Main Unwrapped

Unwrapped

He will pay. I will make his Christmas hell and be the one waving him goodbye with my middle finger as he packs his bags and rolls out. This roof isn’t big enough for the two of us. Heck, neither is this town. Or this country. Maybe the entire world. Maybe the universe. He packs an ego to match his size. His swagger is sexy as all hell. He smells like pine soap and new money… crisp. Sharp. Hungry. My palms smack the tiled shower walls. Why? Why do I always want the bad ones? The ones who treat me like dirt and walk away without a second thought? Not this time. I won’t let it happen. If only I could find a way to get the man out of my damn head. If I don’t I’m totally scrooged.
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©2019 Jax Hart

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Jxhart05@gmail.com





Dear Reader,

If this is your first trip into Springdale…welcome. It’s a fictional town in the pacific northwestern mountains in southern Oregon. The men are fierce. Loyal. Bad asses. And the women are independent AF and don’t take any shit.

For those of you who’ve visited a few times…welcome back. This holiday season you’ll find your favorite residents and maybe even Roque will make an appearance.

Enjoy and Merry Christmas. May the season bring you joy and more than a few…naughty nights.

This was supposed to be a holiday novella, but the words kept coming and so enjoy this full length 50kplus novel! It’s more light-hearted than MC since it is a holiday romance. I had fun with this. I hope you do, too.

JH





***The men in Springdale are cut rough. So is their language. To stay true to these characters, their dialogue reflects this. These are not grammatical errors, but intentional slang.***



JH





PROLOGUE


DARE


CHRISTMAS 1995



I wondered if this was the year he’d come. I pressed my nose to the glass, looking up past the tall evergreens to the clear night sky. I didn’t see his sleigh yet, but it was still early. Hopping down from my bed, I gingerly unwrapped the cookies I saved in a napkin from my class party. Three sugar cookies with sprinkles. Santa’s favorite. Surely, this year, he’d leave me something. Anything. I’ve been a good boy, kept my head down, cleaned the dishes every morning…even the broken ones I often find on the floor.

“Darren! Where you at boy?”

My spine stiffened. My palms started to sweat.

Not tonight.

Why did she have to invite him over tonight?

My eyes darted to the window. But there was no time to climb down in the snow. I wouldn’t get far in my pajamas anyhow. The door to my room crashed open. Ma’s boyfriend, Jim, stumbled in with a cigar dangling from the corner of his lip and stinkin’ of cheap vodka. I was only eight and yet I learned what the smell of a drunk dickhead was years earlier.

My fists cle; nched.

“What do ya’ want?” I turned, widening my stance.

“You’re a mouthy little fucker, aren’t you? I’m here to teach ya’ some manners boy!”

I cringed. I didn’t say anything, but it was of no use. He beat me for fun. He charged forward and I dove right under his legs, rolled and made it through the door.

“Come back here, you little shit!”

No way was that happening.

Ma had a lot of friends over. They were laughing loud and using straws to snort powder off a tray.

No one saw me.

No one cared.

I quickly looked around before opening a bare cupboard door under the kitchen island, managing to squeeze in leaving it open just enough to peek out.

“Where did he go?” Jim roared.

No one knew. His face became redder. He kicked over the tiny tree Ma and I had put up when she was sober three days ago.

I watched as he stomped on the cheap ornaments, I managed to buy from the drugstore in town using some of the money I had saved from weeding my neighbor’s vegetable garden last summer.

“Santa’s not comin’ for you boy! He ain’t real! Ho, ho, ho little fucker!” Jim bellowed as he held an almost empty vodka bottle and downed what was left.

I swiped my hand across my eyes.

My life sucked.

No one loved me.

No one cared.

I needed to believe that he was real. That maybe once a year I could feel special; like my existence even mattered.

I didn’t dare come out. I stayed in that cupboard below kitchen counter all night. When I woke up, my neck was so stiff I could barely move it. I gingerly opened the door. Ma’s friends were still there but they were all asleep. Some on the couch, others on the floor. The place smelled bad. I looked around, but Jim was right. Santa never came. And I was stupid for believing. I shoved into the snow boots my teacher gave me; a hand-me-down from her older son. My winter coat was too. I didn’t know where I was going, but I didn’t want to spend Christmas Day here.

It had snowed sometime overnight and my boots sank deep as I trudged through to the road.

I decided to walk toward town. My stomach grumbled in pain. There wasn’t much food at Ma’s. Gran wasn’t much better, but when she’s home there’s usually some food in the fridge. She took off to spend Christmas with some guy she met in Reno last fall when she went took a bus trip out there.

Maybe, I’d sneak around the the diner if it was open and steal a stack of pancakes as the order comes up before the waitress notices. It wouldn’t be the first time.

The low growl of a truck’s engine comes from behind me. I don’t turn around. I don’t want no trouble. Instead, I bury my hands deeper in my coat pocket and keep looking down.

“Hey kid.”

Nervous, I walk faster.

“Ah, shit. Don’t be scared. I ain’t no perve.”

I look up and my eyes widen at the shiniest cherry red Ford pick-up I’d ever seen. It looked new and was the color of Santa’s suit.

The man grinned. “You like my truck?”

I nod, swallowing hard.

“My names Roger. My friends call me Meat. Get in. I’m going to a Christmas breakfast.”

I shake my head. “I can’t, Mister.”

He nods. “I know. I didn’t trust anyone either when I was your age. I ain’t dumb. A kid walking in the snow in his pajamas this early on Christmas morning tells me…you ain’t got someplace safe to go. I’ve been there, kid.” He reached for something in his cab then puts his arm covered in ink through the open window. “Here. Take this. Keep it.”

My eyes widen at the huge switch blade. My fingers gingerly take it from his.

“Merry Christmas, kid.”

He rolls up the window and crawls forward.

The knife is heavy in my hand. Hope uncurls from its hiding spot deep inside me.

“Wait!” I run after the man in the truck. He stops again. I race to the passenger side and open the door. “You sure you ain’t no pervert?”

“No, son. I’m just a man who was a kid just like you once.” His eyes are sincere. He’s big as a giant from one of those fairy tales I never believed in.

“Okay. Breakfast would be good. I’ll pay you back, Mister. I swear.”

He looks me over. “No need kid. The boys and I would be much obliged to have ya’.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m Creed. I belong to a brotherhood. It’s more like a family. You ever ride a dirt bike?”

I shake my head. “I haven’t done much of anything, mister.”

“Besides, keep yourself from getting’ beat. Am I right?”

I shrug. “Sometimes he gets me.”

Roger’s face darkens. “Not anymore, kid. You’re under my protection now. Merry Christmas, kid.”

“My name’s Darren.”

He grunts, “Good to meet ya’.” He pulls down a dirt road I’ve passed many times before. A large wooden building comes into view. Sassy’s is painted on the sign. Smoke curls from a chimney and a wreath hangs on the door. I follow him inside.

Men laugh and sing along to the Christmas songs booming from speakers on the wall. Two trees sit in opposite corners full of multi-colored lights. I sniff the air. Bacon and pine. Coffee and grits. No vodka. No drunks.

I smile so wide; my eyes cry happy tears.

“Everyone!” Roger’s voice booms, “This is Dare! Welcome him!”

“Hey kid,” a bunch of men wearing leather cuts nod as Rog gives me a seat at a table. Another huge man slides a plate full of pancakes and bacon in front of me. “I’m John. I have a boy, Duke, who’s around here somewhere. How old are you?”

“Eight.”

“He’s thirteen. He’ll show ya’ around.”

I dug into the hot food and ate as much as I could. I didn’t know if I’d ever eat like this again. The men said nothing just let me.

When I was done, we hung out and played cards. Rog taught me how to play Texas hold ‘em. The fire cracked and popped. It was the best damn Christmas I’d ever had, and I didn’t spend it with anyone who was blood.

“Here, kid.”

Rog, the big man, John and another giant, Colin all gather around me holding brightly wrapped gifts.

“What’s this?” I exclaimed as they shoved them in my arms.

“They must’ve fallen of Santa’s sleigh. They all have your name on it. Rog found them out back when he was having a smoke.”

“I brushed the snow off them myself,” he boasted.

I swallowed hard. Could it be true? Did Santa really have gifts for me every year that somehow fell from his sleigh?

My hands tore at the paper. Comic books! A Nintendo game set?! Books and match box cars? It was more than I had ever gotten from anybody my whole life.

In that moment, I felt the magic of Christmas. It had eluded me for eight years and I finally had felt it. Christmas hope was real. Magic was too. And instead of fairy god mother’s, I had a group of giants watching over me.

“I better get you home.”

My shoulders slumped. But Roger was right. I had to go back. The sky had turned gray. A few snowflakes starting to fall. I pressed my face to the widow of Roger’s truck as we drove away, looking back at the old wooden building until I couldn’t see it anymore.

“You gonna be all right?” Roger asked as he pulled up outside my house.

I shrugged and tried to act tough, like my throat wasn’t about to close up at the thought of going inside.

“Here.” Rog said gruffly, handing over a crumpled piece of paper. It’s my number. If you ever get in real trouble use it. You hear me?”

I nodded thickly and pushed the door open. “Thank you. For everything. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, kid.”

I watched until his taillights disappeared before slowly turning the door and sneaking in. The lights were off. No one was home. No one even noticed I was gone all day. Ma probably forget Gran wasn’t here. Gran is the one who usually watches me anyway.

I made my way to my room and carefully took out my gifts. I was young but I wasn’t dumb. I knew Jim would take them just because he could, and it would give him great pleasure to hurt me.

I hid them all. Finding the perfect spots around my room. The phone rang in the kitchen and went to answer it.

“Darren? Is your mother there?”

“No. It’s just me Gran. I dunno where she went.”

She pauses. “I-I’m not coming back. I’m sorry.”

“What do you mean? I don’t understand.”

“I eloped. It means…I got married. I’m staying in Reno.”

“Can I come? Please!”

“I’m sorry, Darren. You need to stay there.”

“No!” I punched the wall.

“Did you get the Christmas present I left for you?”

“No?”

“I left you a card and twenty bucks.”

My fists clenched. Ma uses it on cheap wine. I was sure of it and I knew Gran knew that’s what happened too.

The front door banged open. “You-whooo you here, boy?”

“Jim’s here, Gran. I’m scared. He hates me.”

“Just go to your room and lock the door. He’s just a mean drunk.”

But he’s drunk all the time I had thought. I dropped the phone as he rounded the corner. “Where’s Ma?”

“Out looking for you, you little shit. Where ya’ been.”

“At a friend’s. I left Ma a note,” I shrugged.

He started unlooping his leather belt as he stalked forward. I gulped. Christmas was over…

I wake, covered in sweat. Blinking I look around. I’m not back in Springdale and I’m not eight. The cuts from Jim’s belt healed a long time ago but sometimes like tonight, they still bleed.

“Fuck,” I whisper in the dark. Getting out of bed, I move to the bank of windows across the room. Lights from the city below shine up through the ice and now. Christmas lights twinkle from light poles below.

I left that nightmare a long time ago and yet it still find me.

“Dare? Come back to bed?”

I half turn as my girlfriend poses seductively, letting the straps of her silk teddy drop from her slim shoulders.

But I’m not even remotely interested. Haven’t been for a while if I’m being honest. Hell, I was too tired after work to battle with her when she showed up late tonight. Turning my back to herm I stare out at the city wondering if Christmastime will ever feel the way it should for me.





