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Authors: Tracey Alvarez

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BOOK: Christmas With You
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He laughed and gained two more steps. Carly retreated until her bottom hit the solid resistance of the tree trunk.

The empty water pistol slipped to the ground, and she held up her hands. “You win.”

Kip padded closer, the faint sloshing sound indicating he wasn’t short on firepower.

“No other tricks, Carly?” He stood close to her, his bare feet either side of hers, one arm braced on the branch above her shoulder, the other still holding the water pistol at his side.

Sunlight arrowed through the leaves, and a gentle breeze caused a shower of gold-tipped crimson needles from the overhanging blossoms to drift down on their heads. One caught in his hair, and she plucked it out, her hand hovering for a moment, the crimson needle dropping out of sight. She rubbed the dark strands—one might even call them silky. She hadn’t expected the texture of his hair to be so soft. But then, she hadn’t expected to ever be standing this close to him.

Working together, they maintained a normal, friendly distance. They passed each other bottles, bumped arms or hips when they jostled to make up drinks side by side, and bantered back and forth while they closed up at nights. Normal, friendly stuff.

Kip stood so close, faint streaks of gold surrounding his pupils were visible. Light dappled across his face, highlighting the tiny scar high on his forehead—a flaw she’d never noticed before—and water droplets speckled the stubble on his jaw. His nearness had somehow unhinged her mind. She wanted to touch—badly wanted to touch…and to taste.

Don’t do anything stupid, zoomie.

Okay, but wasn’t Christmas called the Silly Season for a reason?

Carly slid her fingers into the thick, dark hair and tugged Kip’s head slightly forward. Ahhh, the satisfaction of his sharp, indrawn breath. She should draw the moment out longer, torture both of them with the anticipation. But she was the kind of girl who couldn’t resist shaking her presents under the tree.

So she kissed him.

A kiss she’d intended to be a quick, three-second-at-the-most, flirty touch of lips. Just enough to transfer a little of her strawberry flavored lip balm. Except, there must have been a secret ingredient in the balm, as once his mouth, firm and smooth and delicious, fused to hers, she could not, God help her, drag herself away.

The tip of his tongue traced a line of fire along the seam of her mouth, and she opened with a gasp, allowing him to deepen the connection. Delusions of control? Obliterated when his tongue touched hers.

Louder than the surf, Carly’s heartbeat thudded in her ears, a tidal flow of superheated blood drawn to the areas of her body touching him. The sensitive tips of her breasts grazed his chest, and her legs, trapped between rough bark and the damp fabric of his board shorts, trembled.

A low growl rumbled in his chest, and his hand cupped her face, drawing them closer. The touch of his rough palm, and his tongue dancing along hers in the sexiest of tangos, jerked her out of her kiss-drunk stupor.

Hot and intense steamrolled her fun and flirty intention flat. But to Kip, who’d no doubt kissed half the eligible women in Oban, this was likely a casual lip-lock. Fun, flirty…and easily forgotten.

She tore her mouth away, and Kip’s eyes blinked open in shock. She ducked to the side, snatching the water gun from his lax hand. Applying a bogus smile on her mouth—one that said,
I’m totally not affected by your smoking-hot-kiss
—Carly aimed the pistol at Kip’s face. His
gorgeous
face, with his hair sexily rumpled from her fingers, lips slightly parted, and his eyes quickly clearing from confusion into their usual sharp intelligence.

He raised both hands in surrender. “That’s one hell of a distraction tactic.”

“Who dares wins, so they say.”

“I’m happy to let you win if this is the kind of game we’re playing.”

The smile that’d charmed so many women before her appeared, flushing another surge of tingly, feel-good-bubbles through her and making the idea of playing with Kip a lot more tempting. Which meant she really,
really
needed to leave before she changed her mind and jumped him.

“Game’s over, I win.”

“I guess you do. This round.” He leaned back against the tree trunk and crossed his ankles. “Go and announce your victory, sweetheart.”

Lips curving into smirk, she said, “I will.”

Then her gaze dropped past the waistband of his shorts.

