Isabel sat, curled up on the end of the couch, full of the excellent ribs and coleslaw, wondering how this evening was going to end. How she wanted it to end. She liked Joe—a lot. But spending the night with a strange man went against every common-sense instinct she possessed. Even if she was ninety-nine percent certain he was a gentleman who wouldn’t take advantage of her. Then again, she’d believed Marcus the Philandering Jerk was a good guy, too. What did that say about her ability to judge men?
Joe sat down beside her and handed her a mug of coffee. Fragrant steam rose from the cup, and she sniffed deeply before taking a sip.
“It tastes like roasted chestnuts. Christmassy.”
“Holiday flavored creamer.” He leaned back into his corner of the couch and brushed aside the cat’s tail when Tiger swished it across his face from his perch above. “Move it, dude.”
The cat jumped down from the back of the sofa and took a wide berth around Lucky, sprawled in front of the tree, before strolling into the kitchen. Loud crunching ensued.
“The snow let up.”
“It did?” Isabel turned to stare out the window, but it was too dark to see beyond her reflection in the glass. Worried eyes stared back at her. “Do you think they’ll get the freeway reopened?”
“I’m sure they’ll try. It’s Christmas Eve, and people who were hoping to reach their families will want to get back on the road.”
“Maybe I should—”
“What? Go out there to sit in traffic? You still don’t have chains on your tires. It will take a little sunshine in the morning to melt the ice off the roads, even if they do get them plowed.”
“You have a point.”
He took a sip of his coffee. “Tell me your plans for this evening.”
“Huh? Oh, you mean if I’d made it to Las Vegas?” At his nod, she frowned. “Hmm. I probably would have blown a roll of quarters at the slot machines and then maybe soaked in the hot tub for a while, if whatever motel I found that takes giant dogs even has a hot tub. After walking Lucky, I would have returned to my generic room with the TV bolted to the wall to flip through channels before settling down to read a book.”
“As exciting as that sounds . . .”
She set her mug on the coffee table and pressed a hand over her mouth to hold back a snort of laughter. “Continue.”
“I was going to say I can provide all that and more.”
He waved toward the tree. “Flashing, colored lights, just like you’d find on the Vegas Strip, plus the ambiance of holiday music playing in the background.”
From the speakers, Springsteen crooned Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.
She hummed along. “Making a list and checking it twice . . . I wonder if I’m on the naughty or nice list.”
He studied her for a moment, his brown eyes growing warmer as heat flared in them. “Definitely nice.”
Isabel squirmed a little, wondering if spending the night with a stranger was really such a bad idea. Finally, she tore her gaze away. “What about the hot tub in my scenario?”
“I have a jetted tub in the bathroom where you can lounge to your heart’s content. If you want to throw away your money, I’ll even set up a jar near the tub, and you can toss quarters at it. Whatever lands inside, I’ll double, just to keep things interesting.”
She collapsed against the decorative pillows, giggling helplessly. “That sounds so much better than what I had in mind.”
“Darn straight. Here at casa Angelo, we offer the personal touch.” He set his cup beside hers with a thump.
I bet he does. His personal touch was what she was afraid of.
His eyes darkened to an even richer brown, like decadent chocolate. Slowly he slid across the cushion until their thighs touched. “I know I said I wouldn’t make a move on you.”
“I sense a but coming on.”
He laid his big, warm palm on her knee. “You did mention this was sort of a date, and I’d be less than honest if I didn’t tell you that, right now, all I want to do is kiss you. Then I’ll back off. No pressure. I promise.”
“One kiss. Afterward . . . we’ll see.”
He moved in closer, cupping her cheek as he slid his fingers into her hair. Staring into her eyes for a moment, he lowered his head and covered her lips with his. The kiss started gently as he gave her time to think about it, even pull away if she wanted to. When she let out a tiny sigh and gripped his bicep, he deepened the contact. She opened her mouth beneath his, and clung as he kissed her so thoroughly, she thought she might dissolve into the cushion.
Finally, he pulled away, his chest rising and falling as he worked to get his breathing under control. “One kiss. A spectacular kiss, but that’s it. Just one.”
“Wow. Talk about chemistry. I’m surprised the couch didn’t ignite.” She blinked a couple of times. “It might be best if I hit the road, Joe. Or at least go see if a room opened up at the inn.”
“No need. You can trust me.”
