On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…absolutely nothing. Because he had no idea that he was my true love. What a jerk.
“The Christmas tree isn’t straight. It’s definitely leaning hard toward the right.”
At that rumbling, sexy-as-sin yet ever-so-annoying voice, Noelle Lennon gave a jolt of surprise and grabbed desperately for the top of the six-foot ladder. Of course, the ladder chose that moment to wobble in the most alarming way—probably because she’d just grabbed it so fiercely—and that wobble made her knees knock even more as she dangled precariously on her perch. With mounting horror, Noelle realized that she was about to take a tumble that was going to absolutely wreck her holiday.
The ladder tilted sharply to the left—toward the tree—and she fell back to the right, already anticipating the pain that would come when she—
Fell straight into warm, strong arms. Arms that belonged to her nemesis, Brady Breckridge. He didn’t even grunt at the impact, because, why would he? The guy was as close to Superman as it was possible to be. He scooped her out of the air as if it was nothing, held her easily, and Noelle could feel the burn in her cheeks as she shoved her dark hair out of her eyes.
She could also hear a loud crash. The shattering of ornaments. The thud of the tree hitting the wall. How utterly perfect.
“Got you,” Brady chimed in, all cheery.
Her head turned. The heat of his touch practically singed her straight to her core.
He smiled at her, showing freaking dimples, and his blue eyes twinkled. “Don’t worry about the tree,” he told her. “I think the new look is an improvement.”
Such an asshole. Her teeth ground together.
He kept holding her. He even brought her a little closer to his body and his grip seemed to tighten.
Brady’s nostrils flared. “Is that vanilla? And a little cinnamon? You smell delicious. Good enough to eat.”
Her cheeks burned even hotter because the mental image that came to mind? Nope, just stop it right there. She was not going to slip back into fantasies about Brady, no matter how gorgeous the man might be. Gorgeous and infuriating. “Put me down.” Like Brady cared about how she smelled. He didn’t care about anything concerning her and that was why he was in nemesis land. Once upon a time, she’d made the mistake of crushing hard on Brady—technically, his name was Braden. But she’d given him the nickname of Brady years ago, and the moniker had stuck. Noelle had known him forever and had been obsessed with him for most of that time, until Brady broke her heart.
Just shattered it beneath his size fourteen shoes.
“If I put you down, you might cut your feet on some of those broken ornaments. Don’t want to tell you your business—”
“Since when?” Noelle demanded. Brady loved butting into her life. It seemed to be his favorite hobby. Well, his favorite hobby after his love for rushing straight into danger. That had to be at the top of his list. Brady was special forces. Top secret missions were routine for him. He seemed happiest when he was in some life-or-death situation.
“I don’t think it’s the best idea to decorate a tree barefoot,” he continued as if she hadn’t interrupted. “And you shouldn’t be that high up on a ladder without someone to support you.” A shake of his head. “If I hadn’t been here to catch you, you could have broken some bones.”
“If you hadn’t been here, I wouldn’t have fallen. I had just put on the last ornament, and I was going to climb down.” Until he’d snuck in with his usual silent steps. The man never made a sound when he walked. Half the time she wondered if he was a ghost. He’d snuck in and then when he’d spoken, he’d scared the crap out of her. Maybe because she’d been a little more jumpy than usual lately. With good reason. But, back to the business at hand. “I had on heels,” she gritted out. “Because I’m at the office. I took them off when I climbed up the ladder.” That way, she could balance better.
Noelle and her brother Elliott owned the real estate company in Charm, North Carolina, and she’d been trying to make the place look festive. Was that so wrong? Her plan had been to surprise their employees with the decorated tree, so she’d hung around after everyone else had left the office.
She peeked to the side at the wreckage. Oh, yes, everyone will be surprised. Definitely surprised. In the worst way.
“I can help you fix things.”
The offer surprised her so much that her head whipped back toward Brady. She almost clipped him in the chin. Missed him by about an inch.
