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
“Yeah, but an apology might solve them. At least for now.” He smiled but it was grim. “I’m sorry, Mindy. For acting out of line and snatching your phone from your hands when I had no right to. I even made you hang up on your ex, the father of your freaking children. I still feel like an asshole for that move.”
“I accept your apology,” she said softly, hating how full of despair his expression was. “It’s okay, Josh. Really.” She wanted to go to him despite the residual anger lingering from last night. It didn’t help, seeing him. Having him here before her. He just looked so good this morning, making her want to forget all about their earlier confrontation. His tousled hair, the dark stubble lining his cheeks, heck even his big feet covered in the thick white socks—the entire package was sexy.
And she’d been all over that delicious man not even twelve hours ago like some sort of sex-deprived junkie.
“I wasn’t trying to tell you what to do,” he admitted, his gaze soft and imploring. “I wanted to protect you. And then I said all that stupid stuff about us not being friends and—”
“I said stupid stuff, too.” She kept her voice soft. “I panicked. Being with you last night brought so many old feelings to the surface. Most of them good and some of them scary.”
It was the truth. And he needed to hear it.
“I get it.” Her admission must have relieved him. She saw it written all over his face. “Trust me, Min. I felt the same exact way.”
“Really?” Relief flooded her as well. “So what you’re saying is that we’re on the same page?”
It had seemed so good between them until he’d become a little pushy. He was only watching out for her best interests. She knew that. Right?
But he was an upstanding, good guy, respected in the community. He worked hard, he was a good friend, and he had a kind heart.
Oh yes, and really sexy lips…
Sexy lips didn’t mean he was the man for her though. It just meant he knew how to kiss the very sense out of her head.
“We are definitely on the same page. I hope.” Josh paused, drinking her in. A shiver moved through her. She felt his gaze rake over her as if he’d physically touched her. “I am sorry I tried to tell you what to do. I need you to realize that.”
“You’re forgiven. And just FYI? No man controls me,” she said, keeping her voice even. She didn’t want to display her already frayed nerves. She needed Josh to know she wouldn’t tolerate any man trying to push her around ever again. “You said you were protecting me and I appreciate it, but I don’t need the protection. I can handle the hard stuff on my own, you know.”
“Oh, I know.” He smiled. “That’s what I admire about you most, Mindy. You’re a strong, independent woman. I find that sexy.”
She gaped at him. “Really?” she squeaked, then cleared her throat. That certainly hadn’t sounded sexy.
“Definitely.” Josh nodded. “You’re stronger than any woman I know.”
She studied him, feeling lighter as the anger slowly dissipated from her, evaporating into the air like it never existed in the first place. “Thank you. That means a lot to me,” she murmured.
“Good.” Josh nodded and smiled. “So am I forgiven?”
“That depends.” She crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Do you want to be?”
“Absolutely. It’s not much fun, being on your bad side,” he said. “Though I must admit you’re kind of hot when you’re mad, Min.”
She burst out laughing. She couldn’t help it. This was exactly what she needed. Laughter and fun and not having to worry about anything but having a good time with a man she could consider as someone becoming a serious part of her life.
“I’m sorry, too,” she said after her laughter died. “I kind of flew off the handle. It’s only because I’ve never had someone defend me against Marty before. I mean, my family is there for me always but I don’t let them know everything. I usually handle it all on my own.”
He smiled faintly. “I’ll always defend you, Mindy. I’m on your side. And if you need help, I’m here for you. You never have to worry about that.”
Her heart squeezed, and it felt like it wanted to burst out of her chest. My God, this man was trying to kill with sweet words and heated looks and all that quiet potent charm he didn’t seem to know he had. “I’m counting on that, Powers.”
He grinned. “Don’t you worry. I won’t ever let you down.” His gaze turned knowing, with a hint of wickedness that made her catch her breath. Without warning, he grabbed her, pulling her into his arms, his face in hers. “McKenzie.”
And then he sealed that promise with a kiss.
