Authors: Kat Attalla
They rounded a corner to enter an open lot with trees in a variety of sizes and types. “Blue Spruce or Aspen Pine?” she asked.
“How about a nice plastic one you can recycle every year.”
Her nose wrinkled in distaste. “Were you a Grinch in another life?”
“What other life? I am one now.”
“I’ve noticed. And silly me, I thought you’d be wearing a smile the morning after. You’re not very good for the ego.”
“Since you got me to do something I swore I wouldn’t, I imagine your ego is flying high.”
She tipped her head. “It’s about time I won a battle with the NSB.”
Victoria could win any battle she put her mind to. She could outthink, out-plan, out-maneuver any opponent she chose.
“Pick a tree and let’s get home before we have another battle.” Before he got used to these domestic moments. He was hotel and hostel, not hearth and home. Fooling himself into thinking any differently was unfair to Victoria and himself.
* * * *
Elaine stepped off the bus on the corner of her block. South Burlington was a world away from the white picket fences of Wakeburn and Victoria Jansen’s gingerbread house. That’s all Elaine wanted for herself. She didn’t have delusions of grandeur. Unfortunately, Eddie did, and his greed put an innocent woman in danger. She should have remembered life’s simple rule. If something sounded too good to be true, it probably was.
She walked the littered streets, past the low-income neighborhood of row houses towards her own apartment. The air smelled of dirt and desperation. Even the newly hung holiday decorations couldn’t bring cheer to this place. She wanted out so bad she could taste it, but not at the expense of another person’s life.
Eddie would have a shit-fit if he knew she’d gone to Wakeburn today, but she needed to check on Victoria. Elaine worried needlessly. Victoria found one hunk of a boyfriend. Although boy was not an accurate description. All male, pure testosterone, a living, breathing god. Coming home to Eddie paled by comparison. Lately, even the sex wasn’t that great.
Elaine walked into Papa Nick’s Pizza Parlor and ordered herself a slice. She waited at the counter, her stomach rumbling from the mouth-watering aroma. A stinging slap landed against her backside. She swallowed a yelp and whirled towards her attacker.
Eddie grinned, revealing his chipped front tooth. “Hey, babe, where you been?”
“Why, Eddie, you noticed I went out. I’m touched.”
He ignored her sarcasm, or perhaps he didn’t notice. She hadn’t truly realized the extent of his narcissism until she’d returned from Mexico. “Get me a couple of slices.”
“Give me some money.”
“I’ll pay you back at the apartment.” If Eddie had a dime to his name, he wouldn’t have left it at home.
“I only have a couple of dollars myself.”
“I thought you worked at the bar last night.”
“And I paid the rent this morning.”
His eyes bulged, and his face flamed. “I told you not to pay the rent. We’ll be out any day.”
She wasn’t about to get locked out of her apartment by her crazy landlord. Without a lease, she’d have no recourse. When had she become a magnet for losers? She had dreams of her own. Dreams that went beyond the poverty-stricken world she’d lived in since her mother dumped her into foster care and took off for places unknown. With no formal education, she barely made enough money to survive. And Prince Charming only swept suburban girls off their feet. Tenement pickings were a lot slimmer.
“When is any day, Eddie? It’s been five days.”
“Try using your brain for once. The longer the buyer has to wait, the more he’ll pay.”
Try getting a brain, she thought bitterly. “Or he gets himself another disc and we’re left with squat.”
He beamed as if he were a genius. “We covered that.”
“What do you mean?”
“You could say Cybertex is locked down tighter than Fort Knox.”
She didn’t want to know what he and his cohorts had done. An anonymous tip probably. Didn’t he realize that if the source got caught, she might too? Then it dawned on her. He didn’t care. His ass was covered. She’d better worry about covering her own.
Erik dragged in the Aspen Pine from the car and set it in the corner of the room. He pulled pine needles from his shirt and dropped them in the wastebasket by the desk. Only Victoria would buy a Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving. He glanced at her as she sorted through a large cardboard carton of lights and ornaments. Excitement shone on her face. She seemed oblivious to her current situation. He hoped he could live up to the faith she’d placed in his ability to keep her safe.