His lips pressed together—sculpted, sexy lips—as if he had to fight a grin. After a moment, Brady schooled his expression. “I can help,” he said again.
“Since when do you want to help me?” Noelle’s voice notched up because she’d just realized… “Why are you still holding me?” If she squirmed, would he drop her? Unable to help herself, she squirmed just a little.
“Because I like holding you?”
She stopped squirming and gaped at him. “Is that supposed to be funny?”
“Do I look like I’m laughing?”
He usually laughed at her. Typical Brady. Noelle huffed out a breath. “Why are you here?” And why had she wrapped one arm around his neck? For balance. Just to hold myself steady. Not because I like touching him.
She could lie to herself so incredibly well. A true talent.
“I drove by and saw your car out front. Your car is the only one in the lot.”
There was a note of censure in his voice. As usual. There was an exceedingly long list of things in her life that Brady frowned upon. Like when she’d been sixteen and he’d thought her homecoming dress was too short and too tight and he’d loudly proclaimed his opinion to everyone who would listen. Or like his opinion on her last four boyfriends—he’d definitely frowned upon them. Four perfectly nice men that Brady had deemed to be losers. Or like her car. Her precious, precious convertible. Brady said the car was a death trap.
The man made his living fighting in war zones. And he wanted to talk to her about death traps?
“You went somewhere,” Brady murmured. “And you left me behind. Want to come back?”
She’d zoned out, just because she was thinking of all the ways he disapproved of her. And because she wasn’t quite in control of herself, Noelle blurted, “You’re the one who left me.” Oh, damn. This night could not get worse.
But, her statement had been the truth. Brady had been the one to leave. To walk away and vanish on his top secret missions and not look back. Meanwhile, she’d spent far too much time looking for him to come home.
Not ever again. Those days were done. She’d moved on. “Put me down,” Noelle ordered.
His head angled to the right. “If that’s what you want.”
Hadn’t she just said it was what she wanted?
“But I can’t let you cut those cute toes.” He carried her a few feet and then eased her down his body. Slowly. As in…inch by inch until he’d put her on the edge of the big desk that waited in the reception area. “You stay here, and I’ll get your shoes for you.”
Fine. She’d stay seated on the desk, her legs swinging a little, because there was a ton of broken glass on the floor. The area was such a mess. So much for having a beautiful tree ready for everyone.
I’ll just fix it. I’ll clean everything up. I’ll get new ornaments and lights and the tree will be great.
“Here you go.”
She reached for the high heels.
But…Brady was reaching for her right foot. His fingers closed around her ankle, and she almost yelped—almost, thankfully and not an actual yelp because how undignified would that have been?—as he slid the shoe on her foot.
“You’ve got the cutest damn toes,” he muttered.
“I had no idea you had a foot fetish.” She also had no idea why his fingers sent a stroke of electricity through her when he was just touching her ankle. Clearly, she needed to get out more. Date more. Have more sex. Because she should not be getting turned on from a man just touching her ankle. Someone was hard up. That someone is me.
“Don’t have a foot fetish.” Brady slid the second shoe into place. “Just have a Noelle fetish.”
Her breath caught. “That’s not funny.”
“Again, am I laughing?”
No, he wasn’t, but he was clearly playing some game. Her chin notched up. “How did you get inside?” She’d been sure she locked the door. Sure because she’d triple checked the locks. Part of her new routine now that things in her life had altered.
Because I’m scared.
“I have a key,” Brady informed her. “Your brother gave it to me.”
“What?” Elliott had better not have—
“He wanted me to take a look at security while I was in town for the holidays, so he gave me an all-access pass to the building.”
She got a super bad feeling in her gut. Noelle wanted to hop off the desk, but there was a six-foot-four, two-hundred-pound male in her path. Very close in her path. So close that he seemed to cage her. “Why would Elliott be so concerned about security?” Her voice had notched a little too high.
