Copyright © Karla Doyle, 2014
All Rights Reserved, Karla Doyle
Closing time, finally. As much as Brinn enjoyed her job, standing behind a roll-down door, folding sweaters and tagging merchandise wasn’t her ideal Christmas Eve.
Not that she had anywhere special to be. Catching her snake of an ex-boyfriend with his pants around his ankles and his dick in another woman’s mouth had vaulted Brinn to the top of the “newly single” column. With everybody she cared about two hours’ drive away—in good weather—she was the definition of solo this holiday season. Might as well put in time here, prepping for the Boxing Day sale, rather than hurry “home” to her empty apartment. Christmas really sucked it this year.
She ducked behind the counter and killed the loop of festive tunes. She’d loved holiday songs her entire life, however, eight to ten hours of merry music every day for two solid months tended to squeeze the last drop of festive spirit from your soul. Thank god she’d said her last, politically correct, “Have a great holiday” for this year.
She straightened, surveyed the chaotic state of the small chain store she managed, and looked into the face of a dreaded beast—the solitary male with an unfinished shopping list.
There was one every year. Usually a mid-fifties man with desperate, pleading eyes and a frown because he’d just realized—at closing time on Christmas Eve—that he didn’t have enough gifts under the tree. This year’s last-minute shopper didn’t look more than mid-thirties, tops. A hint of anxiety played on his face, but it didn’t diminish his good looks. Shaved head, strong jaw, warm eyes. Wide shoulders filling out a black cargo-style jacket. Very nice.
His fingers curled around the rungs of the metal roll-down door. He flashed a charming smile to go with the eye contact.
Good try, buddy, but it is so not happening.
Didn’t matter how attractive he was, Brinn didn’t return the smile. That’d only encourage him. Instead, she gave him a view of her back and resumed setting the store to rights.
Apparently dude missed the memo on interpreting body language, because the metal rattled behind her. Thirty seconds later, he lightly shook it again. Seriously, he thought that’d work?
“We closed at five.” She tossed the words over her shoulder. Best acknowledgement he was going to get.
“Yeah, you and the rest of the world.”
Exactly. Now get moving. Too bad she couldn’t say that out loud.
“Look, I know I’m late, but I only need one more thing. It’s kind of an emergency.”
She shook her head, hoping to hell he saw it. “Sorry, can’t help you. The superstore on Fourth Avenue is open until seven tonight for emergencies like this. Perfume is a lovely gift—I recommend Acqua di Gioia by Giorgio Armani.” The very thing she’d hoped to get from Liam. The idiot had bought it, she’d found it tucked between his t-shirts. He’d just put another woman’s name on the gift tag for tomorrow. Lousy jerk.
“Thanks for the suggestion, but the person I’m shopping for doesn’t wear perfume.”
Well la-de-da for her. Brinn sighed and rattled off the next item on her personal wish list. “You can’t go wrong with chocolates. The Lindor balls wrapped in foil are my personal favorite. Especially the white-chocolate kind.”
A deep laugh rumbled from the other side of the metal mesh. “Good to know.”
Brinn smiled at the comment. The pushy guy had a nice laugh and a sexy voice, she’d give him that much. “Look, I’ve already closed off the register…I couldn’t sell you anything if I wanted to.”
“I have cash. I’ll be fast and I’ll give you a big tip at the end.”
“Wow, that’s quite the proposition. I know my skirt’s a little on the short side, but I’m not that kind of salesgirl.” She waited, but sexy-voice guy didn’t say another word. Or rattle the cage.
She half-turned to sneak a peek. Gone. Which should be a relief, but stirred her guilt instead. Her disappointment too.
She moved to the door and spotted him three stores down, walking away. “Hey,” she called. No answer—except from her conscience. Ah, crap. She turned the lock and rolled the door up enough to scoot underneath. Biggest mistake ever, coming right up. Well, second biggest. Moving out here to be with Liam currently held the number-one spot.
She did a ridiculous, high-heeled jog past several darkened stores. The sound of her heels echoed in the quiet mall, but the guy still didn’t look back. “Hey, wait up,” she said again, once she had him within arm’s reach.
He stopped so abruptly that she plowed into him. And bounced off, because he was that solid. Oh boy. Now that they were face-to-face, without the benefit of a heavy-duty metal screen separating them—or any witnesses to speak of—he was a bit intimidating. Not super tall or monstrously built, but she didn’t doubt for a minute he was capable of kicking some serious ass.