She bent over the box to reach for something at the bottom. His gaze rested on the nicely rounded backside encased in denim, and he grew hard. That’s concentrating on the case at hand. Around Victoria, he had trouble focusing on the time of day.
“Are you going to help me or are you going to stare at my rear end until you pop the snap on your jeans?”
Erik muttered an oath. She might be oblivious to danger but she knew her effect on him. And she reveled in her power.
“What do you want me to do?”
The corners of her mouth lifted in a sexy smile. “Do you need me to tell you?”
“I meant with the tree, Tori.”
“Oh,” she muttered in obvious disappointment. “Let me string these lights first, and then you can set up the trains.”
She stood in front of him and wound her arms around his neck. “Unless you’d rather put Rudolph up on the roof.”
His hands rested on her waist. Reindeer, Christmas trees and a warm, willing woman in his arms that made him think about forever. Definitely dangerous.
He swallowed hard and inched her away from him. “The trains.”
She arched one delicate eyebrow. “For starters.”
Erik didn’t miss the challenge in her voice. Again, she impressed him with her sheer determination. The woman wasn’t shy about her intentions. Every time he thought he understood her, she showed him another side of her complex personality. He’d need a lifetime to discover her many different facets and he only had a couple of days left. All the more reason not to get in any deeper.
They worked for several hours setting up a display that would do a department store window proud. She made it damn hard for him to ignore her as she found excuse after excuse to stretch and bend in front of him while she hung an array of fine glass and porcelain ornaments on the tree.
When they finished, he dropped down on the sofa and admired the end result. After plugging in the lights, she joined him. She slid down into the sofa cushions and rested her head in his lap. Her warmth and the floral scent of her perfume made concentration impossible. The eventual showdown with Becker loomed, but his thoughts focused on making love to her right there on the floor in front of the fireplace.
And then what? Despite her claim that she knew what she could handle, he doubted she could walk away unscathed. Hell, he knew he wouldn’t. Why make it worse?
“Anything you’d like to do?” He saw the wicked glint in her eye and revised his offer. “Anything except your scientific research.”
She stroked her hand along the side of his face. “We could talk about you.”
“That would be a short conversation.”
“Of course it would. Because you don’t like to talk about yourself.”
“There’s not a lot to talk about. You know what I do for a living. I have no family. My closest friend is my partner, and I’m not sure he likes me.”
“Sure he does. Otherwise he wouldn’t be so worried about how I’m compromising your virtue.”
“Yes, you are a bad influence.”
“Obviously not bad enough,” she complained. He needed to get her one-track mind on a different subject before he gave in.
“About the case….” he said.
* * * *
Victoria exhaled slowly. As a mood killer, his comment worked like ice water. “Do we have to discuss it now?”
“Why don’t we worry about it when they locate Elaine?” Victoria wasn’t one to procrastinate, but she did want a reprieve. The case would wrap up soon enough, and life would return to normal. Normal meant boring, predictable, and lonely. Erik had awakened her from an emotional coma, and she wasn’t ready to let go.
“I’m sure you must have some fears….”
“Despite my scientific training, I’m a great believer in fate. Whatever is going to happen, will happen, whether we obsess over it or not.”
“Okay, point taken. What do you want to talk about?”
She didn’t want to talk. She wanted to spend the afternoon wrapped in his body and forget that life existed beyond her front door. If she dwelled on the case, she would inevitably have to think about the conclusion. Their affair ended when the case ended. She made the rules and she would abide by them.
But damn, how it hurt to hold her feelings inside. Maybe that’s why she wasn’t afraid. A protective numbness washed over her. Erik would always have a piece of her heart, but very soon he would not be a part of her life.
“I’m going to take a shower. If you’re hungry, there are leftovers in the fridge.”
She vaulted from the sofa before she started something he might regret. A retreat might not be the bravest course of action, but he had to come to her this time. He had to want her despite his better judgment or she wouldn’t have a chance of holding him once the case was over.