Shiloh



Red Velvet. My fingers skim the plush dress on the hanger. It’s sure to hug the curves of my body and hopefully make me irresistible to Grant. I lift it from the rack and hold it up against me, turning to the mirror as I do. My hands tremble as I’m thrown back in time to a memory long buried. The red velvet dress is a talisman, spinning me back to the last time I wore a dress this color at Christmas…



Christmas 1995



“Look at you, such a little perfect princess.” I shrank back as yet another stranger pinched my cheek.

My eyes drifted to the twenty-foot tree. I was just an ornament. Perfect and on display.

Sighing, I ran my delicate fingers down my red velvet Christmas dress hoping Santa would bring me the Holiday Barbie I wanted and a kitten. I dreamed of a kitten to curl up at my feet at night and keep the monsters away. My kitty would have sharp claws and teeth and use them on everyone but me. Soft, fur that would tickle my palm and a throaty purr to comfort me in the way Mama’s arms never do.

I straightened and carefully walked in my new, black Mary Janes to the desert table. The shoes pinched my toes, but I didn’t dare complain. Mama wanted to find a husband and having me made that difficult she says. I need to be perfect, so Mama doesn’t get mad and ignore me on Christmas.

I eye the choices in front of me. Sugar cookies, rich chocolate cake, bowls of ribbon candies and peppermint sticks. It’s all for show. None of Mama’s friends ever touch a thing. I reach forward and grab a large slice of cake just as I’m bumped from behind. Not hard, but I’m only six. The slice of cake wobbles on the plate and falls down the front of my dress like a tumbling weed.

Mama’s going to be mad.

I frantically grab napkins but it’s too late. The click of her heels crossing the floor makes my palms sweat and my tummy hurt.

“Shi…,” she bends down, moving my thick hair behind my ear as her ruby red covered lips whisper in my ear, “go to your room. Not one word. Not one tear. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Mama.” My chin wobbled and my eyes shut tight. I embarrassed Mama at her Christmas Eve party. She never hurt me with hands. Only words.

“Good. You—disgusting, dirty child. Santa will find out about this…”

“But Mama,” I lifted my eyes to hers, pleading for mercy.

“Go,” she just ordered, looking perfectly beautiful while staring at me adoringly so none of her guests would guess she’s punishing me. Mama’s a good actress. She fools everybody.

I bite my lip to keep from crying and keep my head lowered as I wind through the hushed crowd and climb the steps. The bannister glows with twined garland and lights, leading a cheery path up to my room.

I carefully take of my soiled dress, sniffling as my tummy growls and the smell of chocolate frosting wafts to my nose. Mama wouldn’t let me eat supper. She said I needed to be skinny to be pretty. She’s probably madder that I tried to sneak cake then she is about the ruined dress. The tags scratched my back all night leaving angry, red marks on my skin. But Mama wanted to return it after the party. I don’t even want to think about what my punishment will be for ruining it.

I brush my teeth and climb into my comfy bed with its soft blankets. Surely, Santa will come. He knows everything…so he must know I’m not a naughty girl. I’m good. Aren’t I?

I grab my teddy tight as I look out my window at the swaying palm trees wondering how Santa’s sled works where it doesn’t snow. Then I wonder if Christmas even exists outside of the place where snow and ice rule.

But he came last year. And the year before that. He’ll remember me. He’s the only one who does.

With that thought…I smiled and closed my eyes dreaming of my new kitty and the smell of fresh peppermint sticks.

Before I knew it, the California sunlight was streaming through my window. Christmas morning had finally come. I bounded from my bed and ripped open my door. My feet skidded in the hallway as I raced towards the stairs and the twenty-foot tree Mama and I had decorated weeks ago. The lights were still twinkling as I jumped down the steps.

But something was wrong.

There were no presents.

Confused, I looked around in case Santa was in a hurry. With a frown, I raced back upstairs and into Mama’s room.

“Mama! Mama!” I had cried. “Something’s wrong. Something bad happened to Santa. He never came.”

Mama rolled over and lifted her ivory silk sleeping mask from her eyes. “He isn’t real you silly girl. Go back to sleep.”

“What? What do you mean, Mama? Of course, he is. He comes every year!”

“No, Shiloh. That was my ex, Hugh who wrapped the past two years. He thought it was fun. I did get you some presents; I didn’t have time to wrap them though. Go on, they’re stacked in my closet. You can have them all now if you let me sleep for two more hours.”

I still didn’t believe her. Mama can be mean sometimes. Especially if she gets doesn’t get a part she auditioned for. The toilet in her bathroom flushes and a man opens the door. He’s handsome. And new. Mama always has new men stay for sleepovers. She giggles and tells me they watch movies together. But she won’t let me have any sleepovers with friends. The man’s eyes widen as he peers down at me. “You have kids?”

“Just one. Come back to bed, darling.”

“Scat.” Mama orders, glaring at me.

I scramble into her closet, eagerly looking for presents.

“Mama?!” My hands open one. Inside are clothes, books on yoga and “eating clean” and a few packs of sugarless gum. “I don’t see anything.”

She giggled as her friend kisses her ear and tickled her. “Get lost, Shiloh. Santa isn’t real. Christmas isn’t real.”

“That’s harsh, babe. Did you at least get the kid something?” The man asked.

“Yeah. I kept her. That should’ve been good enough.”

Hot tears fell like a waterfall. I ran from Mama, slamming the door behind me. She’s wrong. Christmas and Santa are both real and one day, I’d prove it.





1


Dare


CHICAGO IS COLD AS FUCK THIS TIME OF YEAR. But the cold has never bothered me when it’s all I’ve ever known.

Snow swirls outside the bank of windows from the top floor of Drago industries. It falls softly to the streets below, covering the world in white.

My gut churns.

Christmas.

The time of year when you think about family. The good, bad, and ugly of it. I’ve never known Christmas. At least not the kind even semi-normal families have. Santa never landed on my roof. We never even had a tree. until the one year I thought… My fists clench as I look out at the city below, watching the snow turned into rain. The once pristine landscape’s turning to slush.

“Mr. Prescott? Isabella is on line three.”

Hell.

“Thank you, Claudia.”

My secretary turns from the doorway, shutting my office door with a click. I stare out into the gray below for a few more seconds before turning from the cool glass and walk back to my desk. My hand hovers over the phone before I pick it up, then I press line three.

“What?” I bark. She knows I don’t like to be disturbed at work.

“I miss you. I haven’t seen you for a week.”

“I’ve been busy. It’s the end of the year.”

“Too busy for your girlfriend?” She huffs.

I don’t bother answering. Isabella isn’t it for me. We both know this and yet she refuses to let go.

“Spend Christmas with me. We can go anywhere. Cabo. Paris.”

“I can’t. I’m working.”

“Over Christmas?”

“It means nothing to me.” I lie, ignoring my wounded heart that never healed from all the Christmases past. Where the little boy I was… never woke up to presents under a tree. What I did wake woke up to was passed out drunks and broken beer bottles littering the kitchen sink.

“Really, Dare?”

“Don’t call me that.” I pinch the bridge of my nose, feeling a headache coming on. She feels acts like she knows my secrets, when she doesn’t know jack shit. Just because her hands have roamed over my body, tracing the ink on my skin doesn’t mean she knows a damn thing. My nickname “Dare” is written across my back followed by Creed’s emblem. Despite her prying, I never did answer her questions; even as she tried to coax them from me while using her lips and tongue. “I’ll call you later. I have a meeting in a few minutes.” I place the phone back in the cradle without even bothering to hear her reply.

I was already feeling like I needed to break something. I want to crawl out of my skin. To be somewhere - anywhere but alone at Christmas again.

“Sir?”

My PA knocks at my door.

“Come in,” I keep my tone even, despite my clenching fists.

“They’re ready for you.”

I grab my laptop and briefcase, pushing thoughts of Isabella and Christmas from my mind. I have a multi-billion-dollar company to run. There’s no time for weakness or bad childhood memories. Afterall, I’ve transformed. I’m no longer the unwanted boy from a no place of a town deep in the woods of Southern Oregon. I’m Darren Grant, CEO, Chicago millionaire and off-limits to any woman who thinks otherwise. Especially, Isabella.

I stride through the halls of my company, heads above the other men. My scowl stops anyone from wishing me a “Merry Christmas.” Cubicle after cubicle glows with tacked up string lights. Mini-Christmas trees perch on the edges of desks. A few electric menorahs are placed on tables next to wooden dreidels.

My gut churns.

A multi-million-dollar deal is on the line. I dig deep. Pushing down my emotions, and I become the shadow man of my youth: dark, dangerous, and ruthless.

My palm pushes the heavy boardroom door wide. My eyes pin everyone down in their seats. I place my laptop and briefcase down at the head of the long rectangular table. The tips of my fingers straighten my ivory silk tie.

I don’t miss the woman on my right, re-crossing her legs and shifting in her seat. I smirk, winking at her. A blush creeps along her cheeks.

I smell her arousal.

Any weakness I had a few moments ago is forgotten. I’m the king of the concrete jungle below me. People sense I am different, but they cannot put their finger on why.

Underneath, my layers of thousand-dollar threads, is a dangerous man covered in ink. I spar with amateur boxers three times a week. I might work in finance, but what I don’t have is weak hands. It’s just one of the many ways I make Isabella come. My calloused covered palms work her over real/really good. But lately, I haven’t even wanted to lose myself in her. I’ve been losing myself in work.

Claudia clears her throat, signaling to me that everyone is seated and ready to give their presentation

The woman on my right stands, nervously smoothing down her skirt. She wobbles, unsteady in her heels as she walks to the other end of the table to begin her presentation.

She’s flustered.

It’s my fault.

I shoot her some serious side-eye as I lower my head to check my cell.

Rog: I need you to look over my books.

Me: Why? You forgot how to do math, old man?

Rog: Fuck you. I’m not old. I

Me: How’s Devon?

Rog: Busy warming my bed.

Me: ***eyeroll*** I’m sending you some Viagra for X-mas.

Rog: Fucker.

Me: Yep.

Rog: Are you gonna help me or what?

Me: Depends.

Rog: F U C K E R!

Roger is family. The uncle I never had. I know how to get under his skin and I enjoy it. I grin, raising my eyes and finding the blonde’s eyes. I stroke a finger over my lips, winking at her hard. I no longer feel grumpy. I’m feeling mischievous as fuck. Until, I spot the mistletoe hanging over the refreshment area where the bagels, water and coffee are located.

I stand, interrupting her prattling on about projected sales numbers, to rip that shit right down and throw it in the trash. “Who put that up?” I demand, eyes slicing everyone in the room to shreds.

No one looks me in the eye.

I walk over to the Christmas tree, taunting me with its twinkling lights. I unplug that shit. Then kick the damn thing over.

“You were saying?” I raise an eyebrow, smooth my tie again and take a seat.

“Asshole.” Someone breathes.

“Grinch.” Is whispered, under someone else’s breath.

“Scrooge.”

I grin, placing my hands behind my head. Using my foot, I swivel my chair right to left, enjoying the sound of it squeak every time the hot blonde tries to talk.

I know I’m being an asshole by acting immature. But fuck, if she can’t get through this, I’m not buying shit from her. You need to be tough in this business or you won’t survive. I haven’t even started firing my big-boy questions yet.

Her eyes fall to the screen of her laptop. Her hand trembles as she lifts a bottle of water to her mouth.

She’s wet for me.

I just know it.

I flirt when I’m bored or pissed as fuck. It helps improve my mood. She hesitates them lifts her eyes finding mine. Grinning like the devil, I cock my head to the side and loosen my tie.

