One Snowy Night
Christmas Eve had the nerve to show up just like it did every year: way too quickly and with ridiculous fanfare.
Rory Andrews stood in the courtyard of the Pacific Pier Building in San Francisco, surrounded by sparkly holiday lights and enough garlands to give the place its own ozone, and told herself things could be worse.
She just wasn’t sure how.
It was the unknown, she decided. Because this year, unlike the past six, she’d be spending Christmas with her family, a thought that caused a swarm of butterflies to take flight in her belly.
Not an uncommon feeling since she’d turned twenty-three a few months back and decided it was time to become a person she could be proud of if it killed her. And given the guy leaning against one of the lamp poles clearly waiting for her, arms crossed, frown in place, it just might.
Max Stranton. At his side sat Carl, his huge, eternally hungry, adorable Doberman.
“No,” she said, not to Carl but to Carl’s owner. Who was not lovable. “No way.”
As always when their gazes locked, Max’s was a disconcerting mix of heat and . . . something else that she couldn’t quite figure out, as he was good at hiding when he wanted to be. She never quite knew how to take the heat because it seemed reluctant. He was attracted to her but didn’t want to be.
Ditto. He made her knees wobble. And also a couple of other inner reactions that shouldn’t be happening in public.
“Merry Christmas to you too, Rory,” he said, and damn. It wasn’t just his eyes. His voice was rough and sexy, and for that matter, so was the rest of him.
He worked for an investigations and security firm in the building. Basically he and the rest of his team were fixers and finders for hire. To say that Max was good at his job was an understatement. He stood there looking like sex on a stick with a duffle bag slung over a broad shoulder, his dark hair two weeks past needing a cut, and the icy wind of an incoming storm plastering his clothes to a body that could be registered as a lethal weapon.
“What are you doing here?” she asked calmly even if her heart was anything but, pounding all the way up to her throat and ears because she knew. She knew exactly why he was here. “I don’t need a ride home.”
A flash of wry humor slid in with all that sizzling heat. “Because you’d rather take two buses and a train than get into my truck with me?” he asked.
Well yes, actually.
Living and working in San Francisco was a dream come true for her. She’d turned her life around in the past few years but she still had some deep regrets, one of them being how she’d run away at age seventeen. This was something her wonderful but nosy boss Willa had talked her into facing once and for all, so she’d called home. She’d promised her stepdad she’d come for Christmas to surprise her mom and three half sisters. He’d expressed surprise and then doubt, both with good reason.
Rory had made promises to come home before, and . . . hadn’t. Every time she’d flaked. It’d been fear and anxiety, but she was ready to face all that now and she’d told him so. She’d even offered to pick up the gift he’d ordered for her mom from the city and get it home before dawn on Christmas morning.
If she managed to do so, all would be forgiven.
Not that he’d said so in those words, but she felt the pressure all the same. She wanted to do this; she was ready to do this.
“It’s Christmas Eve,” Max said now, keys in hand. “I just finished a job. I’m leaving to spend a few days with my family. I’m going right past your mom’s house.”
Which was in Tahoe, where Max had also been raised—four hours north in good weather, which wasn’t going to be tonight. Her stomach jangled. Fate or Karma or whatever was in charge of such things was a cruel master, having her first crush of all people, the one guy on the entire planet who made her feel like that young, neglected, bullied, unwanted teen all over again, be the only smart ride home tonight.
Max’s body language said he was relaxed and laid-back as he watched her think too much, but she knew better. He spent most of his days rooting out the asshats of San Francisco. He was a chameleon when he wanted to be, a sharp one. Nothing got by him.
Well, except one thing, of course—he had no idea that once upon a time for her the sun had risen and set on his smile. She’d flown under the radar in high school. Hell, she’d flown under the radar in life, and she’d been really good at it. Plus Max had never had a shortage of girls who were interested in him so he’d had no reason to look past any of the ones throwing themselves at his feet in order to see her.
