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Authors: Tracey Alvarez

Christmas With You (7 page)

BOOK: Christmas With You
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“All right, then.” He shook out the wrapping paper so it unrolled in a long tongue across the carpet, then he stuck out a hand, palm up, without glancing at her. “Scissors. Hit me.”

Scissors slapped into his hand. Shuffling along on his knees toward the end of the roll, he measured a length that he figured should do and hacked across the paper. Boo-yah! Half way there already. So far, so good.

He dropped the scissors and held out his hands. “Lego. Hit me.”

She passed the box, and he placed it at one end of the paper. Grabbing the edge, Kip flipped the sucker end over end until he ran out of wrapping.

Hand out—“Tape.”

The dispenser hissed and clicked as Carly tore off a strip and stuck it on his fingertips. He slapped it on, ordered her to hit him again. She did, and he stuck that bit down, too. He paused to examine his work, didn’t even bother glancing at Carly for approval, because, man, he was
in the zone
. Nailing it, and only the ends to go.

With about four layers of paper to manipulate, taping up the ends required Carly to hit him with tape strips six times each side. But the end product, when he’d tossed the present over and applied the finishing touch of a red bow-thingy

Gift-wrapped like a boss, baby.

If he ever got tired of the bar-tending gig, a department store would scramble to hire him as a gift wrapper, for certain.

“Well?” Kip rocked back on his haunches and glanced up.

Carly wasn’t even looking at him. In fact, he couldn’t see her eyes. She was curled on her side in a foetal position, arms crossed over her stomach, her long red hair in wild tangles over her face. She made weird little chuffing sounds, interspersed with an occasional groan.

Dear God, had she choked on one of the nuts she’d set out as a snack? He lunged across the carpet, brain flipping through internal files on
how to execute the Heimlich maneuver
.

“Carly!” He swept her hair aside, bending close, ready and able to perform life-saving CPR.

She drew in a breath with a loud snort. Of laughter.

“You’re not choking on a nut, are you?” he asked.

A tear spilled over her long eyelashes, tracking inward toward her nose as she shook her head.

He narrowed his eyes, even though the tickles were back in his gut and it was great to see her laughing. “Are you mocking my mad skills?”

She nodded, propping herself up on her elbows and biting her lower lip—no doubt to prevent more giggles from escaping.

Wasn’t hard to pretend he was insulted. “What’s so damn funny?”

Carly pressed a hand to her mouth. “First off, you used like six feet of wrapping paper.”

“Isn’t it kind of the point to cover the box?”

“You could’ve covered three of those boxes with that much paper—and the tape…oh God, the tape…”

Her chest heaved with laughter, shifting those stunning tits of hers up toward him.

Before he could rethink his instincts, Kip braced himself over her, a hand either side of her shoulders, their faces close together.

“Listen, it’s a solid five out of five gift-wrapped box, I’ll have you know.”

She tilted her chin and smiled up at him. “You tried your best, but I think your skills lie in other areas.”

“Like this one?” He dipped his head until their noses bumped together. He angled his mouth and touched her lips, withdrawing before he allowed himself to sink into her.

Her eyes widened, and her breath caught in a gasp. He should’ve felt smug about her reaction, except his breathing had become choppy. Her sweet scent wove around him—flowers and shampoo, the tang of the fresh strawberries she’d prepared for dessert.

Like strawberries, one little kiss wasn’t enough.

“You’ll need to do more than that to impress me.” She licked her lips, and the late evening sunlight slanting through the French doors highlighted a challenge deep in her eyes. “Give it your best shot, big guy. Show me what you can do.”

An open invitation to seduction he wouldn’t turn down.

Kip took her mouth, but her lips fusing to his, the flicker of her tongue, the warm, welcoming taste of her when she opened to him, dragged him under and had him drowning, desperate for more.

She sifted her fingers into his hair, holding him close, tugging him down until he lowered his body to her heady curves. Soft where he was hard, silky where he was rough, her heat melted him. Hot, wet, and wild—like a ride on a water park roller-coaster, except so much better.

Exploring the contours of her mouth, Kip didn’t want the kiss to end. His hand grazed over her ribs, thumb bumping the edge of her bra as he caressed the underside of her breast. She arched into him, making a soft humming sound in the back of her throat and clutching his hair tighter.

Kip hesitated. Would he take this further? Indulge in some casual, pre-Christmas sex with two of his mates’ little sister? He pulled back, Carly’s fingers slipping out of his hair, her nails raking softly down his nape. He studied her kiss-wet mouth, her flushed cheeks, and hooded eyes, still rimmed with red after sobbing on his shoulder.

Fuck.