Something has gotten under my skin today and this sweet thing standing at the other end of the room is catching the brunt of it. She continues her sales pitch, listing off reasons why Drago should switch tech support firms to hers. I half-listen as I scroll through my phone, tapping the app that controls everything in my company from office lights to thermostats. I scroll until I find the conference room we are in and adjust the heat setting from 68 to 80 degrees. Just because, I want to see, if what she has under the oversized, boxy suit coat she’s wearing can distract me from the pissy mood I’m in.

The numbers to some of the most beautiful woman in the world are at my disposal. But I think I’m over them all. Instant gratification has lost its appeal. I miss the anticipation of wondering if a woman has freckles on her chest? If her nipples are nickel or quarter-sized? This blonde trying to hide her curves under a boring skirt-suit is making me wonder again.

I sit further back into my chair popping a few buttons open at my neck and slide off my own suit jacket. She swallows hard as I roll the sleeves of my crisp white shirt up to my elbows. My forearms are cut; the veins bulging.

She fans her flushed face, popping open the button on her jacket then a few minutes later taking it off.

Hot damn.

It’s blazing in here! Warm air is streaming down from the ceiling vents, but her nipples are warm rosettes, puckering against her soft silk shirt. The fabric is delicate and thin. and Under the fluorescent lightning overhead, her nipples beaming straight at me.

She stumbles over her words, stops and sips more water. Strands of her hair stick to the side of her neck.

I finally feel my dick stirring. Something my current girlfriend hasn’t managed to do in weeks.

I pick up my laptop and tuck it under my arm as I rise from my seat. I grab my suit jacket and hook it over my shoulder as I stroll down the room, stopping to lean down and whisper in her ear. “Poor execution. But I already knew I’d sign the deal. I did my… homework and your firm is top-notch.”

She bites her lip, holding back a moan. My eyes are drawn to the V where the first few buttons of her blouse are undone giving me a glimpse of her cleavage below.

Well, hello.

I really need a new woman; one that makes my dick swell nice and hard. But one of the few rules I live by is never to dip my stick in anyone who works for me or with me in any capacity. But something tells me, I might be pleasuring myself later to images of blondie and her rosebud nipples.

I stride down the hall listening to the sounds of fingers tapping on keyboards. Christmas music is playing from someone’s wireless speakers. I pause, then turn left, strolling through the rows of cubicles until I find the culprit. Mary McGovern.

“Sir?”

She licks her lips nervously as all six plus feet of me towers over her sitting at her desk.

“Turn it off.”

Her chin quivers as she opens her browser and x’s out of the streaming Internet radio site.

“Thank you. Mary. Not everyone celebrates Christmas and I wouldn’t want any of my other employees to feel …offended.”

“Of course. I understand.”

“Good.”

I turn on my heel. Since I hate Christmas, and love, and cheer, and all that other crap I never had, my hands pull the cords from every fake Christmas tree that is lit up on desks as I pass them.

Satisfied. And feeling immensely better, I whistle the song from “Mr. Grinch” as I walk down the hall to my office.

The Grinch had it right. As soon as I round the corner to my office doors, Claudia calls out from her desk in the hall, “I’m very sorry Sir. But Isabella is on line four. She insists on speaking with you.”

What the fuck?

With a sigh, I enter my office and press line four then intercom.

“What now?” I bark.

“Don’t be like this Dare…”

“Like what? A CEO? I don’t have a trust fund like you, Izzy. I actual have to earn my money.”

“I know,” she coos. “But you’ve been working so much that we’ve barely seen each other. I made reservations at Di Pietro’s at seven. We can discuss our holiday plans…”

My cell pings with a text.

Rog: You gonna help a brotha out or what?

My eyes once again find the gray outside, pellets of icy sleet hit my window as the infamous Chicago winds pick up.

Me: I’m coming home for Christmas asshole.

Rog: It’s about time you showed that pretty boy face of yours. Safe travels.

“Have you listened to a word I’ve said?”

“I’ll see you at seven.” I reply curtly, hanging up on her. I hate breaking up with a woman. It’s uncomfortable as hell. I never promise any of them forever. I hardly promise much of anything. I’m not a complete dick in relationships, but my career has always come first, and I’ve always been honest about that. But somehow, I always end up here anyway—feeling empty and wishing for the beginning again. When everything and anything with someone is possible. And the sex is fresh and off the hook.

I press the button on my phone that calls Claudia directly at her desk.

“How can I help you, Sir?”

“Dammit, Claudia! You’ve worked for me for over five years and you’re the only stable woman in my life. Call me Darren. Please.”

“Okay, Darren. How may I assist you?”

“By booking me a flight to Medford, Oregon.”

“Oregon? Is there a meeting? I can have the company jet …”

“Not for work, Claudia. I’m going home for Christmas …facing the ghosts of Christmases past and all that.”

“Oh! Okay. When should I book it for?”

“Tomorrow. I’m leaving early for the holidays, but I’ll still be available on my cell. Oh! And Claudia?”

“Yes, Sir?”

“Take off too. I’m giving you an extra week of paid vacation. Merry Christmas.”

“That’s very generous of you Sir—I mean, Darren.”

“You deserve it.”

“Thank you. Shall I book you a hired car as well?”

“No. I’ll rent something when I land. It’s quite a drive to Springdale.”

“When should I book the return flight?”

My eyes cut over to the calendar on my desk. “January fifth.”

“I’ll do my best. But the flights might be booked. If they are do you want me to hire a private jet?”

“They won’t be booked. No one flies into Medford. My destination is a nothing of a town in the middle of nowhere,” I reply dryly.

“Then why are you going?” She asks before she can stop herself.

“Because it’s past time I went home.”

“You never talk about your family.”

“That’s because I don’t have any—not like how you mean, anyway.”

The silence gets awkward. I’ve never spoken to her like this before. The holidays are fucking with my head.

“Right. I’ll get right on booking your reservation.”

I hang up and sit in my chair. I need to forget the world for a while and the only way to do that besides going balls deep in a woman is to work.

Before long, I’m drawn into the financial reports my Chief Financial Officer prepared for the end of the year. I highlight a few figures and continue reading. It seems as if a whole day has gone by, but it is only ten-fifteen.

It’s going to be a long-ass day.



She’s beautiful.

There’s no denying that. But my cock doesn’t stir at her touch. I gaze at her over the rim of my wine glass as I tilt it to my lips. The ends of her caramel colored hair graze the tips of her breasts, brushing across her pebbled nipples every time she moves. The fabric of her dress stretches tight over her paid-for-by-daddy D-cups. She’s perfect. But just not for me. I almost snort as I sip my scotch.

By the way she watches me I can tell it’s all a deliberate ploy in her effort to get what she wants from me. But that shit is not happening. I’m not some tween looking to dip his stick every second. My will is ironclad. No woman has every made more than a dent in the armor protecting not only my heart but my mind. Seduction is something I’ve mastered not ever fallen prey to.

I tap my fingers on the table waiting for the check impatiently. Isabella is everything I thought I wanted: beautiful, poised, a socialite; born and bred for the role of wife to a powerful man like me.

She smiles, circling the rim of her own wine glass with her index finger. Little does she know I’m about to dump her in twenty minutes.

“My place or yours?” She asks, raising an eyebrow.

Sighing, I signal for the waiter, signing the air with my finger, mimicking signing my name on the check.

“Let’s go for a walk, instead.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, why not. Downtown looks good at Christmas time.”

“It’s very romantic.”

Her eyes light up with hope.

Fuck. This isn’t going to end well.

The waiter finally appears handing me the bill and I hand him my black American Express card without even glancing at it. Averting my eyes, I glance everywhere but at the bombshell sitting across from me while every other man in the room covets what I have—what I’m about to get rid of.

She just doesn’t do it for me. She never did. I tried to ignore her annoying habits: like how she always tilts her head as she applies her lipstick, giving herself “fuck me” eyes in the mirror. Or how she hates morning sex, insisting it’s gross and never wants to kiss. Or how she hates cum; never lets me finish in her mouth.

Truthfully, sex with her has become mundane. She just lays there, as if just the sight of her body alone is enough to get me there. No, honey. Not anymore. If I wanted to fuck a robot, I’d order a state-of-the-art one from China.

I want a warm-blooded woman in my bed; the kind with curves and real breasts that jiggle as you thrust into her warm body. I want a woman who won’t retreat when I fuck her mouth but savor every last drop of me.

Christ.

I sign the check with a flourish, feeling my dick finally stir. It’s been too long since I’ve had a woman like that. I lost myself somewhere along the climb up the corporate ladder. It was easier to look up when you wanted to forget you came from the down. I was born to a teenage mom who would’ve sold me for her next hit if she could’ve. Child Protection Services took me away from her. Thank fuck. But the home I went was just barely a step up from living in a shack.

My maternal grandmother took me in; wanting the checks the state would pay for her to keep me after she formally adopted me. She got eight hundred a month and spent it wisely on cigarettes, cheap wine and god knows what. But my grandmother lived in Springdale, Oregon. A place sometimes I want to run back to instead of run from. Just like I’m about to in under twelve hours.

“Darren?”

Isabella looks at me expectantly. Sighing, I push my chair back and finally meet her eyes. “We need to talk… about us.”

“Good. Then we are on the same page, darling. Mummy and Daddy are expecting us to Christmas in the Aspen at the family ski chalet.”

I cringe as she places her hand in mine, squeezing firmly. I’d rather fuck a pinecone than spend the holidays with Isabella and her blueblood old-money family. I grin sardonically as I hand the coat-check girl the ticket for Isabella’s mink coat. She wears fur. I should’ve broken up with her just for that weeks ago. But I didn’t. I was too busy closing the Geffen deal to see what my gut knew but I didn’t want to yet deal with, she’s all wrong. Hell, my whole life is wrong. Everything I’ve worked for is about to crash all around me like a stack of cards.

My peers, employees, and friends know me by the persona I’ve created—Darren Preston, CEO of Drago International, an international investment firm specializing in venture capital start-ups. But underneath my custom-made tailored suits is the truth; I’m Dare, the former errand boy for CREED MC. And I don’t mean fetching beer and cigarettes. If there was a hole that needed digging, I dug it. If there was a run that needed doing, I was the man-child who did it. I learned how to lay low and blend into the background at an early age. I had skills at thirteen that the MC found valuable. Like a ghost, I moved in shadows: eavesdropping, setting up surveillance and gathering intel for the club.

No one saw me. Invisible.

But I was used to that.

My gut clenches. No matter how many years have gone by or how far I’ve come—the old pain of being an unwanted child never left my soul. But I found family.

Eventually.

Under my layers of thousand-dollar threads is ink. The symbol of the brotherhood I pledged my life too, it stretches across my back like a brand. But the boys are true family. They didn’t hold me back. They encourage me to go far. And go far I did; MIT with an MBA from Wharton School of Business in New York City. Then, I finally landed here at Drago International, which is based in Chicago.

I owe the MC for my education. They footed the bill and in return, I helped them launder money when needed. Hell, I even secured the financing for, Sassy’s, the bar Rog and Duke opened after the fire that destroyed it. I am instrumental in securing the club’s financial future.

And when Rog bought hundreds of acres in the deep woods of southern Oregon, I made sure The Springdale Chapter of Creed, gave back to the community by allowing a non-for-profit charity to use it as a kids camp for a few weeks every summer. It’s one hell of a tax write off for the club and helps its image.