Brady leaned toward her. His hands flattened on either side of her body, pressing to the wood of the desk. “Oh, I don’t know…”
Good. That’s good. Because you don’t need to—
“Maybe it has to do with the fact that you were almost attacked less than a week ago?” Anger burned in his voice and glittered in his eyes. Icy blue eyes. Whenever Brady got mad, his eyes always seemed to go extra cold.
She kept her chin up. “I wasn’t attacked.”
“That’s where the almost part kicks into the equation.”
A chill danced over her skin. “I interrupted a robbery.” And, yes, at night, right before she closed her eyes before bed, she would still see the guy in her mind. Tall. Broad shoulders. Wearing all black. Including black gloves and a black ski mask that covered his face.
“According to the owners of the house, nothing was taken,” Brady noted, his gaze watchful.
“That’s where the interrupted park kicks into the equation,” she retorted, voice crisp. “I was planning to do an open house at that location. When I let myself inside, I found the…” Incredibly scary guy waiting. “I found the would-be robber. I immediately ran out.” And he chased me. He grabbed my shoulder, but I sprayed my mace back at the eye holes in his mask. “I got in my car, rushed away from the scene, and called the cops as I fled.” By the time the authorities arrived, the intruder had been long gone.
A muscle flexed along his jaw. “Two days ago, you received a delivery of a dozen roses.”
Unable to help it, Noelle gaped at him. “You’ve been gone for five months.” Five months, four days, and three hours. Jeez, she needed to stop this nonsense with him. Why had she counted? Why couldn’t she get a normal hobby? Her new year’s resolution was to take up quilting or something else to occupy her time. But back to the matter at hand. “How do you possibly know so much about my life?”
“Because I make it a point to know.” Grim.
“You mean Elliott went running to you.” That had to be the case. “He’s worrying over nothing. So the flowers didn’t have a card with them. So what? It’s the holiday season. Everyone is busy. The florist probably just lost the card. Or maybe it was from a secret admirer or—”
“Or a stalker,” Brady cut in, voice rasping. “Some asshole who tried to get you at an open house and is currently locked and loaded on you.”
Noelle blinked. Chill bumps covered her arms. “You are always so bright and cheery. My own personal Christmas card.”
His fierce expression didn’t alter. If anything, he looked even more intense. Square jaw. Slightly hawkish nose. Brutally carved cheekbones. How one man could look both extremely dangerous and delectably gorgeous was beyond her. Just a talent he possessed.
“It’s been five months,” Noelle said. “You go completely off-grid, and instead of coming back and greeting me with an…I don’t know…Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays…you appear and start telling me that I have a stalker. I don’t.” God, she hoped not. “But your concern is noted.”
His eyes narrowed. Blue chips of ice. “Your brother is worried about you.”
Your brother. As Noelle understood exactly what was happening, humiliation flooded through her. “Elliott told you to check on me. Not just to check the security here, but to actually check up on me. Ugh. This is crazy. I’ve talked to the police. They are looking for the robber—”
“A man you can’t identify. A man who had his face covered the whole time.”
“Again, you’re being way too bright and cheery,” Noelle chided him. “Your optimism is a thing to behold.” A sniff from her. “I like to think of him more as…A man they will catch soon. Or…a man who has fled the area.” Option two was her favorite.
The ice hardened even more in his gaze. “Or a man who might be watching you right now through the giant floor-to-ceiling windows of this lobby.”
Automatically, her gaze shot to said floor-to-ceiling windows. And she saw the darkness staring back at her through them. Because it was so dark, she would be easily seen by anyone outside.
She would be seen and so would Brady. Any onlooker would also see their somewhat, ah, compromising position. “It’s going to look like we’re making out.” Her hands rose and pressed against his chest. That ever-so-muscled chest of his. “Space, Brady.”
