Graham

Chapter 1

Zoe

Hell on earth is the twelve days before Christmas. It’s a hodgepodge of demonic last-minute shoppers on a quest to find the must have special something that sold out months ago, tired and cranky workers, and Satan’s own special lair smack dab in the center of Pineview Mall—Santa’s Winter Wonderland.

It’s sad I feel this way. Christmas is my thing. Rudolph is my spirit animal. I’m that person. The one whose tree goes up at midnight on Thanksgiving. The one who has a gingerbread man counting down the days until I can give perfectly wrapped gifts with exquisite bows. Christmas music all day, check. Holiday movies, hot chocolate with homemade whipped cream, and Christmas pjs, check, check, and check in green and gold glitter. I last minute shop just to be a part of the excitement. It’s a holidaygasm. Or was, rather, until I got fired from my marketing job a month ago. You’d think they’d have the decency to downsize after the holidays, but apparently, decency doesn’t fit into the new business model. And neither did I.

Instead of moping, I took that big lump of coal I’d been given, and applied for a position with the most powerful man on the planet—Santa.

Not until I started working as head elf and picture taker for the bearded man himself, did I realize that Satan and Santa are synonymous, just change the letters around.

Ornery people have sucked away my Christmas spirit, but I’ve got one last chance to hold onto it. In a few minutes, I’ll escape this sea of snarled faces and drive to the mountains where my future awaits. Marketing is all about hashtags, so I’ll hashtag this moment #seeya.

“Zoe, you tell them,” Jenna, one of my fellow elves, urges.

Impatient parental eyes in the mile-long line filtering past the twinkling ten-foot Christmas tree throw daggers at me. There will be no crying and screaming in Santa’s lap today, because, thanks to an unexpected bout of stomach flu, Santa has left the building.

A jingle wafts from the bells on my green felt shoes as I walk to the red velvet rope holding the rambunctious crowd at bay and latch the lock into place.

“Santa had a sleigh malfunction,” I tell the mob of people. “Unfortunately, he won’t be here today.”

A groan rumbles like a wave down the crowd, before they disperse in a murmur of disapproval.

“Can you let Santa know I want an Xbox?” the towheaded boy, who was first in line, asks.

“I sure will,” I tell him with a smile. “The elves are in short supply this year, though,” I add as a disclaimer, just in case he doesn’t get one. I’m not sure how I feel any more about this almost satanic ritual of lying to little kids. He gives me a thumb up before darting away with his mom.

“Where is Santa?” a deep voice demands. I turn and am accosted by frosty chocolate eyes set in a face so ruggedly beautiful the tips of my shoes would curl, if they weren’t already. He runs a hand through his jet-black hair, leaving it in perfect disarray. Broad shoulders square off with me and my lies.

“He’s not here,” I answer, glancing down at the dark-haired girl, whose hand he holds.

“Yes, you mentioned his sleigh troubles.” His eyes glide over the red hat covering my brown hair. “But I’m sure he could Uber to fulfill his obligations. So, where is he?”

Does he really think I’m going to tell the truth in front of little ears? Tall, dark, and handsome arches a brow, waiting for my answer.

“How old are you?” I ask, losing my last bit of Christmas spirit.

“He’s thirty-two,” the little girl answers.

“So you’re old enough to know how this works.” I place my hands on my hips. “There is no Uber at the North Pole. There’s a giant sleigh with reindeer, that’s how it works. If your daughter—“

“Niece,” he corrects.

“If your niece would like to leave a letter, you can pop it in the mailbox by the candy cane.”

I point to the massive postal setup a few feet away.

“Can I?” the little girl implores, full of glee. He gives permission with a nod, and she rushes over to the table to write a letter that will never be sent. This is all just wrong.

“Where is Santa, really?” the stranger asks, sliding his hands into his jean pockets. “Do you have any idea what it’s like to stand in that line and keep a six-year-old occupied? I don’t like wasting time.”

“Let’s be real here, half these kids don’t even want to do it. They’re terrified. Do you have any idea what it’s like to get your hopes up, and ask the one man you’re told will answer all your dreams for something, and then be disappointed on Christmas day?”

His eyes drift down my red felt mini dress and green tights to my curled shoes, and back up again. “You’re very jaded for an elf.”

“Listen, I don’t know how to break this to you. So, I’m going to rip the band aid off.” I step closer to whisper, “Santa isn’t real; we’re all big liars.”

He looks taken aback for a moment, before he chuckles. “Thanks for enlightening me,” he says, amused. The carefree transformation to his chiseled face is so startling I step back, because he smells like everything I ever wanted and didn’t get.