I miss all those fuckers. Maybe, I tried too hard to forget who I was? Hell, who part of me will always be a badass biker from an old-logging town, raised on the wrong side of the tracks. No matter how far I run, or how hard I try to change my image, the eyes in the mirror don’t change. I can’t shed my skin. I foolishly thought, landing a girl like Isabella would be the finishing move on the imaginary chessboard in my head.

“You’re quiet …”

“I have a lot on my mind,” I reply while opening the door to the restaurant. Icy air hits my face. But I’m used to it after seven winters in Chicago. Isabella snuggles into my side, curling an arm through mine. “Christmas is so romantic, isn’t it, darling?” She stops, turning her face up to me.

I hate it when she calls me darling.

“No. I hate Christmas. I never had presents from Santa…family or any of that shit.”

“You know I hate it when you talk about your past …”

“Isabella. My past has made me who I am. I’m done running from it.”

“Just don’t advertise it. Mummy and Daddy think your parents died in a diving accident in the Caribbean.”

“Why in the hell would you tell them that?”

“They were asking questions. Naturally, they wanted to know about the man their daughter’s been seeing for months. I could hardly tell them the truth; that you were gutter trash who ran with an MC and lied on your college applications.” She bats her false mink eyelashes.

Scheming bitch.

She’s threatening to use our pillow talk against me; letting me know she remembers the dirty details of my past that I confided in her early on. When I thought her tight pussy was a pot of gold. She fooled me…let me believe she was a hot little piece beneath her layers of groomed perfection. She used to suck me off, let me fuck her in the back of cars and in elevators. My seed would leak down her legs as we rose higher and higher in the lift. The hot sex only lasted three months before she started complaining.

“Why are you with me then? If I’m so below you?”

“Because I love being below you. You fuck like a God—have a dick as big as your bank account and a body of a prize fighter instead of a CEO.”

“Good. This should be painless then. It seems we were both using each other…but I’m done. I have been for a long time.”

She pales. Her expertly made-up eyes go wide. “You can’t! You wouldn’t. I’ll go public about your past. I’ll phone every gossip columnist in the city. I will not be single on the holidays. I already RSVP’d to the New Year’s Eve and the Christmas Ball. You can’t do this to me!” Her voice gets higher and higher. Her eyes are wide. Fuck. She’s in full freak-out mode. But Isabella has secrets too.

“Go ahead. It will make you look exactly as you are—a desperate, dumped woman who pathetically tries to strike back. Did you forget I know your secrets as well? You gave up a child. A child who is out there–somewhere, wondering just who in the hell you are? But you know what? Maybe they are better off not knowing. Maybe giving them the hope that you are a woman with a soul instead of a calculating whore dressed in designer clothes—”

Her leather gloved hand smacks across my face. It stings. But I smirk lifting a hand to my cheek. “Well, hell, sugar. What do you know? There is fire in you after all? If only you showed it sooner, maybe I’d fuck you “like a god” tonight. Goodbye, Isabella. Don’t contact me again.” I unlink my arm from hers, but her blood-red nails refuse to loosen their grip on my navy pea coat forcing me to use my other free hand to pry them loose.

“That’s it? You’re dumping me here? Literally, out in the cold?”

“No. I ordered you an Uber. It’ll be here any second. Goodbye, Isabella. I’ve already packed up your clothes and toiletries from my condo. They’ll be delivered by courier in the morning.”

“Asshole,” she breathes, her angry breath coming out in pants of hot steam as it meets the frigid air.

I shrug. Because I guess I am. But it’s not my fault. I’ve just learned it’s better to be this way than the lost boy I once was—the one whose innocent heart always got broken for believing Christmas magic might be real. Hell, for believing anything is real.

I leave her standing under an awning as the Uber pulls to the curb. I pull the neck of my coat higher and decide to walk the twelve blocks home.

Like I said earlier, the cold has never bothered me. Snow begins to fall softly at my feet. Every light pole is wrapped in garland and twinkling lights. With my hands buried deep in my pockets, I wish just for once to have it. The Christmas that’s always eluded me; where friends and family gathered around, and the light and joy would fill your heart.

“Pussy,” I mutter under my breath, catching my reflection in a store window as I pass under a light. I need to man up, because tomorrow I’m going to shed my thousand-dollar suit for my leather cut and worn-in jeans. The boys in Creed are gonna kick my ass if I show up crying over childhood dreams that never came true.





2

SHILOH



GRANT IS AN ASSHOLE.

I wish I knew that before wasting the last six months of my life dating him exclusively.

Averting my eyes, I lift the glass of merlot to my lips. The waitress knows. Hell, everyone in here probably knows. He picked one of the most romantic restaurants in Los Angeles. It’s decorated for Christmas with lighted garland, soft candles, and Bing Crosby crooning through the wireless speakers.

I’m dressed in my new Versace wrap dress, Louis Vuitton boots, my hair falls down my back in soft waves fresh from the hundred-dollar blow out I had done hours earlier in the posh salon on Rodeo Drive.

I look like a million crisp dollar bills—but all my efforts are wasted.

My date stood me up.

Again.

It’s the third time this month.

Fucking Grant.

When we first met his drive; his ambition was such a turn on. He would speak so passionately about his work, his need to expand his empire, branching out and opening a new office in Europe. He’s a high-powered agent to the stars. He started his own agency from scratch building it into one of the most prestigious firms in the industry with firms on both the West and East Coast. Dropping hints that he’d take me with him. I’ll never forget the line he used to get me in to bed the first time.

My face burns.

I was putty in his hands, after he murmured it huskily in my ear as his hand slid up my legs under the hem of my dress. “You look sexy tonight, Shiloh. But you know what will look even sexier on you? The lights reflecting off your skin shining from the Eiffel tower as I go down on you,” I gasped, my head falling back against his chest. He pulled me back against the front of him, my dress was bunched at my waist as his finger rubbed over me. I purred. Needing him to touch me more.

He laughed deep in his throat, increasing the pressure of his hand as he rubbed back and forth, then a finger snuck inside the seam of my thong.

Then two.

His lips found the side of my neck as he touched me.

Readied me.

Broke down my walls, priming my body to need his.

The thing is, I don’t sleep around. My pussy is by invite only. No players, cheats or creeps need apply. After tonight I’m adding suits to that list. I need to stop dating men who wear tailor-made suits and thousand-dollar watches.

They are my kryptonite. My knees get weak, my nipples pucker, my thighs ache when I’m near a powerful man in a suit. It’s not the money because I have enough of my own. It’s the raw sex appeal. The power…the way a suit makes a man’s shoulder look even wider… I sigh.

But no more.

I’m done.

I’m done coming in second to the deal, business meeting, conference call, email…ex-wife, daughter—just for once I want to be somebody’s first.

Finishing my wine, I open my clutch slapping a hundred dollars down on the table. I need to get out of Santa Monica. Hell, California. My heels click against the pavement as I walk to my car. Palms trees dance in the wind overhead.

I drive home, ignoring his calls and texts. “Your loss, asshole,” I mutter as Grant texts again that he’s ten minutes away from the restaurant.

I don’t reply.

Good.

Let him walk in expecting to see me looking hot as fuck. He probably thinks he has a night with me moving under him ahead. Instead, he can play with himself. I’m certainly never touching him again. But now I’ll be alone on Christmas instead of in Cabo with him. But I’d probably be at the swim-up bar at the pool alone anyway while he’s glued to his cell and laptop. He’s always available—to everyone but me. Truthfully, I didn’t want to go to Cabo for the holidays. I live in the Sunshine State. I was hoping for something more romantic, like a cabin tucked away in the snowy woods; where dozens of Evergreen trees would catch the snowflakes on their lush branches, and the moonlight would reflect the flakes, making them twinkle like a thousand diamonds. I only had seven good Christmases and the first four didn’t count since I can’t remember them. My mother wasn’t cut out to be a mother. She was selfish and cruel but other times she’s try. Maybe it was all an act, the days she doted on me. But I didn’t care. I was thirsty for her attention and love and I hoarded every second I could get. Maybe that’s why I always fall too soon. Too hard. I’ve never felt completely loved. Ever. And It makes me desperate to know what it would be like.

Sighing, I blow a lock of hair from my face. The only place a Christmas like that exists is in a Hallmark Channel Movie.

I don’t need him.

The orgasms he gives aren’t worth the humiliation of being stood up anymore, I’m especially when my eight-inch vibrator can do the same thing. I’m done coming in second place when I want to be someone’s first place prize.

I park in my spot in the garage and walk up three flights of stairs to my townhouse overlooking the Santa Monica Pier. My mother was and wasn’t a lot of things, but she left me this place and I’m grateful for it. Mama was a real sex kitten well past her cougar expiration date. She was every man’s wet dream when she was young. She loved hard and left them hard. She fell into the world of glitz, glamour, drugs and sex. She was never without cigarettes and champagne. Every photograph of her in my album has her holding both, one in each hand. I’m sure posters of her in a shiny bikini still hang on some old fart’s wall. Mom was a famous model who was in almost every music video in the eighties. But showbiz life burns you out: the sex, the drugs—the men. She tried her hand at acting after she had me and managed to land some B-rated movie roles. She was better actress than she ever got credit for, but no one wanted a has been and by 1989 that’s exactly what she was.

My father could be anyone from a bass guitarist to an executive producer. Exactly who—is anyone’s guess. I’m tempted to order one of those Ancestry DNA kits. But in the end, my finger hovered over the computer one-click away from “the order now” button. Instead, I closed the browser out. Knowing who he is won’t change my past now anyway. My fingernails curl into my palm. But what if he could have made a difference? That question haunted my childhood.

I shudder despite the warm California December air. What if he’s some dud? An eighties rock-star wannabe that just fucked mom at an after-party in Beverly Hills. At least she kept me.

Sighing, I run a hand through my thick hair. My best friend, Jenny, thinks I’m more beautiful than my mother ever was, but for some reason none of the men I’ve dated have panned out into anything serious; something that’s lasted. Jenny’s beautiful herself and married to a famous Hollywood entertainment lawyer. She has a house in Malibu, three kids, and even a god damn golden retriever.

I laugh bitterly at my sorry Charlie Brown Christmas tree sitting in the corner, undecorated; one that I rescued from the dump behind the building.

It looked sad and lonely. Just like me.

Even my three houseplants seem days away from dying. Suddenly, the walls of my spacious apartment start closing in.

I need to get out of here. I’m suffocating despite the ocean air coming through my windows. The first day of my holiday break starts tomorrow. I don’t have to report back into work until January second. I don’t even need to work. My mother was a lot of things—greedy wasn’t one of them. Being a sex goddess in the seventies and eighties paid well. When she died after a long battle with lung cancer a few years back, she left me three million in cash and her house in Beverly Hills which sold for a few million more. But I can’t shop all day. I want to do something fulfilling with my life. I graduated from UCLA with a degree in early childhood education and a master’s in counseling. Shortly, after graduate school, I found a job in Compton working as a school guidance counselor. It’s dangerous. My car’s been jacked twice. But once I earned the trust and respect of the students; they protect me. Well, as much as they can. I wised up and bought an old clinker car to drive to work. I wear thrift shop clothes to school. It can’t hide my inherited beauty, but it hides my wealth. That’s why I enjoyed dressing up for Grant so much. Wearing expensive designer clothes is a luxury that I don’t take for granted. After long, hard days of helping troubled students, I wanted to feel sexy, desirable and forget my stress and worry over the kids in bed, under a sexy as fuck man as he treasures my body with his skillful touch.

Damn.

Grant. Why did he have to take me for granted?

As if on cue, my cell rings.

“Shiloh? Where the hell are you? I drove across the city to meet you and cut my clients short.”