A small growl escaped him. “That’s what you’re worried about? Someone seeing me get a little too close to you?” He gave a hard, negative shake of his head and did not give her the requested space. “Why the hell didn’t you contact me the minute this shit happened? You could have been hurt, you could have been killed, you could have been—”
“Uh, how would I contact you?” Noelle interrupted to say. “There isn’t exactly a phone number to get you when you go all dark ops on me. Besides, why would it matter? I’m just the little sister of your buddy, remember?” A line he’d thrown at her so long ago. One that had ripped out her heart. “Someone who tags along and gets in the way.”
His eyes narrowed. “Don’t push me.”
She pushed again with the palms of her hands. “That’s exactly what I’m doing. Look, it’s…sweet-ish of you to stop by, but you don’t need to pull some protective big-brother routine with me.” Noelle barely contained an eyeroll. “I have one brother. I don’t need two. Dealing with Elliott can be hard enough.”
Brady stepped back.
Her hands slipped to her sides as she jumped from the desk. A broken piece of red ornament crunched beneath her heel.
“I’m not your brother,” he said, voice still growly.
No, you are not. “I’m fine. The cops are on the case. I’m taking extra precautions.” She marched past him, crunching more ornaments, as she made her way toward the broom closet.
“Precautions, huh? You mean like staying by yourself when everyone else has left the office? Great precaution job there.”
Her hand curled around the knob of the closet door. “The facility was locked. It was secure. You only got inside because you had a key.”
“And what about outside? You have to leave eventually. You were just going to waltz out into the night on your own? What if he’s waiting in the dark? What if he’s hiding out there and counting down to when he can grab you?”
She spun toward him, only to discover that he’d closed in on her. Crept behind her with those silent steps. “What is your deal?” Now her own anger burned. “Why are you pulling the overprotective—”
“Don’t say I’m acting like a brother again.”
Fine. “Why are you pulling the overprotective-asshole routine on me? I have mace. I have a taser. I have the sense to check my surroundings before I leave. I’m not going to stop living my life just because of that jerk. It’s the holiday season. I wanted to do something nice for the staff here at the office, so I stayed late to work on a surprise.” One that had been ruined. Courtesy of the asshole in front of her. And, yes, okay, it had also been ruined because clumsiness was one of her attributes. “You’ve done your due diligence. You checked on me. I’m alive. So, how about do me a favor?” She gave him a smile. One that she knew would hold a brittle edge. “Get the hell out.”
Brady swallowed and stepped even closer. “How long have you thought I was an asshole?”
Since you broke my heart into a thousand pieces. “Forever,” she said breezily.
“I see.” Brady yanked a hand over his face. “That’s gonna be a problem.”
Why was he lingering? “Glad you’re home safe, Brady.” Dammit, she was. Worry filled her every time he left on a mission, and that tight ball only eased when she saw him, safe and sound, again. “But it’s time for you to go.”
His hand dropped. He peeked at her. “Did you miss me?”
Yes. “Why would you ever think that?”
The hand that had just dropped now rose. His knuckles skimmed over her cheek. “Because I missed you. Even more this time than on the missions before.”
His head leaned toward her. “Can’t keep going on like this. If something had happened to you while I was gone…”
His eyes were on her mouth. The temperature in the lobby seemed to have blasted up at least twenty degrees. And was he leaning toward her?
Once more, her hands rose, too. This time, they curled around his shoulders. Even in her heels, she didn’t come close to his height. The man seemed to swallow her with his massive size. “Nothing happened,” she whispered. “I’m fine, Brady. You don’t need to worry about me.”
“But I do.” A rasp. “I worry about you all the time.”
He leaned in even more—and they had already been plenty close. Noelle had the crazy idea that he was about to kiss her. Maybe she pressed up on her toes because kissing Brady had been a fantasy that she’d had for longer than she could remember—
“Because I worry, that’s why I told your brother that I would pull bodyguard duty while I am town.” A nod. His hand slid from her cheek to dip under her chin. He tapped her chin. “I assured him that I would keep you safe and that I would keep an extra close watch on you.”
