/ Language: English / Genre:love_contemporary

Mistletoe Madness

Jennifer Labrecque

Tatiana Allen believes in giving her job as a restaurant critic her all. Heck, she's even working over the holidays! So how does she end up with Cole in her stocking?

Jennifer LaBrecque

Mistletoe Madness

© 2006

To all the romance readers who love the genre and the stories. Thank you.

Chapter 1

Merry Christmas and ho, ho, ho. And just who was the bright bunny who’d come up with the whole Secret Santa schmiel? Oh, yeah, boss’s daughter. Tatiana Allen rolled her eyes. Yep. It was brilliant. Double brilliant that now, in addition to everything else, with less than two weeks left until Christmas, she had to buy a Secret Santa gift…and for Cole Mitchell no less. Ugh. Cole, Where’s-My-Silver-Spoon, Mitchell.

Of course, truth be told, it wasn’t exactly as if her Christmas activity cup runneth over. For the second year in a row, after both retiring from the local power company in Yurgash, Indiana, her parents were taking a Christmas cruise. Late-December snow and ice in Yurgash or a float trip through the sunny Caribbean? That was a no-brainer. And after working hard all their lives, they’d informed her, they were learning to play before it was too late. In fact, her mother had been on something of a crusade for Tatiana to break what she called the curse of the legendary Rumasky work ethic. Crazy talk. Mom definitely needed a break.

Last year Tatiana had joined Grandma Rumasky for Christmas. This year Grandma and Ivan Chertoff were headed to Vegas for a Chapel of Love holiday hookup and a honeymoon parked in front of the slots. Grandma Rumasky didn’t have the best of luck with husbands-they tended to die on her-but she and Ivan were both determined to seize the day. More power to them.

And Tatiana was a big girl. At twenty-eight, there was no reason she couldn’t spend Christmas alone. In her co-op.In the city. Not a big deal.

Tatiana crumpled the piece of paper bearing her fellow food critic and archnemesis’s name and tossed it into the garbage can beneath her desk. Okay, so maybe she did have time to shop for a gift. Maybe, in fact, she had time in spades. But for Cole?As long as no one expected her to be filled with the spirit of goodwill when she shopped for him.

“Have you checked your e-mail?” Elle said, sticking her head in the door of Tatiana’s office.

When Elle, administrative assistant to their department head, made inquiries like that…Foreboding reared its ugly head. “No. Why?”

“Melvin’s had a brain fart.” Elle massaged her temple. “I swear, I think his therapist is screwing around with his Prozac dosage.”

Melvin, their esteemed department head, functioned optimally when medicated. And Elle, unlike her boss, was emotionally stable and a straight shooter without chemical enhancement. She called it the way she saw it. This must be bad.

Tatiana planted her forearms on her desk. “I’m braced. What is it?”

“Melvin has decreed, via e-mail, that in keeping with the spirit of the holiday, we’ll be celebrating the ‘Eight Days of the Season.’”

“Oh, boy. This sounds like a real winner. How’d he come up with this?”

“In order to be politically correct, he took the twelve days of Christmas, the eight days of Hanukah and the seven days of Kwanzaa. He averaged them to come up with the Eight Days of the Season. That means eight Secret Santa gifts and a biggie on the last day.”

Color her a whiner, but this holiday season was going from bad to worse. She did a quick calculation. And Melvin’s math skills sucked. It should be nine days, but she wasn’t saying squat.

“Do you know why the windows don’t open here on the twenty-seventh floor?” Tatiana jammed a thumb over her shoulder in the direction of the window. “Because we’d be too damn tempted to jump.”

It was a good thing Melvin was brilliant at his job, because the other stuff that went along with him…Eight Secret Santa gifts-for Cole. Not only did she have to endure him at work, now she had to spend her hard-earned money on him, too. “Please tell me this is Melvin’s idea of a joke.”

“Uh…no.” Elle shoved her straight blond hair behind one ear. Tall, model-thin, sophisticated, it’d be so easy to hate Elle, except she was too genuinely nice to hate. Unlike Cole Mitchell, who was easy fodder.

Connoisseur had a long-standing reputation as the premier travel/food magazine. And Tatiana had known she wanted the high-profile spot of Connoisseur restaurant critic since she’d waitressed her way through college. Traveling to foreign, exotic locales to taste, test and review eateries for discerning travelers was her dream job. She’d worked long and hard, with unwavering determination, to earn one of the two coveted positions at the magazine. And then Cole had waltzed into the same job through family connections. She might’ve managed to overlook it if they hadn’t struck sparks off one another from day one. No, Cole Mitchell was easy to dislike. And his good looks and easy charm were simply another strike against him in her book.

“That’s Melvin, spreading love and peace, eighteen people at a time,” Elle continued. She stepped closer to the desk and lowered her voice. “So who’d you get?”

“Oh, no. I’m not telling.” Elle was fun and a great source of departmental information, but she was also an inveterate gossip. And the animosity simmering between Tatiana and Cole was something the whole department had been avidly watching. There was no way Elle wouldn’t spill the beans. “You’ll slip up and I’ll be outed to Melvin. Then he’ll come up with something totally horrible because I screwed up the surprise element of his Eight Days of Secret Santa Season. No can do.”

“I would not slip up.”

Uh-huh. Just like a fat man and eight reindeer were gonna be making rounds on Christmas Eve. “Not deliberately.”

“Well, go ahead and pull up the e-mail. Read it and weep. Ta.” Elle left as suddenly as she’d appeared.

Tatiana clicked on her e-mail icon and skimmed Melvin’s missive. Eight gifts for Cole Mitchell? Maybe she could start out with a personality to go along with his ego. Unfortunately she didn’t know where to purchase a personality for Mr. Arrogant Imbecile, but she knew just what she could order for his first gift. She clicked on the search and typed in her request. An evil smile played about her mouth. She loved online shopping.

Tatiana Allen. Cole Mitchell rolled his neck, to no avail. Tatiana pain was mental, not physical. And anyway, she was a pain much farther south than his neck.

Eighteen people in the department and he got stuck playing Secret Santa to Ms. Acid-Tongued Shrew. Oh, joy. Maybe he could buy her a one-way ticket to some far and distant place. Trouble was, she went to far and distant places, but she always returned-like his recurring pain. Perversely he’d begun to anticipate matching wits and trading barbs with her on the occasions when they were both in the office.

He reconsidered. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all when her Santa gave her just what she deserved. And he got to make that decision. It would definitely be something that would leave the group laughing and her squirming. Hey, this Secret Santa could be heady stuff.

His phone extension buzzed. “Cole?” Elle’s disembodied voice came over the intercom.

“Yeah?”

“Melvin needs to see you in his office. ASAP.”

“Sure thing.” Cole pushed back from his desk and picked up his day planner.

Melvin was a bona fide nut job. One of those guys you looked at and wondered how he’d made it as far as he had with his numerous quirks. Lucky for him, he had a damn fine eye for critique and editorial. Professional schizophrenia.

Of course, quite a number of people considered Cole’s success questionable. He knew that accounted for much of Tatiana’s attitude. She only saw what he had seemingly stepped into. She had no clue what he’d walked away from. It had taken about five whole minutes for word to spread of Cole’s father’s meeting with Connoisseur’s publisher. Of course, no one other than Cole knew his father had been there to try and thwart his son’s career move. But if that’s what people wanted to believe, screw ’em. He’d quit playing the if-you’d-give-me-a-chance-you-might-like-me game when he was a kid.

Cole strolled down the hall, bypassing the cubicles. He paused outside of Melvin’s corner office. Elle, on the phone, waved Cole in.

He walked in, closing the door behind him. Great. The Evil Fairy Queen was already planted in one of the two guest chairs facing Melvin’s desk. Red unruly curls and piercing green eyes.A prominent nose reminiscent of Streisand. A generous mouth that deceptively led to thoughts of hot kisses…until one encountered her rapier tongue. More striking than pretty.

Melvin, thin, angular and prematurely balding, motioned Cole into the chair next to Tatiana. Cole slid into the seat, noticing, not for the first time, her legs. Nice legs. Very nice legs…especially for a virago. She smiled at him and he didn’t trust it for a second. She was either sick or up to something. “Not feeling well today?”

“I’m just fine.” Her smile, even though it was faux sweet, sent a jolt through him. “Thanks for asking.”

Melvin spoke up. “You’re probably wondering why I wanted to see the two of you.”

Cole slanted a sidelong glance at Tatiana. He could all but see her bite back a scathing comment. He had to admit, things were never dull with Madame Snark around.

She swallowed and said, “You wanted to tell us firsthand that the Eight Days of the Season was a practical joke?”

Melvin recoiled. “Absolutely not. It’s a wonderful opportunity for us all to grow closer.”

Oops. Someone had been adjusting Melvin’s feel-good pills again.

“I really want you and everyone else to think about what their person might want or need. As I mentioned in my e-mail, the gifts should speak to both the giver and the recipient.”

Cole couldn’t contain a grin. He planned to speak to Tatiana with his gifts, for sure.

“See, Cole’s excited about it. You’ve just got to enter into the spirit of the season, Tatiana.”

She skewered Cole with a look that suggested he nosh on something vile.

Okay, there was no holding it back. His grin gave way to a full-blown smirk. Thank you, Melvin. Score one for him.

“Now on to the matter at hand. As you both know, the magazine market is getting tighter and tighter, and it’s increasingly important for us to evaluate on an ongoing basis…”

Cole’s eyes began to glaze over. He’d heard this about a freaking million times. Melvin pulled out the same state-of-the-industry preparatory speech and meandered through it for ten minutes before actually making a point. Cole’s attention wandered to Tatiana’s legs. Shapely.Curvy, like the rest of her, with nice muscle tone in her calf.Slender, sexy ankles. Just the kind of legs a man could imagine wrapped around his waist or thrown over his shoulders.

What would Tatiana Allen be like in bed? Would she always be jockeying to be on top? He’d bet the family farm she wasn’t a quiet, gentle lover. No way. She’d moan and scream his name and sink her red nails into his shoulders, nipping and biting. Climbing into bed with her would be like going to war. And damn it if the thought didn’t leave him squirming in his chair and more than a little turned on.

What would she taste like? It’d been his experience that no two women tasted the same, whether you were lazily licking along her neck, kissing her mouth or something more intimate.

Wasabi. Tatiana would taste like wasabi. Not hot to the initial bite, but then it set your senses on fire. That’s what she’d be-exotic, spicy, hot, with an incendiary afterburn…

“So, Cole…” Hearing his name snapped him out of his sexual contemplation and back to the present, “What do you think?” Melvin asked.

A quick glance at Tatiana made up his mind. She looked disgusted and thoroughly pissed off. Anything that elicited that kind of response in her, he was all for it.

“I think it’s a great idea.” Did she actually grind her teeth? “I think you’ve got a real winner.” Yes. He was sure he just heard enamel on enamel. He laid it on thicker. “Best I’ve heard in a while.”

Melvin preened. “See, Tatiana, Cole likes it.”

If looks could kill…“That’s because Cole is an imbecile with a mouth. He doesn’t have a clue as to what he just endorsed. He was drifting along in la-la land. And besides, he wouldn’t know a good idea if it came up and bit him in the butt.”

Oh, shit. She was far more observant and sharper than Melvin. Well, except for that bit about a good idea biting him in the butt. Still, he knew the best defense was a good offense. “Just because you don’t like the idea…” What the hell was the idea? “Well, darling, you really shouldn’t sulk, because it’s not very becoming.” He tossed her a flirtatious smile. “And I’m flattered you’ve noticed my rear.”

