This is a prequel to my paranormal romance, Tempting Jo.
The office Christmas party is in full swing, complete with one drunken moron copying his butt on the copier. In the corner, I spot Tweedle Ditz and Tweedle Dumb hanging all over our boss like cheap tinsel on a Christmas tree. To my dismay, Mr. DeVille doesn’t seem to mind one bit. I catch him leering at the twins’ inappropriate, low-cut blouses. My mood darkens. Just once, I wish he’d look at me like that. At least I can add two plus two. Working together, I doubt the twins could count to fifteen. But with boobs like theirs, I guess they don’t need to. I’m not proud of my jealousy, but it is what it is.
For lack of anything else to do, I focus on removing Atticus’s white fur from my black, claw-picked sweater. I’m the only one not drinking and I fit in this party atmosphere like a preacher on Bourbon Street at Mardi Gras. Having grown up with an alcoholic father and pill-popping mother, I’m uncomfortable in situations like this.
Mr. DeVille approaches and I stand up straighter, my heart racing. His crooked Santa hat looks strangely out of place on my GQ-handsome boss. Resisting the urge to straighten it, instead, I bat my fake eyelashes and pray the toilet paper I stuffed into my bra doesn’t fall out.
“Something in your eye? Having fun, Friday? Need a drink?” He lifts his glass of champagne. I’m a mere minion to him, not worthy of him bothering to remember my name is Jolene. But, I bask in his attention anyway because I’m just a tad in lust with my boss.
“I’m good, sir.” I raise my punch glass, wishing he’d notice me when he’s not under the influence.
He turns and winks at one of the twins. Behind his back, I roll my eyes and sigh. Apparently, no amount of bra stuffing can compare to silicone. I plaster on a fake smile when he turns his attention back to me.
“What do you mean you’re good? That’s an adjective. Are you saying you’re an angel, or do you mean you feel well? Or, are you trying to articulate that you don’t require anything at this time?” He raises one eyebrow, waiting on my response.
While I’m relieved he hasn’t pointed out my poor grammar in front of my coworkers, it’s a tad annoying. If he weren’t a damnyankee he’d accept ‘I’m good’ the way it was meant. But then he flashes his panty-melting smile and my mind blanks.
“I’m teasing, Friday. Relax and have fun, it’s a party! Want to sit on my lap and tell me what you desire for Christmas? I bet you’ve been a very naughty, little girl.” He waggles his eyebrows and his grin widens.
I’d love to sit on his lap. But in my fantasies, we’re alone and naked. I cross my fingers behind my back, praying I didn’t just say that out loud.
Mr. DeVille’s head snaps up and his brows knit together. “Sonofabitch,” he hisses, snatching his Santa hat off his mussed, blond hair. Are those flames flickering in his blue eyes? I put my cup down, wondering if someone spiked my punch.
“What’s he doing here?” The venomous tone makes me shiver. Who has him so riled?
Looking across the room, my mouth drops. My childhood friend, Rafe Goodman, strides through the party smiling and nodding at my co-workers, stopping to shake hands with a few. He has the easy gait of a man who’s comfortable in his own skin. I’ve always admired this quality about him. Tweedle Ditz and Tweedle Dumb practically trip over their tongues and I feel a strange sense of protectiveness.
“Dammit, I told him he could start Monday. Leave it to Mr. Holier-Than-Thou to show up and put a damper on the office party.” Mr. Deville drains his champagne and signals one of the twins to refill his glass.
“He’s going to work here?” I squeal and rush toward the best friend I’ve ever had. When I was a little girl, Rafe saved me. Literally. He found me lost in the woods after I’d run away from home. Even though he was a few years older, he took me under his wing and became my confidante and savior.
He grunts as I barrel into him. “Um, hello. Do I know you, Miss?” His familiar smirk widens into a grin.
“Rafe!” Embarrassment over my emotional display heats my cheeks. He laughs and pulls me into a bear hug. Although we haven’t been in touch for years, his presence brings an instant sense of peace and familiarity that I’ve missed. I’m reluctant to let go and my emotions clog my throat.
Still clutching his arms, I gaze up at him. The premature gray at his temples and laugh lines beside his dark eyes make him more attractive than ever. Ten years ago, I developed a huge crush on him, but he left for college before anything came of it. His eyes widen.