“I, um…” Dry mouth plus empty brain much? His intense stare didn’t help matters. She cleared her throat and tried again. “C’mon back and I’ll try and help you find something for your wife.”
“I’m not married.”
“Okay, for your girlfriend.”
His jaw ticked. The corners of his mouth lifted in a sexy half grin. “Not shopping for one of those, either.”
Awareness zinged her, heating her cheeks and making her nipples tingle before settling between her legs. “Sister, aunt, granny, roommate, long-lost childhood friend you recently reconnected with on Facebook…whoever she is, I’m giving you ten minutes to find her a gift from my seriously depleted stock. Take it or leave it.”
“I’ll take it. Thank you.” His genuine, full-face smile nearly melted her knees out from under her.
“You’re really saving me here.”
She flapped a hand at him as they walked. “No problem. Glad to help.” Clearly she’d had too much stale mall air. This after-hours personal-shopping stint would likely set her back thirty minutes, not ten. She still had the daily reports to complete and a couple hundred gaudy Boxing Day sale tags to attach. At this rate, it’d be close to seven o’clock before she flopped on her couch with a bowl of soup and the annual cable presentation of Frosty the Snowman.
Yet she still had a stupid smile plastered across her face. Good lord. A couple of weeks without a boyfriend had reduced her to this? Maybe it wasn’t too late to send a note to Santa. Perfume and chocolates weren’t the only things on her wish list.
She motioned her guest into the store. Corporate policy dictated she keep the door locked at all times outside of non-operating hours. Brinn paused, one hand on the metal. Close herself in with a total stranger? Screw the rules for once. The mall was a virtual ghost town. If the man standing in her disheveled store turned out to be a robber instead of a handsome last-minute shopper, she’d rather he had a quick exit route via an open door. Decision made.
She wiped her clammy palms on her skirt and joined him by a rack of hoodies and yoga pants. “Tell me what you had in mind and hopefully I can send you out of here with a smile on your face.”
From the creases forming at the corners of his eyes, the words sounded as sexually suggestive to him as they did to her ears. Oh the awesomeness that flew out of her mouth sometimes.
“I think you can count on that happening…” His mischievous hazel eyes dropped to her nametag, then back. “Manager Brinn.”
Top salesperson in her district for the past nine months, yet hearing her name in his deep, smooth voice left her without a single intelligent thing to say.
The whole situation was crazy. Letting her assistant manager leave early, even though it meant closing and tackling the sale prep alone. Inviting a hot guy—who appeared to be unattached—into the store afterhours.
Maybe it wasn’t crazy. Maybe it was one of those fated situations. Or maybe she needed a semi-nutritious meal and a day off really, really badly.
As casually as anything, he unzipped his coat and scrubbed one hand along his clean-shaven jaw. He smiled. Just a little one, but it warmed her all over. The man made no bones about checking her out. Top to bottom, not lingering over any one area, though his slow perusal indicated he appreciated the view.
Thank god she’d opted for her business-sexy look today, rather than slumming it in the comfier clothes the store sold. The short black skirt, sheer hose and strappy heels made her legs look long and lean, despite her shorter stature. Her crossover top’s plunging neckline accented some decent cleavage. With her hair in an upsweep, she almost pulled off elegant—or she had nine hours ago, when everything was fresh.
As much as she’d love thirty seconds in front of a mirror with lipstick and a piece of dental floss, the clock was ticking. A security guard would be banging on her door at six o’clock, telling her to clear out, no exceptions. Because after all, who in their right mind would want to stay late at work on Christmas Eve? Only someone with no personal life whatsoever would sign up for that.
She pushed the self-pitying thought aside and reclaimed her voice. “Better start shopping, you’re running down the clock.” For show, she tapped her watch. “Santa’s on his way. I need to get home to my bed so he’ll sneak in and fill my stocking.”
Her private shopper laughed and winked. “Santa has all the luck.”
Oh. Dear. God. Was everything out of her mouth going to sound dirty? And holy, could he get any sexier than right now, smiling at her like a tomcat that’d caught a mouse? She’d have to make a stop at the superstore before it closed and buy a pack of triple-As for her battery-operated boyfriend.
“So, give me the specs on this not-a-wife, not-a-girlfriend, who doesn’t wear perfume.”
His hands disappeared into the front pockets of his jeans, taking her mind along with them. “I’d say Alicia’s about your height and build, but younger, and less…curvy.”