Definitely commando. Dear Lord…

Carly shut her mouth, gumming her lips together—easier to keep the ribbon of drool inside. Definitely time to leave.

She turned and hurried out of the trees, the sound of his low and dirty chuckle trailing after her.

Chapter 4

The one thing Kip hated more than 5:00 a.m. starts and the craziness of July calving, was Christmas shopping.

While living in the Far North, his family probably didn’t enjoy the results of his Christmas shopping, either. He’d finally learned the lesson handed down to him from his father—open your wallet and let your sisters-mum-girlfriend take whatever the hell they wanted. Easier than developing a brain aneurysm trying to figure out what perfume-scarf-book-chocolates or frickin’ chick-flick DVD wouldn’t evoke the insincere,
ooh, how sweet. Just what I wanted.

For the last two years, he’d taken the cheat’s way out and posted a fifty buck note in a schmaltzy greeting card. But with his niece and nephews right here on his doorstep, he suspected he’d be eviscerated if he showed up on Christmas morning bearing cash instead of gifts.

Kip waved to the purser and strode onto the ferry bound for the mainland. A shopping trip to the small city of Invercargill was unavoidable, since Oban’s tiny, year-round population of four-hundred locals couldn’t support more than a few specialty shops—shops that didn’t cater to twin boys, teenage girls, or a baby who still shrieked whenever Kip looked at her. If he’d known a family invasion had been coming, he would’ve bribed the island’s schoolteacher, Kezia Murphy—soon to be Kezia Harland, if his mate, Ben, had any say—to shop for him.

As he opened the door to the ferry’s passenger lounge, Carly’s red hair hooked his attention. Well—her hair, and her kissable mouth, and her body, which screwed up his sleep patterns.

Perhaps this trip wouldn’t be as hellish as he’d anticipated.

Though, after their smoking-hot kiss two days ago, the hours they spent together at work progressed from skittish avoidance to cringe-worthy awkward. Every time he’d tried to make her smile, she’d shot his efforts down.

But considering he’d zilch, zip, zero ideas when it came to gift shopping, humbling himself was his best bet.

“Hey,” he said, sitting in the seat next to hers. “You going to Invers?”

Carly hugged her purse to her stomach, crossing her knees so their legs didn’t touch, revealing a stretch of tanned shin under her summery dress.

“Yes. Last minute shopping.”

“Me, too.” He smiled but kept it friendly and easy—a
we’re just mates
smile.

Not the kind of smile he’d had on his face as she’d walked away the other day, her damp shorts clinging to a truly unforgettable ass.

“For the kids?” Warmth filtered through her previously cool tone.

“Yeah. Figured they wouldn’t appreciate the cash I usually send.”

Carly laughed. “World’s greatest uncle, huh?”

“Not.”

The ferry’s engines roared to life.

“I could use your help to pick out the right stuff for them,” he added.


My
help?”

“Let me put it this way.” He crooked an eyebrow. “Grace is not too old for a Barbie doll, right?”

“Oh dear God, you’re clueless.” She slanted a glance at him. “Or is this a convenient helpless male act so I’ll feel sorry for you and volunteer to do all your Christmas shopping?”

He cocked his head. Was she right? Attractive thought, avoiding the pre-Christmas retail madness, but he genuinely
did
want to spend time with Carly. If retail hell was the only way to do it, he’d give it a try.

The boat shifted in the swell as the mooring lines were cast off from the wharf. Her arm brushed his, the simple touch of her soft skin sending his hormones haywire. Nothing about his reaction to her was an act—but enough of the skinny, weak boy remained inside him, preventing him from admitting his reasons outright, in case she shut him down.

“Not an act, Carly. I want to pick out something nice for my mum and sisters too.” Sneaky, but he knew mentioning his family would soften her.

“All right then. It’ll be good having a packhorse to carry my bags.”

“At your service, ma’am,” he said, trying to imitate her very cute accent.

She jabbed him in the ribs with a pointy elbow. “I do not sound like that.”

