Chapter One

wpid-sleepingwithsanta_w9249_750.jpgSleeping with Santa

Lily Lane stepped into the warmth of Ray’s Liquor Store with twenty minutes left to her lunch break, a wad of cash, and a mile-long Christmas list.

Well, not exactly a mile, but it was long enough to require a shopping cart. And the wad was just crumpled singles and fives she’d collected in the tip jar throughout the last two months, specifically for this pathetic shopping spree.

From his perch at the counter, the gray-haired owner peeked over his reading glasses and put down the newspaper. “Let me guess…cheap champagne?”

“Oh, Ray, you know me so well.” It wasn’t the greatest gift, but it wasn’t the worst either. And it was better than giving nothing at all. As her mother used to say, it’s the thought that counts.

“How much? And how many?”

“Well…” She choked on the bitter taste of pride and winced. “I got two-hundred bucks. And I need…twenty bottles.”

At least Ray didn’t flinch this year. He offered four cases of six bottles, calling it even. They settled the deal by the stockroom door just as the jingle bell announced another customer’s arrival. A real customer, no doubt.

“I’ll bring the cart back later.” Poised to leave, she spied the person’s face—a new face…make that a handsome new face—and changed direction. She had to be sure he wasn’t a mirage or just one of the neighborhood dirt bags all cleaned up.

The trouble with knowing everybody in this godforsaken speck of a suburban town meant knowing everybody’s personal business. She didn’t want anyone knowing any more of her business than what they probably already knew. In her book, dating local guys was as taboo as dating a fireman.

The stranger followed Ray down the aisle until all she could see was dark hair over the stacked boxes of margarita mixers.

She ducked behind the rack of dusty wine bottles to sneak a peek. Turn around, turn around. I don’t have all day. Turn around already.

When he stepped into her narrow line of vision, her heart stopped. She clamped her palm over her mouth to stifle the stunned gasp at Adonis in a black leather jacket.

Broad shoulders tapered toward a trim waist and lean legs in fitted jeans. Relaxed but not sloppy, neat but not boring. Sculpted cheeks. Strong chin. Dark slashes for eyebrows. His nose had a slight bump at the bridge as if he’d broken it at some point in his gorgeous life. Full, bow-shaped lips made her think of kissing…

One way ticket to Swoon-City, please.

She’d love to get him in the barber chair if only to run her fingers through that thick mane. By the threads of silver sparkling around his temples, he had to be over thirty.

He was hot. Totally hot. The total-package kind of hot. The kind of hot that made her want to know what he ate for breakfast so she could serve it to him in bed. If she had a type, he’d be it.

His swagger radiated the confidence of an alpha that lured her out of hiding in order to get a better look, and she walked right into his wave of musky cologne.

“You’re still here?” Ray asked.

“Something’s wrong with the, uh, wheels,” she lied with a clear conscience.

“Let me take care of the gentleman first. Then I’ll help you move those cases to another shopping cart.”

“Take your time. I can wait.”

It was impossible not to stare at the gentleman at such close range. He looked like a gorgeous grizzly bear. She pretended to study the clever advertisements on the walls. But every time their eyes touched her system screamed: WE HAVE A WINNER!—like the bells and blinking lights on the High-Striker hammer game at the carnival.

“That’ll be three hundred and fourteen dollars,” Ray said.

For two bottles of booze?

Adonis pulled out a fat roll of cash and paid with hundred dollar bills. “One bottle’s coming with me. Ship the other to this address.” He scribbled on the back of the receipt and handed it to Ray.

Then bedroom eyes wandered toward the contents of Lily’s cart and continued to rove up her body. Electricity surged under her skin—a zing if she ever felt one.

Every cell in her body vibrated the confirmation: He. Is. The. One!

A slow lethal smile spread across his clean-shaven face. “Havin’ a party?”

Why—you wanna come? Lily shook her head no. With her heart pinned in her chest, it was impossible to breathe, never mind speak.

“You know what they say, ‘When you need a shopping cart in a liquor store you mean business.’” He winked, making her knees wobble.

The wheels rolled from under her weight, and the cart bumped into the wall without damaging the merchandise. “Oh, would you look at that? Must have fixed itself.”