“You’re welcome,” I tell him before I’m called away to deal with a disgruntled mother wrestling a toddler. Five minutes later, when she’s finally appeased with a free cookie coupon, the handsome stranger is gone.

“Hope they have a backup for tomorrow,” Jenna says, as we collect our handbags from the secret door behind the faux fireplace. “Don’t want to have to deal with that again.”

Luckily, I won’t have to, since today is my last day. And where does my future take me? Into the mountains. It’s a career opportunity, one I set up long before the pink slip was handed to me. If I can convince the owner of Mountain Goat Cabins to put my soaps in his resort and spa, my life just might be salvaged. Along with my Christmas spirit.

“Have a merry Christmas,” I tell her.

I make a quick pit stop in the bathroom to switch my elf attire for a pink sweater, black leggings, and boots before leaving the cacophony of the mall for a quiet drive to the resort. I need to hurry if I’m going to beat the snow. It’s expected to be a heavy snowfall tonight, and I want to make sure I have a stiff drink in my hand while I prepare my notes.

After nearly an hour, I arrive. Your destination is on the right, my GPS tells me, as if I could miss it.

“Holy balls,” I murmur to myself, as I pull into the large parking lot. Pictures on the internet really don’t do this place justice. It’s like a Christmas village for millionaires snuggled in the picturesque Colorado mountains. I grab my bag and hustle into the lobby of the monstrous snow topped log building that’s strung with enough lights to make Clark Griswold look like an amateur.

A cheery worker with a blonde bob, wearing a black button down, greets me at the front desk.

After a few types on her keyboard, she hands me a key card, along with details about free breakfast and directions to my cabin. ‘Cabin’ is a bit of an understatement; it’s bigger than my apartment. I waltz through the living area filled with wood accented leather furniture, back to the master suite, complete with a fireplace.

Before I trek back to the lounge for a drink, I peek in the oversized bathroom to check out the competition. Average at best toiletries sit in a wicker basket on the countertop. This place needs something more luxurious.

Feeling a little more confident, visions of dollar signs dance in my head when I step into the lounge of the Mountain Goat. A large, roaring fire blazes in the stone fireplace in the front of the lounge. An oak bar sits behind a Christmas tree that almost touches the top of the cathedral ceilings. It’s decked out in gold and red, and it warms me up on this dreary evening.

My hopes don’t falter though, if I can land this account, my entrepreneurial dreams will come true. I’ve done my research, and there are one hundred cabins rented out year-round, and I figure, at least half of the vacationers will steal the bars of soap and tubes of lotions I make, so Serendipity Soaps will potentially be nationwide.

I beeline for the bar stretching along the back wall. The television behind the liquor plays the LGC shopping channel, and I spot cute red knee-high boots I’d love to buy if I had the money to splurge this holiday. Soon boots soon.

“What can I get you?” the tall, blonde bartender asks as I turn away from the TV and settle onto a wooden stool.

“Vodka and cranberry,” I order my forever drink of choice, with no need to even think about it.

“Just what I pegged you for,” he says with a wink.

He’s cute, and he’s totally flirting with me, but I’m not sure what that means. If I were to be a drink, I’d much rather be something exciting like sex on the beach. His blue eyes flit back to me as he pours my alcohol. Well now I want to change my drink to something less mainstream, but before I can, he brings it over.

“What’s your cabin number?”

I’m used to forward men, but I didn’t even get to taste the drink before he’s trying to get in my panties.

“Oh, well, um,” I stammer, glancing at his name tag, “Brian, I appreciate the offer, but I’m not looking for anything besides the drink.”

“I think he wants to charge your cabin for the drink,” a deep voice interjects.

“You can pay cash if you don’t want me charging the room,” Brian clarifies.

“No, it’s fine.” My cheeks redden. “Cabin twelve.” I turn away to hide my embarrassment, and my eyes collide with the mall stranger from a few hours earlier.

Recognition crosses his features, and he half-smiles. “The jaded elf?” he asks with a raised brow.

“Just an off day,” I tell him. “Normally, I love Christmas.”

“I don’t.” He takes a seat beside me.

“Didn’t get that official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle?”

“Impressive, but no.”

“Then why do you hate it?”

He signals Brian for a drink, then looks over at me with a grin. “Because I just recently found out Santa isn’t real.”

I smile. “Sorry to spoil it for you.”

“Take this song for instance.” I listen as “Jingle Bells” lightly plays from the speakers. “Have you ever ridden in a one-horse open sleigh?”