He grinned as the ferry powered into the harbor. No…to him, her voice was what a double-chocolate fudge sundae was to someone on a low-fat diet.

Surrounded by chattering locals and tourists, they made polite and impersonal conversation on the one-hour trip across the Foveaux Strait.

Until Carly blurted, “Tell me about yourself. What made you move here? You’re from Bounty Bay, originally?”

“Yeah. Originally. It’s not an exciting story.”

They’d talked very little about their backgrounds. Kip knew Carly’s bare basics—her father was an Air Force officer and died of a brain tumor. She used to be a flight attendant and had only a few distant relatives left in the US. She’d fallen in love with New Zealand rugby, specifically, with one of the hunky All Blacks. Perfume made her sneeze, so she didn’t wear it. She was unafraid of heights but would scream the bar down if a moth fluttered past her face. Yellow was her favorite color, and her iPod contained a weird mix of eighties rock, reggae, jazz, and Techno. Caffeine drinks were a no-no, she sucked at Sudoku but insisted on filling out the squares in ink, and she was crap at pronouncing local place names in New Zealand’s second official language, Maori.

Nope, he didn’t know much about her at all.

“I’d still like to hear it,” Carly said.

He shrugged. “The Sullivans are third generation dairy farmers. We’ve lived in the Far North pretty much forever, and the oldest Sullivan son always worked the land with his father. Since I’m the only son, I started helping out with the milking when I was twelve.”

Her eyes sparkled. “I’d never in a million years have picked you as a rancher. I would’ve  loved to have seen you with your chaps and leathers.”

“You’re thinking of cowboys.” He chuckled. “We’re more the rubber boots and coverall type of farmers.”

“Thought so, but a girl can dream.” She grinned back at him. “So you milked cows?”

“Twice a day, seven days a week—until my twenty-fifth birthday—then I realized I wasn’t the eighteen year old fresh from school who didn’t know what the hell he wanted to do with his life. At eighteen, carrying on the family tradition seemed a good idea until I figured it out. Being five years away from thirty was a wake-up call to strike out on my own.”

“So you left?”

“On January first. Hitched a ride with a mate down to Auckland and crashed in my second eldest sister, Rachel’s, spare room. Felt as if I slept a week solid just recovering. She told me to do some of the wild and crazy stuff I’d missed out on while working the farm for so many years. I took her advice and jumped on a flight to Queenstown, adventure capital of New Zealand.”

“Let me guess.” Carly snickered. “Bungee jumping, jet boat rides, adventure skiing?”

“No snow in January; it’s summer here, remember? But yeah, everything else, including sky-diving—which was where I met Harley Komeke.”

“Ford’s twin? Oh—and Harley’s place is where the Harlands and Westlakes are going for Christmas?”

“Yep. Day one I decided to get sky-diving over with first, and Harley’d signed up for the same flight. We hit it off and hung out for the week.”

“He’s your connection to Stewart Island.”

Kip nodded, stretching out his legs. “I told him how I was taking a sabbatical, trying to sort out my stuff, and he offered to put in a good word for me with West if I wanted to give bar-tending a try. He’d come to Queenstown after a flying visit with his parents and brother, and heard Due South’s current bartender was moving back to Invercargill. I thought ‘
what the hell
,’ and after Harley flew back to the States, I hopped on the ferry.”

“West hired you?”

“He must’ve seen something worthwhile in me because the first two weeks on the job I was the worst bartender ever, but he didn’t kick my ass out the door.”

“West’s pretty savvy. He would’ve taken into account your other”—she paused, eyebrows twitching downward into a small frown—“assets. You’re very popular with the bar’s clientele.”

“I like talking to people, and I love working in Due South.” Kip shifted in his seat so he could catch her eye. “After years of being stuck in a cowshed with Dad, Barry, and Manu, three of the most stoic men I’ve ever met, I enjoy meeting different people every day and talking about stuff other than cows. That some women seem to think I’m an undercover escort is not my problem. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t sleep around.”

A flush of heat appeared on Carly’s cheekbones, and she lowered her eyes, fiddling with the strap of her purse. “I shouldn’t have implied that. I’m sorry.”