“I’ll get the door for you,” Adonis offered on the way out. His delicious drawl sounded so wonderful, she wanted to hear it whispering in her ear. Late at night. Under the covers.

“Uh, okay.” Lily choked on the simple words. She wiped clammy palms on her velour track pants before gripping the handle.

“Where’re ya parked? I’ll help you load it into the car.”

Thank God for the brisk wind to cool her face, flaring with heat. “It’s in the lot all the way around back. But that’s okay—I work three doors down.” She pointed to the red, white, and blue-striped pole. “I’ll leave it in the shop until closing time.”

He strolled beside her like a happy puppy, swinging his purchase in a brown paper bag, choking the bottle by the neck. His long legs seemed to reach the height of her shoulders, but he kept his stride in time with her slower, shorter steps.

“They sure decorate early around here.” He nodded toward the procession of telephone poles being dressed in green garland and scarlet bows.

“A little too early.”

“Oh, I’m not complaining. Red’s my favorite color.” His voice dropped a sultry octave.

Lily pushed windblown copper curls out of her eyes, wondering what he meant by the remark. Either he was hitting on her or really liked Christmas.

Outside the barbershop, Adonis made himself comfortable on the bench reserved for customers, while she stood, squeezing the cart handle like a foam rubber stress ball. Eye to eye, his were so dark she couldn’t tell the pupil from the iris. And their lips were in perfect alignment for kissing

“It’s real pretty around here.” His gaze narrowed on her face.

No doubt, he was referring to the town, but for a moment Lily swore he was talking about her.

“Strange seeing Halloween and Christmas together.”

“I know. But that’s how we do things in Scenic View. Just can’t do one holiday at a time.” She looked away in order to break the spell before she lost her balance, considering she already lost her cool, helpless to control her babbling. “We, um, also combine New Year’s with Valentine’s Day from December twenty-sixth to the weekend after February fifteenth. And if you spend enough time around here you’ll realize we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day all year—”

Cut off by the clamor of screeching tires and honking horns, their heads snapped in the direction of Mr. Lucky’s Pub further down the sidewalk. The hellacious uproar was for some dude staggering across Main Street after an apparent liquid lunch. Thank God no one got hurt.

“Wow. Now, that’s some luck of the Irish,” Adonis said. “You know a lot about this place.”

“I should—I’ve been living here forever. But not for much longer.”

“Oh, yeah.” He lifted thick brows. “Where ya going?”

“Closer to the city. Brooklyn. Maybe Queens. I’m not sure. I wish I could live in Manhattan, but it’s so expensive. All I want is a cute little apartment and a job in one of those fancy salons. Or maybe a day spa.” Gushing to a total stranger felt like free therapy. He nodded as if he were paying attention, even silenced his cell phone ringing inside his jacket, so Lily kept chattering. “It just seems like such a big process.”

“Deciding to change who you are into the person you wanna be is huge. Some folks never figure it out. At least you know what you want. It’ll happen when the time is right.”

His profound words resonated with everything she’d been feeling for so long. She wanted to reach out and touch him to be sure he was real, because right now he seemed too good to be true. It’d been so long since she discussed anything on a personal level, communicating beyond the barber chair felt like a lost art.

“I just put my house on the market. You wanna buy it? Just kidding—it’s a burden more than anything else. Needs a lot of work. A handyman’s nightmare.” Lily forced a laugh. “What brings you to Scenic View?”

“My uncle left me some property—a little bungalow on the beach—so I came to check things out. It seems like a nice town if I decide to stay. Maybe. I dunno yet. By the way, I’m Nick.”

Caught off-guard by his interjected introduction, she nearly forgot her name. “I, um…I’m Lily.”

In the perfunctory code of politeness, he offered his palm in a handshake. “Nice to meet you, Lily.” Her name rolled off his tongue like an incantation.

Mesmerized, she took his hand. The firm strength of his long, thick fingers wrapped around hers, transferring his energy up her arm, warming the right side of her body. There it was again—zing! She held on longer than the usual greeting only because it felt so good. Safe. Warm. Connected. Before he wrenched his arm away, she let her grip go limp, leaving her hand naked without his touch.

“Lily!” Bob’s Italian accent invaded her bliss as he leaned his torso out the door, aiming scissors at her. “Whaddaya doin’ out here?”

