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, must be.” Shrugging, she affected a nonchalant grin. “I was too nosy. But don’t worry. I’ve forgotten about it.”
“Oh?” His smile lingered. “I kinda liked it.”
“You like hating Christmas?”
“I liked being honest about it. With you.’” His mouth edged up again.
She took a deep breath. “I see. Should I just call you the Big Bah Humbug, then?”
“Maybe not when Chloe’s around, but you can call me anything when we’re alone.”
A nervy feeling twitched in her stomach at the idea of being alone with Aaron. She waved at the twinkling Christmas lights Luke had strung up around the deck. “In case you hadn’t noticed, this is a bah-humbug-free zone.”
His eyes continued to glimmer at her. “I can see we have an interesting few days ahead of us.” Linking his hands behind his head, he stretched out in his chair, and as he did so, his polo shirt rode up a few inches, revealing a slice of firm, toned abdomen.
Naomi gulped and gripped her hands together as attraction simmered in her. Luke had warned her about Aaron’s charm, and she’d assured him she was immune. But wasn’t that fast becoming a lie?
Someone was shaking him by the shoulder. Aaron opened his eyes to find Luke standing at his bedside. His friend was fully dressed and wore an expression of contained concern.
“What’s up?” Aaron pushed himself upright and tried to blink the sleep away from his eyes. Early morning light filtered through the drapes.
“Something’s come up.” Luke jingled keys in the pocket of his jacket. “It’s Tyler’s mother. She’s been admitted to hospital, and we have to drive up to Sydney right away.”
“Is it serious?” Aaron rolled out of bed and stood, his sleepiness ebbing away.
“We’re not sure. Something to do with her heart. I’m sorry to do this to you, but I don’t know how long we’ll be away.”
“Hey, don’t worry about me at all. Just go with Tyler. She’ll need your support. You’ll be taking Chloe, too?”
“Yeah.” Luke paused, eyeing him keenly. “So you’ll be okay hanging out here with Naomi?”
“Of course.” Aaron rubbed his chest. Now why did the idea of being alone with Naomi cause his spirits to lift so much? “Like I said, don’t worry about me.”
Luke was silent for a few seconds. “You know all about Naomi’s rough year.” He shifted his stance, folding his arms.
Aaron met his eyes, read the nuance in his words, and nodded.
“I’d really appreciate it if you kept an eye out for her while we’re gone,” Luke said. “In case she needs help.”
“Oh, sure.” He wasn’t certain Naomi needed any help from him, but it would be more than pleasant to ‘keep an eye’ on her. “Don’t worry about anything here.”
Aaron pulled on a shirt over his sleep shorts, then walked with Luke down the hallway.
In the living room, Tyler was zipping up bags while Naomi held a sleepy Chloe in her arms and Milo whined anxiously. Tyler’s gaze flew straight to Luke, her face tight with worry. He moved over to her and clasped her hand in silent support. Aaron picked up the two packed bags and followed everyone out into the early morning air. In minutes, the Maguires were packed, and their car pulled out of the driveway.
“I hope it’s nothing serious.” Naomi rubbed her arms as she stared after the car.
Despite the situation, Aaron couldn’t help noticing her just-woken-up appearance. Clad in a loose, white T-shirt and gingham shorts, with her hair sleep mussed and face scrubbed clean, she looked soft and touchable, the mild sunshine bathing her in gauzy radiance.
“I’m sure Luke will call the minute they have news,” he said, trying not to stare too blatantly.
As they reentered the house, Milo stuck close to Naomi, whimpering in confusion. She scooped up the puppy in her arms and headed for the kitchen. “You deserve a treat, don’t you, poor little munchkin.”
Aaron followed, admiring the view of Naomi’s legs stretching out beneath her shorts. Luke had warned him to keep his hands off his niece. How was he going to keep that promise when she was so scantily dressed? And it wasn’t as if she were actively discouraging him. She could have gotten dressed instead of leaning against the kitchen counter feeding doggie treats to Milo. And though she lavished attention on the puppy, he caught her glancing at him, as if she were checking him out, too. He rubbed his chest, suddenly glad of his regular gym sessions and racquet ball games. He wasn’t a muscle-bound beefcake, but he was in good physical shape.
Naomi gave the dog one last cuddle before lowering him to the floor. “I need to make a few phone calls. Tyler was too upset to do them, so I volunteered. And then I have to get ready for work. Will you be okay hanging out here by yourself?”
Why did both she and Luke think he needed amusing like a bored school kid on vacation?
“Don’t worry about me,” he said. “But how do you get to work? I didn’t notice another car in the driveway.”