“My family is going to flip out.”
Josh pulled her closer so she could snuggle against the warm flannel of his shirt. “You think they’ll disapprove?”
Mindy pulled away slightly so she could look up at him. The apprehension in his expression made his jaw go tight, his eyes narrow as he met her gaze. “Are you kidding? They’ll probably throw you a party to welcome you back to the family.”
The moment the words left her, she winced. She didn’t mean to sound so…serious. But they’d been locked away together in her house, snowed in for the last two days. They’d become closer and closer, talking and laughing and trying to help each other to make things work while the power was still out.
But the weather had miraculously cleared. Though it was still gloomy, the air was warmer and the snow had started to melt. Josh figured they could get out by tomorrow.
She was both thankful—considering tomorrow was Christmas—yet sad. She liked staying here in their own romantic bubble. What if things changed once they had to face reality again? What if Josh left her? He could. This could be his way of finally getting revenge on her after the way she treated him back in high school. She’d deserve it, too.
“Hey.” He dragged his finger between her brows, tracing the slope of her nose and gently tapping the end. “You’re frowning. You look worried.”
“Josh…” She broke off and she shook her head. She shouldn’t complain, shouldn’t express her worry. She had no business doing so; she hardly knew him. This entire thing had happened so fast and she felt so comfortable, so right with him, yet it also was exhilarating and exciting and new.
To express her concerns would be throwing a damper on everything between them.
Leaning in, he kissed her. His soft, warm mouth set her head spinning and she wondered if she would ever grow used to Josh’s kisses.
God, she hoped not.
“Be honest with me, Min. Don’t hold back.”
She sighed, smoothing her hand down the front of his shirt. His heart pounded furiously beneath her palm, and she shifted her head back to meet his gaze. “Things aren’t going to change once we leave my house, are they? I mean, I know my life is still sort of complicated and I have excess baggage as in my ex and my kids. It won’t be easy, being with me. And oh my God, I’m talking like we’re going to get married, which I know isn’t the case because I’m really jumping to conclusions aren’t I?”
“Min. Sweetheart.” He pressed his finger over her lips to silence her, then gently traced the curve of her bottom lip. His touch made her tremble, every single time. “You’re rambling.”
“I know,” she whispered against his finger, wishing she could lick it. They may have spent a lot of time together, but they hadn’t taken it any further than heavy kissing sessions and wandering hands. Not that she wanted to take it further. They needed to get to know each other again and take it slow.
Lies. All lies. She would love it if Josh stripped her naked and made her his in every sense of the word. Just thinking about making love with Josh sent a fresh rush of pleasure through her, making her tremble.
He dropped his finger from her lips and she felt the loss keenly. “I want to be with you.” The sincerity in his voice, glittering in his eyes, made her heart soar. “I can’t wait to meet your boys again and get to know them. And I don’t care about Marty. I’ll show him respect as your boys’ father, but I don’t need to be his friend.”
She smiled. “I don’t expect you two to be friends.”
“Good,” he said with a grunt. “We may be taking this too fast but, Min, I’ve known you forever and then I lost you. Now that you’re back in my life, I’m not that same kid who gave up so easily all those years ago. I’m going to fight for you. I can’t stand the thought of losing you again.”
“Fighting won’t be necessary,” she murmured, curling her arms around his neck and bringing his head down to hers. “I surrender to you completely, Josh.”
He kissed her, long and deep and with plenty of tongue. “Words like that make me want to push this between us even further,” he admitted when they broke the kiss.
She feathered his jaw with tender kisses. “That was my plan.”
Josh slipped his fingers beneath her chin and lifted her face up so her gaze met his. “You mean it? I’m trying to go slow here, even if it’s killing me. You just got out of this divorce and…”
“I’m a grown woman who knows what she wants.” She kissed him, hard. “And I want you.”
He pressed his forehead to hers. “I want you, too. More than I think you realize.”
