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Jack shook his head. “I don’t need some archaic tradition to tell me when to kiss my girl.”Nina bit back the disappointment that shafted through her chest. She’d actually wanted him to kiss her…was all giddy about his calling her his girl. What was wrong with her?
“Really?” Mark scoffed. “What do you need, because I haven’t seen you two kiss—at least not a real kiss—since you arrived.”
Jack’s muscles tensed beneath Nina’s hand. “Just because you and Suzette are all over one another like monkeys, doesn’t mean we have to be. Now, if you’ll excuse us.” Jack danced her away from the other couple.
“That was a close one.” Nina’s attempt at keeping her tone casual failed. “You almost had to kiss me.”
He smiled down at her, his gaze roaming slowly over her face and stopping on her lips. “Yeah, wouldn’t that be a shame.”
“Yeah,” she repeated. She tried to slow her racing heart. He might be playing a game, but it was becoming all too real to her. “You never told me what Suzette said to you earlier. When you came in, you looked ready to explode.”
He ground out a dry laugh. “She made me an offer.”
Nina looked into his face. “Offer?”
“She said there was no reason marriage to my brother should prevent us from…continuing where we left off. She explained that she was only with him because I refused to marry her. Of course, I emphatically declined.”
Nina let out a low whistle. “That woman is a piece of work. Are you going to tell your brother?”
Jack shook his head. “I doubt he’d accept my version. Deep down, he knows how Suzette is, but he’s planning to marry her anyway. He’ll figure it out when he’s ready.” His eyes searched hers. “Listen, I’ve had all the wedding festivities I can take for one evening, want to get out of here?”
She lifted her brows. “And go where?”
“You’ll see.” He took her hand, a gesture she was afraid she was coming to like way too much, and led her out to the garage and to a black Lamborghini.
“Is this yours?”
“It’s Dad’s, but I use it when I’m visiting.”
“Nice ride.” Her fingertips skimmed along the hood of the sleek car.
In less than fifteen minutes, they pulled into a mall parking lot that held several vehicles, but not as many as she would expect on Christmas Eve, with last minute shoppers. “The mall is open tonight?”
“Not the shops. Come on. I want to show you something.”
They went inside, past darkened stores with their door-gates pulled down.
When they reached the center of the mall, she looked up and gasped.
Snowflakes fell from the ceiling—fake ones, but they looked so real. Next to a huge tree was a mechanical Santa with a child on his lap and presents and elves at his feet. People milled about, and children rode on a Christmas train that wound through the magical scene.
“This is amazing.” Memories flooded back of snow-filled Christmases of her childhood.
“Well, you wanted snow on Christmas.” He sounded pleased with himself.
“How did you know?”
He cocked an eyebrow. “Seriously? Did you not hear yourself grumbling about it during the entire trip?”
She chuckled. “I wasn’t exactly a good sport, was I?”
His expression turned serious. “I don’t blame you. I shouldn’t have expected you to abandon your family at Christmas.”
Her brows drew together in puzzlement. “Why did you? Why me? Out of all the women in the company?” She’d asked him the same question when he’d presented her with the offer. He hadn’t given her an answer. She wanted one now.
He shrugged. “You’re single, attractive. A suitable choice.”
“Oh.” She couldn’t keep the disappointment out of her voice.
Silence stretched between them, then his shoulders dropped. “No, you deserve the truth.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and studied her with narrowed eyes. “I’ve been attracted to you for months. I really did need someone to accompany me so my family wouldn’t think I was reeling from Suzette’s betrayal, but I didn’t want to bring anyone other than you. If you’d said no, I would have come alone.”
She blinked at him in shock. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t drag air into her lungs if someone offered her a million dollars. “Oh,” she said again, this time in barely a whisper.
He tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, cupped her face in his hands and tilted his head forward. Her eyes drifted closed, the room spun, and a buzzing sounded in her ears…
Damn. The buzzing was her cell. Her mother said she’d phone tonight. Nina couldn’t ignore the call. “Excuse me,” she choked out.
She reluctantly stepped away from Jack and pulled her cell from her purse. “Hi, Mom, how are you?”
A snuffle came over the line. “I’m sad, honey. I can’t believe you won’t be here Christmas morning.”
Nina’s heart ached. She shot a glance at Jack and moved away a few more steps. “I’m so sorry, Momma. I hate that I can’t make it.” She sniffed back tears. “But we get to spend a whole week together, right? I know how much my being there tonight means to you, but try to think about the fun we’ll have afterward. You’ll get through Christmas morning just fine.”
Her mother choked out a sob. “I will, sweetheart. I’ll be fine. Miss you. See you soon.”
“Miss you too.” Nina’s throat clogged with sadness of her own. “Love you.”
Nina swallowed a lump in her throat as she replaced the phone in her purse. She turned to head back to Jack, and found him standing directly behind her, arms crossed over his chest.
“What’s going on?”
“Nothing. That was my mother.”
“Why does it mean so much for you to be there on Christmas morning?”
Nina shrugged. She had no intention of baring her soul to Jack the Jerk. It was a good thing her mother’s call had interrupted their little moment. He was the reason her mother would wake up alone on Christmas morning, for the first time in her life since she’d married Nina’s father.
“It doesn’t matter.” She released a heavy sigh. “Can we just go back now? This was nice of you, but your family will probably be wondering where we’ve gone.”
She started to walk away, but Jack gripped her arm, halting her progress. “We’re not going anywhere until you tell me why I see pain in your lovely brown eyes. You’re not exactly a pro at hiding your emotions.”
Lovely brown eyes… Damn him and his charming ways. Ignoring the thrill his compliment gave her, she compressed her lips, debated whether withholding the information was worth the fight, and decided it wasn’t. With a weary exhalation, she sank onto a garland-draped bench. Jack settled beside her.
Without looking at him, attempting to keep her voice steady, she opened her heart. “My father and brother were killed on Christmas Eve in a car accident when I was seven. Afterward, Mom and I only had each other.” She took a deep shuddering breath and wiped her eyes. “Waking up on Christmas morning in the same house was important…special. When I moved away, she said Christmas was going to be the most difficult time of the year, not having me there when she wakes up.” Tears made her voice hoarse, and she cleared her throat. “I promised her no matter how far away I might go, I would always be back to stay with her on Christmas Eve.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this before?” Jack spoke so softly, she barely heard him
“Like I’m going to tell my boss my mommy wants me home on Christmas morning?” She grunted a laugh. “It wouldn’t have made a difference anyway.”
He clenched his jaw. “You’re right. It wouldn’t have. I was so self-absorbed about my problems, I wouldn’t have cared about yours. Then.”
She lifted her eyes to his. “Then?”
“Yeah, but now things are different. I’ve been an ass, and you should be with your mom on Christmas.”
She thumbed tears from her eyes. “It’s too late.”
“No, it’s not.” He stood. “Come on. I’ll send you on my plane. You’ll be there tonight and can still wake up at home on Christmas morning.”
Check back tomorrow for Chapter Four, the final chapter of Christmas Sham...