“It’s over. Go fuck yourself tonight, because I won’t be doing it anymore.”

“You don’t mean that baby,” he tries to sound husky and sexy, trying to entice me. He does have a gifted dick, but I’m done with it. I have more self-respect than to give it up to him again.

“Don’t be like this, baby. I’m sorry I got angry at you. Work—”

“I don’t want to hear one word about your damn job, Grant. I hope it keeps you warm at night, since it’s clear you put it first.”

Despite my tough words, I’d be lying if the thought of spending Christmas alone is appealing. Part of me wishes I could spend Christmas cuddled up with Grant. But knowing him, I will end up alone. Dumped again, for some idiot celebrity who overdoses; or some other Hollywood actor who gets drunk and makes a scene on Christmas. Grant wouldn’t even consider me; I’d be left behind in a nanosecond. Work comes before everything in his life.

I cross the wide plank floors to my bedroom, catching my own eyes in the mirror as I slip off my heels. Flopping back on the bed, I facetime Jenny.

“Shiloh? Why aren’t you on your date? He didn’t! Again?”

“He did. And it’s over. I gave him the boot.”

“It’s about time.”

“I know. But it still sucks.”

“I know.”

“What am I doing wrong, Jenny? Am I so unlovable? No one ever wants to keep me?”

“Stop. You know what it is?”

“I do?”

She gives me an eye-roll. “You have a thing for douchebags. Hot, rich ones.”

“I do,” I mutter, laying back against my pillows.

“Some spend Christmas with us. The kids would love it!”

I smile weakly. I can’t hurt her by saying what I’m feeling out loud; that being around her and her adorable family is just a reminder of everything I’m longing for and don’t have. “Actually, I’m taking a trip.”

“You are?”

“Yes. I want a real Christmas this year with evergreen trees that smell like fresh pine needles. I’ve never had a white Christmas, maybe it’s about time I give myself one and while I’m at it I can work on my books.”

“Where?”

“I’m not sure yet. Probably up North. I feel like a drive. It’ll clear my head.”

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea. You shouldn’t be alone.”

“Don’t worry about me. I’ll find a high-end spa in the mountains somewhere. I’ll pamper my loneliness away. I’ll be fine.”

“Ok. If that’s what you need. Call me, though, okay? I’m going to worry if you don’t.”

“I’ll be fine. I know how to take care of myself.”

“I know you do.”

“Love you!”

“Love you, too. He’s out there Shi. Just stop looking then he’ll find you.”

This time, I’m the one to roll my eyes, “You know I hate those crappy sayings.”

“Well, maybe they are true.”

“Bye!” I laugh, ending our call. Getting up from my bed, I unzip my gown and step out of it, carefully placing it back on the hanger still on the back of my door. Then zip it back up in its protective bag.

Lifting my chenille robe off a hook, I wrap it around me and tie the sash. Padding back out into the living area, I pour myself a glass of merlot and open my laptop. Opening up my web browser, I type in “scenic luxury mountain spa.” Hundreds pop up. Some are in the Mid-West, but most are in Europe or even the East Coast. I amend my search, “scenic luxury mountain spa west coast.”

I scroll down. There it is. “Maple Mill Inn and Spa, located in Springdale, Oregon.” I click on the link and it opens to a picture that takes my breath away. It’s a huge white colonial nestled amongst enormous pine trees. The owners describe it as being an old logging mill that they lovingly restored into a fifteen-room luxury inn and spa facilities. They even host weddings in the summer under a large pavilion next to the old sawmill and pond.

Without hesitation, I pick up my cell and dial the number.

“Maple Mill Inn, Sally McBride speaking. How may I help you?”

“H-hello. I know this is last minute, but would you happen to have any availability?”

“When are you looking to stay?”

“I don’t know…how far of a drive is it from Los Angeles to you?”

“…maybe about twelve to thirteen hours if you stop and encounter light traffic.” My eyes fall down to the time displayed on my laptop.

“Perfect. I’ll take a late check-in…tomorrow?”

“Sure. We have a room available. How long do you want to stay?”

“January third.” I hear her clicking on a keyboard on the other end.

“What type of room would you like? Our prices range from $299 to $599 per night.” I click through the website looking at pictures of the rooms. Some are suites with sitting areas with a small kitchen. They are all lovely and cozy decorated elegantly but with a Victorian country charm.

A smaller corner room catches my eye. It has a wood burning fireplace and a canopy bed with a fur rug on the floor.

“Is the corner room…the one called the ‘Snowflake Suite’ available?”

“It is.”

“Great. I’ll take it.”

“And how many will be traveling in your party.”

“One. Just me. It’s…just me.”

“No problem.” The woman maintains her professionalism. “Any special requests?”

“Yes. Can you make sure my room is decorated for the holidays…with real garland and a real tree?”

“We only use fresh Oregon greens to decorate.”

“Good.”

“Anything else?”

“Yes. Can you book me a different spa treatment for every day of my stay?”

“I can…but our spa staff is off on Christmas Day.”

“Right. That’s it then.” Picking up my purse, I slid out my wallet. Rattling off my credit card number, I give all my information to book the room.

Satisfied with my decision, I wash the makeup from my face, put on my pajamas, and grab my Louis Vuitton suitcases from the closet.

Shit.

I don’t even own a snow coat or a pair of winter boots.

Although I have plenty of money, I’m usually quite frugal with it despite the dollars I dropped trying to look good for Grant.

I pack what I can, toiletries and such knowing I’ll treat myself to my own Christmas presents on the way out of town at ‘The Grove’. It’s a high-end outdoor mall that will have everything I need. I always wanted a pair of Ugg boots, but they just never seemed practical.

I climb into bed, turning off the lights and Google Springdale Oregon. What I find would have me dreaming of more than a white Christmas.

News article after news article mentions the local bad-boy/hero biker club, CREED. I lick my lips as pictures of tatted men with bulging biceps fill my screen. ‘These bad boys have hearts of gold,” is the title of the article. I read on. It’s dated from last summer when the ‘bad boys’ of Creed opened up their two-hundred-acre property surrounding a lake to underprivileged and at-risk youth for a week of camping and adventure. They paid for the kids transportation and through a local YMCA arranged for their property to be transformed into a type of summer camp. The article states the MC had been doing this for the past few years.

I sigh, scrolling through articles more scrumptious than the next. But I shiver when I read the MC was questioned by local police after a shoot-out occurred during a freak summer storm. No one was charged, but the reporter’s thoughts were clear: the MC isn’t all bad boys with hearts of gold, but that they are dangerous criminals hiding behind good deeds.

I keep scrolling. Then click on another one. “President of local MC weds local girl, Shanna Flynn.”

Holy hell. The man in hot.

I fan myself, jealous as hell at the way he stares at his bride. The lens of the camera captured all the lust and fire of his love as he gazed down at his bride.

I want that.

Springdale here I come.

Jenny is right. I’ve been dating the wrong type of man over and over. It’s time for a change and the New Year is right around the corner. This year, all I want for Christmas is a bad boy biker from Creed to jingle my bells and make me come under my tree.

With images of a dark-haired beast of a man undressing me, un-wrapping me like the gift he always wanted, I slip my hand between my legs. Shutting my eyes, I imagine him touching me with rough, callused hands, holding me down as he feasts on me. Grant was never one to reciprocate oral.

I moan, rubbing my slippery folds, then pinch my own nipples, convulsing to some nameless, faceless stranger.

But he won’t be a stranger for long.

I’ll find my bad-boy biker…in Springdale, Oregon.

Smiling and sated, I fall asleep with a smile on my lips.





3

DARE



MY EYES OPEN BEFORE my alarm goes off. I tossed and turned all night. It didn’t help that Isabella called dozens of times and sent even more texts. Each more desperate than the last.

I blocked her number around three a.m. but thoughts of going back to Oregon kept turning in my head. I miss the boys. But there was a reason why I left. Actually, several good ones.

I’ve achieved everything I set out to do when I left six years ago—and yet something still seems missing.

I dress in my running gear, pulling a dark hooded sweatshirt over my head. I’ll jog five miles to the UFC gym where I work out and still have plenty of time to make my flight.

My feet tread heavily over ice-covered sidewalks. I don’t slip once. My shoes have special tractions underneath making it easier for me to navigate. My breath comes out in steady puffs of steam.

The blood pumps through my veins; my steady pace keeping me from icing over. I’m at the gym just as the doors open at 5 a.m. wasting no time as I lace up a pair of boxing gloves and enter the ring.

“Are you sure?”

“Yup.” I turn facing Ernie.

He’s a man’s man motherfucker. Born and raised in the streets of Chicago. But so was I. Maybe it was a different street, a different state but the scars on his heart matched mine.

“So be it.” He grins, before putting his mouthguard in. I put my own in feeling like myself for the first time in a while.

I’ve changed, but underneath all my layers of education and finely tailored suits is still a man raised on the wrong side of the tracks with the skill to prove it.

We meet in the center of the ring and tap gloves.

Then, it’s on.

Eyeing each other, our feet dance in small circles. He jabs first. I block. Round and round we go. Jabbing, circling, letting go of everything that swirls inside us. All that matters is what’s here. What’s coming as I block another right hook then jab low connecting with his ribs.

“Fuck, man.”

“Sorry. I lost myself.”

“It’s cool. I know. That’s why I come here too.”

Breathing hard. I wipe the sweat from my face with a towel. Take my mouth guard out and squirt some ice-cold water in my mouth. I tap my gloves to his. “I’m out. See you in the New Year.”

“What about tomorrow? Or do you need that much time to recover.”

“I could’ve dropped ya’ if I wanted.”

“Bullshit.” He straightens, all our banter turning serious.

I grin, “Loosen up, E. I just need to blow off steam. I don’t come here looking for anything more than that.”

“Word. I feel you. Merry Christmas, pretty boy.”

Ah, fuck no. I can’t let that shit slide as snickers break out on the gym floor. Slowly, I unlace my gloves and drop them on the mat. Raising my arms, I wiggle my fingers, “Say that again? To my face …”

He smirks, knowing I’m about to accept his challenge. I was done but he wasn’t. He still has more ghosts to fight. But punching air isn’t as satisfying as connecting with solid flesh. I peel my sweat-soaked shirt over my head throwing it out of the way.

Silence follows.

My ink speaks for itself. I know what everyone is staring at, the ink of my MC spread across my traps.

“What?” I turn facing the stares. “You never figured a pretty boy like me is about to kick some ass, eh?”

“Bring it.” Ernie beckons me forward. We waste no time circling each other, each of us eyeing the other looking for a way to land the first hit. He takes a cheap shot, aiming for my face. I dodge it, striking out with my right leg and hooking him behind the knee. I bring him to the floor locking him in a rear-naked-choke, MMA style. “What the hell, man?” He asks as he’s forced to tap out.

“You went for my face with that cheap shot. I get needing to blow off steam, but I can’t go into my office looking like I got into it, man.”

“I know. I’m sorry. It’s just the holidays, you know?”

“I do.”

My phone buzzes from inside my sweatshirt laying on the floor outside the ring. I get up. Ernie and I clasp hands. and I grab my stuff and head toward the locker rooms.

Christ.

My PA texted a group message that included Claudia. he end of the year audit is finished and they need me to sign off on it before I leave for Oregon. I text back to push my flight back and that I’ll stop in briefly on my way to the airport.

I rinse off quickly and put on a spare set of gym clothes that I keep in my locker here. and I throw my dirty stuff in an old gym bag that I keep tucked inside the locker. The men nod their heads with respect as I walk back out into the freezing Chicago morning.