Her look turned docile, almost sweet, and the hair on the back of his neck stood up. He’d pushed too far. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe it is a great idea and I just need to see it the same way you do. Why don’t you recap it for me but with your spin on it? You know, a different perspective.”

Damn her. Melvin jumped in, saving his proverbial butt.

“Perfect. This is just the kind of thing we want to play up. Siskel and Ebert.Hepburn and Tracy.Michael Jackson and Bubbles?”

Mother of God. What the hell was Melvin babbling about? Siskel, Hepburn and Tracy were dead. And Jackson and Bubbles?

“Melvin, be reasonable.” Tatiana adopted a conciliatory tone. “It’s the holidays. I have obligations and a full schedule. I’m sure Cole does, too.”

Melvin templed his fingers in front of his mouth. “I appreciate that and I also appreciate that this takes precedence over anything else you’re working on for Connoisseur at the moment. You and Cole will just have to figure out when you can get together and take it from there. I’m not worried because I know I have two consummate professionals in front of me.”

Well, Melvin had just neatly backed Madame Snark into a corner. Any further protest would mark her as unprofessional. Nice job, Melvin.

And what the hell had he agreed to?

Chapter 2

“About this project…” Cole said, his voice a deep rumble behind her as they left Melvin’s office.

She’d prefer to ignore him, but then she’d be labeled noncooperative, which would translate to unprofessional. It wasn’t the assignment itself she objected to as much as the methodology.

“My office,” she said without turning around. She strolled down the hall practicing deep breathing. Damage control. It was a done deal and she’d simply make the best of it. She waited until Cole trailed in behind her and then closed the door. She turned to face him.

Her already small office shrank considerably with six feet of broad-shouldered male sucking up space. It seemed patently unfair that someone so utterly loathsome should have such startling blue eyes, somewhere between blue and silver. And equally unfair that her pulse leaped every time she was around him-it had from day one.

Of course, that was part of what made him so loathsome-he traded on his dark-haired good looks and what seemed to pass for charm with some people. Sexy with no substance. But, then again, what would you expect from someone who bought their way into a job rather than got there through hard work?

She assured herself that the rapid-fire beat of her heart was a product of Melvin’s latest dictate and had nothing to do with being in closed-door proximity with Sir Superficial.

“You don’t have a clue as to what you agreed to, do you?”

“Nope.” He grinned, and she once again assured herself it was irritation that set her heart thudding against her ribs. “Guilty as charged.”

She skirted him, rounded her desk and sat in her chair. With a flick of her wrist, she invited him to sit in the guest chair. “Why waste everyone’s time? Was it too much to ask for you to actually pay attention?”

Instead of taking the seat, he followed her and propped against the rear corner of her glass-topped desk, which felt too close and too intimate with his hip and thigh inches away and a faint whiff of his aftershave scenting the air. But she’d be damned if she’d ask him to move.

“Oh, come on, Tatiana. Give me a break. You know Melvin goes into that same soliloquy every time and it takes him forever to get to the point. Besides, it was your fault I missed the point anyway.”

Oh, no. At least he could take ownership of his own ineptness. “Hardly.”

“Most assuredly. Your legs distracted me. They’re extraordinary, really. And I started thinking about-”

“Stop right there,” she interrupted him, her pulse racing like a fully stoked steam engine. “I don’t need to be privy to the vagaries of your mind. Did you catch any of what he said?”

His gaze roved the length of her legs, clearly visible through the translucent glass, and lingered on her ankles, leaving her tingling as if he’d blazed that trail with his fingers…or mouth. “Nary a word.”

Better to get this over with and him out of the confines of her office. “Douglas Creighton wants Connoisseur to have more of a Web presence.”

“Smart. Subscriptions have been flat for the last year and a half.”

“Exactly. He wants to launch a pilot Web piece January first, along the lines of a she said/he said article where we each give our take on the same restaurant. He thinks it’ll generate interest because we each have such distinctly different styles and taste.”

“Okay. I stand by my original assertion. It’s a damn good idea.”

He crossed his arms over his chest, and since she was neither blind nor dead, she did, in fact, notice he had a nice broad chest. But she wasn’t about to be distracted by Cole Mitchell’s chest.

“Except they want us there together.Same time.Same table.” Maybe he did have a brain rattling around somewhere up there, because he appeared suitably appalled. Up to this point, they’d each had separate assignments. Their contact had been limited to the odd interoffice skirmish. “Budgetary constraints. If we’re at the same table, we can sample each other’s food. Twice the bang for their buck. Plus, we’re evaluating the same wait staff at the same time.”

“And this starts when?” he said.

“Rollout is January first. They want our pieces in before Christmas so Andi and Tory have a chance to verify and proofread. The pilot features one local restaurant each week, alternating from high-end to moderate-priced so they appeal to every reader. They want four weeks’ copy in to begin, which means four restaurant visits.”

“That means we’ll have to do dinner almost every day from now until Christmas,” he said in a sick tone.

She’d delight in the fact that he looked as if he’d just tasted something bad, except she was dining from the same dish. “Yep. Of course, half an hour ago it was the best idea you’d heard in a long time.”

“I’ve got a life.”

What? And she didn’t? Well, technically it was arguable, especially according to her mother lately, but he didn’t need to know that. “News flash-so do I. Bring your girlfriend along if you want.” Wouldn’t that make for a fine dining experience? Tatiana, Cole and his ho de jour.

“I’m in between.”

Well, at least they could skip that acid-reflux-inducing three-some. “Depriving the women of New York?”

“Hiatus. What about you? Are you towing along a boyfriend?”

“There’s no one in the picture at the moment.” Uh, make that several moments that culminated into several months, but, once again, he didn’t need to know that.

His teeth flashed in a grin. “Ah, giving the unsuspecting men of New York a break, are you?”

“Except you, as of now. Let’s divvy up the list for reservations.”

“Okay. I’ll take the last two on the list. We may as well line them up so we can knock them out and get it over with.”

She’d second that. This was turning into the holiday from hell.

The next day cole laughed at MishaSiebowitz’s joke and positioned himself in Melvin’s Seasonal Circle of Love across from Tatiana. He wanted an unencumbered view of her expression when she opened her first Secret Santa gift. He’d made sure it was something “tasteful.”

Melvin had declared the break room the official gift-exchange center. The bistro tables had been pushed to the walls and he’d instructed Elle to arrange the chairs in a circle around one of the tables with the Secret Santa gifts. The break room wasn’t that big, and they were packed in as tight as the cliché sardines in a can.

A rosemary bush trimmed to resemble a tree sat in the middle of the table. Someone-most likely Elle-had strung red chilipepper lights around the table’s edge. Mambo holiday tunes played on a CD player-a campy blend and actually sort of fun. Or maybe it was just the anticipation of the she-devil’s face when she opened her elegantly wrapped gift.

Melvin clapped his hands. “Well, it looks as if we’ve had some very busy Secret Santas, so why don’t we get started? Now, remember, it’s secret, so don’t give it away when your gift is opened. We’ll start with Elle and work our way around the circle. Elle, if you’ll go and find the gift with your name on it.”

Tatiana sat next to Andi, one half of the androgynous proofreading duo of Andi and Tory, who was next to Elle. Perfect.

Everyone oohed and aahed over a set of cocktail napkins with a Santa hat topping a martini glass. Andi’s package contained Jordan almonds. Nice gifts but rather boring. Cole realized this wouldn’t be nearly as much fun if he hadn’t gotten Tatiana’s name.

He bit back a smirk when she stood and crossed to the table to find her gift. Had she deliberately worn those stiletto-heeled black boots so he couldn’t look at her legs today? If so, he hated to break it to her, but those boots paired with that short plaid skirt and black sweater…well, it was hot.

She sat back down and tore into the wrapping paper-he knew she wouldn’t be one of those that took forever and opened carefully. She peeled back the tissue, and color washed her face. Ho, ho, ho and ha, ha, ha.

“What is it?” Andi asked, peering over Tatiana’s shoulder.

“Hello? You have to show, you know,” Elle said.

Tatiana held it aloft, and Melvin’s Seasonal Circle of Love erupted into hoots and raucous laughter. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Good Food.

Elle looked at Cole questioningly and he shrugged, raising his hands, palms upward. “Don’t look at me.” He paused for effect. “But I do think it’s a brilliant gift.” Okay, he hadn’t technically denied giving it.

“If it’s brilliant, that would knock you out of the running,” Tatiana murmured and everyone laughed again.

Damn. When was the last time he’d enjoyed himself this much? Nothing like having a shrew insult you in front of your contemporaries because you’d just bested her, even if you couldn’t take credit for it.

He paid scant attention as the other presents were opened. He was too busy gloating inside. Misha elbowed him. “Your turn.”

With so few gifts still on the table, he quickly spotted his. He carried the gold gift bag embossed with silver evergreens back to his seat. He pushed aside the tissue. What the…? Laughter welled up inside him and erupted.

He pulled out a huge oversize bib, and the department laughed along with him.

“I’m sure it was someone who wished they got Tatiana’s name and was hoping I’d loan this to her,” he said.

The rest of the department opened their gifts-more of the same tasteful, boring stuff. Soon enough the group dispersed and Cole stopped by Tatiana’s office.

“I wanted to stop by and offer you the bib.” He held the gift bag in the air.

She acknowledged his salute by arching her eyebrows over her cat-green eyes. “How thoughtful, but no, thank you.”

“Just trying to be helpful. What time is dinner tonight?”

“I made reservations for seven-thirty.” She pushed the Idiot’s Guide to the edge of her desk, toward him. “Feel free to borrow it. You’ve got enough time to read a couple of chapters. Every little bit should help.” She treated him to another pretense of a smile.

“Generous, as always.”

She had the absolutely sexiest mouth on the planet. A hunger that had nothing to do with food and everything to do with her full lower lip gnawed at him. Just once.Just a taste. He didn’t need to eat an entire crème brûlée to appreciate the mastery-or lack thereof-behind it.

Cole found it amusingly paradoxical that of all the millions of women inhabiting the greater island of Manhattan and the areas immediately beyond, the viper-tongued Tatiana was the one who revved his engine. Or maybe it was simply getting to be a tendency to want what was deemed off-limits. First the job.Now the woman?

He planted his hands on her desk and leaned over the sleek expanse of glass that showcased her legs in those boots. Any other woman would have shrunk back as he blatantly invaded her space. Tatiana didn’t budge. Dammit, she brought out the absolute worst in him. He leaned closer still until her breath, warm and minty, mingled with his own. He glanced down through her glass desk. “Are you going to wear those boots?”

“Do you want me to?” Jesus, the way she’d said it left him aching. Her voice was low, husky, seductive…and he wasn’t fooled for a minute.

“Hmm. I suspect you don’t play fair.”

“And you do?” She looked pointedly at his hands braced on her desk, his blatant encroachment of her personal space.

Well, there was that. He straightened, leaving behind the tempting proximity of her full mouth and her scent. “If I say I want you to wear them, you’ll be sure to leave them at home. If I say no, you’ll be sure to wear them. Surprise me.”

Genuine amusement lit her eyes.

“Always. Close my door on the way out, would you?”

Let the battle commence.

Chapter 3

Tatiana gave the cab driver the address and pulled out her compact to check her makeup. This was work. Not a dinner date. Not an assignation. Work, plain and simple. But, really, she didn’t show up for dinner looking like a hag, regardless of whether it was work or play. And she was not “prettying up” for Cole Mitchell.