“Yikes, is that a spider on your cheek?” He swats my fake eyelash to the ground and stomps on it.
I peel off my remaining eyelash. “So, what are you doing here? It’s been ages since I’ve seen you. Where have you been? It’s like you disappeared from the face of earth.” I pick a white feather off his jacket and needlessly smooth his lapel, not wanting to break contact. Having him here is such a surprise, I’m afraid I’m dreaming.
He grabs the feather from me and shoves it in his pockets, looking as embarrassed as I was with my eyelash fiasco. “Um, yeah, sorry about that. Correspondence isn’t my thing. I’ve been all over, working.” He pulls his gaze to mine and brushes a strand of my hair off my face. “It’s great to see you, too, Jo. You look great. Where’s the tomboy I left behind? Frankly, I’m relieved to see a familiar face. It’ll be nice having a friend in this den of hell.”
I nod. Just three hours ago these men were cutthroat sales rivals, vying for Mr. DeVille’s approval. Now they’re hanging on each other like frat brothers. One of them trips and grabs my ass.
“Well hullo there, Jody,” he slurs.
I roll my eyes. Doesn’t anyone know my name? I attempt to remove his hand from my bottom. It isn’t the first time he’s tried to cop a feel. I’m aware my butt provides a generous handle to hang on to, but I’m uncomfortable. I slap his hand away, but he only laughs. Rafe hauls the lech off me, jerking him by his tie and whispers something I can’t hear. The drunk backs away, hands up, and then flees like the place is on fire.
“Do you want to stay here or can we leave?” Rafe glares at the room in general and straightens his red tie. He sneers at Mr. DeVille and the animosity between them is palpable over the frivolity of everyone else.
“I’d love to, but it’s my job to clean up after the party.”
“Tomorrow’s Saturday. Do it then, or are you going home for the holidays?”
“I am. I need to stay here and study, but I don’t want to disappoint my brother. He needs the company and has already planned the meal for when he gets off work…”
“You work and go to school? Jo, honey, everyone needs a break now and then. Why don’t you just relax? I’m sure Johnny Way would understand.”
His offer is so tempting I want to cry. The truth is, I’m dog-tired. “Maybe we could just grab a cup of coffee? I’m going to need the caffeine boost to clean this place.”
His smile broadens and it’s like witnessing the sun rising after a storm. I realize Rafe is no longer the boy I once knew; he’s a man, and devastatingly handsome. He could give Mr. DeVille a run for the money in the looks department. The females in the office who aren’t passed out at their desks openly ogle him.
For spite, I hook his arm and sidle closer. I kinda hope Mr. DeVille sees and experiences just a fraction of the jealousy I feel when he flirts with the twins. “Let’s expeditate our departure.”
Rafe laughs long and hard. “Say, what? Are we declawing Mr. Devil of his hooves?” We’re now the center of attention.
“No, I meant let’s leave fast, before anyone stops us–is the word extricate? Hey wait a minute, that wasn’t a very nice thing to say about our boss. Especially since you don’t even know him.” Aside from Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Ditz, I have to admit most of my co-workers would probably agree with him.
“He has thick skin; he can take it. Extricate is closer but I think you mean expedite.” He pulls me toward the door. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
“Do you know Mr. DeVille?”
“Our paths have crossed a few times.” Grabbing his coat, he wraps it around my shoulders, as if he knew I didn’t have one. Some things never change; he’s always seemed to know just what I needed. In the parking garage, I unlock the door next to the elevator. It’s the only perk of cleaning the office building; I get to live here rent-free.
“Welcome to my home. If it’s okay with you, can we just stay here? I have coffee.”
Rafe nods and loosens his tie and unbuttons his collar. “Fine with me. Being new to the area, I’m still getting my bearings.”
Now that I’m here my exhaustion takes hold. If I were honest, I’d tell Rafe I just want to curl up with my mean old cat and take a nap before tackling the office cleaning. But I don’t want to be rude. Instead, I warn, “Watch out for Atticus, he doesn’t like company.”
My cat glares at me, swishing his tail with typical feline disdain. Rafe scoops him up and my cranky pet purrs, making a liar out of me. Typical. I flip the coffeemaker on and kick off my shoes.