“Maybe so, but I’m not sure I trust myself.”
Silence followed her words until the vibrating buzz of a cell phone sounded from his pocket.
He closed his eyes and swore silently. “I have to answer that.”
While Joe talked to the caller in a calming voice—something about a cat and tinsel and intestines—Isabel gripped her hands together and stared at her dog, stretched out on the floor. Lucky let out a moan and rolled to his back, sticking his paws in the air, utterly carefree. Whenever Marcus the Jerk had kissed her, her dog and whined . . . or growled.
“I have to go.”
She swung around to face Joe as he rose to his feet. “What’s wrong?”
“Cat emergency. The poor thing will probably need surgery. Why people who own cats hang tinsel on their trees is beyond me. This one ate some and now—” He broke off. “You don’t need the details. Make yourself at home. Take my bed since I won’t be using it. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Okay.” He’d reached the door before she’d pulled her thoughts together. “Thank you, Joe. I hope the kitty makes it.”
“So, do I. Bye, Isabel.”
The door shut with a thud, taking the what to do about Joe decision out of her hands. She wasn’t sure if she was thankful . . . or sorry.
* * * *
The sun was shining and the snow melting in big wet patches when Joe pulled into his driveway late the next morning. Where Isabel’s car had been parked, all that was left were a few piles of snow. A shovel leaned against the nearby shed. He blinked tiredly and let out a sigh.
He’d really liked the woman. Chances were, he’d never see her again. And that just plain sucked. Sitting there for a moment, feeling sorry for himself, he thrummed his fingers on top of the steering wheel.
Finally, he got out of his truck and tromped through the slush to the front porch. The door squeaked when he opened it, and silence greeted him. On the back of the couch, Tiger stood up and stretched before settling down again.
“Merry Christmas to me.” His voice disrupted the quiet. With a sigh, he headed to his bedroom to peel off his clothes and drop them on the floor. The bed was neatly made, not the way he’d left it. Bending, he pulled back the quilt and sniffed the pillow. It smelled faintly of something floral. Like Isabel.
That cheered him somewhat. He took a shower, soaking some of the tiredness away, and then dressed in a pair of old jeans and a flannel shirt. As he left his room, the scent of fresh coffee teased his nose. He stopped cold. Had he set the timer on the coffee pot the night before? He certainly didn’t remember doing it.
From the kitchen, a dog barked. Tiger hissed in response before streaking past Joe into the bedroom. When a soft voice scolded, the tight knot in his chest eased, and a smile curled his lips. Practically running, he crossed the main room and stopped with the bar counter between him and Isabel.
“I thought you left.”
She turned away from the stove, holding a spatula. “You were out of eggs. Luckily the little market at the gas station was open and had some. How’s the kitty who ate tinsel?”
“Recovering from surgery. I had to stay with her afterward, but she’ll be fine.”
“Excellent. Have a seat. Breakfast is almost ready.”
“I can’t believe you’re still here.”
Her blue eyes lit up with a hint of humor as she smiled at him. “I wouldn’t have driven away without telling you goodbye. I was raised to have manners.”
Stepping around the end of the counter, he took the spatula out of her hand, dropped it on the counter, and turned off the burner beneath the eggs before slowly drawing her against his chest. “I’m glad.”
“So am I.” Her tone was slightly breathless. “You know I can’t miss the bachelorette party. Right?”
“Not when you drove cross-country to be there.”
“Exactly. But after the wedding—”
“When is it?” He laid his palm against the curve of her waist, and a warm tingle shot through him.
“New Year’s Eve.”
“Do you have a date?”
“Not since I dumped Marcus the Jerk.”
His heart beat a little faster. “My staff will be back by then. Do you want one?”
She wrapped her arms around his neck. “You mean like a second date?”
“I’m counting breakfast as our second date. The wedding could be our third.”
“That’s a relief. On a third date, I wouldn’t hesitate to ask.”
He gaped at her. “Honestly, Isabel, you take my breath away. You’ve made what would have been an extremely boring Christmas very special.”
“And you’ve restored my faith in men. Last night I was wondering what to do about you, Joe. Now I know.”
“Kiss me and find out.”
* * * *
I hope you've enjoyed my contribution to our holiday stories. Return tomorrow to see what Diane Burton has in store for us! To get all my latest book related news, follow me on FACEBOOK. Happy reading!