It’s barely seven, so I decide to pick up my favorite blend of black coffee at the shop a few blocks from my condo.

With my head bent, the icy breeze goes over the top of my hooded jacket. It’s early but the buses are running, their tires rolling to stops through dirty slush as their brakes groan.

I never lived in a city before I moved out here. Everything seemed fresh and new. But everything seems to have lost its magic. I pull up short at the sight of a young girl staring longingly through the window of a shop. Her sneakers are old, the rubber on the front missing a piece by her toe. She’s not even wearing a coat but has a man’s large sweatshirt hanging down to her knees. Her backpack looks as if its seen better days as well.

Hell.

She turns sensing my stare. Her eyes tell a story, I only know too well. Her face is sallow, large circles are half-moons under each eye.

“Have you eaten today?”

She ignores me, shuffling a few steps back and presses her palm to the cold glass. I turn, curious as to what grabbed her attention. It’s a music box with a glass ballerina spinning in graceful circles.

“I always wanted to dance,” she shrugs.

“So, dance.”

She pretends to brush her hair from her face instead of the tear threatening to spill down her cheek. “It’s not that simple.”

“Come on. I’m heading inside the café next door for a coffee. I’ll get you a hot chocolate and a bagel.”

“Why are you being so nice? I don’t trust anyone who is nice. They always want something.”

Rage builds, burning my blood. “Is anyone hurting you?” I step in closer.

“Everyone hurts me,” she whispers.

“What’s your name?”

“You’re a stranger.”

“I am. But in my experience, the ones who you know hurt you more than those people you don’t.”

Her solemn brown eyes meet mine. “Freddie. My name is Freddie Pearce.”

“I’m Dare Preston. Short for Darren. How old are you Freddie?”

My question makes her nervous and she backs up. I hold up my hands. “I’m just curious. I swear. I’d never hurt a child.”

“Ten. Almost eleven. I gotta go. I have six more blocks to walk before I get to school.” She turns quickly and tucks her bare hands into the sleeves of the sweatshirt.

I duck into the café watching her go with a frown. I order my signature blend, a hot chocolate and a blueberry muffin. It doesn’t take long for my long legs to catch up to her. “Here. I was a victim of the system myself. Dance Freddie. Even if it’s just for yourself—even if no one can see you.” I try handing her a hundred-dollar bill, but she refuses.

“I can’t. They’ll take it from me…accuse me of stealing it. And if I buy something with it—they’ll take that too.”

Shit.

“Take it. Use it for food then, Freddie. Be smart about it, a bagel for breakfast…a sandwich on your way home. Take care of yourself, kid.”

“Why do you even care?”

“Because, Freddie. I’ve been where you are. Merry Christmas.”

“I don’t believe in Christmas.”

“I know. But we all need to believe in something.”

“What do you believe in then?”

“In surviving.”

“Thanks.” She takes the bill and hides it inside her sock.

“Good luck, Freddie.”

She gives a small wave as she walks off clutching the bag with the muffin and take small sips of the hot chocolate I bought.

See? Maybe I’m not such a Grinch after all.

I make a mental note of the name of the store next to the café where Freddie stood hoping for something, she knows she’ll never have. Then I text Claudia.

Me: Call my investigator. Find out everything on a ten-year-old-girl, Freddie Pearce. She’s in foster care. Also, when the toy shop on Chicago Ave opens call and order the ballerina box from the window. I want it personally delivered to Freddie on Christmas Eve by a man in a Santa suit. FYI …I don’t care how much it costs. Get it done.

Claudia: I’m on it. Did you forget you gave me today off?

Me: Shit.

Claudia: It’s fine. I already rescheduled your flight. Doing this for Freddie will be my pleasure.

Me: I just decided to give you a Christmas bonus. I’ll have HR wire it into your account.

Claudia: Thanks Darren. Have a safe trip.

I tuck my phone back inside my pocket. I pass by a school that I have done a hundred times without giving it more than a glance. This time I do more than glance. I swallow hard noticing the small figure in an oversized gray sweatshirt, huddled over her cup of hot chocolate.

Something in me cracks.

My fists clench.

She’s so cold and alone. In a few years—God knows what sick fuck’s house she could end up in. Something inside me breaks. She’s so precious; so fragile.

I pull my phone back out, this time I don’t text.

“Darren?”

“Claudia. I need one more thing. Find out how to become a Foster Parent in Chicago. Fill out any forms for me. You know all my personal information.”

“Darren?”

“I didn’t ask for an opinion. Just get it done. It’s Christmas for Christ’s sake and maybe I’m someone’s Santa. Even though, personally, I detest the holiday.”

She snorts. “Yes, your actions yesterday made that quite clear.”

I disconnect with a grin. Freddie’s question suddenly searing across my heart.

Family.

I believe I’ve always wanted one. All the bitterness I feel at being alone for so many years as a child just snapped in me when I saw her standing so forlorn outside that store window. I can’t go back in time, but I can change someone else’s future. I can make hers right. I have the means to provide her with a safe home where she’ll never go hungry or wonder if she’ll get a winter coat. She’ll never have to cower under thing blankets as she grows up wondering if some sick fuck will try to enter her room. Her belly won’t ever hurt from hunger again.

The doorman greets me by name as I enter the revolving glass doors to my building. I nod, walking briskly as I pass.

I have shit to do today. Starting with changing a little girl’s life around.

I’m glad I dumped Isabella. She never cracked my heart. Not once. But that little sprite in the street…all it took was one look and I was a goner.

It doesn’t take long to shower, shave and pack my shit. I throw in my leather cut, bike boots and jeans. A few tight Henley sweaters and even a fuckin’ plaid flannel shirt. Then I remember how cold and drafty the houses can be up there. I add a few expensive wool sweaters and my favorite pair of butter-soft Armani loafers. My Tom Ford suits will get my ass-kicked outta Rog’s bar. The boys in the club will laugh their asses off. But I take one off the hanger and put it on. I can’t wear my cut to the office. I flip off the light switch, lock up and carry my duffel bag over one shoulder. My heart hammers in my chest. It’ll be good to see the boys but more importantly, I need to face my past and put the ghosts of Christmases past to bed—for good.





“Ladies and Gentlemen, please fasten your seat belts. We are beginning our final descent into Medford. Please stow all electronic devices at this time.”

Through the gray streaks of clouds, tops of tall evergreens break through. I spent the entire flight reading the Foster Parent applications and information Claudia emailed me. I’ll sign electronically when I arrive in Springdale and use Rog, my college professor whom I’m still in touch with, and a few local Chicago politicians as references. Hell, if it comes down to it—I’ll call Roque Salvatore. I’ll owe him a favor, but there will be no doubt I’ll get Freddie. Saving her is important to me. One look in her eyes and I knew I had to do it. Save her the way Rog saved me.

I’ve never been arrested; my records are clean, and I make a shit-ton of money. So, what if I’m a single guy in his thirties? I’m a damn good one. For the most part anyway. I smirk as the stewardess “accidentally” bumps her ass into my shoulder for the fifth time as she checks that everyone’s buckled in. Her eyes linger a little too long on the bulge between my thighs. I’m bigger than most men, even when I’m not ready to go.

Ignoring her, I avert my eyes, gazing down at the tall pines peeking through the low gray clouds.

Home.

The tightness in my chest constricts even more. Choking on old memories isn’t how I want to live anymore. Coming back to see Rog and the boys from Creed will be good for me. They are into that sappy holiday shit. But they always made it their own. I smile faintly remembering Christmases past, where we’d sit around the clubhouse passing a bottle of JD while someone strummed a few chords on the guitar while piles of steaming pancakes coated in thick homemade maple syrup sat in front of me.

After the plane lands, I’m rolling my carry on straight to the rental car area and press the bell on the counter. The airport is practically deserted just like I had predicated so it’s no surprise the rental counter isn’t manned.

I clear my throat loudly.

Nothing.

I slam my fist down on the bell so hard it breaks. Then I scroll through my texts from Claudia concerning Freddie. She found the group home the girl’s in and ordered the doll in the window. But hit a snag regarding the forms for me to become a foster. A flounce of fur catches the corner of my eye but I’m too engrossed in my messages to care. That is until it cuts right in front of me and starts talking the employee who finally saunters to the counter.

“Excuse me. I was here first.”

I’m ignored.

My eyes travel up her floor length ball of hideous fur to her perfectly waved hair hanging down her back. My nose wrinkles at the smell of her designer store bought perfume. A three-thousand-dollar purse hangs from her dainty shoulder.

Annoyance claws at my insides. I’m done playing nice with women like her. Entitled women who think their shit don’t stink. But usually theirs smells the worse.

She’s Isabella’s clone. But worse. I peer at the back of fugly fur boots resembling something you’d wear snowshoeing Iceland or some shit. My mouth opens ready to give this woman a piece of my dirty mind when my cell rings. It’s Claudia. Frowning, I turn my back and take the call.

“Darren. Everything is ready to go…”

“But?” I ask for her.

“…your background. You have nothing to hide? A single man adopting a girl approaching puberty could raise eyebrows.”

“What the fuck, Claudia? I’m no pervert.”

“I know. But still. The state will dig deep and you have enemies.”

I snort. “No one gives two shits about the girl. She’s in the system getting bullied and is barely eating. I’m ready to give her the world and I’m the suspect? This shit is fucked up and exactly why I need to get her out of there. If Blackwood tries to get in the way of this, I’ll bury him,” I growl so loud, heads turn. “There’s no chance I can get her by Christmas is there?” I ask softer.

“No.”

“I figured. Fuck. I guess it’s time to phone a friend.”

“What?”

“Never mind. Thank you, Claudia. You’ve done well. Merry Christmas and all that bullshit.” I gesture with my hand even though she can’t see it.

My eyes narrow, following the tapping if her nails on the counter. They’re the color of a Christmas bow. Red Satin. I really hate this chic now. “Excuse me.” Using my broad shoulders to bump her a few inches out of the way. “I was here first. The Yeti will have to wait.”

She gasps.

The balding man across the counter’s eyes bulge from the other side of his thick glasses.

“Did…did you just call me a Yeti?”

My cool gaze takes her in. From the tips of her fur lined boots to the top of her chestnut hair tucked into a messy bun at the top of her head. I can’t see her eyes that hide behind oversized black lenses. Maybe she drank too much on the plane. Her body is tight with curves in just the right places, but from my impassive poker face you’d think I was looking over produce at the supermarket. “My bad. Miss Sasquatch over here will have to wait. Reservation is under Prescott.”

Honey cakes tried to shoulder me out of the way but ends up bouncing off me. Looking down my nose at her, I pick pieces of white fur off my Tom Ford peacoat.

“You’re shedding.” I deadpan before, tapping my long fingers in the counter.

“You’ve got some nerve.”

“No actually, you do. The world doesn’t revolve around you, sweetheart. Wait your turn. Women like you always think they can skip the line.” She’s so much liked the woman I dumped two days ago.

“Women like me?”

Her index finger pokes me in the chest, “Arrogant, businessman like you are the ones who run people right over in their haste to make a buck. Chill. Your deal will wait. I was almost done.” She grabs a pen and signs her name on the paper sitting on the counter. The worker hands her a fob key.

I roll my eyes at her. “Damn. You’ve got a lot of baggage, sweetheart. Too much for any man to carry,” I smirk as she only rolls one medium size suitcase.

“Asshole,” she mutters walking away.

“Merry Christmas,” I call after her, just to be a jerk.