But that was then. In the here and now, things felt . . . different. Whether either of them wanted to admit it or not, they’d taken notice of each other, and even more unbelievably, she often caught him watching her with what felt like heat and desire.
Not that he’d ever made a move.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
The ten-million-dollar question. “As I’ll ever be,” she said.
“I don’t get it.” His tone was age-old male bafflement with a dash of annoyance. His eyes were a very dark shade of green. They looked almost black now in the night. “I had to find out from Willa that you needed a ride. You could’ve asked me yourself. You should have asked me, Rory.”
Right. Because they talked so much. But before she could say that, or even pet Carl, her favorite dog on the planet, a woman ran out of the convenience store on the corner, breathless and adorable in a red apron and Santa hat.
“Just wanted to tell you something,” she said to Max and flung herself into his arms.
He had little choice but to catch her, and she laughed and kissed him, taking her time about it too.
While they were lip-locked, Carl gave one deep bark and the woman finally pulled back, grinning wide as she said to both man and his dog, “Merry Christmas! See you next year!”
And then she vanished back into the store where she worked, which Rory knew because she often bought ice cream there after a long day at work.
Max shook his head but was looking amused. Rory searched his gaze, looking to see if Santa’s Helper caused that same breathless heat she’d gotten used to seeing when he looked at her.
It wasn’t there.
She took a deep breath at that, not wanting to acknowledge it as relief. She shouldn’t care that he hadn’t felt an overwhelming hunger for that girl.
“Let’s do this,” he said.
“This” of course being the unwelcome chore of giving her a ride. “Look, I’m not sure this is a good idea.” Because honestly? Two buses and a train would be a piece of cake in comparison, never mind that she didn’t have the money for that.
“Rory,” he said, a hint of impatience in his tone.
Once again she looked into his eyes, and at what she saw, her heart stopped on a dime.
The heat was back. For her.
“This isn’t exactly my idea of fun either,” he said. “Trust me.”
Ha. She wasn’t exactly on the trust program with any man but especially not this one. Not that she was about to tell him that.
Max’s attention was suddenly drawn to the alley and the man standing in it. Old Man Eddie was a fixture of the Pacific Pier Building every bit as much as the fountain in the center of the courtyard. Everyone who worked here did their best to take care of him, including Rory.
“Hold on a sec,” Max said and moved toward Eddie, who was wearing a sweatshirt with a peace sign and Hawaiian-print board shorts, his medical marijuana card laminated and hanging from a lanyard around his neck.
“Merry Christmas, man,” Rory heard Max say and then he slipped the old man something that she suspected was cash.
And damn if her heart didn’t execute a slow roll in her chest, softening for him, which didn’t exactly make her night.
Old Man Eddie pocketed the money and grinned at Max, and then they did one of those male hugs that involved back slapping and some complicated handshake.
Ignoring them, Rory reached into her bag and pulled out some red ribbon. A big part of her job at South Bark Mutt Shop was grooming. Carl had been her first client earlier that morning and afterward, she’d woven a piece of the festive ribbon around his collar, which he’d seemed to love, but there was no ribbon in sight now. Crouching in front of him, she replaced it, looping it in a jaunty bow at the side of his neck. “There,” she said. “Better, right? The girls’ll be falling all over themselves to get you.”
Carl gave her a big, slurpy lick along her chin. Then he nosed her bag, sniffing out the fact that she had goodies in there. “Later,” she promised.
“No,” Max said, coming back to them. “Hell no. Take that thing off, you’re going to kill his image.”
Rory rose to her full height, which still wasn’t even close to Max’s. She barely made it up to his shoulder and, dammit, she wished she was in heels. “A ribbon doesn’t emasculate him, and even if it did, there’s nothing wrong with that.”
“Of course there’s not,” he said. “But female or male, he’s a working dog and in our business he—or she—has to be tough and badass. A bow doesn’t exactly say ‘stop and drop or I’ll make you stop and drop.’”