“I use my bicycle. It’s only about fifteen minutes, and it’s good exercise.”
That explained why her legs were so invitingly toned. He wondered if they were as smooth to the touch as they appeared and instantly thrust the question from his mind. “Will you be able to cope at work with Tyler gone?”
Naomi lifted her shoulders. “I’ll have to. Ally—that’s Tyler’s business partner—can’t do too many extra hours because she’s about ten months pregnant.”
“I’ll help you.”
“You?” Her mouth fell open.
“Yes, me.” He waved away her incredulity. “I’m not doing anything.”
“But you’re on holiday. You’re not supposed to do anything.”
“I can hardly rest around here while you and a heavily pregnant woman are run ragged by hordes of Christmas shoppers.”
“But you…” She seemed at a loss for words. “But you hate Christmas. I don’t want you scaring our customers away.”
“I’ll keep my opinions to myself,” he said soothingly. Somehow he needed her to accept his help. He blandished a smile on her. “I’m very good at customer service. See these dimples here?” He pointed at his cheek. “They’re my secret weapon. I’ve closed major deals with them.”
A smile tugged at the corners of her lips. “I see. So dimples are worth more than an MBA from Columbia?”
“Used judiciously, yes. They don’t teach you the proper use of dimples at Columbia. It comes from experience.”
Her smile widened, her indigo eyes sparkled, and for a moment he basked in their warmth. But then she appeared to remember that she wasn’t supposed to like him, and her lips straightened into a prim line as she smoothed down her T-shirt. “Very well,” she said, sounding every inch the schoolteacher. “You and your dimples can help out today.”
Forty minutes later, they’d showered, changed, and breakfasted. As they left the house and approached his Porsche, Naomi let out a sigh.
“We’ll be turning heads in that,” she said, not sounding pleased.
“That’s what it’s designed for.”
Aaron opened the passenger door for her and copped an eyeful of shapely leg as she eased into the low-slung seat. Dressed in a leaf-green linen dress that ended several inches above her knee and flat leather sandals, she looked both competent and lovely. It was too bad about the Maguires’ family emergency, but spending more time with Naomi was a great consolation.
As he maneuvered the sports car down the street and inadvertently revved it, her fingers dug into the red leather seat.
“Sorry,” he murmured. “Still getting used to driving this thing.”
“A nice, sedate Corolla would have been more than adequate.”
He gnashed the gears and winced. “A Corolla? What’s the fun in that? Besides, I’m not going to impress any women in a Corolla.”
She instantly stiffened, as he’d suspected she would. “Well, I’m definitely not impressed,” she began hotly, before she hesitated and shot him an uncertain glance. “You’re ribbing me, aren’t you?”
He chuckled. “I guess I am, unless you are secretly impressed by my car.”
He thought she would come back with a sassy retort, but she merely shifted in her seat and toyed with her hair. Grinning to himself, he was about to ask her what would impress her when he remembered himself and bit back the provocative question. Luke had asked him to behave, and while his hosts were absent dealing with a crisis, he shouldn’t take advantage of the situation by flirting with Naomi.
Resolved to behaving himself, he followed Naomi’s directions to the center of Burronga. As he drove down the main street, he found his shoulders beginning to tense. Burronga was a bit more upmarket than Mecklenburg, but it reminded him too much of his hometown. The old buildings, the broad streets, the ambling traffic, the wide, blue sky overhead. In a few days’ time, he’d be driving past a similar streetscape, except it would be winter dull and freezing cold and he’d be counting the hours until he could escape.
He recalled the school trip in seventh grade to New York City, how he’d been dazzled by the city’s energy, diversity, and endless possibilities. In Mecklenburg he’d always felt as if he were living under a dome, trapped with small-town folks who thought he was weird because he wasn’t like the other sporty, outdoorsy kids. But in New York the sky was the limit, and suddenly he could breathe. On his return home, he’d announced his intention of moving to New York one day, much to the dismay of his parents, who were perfectly happy where they were and wanted him to stay nearby.
He’d never truly felt he’d belonged in Mecklenburg, and spending Christmas there just reinforced that belief. But his family expected him there each year, and the more he felt obliged to live up to their expectations, the more Christmas brought out the grouch in him. Though he knew he shouldn’t feel that way, the guilt only fed into his silent resentment, and the vicious cycle soured his visits.
He reminded himself he was half a world away from Mecklenburg and shouldn’t let his prejudices against small towns get to him. Naomi directed him to a restored, nineteenth-century, two-story building with a ground floor storefront bearing the name
Java & Joolz
“You don’t have to spend all day here,” she said as they got out of the car that he’d parked right outside the store.
“We’ll see. I don’t like being idle.”
