CHRISTMAS EVE HAD the nerve to show up just like it did every year: way too quickly and with ridiculous fanfare.
Rory Andrews stood in the courtyard of the Pacific Pier Building in San Francisco, surrounded by sparkly holiday lights and enough garlands to give the place its own ozone, and told herself things could be worse.
She just wasn’t sure how.
It was the unknown, she decided. Because this year, unlike the past six, she’d be spending Christmas with her family, a thought that caused a swarm of butterflies to take flight in her belly.
Not an uncommon feeling since she’d turned twenty-three a few months back and decided it was time to become a person she could be proud of if it killed her. And given the guy leaning against one of the lamp poles clearly waiting for her, arms crossed, frown in place, it just might.
Max Stranton. At his side sat Carl, his huge, eternally hungry, adorable Doberman.
“No,” she said, not to Carl but to Carl’s owner. Who was not lovable. “No way.”
As always when their gazes locked, Max’s was a disconcerting mix of heat and . . . something else that she couldn’t quite figure out, as he was good at hiding when he wanted to be. She never quite knew how to take the heat because it seemed reluctant. He was attracted to her but didn’t want to be.
Ditto. He made her knees wobble. And also a couple of other inner reactions that shouldn’t be happening in public.
“Merry Christmas to you too, Rory,” he said, and damn. It wasn’t just his eyes. His voice was rough and sexy, and for that matter, so was the rest of him.
He worked for an investigations and security firm in the building. Basically he and the rest of his team were fixers and finders for hire. To say that Max was good at his job was an understatement. He stood there looking like sex on a stick with a duffle bag slung over a broad shoulder, his dark hair two weeks past needing a cut, and the icy wind of an incoming storm plastering his clothes to a body that could be registered as a lethal weapon.
“What are you doing here?” she asked calmly even if her heart was anything but, pounding all the way up to her throat and ears because she knew. She knew exactly why he was here. “I don’t need a ride home.”
A flash of wry humor slid in with all that sizzling heat. “Because you’d rather take two buses and a train than get into my truck with me?” he asked.
Well yes, actually.
Living and working in San Francisco was a dream come true for her. She’d turned her life around in the past few years but she still had some deep regrets, one of them being how she’d run away at age seventeen. This was something her wonderful but nosy boss Willa had talked her into facing once and for all, so she’d called home. She’d promised her stepdad she’d come for Christmas to surprise her mom and three half sisters. He’d expressed surprise and then doubt, both with good reason.
Rory had made promises to come home before, and . . . hadn’t. Every time she’d flaked. It’d been fear and anxiety, but she was ready to face all that now and she’d told him so. She’d even offered to pick up the gift he’d ordered for her mom from the city and get it home before dawn on Christmas morning.
If she managed to do so, all would be forgiven.
Not that he’d said so in those words, but she felt the pressure all the same. She wanted to do this; she was ready to do this.
“It’s Christmas Eve,” Max said now, keys in hand. “I just finished a job. I’m leaving to spend a few days with my family. I’m going right past your mom’s house.”
Which was in Tahoe, where Max had also been raised—four hours north in good weather, which wasn’t going to be tonight. Her stomach jangled. Fate or Karma or whatever was in charge of such things was a cruel master, having her first crush of all people, the one guy on the entire planet who made her feel like that young, neglected, bullied, unwanted teen all over again, be the only smart ride home tonight.
Max’s body language said he was relaxed and laid-back as he watched her think too much, but she knew better. He spent most of his days rooting out the asshats of San Francisco. He was a chameleon when he wanted to be, a sharp one. Nothing got by him.
Well, except one thing, of course—he had no idea that once upon a time for her the sun had risen and set on his smile. She’d flown under the radar in high school. Hell, she’d flown under the radar in life, and she’d been really good at it. Plus Max had never had a shortage of girls who were interested in him so he’d had no reason to look past any of the ones throwing themselves at his feet in order to see her.
But that was then. In the here and now, things felt . . . different. Whether either of them wanted to admit it or not, they’d taken notice of each other, and even more unbelievably, she often caught him watching her with what felt like heat and desire.
Not that he’d ever made a move.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
The ten-million-dollar question. “As I’ll ever be,” she said.
“I don’t get it.” His tone was age-old male bafflement with a dash of annoyance. His eyes were a very dark shade of green. They looked almost black now in the night. “I had to find out from Willa that you needed a ride. You could’ve asked me yourself. You should have asked me, Rory.”
Right. Because they talked so much. But before she could say that, or even pet Carl, her favorite dog on the planet, a woman ran out of the convenience store on the corner, breathless and adorable in a red apron and Santa hat.
“Just wanted to tell you something,” she said to Max and flung herself into his arms.
He had little choice but to catch her, and she laughed and kissed him, taking her time about it too.
While they were lip-locked, Carl gave one deep bark and the woman finally pulled back, grinning wide as she said to both man and his dog, “Merry Christmas! See you next year!”
And then she vanished back into the store where she worked, which Rory knew because she often bought ice cream there after a long day at work.
Max shook his head but was looking amused. Rory searched his gaze, looking to see if Santa’s Helper caused that same breathless heat she’d gotten used to seeing when he looked at her.
It wasn’t there.
She took a deep breath at that, not wanting to acknowledge it as relief. She shouldn’t care that he hadn’t felt an overwhelming hunger for that girl.