Contemporary Holiday Romance
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Abby Manners wants the traditional Christmas she's never had. Nick Claussen wants Christmas without all the trimmings.
Despite their differences their wildfire attraction threatens to burn out of control when Nick arrives to play Santa to Abby's Elf.
Stepping onto the ladder in front of her, she wondered again about the man in the Santa suit.
What made this Santa different than the one she’d worked with during Christmas last year? Maybe it was the way he’d responded to the children, the way they’d smiled after talking to him. Well, okay, that little kid who’d pulled Santa’s beard had ticked her off, but Santa had handled him with relative ease. As if he were used to children and liked them.
But, no, that couldn’t be it.
This was something more. A visceral feeling.
When she’d looked into his deep cobalt eyes, and watched his lips curve into a lopsided grin, surprise had blasted through her. A warm congeniality had heightened her emotions in a way she hadn’t experienced before.
Abby dropped a book on the floor and had to descend the ladder to retrieve the tome. As she climbed back up the ladder a lingering doubt about the Santa’s goodness remained in her mind. Unlike Becca Medino, her friend and co-owner of the bookstore, Abby couldn’t shake an inherent mistrust. She’d felt this way since childhood, and her attitude had kept her from making more than one bad decision, personally and professionally. She had no intention of lowering her drawbridge anytime soon.
A memory of childhood Christmases tugged at her. Kindness and cheerfulness sometimes cloaked a real person’s soul. Avarice and spite could hide under a charitable guise. She knew that too well.
Descending the ladder again, she retrieved the box at her feet and moved to the children’s section. Arranging another ladder to reach the top shelves, she shelved children’s Christmas stories. Suddenly she spied a cover that made her pause.
Father Christmas. Not jolly Santa, but a drawing of old-style Saint Nick. She shuddered. Santa had been more of a terror than a pleasant experience for Abby. Therapy when she’d reached adulthood had remedied her irrational fear of Old Saint Nick. Forcing herself to work in close proximity with Santa at the mall two years in a row had assured Abby the odd phobia had disappeared for good.
As she continued to hum a tune, her spirit lightened slightly. But only slightly.
Lately she’d clamored for something unreachable. An indefinable need that gnawed at her like a beaver chewed on wood. The teeth marks in her psyche hurt. She’d spent a year working side by side with Becca. So far the road had included pitfalls and anxiety, but they had built a healthy customer base.
Yet with every Christmas she spent alone, she found the holiday more arduous. Like a grizzly, she wanted to hibernate through the crazy Christmas season. This year in particular, she wanted to hide from everything she didn’t feel with as much depth as she should. Faith, love, hope, and charity.
Abby knew this Christmas season had to be different than all the rest. She needed to do something special. She’d decided to decorate her Victorian home like crazy, turning her house into a holiday showcase that wouldn’t fail to cheer her heart.
Realizing she wasted time daydreaming, she finished shelving books and descended the ladder. Satisfied with her work, Abby looked around the store and sighed. It felt good to be here among the scent of books, to hold them in her hands and savor contentment. Books remained dependable friends. They never left you and stayed at hand when needed. She headed back to the front counter.
“My, my, aren’t we cheerful?” Becca came from the back rooms. She smiled, her pretty, freckled face brightening. Of average height, Becca stood a couple inches shorter than Abby and several pounds thinner. In fact, Abby had often teased her about being a walking scarecrow.
Abby grinned. “You know what they say. ’Tis the season to be jovial.” Becca swept her shoulder length curly red hair back from her face. “You’ve been darn right cranky the last week. Now you’re fluttering about the store like a hummingbird and singing Christmas carols. What gives?”
Abby shrugged. “I’m having a great day.” Then she smiled again. “Or a manic-depressive episode.” When Becca’s forehead wrinkled with a frown, Abby said, “I had a nice morning in my incarnation as an elf.”
Becca leaned on the counter. “What was special about this morning?”
“Santa Claus. I think I’ll enjoy working with him. He’s a sweet man.”
The curiosity in Becca’s eyes escalated. “Aha, so you’re in love with Santa Claus?”
Abby stepped behind the counter. “He’s a nice, old, soft man. Cheerful, fatherly. Hardly love material.”