She took care of a mascara smear beneath her right eye and refreshed her lipstick even though it looked pretty good, all things considered. Long-wearing lipsticks were a woman’s best friend.

Her hair? Well it was just there. She’d hated the tight corkscrew curls and the dark red color that had plagued her during adolescence. She’d longed for a fall of straight honey-blond hair like that of Rena Pitman who’d sat ahead of her in freshman algebra. Rena’s mane had taunted her relentlessly through complex equations. The same way Rena’s pert little nose had taunted her. Rena’d pretty much embodied every physical trait opposite of Tatiana’s-which was, of course, exactly how Tatiana longed to look.

That was many moons ago, and while she knew she was no great beauty, she’d learned to embrace the traits that were hers alone and set her apart. Or, in the words of Grandma Rumasky, making the most of what God gave her, crazy hair and big nose included. She’d finally stopped being intimidated by the Rena Pitmans and Elles of the world.

She snapped the compact closed and slipped it into her purse. She was within a block and a half of the restaurant.

“Hey, let me off at this corner,” she instructed the cabbie and gathered her shopping bags. She’d walk the rest of the way. It wasn’t hip to admit, but she adored Christmas in New York-all of it. The rampant commercialism, the crowds of shoppers, Santa wannabes clogging the corners, the bell-ringers seeking donations for those less fortunate, the decorations. She simply got too caught up in her obligations sometimes and forgot to enjoy the season.

She paid the driver, pocketed her receipt and turned west toward the restaurant. She shivered into her wool coat and skirted an icy patch on the sidewalk. It was a little colder than she’d thought, but she’d warm up in a minute.

Half a block down, a big yellow school bus sat at the opposite curb loading what must’ve been at least thirty Santas milling about on the sidewalk. It struck her as an only-in-New-York moment. Where were they going, night school for St. Nicks?

She was still smiling when she spotted Cole outside the restaurant. A tremor ran through her. There was something about a man in a black winter coat, even if it was Cole Mitchell. He looked up, and for a split second an unguarded moment shimmered between them, devoid of hostility.

“Hi.” His breath hung like smoke in the cold air.

“Hello,” she said, her breath mingling with his. “Why aren’t you inside where it’s warm?”

“I didn’t want to miss you and I didn’t want you to get here and wait outside, thinking that I hadn’t arrived yet.”

No. This was wrong-and dangerous. She didn’t want to discover any underlying gallantry in Cole. He could save it for someone else. She didn’t like him. She wasn’t going to like him. End of story. “Whatever. Before we go in, I’m Tempest Altman.” Some food critics didn’t use pseudonyms when dining out, but she felt she couldn’t do her best job without anonymity. Once she’d written a less-than-flattering piece when a chef refused to take back an overcooked fish. After the piece came out, the chef remarked he’d have taken it back had he known who she was. Case in point. How could she write an honest piece if restaurants afforded her preferential treatment?

“Tempest suits you.”

“It’s my middle name.”

“Your parents must have been psychic.”

Ha. She was one of the least tempestuous people she knew, except when it came to him. “Apparently I kicked a lot when my mom was pregnant. And I was breach.”

“Why doesn’t this surprise me?” He snapped his fingers. “Maybe because you’re the most contrary woman I ever met.”

Tatiana had a mental image of vacant-minded beauties parading through his past. “From you, I’ll consider that a compliment. I’m sure your ideal woman is a twit.”

“Twit? You wound me, Tempest. Truly.” He clutched at his chest, and it was so ridiculous that had it been anyone else, she would’ve laughed at his melodrama. But he wasn’t anyone else. He was Cole, whose dad had wrangled his esteemed position at Connoisseur, the same position she’d worked her ass off for. “And for your dining pleasure tonight, I’m Mitch Coleman.” He grinned and added under his breath, “It’s easy enough for my simple mind to keep up with.”

“Well, that is a consideration. If you’re done with the theatrics, I’d like to go in before my feet turn to ice.”

He bowed mockingly from his waist and opened the door for her. “After you.”

Did he tack a “Your Highness” on there under his breath?

They were punctual, and the maître d’ promptly seated them at a table midway the room and to the right. Tatiana mentally made a note that none of the wait staff seemed harried despite all the tables being full, and the customers appeared content except for a couple across the restaurant, and that just appeared to be a personal disagreement.

So far, so good.

A few minutes later they’d gone with the sommelier’s wine recommendations for appetizers and dinner. She was glad he’d steered them to midrange choices on the list rather than pushing the higher-end vintages. Another point in the restaurant’s favor if the wine played out as he’d suggested.

She looked across the table into Cole’s silver-blue eyes, and an awkward silence fraught with awareness settled between them. She shifted her silverware a few inches over on the white linen tablecloth. It had been one thing to study the menu and spend time considering and ordering…but now what? They couldn’t exactly discuss work because their cover would be blown if anyone overheard them.

Cole shifted and his knee brushed hers beneath the table. Adrenaline rushed through her, and she made a mental note that the tables were too small and too intimate for a business affair. Affair.Poor choice of word. Make that a meal.

A slow, lazy smile, doubtless intended to disarm, curved his lips. Despite herself, she couldn’t help the instinctive flash of attraction that ricocheted through her.

“I see you wore your boots after all. Very nice choice.” The look in his eyes sent heat spiraling through her.

She shrugged. “Not particularly a choice. I’m too far out to go home and change before dinner.” Not when she was schlepping out to Brooklyn on the train. Manhattan rental prices were definitely out of her league on her salary. And it wasn’t exactly that she was cheap, but she liked to hold on to her money. “Besides, I had some shopping to do.” Secret Santa day two was tomorrow.

The wine steward arrived and served them, immediately followed by the waiter bearing her calamari and Cole’s bruschetta. Calamari wasn’t one of her favorites, but it was a standard in so many restaurants she always ordered it because she knew so many other diners would and it was her job to evaluate the establishment with the diner in mind. She forked up a bite. Nice light batter and a hint of ginger lent an interesting note, but disappointingly the squid itself wasn’t as fresh as it should be given the price attached. The suggested pinot grigio, however, was a perfect companion wine, crisp and delicate. She was about to sample Cole’s bruschetta when a man sporting brushed-back, slightly long blond hair stopped at their table.

“Mitchell? Is that you?” He clapped Cole on the back. “Long time no see. What’s it been? Five years?” After four years of living in New York, Tatiana had gotten pretty good at pegging people. This Matthew McConaughey wannabe exuded Wall Street with his white button-down shirt, top button undone and his loosened tie.

“Something like that.” Cole’s manner, usually annoyingly outgoing and engaging, shifted subtly. He was still smiling, but he’d erected a wall of reserve.

“Aren’t you going to introduce us?” The man looked pointedly at Tatiana and her flesh crawled. When Cole had looked at her earlier, he’d been sexy and flirtatious. This man’s look made her feel slimy.

Cole turned his attention to her, “Tempest, this is Parker Longrehn. Parker, Tempest Altman.”

“Hello,” she said, pleasant but distant.

“The pleasure’s mine.” The words were innocuous enough, yet his tone left her feeling as if he’d pinched her on the butt.

Cole looked at her as if they’d just rolled out of bed an hour ago, his glance unmistakably possessive. “Tempest is a…very good friend.”

What? Tatiana barely managed to keep her jaw from dropping. She thought about refuting that status, but she decided to go along with him instead, just to see where he was taking this. And particularly because she didn’t want to take anything any further with Parker.

Parker looked pointedly at her naked left finger. “Well, old man, I don’t see any No Trespassing signs posted.”

She and Cole might strike sparks off one another and she might not respect how he got his job, but Parker Longrehn was slick. And presumptuous.And rude as hell, to boot.

Tatiana reached across the tablecloth and twined her fingers with Cole’s. She could swear energy passed between them. “Consider them posted,” she said, casting Cole a smoldering look to reinforce the claim. His return glance sent heat cascading through her, even if it was for Parker Longrehn’s benefit.

“You win some and you lose some.” Parker flashed white teeth, bleached to the near-blue degree, at Tatiana. “But if you decide to trade up…”

This guy, a class-A jerk, deserved to be served. “I already have.” She decided to lay it on thick. “Anyone other than Cole would be trading down.”

Parker’s smile wasn’t quite as nice this time around. Fine. If he thought she was just going to sit here while he insulted Mr. Heated Glance, he had another thing coming. It was one thing for her to insult Cole, but Mr. Blue Teeth needed to rethink his position.

Parker shoved his hand in his pocket. It took Tatiana a second or so to realize he was rolling his change between his fingers. Congratulations. Parker had just won the Cheesy and Annoying Award.

“So.” He turned his attention back to Cole. “I heard your father got married again. Is this four or five?” Parker said.

Cole shrugged. “I’m too busy these days to keep track.” His smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Let me know when you figure it out.”

Parker paused and assumed an expression of rueful sympathy that fooled no one. “Maybe this wife will be happier to have you around.”

“We’ll see, won’t we?” Nothing, absolutely nothing about the cavalier smile on Cole’s face or the droll amusement in his eyes indicated that Parker Longrehn had scored a direct hit, but she felt Cole’s inner wince with some sixth sense she’d never known she possessed. Either that or maybe it was simply the wine on a near-empty stomach.

She piped up in Cole’s defense. This Parker guy was grating on her last holiday nerve. “It’s definitely their loss. My parents adore him almost as much as I do.” She hoped her look approximated fawning adoration, something outside of her usual Cole Mitchell repertoire.

Parker looked down his nose at her, as if that might intimidate her. “Do I know your parents?”

“Not unless you’ve recently visited Yurgash, Indiana.” There you go. She’d just painted herself with the scarlet H to this Manhattanite-Hick.

“I don’t think so. Listen, got to run. Say hi to Connie for me. Stay in touch.”

“Later.”

Parker left, trailing slime behind him. Good freaking riddance. What the hell had that just been all about? And who was Connie?

“Yurgash, Indiana?” Cole raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

“Really.Heartland, USA.” And if he thought he was going to gloss over the weirdness of the last five minutes…She stared at him. Waiting. She reached across the table for a bite of his appetizer.

He speared a piece of her calamari. “We were fraternity brothers.” He paused to eat.

Fraternity brothers fit. And Parker was such an absolute…“ARU? And he was the president?”

Cole sipped his wine. “ARU?”

“Assholes R Us.”

He laughed and adopted a hurt expression. “Anyone ever mentioned you’re fickle? A few minutes ago, you and your parents adored me, and now you’re signing me up for ARU.”

Albeit unwillingly, she was amused and intrigued. “Okay, so it wasn’t ARU, but you just publicly claimed me as your girlfriend. Let’s hear what’s behind that, because there’s either a story here or some mental illness floating around. And you’re a lot of things-” annoying, sexy, nepotistic, to name a few right off the top of her head “-but you don’t strike me as mental. I’m putting my dollar on the story.”

She bit into the crusty Italian bread topped with fresh tomatoes, garlic, herbs and slivers of Parmesan cheese. Delicious.The perfect ratio of basil to oregano.

“Parker and I were fraternity brothers. He came home with me one weekend. My sister Connie is three years younger than me.” Ah, so that explained Connie. His sister. Not some former lover. “Parker seduced Connie’s best friend, Bethany. When Bethany turned up pregnant, Parker turned his back on her.” Anger darkened his eyes. “I know it happens, but it broke Bethany’s heart. Her parents had to take the bastard to court to prove, thanks to DNA testing, he was the father. So Bethany has a seven-year-old and Parker has his day-trader career. He’s trouble you don’t need.”