“Hey there, Atticus, you’re a good boy, aren’t you?” Rafe murmurs. The cat who hates everybody gives my friend a head-butt and his purring intensifies. Has hell just frozen over?
“I’m going to get comfy. Just make yourself at home. Coffee will be ready in a few.” I place Rafe’s coat on the lone chair in my studio apartment and slip into the bathroom. It just takes me a minute to change into my oversized sweatshirt and Wonder Woman lounge pants. When I return, I find Rafe propped on my bed, channel surfing. Beside him, Atticus gives me a smug look of ownership.
“What would you like to watch?” He moves Atticus to make room for me.
“I don’t care.” I grab my coffee and crawl beside him, smiling. A sense of peace surrounds us. There’s no need to chatter, there’s no awkwardness. It’s as if we’ve never been apart. He stops flipping the channels when he comes across Miracle on 34th Street.
“I love this movie!” Rafe grins and settles in, thumping his pillow.
I grimace. “Really? It’s so corny. When the kid doesn’t believe is the only realistic part of the movie.”
He nudges me. “Not so, miracles do exist. When did you become so cynical?”
“I don’t know, maybe when I grew up?” My yawn escapes despite my effort to suppress it. “Besides, if miracles existed, our hot boss would notice me as more than his efficient assistant,” I mutter, still annoyed Mr. DeVille spent more time with the twins.
Rafe’s smile fades and his brows pull together. “Oh, trust me. He’s noticed you, just not in a good way.”
“From your lips to God’s ears.” I pat his cheek, liking the way his designer scruff feels. I yawn, again. “I’m sorry I’m not better company.” I curl into his rock-hard chest. His presence has always comforted me. For some reason, now that he’s here, I can truly relax. My heavy eyelids drift close and I whisper, “I’m glad you’re here and going to be working with me…”
“I’ll always be here for you, Jo. That’s a promise. Now just rest.” He pulls a quilt over me and I sleepily wonder if he’s going to kiss me good night…
Jo’s coffee tips perilously close to my lap and I quickly move it. Pulling her closer, I impulsively kiss her forehead. The scent of summer roses takes me back in time. When her home life was unbearable, she’d escape to the small pond surrounded by wild roses. We’d fish or talk until it was safe for her to return.
She views me as a friend. I am, but so much more. I’m her guardian angel, and she needs my protection now more than ever. Jo doesn’t realize her boss is my fallen brother. And for whatever reason, he’s taken an interest in her. I vow to defend her no matter the cost.
Jo snuggles in closer and I wrap both arms around her, wishing we could stay like this forever. I don’t move, afraid of disturbing her, despite the cramp in my neck. The lavender circles surrounding her eyes are testament to her exhaustion. She needs to slow down and take care of herself.
“I’m sorry I’m not much company,” she murmurs, her eyes still closed. “Please don’t go, I want to catch up… I need to stay awake… I have to clean the office…”
“A nap won’t hurt you.” I watch her sleep; I’ve always loved watching her sleep. But she’s not the little girl I remember. She’s a woman. Her hair spreads across her pillow and I wrap a soft chestnut curl around my finger. Her cheek rests on her folded hands and a soft smile lingers as she slips deeper into sleep.
Switching off the lamp, I place another soft kiss on her forehead. “Sweet dreams, Jo. You’re safe now. I’m here.”
She rolls onto her back, eyes still closed, and whispers, “I’m always safe with you. You’re my knight in shining armor, my Superman.” Her hand grabs mine and she turns over, pulling me with her. I’m on top of the cover spooning her delicious butt and having un-guardian-angel-like thoughts.
And there isn’t a damn place I’d rather be.
I slowly wake from the best sleep I’ve had in ages. The pillow covering my head moves and morning breath assaults my nose. Irritated, I throw the pillow and glare at Atticus. “You need to go to the vet for a teeth cleaning.” I pluck a white feather from his mouth wondering where it came from. Unfazed by my disgust, he meows incessantly until I feed His Majesty.
Starting a fresh pot of coffee, the tiny apartment seems cavernous without Rafe’s big personality. Was it just a dream? The dent in the other pillow tells me otherwise. I miss him, but I don’t have time to dwell on why. It’s already six in the morning and I still need to clean the office before heading home.