Kip rolled off to the side and propped himself up on an elbow.

She blinked up at him with a crinkled brow. “Why did you stop?”

His stomach knotted, and his cock throbbed against his jeans saying,
yeah, dumbass, why am I not getting any action again
?

The scariest thing—scarier than pissing off the Westlake brothers—was looking down into her face. If he continued touching her, it wouldn’t just be casual, pre-Christmas sex. Nothing about laughing with her, holding her, kissing her, or touching her was casual. He’d never been an easy hook-up guy, but the idea of handing his heart over to be trampled on left him shuddering.

Did he really intend to start something serious again? Hell if he knew. Not with his brain demanding one thing, his cock screaming for another. He wanted Carly, but making love to her tonight, when her emotions were all raw and stirred up, spelled bastard-taking-advantage. She deserved more. So they both needed some thinking space.

He traced the line of her jaw. “Sweetheart, I’m a puddle of smoking hot goo.” He ran a finger down her neck to the pulse flickering in her throat. “But we don’t need to rush this. I don’t want to rush this. I like the anticipation.”

Carly placed her hand on top of his, flattening his palm against the warm skin of her throat. “You weren’t the kid who tore the house apart looking for Christmas presents, then?”

“Carly Gatlin, were you that kid?”

She nodded. “Yes, I was
that
kid.”

“Well, it explains a lot.” He sat up, held out a hand to help her upright. “How about we anticipate some more while you demonstrate proper gift-wrapping techniques—since mine evidently suck?”

She took his hand and let him tug her into a sitting position. She crawled away with a smile and retrieved the roll of paper. “You kiss better than you wrap. A
lot
better.”

As she brandished the scissors and un-wrapped his masterpiece, explaining where he’d screwed up, Kip nodded in all the right places.

Whatever his decision, he needed to make it fast. This intense spark of attraction between them meant that, at some point in the not-distant-future, he’d have the opportunity to make love to her. And unlike an unwanted Christmas gift you could take back to the store, there’d be no returns or refund offered if he gave Carly his body, and by accident, his heart.

Chapter 5

“You,” Carly said the next morning as she climbed into the ute Kip had borrowed from Ford. “Are a piece of work. You owe me big time.”

Kip—all freshly showered and yummy in blue jeans and a tight grey tee shirt—sat in the driver’s seat, one tanned forearm resting on the window frame, a breeze ruffling his still-damp hair. “Anything you want, sweetheart. Name it.”

She poked her tongue out at him, even as a pleasurable shiver worked its way up her spine. Memories of her dreams the night before crowded into her head. Dreams of a sexy Santa who just happened to look like Kip—minus the beard, minus the red suit, minus every stitch of clothing except for a Santa hat.

Inappropriate, considering how she’d agreed to spend the morning.

The ute’s back door opened, and two giggling five year olds tumbled inside. Carly swiveled in the passenger seat as Lizzie ducked her head inside the back, her expression harried.

“Thank you so much for agreeing to help, Carl—Lucas, I said sit your
butt
in the booster, not your head.” Lizzie rolled her eyes and grimaced. “Sorry. I’m really grateful you’re going to tag-team with Kip.”

“We’ll have fun picking out a tree.” Carly smiled. “You enjoy some time off.”

Time off translated to an hour to wrap and hide the presents Lizzie had mailed to Stewart Island earlier that month so the boys wouldn’t spot them in their luggage. Poor Lizzie needed five minutes to herself—the biggest argument Kip had used to convince Carly to come with them this morning.

“We’re going to find the best tree.” Logan smiled shyly at her from his booster seat. The quieter twin had figured out what end of his body was for sitting.

“Yeah, the biggest, most coolest, most awesome-est tree ever.” Logan’s bare legs flicked up and down with impatience, as Lizzie tightened the restraints on his booster seat.

“Be good. Remember the Santa satellite,” Lizzie said.

“We will,” they chorused as she blew both boys a kiss and shut the truck door.

“Santa satellite?” Kip keyed the engine to life, and they rolled down the driveway. “That’s kinda creepy.”

“My dad used to tell me Santa had elves plant spy cameras around our house to make sure I was being good,” she said quietly, pitching her voice under the twins’ vigorous rendition of Jingle Bells. “Worked like a charm while I was in the house.”

“And out of it?”

Kip turned onto the main road, the sun sparking flashes of light off the ocean.

“I went a little feral for the first few years after my mom died.”

Kip’s gaze flicked to the rear mirror, but the boys were occupied with singing and sorting through the little bags of snacks Lizzie provided.

“You were young when she died?” he asked.

“I was six.”

“Tell me what happened?”

