Monday, November 21, 2011
Shannon Raleigh turned to get a look at herself in the full-length mirror in the bathroom of her executive office suite and gaped in horror. The tall black boots and short red velvet dress she wore exposed most of her legs and the white fur trimmed “U” at the bodice revealed a sizeable strip of cleavage.
“I can’t go into a roomful of kids dressed like this!”
Even from behind the closed door, she could hear her assistant Wendy sigh heavily. “Why don’t you let me be the judge of that?”
“Because I know you’ll say I look fine, when I don’t. I can’t usher kids to Santa’s lap in a skirt so short I can’t bend over.”
“So don’t bend over.” Another sigh. “Look, Shannon, it doesn’t matter that you’re eight inches taller than Carlie. There’s nobody else who’s even remotely thin enough to fit into that suit. Carlie’s car is stuck in a snow drift. If you don’t play Santa’s helper there’ll be no one to–“
The ring of the phone stopped Wendy mid-sentence. The next thing Shannon heard was Wendy’s happy voice saying, “Raleigh’s Department Store. Shannon Raleigh’s assistant, Wendy, speaking.”
In the lull while Wendy obviously listened to the caller, Shannon cast another critical eye over her reflection. The little red dress was kind of cute. The color complimented her long black hair and made her blue eyes seem bluer. If she were wearing it anywhere else, she’d actually think she looked pretty.
A long-forgotten ache filled her. It was the first time in a year she felt pretty, sexy. But sexy wasn’t exactly the way a grown woman should dress in a room filled with babies, toddlers and elementary school kids.
The ache was quickly replaced by fear – which was the real reason she didn’t want to play Santa’s helper. How could she spend four hours in a room full of adorable children? She wanted a baby so badly it hurt, but she couldn’t have kids. And seeing all those sweet faces, hearing their cute little lists, would crush her.
“I’m not coming out.”
“Fine. That was Tammy in the Shoe Department. No one’s come into the store for the past hour. Because she could tell the storm was getting worse, she checked the forecast on the Internet. They have no clue how much snow we’re going to get, but they aren’t shy about suggesting we might get another foot.”
Shannon raced out of her bathroom and pulled back the curtain behind her huge mahogany desk. Thick fluffy snowflakes cascaded from the sky, coating the tinsel and silver bells on the streetlamps of Main Street, Green Hill, Pennsylvania. It blanketed the Christmas lights that outlined shop doorways, and sat on the roof of the park’s gazebo like a tall white hat.
Her gaze on the little red Santa’s help outfit, Wendy also said, “Holy cow.”
“Don’t make fun. We have a serious problem here.” Or maybe a way out. She turned from the window. “I think it’s time to admit that the storm is keeping shoppers away.”
“And most of the staff is scared silly about driving home. The longer we stay, the worse the roads get.”
“Okay, announce that the store is closing in fifteen and tell the employees they can go home. I’ll call the radio stations so they can add us to their list of closings. Then I’ll lock up.”
As the announcement went out over the loudspeaker, Shannon called all the local radio stations and advised them to let listeners know Raleigh’s would be closed for the night.
Just as she hung up the phone from the final call, Wendy peeked in. “Okay. Fifteen minutes are up. Store’s empty.”
“Great. Thanks. Be careful going home.”
“My boyfriend’s coming to pick me up in his truck. I’ll be fine.”
Shannon smiled. “See you tomorrow.”
“If we can make it.”
“We better hope we can make it. The weekend before Christmas is our busiest time.”
Wendy shrugged. “If shoppers don’t get here tomorrow, they’ll just come on Sunday or Monday or Tuesday or whatever. Nobody’s going to go without gifts this Christmas. I’d say your profits are safe.”
Shannon laughed. Wendy waved and headed off. With a few clicks on her keyboard, she activated the building locks and the alarm system. Reaching for her coat, she peered down at her little Santa’s helper outfit. She should change, but knowing the roads were getting worse with every passing minute, she simply yanked her long white wool coat from the closet and ran out.
At the end of the hall, she pushed on the swinging door that led from executive row to Housewares. Striding to the elevator, she passed shelves and tables bulging with merchandise, all under loops of tinsel and oversized ornaments hanging from the low ceiling. On the first floor, she hurried past the Candy Department, to the back door and the employee parking lot. Putting her SUV into four-wheel drive, she edged onto the street and slowly wound along the twisty road that took her out into the country, to her home five miles outside the small city.