An hour or so later, I’m cursing Christmas. Snow. And the lousy icy mic covering the road. I should’ve had one of the guys from the MC pick me up. But my stubborn ass pride wouldn’t let me. They already call me “pretty boy.” And call me a bunch of pussy ass nicknames since I’m one of the few with a college degree coupled with a high-powered job behind a desk.

Shit. I bite the inside of my cheek picturing the look on Rog or Smith’s face if I end up in a snowbank and need them to get me out.

One look at the sorry as shit car waiting for me at the airport rental and the nerve under my right eye started to twitch. I opened up my Italian leather wallet, took at out black AMEX card and asked for the most expensive SUV on the lot not even blinking at the price it was to rent per day. But then I was informed Ms. Line jumper took it. Right before me. I settled for a pickup, knowing the empty bed in the back would make shit slip so I stopped off at Agway and piled it high with bags of road salt to give the truck some weight. I glance at the clock knowing I’ve put off the call I need to make long enough. Tine is something Freddie doesn’t have. I need to get the girl out of the system before she turns from a girl to a teenage girl growing curves and shit the pervs won’t hesitate to put their hands on. My fingers clench the wheel. If I’m too late and some fuck already has—I’ll fucking skin them alive. The girl provokes a protective instinct in me. Her eyes were so full of both jaded edges but yet innocence was there too.

After enabling the Bluetooth, I call the last man on earth I want to ask for help. But he fucking rules the underworld of Chicago a place where Freddie needs help.

“Dare?”

“No. It wasn’t a butt dial. I meant to call,” I sigh.

“Do we have a problem?”

I take one hand off the wheel and pinch the bridge of my nose.”

“No. I need a favor.”

His sharp intake of breath doesn’t escape me. No one willingly gives out favors to Roque Salvatore because they come with a price so high sometimes the only way to pay is with a life. He might take it. You might take one for him or end up owing him yours. None of those options work for me. But it is what it is. “There’s a girl. I want her and I need your help.”

“Are you serious? I don’t have time…”

“Fuck. Not like that.” My curled fist pound the dash of the truck. “She’s twelve. In the system. She doesn’t have much time until bad people get their hooks into her. You know that. You’re outfit supplies the drugs they need.

“Careful,” he warns.

I breath through my nose hard. “I’m applying to be a foster. I forged basically everything. I never went to private schools outside of Seattle. I cheated on my SAT’s. Lied my way into the college admission process. You know my ties to the MC aren’t severed… there’s no way anyone would approve me.”

“Why do you want her?”

“Because no one else does. She’s like me. How I was. But unlike me—there’s a chance she can be saved. Besides, it’ll look good to the Board if I’m a foster parent. I’m up to be voted on as a permanent director with a lifetime vote. So far they haven’t been impressed by how many socialites have shown up with streaked mascara demanding to see me at the office.”

Truthfully, I didn’t want Freddie for any financial or work gain. But I’d be damned if Roque knew just how important it suddenly was to have the girl come live with me. All the shit I’ve stuffed down and buried was bubbling to the surface. Years of memories better off left alone won’t stop invading my to thoughts.

“Text me the details. I’ll handle it. But you’ll owe me, and you know my favors aren’t simple errands.”

“I know.”

“I’ll be in touch.”

A wintry mix slowly starts to fall. But I’ve driven these back-country roads a thousand times in worse conditions and in shit cars. I sigh, shit’s about to go down. Roque and I have been better off avoiding one another. But now I have no choice. Our worlds are going to collide.

On paper, I’m just a clean-cut CEO with a thick bank account and a closet full of designer suits. But underneath thousand-dollar threads are the truth: inked all over my skin and where invisible threads bind the scare tissue in my heart are all the dark deeds I’ve done. I was Creed MC’s boogie man. The member they’d send when shit needed to be handled quietly. I was an assassin. A murderer. A man who has no business fostering a child. Especially as girl. But for all things I am…one thing I’m not is a pervert. She’d be safer with me than anyone else in Chicago.

This was about Freddie, but it was also about the girl I couldn’t save. Jenny. She was pure. Sweet. Her smile lit up the darkest night. And I wasn’t the only one who noticed. She was fostered by old man Harrington and his wife back in Springdale. They took in the max amount of foster kids the state would allow. Back in the nineties that was five. Instead of using the state money for food and clothes they burned it on Newport Lights and cheap beer. Jenny…I swallow thickly. Old man Harrington was my second kill. Rog and the boys from Creed helped me hide his body. I’ve never thought of it or spoke of it since that night back in ninety-eight when I buried my switch blade in his left kidney then choked the son of a bitch with my bare hands.

I killed that sadistic, child predator in cold blood and I’d do it all again. Jenny was never the same after his filthy hands defiled what should have been her choice to give.

In Freddie’s eyes I saw the same light Jenny had even though Freddie tried to hide it with her tough tomboy act. For some reason, I want to save her more than I want anything else. It’s probably Christmas. The season of hope and all that. Hope’s lost for me. But not for her. If anyone can pull of a Christmas miracle, it’s Roque fucking Salvatore. He has every city and state official in his dirty, deep pocket.

My bunched muscles start to relax. Roque will get it done. But what will he demand in return? He could ask for anything and he knows it. I’d probably have to kill someone. A life for a life. He’d give me hers to save but I’ll probably have to end one of his enemies.

The icy mix turns to thick flakes the further the road turns into the deep woods of Oregon. My fingers press the FM radio buttons. “Fuck no.” Christmas song after Christmas song plays for an instant as I keep punishing the button by jamming the damn thing with my index finger. But nothing else comes on.

My fist punches the center of the wheel. The truck’s horn toots. Yep friggin’ toots.

I suppose the thick evergreens covered in snow causing the branches to hang low, combined with the curling woodsmoke coming from log cabins with glowing candles in their windows would be considered romantic if I was a romantic sort of man.

“What in the hell was I thinking coming back here now?” I ask the empty seat next to me.

My eyes go wide and I curse like the best of them as the truck takes the next curve.

Fuck.

Me.

It’s my fire-breathing yeti. She’s standing in a foot of snow wearing that full length-fur coat. Her tall boots are tucked into skinny white jeans. Her hair falls around her. Crystals of snow clinging to it and the tips of her long lashes as I pull up and lower my window.

She’s beautiful. At the airport, her face was hidden by dark designer sunglasses the kind that are so large they cover half a woman’s face.

But now her eyes are huge pools of worry, sucking me in. She’s a snow queen. Bewitchingly bitchy and haughty in her stunning beauty.

And my worst fucking nightmare. Dressed in designer clothes that are meant to look warm and practical but in reality, are anything but. I slow and roll down my window.

“You lost?”

She bites her lip, probably debating whether or not to tell me to “fuck off.” Instead she gestured to the SUV. “My rental went off the road. It’s stuck.”

“No shit,” I mutter, eyeing her car with the blinking hazard’s. The entire hood is buried in a snowbank. I raise my brow noticing the back door hanging open. “How did you do that?” The escalade is one of the heaviest SUV’s on the road. That vehicle doesn’t end up in a snowbank unless you’re a damn idiot. But I keep that thought to myself.

“I had to crawl into the back seat to get out. I don’t understand. I put the car in reverse and a low gear then hit the gas, but it only burrowed forward more.”

“No, shit, sweetheart. There’s no traction. The snow sucked it under.” I put the truck in park and climb out. She smells expensive. Looks like a lost snow bunny looking for her next kill. And I’m not it.

“What are you doing alone out here anyway? Hunting?”

“Hunting?”

“Yeah,” I smirk. “In that get-up…the closest ski resort is an hour south. But I should warn you—you won’t find anyone there that’ll be able to bank roll what you’re looking for.”

“Excuse me?” Her face is red and I know it isn’t from frostbite or windburn.

Ignoring the fury rolling off this little lost bunny, I open the trunk and take out the heavy chains.

“Don’t hurt yourself,” she hisses, as I bend down and secure the chains under the car.

I smirk.

She flips me the bird.

Damn, it’s cold as the arctic during the ice age but damn if my cock doesn’t stir just a tiny bit.

My lips twitch, “Did you kill a leopard?” My eyes run over her coat and stop on her ridiculous boots.

“These,” she lifts a foot, kicking some powdery snow in my face, “ARE UGGS! They’re very warm while also providing excellent grip.”

“Is that so?” I sneer, wiping the snow from my face. “Grip is only fifty percent.”

Smoke comes from her ears.

“Killing animals for fashion is a crime.”

“It’s the best faux-fur money can buy.” Her gloved hands smooth down over the “fur.”

“Oh yeah? Was it a parting gift from you sugar daddy? Because he has shit taste. You look hideous…fur ball.”

Her gloved hands ball into fists. Smirking, I turn my back and uncurl the long tow chain. I can’t stand women like her. And I disgust myself that I used to spend so much time bedding women exactly like her. It’s all I did when I first landed in Chicago. Me; the unwanted street rat with grease under my nails and the only ink that told my story was the ink on my back. All I wanted was a fine piece of tail. That smelled expensive, felt soft and helped me believe I was worthy of fucking them. But now I realize they weren’t worthy of me. None of them were. I was slumming it with socialite after socialite. Their fake-ass world was all smoke and mirrors and I was trying to get lost in it. I shake the snow from my hair and get to work.

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing? I’d call a tow if my cell had any reception. She peers at my long pea coat and Burberry scarf that was a Christmas present from Claudia. “You’re dressed too expensive for a man who’s about to get dirty.”

“Oh, I can get dirty, fur baby. Real dirty.” I crook a finger at her, “Wanna find out?”

She flicks her long, hair over her shoulder. Now she’s smirking, “You couldn’t handle me.”

“As if I would want to. Newsflash. Overdressed. Overpriced females husband-hunting are a buzz kill. Especially ones who are line jumpers. Line jumpers are number one on my pet peeve list.”

“Good,” she snorts. “Because let me just put this out there—arrogant, selfish assholes wearing thousand-dollar suits with hands so clean they must get regular mani’s…are at the top of my pet peeve list. I wasn’t going to wait in line behind you while you ignored the poor clerk while you rudely took a call.”

“Good,” I snap back.

“Just get my car out and we’ll be done here.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” I smile sweetly causing her to blink in confusion as I get back in my truck, put it in reverse and let my right foot fall on the gas.

The oversized snow tires churn. Icy pellets of slush spray all over her. “Shut your gaping mouth before you swallow. Women like you rarely do.” chuckle as her car protests but pulls free.

“You. You—,” she sputters as she wipes the slush from her face. Her coat is soaked.

“What? Payback’s a bitch. Eh?”

Her answer is an icy smack across my cheek.

“A ‘thank you’ would’ve been more appropriate.” But I’m not even mad. I adjust my pea coat because the wood I’m sporting could jackhammer an iceberg. Fuck this woman covered in fur and slush is making me so damn hard. I want to pin her wrists over her head. Bite the pulse hammering in the side of her throat while pumping my dick in and out of her overpriced pussy.

I groan, cupping myself as I load the chain back in the truck. She made me harder than Isabella ever did. Maybe there is something to this hate-sex-thing after all.

She backs away, as my fists clench and I stalk closer. She falls on her ass in the snow. I bend down, take her hand and yank her the fuck to me. Her full, pretty pink lips part as I let my coat fall open to cushion her body against mine. No doubt she can feel what I have going on even between her soggy coat. Her pretty eyes are scared as they bore into mine. “What are you even doing out here?”

“None of your business.”

“Look,” I speak slow and even, attempting to be nice. “There’s worse things in these woods besides me. Wolves. Rapists. Bad things… You got that fur baby?”