I take my coffee with me to fortify me for the overwhelming task of cleaning up after drunks. I’m used to it. This was my job growing up. At least I get paid to do it now.
The elevator opens and I rub my eyes. Am I still sleeping? The place is spotless, the Christmas decorations gone. It looks like any normal business day. How did this happen? Did Mr. DeVille feel sorry for me and hire someone to do it? I giggle, knowing that’s about as likely as a snowball in hell. We didn’t even get a holiday bonus, just that lousy party. Or did my co-workers clean up after themselves? Again, highly unlikely.
I check all the offices and the break room and find no remnants of the party. On my desk is a vase with a single pink rose and a white feather and a sticky note.
Merry Christmas, Jo.
Always believe in miracles.
Yours forever, Rafe
I should’ve known Rafe was responsible. I angrily dash my tears away. I must still be tired. Why else would I be reacting like I’m in one of those corny holiday movies he loves? Scribbling a quick thank you note I leave it on his desk. I wish I’d asked him for his number. I’d not only thank him; I’d invite him to spend Christmas with Johnny Way and me.
It took a lot of coaxing, but I finally convinced my older sibling to let me put up a few decorations. Our empty stockings hang on the mantle, and a tiny, pre-decorated tree sits next to Lynn’s picture. There are no gifts, nor are any expected. I don’t have the money, and although Johnny Way is a good brother, he isn’t demonstrative or sentimental. I doubt a gift even crossed his mind. Lynn was the shopper and the one who orchestrated our Christmas celebrations. Even when she was sick, she’d order the perfect gift from a catalogue. This is our first holiday without her and it’s going to be hard. She was more like a mom than a sister-in-law, and I’m sure my brother volunteered for these extra shifts to bury his pain. I’m finished baking the sugar cookies, and the house smells divine.
But now that the work is done, I feel lost. Being alone can be miserable. Being alone on Christmas Eve is downright depressing. However, it beats the drunken brawls from my childhood. Since I don’t have a present, I decide to write a letter to Johnny Way telling him how much he means to me. He’ll think it ridiculously mushy and watching him squirm will be present enough for me.
An hour later, I push my books aside realizing studying is a lost cause. I don’t feel like watching sappy holiday movies, and I’m not in the mood for Christmas carols. I thumb through the playlists on my phone and put it on a generic playlist.
A log shifts in the fire and I curl up on the couch wishing I still believed in Santa. People wonder why I stay so busy. Deep down, I know why. I’m running from loneliness. Feeling sorry for myself, I wish Atticus was here to snuggle. The dumb cat hid behind the refrigerator this morning, and no amount of coaxing would get him to come out. As much as I hated doing it, I had to leave him home alone with plenty of food and water, and a new, catnip mouse.
The doorbell rings, interrupting my pity party. It’s almost midnight, who could it be? My father’s in prison and my mother went to visit him. Santa? I shake my head at my own whimsical thinking. I peek through the peephole and gasp when I see the corner of a red hat with white fur.
Cautiously, I open the door.
“Ho, ho, ho!”
“That’s what he said,” I quip, quoting The Office and laughing. “What are you doing here?”
“I heard Santa was skipping your house because you don’t believe in him, so I’m taking up the slack.”
I throw myself in Rafe’s arms and his fake white beard tickles my damp cheek.
“Hey, now. No crying, it’s Christmas. This was supposed to be a happy surprise.” He tosses two packages onto the coffee table and strokes my hair.
“I can’t help it I’m overwrought with emotion,” I sniffle.
Rafe chuckles. “I think the word overcome would work better.” A loud wail sounds from the doorstep and I duck under his arm.
“Atticus!” I pull my cat from his carrier and he begrudgingly tolerates my kisses. I look up at Rafe. “How did you get him?”
“I, uh, stopped by your place to see if you’d left yet and heard him crying.”
“But how did you get in my apartment?” I rise holding my purring cat and close the door with my hip.
“The magic of Christmas.” He winks and gives Atticus a scratch behind his ears.
“Okay, I broke in with my credit card. You really need a better lock.”