“All right. And on that note, guess I’ll start my New Year’s diet a week early and pray that Santa brings me some anti-aging cream.” When he dared to chuckle, Brinn pulled a pair of black, size-small pants from the rack and stabbed them at him. A soft, white hoodie with lots of form-fitting seam details followed. “How about this set? It looks fantastic on trim, younger women.”
He didn’t even bother to look at the stuff. Just kept his gaze on her. “Do you like it?”
“I do. I have the same ones at home…slightly stretched out from my curviness.”
This time, he was smart enough not to laugh. Might as well have, though, given the smile that spread across his face. “I bet it looks fantastic on you.”
Uh-huh. Nice recovery.
“Can you pick a top to go with these?” he asked.
“Sure.” One full-price t-shirt coming right up. “Accessories to match?”
“Go for it.”
Yes, he was charming. Really good-looking too. But he was still getting a shopping bag full of add-ons for that “curvy” comment, and more so, for laughing about it.
Socks—check. A multi-pack, of course. Brinn paused with one hand on the hair accessories. “Does she have long hair?”
“Great.” Probably sleek and naturally blonde, unlike Brinn’s defiantly wavy, chemically highlighted version. She gave him a false smile and added the obligatory black hairband. Then a second one in white. And a pair of earrings for the finish, the cheesiest ones left in stock. “How about these?”
He studied the three-inch danglers hanging from her fingertips. “No idea. I’m a guy, remember?”
As if she’d forget that. “Does she wear this type?”
“I’ve never noticed. If you think they’re good, throw them in. I trust your judgment.”
Dammit. Caught by the conscience clause. Back to the rack they went, to be replaced by medium-sized, silver hoops with a filigree pattern.
He caught her hand as she added them to the lot. “Those I like.”
“Me too. I have the same pair.”
“Yeah?” His thumb swept across her fingers, inciting a riot of electricity throughout her body.
She swallowed and nodded. “Ready for the damage?”
“Hit me.” He let her hand slide free. Pressed his palms to the countertop and leaned in as close as the slab of heavily lacquered wood allowed.
She’d logged a lot of cash-register time in her years. Her current district manager called her “Fingers McIntyre” because of her speed and accuracy at the till. Except for now.
The weight of his gaze made her shaky, caused her fingers to bumble on the keys. A curse slipped out, under her breath, and he smiled again. Her cheeks burned like coals in a cozy Christmas fire, but she smiled back.
“Sorry about the language,” she said. “I’m not used to making mistakes.”
“Lucky you—I make them all the time.”
“Like forgetting to buy Alicia a gift until closing time on Christmas Eve?”
“I didn’t forget.”
“Just lost track of time for the past few weeks?” Ouch, that came out snotty. Hopefully he’d think she was tired and eager to get home, not pick up on the wholly unjustified jealousy working its way through her system. “Sorry. Long day. Week, month…” She centered her attention on the enter button, jabbing it harder than necessary. “One hundred, fifty-six dollars and ninety-seven cents.”
“Shit.” He pulled the wallet from his back pocket. “More than I planned on spending. Hope I have that much cash.”
“We take Interac and all the major credit cards.” She sighed when he stopped poking through the bills and nailed her with a look. “Yes, I fibbed. I haven’t closed off the debit machine yet. I’m severely behind schedule tonight.”
He extended a Visa card, not relinquishing it until she gave in and met his eyes. “I apologize for holding you up. I’m keeping you from someone on an important night, I realize, but I really do appreciate you doing this for me. And Alicia.”
“Nope, I’m flying solo in the sled this year.” Oversharing in progress…check.
“I assume that’s by choice. A beautiful woman with a generous spirit and sense of humor could have her pick of Santas.” The twinkle in his eyes matched the suggestive comment. Probably just the way he was with people. He couldn’t really be hitting on her—not while he was shopping for somebody else, and somebody significant, obviously.
The sound of technology doing its thing pulled her focus from his face. Paper scrolled from the machine, meaning her time was almost up. She slid the receipt across the counter with a pen and watched him sign with a dramatic scrawl. Strong hands to go with the ultra-masculine everything else. A girl couldn’t help but swoon a little.
“I hope Alicia realizes how lucky she is, having you as her Santa.” There, she’d done it. Flirted with him. On purpose this time, even if he was presently signing the bill for another woman’s gift.
A straight line replaced his smile. “I doubt she’ll see it that way.”
“Then she’s crazy.”
“No, she’s not.”
Whoever Alicia was, she’d stolen the amazing smile from his face, therefore, she was an idiot. He’d said he wasn’t shopping for a girlfriend, but that didn’t mean he didn’t wish otherwise. What kind of bitch must Alicia be, keeping a man like this on a string?