“No,” I answer, distracted by the way his jean clad knee brushes my leg when he turns to face me.

“I have. It wasn’t fun.”

“Maybe you were with the wrong person,” I say, sounding a lot like I’m flirting.

His tongue peeks out to caress the corner of his mouth before he says, “I’m sure I was.”

“What about giving gifts? And getting gifts? And spending time with family?”

“No, no, and hell no. I try to avoid my family as much as possible.”

I frown a little. “Not even Christmas movies? It’s a Wonderful Life? Christmas Story?

“No.” A cute dimple appears when he smiles. “Especially, not Christmas movies.”

Elf?”

He cringes. “Sounds horrible. Die Hard is a good one.”

Don’t get me wrong I’m all for Bruce Willis, but… “Die Hard is not a Christmas movie.”

“Is too.”

“Is not,” I challenge with a hard stare. His warm chocolate eyes hold mine. The way they study me over the rim of his drink causes a zing in places that hasn’t felt a zing in a very long time. “I guess you hate eggnog as well?”

He holds up his drink. “I’d rather have this instead. Bourbon is better than whatever they put in eggnog.”

“Well, you can put bourbon in it,” I mumble under my breath.

Another Christmas song, “Blue Christmas” by Elvis, serenades the bar, and I chuckle a little.

“What?” he asks.

“This song is kind of perfect for you.”

“I never said I was sad, just not a fan of Christmas.”

I take another sip of my drink. “Is there anything you like about it?”

“Mistletoe.” His eyes drop once more to my mouth. “Let me ask you this, why do you like it so much?”

“Hm.” My mind overloads with all things holiday bliss. “It’s maybe just the spirit of it all.”

As if I’m an anomaly, he silently stares at me. Clearly my flirtdar is off tonight, because I’d swear his brown eyes are more than admiring my sweater; they’re removing it.

“Let me buy you another drink.” He motions Brian over. “Put her tab on me.”

I wave off his gesture. “No, really, you don’t have to do that.”

“I can’t let you drink alone. Just doesn’t seem right.”

“Well, I sure hate drinking alone.” My voice just dropped like fifty octaves.

“Yeah, me too.” His voice is just as low.

I’ve never done this before. I don’t even know his name. I’m about to introduce myself, but change my mind, because, honestly, I kind of like we’re anonymous. It’s exciting. Don’t tell Santa, but the naughty list might be the place to be this year.

As soon as I finish my drink, Brian makes me another. And another. And suddenly, I’m feeling great, and this stranger is not only the sexiest man in the world, he’s the funniest. I’ve become obsessed with the way he talks, the perfect things he says. I find myself hanging on every word. I’m also becoming touchy-feely, because he’s just too magnetic, and that’s my signal to leave. If I stay any longer, I’ll be straddling him.

“Thanks for the drinks.” I stand and shrug my coat on.

“Let me walk you to your cabin,” he says, rising from his seat.

Before I can object, he’s lifting my hand, and settling it in the crook of his arm, so I use the opportunity to slide it up a little and fondle his bicep. And oh, what a bicep it is.

“See.” He points above our heads to a hanging shrub of greenery on the door leading outside. “Mistletoe, my favorite.”

“You planned that.”

“Ah, you figured me out.” And then he leans in and the lips I’ve stared at all night, meet mine. They’re firm, yet soft, and irresistible. His tongue begs for entrance, and I open my mouth for him. And this is no mistletoe type kiss either. No this is the kind made for dark corners and naughty places.

He steps me outside, our lips never breaking apart.

The air between us shifts like tectonic plates and I hold onto him for fear of falling.

“Twelve, cabin twelve,” I say against his lips.

“Mine’s closer,” he husks back.

We get there in the blink of an eye. In a rush, he opens the door, and then pulls me close, kissing me once again.

This is all very surreal. Normally, I wouldn’t do this with a stranger, I’m a get to know you first kind of girl, but I want him. I’ve never been with a man who makes me feel so weak in the knees. As if he knows what he’s doing to my body, he lifts me over the threshold and kicks the door shut.

We’re a mad rush of lust driven hands, kissing and groping down the hallway, leaving a trail of clothes along the hardwoods.

His cabin is an exact replica of mine, and I know we’re headed straight to the master suite.

We fall to the bed, tumbling between the covers. “I’m not going to be very gentle with you tonight,” he says, between kisses.

“Do whatever you want.”

He leans over, producing a condom out of thin air. I rip the foil with my teeth and watch as he rolls it down his hard length.