Victoria turned on the tap in the shower, and steam began to fill the room. She stripped off her pants and draped them over the towel rack. As she reached for shampoo, she bumped into Erik’s tall frame and gasped. “What … what are you doing?”
“You don’t want me?” He smiled and grasped the bottom of her shirt, sliding it slowly over her head. He discarded the garment in a careless heap behind her.
“Well, yes, but not in the shower.”
“Think of it as water conservation. As a pillar of the scientific community, I thought you would be all for the idea.”
Victoria shook her head in confusion. For most of the day he’d kept her at a distance and now, when she gave him his space, he followed her into the smallest room in the house. She doubted that he worried about water conservation. She usually enjoyed puzzles, but admittedly, he stumped her. “I give up. You confuse the hell out of me.”
“I got the distinct impression that you wanted to avoid this. At least today.”
Male logic was an oxymoron. “I didn’t force you to come. I didn’t even ask you to.” Of course, she wished, hoped, and prayed he would.
“So, tell me to leave.”
She could more easily tell herself to stop breathing.
He lowered his head until his mouth covered hers. His tongue pushed through her parted lips, stroking, tasting, and arousing her in a sea of sensations. Turning him away when he’d come to her wasn’t an option she cared to entertain. She wanted him anytime, anywhere.
Erik caught her wrists and raised her hands to his chest, pressing her palms against the collar of his shirt. She fumbled with the buttons as he watched with a grin of amusement. He arched his back to let her slip the shirt off his shoulders.
A light film of moisture gave an iridescent sheen to the expanse of his broad chest. She lowered her head to lick a drop of water streaming down his rib cage. His body shuddered in response, and he let out a throaty groan.
Encouraged by his reaction, she moved closer and brushed against the rough fabric of his pants. “You seem to have me at a disadvantage.”
He swiftly removed the rest of his clothes. After testing the temperature of the water, he turned to Victoria and lifted her with ease into the shower.
Hot water teemed over them. She clung to him, letting the steady flow relax her tight muscles.
Erik lathered the soap with his large hands. He stepped back and rubbed his fingers over her arms, shoulders, and finally settled on the swells of her breasts. His fingers grazed over her taut nipples, bringing a sigh of pleasure.
He smiled, and a rush of heat surged through her. Unlike their first night together, he maintained a slow pace, allowing her to experience each erotic impulse. The sensations, so seductive, so surreal, transcended the merely physical. If this was a dream, she prayed she wouldn’t wake before sunrise.
The fleshy pad of his thumb stroked the sensitive area of her navel. She quivered in response.
“Ticklish,” he noted with a chuckle. When he playfully poked her ribs, she grabbed his wrists. “Stop,” she pleaded.
“All right. You try.”
His body, smooth and wet, was a temptation she didn’t want to fight. Better than chocolate and no calories. She inhaled a large breath and closed her fingers around him. Soft flesh over pulsing steel. She caressed him, stroking until he exhaled a low groan.
“Sorry,” she said, although she wasn’t sorry in the least. She brushed her breasts against his chest. “You feel good.”
“I feel great,” he corrected huskily.
He molded his hands over her buttocks and inched her to him. She rotated her hips, reveling in the hard pressure of his arousal on her stomach. He felt better than great, he felt perfect.
Reaching back, Erik turned off the tap. He lifted her out of the shower. Without stopping for a towel, he carried her to the living room, setting her on the hearth in front of the fireplace. The glow from the fire and the twinkling of the red and white tree lights gave the room a mystical atmosphere.
A puddle formed on the stone tiles. “We’re all wet,” she said.
“Yeah, I know.” He arched an eyebrow in question. “You got a problem with that?”
“No.” She wasn’t interested in anything that would part them for a second.
“I didn’t think so.” He stroked his hands over her body, using the fire’s warmth to dry her skin and his fingers to generate an internal heat.
* * * *
Victoria’s soft sighs and moans reverberated against Erik’s ear. He moved the coffee table with his foot and lowered her onto the soft carpet. As he stretched out next to her, her glassy-eyed gaze assessed every inch of him. “So, tell me what you want.”