“After all these years being without you, having you come back in my life, it’s like we picked up right where we left off.” She stroked his bristly cheek, loving the way he looked with the faint beard. He hadn’t shaved in days and they’d bathed with splashes of icy cold water that made her shriek every single time and maybe…
Huh. Maybe they shouldn’t do anything yet. She was feeling sorta yucky after not having a hot shower for a few days.
“I feel the same,” he agreed, those four simple words sending her heart nearly to bursting.
“This is the best Christmas present I’ve ever received,” she whispered. “I’m so glad you almost hit my cat.”
He laughed, the warm, rich sound making her smile. “That is the strangest thing you’ve said yet, Min, but I gotta agree. I’m glad I almost hit your cat, too.”
They both laughed now, the sound slowly dying as Josh’s lips captured hers. The kisses were soft, sweet, soon turning to hot and deep and then she was lost. Lost in the swirl of pleasure his lips and hands and words sent her into. Lost in the feel of him. Lost in the knowledge that finally, finally she felt like she’d found the man for her.
Thank goodness for second chances. And crazy cats that won’t come home when you call them…
“Josh, what are you doing here?” Christian Nelson stopped short in the doorway of the McKenzie household, his arms laden with a pile of colorfully wrapped Christmas presents.
“Great way to greet me, my friend.” Josh went to his coworker and helped ease his burden by taking a few of the presents from him. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas to you. Sorry, I didn’t expect to see you.” Chris glanced back when his wife Jane entered the house, a gentle smile crossing his face when their gazes met. “Look who’s here, Jane.”
“Josh.” Jane Nelson went to him, crushing him in a giant hug. “It’s so good to see you.” She withdrew from Josh’s arms and turned to her husband. “You remember how I told you Josh used to always hang out at our house, right? He and Patrick and Mindy were such good friends. Then he just…disappeared.”
“How could I forget? You’ve only told me about fifty times since we got together,” Chris teased.
Ah, leave it to Jane to call him out. Not that she really knew. Mindy always kept that sort of thing private. She used to complain to him all the time when they were younger what a nosy sister Jane was.
“I’m back.” Josh smiled, looking around in the hopes he’d catch sight of Mindy. “It sure is great to be here.”
“I bet Mom and Dad are thrilled.” Jane’s smile grew as she followed her husband with her gaze as he headed to the giant Christmas tree standing proud and tall in the corner of her parents’ living room. “And Patrick. Maybe even Mindy.”
He wanted to snicker but he restrained himself. Now she was fishing. And that was sort of cute, especially since he knew they had planned on getting them together. “I came with Mindy.”
Jane’s eyes widened, and she rested her hand on her chest. “You did? Well, that’s certainly a pleasant surprise.”
Yeah, right. This was exactly what she was hoping for. “Glad you think so.”
Before they could get into it further, the front door burst open, Jane’s three children running inside still clad in their snow gear. “Get back outside on Grandma and Grandpa’s porch and take all that off,” Jane yelled.
The kids turned tail and marched right back outside, the door slamming behind them.
“Unbelievable,” Jane mumbled, and this time Josh did laugh.
He and Mindy had finally made their escape from her house late afternoon on Christmas Eve, after the power had come on and the snowplows had come through. She’d driven him over to his house after she’d showered and changed, so they could check and make sure everything was okay and where he’d taken a shower and changed into fresh clothes as well.
They’d gone on to his parents’ house to see if it had weathered the storm before they headed back to Mindy’s. Where he spent another night.
This time in her bed.
The McKenzie household was filled to the brim with family, both distant and immediate. They were all seated and eating dinner within minutes of Chris and Jane’s arrival.
Patrick came with his family and he and Josh sat next to each other, playing catch up throughout the meal. Cam and Chloe sat across from them, unable to keep their hands off each other and Chloe was absolutely radiant. Chris and Jane, who sat right next to Chloe, had made their special announcement right after the dinner plates were cleared that they were going to have a baby, too.