He spreads my legs, licking his lips as his eyes trail down my body. I need him inside me right now. And it’s like he can read my mind, because he holds the thick head of his steel cock at my entrance and pushes deep with one thrust, stretching and filling me. “Fuck,” he groans out.

And then, he pumps his hips, and I move against him, with him, and together we push and pull, tugging and holding onto each other. “Don’t stop,” I whisper over and over.

My body thrums with a want—a need—it’s never had before. He kisses along my neck, then across my collarbone, and ends at my nipple.

“You have perfect tits,” he murmurs against my skin, biting the stiff peak, as he hits that special spot inside me.

No one has ever hit that spot. My body rises and falls, closer and closer to my orgasm, closer to tumbling over the cliff with him. His hair is magical, thick and soft—tuggable. My fingers pull and clinch the strands to bring him closer. Like a vice, my legs tighten around his waist.

“That’s right, take my cock, take it.” He pumps harder, hammering into me with determination. “Tell me you like the way I fuck your pussy.”

I don’t even have time to blush at the dirty talk he wants me to do, I just blurt it out, wanting to please him. Because he sure knows how to please me. It’s insane the way he’s working my body like he owns it.

“God, you’re so tight. Your sweet, little pussy feels so good.”

Oh damn, I can’t handle his mouth. It makes me wetter, more turned on, if that’s even possible. I trail my nails down his back, digging them in as my body gets so close to shattering in a sexplosion.

“You going to come for me?” he asks.

“Yes,” I pant.

“I want to feel your little pussy get off on my dick.” He keeps pumping, fucking me as the headboard thrashes into the wall. “Come on me.”

His words send me over the edge. I come and come, breathing out of control.

He moans, pumping faster, until his orgasm crashes through him shortly after mine.

“Fuck,” he says, dropping down beside me.

His skills have left me speechless, so I stare at the endless loop of the wooden ceiling fan blades until I catch my breath, until awkwardness settles over my naked body. Now what? Do I say thanks and leave?

My sex high crashes, and I scoot off the bed and rush to the adjoining bathroom. Toiletries litter the marble countertop. Instead of snooping to see what products make him so perfect, I splash cool water over my heated face, and take a deep breath. I fix my fresh fucked hair, clean up, and wrap one of the resort’s towels around my body before heading back into his room to say goodbye. I’ve never had a one-night stand before, but this is pretty much how they go in movies and books. One and done.

He lies face down when I return. The white sheet clings low on his hips, leaving his spectacular back on display. Corded muscles ripple beneath skin my fingers already itch to touch again, so I do.

“Hey,” I poke his back with a finger to see if he’s asleep, “are you awake?”

He flips over with a lazy smile. “Come back to bed with me.” His voice is deep, sexy, and sends a shot of adrenaline racing through me.

The clock reads midnight, chastising me and reminding me I have an important day tomorrow. As tempting as it is, I can’t risk my future for another ride on the One-Night Stand Express. If I get back to my cabin now, I can possibly go over my notes before I shower and get to sleep. God, the man is sexy, though.

He stretches a muscled arm above his head, waiting.

“I have to go.” The words are like razors coming out of my mouth, but this is what I have to do. I have a reason for being here and getting off is not one of them.

He doesn’t say anymore, just rises from the bed in all his naked glory. For a moment, I gawk at the beauty of the chiseled abs and perfect vee leading down to the manscaped part of him that is still semi-hard, memorizing every part of him.

I turn away and find my clothes, quickly dress, and go on a quest for my shoes. Talk about the awkwardness being back tenfold. I don’t even know what to say to him. ‘Hey, thanks for the stress reliever?’ I can’t say that. I can’t even think that.

Because this was so much more than that. This was better than any sex I’ve ever had in my twenty-eight years, but again, I can’t let some stranger know he just upended my world.

Oh my God. I just had sex with a stranger. I don’t know anything about him. I know he hates Christmas and really likes nails scratching down his back and makes the best orgasm face known to man, but I’m not sure that counts.

“I think they’re by the front door.”

I spin around to face the stranger, now semi-clothed in just a pair of well-worn jeans. All men should take instructions on how to wear jeans from him. The undone button makes me debate for a moment if I should take him up on his offer of getting back in the bed.

Instead, I slip into my heels, and smile. “I had a really nice time.”

He stalks closer. “Are you sure I can’t convince you to stay?”

“No,” I say, shaking my head. “I really have to get going.”

He gives a little nod, and I want to ask for his number, or email, or something, but I don’t. Because, that’s not how a one-night stand works.

I walk out of the cabin and leave my sexy stranger behind.