There was something so…well, sweet and downright gallant about him trying to protect her from Parker that she found herself at a loss for words. And God knows that didn’t happen often. “Uh, well, I can take care of myself, but thanks anyway. He was easy to spot with that trail of slime he left behind him.”

“I wasn’t taking any chances. I was responsible for what happened to Bethany because I brought him home with me.”

It was a disconcerting glimpse into his character. Parker was a creep and Bethany’d made a mistake, but even Tatiana couldn’t fault Cole. And she never had any problem faulting Cole. “Did you encourage her to sleep with him? Did you throw a wild party and invite her? Did you ply her with alcohol?”

He shook his head, but the look in his eyes didn’t change. “No. But he showed up with me. I was the reason he crossed her path. So now I don’t take any chances.”

This just sucked. Why couldn’t it have been some maligned ex-girlfriend who’d recognized him and dropped by to vilify him? But no. Now not only did she know he wasn’t vacuous but she had to discover he possessed a damn conscience.

“Why not just tell him to drop dead and get lost?”

Cole offered his familiar grin. “Why give him the satisfaction of knowing he has any impact on my life?”

Hmm. She’d never thought of it from that angle. Yet another insight into Cole Mitchell’s gray matter. “Well, thanks for protecting me from the big, bad…slug.”

Cole laughed and it did funny things to her insides. “Parker wouldn’t mind being called a big, bad wolf. I think he likes to think of himself that way. But a big, bad slug? You know how to wound a man, Tempest.” Now why in the world would that make her feel all fluttery and flushed? “And thanks for jumping in there and backing me up.”

Rather an odd position to find herself in, having his back as opposed to stabbing it. “Don’t get used to it.”

“Certainly not,” he drawled. “It must have been almost painful for you to look at me as if you-” he adopted a horrified expression “-liked me.”

“It was a stretch, but I managed.” She pretended to preen. “Rather well, if I do say so myself.”

“You were brilliant, darling. You almost had me convinced you-what was it?-oh, yeah, adored me. I could get used to being adored.”

“I wouldn’t if I were you. I’m sure it would be all too short-lived.” God help her, but she was enjoying herself. “Maybe if this job doesn’t work out for me I might consider a career in acting. That wasn’t a bad stab at improv considering I didn’t get what was going on. Especially at the end.”

The waiter appeared and cleared their appetizers and refilled the water glasses. Mediocre calamari, excellent bruschetta and flawless service so far.

She looked pointedly at Cole. “So what was that all about at the end?”

“Let’s just say holidays were awkward when we were kids. The new steps weren’t thrilled to have the leftovers from the first marriage show up on the doorstep. Once we were old enough to make our own choices, Connie and I started doing our own holiday thing, just the two of us. Now she has a husband and a munchkin and I get together with them.”

That knocked her notion of him as a pampered daddy’s boy for a loop. She might not be spending Christmas Day in the house she grew up in Yurgash, but it’d still be there whenever she was ready for a trip home. A hint of vulnerability lurked beneath Cole’s droll pronouncement, which he’d probably deny with his last breath.

The waiter served their entrées. Pork medallions for Cole and roasted chicken for her.

“What about you?” he asked. “Are you gearing up for a big holiday?”

“It’ll be quiet.” She gave him the brief overview of her parents’ trip and Grandma Rumasky’s impending nuptials.

“They sound like nice people.”

“They are.” Dammit. Now she felt guilty because he’d obviously been shortchanged in the parental department while she’d grown up with great parents.

“No brothers or sisters?”

“Nope. I’m a lonely only,” she quipped.

“It’s just as well. I don’t think the world could handle another you running around.” His smile crinkled the corners of his eyes.

Without thinking, she stuck her tongue out at him. Like the dimming of theater lights signaling the beginning of the next act, the mood shifted, intensified. The look in his eyes sent a shiver through her. “So are you?”

Breathing? Yes. A woman?Definitely.Capable of standing with him looking at her that way? Not so sure. This was different from his earlier flirtatiousness in her office. This was quiet and intense…and all the more powerful. “Am I what?”

“Lonely?”

She could easily blow him off, but considering he’d just had one of his own vulnerabilities exposed by Parker the Slug, she answered him truthfully. “Sometimes I wish I’d had a sister. But then I see how many siblings despise one another and I think it’s just a crapshoot.”

“I wasn’t talking about a brother or sister.”

Oh. Her parents had given her a firm foundation. She knew the value of a dollar, hard work and herself. Even though sometimes she longed for something more, it wasn’t loneliness. “No. I’m not. I’m content with my own company.”

Her mind shouted for her to leave it there, but her mouth didn’t seem inclined to cooperate. She plowed forward even though she really shouldn’t ask. She knew too much already. “What about you? Are you lonely?”

“I’ve known a moment or two.” A quiet truth underscored his offhandedness.

This was turning into a true disaster. Not only was she horribly aware of how devastatingly sexy Cole Mitchell was, but now she’d discovered he was a nice guy, as well.

Chapter 4

“Hola.” Elle popped her blond head around the door frame. “Ten minutes. Break room. Time to spread more holiday cheer.”

“Thanks. I’ll be there,” Cole said.

“And Melvin wanted me to check with you on how dinner went last night,” she said.

Translation: when was he going to have his preliminary notes together on the first restaurant? “It went well. I’m working on it now.”

“I won’t hold you up, then. See you in ten.”

“Sure.”

Elle wasn’t holding him up, he was holding himself up. He couldn’t seem to focus…well, at least not on what he was supposed to focus on.

He looked from the blinking cursor on his computer screen to outside his window. The odd snowflake drifted past on the other side of the glass. He’d always thought that was the strangest thing. Where were all the other snowflakes when one lone flake journeyed down? Even though no two in the universe were alike, weren’t they supposed to stick together?

He shook his head. Last night had totally messed with his head. Parker Longrehn could drop off the face of the Earth and Cole would consider it good riddance. No, what was screwing with his mind about Parker wasn’t so much encountering him, although he would’ve gladly skipped that happy experience. No, it was Cole’s reaction to the way Parker had looked at Tatiana. True, he would warn Parker off any decent human being, but when Parker had looked at Tatiana as if she was his for the picking, possessiveness had gripped Cole and squeezed. He, who never felt possessive about anyone, except maybe his sister, because possessiveness required some degree of attachment. And Cole didn’t do attachments.

Nope, that had been one of those early childhood lessons learned the hard way that had stuck with him. You let people know something mattered and they held it against you. If you sought approval, it hurt like the devil when it was deliberately withheld. If you became attached to someone and the person wasn’t attached in return, that pretty much sucked, as well.

He’d adopted a life policy of getting along with everyone and caring about nobody, not giving a crap what they thought of him one way or another. It had worked out well for the most part.

His claim to Tatiana had been as responsive and instinctive as an involuntary muscle. Next thing, he’d be looking for a bush to pee on. But Parker had given her that look, and a single word had blazed through Cole’s brain: mine.

There was no need to wig out about it. Tatiana was amusing, interesting. He enjoyed matching wits and trading barbs. And there was an undeniable attraction that simmered between the two of them. He wasn’t being egotistical or weird-a sexual energy pulsed between the two of them whether she was ready to admit it or not.

Not that it was anything to worry about. His life policy was still strictly in place. Things were simply more interesting with Madame Snark on the scene.

“Admit it. The secret Santa thing was fun today, wasn’t it?” Elle said from the adjacent treadmill in the workout room on the third floor of the JackmanButlerBuilding that housed Connoisseur on three of its fifty-six floors.

Sweat dampened Tatiana’s T-shirt and trickled down her neck. “It was definitely more fun than this,” Tatiana said. Some people loved to exercise for the sake of exercising. Uh…she wasn’t one of them. She dutifully showed up at the workout center five days a week because otherwise she’d blimp up even more. Yep, it was the horror of her butt taking on the proportions of Staten Island rather than a love of the treadmill that brought her here.

“Exercise is your friend.” So sayeth the sylph in size-two spandex running like the Energizer bunny stuck in “fast” mode.

“I wouldn’t go that far. How about it keeps food from becoming my mortal enemy,” Tatiana said with a grin. “And, yes, I was a scrooge at first, but the gift-exchange thing is fun.” She’d been irritated to get Cole Mitchell, but now she was kind of getting into it. “I don’t know how things are at your house, there haven’t been many Christmas surprises at our place the last few years. We exchange a list and then pick something on that list. So this is kind of cool.”

“Cole definitely had the best gift yesterday,” Elle said and Tatiana managed not to preen. “But you won the Best Present award today.” Elle laughed, which always came out as something of a snort. It was a little shocking, considering Elle appeared so elegant and her laugh was anything but an elegant noise. “You should’ve seen your face when you opened the strawberry-and-champagne massage oil.”

Tatiana grabbed her water bottle from the holder and took a swig without breaking stride. Two miles on the treadmill and she was sweating like a pig. She’d never managed that glistening business. She sweated and it wasn’t pretty. She plonked the water bottle back in the space above the treadmill’s digital readout.

“It certainly wasn’t what I was expecting.” And the massage oil had definitely captured her imagination. Along with the tongue-in-cheek typed note attached to the bottle. To ensure your good taste.

“Hey, it’s the unexpected stuff that’s the best,” Elle said. “You’ll have to let me know when you’ve tried it. I might pick some up for me and Teddy.”

Elle and her fiancé hadn’t already been there and done that? Surprising. Elle spilled all kinds of details about herself and Teddy, the wonder hottie in an accountant’s guise. “It won’t be anytime soon. Flavored oil strikes me as a two-party event, and right now there’s no one on my invitation list.”

The frequent travel that came with her job had been the death of her last relationship. Hel-lo. What had Max expected? Connoisseur was a travel magazine that catered to food aficionados, travel being a definitive word. She’d marked Max off the list several months ago and she’d had neither the time nor the inclination to replace him.

And just because Cole Broad-Shoulders Mitchell came to mind now didn’t mean she wanted to taste-test with him. Maybe she’d had the brief, passing thought of his square, very masculine hands-so shoot her that she’d noticed he had rather sexy hands-smoothing the fragranced oil over her shoulders, along her back and to various and sundry points of interest. Heat flashed through her that had nothing to do with her treadmill workout.

She most definitely didn’t have a thing for him. It was just one of those situations where he was front and center, unfortunately, in her world, since she had to buy gifts for him and meet him for dinner and work on those stinking articles with him. And maybe he had a way of looking at her that made her think of…well, things best not thought of. Nope, it was simply a case of him being the most prominent male in her life right now that had her playing him into the love-me-lick-me scenario in her head. And how sad was that?

“Want to trade gifts?” Elle offered.

Tatiana’s treadmill slowed down and then stopped. Two and a half miles.“Your box of biscotti for my flavored massage oil?” She pretended to consider it. “Uh…no. The massage oil should keep for a while until I find someone willing to slather it on and nibble it off.”

Elle laughed. She’d hardly broken a sweat. “That’s what I thought you’d say, but it was worth a try. Aren’t you dying to know who your Secret Santa is and what they have in mind next? Massage oil today…what about tomorrow?”

Tatiana spritzed the treadmill with disinfectant and wiped it off for the next victim. She blotted sweat from her face and neck.

“I don’t know. I’m curious, but it could be anyone. Except Melvin, of course. I don’t think-jiggy meds or not-he’d give me flavored massage oil. Maybe somebody meant it as a joke.”

“Maybe.Maybe not. What if it wasn’t? What if your Secret Santa is actually a secret admirer?” Elle possessed a dramatic streak.