As she stepped out into the eighteen inches of snow in her driveway, a sense of disconnect shivered through her. Though it had been a year, it felt like only yesterday that she was married and living in sunny, happy Charleston, South Carolina – where people didn’t often see snow, let alone need winter coats and boots. Then she’d been diagnosed with stage-four endometriosis and forced to have a hysterectomy, her husband had unceremoniously divorced her and she’d returned home to the comforting arms of her parents.
But just when she’d gotten adjusted to being back in town and working at the store, her parents had retired and moved to Florida. Worse, they wanted her to sell the store to fund their retirement.
Once again, she was alone – and soon she’d be unemployed.
She trudged up the back steps to the kitchen door, scolding herself for being so negative. She knew what was wrong. The near-miss with playing Santa’s helper had rattled her. Four hours of ushering kids to Santa’s throne and listening to their sweet voices as they gave their Christmas lists to the jolly old elf would have been her undoing – a bittersweet reminder her that she’d never bring a child into this world.
Inside the cold yellow kitchen, she’d just barely unwound the scarf from her neck when the doorbell rang. Confused, she walked up the hall, dodging the boxes of Christmas decorations she’d brought from the attic the night before. She flipped on the porch light and yanked open the door.
A snow-covered state policeman took off his hat. “Evening, ma’am. I’m Trooper Potter.”
She blinked. What the devil would the police want with her? “Good evening.”
Then Trooper Potter shifted a bit to his left and she saw Rory Wallace. All six-foot-one, no-more-than-a-hundred-and-eighty-five-gorgeous pounds of him. His black hair and topcoat were sprinkled with snow. His dark eyes were wary, apologetic.
“Good evening, Shannon.”
The policeman angled his thumb behind him. “I see you know Mr. Wallace.”
“Yes. I do.” How could she forget a dark-haired, dark-eyed sex god? While he dated her roommate Natalie their first year at university, Shannon had had a secret crush on him. With his high cheekbones, well defined chin, broad shoulders and flat abs, he had the kind of looks that made women swoon and Shannon wasn’t blind.
“Mr. Wallace was stranded on the Interstate. The hotels filled up quickly with travelers and now his only options are a cot in the high school gym or finding someone to take him in. He tells me that he’s in Pennsylvania because he has business with you on Monday and --”
“I came a few days early to get a look at the store on my own,” Rory interrupted, stepping forward. “But I ran into the storm. I was hoping you wouldn’t mind me staying the night. Normally, I wouldn’t ask such a big favor, but as you can see I’m desperate.”
Mind? She almost laughed. She would bet that fifty percent of the women he met fantasized about being stuck in storm with him.
She opened the door a little wider. Not only would having him stay the night get her out of the doldrums about her life, but this had all the makings of a perfect fantasy. Cold night. Gorgeous guy. And wine. She had tons of wine.
“Daddy, I’m cold.”
Her fantasy came to an abrupt halt as she glanced down and saw a little girl standing beside Rory. She wore a pink ski jacket and carried a matching pink backpack. Little strands of yellow hair peeked from beneath her hood.
Her heart pinched with fear. Her breathing stuttered out. Did Fate think it was funny to let her dodge playing Santa’s helper only to drop an adorable child on her doorstep?
“You can see why I don’t want to stay in a shelter.”
Fear and yearning collided as she glanced down at the sweet little girl with big blue eyes and fine yellow hair. As much as she knew spending time with this child would intensify her longing for her own, she couldn’t leave Rory and his daughter out in the cold or ship them to a crowded gym with hundreds of other noisy travelers and a tiny cot.
She also couldn’t be a Scrooge or grumpy Gus. Her problem wasn’t their problem. She would be a good hostess.
She stepped back so they could enter. “Yes. Yes, of course.”
Carrying a duffle bag and brief case as he squeezed into the foyer, Rory brushed against her, setting off a firestorm of sensations inside her. She ignored them. Not just because a man with a child was mostly likely married, but because she probably wouldn’t have made a pass at him even if he’d been alone. In the year since her divorce, she hadn’t been able to relate to men as anything other than employees. After her husband’s anger over her inability to have kids and the way he’d dropped her like a hot potato – no consideration for their five-year marriage, no consideration for her devastation – the fear of another man rejecting her paralyzed her.
