Aidan Hunter looked up at the skinny blonde with perfect features and the too-tight sweater dress. She perused the enormous ten-foot spruce tree as if imagining how many perfect decorations she’d squeeze on the branches. Aidan shook his head and continued lifting Christmas trees out of the truck. “Too high maintenance,” he said.
His best friend apparently disagreed. “You’re crazy. What’s wrong with high maintenance if she looks like that?”
“I just want a nice girl, Vin. Someone normal.”
Vin let out an impatient breath and leaned against the truck. “No one’s normal nowadays. Besides, you’re not normal either. What guy who’s worth millions goes undercover to work on a Christmas tree farm? What are you trying to prove?”
Aidan stifled his impatience and tried to explain himself again. “I told you. I’m tired of women after my money and the family fortune. I want to find someone who likes who I am—no strings attached. I need a break from the spotlight.”
Vin stretched his hands out to encompass the miles of unending farm country covered with trees. “So you come here? I didn’t even know you had a cabin out in the boondocks.”
“We’ve had it for years. Dad used to go on hunting expeditions back in the day. For now, I have four weeks over the holidays to be a regular guy.”
Vin wrinkled his nose. “I hate manual labor. Listen, I only came up for the weekend. A friend of mine is having a holiday party and I want you to come with me. It’ll be fun.”
“You’re coming. Saturday night in Rhinebeck. Maybe you can find your normal woman there.”
“Vin, I don’t want—”
“Great, I’ll call you with the address. You’re coming.” Aidan didn’t have time to respond because his friend walked off the farm, carefully treading on the moss as if he couldn’t recognize ground after living on concrete his whole life. Aidan held back a laugh.
Born and bred in Manhattan, Aidan had grown up comfortable, living in penthouse apartments and taking cabs around the city. It was only lately he’d been pulled to upstate New York, as if the fresh air cleansed both his body and soul. He pulled off his gloves and glanced around the tree farm.
Damn, he was tired. Tired of the jet-setting life he’d built for himself. Tired of the demands of money and the expectations of society. Tired of being shadowed by his father’s famous name—The Pasta King. But how could he complain when half the country struggled for work?
If his father could see him now. Aidan only intended to lay low and scope out the local social scene in an effort to clear his head. But too many hours alone in the woods gave him a bit of cabin fever. When he’d seen the sign on the local road looking for workers to help on the tree farm, he’d pulled in without hesitation, and secured the job within minutes.
The labor gave him blisters, sore muscles, and a cold nose. Yet, an inner calm settled over him, surrounded by the fresh scent of pine and the chatter of people involved in the excitement of the holidays. Still, he needed time to find his own way and decide what path he wanted to follow. He craved to build something for himself on his own terms, and ached for a woman by his side who wanted him, not his company. So here he found himself—doing manual labor in an upstate town no one had heard of, dreaming of Mrs. Right.
Poor little rich boy.
The inner taunt made him chuckle, shake off his thoughts, and return to work.
Isabella Summers walked through the rows of trees and pulled her coat tight around her. The wind whipped high and fast, and her cheeks burned. This was stupid. Why was she getting a tree when she was alone for the holiday? Would this really make her feel better about spending another year alone?
She fought back a sigh and kept looking. No, she was going to do this. Her home looked sad and pitiful. Being alone did not mean missing out on all the holiday merriment. She’d always loved Christmas; it was a time of hope. The end of a year and the beginning of new possibilities stretched before her. She was going to get a gorgeous tree and decorate it with lights and tinsel and drink eggnog in the dark. Maybe she’d try writing in a journal and list all her goals for the new year. She’d read the suggestion in one of her self-help books and felt ready to take the plunge.
She picked her way past giant, perfect trees—the sharp scent of pine mixing with the wind. At the end of the row, tucked in the back, completely isolated from the other trees, she found it.
The perfect tree.
It was horrible. Sparse branches stuck out at odd angles and bent sadly downward. The trunk was crooked, like an old woman who turned the wrong way and got stuck. This tree symbolized everything the holiday did not speak about: the lonely, the isolated, the hopeless. A tree trapped among the beauties, waiting for someone to love it and bring it back to life.
She walked over and gently touched one of the branches, wondering how she was going to get it in her car without damaging anymore of the twigs. Then came a voice.
“You’re not taking that tree, are you?”
She turned. Her gaze met and locked with a pair of gorgeous golden eyes that reminded her of one of the big jungle cats she’d seen at the Bronx Zoo. One brow arched in question at her selection. Isabella immediately grew defensive.
“Why? Does someone else want it?”
A slight smile played about carved, sculpted lips. A shiver ran down her spine that had nothing to do with the cold. “Don’t think so. Couldn’t give that one away. Was going to put the tree back on the truck and take it back from wherever it came from.”