“I think my Secret Santa is someone with a sense of humor,” Tatiana said.

“There were definitely more funny gifts today. Melvin’s was a riot, but I thought Cole’s was a little mean.”

“I thought they were both funny and apropos.” She kept her voice and expression nonchalant. Elle was fishing. Someone had given Melvin a weekly pill organizer with three daily slots, like the one Grandma Rumasky used to organize her meds. Given that Melvin’s medications were public fodder, everyone, including Melvin, had found it hilarious.

She’d found the silver-plated spoon at the second store she’d checked. Once again the group, Cole included, had laughed. She didn’t feel a bit guilty. Well, maybe just a hair. But it had been funny and it was a much-needed reminder to herself that no matter how charming and entertaining a dinner companion he was, he’d still slid into his job without paying his dues. If he wanted to play the family-influence card to get his job, then he’d have to play with the whole deck.

Chapter 5

Half a week later, on Wednesday evening, they had two meals down and two to go. Cole watched candlelight flicker across the porcelain planes of Tatiana’s face. Tonight it was a seafood restaurant that served the theater district. Last night had been a new barbecue eatery in Harlem, around the corner from Clinton’s One Hundred and Twenty-Fifth Street law offices.

“At least Melvin gave us a variety,” Tatiana said.

“Definitely.Last night barbecue, blues and rousing fun.Tonight seafood, saxophone and sultry romance.” Although it had limited the number of tables the restaurant could accommodate, each table was practically an island unto itself with the placement of potted palms, ferns and privacy screens. The decor and the music created a nostalgic Casablanca-esque mood.

Cole put down his fork. Sweet mango married with a hint of red pepper and delicate sea bass melted against his tongue. Interesting without being fussy.

“Good choice,” he remarked to Tatiana, offering his opinion on her entrée. He’d eaten countless meals. He loved sharing good food. Of course, the downside to reviewing restaurants was that he’d likewise shared some mediocre to outright lousy food or service or, worst-case scenario, a combination thereof.

Good food and the enjoyment of good food held an inherent sensuality, but tonight, with Tatiana, it took on a new level of intimacy. What was it about this woman that sparked such an awareness in him?

“Want to try mine?” he asked.

“Just a bite.”

Normally he’d place a bit of the cedar-plank-smoked trout on a butter plate and pass it to her. Instead something drove him to offer her the taste on the tip of his fork. She had the most exquisite mouth. Not too full and pouty and not too thin-lipped and small, but the perfect blend of the two, with a slightly full lower lip. Her mouth sent his mind wandering into the dangerous territory of long, hot, lingering kisses and the even more dangerous terrain of Madame Snark plying her gorgeous mouth over his chest, down his belly, trailing tendrils of her red hair against his skin as she sucked and kissed her way down to his waiting-No. He did not need to go there in his mind in the middle of a working dinner. Sitting across from her and fantasizing his way to a hard-on wasn’t the brightest idea.

She hesitated for just a second and then leaned forward and wrapped her lips around the tines. She held the sample in her mouth for a moment, her eyelids lowered to half-mast, as if she was totally focused on assimilating the flavors, the texture. Then she began to chew slowly. Lust gripped him, and with each slow, deliberate chew, it wound a little tighter inside him. Finally, thank goodness, she swallowed.

“I wasn’t sure if the fennel would work with the trout or if it would overpower it, but it works nicely,” Tatiana said.

“Uh-huh.” He’d nearly had a moment watching her chew a piece of fish.

Briefly awareness shimmered in her eyes and then vanished. “What’s your favorite place you’ve traveled in the last year?” she asked. Was that a hint of desperation in her husky tone?

He decided to take advantage of the change in subject. “No doubt about it. It’s Corfu, with its sun-drenched days and fresh, simple fare. There’s a taverna that sits at the edge of the white-pebbled bay, and they serve prawn saganaki-fresh prawns in garlic, olive oil, tomatoes, feta and cream.”

“Stop. You’re making my mouth water!”

He grinned. “It’s incredible. I stayed in a whitewashed villa set in the middle of olive trees. My bedroom overlooked the Ionian Sea, and during the day the sun slanted in onto the bed. I could lie there and watch the occasional cloud sift through all of that blue sky. They hung the sheets to dry in the sun. I was thirty years old before I’d ever experienced sun-dried sheets.”

She laughed, a softer, gentler sound that caught him off guard. “There’s nothing else quite like it, is there? Grandma Rumasky and my mother both hang their sheets outside to dry. It’s one of my favorite things about going home.” She sipped from her wineglass and regarded him over the rim. “You paint an alluring picture of Corfu. It makes me want to go there. And, of course, I’d have to eat at your taverna and room at the villa with the sun-dried linens.” Her spontaneous smile stole his breath.

“You’d like it.” Oddly enough, after spending three evenings with her, he thought he had a fair enough idea of what she would and wouldn’t like. The thought flashed through not just his mind but his entire being that he wanted to be there with her. He’d like to stretch out naked on the simple cotton coverlet of that bed warmed by the afternoon sun and make slow, leisurely love to her until they were both sated and drowsy from good food and even better sex.

“It sounds great.”

He started and then realized she was talking about Corfu, not his fantasy. He had a gut feeling it would be great between them. “What about you? Your favorite place?”

“Hands down, Prague. Have you ever been there?”

He shook his head and she continued. “There’s an old-world elegance to it that seems to have been lost in some of the other more well-known European cities. The River Vltava flows through the city. The stone CharlesBridge is lined by Baroque statues and it’s possibly one of the most romantic spots on earth when you take a walk at dusk with the city’s spires as a backdrop. Not only is it beautiful but it probably also appeals to me because it’s not so very far from my roots. My great-grandparents left Russia in 1916, before the Bolsheviks took power.”

Tatiana had intrigued him before. Now he was outright fascinated. “How did they leave?”

“How much Russian history do you know?”

“Very little.”

“Bottom line, there were lots and lots of have-nots. The majority of the country were peasants. My great-grandfather was a printer.”

“Ah. A family history of publishing,” Cole said.

“I never thought of it that way.” She picked back up with her story. “Dyda, as we called him, was smart and had access to books. He’d heard the Socialists and he knew what was coming. It had the makings of the French revolution when the blood of the aristocracy flowed like water through the streets of Paris. If you were a peasant, socialism was a step up. If you were an aristocrat, it was a death sentence. And for anyone in between, like him and his family, well, their fate could hinge on the whim of whomever was standing armed in front of them. He and my great-grandmother secretly made plans. One night they left. They and their five children packed one bag each-I think it was more along the lines of a sack, actually-and they walked away from everything else. They bribed their way out of the country. They arrived in Yurgash, which had the largest population of Russian immigrants, with twenty dollars in their pockets.”

“Twenty dollars and five kids. What’d they do?”

“They worked hard-it’s the Rumasky way. My dydushka delivered newspapers. My babushka baked. And the children shined shoes, picked up sticks, whatever they could do to earn a nickel. Within ten years, Dyda had his own printing operation again.”

“That’s an amazing story.” He’d enjoyed it all the more because she’d forgotten to be on guard with him. It was like sitting in on a session of Tatiana Unplugged.

“I’ve always thought so. I used to love to hear the stories about their journey to their new country. I’d sit in the kitchen while Grandma Rumasky and Babi Tatiana baked koliadki and babaromovaya and they’d tell about the old country. Dyda actually caught a glimpse of Rasputin, just in passing once. Pretty amazing. He was an everyday man who brushed shoulders with a figure pivotal in world history. Sort of a Forrest Gump moment.”

She stopped and looked a bit self-conscious. “Sorry. I got carried away.”

“Are you kidding? It’s incredibly interesting. I could sit and listen all night. Your family history is like a rich, wholesome broth. My family’s cornered the market on dysfunctional, but there’s no interesting history behind it like that. Not that I know of, anyway.” There’d been no family history passed down, just money and the apparent inability to stick with a life mate. He laughed. “Let me take a wild guess. I bet no one in your family’s ever gotten a divorce.”

She shook her head. “You’d lose that bet. Cousin Katrina’s husband Barney worked the night shift. She decided to surprise him one day at home by coming in early. Except she was the one surprised when she walked in and found Barney decked out in her underwear. Apparently Barney looked better in her merry widow than she did, so she dumped him.” She winked. “Cross-dressing is not that well-received in Yurgash.”

Cole laughed aloud at her droll delivery.

Her green eyes glittered with wicked merriment and she shoved a red curl behind one ear. “And Grandma Rumasky’s husbands keep dying on her, but that falls under good old-fashioned ‘till death do we part,’ not divorce.”

“Is her tongue as sharp as yours? Maybe that’s the problem.”

“Very funny.” She adopted a sanctimonious expression. “All of the women in my family are charming and sweet.”

Cole snorted. “You do an excellent job of hiding it.”

“Careful. All that flattery might go to my head,” she responded.

Cole realized he was having one of the best times he’d had in…well, he couldn’t quite remember when. Conversation with Tatiana was unpredictable and kept him slightly off-kilter. And an undercurrent hummed between them, as if she was as aware of him as he was of her. They were a dessert and after-dinner drink away from being through, and he wasn’t ready for the evening to end.

As if he’d picked up a mental cue, their waiter appeared and cleared their dinner plates. “Shall I bring over the dessert menu?”

“Give us a few minutes,” Cole said, preempting Tatiana. The waiter nodded and faded away, dirty plates in hand.

Tatiana arched an inquiring eyebrow.

“We should dance first,” Cole said.

Surprise widened her green eyes. “Why?”

“Because it’s part of the total experience, the atmosphere.” A sax-and-string quartet played in one corner. A small parquet floor accommodated couples. In his book, the restaurant got top marks.

“I suppose.” She didn’t look particularly convinced.

The music enhanced the dining experience. Some establishments screwed it up by playing too loud for conversation. Some chose the wrong music and it clashed with the ambience. This was right on the money.

“So shall we?” Two days ago, her reluctance would’ve delighted him.

He stood, unsure for the moment whether she’d leave him standing there alone.

“I promise not to bite,” he said.

“I’m not sure whether I’m disappointed or relieved.”

He drew her into his arms and a jolt of sexual awareness hit him. Who would’ve suspected she’d feel so soft, so right? That her curves would fit his angles so completely, as if she’d been custom-made for him?

Her hand was warm in his and he pulled her closer. Her scent drifted around him. In her heels, her head grazed the line of his jaw, bringing her temple tantalizingly close to his lips. They turned at the edge of the dance floor and her hip shifted against his for a brief incendiary moment. Tatiana filled his senses.

He bent his head, bringing his mouth to the tempting curve of her ear. Her hair teased against his cheek and his nose. “You’re a good dancer,” he murmured into her ear, her translucent skin just a fraction of an inch away from his lips. He gave way to an instinct as natural as breathing and nuzzled the tender lobe.

She tilted her head, and for a moment it struck him as an entreaty rather than a rejection, but then she turned, moving her ear and neck out of range but bringing her lips achingly closer to his, her cheek brushing against his jaw.

“Don’t.” Her breath feathered over his skin and desire flowed through his veins.

He’d never in his life been at a loss for a glib response. But right now, the comeback king couldn’t think of a damn thing to say. He was too mesmerized by her.

With a startling clarity, he suddenly realized exactly what he wanted for Christmas.

He inhaled her scent one more time and smiled.

Now all he had to do was convince her.

Chapter 6

The following afternoon, Tatiana finished editing her notes and saved the file. She rubbed at her temple. She didn’t have a headache, but by all rights she should.

