Under The Mistletoe
Holding on to her hat, Mia ran along the streets on her killer four-inch red heels, her matching red skirt ruffling in the breeze. Late. She was late.
It was the story of her life.
“Hey, Mrs. Claus!” a construction worker yelled. “I need some holiday spirit! Come on, mama, bring it over here!”
This was accompanied by the hoots and hollers of the guy’s coworkers.
Mia flipped them off and kept running in tune to their raucous laughter. She might not be New York born or bred, but she’d learned to fit in just fine.
“Wow, are you real?” a little kid asked in marvel a block later, taking in her costume. “Is Santa real?”
“Yes!” she told him, and kept running.
Except if there’d really been a Santa Claus, she’d have happily crawled onto his lap and whispered her greatest wish—to be picked. For her softball team, for her internship, for a relationship, it didn’t matter. Getting picked meant everything to her, but somehow, she always ended up doing the picking.
Finally, she skidded into the restaurant and stopped to catch her breath, smoothing down her Mrs. Claus outfit. She had a change of clothes in her bag; she just needed to get to the ladies’ room. Whirling to do just that, she plowed right into a warm, hard body.
Her first reaction was embarrassment at her costume. Granted, she’d just made two hundred bucks serving drinks at a corporate Christmas party, but she’d hoped to get into her cute little black dress before Nick caught sight of her.
And then there was her second reaction, which was wow, because he looked heart-stoppingly great tonight.
“You’re thinking so hard your hair’s smoking,” he said, his voice low and sexy. Teasing.
Mia reached out to touch her hair, but Nick caught her hand in his and smiled. “Like the look,” he said. “Is it for me?”
“No!” But she smiled back at him because it was impossible not to react to Nick. “I have my date night LBD in my bag. That’s for you.”
He took her hands and spread them out at her sides, studying the skimpy Mrs. Claus costume. “Mmm, I’m happy to settle for this.” His sun-kissed hair was the same color as the aged whiskey in the bottle on the bar behind him, and matched his eyes as well. He’d come right from work. His tie was loosened, his shirt sleeves shoved up past his deliciously corded forearms. His yummy build came from daily runs and long summers working as a manual laborer for tuition money.
But it wasn’t his looks that stopped Mia’s heart.
“Love that smile,” he murmured.
That. It was that way he had of making her feel like the prettiest woman in the world. She had it bad for him, and knew it.
The hostess seated them before she could change. Each table held a flickering candle and a sprig of mistletoe. Nick picked the mistletoe up, held it over Mia’s head, and then leaned in for a kiss. He squeezed her hand, his callused thumb slowly gliding over her palm. She’d never considered her palm a particularly sensual spot before, but his touch altered her breathing and made her shiver.
Or maybe that was just him.
His eyes darkened as he pulled back. “Hmm,” he said, his voice like sex on a stick. “I definitely want to know what you’re thinking now.”
“It’s you,” she blurted out. “You have the most amazing eyes.”
He brought her hand up to his mouth and nipped the pad of her thumb. “And just think, my eyes aren’t even my best part.”
She laughed. “And as I’ve seen all your parts, I’m in a position of authority to verify this as fact.”
“Maybe you should re-verify later. Just to make sure,” he said, flashing her a panty-melting grin.
Mia knew she could get lost in him. Had gotten lost in him. But she didn’t want to get distracted by his sexiness, not tonight. She’d come here with a plan. She was giving him his Christmas present early, which was a flight to her aunt Chloe’s Christmas Eve wedding. It would mean flying across the country on a whim and meeting the people who meant the most to her.
Nick was good with whims, and she was excited at the prospect of spending the holiday with him. But she held back, waiting, because this was a beautiful, expensive restaurant that they’d talked about but had never been to. It was intimate, and exquisitely decorated for the holidays, and she hoped that maybe Nick had a surprise of his own up his sleeve.
They’d been dating for six months, through her graduating NYU with a BA in psychology and Nick working his very fine butt off studying and passing the bar exam. Mia had gotten into graduate school and was currently halfway through her first year, and Nick was working around the clock to make a name for himself and reduce his monumental college debt—which was currently rivaling the size of the national deficit. So his restaurant choice had to mean something.
Was tonight the night he’d finally use the L-word?
Her heart picked up at the thought because that would be a most excellent Christmas present. But whatever his plans, Nick seemed in no hurry. He ordered appetizers, teased her about what she might have on beneath the Mrs. Claus outfit, and coaxed the details of her day out of her.
They ordered wine, and he touched his glass to hers, his eyes warm. “To a night like last night…,” he said silkily.
Last night had involved the secluded, deserted—and thankfully enclosed—rooftop patio of his five-story walk-up, where he’d loosened her inhibitions with slow, steady hands and an incredibly talented mouth, until she’d begged him to take her.
He’d acquiesced, twice. Just the memory made her go damp. “It’s supposed to rain tonight,” she said, her voice all Marilyn Monroe whispery, giving her away.
His smile was as slow and steady as his hands, and bad-boy wicked. He didn’t care about the rain.
“You’re wearing your new clothes,” she pointed out. “You’ll ruin them.”
He shrugged. After a lifetime of not having money, he never seemed to put much importance into possessions. In fact, he’d applied to work at a nonprofit law office providing restorative justice across the country. He wanted to try to save the kids who’d made some bad choices and needed help. If he got the job, he’d be traveling far and wide, and she’d lose him. She’d known this.
She’d fallen for him anyway.
The question was still the same—had he fallen as well? They’d both been given up at birth, but Mia had been adopted by a wonderful couple who’d become mom and dad to her. Nick hadn’t been as lucky, and didn’t feel the same need for ties that she did. He was a lone wolf.
