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When Lucy Fleming had been asked to photograph a corporate Christmas event, she'd envisioned tipsy assistants perched on the knees of grabby executives. Too much eggnog, naked backsides hitting the glass-topped copier, somebody throwing up in a desk drawer, hanky-panky in the janitor's closetin short, a typical highend work party where people forgot they were professionals and played teenager-at-the-frat-party, building memories and reputations that would take an entire year to live down.
She'd been wrong. Completely wrong.
Elite Construction, who'd hired her a few days ago when their previous photographer had bailed on them, had chosen to go a different, and much more wholesome, route. They were hosting an afternoon event, a family party for all of their employees as well as important clients, and whoever they cared to bring alongincluding small children. Catered food, from caviar to corn dogs, appealed to every palate. There were presents beneath a huge tree, pretty decorations, music filled with jingling bells and lots of smiles. It was almost enough to give a non-Christmas person like herself a little holiday tingle.
Oh. Except for the fact that she was working with a very cranky Kris Kringle.
"If they think I'm staying late, they can bite me. I got paid for three hours, not a minute more."
"We're almost done," she told the costumed man, whose bowlfull-of-jelly middle appeared homemade.
If only his nature were as true-to-character as his appearance. Though, she had to admit, right at this particular moment, his foul mood was understandable. He'd had to go dry his pants under a hand-dryer in the men's room after one boy had gotten so excited he'd peed himself. And Santa.
To be fair, Santa wasn't the only fraud around here this afternoon. Her own costume didn't exactly suit her personality, either. She felt like an idiot in the old elf getup, a leftover from her college days. But the kids loved it. And a happy, relaxed kid made for an easy-to-shoot kid and great pictures.
All in all, she'd have to say this event had been a great success. Both for Elite Constructionwhose employees had to be among the happiest in the city todayand for herself. Since moving back to Chicago from New York ten months ago, she'd been trying to build her business up to the level of success she'd had back east. Things were getting bettermuchbut a quick infusion of cash for an easy afternoon's work definitely helped.
Finally, after the last child in line had been seen to, Lucy eyed the chubby man in red. "I think that's about it." She glanced at a clock on the wall. "Five minutes to spare."
"Damn good thing," he said. "God, I hate kids."
Lucy's mouth fell open; she couldn't help gawking. "Then why on earth do you do this?"
He pointed toward himselfhis white hair, full beard, big belly. "What else am I gonna do, play the Easter bunny?"
Not unless he wanted to terrify every child on earth into swearing off candy. "Bet you can land a part in the stage version of The Nightmare Before Christmas'" she mumbled. He sure looked like the Oogie Boogie man. And was about as friendly.
Lucy turned to the children lingering around the edges of the area that had been set up as "Santa's Workshop"complete with fluffy fake snow, a throne and stuffed reindeer. Whoever had decorated for this party had really done a fantastic job. These kids had already had their turn on the big guy's lap, but were still crowded around the crotchety St. Nick. "It's time for Santa to get back to his workshop so he can finish getting ready for his big sleigh ride tomorrow night," she announced. "Santa, do you want to say anything before you leave?"
Father Friggin' Christmas grimaced and brushed cookie crumbs off his lap as he rose. "Be good or you won't get nothin'," he told them, adding a belly laugh to try to take the sting out of the words. His feigned heartiness fooled everyone under the age of ten, but certainly none of the adults. Waddling through the crowd toward the elevator, he didn't stop to pat one youngster on the head, or tickle a single chin.
For her part, Lucy found the little ones in their party clothes and patent leather shoes irresistible. Sweet, happy, so filled with life and laughter and excitement. There was one boy who was so photogenic he ought to be on the cover of a magazine, and she was dying to talk to his parents about a formal sitting.
You've come a long way, baby.
A very long way. To think she'd once vowed to never take a Santa photo, equating kid portraiture with one of Dante's circles of hell.
When she'd first set her sites on photography for her future, she'd argued with her brother over leaving Chicago to go to NYU to study. Then they'd argued when she'd decided to go from there to Europe, insisting she didn't want to take baby's-first-haircut pictures, dreaming instead of high fashion. Models and travel and exotic locations and French Vogue magazine covers.
She'd done all of that. Well, except for the magazine cover, though one of her shots had landed in a fashion week edition.
Yet, when all was said and done, she'd ended up finding her niche, her innermost talent and her satisfaction, back in the good old U.S. of A., working with children. It was, in this business, her claim to fame. Frankly, she was damn good at it. She'd made a name for herself in New York, her signature being the use of one color image in black and white shots. A toy, a piece of candy, a shirt or bandanna something bright and sassy that demanded attention. Just like her photographs did.