No doubt about it. This had morphed into the worst holiday season in her personal history. She’d done the unthinkable. The unconscionable. She’d had a brain lapse and slipped into some silly infatuation with-dear God, just shoot her now-Cole Mitchell.

She wasn’t even sure how or when it had happened. All she knew was one second he was talking about Corfu and looking at her with those slumberous blue eyes and all of a sudden, she wanted to swim naked with him in the Ionian Sea and then share those sun-laundered sheets.

Or maybe it had started when Parker Longrehn had slimed by their table? What the heck, it could’ve even been the very first time she met him and felt the impact of his silver-blue eyes and his smile tingling through her all the way from the top of her head to her toes, when she’d been happy to latch on to his dad landing him his job so she didn’t tumble head over heels and land at his feet.

She thought about the brief fling she’d had in Prague with a philosophy student she’d met at a small café. They’d both considered it an intense cultural exchange. It would be different with Cole, who wasn’t part of the culture but would be there to savor and share it from a perspective similar to her own.

But the true moment of her wits’ capitulation had been that dance. Had anything ever been more perfectly romantic? She must’ve lost her mind, because it now topped her most-romantic chart, bumping her adventure in Prague down to numero two.

Her entire body had felt more alive, more perfectly attuned to the world with his hand at her waist, with the play of his muscles beneath her left hand, the tease of his warm breath against her skin, that brief brush of his mouth against her ear that had set her on fire. She’d longed for him to keep going. Thank goodness she’d rallied her remaining sense before she’d done something totally stupid like kiss him on the dance floor.

She just needed to keep her distance. Get through the holidays, wrap up this slate of Web assignments. Then he’d go his merry way, she’d go hers and things would be back to normal. Holiday depression was quite common this time of year, and Tatiana was sure she’d simply developed some weird fixated form of the malaise. At least that explanation sat better with her than having developed a terrible case of lust for Tall, Dark and-at this juncture-Dangerous to her peace of mind.

“Ready?” Speak of the devil…Cole poked his dark head around her door.

They were doing an early seating tonight and they’d both had late work, so they were cabbing it together to the restaurant. She shook her head. What was the point in trying to deny the way her breath caught in her throat or the way her heart raced at the sound of his voice?

“I’m almost ready,” she said. “I just need to close this program and get my things.”

An hour and a half later Tatiana was proud of herself. So what that she had some ridiculous infatuation with Cole? Maybe she’d been terribly aware of his body heat in the cab next to hers, but she’d handled it. And dinner tonight was a far cry from last night’s romantic ambience, with its low lighting and sultry notes of the saxophone.

She glanced around. Café Tatu was bright and noisy with the feel and look of a Japanese high-tech sushi bar. Conversation was limited, and the longer they sat there with limited contact, the more in control Tatiana felt. She finished the last of the restaurant’s signature drink, a sake martini. In an effort not to gain too much weight, she never ate all the food on her plate-and she noticed Cole had the same approach-or drank all the wine in her glass. Tonight, however, she polished off her drink. So was it considered a sakini or a marsake?

Heck if she knew, but it was tasty, and she was feeling fully in control of herself. Downright jubilant, in fact. She was no longer suffering from some delusional state of infatuation over Cole Mitchell brought on by holiday depression. True enough, she might feel a touch of lust blooming low in her belly over the way the bright light brought out a hint of brown in his dark hair, but that really didn’t mean anything. Half the women in the room had shot inquiring looks his way, some bolder than others. Grudgingly Tatiana had to give him credit. This was business, not pleasure, and he could’ve easily collected half a dozen phone numbers, but he had been seemingly oblivious to the looks.

They stepped out of the warm, overly bright restaurant on the trendy Upper East Side into the bracing, cold night. It had begun to snow when they’d first entered the restaurant and it continued to fall steadily now.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Cole said with a grin, snowflakes catching in his dark lashes.

“What?”

“It’s as if the city gets a new coat of paint. All the dirty snow is hidden by the new stuff and for a while, everything is fresh again.”

At the corner stood one of the numerous horse-drawn carriages found around Central Park’s periphery. The horse, a dappled gray, snorted, and its breath rose like a smoke signal among the falling snow.

“Are you in a big hurry to get home?” Cole asked.

The quiet of her co-op’s eight-hundred square feet, complete with tabletop tree and her stocking hung by the microwave in the kitchen-hey, as close to a fireplace as she was likely to come-seemed more bleak than appealing after Café Tatu’s noise and bright lights.

“No. I’m not particularly in a hurry. Why?”

He nodded toward the carriage. “How about a ride through Central Park?”

“Why? This isn’t like dancing last night. It’s not part of the dining experience.”

“Maybe because it’s there and we’re here and Central Park at Christmastime with the snow is beautiful.” He peered closer at her. “You have taken a carriage ride through Central Park before, haven’t you?”

Tatiana crossed her arms over her chest. “You don’t need to make it sound as if I’ve committed a sin.”

“But you have.” Cole grinned at her and she wanted to grin back like an idiot. “It’s a cardinal sin of omission, but I can help you with that right now.” He took her elbow and steered her toward the horse and buggy.

“With you?”

“That was the general intent.” His smile, with a slight edge of sarcasm, didn’t waver, but Tatiana thought she saw a flash of hurt in his eyes. “I don’t see anyone else forming a line.”

The word no hovered on the tip of her tongue until she heard her mother admonishing her to learn to have fun. She had an empty apartment waiting, and Central Park would be beautiful in the snowy onslaught.

“Why not?”

“Gracious, as usual,” he said.

“I wouldn’t want you to think aliens had taken over my body.” She figured if she could just keep things on the same footing they’d been on since she met him, she’d be okay. Holidays or not, she wasn’t expected to be nice to him.

Cole strode over to the driver, his shoulders impossibly wide in his wool winter coat, snow dusting his hair. He exchanged a few words with the man, some folded cash and something else she couldn’t make out at this distance. In less than a minute the driver handed her up into the vehicle. She settled on the worn velvet upholstery and Cole climbed in behind her. Suddenly it was all too close and too tight and he was too large to share such an enclosed space. Her heart thudded against her ribs. But she could hardly leap up and jump out of the carriage simply because they were now sitting shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, even though that minimal contact sent heat surging through her.

She gritted her teeth and looked in the other direction. Their guide spread a blanket over their laps. A half roof, similar to that of a convertible, with “windows” cut into each side, sheltered them from the wet stuff.

Then the driver climbed onto his seat and took up the reins and with a quiet “Heyya,” they were off.

It was like being transported someplace magical where green boughs hung low beneath the weight of white powder and the lights of the city were a far and distant place in the future. A quixotic blend of lassitude and longing stole through her.

Cole turned his head, which brought his mouth a mere inch or so from hers. “Cozy? Warm enough?”

She shifted slightly, enough to put a gap between them. “Toasty. Thanks.”

“You know, I think I’ve finally figured you out,” Cole said.

“Really? Please enlighten me.”

“You want to kiss me.”

She tried not to sputter. “You’re delusional.”

“You can’t add that to your long list of my sins.” The look in his blue eyes filled her with a delicious heat. “Why else would you sit under mistletoe?”

“I didn’t, Mr. Half-Baked Brain.” She glanced up. Sure enough, a sprig of mistletoe hung suspended from the carriage top above them. “Let me remind you, this was your idea.” Precisely. That was the other thing she’d seen him hand the driver.

“Are you implying I want to kiss you?” he said.

“I’m not implying anything.” A woman could drown in the depths of his eyes. “I’m saying it outright. I’m stating it so your simple mind can grasp it. You planned this.” She wasn’t sure whether she was annoyed at his manipulation or flattered.

“Just because I dream about your mouth at night, how it would feel…” He skimmed his fingertip along the bow of her upper lip and she nearly forgot to breathe. His voice was low and seductive in the cocoon of their carriage. “How it would taste…” He traced the seam of her mouth and she felt his touch all the way to her toes. “Is not proof that I would deliberately manipulate you under a sprig of mistletoe. I’m not that kind of guy.”

She nipped the tip of his finger between her teeth. “You’re exactly that kind of guy.”

“Then I might as well live down to your expectations.” He reached beneath her hair and cupped her neck in his hand. She could easily pull away, protest, but-God help her-she just wanted to kiss him. Once.

The air was cold and his mouth was warm and she kissed him back.

“Tatiana,” he murmured her name against her mouth and fisted his hand in her hair. Then he kissed her again and she realized she’d been wrong. She wanted-no, desperately needed-more than one of his kisses. She pressed closer to him, hungry for his warmth. Her tongue met his in a languorous sweep, and she was drowning in the sensation of cold air bracing her skin and the heat of his mouth.

Kissing Cole was like a stiff measure of brandy that warmed her from within and made her nearly drunk from the pleasure. Sweet, hot desire pooled between her thighs and left her breasts feeling full and aching for his touch. Instinctively she shifted and he pulled her nearer beneath the blanket.

They might have gone on kissing for…well, who knew for how long if the carriage hadn’t rocked to a stop, and Tatiana realized she was half sitting on his lap. Her body hummed like a finely tuned instrument ready to be played. If she was a Stradivarius, there was no mistaking the hard press of his bow next to her hip.

Tatiana blinked her eyes open. She scooted off his lap. Ostensibly they were back where they’d started, except she knew with a surety they’d never be back where they’d started.

The air’s chill seeped into her. If they hadn’t been in a public place, she wouldn’t have stopped. Desire and promise simmered in his gaze. He wouldn’t have stopped either. She felt it and she knew he did, too. It was there in his eyes. The next time was inevitable and they’d finish what they’d started tonight. This had satisfied nothing. Instead it had aroused a ravening hunger in her for the touch of his hands, the taste of his skin, the exquisite slide of him inside her.

Cole appeared all too satisfied with himself. “I told you you wanted to kiss me.”

She reached above them, tweaked down the mistletoe and dropped it in his lap.

“Well, darling, if you insist…You certainly won’t get any resistance from me.” His grin was sheer arrogant wickedness.

She offered him the sweetest smile she could muster. “If I wanted to kiss you, I wouldn’t need a piece of greenery to do it.”

She stepped past him and the driver handed her down.

It might not have been the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but it was a damn good exit line.

Chapter 7

Cole plopped into his seat in the Circle of Love. Friday afternoon. The final gift exchange. And he’d damn near missed it. He’d ditched work this morning because he’d decided on a new final Secret Santa gift for Tatiana after their carriage ride last night. He’d been ready to toss in the towel when he’d finally found what he was looking for. Whew! He’d barely made it back in time.

He bit back a smirk. She’d know without a doubt who had given her this gift. And without a doubt, she wouldn’t reveal him as her Secret Santa. He looked around. Everyone was here except her.

Melvin beamed at the crowd. “Well, it’s time to open the final gifts-”

Cole interrupted. “Hold on. Aren’t we going to wait for Tatiana?”

“She’s already left for the day,” Elle said.

But he’d caught a glimpse of her early this morning. “What?”

“Yeah. She thought she was coming down with something so she left,” Elle explained.

Melvin rubbed at his balding spot. “Yeah. I meant to tell you earlier, but I got hung up on something else. You only have that final restaurant visit tonight. She asked if you could do it separately and e-mail the reviews in. That’s the new plan.”

“What’s wrong with her?” He felt a foreign sense of panic that she was ill.

“She thought it might be the flu and didn’t want to make everyone sick for the holiday weekend.”

Andi spoke up. “I’m sorry she’s sick, but thank God she didn’t stay and spread germs. I’ve got twenty people coming for dinner on Sunday. Getting the flu would be a disaster at this point.”

