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For Molly Scott, everything bad in her life has happened during the Christmas season, from training bras in her stocking to being jilted by her fiancé. This year is no exception.
Ten days before Christmas, she arrives at work to find her department closed down and everyone laid off. Desperate, she takes a job for a singing telegram service and, dressed as Mrs. Claus, meets the man of her dreams--who turns out to be a nightmare--in a broken-down elevator. The Christmas Curse is right on track.
With a smile of thanks, she jogged toward the elevators. The one on the left was just closing, so she hollered, "Hold the door!" and leaped forward, slipping her arm between the doors and taking a step that jammed the stiletto heel of her boot right into the crack where the elevator car met the floor. She teetered unsteadily, praying she wouldn't break a bone.
The doors lurched open and, as they did, she lost any hope of staying upright. She tumbled inside, heard the snap of her boot heel breaking, and then tumbled onto another occupant, knocking them both to the barely padded floor.
"Oh no, I am so sorry!" She rolled to one side before sitting up to see who had cushioned her fall. The best-looking man she'd ever seen lay on the floor, grinning up at her, making no effort whatsoever to get to his feet.
"My pleasure." He propped his arms under his head. "Truly."
She jumped to her feet, forgetting she'd lost a heel in the door, lost her balance and fell again. At least she managed to land on her hands and knees above him, like a bridge, and didn't squash him.
"Sorry." She crawled to the door and wiggled the broken heel back and forth until it came out, wondering why the doors hadn't tried closing on her fingers. She glanced over her shoulder to find the man sitting up with his finger on the Door Open button.
"No problem. What floor?"
"I need the penthouse, please."
"That's where I'm heading, too."
She pivoted away from his lopsided grin and nearly stepped on a rather small, ashen-faced man leaning in the corner. His body shuddered when the doors closed and the car started to move.
"Oh-kay...." She was stuck between Drop-Dead-Handsome Man and Pasty-Faced Man and had to figure out how to do her routine with a broken-heeled boot. She tucked said heel into one of the many pockets in her slicker lining and left the coat hanging open. She hoped the boot could be repaired, but because it was only a week before Christmas she doubted she'd have any luck with that.
It was a little like the time, eight years before, when she'd performed an aria for the school Christmas program unaware that two buttons on her dress were undone, thereby flashing the front of her ancient white bra complete with holes and safety pins.
"So, you were invited to the party upstairs?" Handsome Man broke into her thoughts. He climbed to his feet and moved to stand beside her.
"I wasn't aware it was a costume party."
She crinkled her nose and shook her head. "I wouldn't know. I'm only the entertainment."
"Ahhh." He reached out a hand and flipped the bells on her collar. "So, Mrs. Claus, is the mister showing up tonight? Because, to be honest, I haven't been very good this year."
She had opened her mouth to speak when the lights cut off and the elevator ground to a halt. Oh, dear heavens, she'd done it again.
Jake Coburn’s antique shop is barely surviving, so the last thing he should do is buy costume jewelry at a price that won’t turn much profit. Then again, it’s Christmas, and he hasn’t been able to say no to Loral Evans since the first time she entered his shop almost a year ago.
Loral’s mother is a cancer survivor, and much as they don’t want to sell their family heirlooms, surgery and prescriptions aren’t cheap. Jake’s offer of one thousand dollars for a dragonfly brooch that Loral knows is fake stings her pride, especially since he knows she can’t afford to walk away.
Selling the brooch, which is more than it appears, turns out to be a blessing in disguise. During a season of giving, Loral learns there’s a big difference between pride and dignity, and Jake’s determination to do the right thing brings rewards beyond what either of them ever dreamed of.
A lump formed in her throat. She swallowed it down and increased her stride as fat, wet snowflakes began to float down around her. Turning the corner, she saw the blue bus at the end of the block, accelerating away from her stop.
She ran faster, but it was no use. The taillights grew smaller and smaller until they became a blur, blending with other vehicles and the Christmas lights twinkling along the street.
Loral came to a defeated halt, lungs burning, her breath pluming out to mingle with the snow as she braced her hands on her knees. Another bus wouldn’t come for forty-five minutes, and given the fact that she needed every dollar in her pocket, a cab wasn’t even a consideration; she’d have to wait.
Headlights flashed behind her. After a quick glance at a black sedan driving toward her, she straightened and shoved her hands into her pockets.
She’d wait, just not out here on the street. Walking briskly down the block, she waited for the car to pass. Anxiety rippled along her spine with the realization that it’d slowed to keep pace with her. Her numb fingers curled around the can of pepper spray at the bottom of her coat pocket.
“Loral? What are you doing?”
Jake’s disapproving voice made her spin around. Her heart pounded loud in her ears. Not wanting him to see she was cold, she hugged her arms across her middle to stop her shivering as she peered into his car. He watched her from his leather seats with the street light above casting light onto his head through the moon roof. Great—nothing like adding insult to injury.
She resumed walking. “What does it look like I’m doing?”
The engine of his car revved as he caught up with her again. “Did your Tahoe break down? Do you need me to call someone?”
Okay, just shoot me now. She glanced in the direction the bus had disappeared, and lifted her chin while keeping her voice indifferent. “I sold it two months ago.”
“You’re not walking home, are you?” The tone of his voice conveyed his disbelief. “It’s below freezing.”
A snowflake caught on her eyelashes, she blinked it away. “I missed my bus and the next one isn’t until eight. I can hardly just sit here and wait.”
“Can’t you call someone?”
She didn’t answer, unwilling to explain further. Like she needed more of his pity tonight.
“No family?” He paused. “A boyfriend?”
She shook her head sharply, still walking as he idled alongside.
“Let me give you a ride, then.”
Two years ago she would’ve gladly accepted, following her desire to spend some time with him. Now she forced a smile to her stiff lips. “Thanks for the offer, but I’ll just wait for the next bus. There’s a coffee shop a few blocks from here.” A horn blasted behind them. Loral flinched, and then waved Jake away. “Go. Seriously, I’ll be fine.”
Jake stepped on the gas and his sleek black car surged forward. She fought disappointment until he swerved sharply into an empty parking spot halfway down the block. Her step slowed as the impatient driver zoomed past. Jake swung from his car and strode toward her with those long legs of his that made him tower over her five feet five inches.
“That coffee shop closes at six,” he told her. “Not enough evening traffic.”
Just her luck. The unfairness of it all threatened to overwhelm her, but she forced it down. Things wouldn’t change until her mother was better, and until then, she’d just deal with missed buses and closed coffee shops.
She lifted her head to meet Jake’s gaze, noticing how quickly the snow gathered on his dark hair. Her own hair must be covered. She reached up a hand to brush it off, and then wished she hadn’t as the moisture made her fingers even colder and frigid air rushed under the bottom edge of her coat. A shiver shook her shoulders.
Jake muttered under his breath, shrugging out of his black leather jacket. Before she realized his intent, he stepped forward and draped it around her. Immediate warmth permeated her somewhat threadbare coat, lethally combined with the scent of leather and man. Her senses sharpened even as the rest of the world faded away, leaving her unable to do anything more than stare up at him.
He stood close enough to make her knees weak, a hand on either lapel, tugging the jacket tight so she was wrapped in a cocoon. His eyes reminded her of the warm caramel her grandmother used to drizzle over ice cream.
“Let me take you home, Loral.”