Okay, so maybe he had a point there. “It’s Christmas Eve,” she said. “I think he can take the night off of being tough and badass, can’t he?”
Max blew out a sigh that spoke volumes on what he thought of the matter—and her—and headed for the wrought iron gate to the street, stopping to hold it open for her.
As she passed through, their bodies brushed together, his hard as stone and yet somehow also deliciously warm, and hers . . . softened. There was no other word for it.
At the contact, he sucked in a breath and jerked her gaze to his. And then she was sucking in a breath too, frozen in place, held there by the shocking chemistry that always seemed to sizzle between them, just under the surface.
She had no idea what to do with that, but damn . . .
Max muttered something to himself about bad timing and idiocy before leading her to his truck, parked at the curb.
Which brought up the question—just how badly did she want to get home? Bad, she could admit. She needed to make amends. She needed forgiveness for being such a horrible, unhappy, terrible teenager, even if it meant swallowing her pride and taking the ride from Max.
She got into the truck in tune to a growing wind and a clap of thunder in the far distance. Max settled Carl in the backseat and then leaned in to buckle him in, giving the big dog an ’ol kiss on the snout as he did. The unexpected action was such a sweet, gentle thing to do, and such a dichotomy from his usual stoic badassery that Rory found herself smiling.
Max caught her expression as he slid in behind the wheel. “What?” he asked.
“What what?” she asked.
“Is there a law against that?”
He put his truck in gear and pulled out into the street. “No, but you don’t usually aim it at me.”
“You’ve got that backward, don’t you?” she asked, deciding not to mention that she’d been aiming the smile at Carl.
Max slid her a look that sizzled her nerve endings and then redirected his attention to the streets. San Francisco was looking pretty gorgeous in her Christmaswear, a myriad of lights decorating the buildings, light poles wrapped in garlands. As they made their way through the busy district and got on the freeway, it began to rain. Hard.
The sound of the rain pinging off the truck was loud, echoing in the interior. Max didn’t speak and she blew out a breath. It was going to be a long ride home. Home. Just the word brought more than a few nerves. And nerves made her babble. “So what’s your problem with me?”
Nothing from Max but a slight tightening of his scruffy jaw.
“Can’t decide on one thing?” she asked.
“I don’t have a problem.”
Okaaaay. She searched for something to else say, anything at all to draw him out because the silence was going to drive her batty. “Heard you guys had to jump off the roof of a building to catch some bad guys for the good guys yesterday.”
He smiled at the memory as if it’d been fun. “Can’t talk about work,” he said.
Right. “So who’s the chick who tried to swallow your tongue?”
He choked out a laugh but didn’t speak, which just plain old pissed her off. She knew damn well he could talk; she’d seen him do it plenty. But he absolutely wasn’t interested in conversation with her. Fine. Point served, silence it was. She went with it for all of three minutes, but in the end she couldn’t do it. Turning in her seat, she studied her driver.
Tall, hard, and lean, he’d definitely changed since they’d gone to high school together. She’d left home immediately after her junior year. She’d eventually gotten a job and taken her GED but she hadn’t kept up with anyone from Tahoe. Mostly because she’d had such a crap time growing up. She’d needed to get away with a clean slate, badly, and frankly there’d been no one she’d wanted to stay in touch with.
Except maybe . . . secretly . . . Max himself, a fact she’d take to her grave, thank you very much. They’d had a science class together, that was it; nothing memorable for him, she was certain. But he’d been kind to her, twice taking her on as a lab partner when no one else had wanted the shy, bad-at-science wallflower, and she’d never been able to forget it. Or him. “So what college did you end up at?” she asked.
Surprisingly enough, this got her a reaction. He looked at her across the dark console, rain and wind and city lights slashing as harshly across his features as his voice sounded when he asked, “Are you kidding me?”