The gift exchange wasn’t nearly as much fun without Tatiana there. He’d so looked forward to throwing her off balance with his gift. And he hated to think of her at home, all alone and sick.

He retrieved his gift and opened it. He’d begun to think his Secret Santa might just be Ms. Snippy herself, but this blew that theory to hell. Someone had baked him homemade cookies. He’d had cookies from a bakery any number of times, but his mother or any of the subsequent steps had never been of the cookie-baking variety. He pulled off the plastic cling film and inhaled deeply. Ah, a hint of almond. Slightly brown around the edges. It was quite possibly the nicest gift anyone had ever given him.

He knew a moment of intense possessiveness. No one had ever done this for him before, and he wanted to save them, hoard them as his own. But it was Christmas and he was thirty, not three, so he offered the plate around and everyone except Misha, who struggled to control his diabetes, took one. Finally he took one for himself. He bit into it. Perfect. And he still had about half a dozen left.

After the exchange, everyone began to pack up to go home. The day’d been pretty much a blow-off anyway. Melvin had dismissed the department with holiday wishes. Tatiana’s gift sat pathetically alone on the now-empty table next to the rosemary topiary.

Elle began moving the chairs back to where they belonged. Cole pitched in to help.

“Thanks,” she said. “I’m trying to get out of here as soon as possible.”

“No problem.” She was gorgeous, but he’d never been interested in asking her out, even before her engagement. She bore a faint resemblance to Connie. “Heading out of the city?”

“Teddy and I are going to D.C. to see his parents tomorrow. I have one more gift to buy and then I have to pack.” She rolled her eyes. “First holiday with the almost in-laws. Teddy’s mother considers me the whore who seduced her son. His neurotic sister is also coming with her shih-tzu who has potty issues. It should be delightful.”

Cole laughed. “Sounds like fun.”

“So what’re you up to?”

The same vague holiday restlessness he experienced every year around this time seized him. Everyone seemed to have a long list of last-minute preparations except for him. “I’d planned to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with my sister and her family in Connecticut. But she called this morning and my niece has the chicken pox. I’ve never had them, and since, according to Connie, it can cause impotence in adult males, I’m opting to stay home alone.”

“Yeah. Sounds like a good choice to me. What about your parents?”

“They’ve got other plans.” He didn’t have a clue what they were, but they’d had other plans for the last fifteen years.

They finished placing the last of the chairs around the smaller tables that had been pushed to the wall. Elle picked up Tatiana’s gift. “I suppose I’ll leave it on her desk for her. If my schedule wasn’t so crazy, I’d run it by and check on her, but I suppose she’s okay or she would’ve called me.”

Quite frankly he couldn’t imagine Tatiana picking up the phone and calling anyone for help unless it was a dire emergency. She could be home alone, running a fever, sick…

He had nothing but time on his hands. “I’ll take it by and check on her.”

“That’s nice, but I’m sure you have other things to do.”

“The only thing on tonight’s schedule was dinner with her, and now that’s not happening. It’s no problem.”

Elle handed him the gift he’d bought earlier that morning.

It wasn’t as if he was disappointed that she couldn’t make dinner tonight. It wasn’t as if he was worried about her. It wasn’t as if that carriage kiss had tormented him since last night. No, he simply had time on his hands to kill.

Tatiana pulled her tattered pink chenille bathrobe closer around her. This was her special robe. Guaranteed to make her feel better. Its healing powers had been attested to for the last twelve years, ever since Grandma Rumasky had given it to her and told her it was guaranteed to cure whatever ailed her-even if redheads shouldn’t wear pink. Today she was in major need of a cure.

Jimmy Stewart flickered on the screen in black and white as the townspeople rushed his family’s bank for their money. This was her least favorite part of It’s a Wonderful Life.

She shoved off the couch and wandered into the kitchen. Cole would’ve opened his cookies by now. She was almost sorry she’d been too much of a chicken to stay and watch. She’d come home last night in such a state, longing to do something for him…well, yeah, she’d like to do that, but she also wanted to do something special that went beyond sex. The anonymity of Secret Santa afforded her the opportunity. Home-baked Christmas cookies. She knew what it would mean to the man who’d grown up without any holiday traditions other than making the most out of being exiled with his sister. She’d felt the longing she wasn’t even sure he knew he possessed when she’d talked about her family. For the span of one present, she could give him the gift of caring enough to prepare something special for him.

She opened the canister on the counter and counted out four almond cookies. Four should do her. Forget it. She put two more on her plate. She was going for six. People, on average, gained one and a half pounds over the holidays. She could at least do her part to uphold one holiday tradition considering everything else was a lost cause.

She poured herself a glass of organic skim milk and settled back down on the sofa. She dipped a cookie in the milk and then nibbled at the sodden edge. She’d spend her holiday stuffing herself like a turkey. And, who knows, maybe she’d actually get sick after telling that whopper of a lie earlier. Still, it had gotten her out of dinner with Cole. She’d been at an all-time low today when she’d skipped out of work-

A knock interrupted her cookiefest. Who was this? Maybe it was Mrs. Abramonoff’s Harry & David fruit delivery. Ostensibly Edgar should have snagged the delivery guy in the lobby, but Edgar was the worst doorman in New York. Mrs. Abramonoff spent each December in Miami with family, and it seemed her December pears usually came after Christmas, but maybe this year…Tatiana would like to ignore it and pretend not to be home, but she hated to think of those pears in some frigid warehouse. “Just a minute,” she called out.

She left her cookies and milk on the coffee table. It was a testimony to her Indiana upbringing that she had already thrown the dead bolt by the time she looked through the peephole. No brown-shirted delivery person bearing fruit stood on the other side. Nope. All six feet and some inches of broad-shouldered, blue-eyed, sether-on-fire-with-his-kisses Cole Mitchell stood there.

She looked down at the chenille robe with its bald spots and the thick socks on her feet. Yep, she was pretty much hideous.

He knocked on the door again and she nearly jumped out of her skin. “Tatiana? Are you okay? I heard the lock. Are you too weak to open the door? Do I need to call 911?”

Although it might serve her right for lying, she didn’t need him to call 911. She did the only thing she knew to do under the circumstances. She opened the door…and hoped she didn’t live to regret it.

Chapter 8

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“You know, you could give a guy a complex. I told Elle I’d drop off your Secret Santa gift,” Cole admitted stepping into her apartment. At work she was the cool snark. At dinner she was engaging. And more than once he’d imagined her naked or nearly naked. But this was a version of Tatiana Allen he’d never imagined. In her boxers and tank top with thick socks and a pink robe, her hair pinned up with a giant clip, she looked cute. Adorably sexy.

“You really shouldn’t have.”

“Well, it’s a lousy time to be sick.” Except she didn’t look very sick to him. In fact, right now he’d peg her for looking extremely guilty. He hefted the bag in his right hand. “I stopped by Lemwitz Deli and picked you up some chicken soup. Mrs. Lemwitz makes it fresh every day, including her own noodles. Nothing’s better than chicken soup when you’re sick.”

“Thanks. Thanks a lot. I’ll just take these and you can be on your way. I don’t want to tie up your time.”

Hmm. She looked a little flushed, but he didn’t see any watery eyes, red nose or signs of a cough. And her voice didn’t sound scratchy. Not to mention that she was trying to hustle him out of there faster than a two-bit pimp.

“I’ve got plenty of time. Remember, I was planning to spend my evening with you anyway. So I’ll just put these in the kitchen. I’m not going anywhere until I’m sure you’re okay.” More like until he was sure she’d faked being sick, which seemed increasingly likely. “You sit down and I’ll warm up a bowl of chicken soup.”

He stepped around her and into what was obviously the kitchen. She followed behind him. “You don’t listen very well. I don’t need to be taken care of.”

“You obviously don’t listen well either since you’re not sitting on the couch like a good girl waiting on me to nurse you back to health.”

“I don’t need to be nursed. I’m feeling better. Do you ever listen?”

“Huh?” He laughed at her flash of irritation. “I do listen, but sometimes my other senses distract me. Like my sense of sight, which happens frequently when I’m around you. By the way, you look adorably sexy in that outfit and not nearly as intimidating as you do at the office.”

“There’s nothing adorable about me in general. And as for sexy in this outfit, you obviously think I’ve developed a brain flu if I’m buying that.”

Cole laughed and shrugged. “It really doesn’t matter whether you buy it or not as long as it’s what I think.”

“You’re infuriating.”

“Am I?” He brushed the back of his hand down the length of her neck. “Hmm. No fever.” He bent his head and breathed in the scent of her skin, her heat. “Well, you’re enchanting even when you’re at your snarkiest.”

“You’re sick.”

“Very possibly. I’m feeling rather lightheaded now.” He nuzzled the length of her neck.

“I might be contagious,” Tatiana protested but didn’t pull away. Instead she wrapped her arms around his neck.

“I’m sure you are and I’m sure I’ve already got a pretty bad case. I’ve got a theory.”

“I can tell by your voice it’s going to be something gnat-brained.”

“Maybe I have a masochistic streak, because I love it when you talk like that.” Her fingers in his hair, against his neck, caused heat to sizzle through him. “I think you bagged work today because you’ve got the same thing I’ve got.”

“Mere supposition on your part.” She leaned back and looked at him, but didn’t let him go. Desire rolled off her in waves. They were so right together. Her eyes sparkled with wickedness, but he didn’t miss the caution lurking in them as well. “What do you have?”

He knew what he had. What he wanted. Caution be damned. “I’m besotted, infatuated, tied up in knots over you. It’s as if I’ve walked by the same bakery every day for almost a year wanting the pastry in the window, but the shop’s always closed. And the more I pass it, the more I want it. It whets my appetite until nothing else appeals and all I can think about is sampling that pastry that I can’t have.”

“That sounds obsessive.”

“Hmm. It is. Obsessive.Disquieting.”

“You don’t need me to tell you that chances are the pastry won’t live up to expectation.”

“I beg to differ. I’ve just had a sample of the pastry and found it even more addictive than I thought.”

“This doesn’t make any sense,” she said.

She wouldn’t be Tatiana if she didn’t argue with him.

“It makes perfect sense. Are you really sick?”

She quirked that sexy mouth and pretended to consider his question. “I believe I am. I believe I’ve come down with a bad case of infatuation.” She smoothed her hands over his chest. “I thought if I stayed home today I’d get over it soon enough.”

He slid his hands beneath her T-shirt and cupped the fullness of her breasts. They fit perfectly in his hands, but then, that was no surprise because he now knew she was the perfect woman for him. “I’ve got just the cure.” He brushed his thumbs over her nipples and they sprang to attention, which in turn brought him to full attention.

She pressed her breasts against him and pressed her thighs against his erection. She licked a path from his neck to his ear and nipped the lobe, the sensation arrowing straight to his arousal.

“I’m thinking it’s more of a vaccination,” she murmured into his ear while she pulled his shirt out of his pants.

“Look at it this way-either way we’ll be cured. But the first thing we need to do is get you to bed.”

Tatiana fell onto the bed and Cole followed. They’d lost their clothes on the short trip from her den to her bedroom and a rush of sexual energy shot through her at the slide of his bare skin and heat against hers.

He drove her into the mattress, the comforter cool against the back of her while she was burning up from the inside out.

He scattered kisses down her neck, wreaking havoc to her central nervous system. “That day in Melvin’s office-”

Her laugh came out breathless. “When you were in la-la land-”

“No la-la land. I was thinking about this.” He flicked his tongue against her nipple and she arched up off the bed at the jolt that ran through her.