She, on the other hand, had been born to be part of a pack.
Nick leaned in close and kissed her just beneath her ear. “Have you ever had sex in the rain, Mia?”
Her breath caught, and there was a lot more tingling in places that had no business tingling in a restaurant. “Is sex all you think about?”
“No. But I think about it a lot. With you.” He flicked her earlobe with his tongue, and somehow all the bones in her body liquefied.
“Are guys really that much of a slave to their libido?” she managed.
“It’s the testosterone. A guy’d follow his girl all the way to Siberia if he thought it might get him laid. Barefoot. Uphill in the snow, both ways.”
She laughed, and he smiled. “Love the sound of your laugh,” he said. “You don’t do it enough.”
She’d been a serious kid, and not just because she was adopted. She loved her family, both her adoptive parents and her birth parents. She was lucky enough to have them all in her life. But there was no denying that in spite of her luck and the wealth of love she’d been showered with, she was…well, serious.
And still looking for her place to belong.
She thought—hoped—that her place to belong was with Nick, and it filled her with a giddiness that was hard to contain. Hefilled her with giddiness.
Dinner came and was delicious, and still Nick didn’t seem inclined to get to the point of the expensive restaurant. When the check arrived, he scooped it before she could. He always did that, even though he was drowning in college debt and, thanks to her four parents, she was not.
Outside, there were no cabs to be had. There was only a light mist in the air so they started walking. The construction crew was gone. Not that it mattered. No one would have bothered her with Nick at her side. He held himself in a way that spoke of a tough, easy confidence. He never went looking for trouble, but there was an edge to him that said if he happened to come across some, he wasn’t opposed to kicking its ass.
And growing up as he had, she had no doubt he could do so with little to no effort.
They made it to her tiny place, enjoying the crazy, over-the-top lights and Christmas decorations of the city. At her door, Nick playfully pushed her up against it. “You’re all wet, Mia…”
She took a moment to enjoy the feel of his hard body holding her pinned, then tipped her head to his. The flight confirmation was burning a hole in her purse. “Nick? Before we go in…”
He bent and kissed her cheek, her jaw, her throat, his hands slipping inside her coat. “I’m as adventurous as the next guy,” he murmured hotly against her skin, making her shiver because she knew exactly what his hands and mouth could do. “But out here in the hall?”
She went still and then smacked him on the chest. “That’s not what I was going to say.”
He laughed and straightened, leaving his hands on her hips. “No?” His eyes were gleaming with mischief and a sexual promise that made her rethink turning him down for anything.
“No,” she repeated, her heart speeding up a little. “Nick—”
He kissed her again, full of intent and purpose, and only when her bones had melted did he pull slowly back. “Sorry,” he said. “You’re just so damn sweet.”
“You can gobble me up inside,” she promised. “But I sort of have a Christmas present for you.”
He dropped his hands from her. “You said no Christmas presents, that we’d go away together for a weekend next month when we both have off, and that would be our gift to each other.”
“Okay, so it’s not a Christmas present,” she said. “Call it a present present. Do you remember months ago when I told you I was going home for Christmas for my aunt Chloe’s wedding?” She hesitated. “Well…I bought two plane tickets, not just one.” She pulled his confirmation from her purse and handed it to him.
Mia’s aunt Chloe and her fiancé, Sawyer Thompson, had been together for five years now. Being committed but not tethered had suited both of their wild souls, but recently Chloe had caught baby fever from her sister Maddie, who’d just had her second child.
Nick stared down at the paper Mia had handed him. “The wedding in Lucky Harbor?” he asked. “In Washington State?”
“Yes,” Mia said. She’d spent her first summer there five years ago at age seventeen, where she’d found and met her birth parents. She’d discovered her first crush there, too, her first love.
She and Carlos had done their best, but they’d been so young. Too young. Their teenage romance hadn’t survived, but she’d still gone to Lucky Harbor as often as she could over the past five years. “I realize it’s all the way across the country,” she said. “And also that it’s short notice, but I’ve been wanting to ask you for a while now. I just didn’t want you to feel obligated.”
He wasn’t looking like he felt obligated. He was looking like she’d clobbered him over the head with her purse, and some of her happiness faded.
“You want me to meet your birth parents?” he asked slowly.
“No,” she said slowly. “Well, yes. But mostly I just want to spend the holiday with you.” She knew the holidays had never been kind to him, and she wanted to show him how magical it could be. “This’ll be our first Christmas. It’ll be fun.” She smiled.
He didn’t. “Mia, I can’t.”
She took in his blank expression and got suddenly cold. “Can’t?” she murmured, not understanding.
“Okay, won’t,” he corrected, voice soft but his meaning brutally clear.
Shocked, she stepped back, coming up against her front door.
Nick reached for her, but she lifted a hand, holding him off. “You know it’s just a trip, right?” she asked as lightly as she could. “It’s not a request for a diamond or anything like that.” She’d never make thatrequest of him. Maybe she’d secretly hoped that someday he’d make that request, but she certainly wouldn’t.
“I can’t,” he repeated.
No warm smile, no explanation to soften the blow, nothing. She actually looked down at herself. Was she bleeding? It felt like she was bleeding. But she wasn’t. She was in perfect working order as Mrs. Claus. Feeling stupid, she lifted her chin. “Okay,” she said quietly, even as her heart seized. “Never mind.” A little numb, which was a good thing at the moment since she didn’t want to fall apart, yet, she unlocked her door and stepped inside. Don’t look back, don’t look back—
She totally looked back.
Tension radiated from Nick, but he wasn’t giving anything away. A moment ago, he’d been touching her as if he needed her more than air, and now he was a complete stranger.
She quietly shut and locked the door, then leaned back against it.
He hadn’t picked her.