too much pressure on yourself. Why are you responsible for everyone?”
His eyes remained glued to the fire. “I was gone when my dad hurt himself. He needed me here, but I’d gone to Charlotte. I should’ve been here.”
Her heart caught at the guilt in his voice. “You were training for your job, no one can blame you for that. And where was Derek when this all went down?” For the most part, she tried to avoid talking about him, but she couldn’t help it.
“He never wanted the farm. I told my dad I might. And I do.” Nate finally looked at her. “It’s not that I don’t like the work—even my police job keeps me indoors too much for my taste sometimes. But I get that taking on the farm’s a big commitment, one I’ve made. And I realize it would be unfair to ask anyone else to make it.”
Kelsey couldn’t do anything but blink at him for a moment. What started out as a casual conversation suddenly felt heavy. She had no doubt he could find a girl who’d be happy to run a farm with him, be his wife, whatever he wanted. What was surprising was how much she hated the hypothetical girl.
This was the point with most guys where she would throw up a mental block to keep herself separate from them. Safe. Emotions were messy, and with this being a temporary situation, it seemed like an even worse idea to get so involved in his life.
But this was Nate, the guy who’d said he’d take care of her forever, the guy who could ignite an inferno inside her with a simple glance or light touch. Knowing that the likelihood of them actually working out as a couple was slim to none didn’t change that she wanted to be the one he confided in. Wanted him to have everything his heart desired. The guy carried too much on his shoulders, and she was desperate to lighten some of his burden. She slowly leaned forward and kissed the corner of his mouth. Borderline friend territory.
Oh who was she kidding, she’d never kissed a friend there.
Nate kept his eyes glued to her as she pulled back. Then he reached up and cupped her cheek. “Kelsey…”
He brushed his thumb across her skin, sending tingly heat in its wake.
She closed her eyes, soaking in the feel of his hand, then opened them and stared at his perfect face as longing wrapped itself around her heart. “If this is a mistake, it’s one I’ll gladly keep making.”
“I don’t think it’s a mistake, I just want to do things the right way.”
“Not everything’s always black and white. And you don’t always have to put what you want on hold for everyone else.” She leaned forward again, kissing him squarely on the mouth.
Nate wrapped his hands around her hips and pulled her to him, so she was straddling him. His hand slid up, into her hair. He tipped her head back and kissed her neck, making her gasp. His tongue traced up to just under her ear, where he pressed another kiss, and everything inside her unraveled. She squeezed her thighs tighter around him and wrapped her arms around his neck, feeling like she’d fall apart if she didn’t hold on to him.
Then his blessed lips covered hers, soft yet insistent, sending heat flaring low in her stomach. He thrust his tongue in to meet hers and she dug her fingers into his shoulders.
He rolled her onto her back and covered her body with his, propping himself up on his elbows. He kissed her until the room spun and her lips were swollen and tingly. Just when she was ready to dispense with the clothes, he slowed the pace. He lay back on the rug in front of the fire, tucking her next to him. Usually she couldn’t keep guys from pawing at her, and the guy she wanted more than she’d ever wanted anyone kept pulling back. After the last time she’d slept with someone too fast, she’d sworn she’d stop jumping into bed with guys she’d end up regretting later. She knew Nate was different, though, a guy she’d never regret. So she supposed she could be patient, even though patience wasn’t her strong suit.
But tomorrow was Christmas, and according to this morning’s forecast the storm would be on its way out. She and Nate would have to get back to the real world. The spell would break, the distance would ruin everything, and they’d end up being an almost love that simply faded away.
Nate took a deep breath, inhaling Kelsey’s vanilla perfume, wanting to hold it in forever. They’d gone back to light conversation as they lay in front of the fire, talking about things like favorite colors and foods, college stories and dream vehicles. Any random thought that popped into Kelsey’s head, she said, her mind spinning from one subject to another. Then if he said something opposing to what she thought, which was most everything, she’d tell him why he should switch to her side.
Man, he loved that about her. Her opinions were declared with such passion, and damned if it didn’t make him want to switch, although he’d remain firm just to see what she’d say or do to try to convince him to see things her way.
As her eyelids started to droop, he’d kept her talking, because she sounded drunk, talking in statements that made half-sense but insisting she knew what she was saying. Yes, it was entertaining, but he also didn’t want the night to end. Every kid dreamed of Christmas morning, but he wanted to delay it as long as possible because it meant she might leave.
Finally, he let her fall asleep, her head on his chest. The snow was already letting up outside, and the electricity had come back on, the hallway and kitchen lit up, though this room was still only lit by the dying fire. Nate’s heart expanded as he took in everything about Kelsey, from her perfect little nose and full lips, to the tattoos peeking out of her shirt. He liked the stripes of purple in her hair, and how she looked with and without makeup.
Every time he thought they might actually have a real shot at this turning into something real, he reminded himself that she was a girl who had another life, one outside of Marion. He didn’t think she’d be content to be out on a farm, so far away from the city, and while he liked the city, he didn’t belong there. He’d continue to work for the town and help out on the farm. Someday, he’d have to pick one or the other. Or maybe by the time Dad fully retired, he could go back to Charlotte, but Kelsey would’ve moved on by then.
His phone rang and he hurried to answer it before it woke her.
“Dude, sorry for calling so late, but you’ll never believe what happened,” Derek said.
“Something pretty unbelievable happened to me, too.” Nate carefully slid out from under Kelsey and moved into the kitchen. This conversation would no doubt be awkward, but he was really sick of holding back, and after he talked to Derek, he’d know if he needed to fight for her—he was at the point where he would if he had to. “I ran into Kelsey Cooper. She wrecked her car last night and has been staying here with me, waiting for the storm to blow over.”
The other end of the line went quiet and Nate gripped the phone, wanting to explain that he didn’t mean to fall for her but that he had. That it was too late to stop it.
“What are the odds?” Derek asked.
Exactly. There was no way he’d get this lucky again either. “I, uh, know you said you wished you and she had worked out.”
“Dude, I was just wasted and heartbroken and feeling sentimental. Angela had just dumped me, and I guess being in Marion made me think about Kelsey and how much fun we had. Wait—” He could practically hear Derek’s wheels turning over the phone. “Are you saying…? Did you hook up with her?”
“No,” Nate said, a little too forcefully, and he was sure his brother would hear the defensive tone in his voice.
“No? I was gonna say way to go, bro. You’ve been living like a monk for too long.”
Nate opened his mouth then just shook his head and sighed. “I was trying to be respectful of you.”
“Me? Kelsey and I have been over for a long time, man. I was just grasping at straws because I didn’t want to admit I’d lost Angela. The real love of my life.”
All this time he’d been holding back for nothing.
“Nate, I’m engaged. Angela and I got back together and I asked her to marry me—I’m not letting her go ever again. Don’t tell Mom and Dad. We’re gonna show up tomorrow and surprise them.”
Angela. The girl he’d dated all year, but had been dumped by right before Thanksgiving. And now they were engaged. Relief flooded Nate, and while he was happy for his brother, there was a lot of selfish happiness going on as well. “Congrats, man. I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Nate hung up the phone and felt a huge goofy grin lifting his lips. His head and chest were light, and hope filled him from the inside out. It was time to enjoy the time he had left with Kelsey, however long it was.
She looked so peaceful sleeping, he almost didn’t want to wake her up. But he didn’t want to waste another second. He lowered himself to the floor, leaned across her and pressed his lips to hers. Her eyelids fluttered open and she flashed him a smile that shot him right through the heart.
“My brother’s engaged,” he said.
Her brow wrinkled. “Oh…kay.”