Mindy’s youngest brother Mac was there, looking a little lost and lonely among the hustle and bustle of everyone’s big families and Josh felt sort of sorry for him. He could relate. Hell, not even a few days ago he felt exactly the same way.
But now he had Mindy. Though their relationship was fresh and tentative, he knew without a doubt he was in for the long haul.
And so was Mindy.
“Are you having fun?” she asked him long after dessert had been served and the gifts for the kids opened. She wrapped her arms around him, clinging to him like she didn’t care who noticed, which thrilled him to no end. “I’m so glad you came with me.”
“I’m so glad you invited me.” He leaned in and dropped a discreet kiss on her nose. “It’s been great, catching up with everyone. Your family has grown so much. I guess I never realized it until I saw everyone together.”
She smiled, her eyes glowing as she stared up at him. “Mom said she’s happy to have you back as part of the family again.” Her smile immediately turned into a frown. “Not that I mean anything by that. I mean…I’m not trying to say that we’re going to be anything beyond friends who date or whatever or—”
“Min.” He kissed her, silencing the words she was tripping over left and right. “You’re babbling again. It’s the cutest thing ever, but you don’t have to worry. I think we’re on the same page here.”
“You two are way cute.”
They both looked to their right to find Cameron McKenzie smirking at them. Mindy withdrew from Josh to sock Cam in the arm. “Shut it.”
“Serious. I know Chloe and I upped the gag factor around here. Mac looks like he wants to murder me sometimes and Patrick gives me endless shit but I gotta say, you two are probably going to take over the sickeningly into each other crowns that Chloe and I have been wearing since we got together,” Cam explained.
“‘Sickeningly into each other’?” Mindy scrunched her nose, looking absolutely adorable.
“Yeah. You two are so into each other it’s sickening.” Cam grinned.
Mindy rolled her eyes, her cheeks pink. Josh couldn’t help it. He dipped down and pressed a kiss to her cheek, making her blush brighter. “Stop.” She shoved at Josh.
“Ah, just like when we were kids. Gotta love it.” Cam shook his head and walked away from them.
“Are we sickeningly into each other?” She turned on Josh, her expression questioning.
“I know I’m sickeningly into you.” He snagged her hand and brought it to his mouth, pressing a kiss to the back of it. “I wouldn’t have it any other way though.”
She smiled at him. “Let’s get out of here,” she whispered.
He raised his brows. “Want to come back to my place?”
“Yes.” She nodded furiously. “Please.”
Mindy felt like her entire life had changed in the blink of an eye. What had started out as a crappy day with Marty taking her boys to Hawaii ended with her reconnecting with Josh and discovering that she had feelings for him. Feelings that had always been there, lying dormant as if waiting for just the right time to be revealed.
Now she lay in his arms, in his bed, their bodies naked and damp, their breathing accelerated as they clung to each other in the darkness.
“Your bed is comfortable,” she finally said because
, she didn’t know what else to say. Josh had quite simply rocked her world with a few deliberate strokes and expert kisses. She flat-out didn’t know sex could be like this.
Look at what she’d been missing all these years.
Josh chuckled and kissed the top of her head, squeezing her close. “Glad you think so.”
She stroked his chest, her touch light as she traced the little dark hairs that grew in between his pecs. “Do you think we moved too fast?”
“What do you mean?”
“We get snowed in together, we kiss, we argue, we make up, I take you to my family’s house for Christmas, and now we’ve had sex?” She lifted up on one arm, staring down at him. “That’s moving pretty fast, Josh.”
Reaching out, he touched her cheek, cupping her face as if it was a precious, delicate thing. “We’ve known each other for years, Min. When it’s right, it’s right.”
A smile curved her lips and tears threatened to spill. No way. She refused to cry. “It is, isn’t it?”
“Hell yeah.” He pulled her down for a deep, delicious kiss. “I have a feeling we’re going to spend a lot of time together.”
“You do?” she asked, her voice teasing. “How long do you think?”
“I don’t know, the next fifty years or so?” And before she could utter another word, he kissed her.
And never let her go.