Plus, come Monday, they’d be doing business. His family owned a holding company for various types of stores and Raleigh’s would probably fit their collection. That’s why she’d thought of Natalie’s old boyfriend when her parents decided they wanted her to sell the store. It could be a quick, painless sale. She didn’t want to jeopardize that.
But, wow. It had been fun to fantasize about being stranded with him, fun for the ten seconds before reality intruded, reminding her she wasn’t normal.
As Rory dropped his duffle bag, she said, “It’s a terrible storm.”
“Worst in ten years,” the trooper agreed, staying behind on the porch. “If you’re all settled, I need to get back on the road.”
“We’re fine,” Shannon said, as she began to close the door. As an afterthought, she added, “Thank you.”
“Yes, thank you,” Rory Wallace called out too.
Already on his way down her front steps, the trooper waved goodbye and trudged through the thick snow on the sidewalk to his car.
Awkward silence reined as Rory Wallace took in the foyer of Shannon Raleigh’s home. As if it wasn’t bad enough that he’d been forced to humble himself and ask shelter from a business associate, it appeared she was moving. Boxes blocked half the corridor that led from the foyer to the kitchen behind it. They littered the living room to the right and the dining room to the left.
Which made him feel even guiltier for being forced to ask for shelter. “Thank you. I really appreciate this.”
She smiled graciously. “You’re welcome.” Then she shivered, even though she wore a long white coat and the house wasn’t that cold, just chilled, as if the heat had been on low all day while she was at work. “Give me a minute to turn on the furnace.” She walked to a thermostat on the wall and adjusted it. “You might want to keep your coats on until it heats up in here.”
He unbuttoned his topcoat. “Actually, after spending ten hours in a car, your house is warm to us.” He stooped to help his daughter with her jacket. Realizing he’d never introduced her, he peeked up at Shannon. “This is my daughter, Finley.”
Crouching beside them, Shannon said, “It’s nice to meet you, Finley.”
Finley mumbled, “Nice to meet you too,” then she looked at him as if wanting to make sure he’d noticed that she’d been polite.
Sliding her arms out of her little pink jacket, he gave her a subtle nod of approval. Lately, she’d been something of a six-year-old diva. Disciplining her worked, but not always. And some days he was at his wits end with her. So he was lucky she’d been polite to Shannon Raleigh. He didn’t know how he’d deal with her if she insulted the woman who’d rescued them.
“This is the perfect night to be stranded with me,” Shannon said, taking Finley’s jacket to the closet behind her. “My parents will be home from Florida next Saturday and I promised I’d have the house decorated for Christmas. All these boxes are decorations they left behind when they moved to Florida. You can help me.”
While Rory breathed a sigh of relief that he hadn’t interrupted her moving, Finley’s nose wrinkled and her eyes narrowed with distaste. Before he realized what she was about to do, she spat, “I hate Christmas.”
Shannon reared back as if someone had slapped her. Her pretty blue eyes widened in disbelief. “Hate Christmas? How can you hate Christmas?”
“How can you believe that a fat guy in a red suit brings you presents?”
Anger pulsed through Rory’s veins and he shot Finley a warning look. He wouldn’t yell at her in front of Shannon, but he did need to provide a few rules for behavior when imposing on someone they barely knew. He faced Shannon. “Why don’t you tell me where we’re sleeping and I’ll take Finley to our room and help her get settled in.”
Shannon winced. “Actually, there’s only one bedroom.”
“It’s no big deal. We’ll give the bed to Finley, and you and I will use sleeping bags. You can put yours on the floor beside the bed and I’ll sleep on the sofa.”
Mortal embarrassment overwhelmed him. He hadn’t realized how much he’d be putting her out when he gave her name to the state policeman. “This is such an imposition. You can’t give us your room. Finley and I don’t mind sleeping in the living room.”
Finley stomped her foot. “I don’t want to sleep on the floor.”
He flashed Finley another warning look. “You won’t. You can have the sofa.”
“I want a bed!”