I laugh. “You do know my brother’s a sheriff, right?”
“Yeah, but it’s out of his jurisdiction and I didn’t leave any fingerprints.” He peels off his hat and fake beard, sniffing. “Do I smell cookies?”
I giggle. “I guess Santa deserves some milk and cookies. I’ll bring you some.”
When I return, he’s staring into the fire, lost in thought, the poker still in his hand.
I place his milk and cookies on the coffee table and rub his back. He jumps and spins to face me.
“Wow, Santa. You’re a little on edge. You okay?”
He smiles and brushes the back of his fingers down my cheek. “I’m fine, this Santa’s glad he didn’t come down the chimney, he’d be a crispy critter.” He glances back at the fire and shudders.
We sit and watch the flickering flames and the fiber optics on the tiny tree. Rafe finishes off his cookies. He pours a bit of the milk on the empty plate for Atticus. Rafe pats his flat stomach and his eyes drift closed. Under the pretense of petting Atticus, I move the perfectly wrapped presents. The big one is squishy, the little one isn’t.
“Package pincher.” Rafe opens one eye. “Curiosity killed the cat.”
“But satisfaction brought it back,” I mutter taking the dishes into the kitchen.
I return and find Rafe wearing his Santa hat and holding the gifts.
“You look magnitudinous.”
Rafe throws his head back and in a pretty good impression of the jolly old elf, laughs long and hard. He pulls me to his lap and hands me the smaller present. “Here, open this one first.”
I shake it and pinch it, clueless to the contents. Feeling like a kid, I carefully unwrap the pretty angel paper, wanting to prolong the excitement. I pull out a Word-a-Day calendar and giggle.
He grins. “You like my magnanimous gesture? Although I’d never think of you as below me or as a rival.”
I laugh. “Yes, I do. I want to improve my vocabulary so people don’t think I’m an uneducated redneck.”
“Stop. You’re neither. You’re a hard-working, intelligent woman.” He searches my face, as if memorizing it. “And so beautiful, inside and out.”
His intensity is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. If only my boss would give me attention like this.
Rafe sighs and moves me off his lap. I feel awkward, it’s as if he read my mind, or something. At the very least, I feel like an ingrate when he hands me the large package.
“No, I can’t accept anything else. You cleaned the office and drove up here, and I’ll use the calendar…” My voice trails off as I stare at the gift. I want it, despite my protests. But I feel guilty, not having anything to give him in return.
“Just open it. It isn’t like I bought you a car or anything.”
Tempted, I squeeze the squishy package.
“Go on,” he encourages.
I slit the tape, once again savoring the experience. I gasp, pulling out the softest, prettiest pink sweater I’ve ever seen. “Thank you, I love it.” I rub it across my cheek and smile.
“I’m glad. It’s a color I always associate with you.”
I smile at my dearest friend. “You have no idea how happy I am you’re here. I was dreading Christmas, but you’ve made it special.” I take his hand in mine. “I feel bad not having anything to give you in return.”
Rafe stands and pulls me to my feet. “You’re my gift, Jo. Your friendship means more to me than you’ll ever know. And I promise, I’ll never take it for granted again. Having you back in my life makes even an ordinary day feel like Christmas.”
Before I can respond, he places a finger over my lips. “Dance with me,” he whispers.
I step into his arms and we slow dance in front of the fire to a song about words not being necessary. It’s perfect. We’ve always been in sync, even in silence, even when not together.
The calendar is useful, the sweater beautiful. But he’s right. The miracle of Christmas is reconnecting with someone you love.
As a friend…
© Nancee Cain
Forbidden love is hell…
Confident and quirky, Jo Sanford thinks her boss is God’s gift to women–and she couldn’t be further from the truth. Devilishly handsome, Luc DeVille will stop at nothing to lure his administrative assistant right into his arms–and bed.
Over Rafe Goodman’s dead body…
Rafe, Jo’s best friend, refuses to sit by and watch as Luc tries to win the heart of the woman he’s always protected. After all, Rafe is her guardian angel. Suddenly, Jo’s caught in the middle of a battle between good and evil. But the closer she gets to the fire, the hotter it burns. Now, Jo’s going to learn that when love battles lust, Heaven and Hell collide.
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