Wishing for a few more moments in heaven with Nick. “Be right there, Bob.”

Her boss jutted his chin in their direction. “Who’s your friend?”

“This is, um, Nick.”

“Say goodbye and get back to work.” Bob disappeared inside.

“Well, thanks for the talk.” With a quick, tightlipped smile, she wheeled the cart toward the door, afraid if she opened her mouth she’d say something stupid, like rattle off her phone number—or worse, ask for his.

“Uh-oh. You’re not in trouble, are you?”

“No. Bob’s all bark. It’s his wife whose bite you have to watch.”

“Good to know.” He nodded, seeming to take it all in. “What time do you close?”

“Why?” Her fingers itched with excitement. “Looking for a trim?”

He raked a hand through dark, wavy layers. “Well, I just had my annual grooming about two weeks ago.”

Annual grooming?” She chuckled.

“Here, I’ll show you.” He dug his wallet from his back pocket and flashed his driver’s license.

“Whoa,” she said at his marvelous mug shot. But more than his shoulder length rock star locks, what caught her attention was his birthdate. Her dizzy brain couldn’t do the math on the spot, but she estimated he was a decade older.

“Do I need an appointment?” He opened the door.

“It’s a barbershop.” Lily pointed to the sign in the window: NO APPOINTMENT NECESSARY—WALK-INS WELCOME.

“Lily!” Bob barked from his workstation. “Shut the door!”

“I gotta go.”

Nick lingered as if waiting for something more, then turned and strolled away.

She watched him go, hoping he’d run back to her like in the movies. Only this wasn’t a movie, and he was already gone, lost in the crowd.

Hours passed.

Lily was losing hope that he’d return.

It was crazy to think she met her Mr. Right, finally, after all these years, right here in town. In the liquor store no less. What a stupid idea. He probably forgot about her already.

She sat in her empty chair, overhearing Bob and his customer talk about something about someone in a fire department somewhere. Long story short, a firefighter made the ultimate sacrifice battling a raging blaze over the weekend.

Geez. The tragic news was a cruel reminder that life is too short, too fragile. It solidified her mother’s golden rule—never, under any circumstances, fall for a firefighter.

To avoid the rest of the gruesome details, she hid in the backroom, where she found a laundry basket of clean white towels to fold. But still the inescapable thoughts followed, flooding her mind. Was he a father? A husband?

Familiar with the aftershock of such a devastating loss, she closed her eyes and whispered a string of prayers.

Lily hardly remembered a thing about her father’s death. But she’d never forget how hard the years that followed were for her mother. The woman lost her husband and her mind all at once.

Scattered memories squeezed the air from her lungs like a vise. Good thing she was already sitting, hanging her head between her knees before the lightheadedness overwhelmed her and the bosses found her passed out. She waited for the sick feeling to pass, but it never would. Not really…Not completely…

“Lily! Customer for you.” All the way to the backroom, from behind the cash register, Sophia’s shrill voice chased away the ghosts—for now.

“Be right there.” She blinked back tears before they could fall.

An eager little boy rushed to Lily’s chair, and she tried not to let her disappointment show.

“Santa’s coming! Santa’s coming!” he squealed. “I saw his mailbox on the sidewalk. You better hurry up and send him your letter so he gets it in time. I can’t believe Santa’s almost gonna be here!”

Despite being two months early for Christmas, she played along. “Wow, I can hardly believe it! I better write a letter quick.”

Once she finished cutting junior’s honey-brown mop-top, she jotted the requirements for her farfetched Christmas fantasy on the back of a blank slip from the receipt book. It seemed pointless, but she spelled it out anyway. Her same request for the past few years—a tall order for an emotionally available man, something Santa could never deliver.

This year, though, she dared to get specific and scribbled Nick’s name just in case miracles do come true.

Until someone made a reasonable offer to buy her rickety old bungalow, she needed another way to supplement her salary. She wasn’t keen on living with a stranger but… Out of pure desperation, she flipped to another blank sheet and wrote a Room-For-Rent/Roommate-Wanted advertisement.

Before heading home, she returned the shopping cart to Ray’s, then power-walked to the firehouse to tack her ad on the community bulletin board.

Circling back to get her car, she passed the red mailbox and dropped her little folded Christmas list in the slot with some big wishful thinking.

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