Brinn wanted to follow him home so she could give this Alicia person a slap. Having somebody toy with your heart sucked. Massively. Exhibit A in that category—Liam. The bastard. He never went out of his way for anybody. His own selfish desires always took priority.
Yet she’d been blind to it. Naively looked the other way because she wanted the relationship to last. When he’d suggested she request a transfer and move out here to be with him, she’d believed he’d changed, that he wanted the same thing.
The joke was still on her about that one. He’d proven his level of commitment when moving day had rolled around—by going to a ball game with a buddy rather than help her unload the van. The guy currently returning her pen wouldn’t do something like that. She felt it in her soul.
“I hope Alicia likes the outfit,” she said, sliding the bag across the counter. “But I put a gift receipt in there just in case. She has sixty days if she needs to exchange or return anything.”
“I’ll let her know.”
“Have a great holiday.” The words came out flatter than a week-old can of cola.
“Yeah, you too.” His voice gave hers a run for first place in the lack-of-enthusiasm department.
She turned the key in the register and started the end-of-day process, then followed him to the front of the store, where she rolled the door into place for the second time today. If the past twenty minutes had done one thing, it was convince her there were still quality men out there. As soon as head office finalized her transfer request and she settled in a different city, she’d start searching for one. Again. Next Christmas, maybe she’d have a Santa to call her own. For good.
Her favorite customer of this holiday season stopped before he got six feet away. He turned quickly, meeting her wistful gaze. Shit. Busted. Thank goodness she’d likely never see him again.
“Did you forget something?” she asked, doing her best to sound like a store manager, not president of the local lonely-hearts club.
“I know it’s Christmas Eve, but do you want to do something tonight?”
“What about Alicia? Don’t you have plans with her?”
“Yeah, but that’ll only take five minutes.”
“Ouch. Is improving your stamina on your list of New Year’s resolutions?”
His gut-deep laugh echoed through the empty mall corridor. Then, alpha as hell, he stalked back to the door. The metal separating them would probably bend if he touched it, the man was so damn hot.
“I don’t do resolutions, but if I did, improving my stamina wouldn’t need to be one of them.”
She believed him with every sexually charged cell in her body. She still wasn’t falling for another player’s games, regardless of his considerable charm. “Alicia might argue that claim, given the five-minutes thing.”
“Alicia’s my fourteen-year-old neighbor.”
“Oh. Sorry. I assumed…oh crap.”
He smiled again, this one complete with creases at the corners of his eyes and a twinkle in his hazel irises. “Don’t worry about it. I like your fiery comebacks.”
“You’d love me when I have PMS, I’m extra fiery then.” Yes, she’d just suggested he love her. And she’d mentioned her period. To a sexy stranger. Dear god. He should be running away in three, two—
“How much longer ’til you’re free of this cage?” he asked, curling his fingers around the metal rungs.
“Mall security will come along to kick me out at six o’clock.”
“And after that—any plans?”
“Fuzzy pajamas, canned soup and an animated snowman.”
“Any chance you’d be willing to make substitutions?”
Brinn resisted the urge to jump up and down while making excited, squealing-type noises. “There’s a possibility, yes. What did you have in mind?”
“A late dinner at my house. I’ll cook and clean up. You just sit there and give me something pretty to look at. After that, a non-animated Netflix movie of your choice.”
Oh wow. He was good. Too good to be true, probably. And hopefully not an ax murderer disguised as a handsome last-minute shopper. Well, she’d leave a note in her apartment just in case. So the cops knew where to find her sexy bald killer if she failed to show up for Christmas dinner tomorrow. Tonight, she was taking a leap of faith.
“What about my fuzzy pajamas? You don’t have any substitutions to suggest for those?”
His gaze slid down her body, nice and slow. When his eyes returned to her face, they’d deepened to a rich golden-brown. “Plenty of suggestions. But I’ll take you however you’re dressed.”
Or undressed, as she bet the case would be. She was one syllable away from agreeing to what could be the sexiest Christmas Eve of her life…with a total stranger. “I don’t even know your name.”
His eyebrows rose. “Aren’t you supposed to verify my signature against the name on my credit card, Manager Brinn?”
Fire raced to her cheeks. Shit. How many times was he going to catch her off her game?
He winked while tapping his watch. “It’s Davis. Davis Rourke. You’d better go finish up in there,” he nodded toward her store, “you’re running down the clock.”