She studied him curiously over the roof of the car. “Yes, I noticed that,” she said drily. “Your boss had to twist your arm to take a vacation, and then you spent the first week learning to scuba dive. And today, you’re so averse to relaxing that you’d rather help me serve Christmas shoppers even though the sight of tinsel makes you break out in hives.”
“Yeah, I’m a nutcase.”
Aaron followed her into the store, thinking it wasn’t so much that he was averse to relaxing as he was attracted to spending the day with Naomi. Once inside, his feet faltered as he took stock of his surroundings. The art gallery and coffee shop screamed Xmas at him. A towering, white Christmas tree stood guard at the entrance, glimmering with shiny balls and ribbons. Giant snowflakes spattered the walls. Curly strings of tinsel looped around the serving counter of the coffee-shop area. Fake snow sprayed across the windows.
One Christmas, back in high school, he’d got a temporary job stocking shelves at a local supermarket. The store had been crammed with cheap, tawdry decorations. All day long, loudspeakers had blared out Christmas songs while the overworked staff clanged bells every two hours to announce a new “special.” The store owners had squeezed every last dime from the season, and the experience had left a lasting impression on Aaron. Ever since then, he’d developed an allergy to tinsel, carols, and clanging bells. Tyler’s store was much more refined, but still the onslaught of yuletide decorations left Aaron reeling, and the heat didn’t help.
It was the height of summer. Outside, people were strolling around in shorts and sandals eating ice cream, but in here it was Santa’s workshop at the North Pole. But he’d promised Naomi he’d help, so he’d just have to get over his tinsel phobia.
“You’ll have to put this on.” Naomi approached him with a red-and-green elf hat.
He looked at the hat. He crossed his arms. “Nope. No darn way.”
“But it’s for shoppers to identify staff when they need help. See, I’m wearing one.”
And she looked real cute in her elf hat, but not him. Nuh-uh. “That thing has pointy ears. And a pom-pom. Men shouldn’t wear pom-poms.”
“Santa wears pom-poms, and he’s a man.”
He leaned toward her. “I hate to break it to you, but Santa isn’t real.”
She put on an expression of mock astonishment. “But I saw him down at the shopping mall just the other day!” She grinned persuasively. “C’mon. Santa’s a real man, and real men wear pom-poms.”
She was speaking to him like he was a five-year-old who needed to be cajoled into doing the right thing. Goddammit. He might not enjoy the silly season, but he wasn’t going to have her thinking he was petulant and difficult.
“Fine.” He took the elf hat from her and jammed it on his head.
Naomi grinned up at him. “Here, let me fix that for you.”
The hat was hideous, but as Naomi leaned closer to straighten it, he began to appreciate the benefits of wearing it. Her fingers brushed against his temples, causing him to take a quick breath, and as he did so, he inhaled her fresh, green scent. Her face was mere inches away, so close he could see her dilated pupils and count the tiny freckles on the bridge of her small, straight nose. She really was lovely. He held his breath, pulses suddenly hammering, transfixed by the acute urge to kiss her. Holy hell, how could he control himself against such temptation? He held himself rigid, half wishing she would stop this exquisite torture. Their proximity appeared to affect her, too. Her dense eyelashes flickered, and her fingers trembled before she stepped back.
“Uh, there you go,” she murmured.
Hope rose at her flustered appearance. Naomi wasn’t unmoved by him. Maybe she was even starting to like him, but if she did, she masked it well. Her demeanor became brisk and professional as she gave him a rundown of the store operations. They had a part-time waitress, Beth, who helped out in the café section, and Ally, who co-owned the store with Tyler, would come in for a while, but otherwise Naomi was in sole charge. She guided him around the art gallery, showing him what was proving popular this year and what was not. Aaron focused his attention on her as he realized being a retail assistant might not be as easy as he’d assumed. The gallery sold a lot of products, and he wasn’t familiar with any of them. If it had been loan refinancing and leveraged buyouts, he would have had no problem, but glassware, prints, candles, and jewelry were another matter.
He didn’t have much time to acquaint himself with the store before customers began to arrive. At first they were just a trickle, but it soon grew to a deluge. People came not just to shop but also to chat over coffee and cakes and snacks. The clientele were ninety percent women, and they seemed to find him quite a novelty, even more so when they heard his accent. He was kept busy all morning long, and by eleven thirty he was surprised at how tired he felt.
He’d just finished serving a customer when Naomi came up to him. “I’m impressed,” she said with a smile. “You’ve sold five of those stained-glass flowers in one morning. Those dimples of yours must be working overtime.”
He grinned, disproportionately pleased by her praise. “I can be quite persuasive when I want.”