The grief feathered over her skin like an outfit she tried on once a year but which still fit perfectly. No longer constrictive and uncomfortable, as it’d been those first few years she’d worn it; age had loosened the weave, so the hurtful memories felt as familiar as flannel pajamas.

“Mom drove to meet some friends while I was at school—we lived at Malmstrom Air Force Base at the time. I remember the principal came to the classroom door and called my teacher out. Mrs. Whitman—who probably had a stash of trophies for being the strictest first grade teacher ever—burst into tears.” Carly closed her eyes, the vibration of the tires on the rough road strangely soothing. “We could hear her sobbing from inside the classroom. When she came back in, her eyes met mine, and I knew. I knew my dad had died.”

She blew out a sigh and opened her eyes again. Green trees and bright blue sky stretched in front of her. Not the four bland walls of a classroom where her life had irrevocably changed.

“You thought something had happened to your dad?”

Carly glanced over at his eyes, and found them warm with sympathy. At least, she hoped his direct gaze, flicking between her and the road, contained sympathy rather than pity. She couldn’t stand the idea of anyone pitying her.

“You don’t grow up a military brat without understanding from a young age that something could happen to your mom or dad when they’re deployed.”

“He was overseas when your mom…?”

“Yeah.” She sagged into the seat and took a deep breath. “Drunk driver ran a red light and killed her instantly. I don’t remember much of what Mrs. Whitman said; it didn’t start to register until hours later, when Mom never came for me. For a while, I thought the adults were lying, that Dad had died, and Mom had gone to find him. I didn’t believe she was gone…Not until Dad got back to Montana, and I saw his face.”

The narrow road curved into the hills above Oban, and Kip kept his eyes locked to the windshield. He didn’t say anything but settled his larger palm over her whitened knuckles—the hand she’d balled into a fist without realizing.

With a glance over her shoulder to check the boys were still occupied, she cleared her throat. She could wallow and wreck the twins’ excitement at choosing a tree, or she could allow the warmth of Kip’s touch to buffer away some of her sharp, brittle edges.

She injected a light tone into her voice. “You’re good at this—the sympathetic listening thing. It’s probably why you’re good at your job.”

Kip removed his hand to flick on the turn signal. They pulled into a driveway, a massive, hand-painted “Xmas trees” sign jammed into the ground next to it. He sneaked another glance, his small smile telling her he knew she had changed the subject for the boys’ sake.

“I learned a lot from watching cows every day. They’re not as dumb as people think. After a while, you get to know which one will stand there docile as anything while you attach the cups, and which one will stomp on your toes for looking at her the wrong way.”

A laugh bubbled in her belly at the thought of Kip talking to his big black and white beasties in a barn, and she couldn’t help but compare them to the women who always clustered around him in the bar. “So, Due South is just one big milking shed to you? And I and the other women are just cows?”

Kip parked the ute at the end of a short line of other vehicles and killed the engine.

“No,” he said, unclipping his seatbelt. “I wouldn’t dare compare a woman to a cow; I’m not an idiot.”

“I heard Poppa say you were,” said Lucas.

Kip froze in the act of reaching for the door handle, and Carly’s hand stilled on her seatbelt clip.

Lucas, aware he had the adults’ attention, but not realizing the tension running through his uncle’s big body like an electric current, wriggled in his booster seat. “Poppa didn’t know me and Logan were hiding behind the couch, and I heard him say you were an idiot for leaving the farm.”

“And having a deadbeat job,” said Logan. He nibbled on a cracker. “What’s a deadbeat job, Uncle Kip?”

Carly’s stomach clenched, squeezing around her heart, which had sunk into her gut the moment she’d seen the flash of hurt cross Kip’s face.

Kip’s lips pressed together in a thin line, then relaxed into a wry smile as he turned in his seat to look at the boys. “It means I’m cool enough to be a drummer for a zombie rock band.” He mimed a dramatic air-drum solo, causing the twins to giggle.

“Zombies are scary,” Logan said, but he looked more excited than worried.

“They eat braaaaaains,” Lucas added.

“And I bet they smell awful.” Carly wrinkled her nose and winked at the boys, both of whom appeared to have forgotten how this conversation started. “Let’s go and get you a huge Christmas tree so you can smell something nice, instead.”

Kip cast her a speculative look as they climbed out of the cab and helped the two boys down. As Logan and Lucas rushed ahead to a fenced-off area containing dozens of pine trees, Carly moved closer to Kip’s side and slid her hand into the crook of his elbow.

“You’re not an idiot for doing what’s right for you.”

