Brenna’s jaw sagged. “You have a daughter?”
Kent nodded and held out his arms. The tiny child in a long, white nightgown, who couldn’t be much older than three or four, climbed onto his lap and leaned back against his chest.
“Kayla, this is an old friend of mine, Brenna.”
An unblinking blue gaze regarded her steadily before fixing on Rebel. “He’s big.” A frown wrinkled her brow. “Who unwrapped all the presents?”
Guilt ate at her in the face of the child’s confusion. “I’m afraid my dog did.”
Alarm reflected in those blue eyes, the same shade as her father’s. “Did Santa come yet?”
“No, those were the gifts already under the tree from your grandparents and aunts,” Kent was quick to reassure her. “You’d better go back to bed. Santa won’t be able to visit until you’re asleep.”
She took a tight grip on his T-shirt. “Can you take me upstairs? I heard funny noises.”
“Of course.” Rising from his chair with the child clasped in his arms, he glanced over at Brenna. “Be right back.”
She nodded then stared at his retreating back. Kent McCord has a daughter? How had the media not glommed onto that newsworthy fact? When the minutes ticked by without his return, she pushed up off the couch and headed toward the rolls of wrapping paper leaning against the wall behind the tree. Might as well be productive while I wait. She’d rewrapped three gifts before footsteps sounded on the stairs.
“Sorry that took so long.” Kent crossed the room and joined her on the floor. “I wanted to make sure Kayla was asleep before I came back down.” Sitting opposite her and Rebel, he grabbed a roll of paper and the scissors. “Thank God I hadn’t pulled the packages stashed in the closet out yet.”
She stuck a bow on top of a freshly wrapped box and glanced up. “The ones from Santa?”
“Exactly.” He cut and taped with deft movements. Big hands moved with the same skill he used to strum his guitar in front of thousands of screaming fans. “Now you know why I’ve been so secretive about living here. This is my safe place when I have my daughter with me.”
“How have you managed to keep her a secret? The feat boggles my mind.”
“Her mother and I weren’t together long. A brief affair resulted in the most beautiful gift I could imagine.” His blue eyes held a deep reverence. “Lynnette is married now and lives in the Midwest. No one except family knows Kayla is mine. We share custody, and when I have her, I spend my time here in Maine. When I’m on tour, she lives with her mother.”
“Wow. Now I really can’t believe you let me inside.”
“An impulsive decision based on seeing a familiar face from before my days in the limelight.” His hands stilled over the bag of bows. “It’s hard spending Christmas alone when I’d prefer to let Kayla enjoy a big family gathering.”
Brenna reached for another box. “Why can’t you?”
“If I showed up at my parents’ home with a child in tow, the press would be all over it. The McCords aren’t exactly low profile.”
“True. I’d forgotten your dad was in the music business long before you were.”
“Normal didn’t exist for me and my sisters while we were growing up.”
She ripped off a piece of tape. “Is that why you remember your summer in Fish Lake so fondly?”
Kent smiled. “Probably. No one here cared that I was Sonny McCord’s kid.” He let out a sigh. “I won’t be able to keep Kayla out of the media fray forever, but for now I’m going to try. At least until she’s better able to understand it.”
“You don’t have to worry about me. I’ll keep your secret.”
“Thank you for that.” He finished wrapping the last present and slid it under the tree then glanced over at Rebel, sacked out in a pile of paper. “Is it safe to bring out the gifts hidden in the closet?”
Brenna pushed to her feet. “As long as there aren’t any more bones.”
He grinned. “We should be okay, then.”
“I’ll help you clean up this mess then take my destructive baby home so you can get some rest.”
He rose in one smooth movement and laid a hand on her arm. “I won’t sleep. It’s almost morning.”
Her breath caught as warm fingers touched the inside of her wrist. “Is it?”
He pulled her toward the tall casement windows overlooking the front yard where twinkling Christmas lights reflected off the fresh snow. Overhead, the clouds had parted, and a hint of pink tinged the sky to the east.
“The snow stopped.” His deep, sexy voice that mesmerized millions of adoring fans caressed her ear.
She nodded. “Looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day.” Her heartbeat slowed then thudded on in double-time when he slipped an arm around her shoulders and squeezed.
“Thanks for being such a good sport about keeping my secret.”
“Why wouldn’t I be? We were friends—sort of—all those years ago.”
“You were way too young for me back then, but I still enjoyed having you around.” He turned her to face him and looked into her eyes. “I hope I didn’t hurt your feelings with that stupid bet.”
“I won’t lie. I dreamed about that kiss through my entire freshman year of high school, and half the next.”
“Then what happened.”
“Another boy kissed me.”
His smile flashed. “Oh yeah? Was he better at it than me?”
Her breath caught as he touched one long curl where it rested above her breast. “I can’t remember.”
“Maybe this will help.” Pulling her against his chest, he bent and pressed his lips to hers, a gentle touch that settled into so much more.
When he finally released her, Brenna grabbed his arm to steady herself. “Why’d you do that?”
He pointed to a sprig of holly tied with a ribbon, hanging from the window frame above them. “Tradition. The Christmas spirit. I don’t know, but it felt right in the moment.”
“Mistletoe is traditional. Not holly.”
“Improvising can often lead to something better.”
She stepped back on shaking legs. “I should take Rebel and go. You’ve all those Santa gifts to arrange beneath the tree before your daughter wakes up.”
He nodded. “I suppose so. Have a merry Christmas, Brenna.”
“You, too.” After prodding her dog to his feet, she stopped and turned. “Kent, would you and Kayla like to spend Christmas day with me and my grandpa and my younger brother? It’ll just be the three of us since my parents are traveling, but maybe you wouldn’t miss having a big family holiday so much. I promise they can be discreet, like me.”
His blue eyes warmed to the color of a mid-day sky. “I’d like that.”
She smiled back. “Great.” She took another step then hesitated. “In case you were wondering…”
“You’re definitely a better kisser.”
His slow smile heated her to her toes.
“I guess that’s a start.”
Heart beating in a crazy rhythm, she drew in a breath. “I’d like to think so.”
“Count on it.”
I hope you enjoyed Something Better. Drop by tomorrow for another terrific story by the Chimney Elf. Wishing you all a very merry Christmas!
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