She decided she didn’t like him, even though he was pretty much male perfection in the making. “Well, I’m buying it.” She straightened her spine and gave him her cold, disciplinary teacher look. “How much?”
The man took stock of her and the tree. Then pulled off one work glove to scratch his head. A stubborn blond curl fell across his forehead, reminding her of Robert Redford in her favorite movie, The Way We Were. She pushed the annoying thought away. “Hmm, let’s see. I’d say $100.”
Her mouth fell open. “A hundred dollars? That’s highway robbery. You were going to get rid of it. You should give it to me for free.”
He crossed his arms. The red plaid flannel shirt stretched to accommodate lean muscle. Worn, faded jeans clung to his thighs. Isabella cursed herself for even wondering about his butt. He spoke in a fake drawl that seemed to mask a city accent. “Well, seeing you’re interested in the tree, I need to charge you. And I work on commission. How about seventy- five?”
She stuck out her chin and stepped in front of the tree like she was guarding a little pig from the Big Bad Wolf. “Absolutely not. If you were going to dump it, anything you get is extra. I’ll give you twenty.”
He seemed to consider the offer, then sadly shook his head. “Sorry, just can’t do it. Can’t take less than fifty.”
Isabella simmered with temper. This nasty male model was arrogant; she’d be damned she give him what he wanted. He probably thought she couldn’t bargain as a woman. She pulled on her internet resources for buying cars and decided she had to be willing to walk away. “Twenty dollars. No more or I’m walking.”
Mischief lit amber eyes and something else she couldn’t name. Some simmering sexual tension that caught and held her in his spell. “I’m truly sorry, ma’am. Can’t do it for under fifty.”
Her fists clenched in temper. There was no way she was paying $50 for a sad tree that could fall apart once she got it home. He deserved to get nothing for the tree. What did she care if he threw it back on the truck? He was mean spirited and she refused to argue.
Isabella turned and walked away. She waited for him to call out, “Wait,” but he never did. She made it five steps, turned the corner, and stopped.
She needed that tree.
Isabella mentally calculated the odds of pride against emotion. As usual, in her life, emotion won. She yanked her knit hat tighter around her head and marched back.
He stood exactly where she left him, a grin on his face as he watched her. “Back again, so soon?” he asked in evident amusement. His voice was a mixture of gravelly sand and smooth caramel that caressed her ears.
She tried to be reasonable. “It’s Christmas. Why won’t you let me give you twenty dollars and take the tree home? You make some money, and you make someone happy.”
He motioned toward the Charlie Brown Christmas tree. “This tree will make you happy?” His amusement faded to something sharper, and his eyes probed hers. “Why?”
Isabella let out an impatient huff. “Because it’s lonely.”
The words fell between them. She fought embarrassment at the ridiculous statement but held her ground. The man took three steps and closed the distance between them. Her heart stopped, then pounded like a racing Thoroughbred out of the gate. His face was more perfect up close—his nose a bit crooked, to keep him from looking too pretty. He smelled of spruce and coffee, a delicious scent that mixed in the air. He gazed at her for a few moments in silence, then spoke in a husky whisper. “I know how it feels.”
Her lips parted almost subconsciously. As if she had dropped down the rabbit hole, Isabella felt if this stranger leaned in and kissed her, she’d kiss him back. The connection hummed, pulsed, then settled. She took a step back and he gave her the distance.
“Sold,” he said. “For twenty dollars.”
Isabella nodded, still wary of the weird feelings jumping in the pit of her belly. She still didn’t like him, but something pulled her. She took out the bill and handed it to him. His bare fingers brushed against the buttery leather of her glove and she briefly wished she’d removed them, just to feel what it was like to touch his bare skin. He pocketed the money, and carefully lifted the tree. “I’ll take it to your car.”
She followed him through the endless rows to her practical sedan. He laid it gently in the back seat. “Too small to tie it to the roof, but you should be okay. Go easy on the turns. Do you live far?”
Isabella shook her head. “No.” She reached in her pocket and pulled out a five-dollar bill. “Here you go. Thanks for your help.”
He went to take the bill, but instead of pulling it out of her hand, his thumb found the edge of her glove and pressed against her bare pulse point. The shock of his touch made her catch her breath. His gaze flew to hers with the full knowledge of her reaction. Then he smiled.
“Keep it. Merry Christmas.”
Her tongue stumbled on the words. “Merry Christmas.” Then she turned and got into her car as fast she could. She pulled away and noticed he watched her the whole time, his gaze following the tire tracks until her car disappeared around the bend.
“Vin, I’m not in the mood to go to this party.”
“You’re going. I already told Rick to expect us, and there’s going to be lots of single ladies. Normal, nice single ladies for you. Bad, naughty, single women for me.”