Teetering a little, Fritz stretched from the highest rung of the low step ladder to settle an angel atop the tree. Her gossamer wings caught the glow of the blinking lights in a kaleidoscope of color. Backing down again, he fisted his hands on his hips and smiled at Shay. “I’d say we did a terrific job.”
“The tree is beautiful.” Her voice caught. “Thanks for putting it up and nudging me into the Christmas spirit.” Folding the ladder, she set it aside then neatly stacked the empty ornament boxes.
He sat on the couch facing the tree and picked up the coffee she’d doctored with a shot of Baileys. Maybe more than one shot. He was on his second cup, and a comfortable warmth encompassed him. He wasn’t sure if the alcohol in the drink, the roaring fire or the extremely fine woman who’d been giving him speculative looks all evening was responsible. Nor did he care.
“Come sit down.” He patted the leather cushion next to him.
Shay dropped onto the couch then lifted her own mug from the end table and held it between her palms. Silvery gray eyes regarded him with interest. “So, why did you have a Santa suit in your truck?” A smile curled her lips. “Did you misplace your sleigh, or have you got a hot date with an elf?”
He choked on his coffee. “The only date I have is with you—on Christmas Eve. Or so I’ve been told.” He grinned. “Whether or not it’s hot remains to be seen. As for the suit, I was going to play Santa for the kids at the party, so I picked one up on my way here. Bridget’s idea.”
“You’re a nice guy, Fritz.” She scooted a little closer until her knee touched his leg. “I’m beginning to think your sister’s suggestion was an excellent one.”
His brows shot up. “What, you have a thing for men in red velvet?”
Her laughter rang through the room. “Not that suggestion, but the right man might be able to pull it off.” She edged even closer. Taking his mug, she set both cups back on the table. “I’ve never dated a man who wears velvet.”
The warmth inside him erupted into a blaze as she leaned into him. Not that he was complaining. He slipped an arm around her waist. When her breath caressed his cheek, his control snapped. Burying one hand in her hair, he tilted her chin with the other. Their lips met in an incendiary kiss.
Dampness touched his face. With an effort, he fought the urge to push her down on the couch and reluctantly pulled away. A tearful gaze met his.
“Are you crying?”
She wiped a hand across her eyes and sniffed. “No.”
The blatant lie would have made him smile—if he hadn’t been feeling lower than pond scum. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be.” She put a good foot of leather between. “This was all my fault.” A harsh breath slipped out. “Maybe some of it was your sister’s fault since it was her idea.”
He frowned as the fire crackled and snapped in the quiet room. “I don’t get it.”
The expression in her eyes held pure misery when she turned his way. “I caught my boyfriend—make that ex-boyfriend—in bed with another woman a few days ago.”
He stiffened. “I’m happy to beat the crap out of him for you. Just tell me where he lives.”
She gave him a watery smile. “Thanks, but he isn’t worth your skinned knuckles.”
“Uh, is this guy the Vance Bridget referred to?”
“And the payback my sister mentioned would be…”
The clock ticked then chimed ten times.
“I take it you changed your mind?”
A few more tears slid down her cheeks. “I like you too much to do that to you.”
His face heated. “Uh, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have complained. I’ve never actually been involved in payback sex, but it sounds—”
“Petty and childish? Stupid and hurtful? Not exactly what the Christmas spirit of giving is all about?”
“Maybe not precisely what I was thinking, but sure.”
She stared at the tree and scowled. “Want to know why I’m spending Christmas alone?”
“I did wonder.”
“My family planned a trip to Hawaii, Kauai to be precise.”
“Hey, that’s my old home turf.” His voice brightened. “Sand and surf instead of a blizzard.”
“Kind of ironic, don’t you think? We could have met on a beach. Instead, we ran into each other in the snow-filled woods.”
“We were fated to meet.” He smiled. “Our Christmas destiny.”
“Seems that way.” She smiled back. “Anyway, I bailed out of the trip at the last minute because I thought Vance was going to propose. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.”
He slid halfway across the empty space between them and covered her clenched fist with his hand. “I’m really sorry you were hurt.”
“So am I.” She turned her hand over and squeezed his fingers. “You know what?”
“Meeting you made me realize I deserve better. Vance always put his own needs first. No way in hell would he have done something as selfless as dressing like Santa Claus for a bunch of kids.”
“I’ll admit the idea didn’t thrill me at first…”
“But you were going to do it anyway.”
“I still will if I can get the dirty tire prints off the jacket.”
She smiled. “That’s what I’m talking about. You’re nice. I want nice.”
He slid closer and pulled her against his shoulder. Her thick auburn hair caressed his chin. They sat in silence as the clock ticked away the minutes.
“Did Bridget tell you I’m not going back to Hawaii? That I’m thinking about settling down somewhere around here? I write middle school adventure books for kids. I can pretty much do it wherever I want.”
“Why would you leave your tropical paradise if you enjoy it so much?”
He let out a breath. “I needed a complete change after my fiancée got cold feet and left me standing at the altar a couple of months ago.”
Her head jerked around as she met his gaze. “You’re kidding?”
“Nope. Maybe my sister figured a little revenge sex would be good for me, too.”
“Oh my God, we’re quite a pair.”
He tightened his arm around her. “I’d say we’re a pretty good match.” He tilted her chin to look into eyes that held far less pain than they had only minutes before. “Shay?”
“Let’s forget about payback sex, at least for now. Let’s start with a date on Christmas Eve and see where it leads.”
She nodded. “I like that idea. I like it a lot.”
“After all, the holiday season is about new beginnings.” He dropped a light kiss on her lips then smiled.Her breath caught. “No reason we can’t both start over—together.”
I hope you enjoyed my contribution to The Santa Suit Chronicles. Have a merry Christmas!