His eyebrows drew together, and shadows clouded his clear blue eyes. “I let him down. I let Mum down. They just couldn’t accept I wasn’t meant to be a farmer any more than my dad was meant to be a banker or an accountant.”

“But it seems as if you still have a good relationship with your parents.”

The muscles under her fingers stiffened, but he didn’t pull away.

“We do, mostly. But if I’d stayed in Bounty Bay, we wouldn’t—I couldn’t breathe. Here, I can.”

They walked along the gravel road, their feet kicking up plumes of dust since the last two weeks hadn’t seen any rain. The tang of fresh pine sap filled the air, and the chatter of other people in the field drifted over in the light breeze.

“And your sisters?”

He rolled his eyes. “They believe I’m still their baby brother to boss around and manipulate. You think my family’s not here with an ulterior motive? That my parents won’t try to convince me to stop being an
idiot
and marry a nice woman, move back to the farm, and produce the requisite three grandkids? I don’t want that life.”

Kip laughed, the edge of his chuckle razor sharp, the sound slicing through their little moment with brutal efficiency. He didn’t need to spell it out with sparkly lights and glittery tinsel. No matter how delicious his kisses, or how sweetly he comforted her. No matter how much he made her heart race and her body shiver with anticipation, Kip didn’t want the life she did.

Someone to love. Someone to spend her life with. Someone with whom she could have a family.

 

***

 

With the best-est, most awesome-est tree secured on the ute’s flatbed, Kip drove them back to the house, the twins keeping conversation to a minimum by singing “Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree”—the only lyrics they knew from the entire song—over and over.

His dad emerged from the house as Kip reversed up the driveway. Hearing his father’s words straight out of his nephew’s mouth had rankled, but what the hell. It wasn’t much of a shock. He’d worked with James Sullivan long enough to pretty much know his opinion on everything. So, in his dad’s eyes? Yeah, Kip was an idiot working a deadbeat job.

Kip slanted a glance at Carly, her sudden withdrawal at the Brailsford’s still apparent in her folded arms and faraway gaze as she stared out the passenger side window. She’d shared the twin’s excitement at choosing a tree, joked with Ben and Kezia when they’d arrived with an exuberant Zoe and Jade, and even teased Kip with a sly smile about compensation issues while carrying the seven-foot-tall pine back to the ute. Yet, the whole time, her gaze remained cool and detached. While his father’s label stung, Carly suddenly constructing a wall around herself felt like an unbearable itch between his shoulder blades.

“You okay?” he said quietly, as his father headed toward the vehicle.

Her hair whispered over her shirt as she turned to face him. “I’m fine.”

“The two most loaded words in a woman’s vocabulary.” An auburn strand caught on the headrest, and he eased it off before it snagged in her seatbelt. A convenient excuse to touch her. “Are you
I wanna kick you in the nuts again
fine, or
I don’t wanna discuss this
fine?”

“I haven’t decided.” She opened the door and climbed out. “I should get going, anyway.”

His father appeared behind her. “Not so fast. Heather and the girls are expecting you inside.”

Carly shot a glance at Kip. “Really, I should be—”

“They’re arguing about oven temperatures and where the best place is to stick a turkey thermometer.” James gave an exaggerated shudder. “Please, honey, help a man out.”

“All right, a quick visit.” With one more long, indecipherable stare in Kip’s direction, she walked away.

Kip climbed out of the cab and opened the back door to release Logan from his booster seat. “Laying it on a bit thick to get her to stay, weren’t you?”

His father opened the opposite door and smirked. “Worked better than whatever you were saying, hotshot.”

“Yeah yeah.”

They unbuckled the twins and hauled them out, then watched them run whooping into the house. His father eyeballed him over the ute’s roof.

“Girls this far south must be too hot for you to handle.”

Kip snorted out a laugh and slammed the back door. “This the lead-in for you telling me about all the eligible women back in Bounty Bay, Dad?”

“Wouldn’t dream of it, son.” James ambled around to the rear of the vehicle and unhooked the bungee-cord keeping the tree in place. “Though my informants tell me Becca broke it off with her latest man.”

“That ship sailed a long time ago.” Kip moved to the flatbed and grabbed a needle-covered branch. “How about we get this damn tree inside, so Mum can talk Carly into helping decorate it?”

His father’s blue eyes crinkled over the spiky green needles. “Butt the hell outta my business, Dad?”

Kip found a wry smile and applied it, dragging the trunk toward him. “Got it in one.”

Thirty minutes later, Kip slumped onto the couch and watched Carly lift up Lucas so he could hang a golden bauble on the tree. Mission two, underway. And unless she was a better actress than he’d credited, Carly appeared to be enjoying herself.

BOOK: Christmas With You
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