Natalie Harris knew exactly what Santa could bring her this year. Jake Lyons. Wrapped with a red bow—
And nothing else. No need for a stocking or hell, so much as a piece of tissue paper. Boxers—or briefs—all completely optional.
If she woke up December 25th and found Jake beside the tiny tabletop tree in her breadbox-size apartment in Boston, she’d grab him by that bow, haul him off to her bedroom and make sure he made a few of her bells jingle. Many, many times over.
Blame it on hormones. That peppermint mocha latte she’d bought at Starbucks this morning. The fact that he’d worn the blue shirt that set off his eyes. There was just something…different about Jake today, something that had taken her interest in him from bemused curiosity to full-out cubicle-born fantasy.
“What did he do after that?”
The little voice reminded her she wasn’t supposed to be staring at the man five feet away. She was supposed to be reading Bear’s Christmas Wish and focusing on G-rated material instead of the NC-17 thoughts of a woman who had clearly gone way too long without a little something under her tree.
Natalie cleared her throat and refocused her attention on the book, dipping her head to read the words from above the out-turned pages. “And then, the bear cuddled up with the boy and went to sleep, all snug in a bed. The very type of bed he had dreamed about when he’d been sitting in McGuffy’s Toy Shop, waiting for someone just like this boy to take him home. The bear’s Christmas wish had come true. He had someone to love and someone who loved him in return.” Natalie closed the book, laid it across her lap and faced the circle of children at her feet. “The end.”
The book might be finished, but her hormones sure weren’t. Every single one of them was zeroed in on Jake, like some kind of estrogen sonar. He had one hip against a scarred wooden desk, his intent blue eyes watching her read to the children of Our Hope Shelter. His dark hair was a bit longer than he usually kept it, which made one lock sweep across his brow. Beneath the well-pressed, slightly starched shirt lurked a pair of six-pack abs and a trim, tight waist.
In other words, one manly slice of heaven.
She and Jake had been coming to the shelter in Boston for four months, always on the third Wednesday at eleven. While Natalie hurried to be with the children, Jake usually stayed away from the room’s pandemonium, opting for the director’s office. There, he lent a hand in balancing the shelter’s books, saving them the cost of a CPA, and often made a corporate donation while he waited for Natalie to finish story time. But today—of all days—he’d followed Natalie into the vast, open “family” room of the shelter.
Making her nervous as hell and sending her thoughts down Under the Sheets Lane.
“Didn’t the bear have a name?” asked David, who was sitting at her feet, as close as he could get without actually climbing in her lap. David Wilkins had latched onto her from the very first day. His was a story much like that of the others in the room—raised in a single-parent home that had slipped through the cracks of government support programs and ended up here, after spending an entire season living out of a car. His dark brown eyes were sharp, attentive, yet tinged with a weariness that seemed sadly very grown up. Natalie wanted to reach out, tug him into her arms and stuff him full of cookies.
“The author didn’t name the bear in the story,” Natalie said, smiling down at David. “So you can make up your own name.”
Ariana popped her thumb out of her mouth. “Let’s call him Teddy!”
“No, Buster!” piped up Jacob. The towheaded five-year-old had read every book in the popular Arthur series at least three times and thought everyone in the world should be named after the aardvark’s best bunny friend.
A name debate sprung up among the two dozen children, rising in volume with every idea. Natalie tried to restore order, looking around hopefully for the shelter’s assistant director, who usually did crowd control. But there was no sign of Kitty Planter, which meant she’d probably taken advantage of story hour to grab a few minutes of peace or to check in on the job hunting class most of the parents were attending in another room. “Children,” Natalie called to the scattering, chatty bunch. “If you don’t sit down, I can’t read you another story.”
They didn’t listen. Filled with cabin fever from the freezing December weather, they’d been antsy the whole story hour. Natalie’s voice had about as much impact as a gnat trying to hold back a herd of elephants. Plus, they all knew Natalie was a complete pushover who’d do encore readings until the director kicked her out. “Children, I—“
Jake pushed off from the desk and crossed the room. He had the walk of a man who had the world at his fingertips—but the confidence not to flaunt it. Natalie’s eyes met his, and for a second, she forgot to breathe.
“Want some help?” he asked.
“Sh-sh-sh…sure.” Oh hell, there she went again. Whenever she got near a man, particularly one who gave goosebumps a whole ‘nother meaning, she stuttered. Not just stumbling over a couple of words, but full out Porky Pig babble.
It had been that way since she’d been a kid. Only then, she’d stuttered with everyone and everything. A couple dozen years of speech therapy and she’d learned coping techniques. They’d always worked—
Until she got around Jake.
But if Jake noticed, he didn’t show it. Instead, he smiled, then pivoted toward the children. At six-foot-two, he towered over them, like Gulliver in the land of Lilliputians. “Everyone who sits quietly and listens to Miss Harris read another story,” Jake said, his deep voice automatically commanding attention, “gets a dollar.”
En masse, the group scrambled back onto their carpet squares, hands clasped, faces upturned, waiting and expectant.
“You’re p-p-paying them to be g-g-good?” Natalie whispered. Or rather, jerked out like a complete social moron.
If Jake noticed her vocal ineptitude, he didn’t mention it. “Money talks a hel—“ he cut off the curse before the curious ears around them heard it, “a whole lot louder than words.”
“Your audience awaits, Ms. Harris,” he said, sweeping a hand toward the children. Then he smiled at her.
Holy cow. Natalie had thought he looked sexy in a blue shirt. Found him mesmerizing when he stood across the room and watched her. But when he smiled…
The unnamed bear wasn’t the only one dreaming of a bed tonight. Only her thoughts involved a whole lot more than cuddling.
As Jake dispensed the promised George Washingtons, Natalie moved toward the chair, about to sit down with another book from the stack on the table, when Bobby tugged at her sleeve. “We want him to read to us.” He pointed at Jake.
“I really think Miss Harris is a better choice.” Jake gestured toward her.
If she hadn’t known better, Natalie would have sworn Jake looked nervous. But Jake never got flustered, never lost his cool, no matter what idiot decision his CEO cousin had made that day at the accounting firm where she worked. “Here,” she said, pressing a book into his hands. “You’ll do fine. They’re an easy audience to please.”
“I, ah, don’t do well with kids,” he said, leaning over to whisper in her ear.
“What’s to do? You read, you pull a few Sh-sh-shakespearean stunts here and there, and t-t-toss everyone a c-c-candy cane when you’re done. Easy as ch-ch-cherry pie.”
He grinned. “I don’t bake either.”
“Well, maybe someday, I’ll make you dessert.” She’d meant it as a joke, one of those offhand comments thrown into a conversation, but the promise inherent in the words held innuendo. Anticipation.
And also the first words she’d spoken that hadn’t come out sounding like they’d been through a shredder.
Every time she got near Jake, she wanted to take the thoughts in her brain and put them into action, to actually act as aggressive as she felt. But the minute she opened her mouth and started stuttering like a car with a bad battery, her self-confidence went running.