Rory’s head pounded. He understood that this time of year wasn’t easy for Finley. Her mom had left on Christmas day two years before. So every year, she got moody, and every year he indulged her by taking her on vacation from Christmas Eve to New Years. For a guy who’d also lost his marriage on Christmas Day, a vacation from the holiday was good for him too. But the foot-stomping and the pouting and the demands that everything go her way, those had just started. And he absolutely refused to get on board with them. He had to spend the next week looking at Raleigh’s Department Store for his family’s holding company. He couldn’t have her acting like a brat all week.
He turned to Shannon. “Would you mind showing us to the bedroom so I can get Finley settled?”
“Not at all.”
She led them into a small first floor bedroom that was as neat and clean as the rest of the house – minus boxes. A feminine white ruffled spread sat on a simple double bed. Red pillows on the bed matched the red shag carpet beneath it and the drapes on the double windows.
He dropped his duffle bag to the floor. “Wow.”
She faced him with a smile. Her shiny black hair was a wonderland of long, springy curls. In the years since university, her face had shifted just slightly and she’d become a softer, prettier version of the young girl he remembered.
“I’m just a little surprised by your room.”
Her smile grew. “Really? Why?”
“The red.” He felt the same color rising on his cheeks. The room was girlie, yet incredibly sexy. But he certainly didn’t feel comfortable saying that to the woman giving him and his daughter shelter, especially not after Finley’s mini-tantrum. Still, he never would have guessed this sexy combination of color and style from the sweet Shannon he knew all those years ago at school.
“There’s a private bathroom for the bedroom.” She gestured toward a door to the right. “Over there.”
“Just come out when you’re ready.” She smiled. “I’ll start supper. I hope you like toasted cheese sandwiches and soup. I’m not much of a cook.”
“On a cold day like this, soup is terrific.”
She closed the door behind her and Rory crouched down in front of Finley. Smoothing his hand down her shiny yellow hair, he said, “You’re killing me.”
She blinked innocently “What?”
“Ms. Raleigh is doing us a favor by letting us stay. We should be polite to her.”
“I was polite.”
“Saying you want the bed while you stomp your foot is not polite.”
Her bottom lip puffed out. “Sorry.”
And this was why he had trouble disciplining her. The second he pointed out something she did wrong, she turned on that little girl charm. Batted her long black lashes over her pretty blue eyes.
Scrubbing his hand over his mouth, he rose. “I’ll tell you what. You stay in here for a few minutes, while I spend some time getting acquainted with our hostess.” And apologizing and doing damage control. “While I’m gone, you can get your pajamas and tooth brush out of your backpack and think about how you’d want a little girl to behave if she were a guest in our house.”
Apparently liking her assignment, she nodded eagerly.
“And don’t spend all your time thinking about how you’d spoil your little guest, because you wouldn’t. If you had to give up your bed for a stranger, you’d want her to be nice to you.”
Finley nodded again and said, “Okay. I get it.”
Rory was absolutely positive she didn’t, but he had to make amends to Shannon. He left Finley in the bedroom and walked up the hall to the kitchen.
The house was small, but comfortable. The furniture was new and expensive, an indication that Raleigh’s Department Store did, indeed, make lots of money. So maybe the trip to Pennsylvania might not have been the mistake he’d thought while sitting in his car for ten hours, not moving, on the Interstate?
He found Shannon in the kitchen. Still wearing her coat, she drew bread from a drawer and cheese from the refrigerator.
“Thanks again for taking us in.”
“No problem.” She set the bread and cheese on the center island of the sunny yellow kitchen with light oak cabinets and pale brown granite countertops. She reached for the top button of her coat. “Furnace has kicked in,” she said with a laugh, popping the first button and the second, but when she reached the third, she paused. “I think I’ll just take this out to the hall closet.”
She walked past him, to the swinging door. Wanting something to do, he followed her. Just as he said, “Is there anything I can do to help with supper?” her coat fell off her shoulders, revealing a bright red dress.
But when she turned in surprise, he saw the dress wasn’t really a dress but some little red velvet thing that dipped low at the bodice, revealing an enticing band of cleavage. Tall black boots showcased her great legs.
She was dressed like Mrs. Santa – if Mrs. Santa were a young incredibly endowed woman who liked short skirts.