“Really? You were thinking about licking my nipples until I couldn’t stand it any longer and had my evil way with you?”

“Technically, I was thinking about how you’d taste…” He slid down her body, trailing kisses down her belly followed by an occasional lick. Oh, she liked where she thought this was heading. She opened her legs farther and he obligingly ventured farther, his cheek, with its faint stubble, scraping against her thigh. “Everywhere.” He dipped his tongue into her slick channel. Sensation rocked her and she fisted her hand in the coverlet and moaned aloud.

“Delicious appetizer.”

On a bad day, when Cole grinned it was spine-tingling wicked, but this was a good day and he’d never been sexier than now when he flashed her an I’m-going-to-eat-you-up hot look from between her thighs.

“Far be it from me to interrupt your dining pleasure but it seems unfair that my plate’s empty.”

She slid to the edge of the bed and pulled a flavored condom from her night stand. Changing direction, careful not to kick him, she brought his masculine thighs, flat belly and hard cock into mouth-watering proximity. She sheathed him, then nibbled her way along his thigh, inhaling his heady scent. Surprise flashed in his eyes only to be replaced by the glitter of hot sexual arousal. He rolled to his side to face her and wrapped his big masculine hand around her thigh, continuing his nuzzling between her legs.

Tatiana had never been so intimate so quickly with anyone, but she and Cole had been engaged in a pas de deux for nearly a year and after denying the attraction, resisting it, there was an inevitability to being here with him akin to the sun rising every morning.

“Appetizer for two,” she murmured and licked the length of his impressive erection. He groaned against her wet folds and pleasure radiated through her.

She’d thought she was hot before, now she was gripped by a fever of want. He lapped at her while she took him in her mouth and lavished attention on his cock.

“Baby, if we don’t stop now I’m never going to make it to the main course.”

She was nearly mindless with want. She rolled onto her back and Cole rolled off the bed. He stood by the edge of the mattress. He was big and aroused and looked at her with a mixture of pure lust, adoration and possessiveness that intensified the ache between her thighs. She quivered with the need to feel his hard length inside her.

She eyed his jutting penis with a reciprocal measure of admiring lust. “I know exactly what I want for a main course.”

Cole laughed, low and wicked. He grasped her behind her knees and dragged her across the bed until her bottom was even with the edge of the mattress. Oh, baby. He hooked his arms beneath her knees and entered her in one smooth, long stroke. She cried out and rose up to take him as deep and hard as possible.

Buried to the hilt, he paused, “You don’t know how many times I’ve fantasized about you. You’re even hotter than I thought.”

Talk about the right thing to say. She clenched her muscles around him, lifting her bottom, nudging him even deeper. “I’ve had a few fantasies of my own about you, but they never felt this good.”

He set a pace of hard and fast then slow and gentle, bringing her close to an orgasm and then backing off until she was writhing frantically. His jaw was clenched with the effort not to come too quickly.

“Please…” She sank her nails into the bulge of his biceps.

“Dessert…together.”

Tremors started at her core, from somewhere deep inside her soul, something she’d never offered to any other man, and rolled through her until she was too much for herself. She screamed her release as Cole exploded inside her.

“Thank you for the cookies.” Cole’s warm breath stirred the hair at her temple.

Tatiana didn’t move. Couldn’t move. Cole had returned from a quick bathroom trip and had stretched out on the bed, pulling her on top of him…was it two minutes ago? Five?A lifetime? She was still sprawled on top of him, boneless with satisfaction. She smiled against his warm, naked, just-the-right-amount-of-hair-on-it chest and murmured, “What cookies?”

“The almond cookies that I smelled when I came into your house earlier.The ones sitting in the canister on your counter.”

“Oh, those.” She rolled off him with a grin and pulled the sheet up over them both. “I didn’t think you noticed.”

“You’re cute in that pink robe, but I didn’t miss the food.”

She smiled. She was so not cute-especially in that robe, but apparently cute was in the eye of the blinded-by-lust beholder. “Did you know when you opened them?”

“No. With the bib and the spoon I had sort of pegged you. But the cookies were too nice. I thought it must be someone else.” She threw a pillow and hit him in the head. He laughed and pinned her to the bed. “You’re never nice to me.”

She bit him on the shoulder. “Because I don’t like you.” She loved him. For better or for worse. For whatever he was or wasn’t, she loved him.

“You liked me well enough a few minutes ago.”

“I wouldn’t say actively liked. More along the lines of tolerated.”

“If you screamed that loud when you were merely tolerating me, I’m not sure my ears could stand it if you actually liked me.”

“Just imagine how deaf you’d be if I was idiot-brained enough to fancy that I loved you.”

He traced the line of her bare shoulder, his touch sending tingles through her. “Umm.Terrifying. All these years I thought I could make the decision not to care about people, not to let them close to my heart. And then you came along and I found out free choice doesn’t exist when it comes to love. The only control we have over it is what we decide to do about it.”

“Excuse me, but did you just bumble your way around a declaration of love?”

“Ladies first. Did you just snark your way through an admission of being idiot-brained?”

“I think I may have.”

“Coward.”

“I am not a coward. Ducking out of work and ditching dinner wasn’t cowardice, it was an inept attempt at self-preservation. Okay, I have a feeling you’re going to shamelessly use this against me, but, yes, I do love you. Satisfied?”

“I’m getting there.” She suddenly saw what made much more sense than where she’d been going all along. Cole obviously wasn’t on the best terms with this family. He spent Christmas with his sister but not his father or his mother. He’d worked at Connoisseur for almost a year, and never in that time had she heard of his father revisiting Mr. Creighton. “Your father didn’t get you the job at Connoisseur, did he?”

He shifted to his back, one arm beneath his head, seemingly at ease except for his wary eyes. “What makes you say that? And what difference does it make?”

“All this time I thought you’d just waltzed into a job the rest of us had to work our butts off to get.”

“Yours came back. And very nicely, if I do say so.”

“Oh, no, you’re not going to sidetrack me. Your father didn’t get you the job, but he was there and he did meet with Mr. Creighton.” She considered the type of man who would let his new wife-or, as was apparently the case, wives-allow his children to feel unwanted. “He didn’t want you to have this job, did he? That’s why he met with Mr. Creighton-to try to keep you from getting the job-isn’t it?”

He sighed. “No, he didn’t want me to have the job. And, yes, he’d told me if I insisted on working in publishing, it could at least be for a publication that he thought worthy. He had connections and he’d make sure I had a position with the Wall Street Journal or a job as a foreign correspondent if I wanted the travel aspect. I didn’t want to work for the Journal. So he paid Douglas Creighton a visit to try to dissuade him from hiring me. Luckily Creighton thinks every man succeeds or fails on his own merit.”

“You let us all think…”

“No. You thought what you wanted to think.”

“But you could’ve told us…”

“No. I learned a long time ago, people either know me and like me for who I am or they don’t.”

“Your stepmothers?”

“Yep. And stepfathers.”

She recalled his attitude toward Parker Longrehn. He wouldn’t give Parker the satisfaction of knowing he could affect his life. There were many more layers to laid-back, devil-may-care Cole Mitchell than she’d ever suspected. Or maybe that wasn’t true. Maybe she’d suspected it but hadn’t wanted to acknowledge it. Maybe she’d hidden behind resenting his job because it had kept her safe from the attraction she’d felt from their first encounter. If she didn’t like him, then she couldn’t possibly fall in love with him, right?

Except she had.

“I would insist on dragging you along to Connie’s house, except her munchkin has the chicken pox. Since we seem to be stuck with one another for Christmas, why don’t we go to Corfu?”

“What? Why?”

“Because it’s there and we can. I want to go there with you. Christmas in Corfu has a nice ring, doesn’t it?”

“But…” She couldn’t come up with the rest, she just knew it didn’t feel right. “I hadn’t planned to go to Corfu.”

“Neither had I. But then again, I didn’t plan to fall in love with you, but it strikes me as a very good thing.”

“I love to travel. But, you know, it’s always scheduled. Anticipated.Part of business. I’m not packed. It’d cost a fortune. And who would watch for Mrs. Abramonoff’s pears?”

He smiled, and if she hadn’t been watching so closely she might’ve missed the flash of disappointment in his eyes. He leaned over and kissed her on her nose. “It’s fine, babe. I don’t really care where we are as long as I’m with you. And at the risk of coming across as an insensitive man, I’m kind of hungry. I missed lunch today and my dinner date stood me up.” He grinned at her. “Mind if I heat up that chicken soup? Considering you’re ill, I’ll be glad to bring you a bowl in bed.”

“Works for me.”

Cole padded out of her bedroom and she heard him rustling around in the kitchen. She should be ecstatic…well, she would be ecstatic if she hadn’t seen that quickly masked moment of disappointment in his eyes.

She had a lifetime of warm holiday memories surrounded by a family that adored her. Cole had been shuffled from one parent to another, and wanted by neither. Had anyone ever asked him what he’d like to do for Christmas? She’d bet her last dollar that had never happened. But he, who never got too close to anyone, had just told her what he wanted, and she’d shot it down for a host of ridiculous reasons that all went back to one thing-she didn’t know how to have fun outside of work.

But by God she was about to learn. It was time for her to start building a Christmas tradition of her own and time for his Christmas tradition to take a step up.

She stood and pulled on her pink chenille robe-he’d seen her in it and out of it, so what the heck. She padded into the kitchen and found him testing the soup in a pan on the stove.

She wrapped her arms around him from behind and pressed a kiss to his naked back. He turned and nuzzled the sensitive spot beneath her ear. A delicate shiver chased over her skin. Of course, she seemed to have a multitude of sensitive spots with him.

“Sorry it’s taking so long, but a microwave ruins the noodles,” he said.

“Well, this sucks, but I’m sick.”

He leaned back and peered at her. “What’s the matter?”

“I’ve got the travel bug.”

“What?”

“Someone mentioned Christmas in Corfu, and at first I thought it was crazy. But now I’ve caught the travel bug and I think there’s only one cure for it.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive.”

He picked her up and swung her around in a circle, looking for all the world like an elated little boy who’d just been presented a gift from a Santa he didn’t believe in anymore.

Which reminded her…“When you came earlier, you had a present. Was that for me?” It wasn’t as if she had a whole lot of gifts to look forward to.

Cole grinned at her. “It was your last Secret Santa gift. I volunteered to bring it over and check on you. It gave me a good reason to come by.”

“Okay. At least it got you over here. Let me fire up my laptop and we’ll book our tickets while we eat.”

“Aren’t you going to open your present?”

“Yeah.Later. I want to get the tickets booked first.”

He picked up the box on the counter wrapped in Santa Claus paper topped with a big red bow and handed it to her. “Go ahead and open it now. Might as well get it out of the way.”

She tore off the wrapping and lifted the box top. Nestled in white tissue paper was a pair of sheer red bikini panties…with a sprig of mistletoe embroidered on the front.

She looked up, laughing. “You. You’re my Secret Santa.”

He spread his hands, palms up. “Hey, you don’t always have a sprig of mistletoe handy when you need it.”

“I believe I’ll have to pack this along with my massage oil for Corfu.”

“Why don’t you come sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what else you’d like for Christmas.”

“Well, Santa, I’ve been a very good girl all year-except maybe I’ve been a little testy with this guy at work.” She nuzzled his neck. “But I can’t lie, Santa. I think I’m about to be very naughty and I think I deserve to get Cole in my stocking this year.”

Jennifer LaBrecque

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