“I’m not sorry you implied it.” He glanced around to ensure no one paid them any attention and then touched her chin, raising her head. “But I don’t want you wondering if I kiss my other co-workers like I kissed you.”

She continued to study him with whiskey-colored eyes. Prickles sped up and down his spine at her silence.

The ferry’s engines powered down as they approached the mainland terminal. Gulls wheeled and cried overhead, and conversation among the passengers grew louder as people got ready to disembark. The sounds seemed to echo down a distant corridor, caught up as he was in the spell of her beautiful face.

Then her lips curled up, and she leaned in close to murmur, “Actually, pretty-boy,
I
kissed you.”

Heat blasted through him. If they hadn’t been surrounded by other people he would’ve dragged her onto his lap and tasted her lush mouth again.

“That time, sweetheart.” He sent her a lazy smile, infusing it with every bit of desire scorching his veins. “Next time, I’ll be the one kissing you.”

 

***

 

Kip Sullivan made a fine-looking pack horse.

Carly lugged her shopping onto the wharf and turned to watch as Kip—plastic bags hanging off his arms, boxes stacked against his broad chest— maneuvered onto solid ground to join her.

“There, that wasn’t so bad,” she said as he gave her a long-suffering look from behind two enormous Lego sets she’d picked out for the twins.

“After three hours of shopping, I would’ve chosen to row a dinghy back here. Two hours after that, I nearly stripped off and swam.”

Carly laughed. Kip had mock-bitched from the moment they’d first arrived in Invercargill’s town center. Yet, he’d examined everything she had chosen—discussing, arguing, comparing—and his excitement at finding the perfect gift for one of his family members was infectious. As much as he complained about being outnumbered by females, his descriptions of his mother and sisters were always funny and kind-hearted. He’d do anything for them, even though they obviously drove him nuts at times—but wasn’t that what family was supposed to do?

His grimace switched into a sly smile by the time they walked off the wharf. “How about we go to my place for dinner, and afterward, you can give me a gift-wrapping lesson?”

Be alone with Kip again? In his no-close-neighbors beach house? A low-down pleasurable squeeze fisted her insides. She didn’t want this day to end, but it would have to be on her terms.

“I bet you don’t have any gift-wrapping supplies at your place. Why don’t you come back to my house, instead?”

And she’d have her nosy landlady to keep Carly’s naughty,
I wanna ravish my co-worker
thoughts in check.

He grinned from behind the boxes. “Duct-tape doesn’t count?”

“No. And FYI? Gift-wrapping isn’t a euphemism for
naked fun time
, okay?”

Though her heart pounded a little bit faster as a whisper of breeze carried his fresh, male scent to her nose. Made her wonder who the rule was for—Kip…or her?

“I’m game.” He gave her a long, lazy grin. “So long as you can keep your hands off the goods and on the gifts.”

Her gaze skipped down the tanned column of his throat and the tempting sprinkle of dark hair that started just above the neckline of his shirt.

“Won’t be a problem.”

Would
so
be a problem.

They walked in amicable silence through town. Daylight savings meant the sun blazed down even though it was nearly 6:00 p.m. Kids romped along the beach in front of Due South, and Carly waved to Zoe and Jade, who were running in circles with their little dog, Sparky. Long summer days at Christmas time still disconcerted her, and as for the usual wave of anticipation that had always accompanied the festive season?
Meh
. Not even choosing gifts for her stepfamily, and Zoe and Jade—which she’d put off until the last minute—could blow her blues away.

Carly pushed open the gate that led to her little cottage down the back of the property, and held it for Kip. He angled in after her, freezing when the front door to the main house opened.

Betsy Taylor poked her head out, lavender-tinted hair curling above her eagle-eyed stare. “There you are. Thought you must’ve missed the ferry.” Her gaze flicked over Carly’s shoulder. “And a handsome escort to accompany you home, I see.”

“Mrs. T. You’re looking radiant this evening.”

BOOK: Christmas With You
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