His dormant hormones woke as if from a long winter’s nap, and he took a step back. These little bursts of attraction he was having to her were all wrong. He had an unruly daughter who took priority over everything in his life, including his hormones, and he was a guest in Shannon’s house. Plus, tomorrow morning, when the storm was over, they’d go into her department store as adversaries of a sort. She’d be trying to sell her family business to him and he’d be looking for reasons not to buy. He couldn’t be attracted to her.
He swallowed back the whole filing cabinet of flirtatious remarks that wanted to come out. “That’s an interesting choice of work clothes.”
She laughed nervously. “I was going to fill in for our Santa’s helper in the Toy Department.”
Ah. Not Mrs. Santa but Santa’s helper.
“Well, the dress is very …” He paused. He knew the dress was probably supposed to be Christmassy and cute. And on a shorter woman it probably was. But she was tall, sleek, yet somehow still womanly. He didn’t dare tell her that. “… festive.”
She brought the coat to her neck, using it to shield herself. “That’s the look we’re after. Festive and happy. And it actually works for the girl who fits into this costume. I was lucky Mother Nature saved me and I didn’t have to fill in for her tonight.”
Recognizing her acute nervousness, Rory pulled his gaze away from her long, slim legs. He cleared his throat. “I … um… just followed you to see if I could help you with anything.”
She motioned toward his black suit and white shirt. “Are you sure you want to butter bread or stir tomato soup in a suit?”
He took off his jacket, loosened his tie and began rolling up his sleeves.
And Shannon’s mouth watered. Damn it. She’d already figured out she couldn’t be fantasizing about him. Sure, his shoulders were broad, his arms muscled. And she’d always been a sucker for a man in a white shirt with rolled up sleeves looking like he was ready to get down to business. But as far as she could tell, he was married. That shut down the possibility of any relationship right then and there. Plus, she wanted him to buy her parents’ store. She couldn’t be drooling on him.
She hung up her coat, then scurried past him, into the kitchen and directly to the laundry room. Leaning on the closed door, she drew in a deep breath. God, he was gorgeous. But he was also married.
Married. Married. Married.
She forced the litany through her head, hoping it would sink in, as she grabbed a pair of sweats and a T-shirt from the dryer and changed into them.
When she returned to the kitchen he stood at the center island, buttering bread. “While we have a few seconds of privacy, I also wanted to apologize for Finley. I brought her because she’s on Christmas break from school and I hate to leave her with her nanny for an entire week. But I know she can be a handful.”
Walking over to join him, she said, “She’s just a little girl.”
“True, but she’s also recently entered a new phase of some sort where she stomps her foot when she doesn’t get her own way.”
Standing so close to him, she could smell his aftershave. Her breathing stuttered in and out of her lungs. So she laughed, trying to cover it. “A new phase, huh?”
“She’s was perfectly fine in pre-school and kindergarten, but first grade is turning her into a Diva.”
“Yeah.” Smiling, he caught her gaze, and every nerve ending in her body lit up like the lights on the Christmas tree in central park. Spinning away from him, she repeated the litany in her head again.
Married. Married. Married!
“You know, I can easily handle this myself. You can use the den for privacy if you need to call your wife.”
He snorted a laugh. “Not hardly.”
She set the frying pan for the sandwiches on the stove and faced him again. “I’m sure she’s worried.”
“And I’m sure she and her new husband aren’t even thinking about me and Finley right now.”
“Oh.” Nerves rolled through her. He was divorced? Not married?
Their gazes caught. Attraction spun through her like snowflakes dancing in the light of a streetlamp. She reminded herself that they were about to do business, but it didn’t work to snuff out the snap and crackle of electricity arching between them.
She pivoted away from him. Pretending she needed all her concentration to open two cans of soup, she managed to avoid conversation. But that didn’t stop the chatter in her brain. As difficult as it might be to have a little girl around, she was abundantly glad Finley was with him. She might have had that quick fantasy of being stranded with him, but now that sanity had returned, she knew the sale of the store had to take precedence over a night of … she swallowed…passion? Good God, she hadn’t even thought the word in a year, let alone experienced it. She’d probably dissolve into a puddle if he made a pass at her.