Becca sighed. “Probably has love handles the size of Mount Everest.” Abby giggled and Becca joined her. “And stays at home Friday nights and plays cards with Rudolph.”
Abby laughed harder. “Stop. Besides, the customers are going to think we’re unprofessional.”
“Pfft! Go with it, Abby. Give yourself a break from being so contained all the time.”
The seriousness in her eyes gave Abby pause. “Sorry.”
Becca patted her hand. “I like seeing you happy, and I hate it when you try and stop yourself from enjoying life.”
Abby would have denied her friend’s assessment, but a customer came to the counter with a question. A few minutes later, a very tall man strolled into the store. She watched as he stopped at a rack of horror novels and perused the latest Dean Koontz hard cover.
Déjà vu flared within her. She shrugged the sensation away, but intermittently glanced at him, seeing things about him with each look that she hadn’t noticed before. Occasionally she stole glimpses of his profile. Strong, with a nose some might call large, his face gave new, tantalizing meaning to the word rugged. His expertly cut chestnut hair gleamed in the store lights and waved over his ears, long enough to cover the collar of the shirt he wore beneath his green sweater. His sweater covered broad shoulders and a wide chest and his jeans formed an intimate but not tight fit over his thighs, his hips, his...
Abby swallowed hard and stared.
The man had the best looking butt she’d ever seen.
Smiling conspiratorially to herself, she forced herself to look away. She wasn’t getting any work done ogling a poor, innocent shopper. A customer came to the front counter and distracted Abby for several minutes.
Later, from the corner of her eye, she saw someone arrive at the counter. She turned with a smile.
And her breath jammed in her throat like a fishbone.
The good-looking stranger placed three hardbacks and an audio book on the counter.
“Hi. I’d like to get these books and the angel calendar you’ve got hanging on the wall behind you,” he said in a deep voice that rolled over her with a liquid, husky undertone that reminded her of brandy and fires in a hearth.
Abby stared, unable to reply. Something familiar and disconcerting nagged at her memory. Where had she met him before? Was he a famous movie star? Certainly he possessed a rough handsomeness that would work on the big screen.
She took a deep breath and managed to croak, “Find everything you need?”
“Yes, thank you.” He gave a wide, knee-buckling grin that added to the striking depth of his eyes and made her heart beat a little faster.
Abby noted he’d picked the new Dean Koontz, a Christmas cookie cookbook, a techno thriller, and a mainstream novel. “Christmas shopping?”
He nodded. “You’re right. One of them is for me, though.”“Let me guess. The techno thriller?”
A heart-stopping grin curved his lips. “The Christmas cookies.”
“Oh,” she murmured, feeling foolish for assuming. “I see.”
She rang up his purchases, bungled the first time and had to do it again. “Sorry.”
The man didn’t appear the least perturbed. “No problem.”
As Abby loaded his books and calendar in a bag, she asked, “Do you like angels?”
“The angel calendar.”
Abby watched the way his mouth tilted. “It’s for my niece Jenny. She’s ten this Christmas and into everything angels.”
“A child after my own heart. I love angels.”
“Then I’ll have to introduce you to her sometime.” He leaned against the counter, his gaze catching and holding hers.
His blue eyes defined arresting. Nicely spaced, with thick lashes, a myriad of emotions reflected in their depths. Good will and humor and maybe even teasing. Seconds later the teasing transformed into another meaning she couldn’t mistaken.
Have mercy, his eyes are smoldering! If he looks at me that way much longer, I’ll become a pool of mush on the floor.
He scrutinized Abby until heat washed into her throat and up to her face. She couldn’t help but stare back.
Hell, he wasn’t just tall. He wasn’t just handsome. He was every cliché she’d ever heard.
Drop dead gorgeous.
To die for.
She almost made herself sick with the adages. And he baked Christmas cookies? Something she couldn’t do. How thoroughly, sickeningly, perfect could a man get?
Wait a minute. Cobalt blue eyes. No wonder he looked familiar.
“Something wrong?” he asked, his voice serious.
Abby jerked from her stunned silence. “I know you.”
His gaze performed another lingering assessment. Purely masculine appreciation carried into his face, crinkling the corners of his eyes as he grinned.
“Pixie?” he asked.