No, no, no. A million times…no. “That’s not funny.”
“Once more, sweetheart, I’m not laughing.”
She wasn’t his sweetheart.
“Not laughing, but I am reporting for bodyguard duty.” Brady winked at her. “That reminds me…Elliott said you wouldn’t mind if I crashed in your spare bedroom. Things will be better that way because I can keep a closer watch on you.”
Her mouth hung open. Noelle tried to suck in air, but just wheezed and choked. Brady in her house?
“I’m a great roommate, promise. You’ll barely even know I’m there.”
She would know. Every moment. “This is a bad idea.”
“I have stayed with you before. This will be nothing new.” His lips curled in a half-smile that almost flashed his dimples, but the ice still lingered in his eyes. “Your brother is worried about you. I’m in town, I need a place to stay, and by rooming in your spare bedroom, I can keep an eye on you. Win, win.”
It didn’t feel like a win. “You have a giant house, Brady.” A big, beautiful Victorian-style home that had originally been built in the early 1900s. When his parents had been killed in a car accident, the house had passed to him.
His Victorian was one of the many crowns in Charm, North Carolina. Like the name implied, Charm was an area to behold. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Charm drew tourists from all over the world. And those visitors often made a point of driving by the massive home, a true fairytale house with twin turrets and a wraparound porch.
“The house has been closed down for months. And after the holidays, I’m planning to start renovation work on it. Gonna hire some crews.” His stare turned considering. “Was thinking about maybe even listing it for sale.”
Her heart rate kicked up.
“Good thing I know some great realtors.” His smile blossomed fully so that his dimples winked. “You let me stay at your place, you let me give your brother some peace of mind, and the listing can be yours.”
She licked her lips.
The ice in his stare melted.
No, no, that was her imagination. Nothing had melted. She was just tired and edgy and… “You’re blackmailing me.”
Her nostrils flared. “Fine. Stay in the guest room, though it is completely unnecessary.”
“Um. Yes. Unnecessary. Because your safety is of no concern to anyone. Certainly not to your beloved brother or to me.”
“You can stay,” she continued doggedly, “but I expect that listing.” More than that, she wanted the house. I want to buy it.
“Looks like we have a deal.”
She still clutched his shoulders. She was also still up on her toes, as if she intended to kiss him. Not happening. They weren’t going to seal the deal with a kiss or anything like that.
They’d never kissed. Though they had come very, very close once. Until he’d rejected her.
Noelle let him go. She backed away. Bumped into the closet door.
“Do we have a deal?” Brady extended his hand toward hers.
Fine. Because maybe she’d been a little nervous the last few days. Maybe she’d thought—once, twice, or maybe even seven times—that someone might be watching her. Probably just nerves. Just her imagination. She’d always had an overactive imagination. But…
But it would be good to have a big, bad special forces guy at my beck and call. She shoved her hand toward him. “Deal.”
His fingers closed around hers. The calluses on his fingertips were slightly rough against her skin. A roughness that Noelle didn’t mind at all. A surge of heat zipped from her hand, up her arm, and seemed to zing right into her heart.
“The glass is pretty sharp. It would be a shame if you got cut,” Brady murmured, still holding her hand. “I’ll clean it up. We’ll toss it away and straighten the tree. I’m sure we can pick up more ornaments so you can have the tree looking even better than before.”
“How gallant.” Noelle forced a smile even as she tugged her hand free of his. “Aren’t you the gentleman?”
No answering smile curved his lips. “No,” he replied, voice a rumble. “I’m done with that shit. From here on out, I’m taking what I want.”
“Brady?” Unease flickered through her because his gaze was suddenly too intense. His features even harsher.
“It’s gonna be one hell of a holiday season,” he assured her. “And who knows, maybe by the time it’s over, we’ll both get exactly what we want.”
Doubtful. Considering that what she wanted most…was him.