She jerks free from my hold. “I can handle myself.”

“Really?” My head nods over to her car. I slide her ruined coat off her and replace it with my warm one.

“I don’t want it.”

“Take it,” I demand.

“Fine,” she snaps.

“Where are you headed?”

“Springdale.”

I lower my eyes. Well shit. This Christmas just got interesting.

“Where are you going?” She finally asks.

“To hell.”

“Can hardly say I’m surprised!”

“How long are you going to be in Springdale for?”

“As long as it takes…”

“For what?”

“To find something, I’ve been looking for.”

“In Springdale?” I snort. “Good luck with that.”

I watch as she gets in her car and pulls out. I wait five minutes, knowing she’d be too busy staring into her mirror at my headlights if I pulled out right behind her to pay attention to the road. I let out my breath as I reach the town limits. The old wooden “Welcome to Springdale sign,” is covered in garland. I followed fur baby’s tire tracks the entire way. It’s a small town. No doubt, I’ll run into the hellion again. I slowly roll through the main street all the way to the back side of town.

I pull into the bar slash restaurant co-owned by my old friend Roger and the former Prez of Creed, Duke.

Heads turn as open the thick wooden door bringing snow and a blast of cold air with me.

A dozen men wearing leather cuts over thick plaid shirts turn their heads. A few gape. “Shut your mouth, before someone sticks a dick in it,” I grumble to the first man I pass. I nod at the few familiar faces hunched around the bar.

“Well look who the snowstorm dragged in,” Rog bellows and he comes from behind the bear and envelops me in a bear hug. My fist beats on his back. He pulls back.

“Don’t you fucking dare, “I warn. A he lifts his big bear paws close to my cheeks. I love him like an uncle, but I have a rep to maintain. Having Rog pat my cheeks like a baby would ruin any street cred I have left.

“I thought you were bullshitin’ me when you said you were coming home.”

“Merry Christmas you old bastard,” I grin.

Rog’s laughter booms across the bar as he leads me over to a stool. He pours us both three fingers of his finest whiskey. Blinking strands of muli-colored lights hang above our heads. Heat from a new pellet burning stove tucked in the corner fills the room. The smell of pine and whiskey is in the air. I turn my head noticing the fresh garland running along the long bank of windows.

“Jesus Rog. You’ve turned Sassy’s into Santa’s friggin’ workshop?”

He chuckles. “Not me. My woman and her best friend. Those two were unstoppable. Just wait until tomorrow. They planned some tree lighting shit by town hall.”

“Christ,” I shudder.

His blue eyes twinkle. “Hang on just a sec,” He disappears down the hall to his back off ice and returns a few minutes later carrying a large box which he drops at my feet.

“What the fuck?” I mutter peering inside.

“Ho, ho, ho.”

“Hell, no.”

“It doesn’t fit me and the kids are expecting to see the jolly fat man in his suit giving out cookies.”

My hand lowers to my stomach. “I have abs of steel old man. They’d never buy it.”

“Well that’s why I have this.” He pulls out a freaky looking strap on stomach.

“What the fuck is that?”

“One of the club girls faked a pregnancy trying to trap a brotha. She wore this shit under her clothes.”

“That’s some serious fucked-up shit.”

“We handled it. She ain’t allowed back in Springdale. We banished her skank ass. Here.”

“Fuck no,” I get off my barstool holding up my hands to ward him off. “I didn’t come home for this. I hate Christmas.”

“I know you do. But this isn’t about you. It’s about the kids who still need to believe in Christmas… to believe someone gives a shit.”

Freddie and Jenny’s faces flash in my head.

Fuck.

“Not one word.” My hand shakes as I pick up the red coat lined with white trim. “Not one fucking word, “I glare at the men trying to hide their smirks behind their drinks, “or I’ll beat the living shit out of you. You all know who I am…I won’t hesitate to lay any of you fuckers out if word gets out it was me. Are we clear?” I pin my gaze on every damn man in the place.

“Crystal.”

My head whips around at the girl causally leaning against the wall with her arms crossed. Her long chestnut hair curls at the end. Her jeans are tight as fuck and her breasts are high.

“Damn beautiful. Where did you fall from? Heaven?”

She rolls her eyes at the same time Rog growls from behind me. And I know by the anger rolling off him as I walk closer to his woman, Devon. I haven’t seen her in a while and she’s looking fine as fuck.

I take her hand in mine and kiss both her cheeks.

“You can let go of her hand now.”

She smiles devilishly, holding mine tighter. “Come on Santa, we need to discuss your duties for tomorrow.” She leads me over to a secluded table by the window and I just happen to notice a ball of mistletoe over the closest door. She gasps as I whirl her over and wink at Rog over her shoulder.

His growl is low and ominous as he reads my intent. But fuck it. If I’m going to wear that suit in public a little payback’s in order.

Her eyes fly wide and she giggles. “He’s going to kill you for this.”

“I know. But it’s damn fun riling his ass up, right?”

She rolls her eyes as I drop a peck on her lips. “This whole MC is nothing but a bunch of teenage boys pretending to be bad-ass brawlers.”

“Oh, we ain’t pretending sugar, we are.”

“Darren!” Rog stands with his hands on his hips, “Meet me in the pit after close. We’ll handle this like grown men.”

“No. Dev rolls her eyes again. “Santa can’t show with a split lip and a shiner.”

“How do you figure he’d win?” I splay my hands on my chest feigning being hurt.

“Because my man is a tank and the only pit you’ve been in is a boardroom full of vipers.”

My lips twitch. “He tells you everything doesn’t he?”

She places a warm hand on my forearm. “He does. Don’t hate the holidays, Dare.”

“I can’t help it.”

“Maybe this one will change your mind.”

“Doubtful.”

Rog grabs her by the elbow leaving the smell of her—vanilla and sugar lingering behind. He pulls her into his arms and kisses her thoroughly flipping me the bird behind her back.

Lucky bastard.

In this moment I feel as if one of the icicles hanging outside stabbed me right through the heart. I’m always the one on the outside looking in. I’ve never had someone special to share one holiday with. Sure, I had plenty of fucks and drunken kisses at midnight but none of them meant shit.

I turn away from them and look out the window. The sky’s clear. And just like I did when I lived here a long time ago, I stare up at the north star and wish for shit I’ve never had.





4

Shiloh



UGH.

I hate myself. Because Mr. Dickhead was hot. He was everything I’ve learned to hate in a man after swearing to myself I won’t fall for cocky-hothole-Armani-wearing-jerks again. An arrogant businessman who only cares about securing his next deal. I sized him up in three seconds. When he decided to take his call and turn his back, I didn’t waste my chance to jump the line. I’m done waiting around. Like my time isn’t valuable.

I hated him on sight. He was perfect. Sexy. Everything that always makes my knees weak and leaves pieces of my heart in a paper shredder. He had dark hair trimmed short in the back and longer on the front. His eyes were the color of my favorite suede. A hue between taupe, earth and buttercream. His teeth were perfect and straight, white as snow… and his lips were full for a man’s without being overly so. But his jaw. It was chiseled as fuck. Strong. Manly. Butterflies raced along my spine when he turned, giving me his full attention.

Rolling my eyes at how pathetic I am for sniffing the collar of his coat for the fiftieth time, I turn down the lane to the inn as my sexy GPS man tells me to turn. I changed the settings to give it a male British accent.

The sound of him telling where to go combined with the musky male scent coming of the stranger’s coat already has me wishing I’ll find a romance this holiday. I’m hoping Springdale is the place I’ll find him. My hot, sext lumberjack slash MC bad boy tatted up and ready to carry me off to his log cabin…

“Wow.”

In front of me is the Maple Tree Inn and Spa. A candle glows in every window. An Evergreen wreath hangs on the door with a bright red bow. Strands of white lights nestled in thick garland hang in swooping scoops and gathered with bows at the top as it runs along a fifty-foot porch. The snow crunches under the tires of the SUV as I brake. Humming “Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” under my breath I get out and breath the fresh cold air as deep as I can. It fills up my lungs, energizing me; making me feel as if anything is possible. Even Christmas miracles like actually finding a decent man to sip hot toddy’s by the fire with.

The sky is clear, and a million stars are out. One shines brighter than the rest. “I just want to be happy. Please,” I whisper, swiping a tear from the corner of my eye. Who knows if anyone is even up there to hear my tiny plea? My shoulders sag. Poor little rich, girl. Right? I have a condo on the beach, enough money to live comfortably… I have more than most and yet…I still feel empty inside.

The front door opens before my hand touches the knob. “Welcome! I’m so glad you’re here. I need an extra set of hands in the kitchen.”

“Wh-at?”

“Don’t stand there gaping, all the cold air is getting in.” She jerks me forward and shoves a candy-cane apron into my arms.

“I’m sorry. You must be mistaken. I’m Shiloh… here to check in.”

“I know who you are. I’m not expecting anyone else tonight,” she reaches back to grab my arm again, taking me into the coziest kitchen I’ve ever seen. The smell of percolating coffee and gingerbread fills my nostrils. Red plaid curtains frame the windows. A small Christmas tree sits in the center of an oak table. More fresh garland is looped around the room. The strange woman bends over and checks on a rack of baking cookies as she opens a fire-engine red commercial grade cast iron oven.

“Almost done.” With a dishtowel draped over her shoulder she pins her gaze on me, taking in the man’s coat hanging over my small frame. She cocks an eyebrow, grabs two ceramic Santa coffee mugs and fills them almost to the top with fresh coffee. “Cream? Sugar?”

I nod my head for both. She grunts in satisfaction, fixes a plate with fresh gingerbread cookies and hands the mug over from across the counter. “So, tell me Shiloh Corbett, what’s your story? A fancy, young woman booking a stay in the middle of nowhere alone… this outta be good.”

I should be insulted. Taken aback by this whole situation. Instead something about the short, pudgy woman makes me want to spill my guts.

I sigh. “My mother was a washed-up Hollywood starlet. She slept with so many of her castmates—my father could be anyone from Tom Selleck to Robert Redford.”

“Oh my,” she flushes and starts fanning herself with the elf dishtowel.

“Mmmm,” I sip the delicious coffee and bite into a cookie. Bursts of flavor make my taste buds rejoice. “I wasted too much time with the wrong man. This holiday is about me. Discovering who I am—what I want.” I munch on the rest of my cookie feeling self-conscious as she studies me from over the rim of her mug. I can’t stop talking. Everything just bubbles to the surface as I tell Mrs. Claus my life story… “end then when I landed in Medford. The most infuriating jerk had the gall to bully me. I wanted to tell him to go to hell, but I couldn’t because he was the only other car on the road that passed me on my way here. I ended up needing his help when my car slipped, and I ended up off the road. This is his coat.”

Her eyebrows raise. “Come on. You need a hot bath and some fresh clothes. I’ll have dinner ready when you’re done and then we need to bake eight dozen sugar cookies.”

“Who are you, anyway?”

She smiles. “Sally McBride. Live-in manager of the inn. And you Shiloh are my only paying guest. It’s just us and somehow my she-devil friend, Luce talked me into baking all these damn cookies for the tree lighting ceremony tomorrow night. Are you in?”

“Sure,” I grin. Half afraid to even say no to this woman. She scares the heck out of me in her Rudolph apron, palming the heavy oak rolling pin in her hand like a weapon. “But I must warn you—I’m not a baker. I can’t even make toast without burning it.”

“By the end of your stay, you’ll be ready to cook in a restaurant.”

“Did I miss the part where it said guests here have to work?”

“It’s in the fine print