Now she needed to drum up the same level of business in Chicagowhich, despite her having been gone for so many years, was still her hometown. No, she'd never imagined moving back here, but when her brother, Sam, had gone through a messy divorce and seemed so lonely, she'd decided family came before anything else. She was all he had, and vice versa. So she'd returned.
Talk about changing your plans. Who'd have imagined it? Certainly not Lucy. And not her best friend from college, Kate, who still laughed about both her change in career path and in residence. Kate remembered Lucy's home-and-kids-are-boring stance in the old days.
Kate. She needed to give the other woman a call. Lucy hadn't seen her friend since she'd moved, though she and Kate kept in touch with frequent calls. Kate's two children were the ones who'd really opened her mind to the wondrous possibilities of tiny faces and hands and smiles, and she wanted to make sure their Christmas presents had arrived in time.
Those giftsand working this party in the ridiculous getupwere about the sum total of her Christmas activities this year. Her brother had to work the whole weekend, cops not getting every holiday off the way civilians did. And though she was now back near the Chicago suburb where she'd grown up, she no longer had any close friends here who might have invited her over.
Not that she would have gone. Lucy avoided Christmas like the plague, and had for years. She'd just as soon pretend the holiday wasn't happening.
Most people would probably think that pathetic; Lucy found it a relief. Especially since the weatherman was saying a storm to rival the one at the start of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was on the way. It was supposed to roll in tonight and shut down the city with a couple of feet of the white stuff by Christmas morning. Sounded like an excellent time to be locked in her warm apartment with her Kindle and a bunch of chocolate and wine. Or chocolate wineher new addiction.
Eyeing the gray sky through the expansive wall of windows, she began to pack up her gear. The party was winding down, only a dozen or so people remaining on this floor, which had been transformed from cubicles and meeting rooms to a holiday funland. She smiled at those nearest to her, then, seeing the glances at her silly hat, reached up to tug it off her head.
Before she could do it, however, she heard a voice. A deep, male voicesmooth and sexy, and so not Santa's.
"I hear that you did a terrific job."
Lucy didn't respond, letting her brain process what she was hearing. Her whole body had stiffened, the hairs on the back of her neck standing up, her skin tightening into tiny goose bumps. Because that voice sounded familiar. Impossibly familiar.
It can't be.
"It sounds like the kids had a great time."
Unable to stop herself, she began to turn around, wondering if her earsand all her other senseswere deceiving her. After all, six years was a long time, the mind could play tricks. What were the odds that she'd bump into him here? And today of all days. December 23. Six years exactly. Was that really possible?
One lookand the accompanying frantic thudding of her heartand she knew her ears and brain were working just fine. Because it was him. Ross Marshall.
"Oh, my God," he whispered, shocked, frozen, staring as intently as she was. "Lucy?"
She nodded slowly, not taking her eyes off him, wondering why the years had made him even more attractive than ever. It didn't seem fair, or just. Not when she'd spent the past six years thinking he must have started losing that thick, golden-brown hair, or added a spare tire to that trim, muscular form or lost some of the sparkle from those green eyes.
The man was gorgeous. Truly, without-a-doubt, mouthwateringly handsome, and every bit as hot as he'd been the first time she'd laid eyes on him. But he wasn't that young, lean, hungry-looking guy anymore. Now he was all fully realized, powerful, strongand devastatingly attractiveman.
She'd been twenty-two when they met, he two years older. And during the brief time they'd spent together, Ross had blown away all her preconceived notions of who she was, what she wanted and what she would do when the right guy came along.
He'd been her first lover.
They'd shared an amazing holiday season. But after that one Christmas, they had never seen each other again. Until now.
Well, doesn't this just suck?
"Hello, Ross," she murmured, wondering when her life had become a comedy movie. Because wasn't this always the way those things opened? The plucky, un-lucky-in-love heroine coming face-to-face with the one guy she'd never been able to forget while dressed in a ridiculous costume? It was right out of central casting 101what else could she be wearing other than a short green dress with bells and holly on the collar, red-and-white striped hose, pointy-toed shoes and the dippy green hat with the droopy feather? The only thing that could make the scene more perfect was if she'd been draped across the grouchy Santa's lap, trying to evade his gropey hands, when the handsome hero came up to rescue her.
He did rescue you once. Big time.
Her heart twisted, as it always did when she thought about that The way Ross had been there for her in what could have been a horrible moment. Whatever had happened laterhowever much she resented him nowshe would never forget that he'd been there to keep her from getting hurt.
But that had been a long time ago. She was no longer that girl and she no longer needed any man's rescue.
"It's really you," he murmured.
"In the flesh."
"I can't believe it."
"That makes two of us," she admitted.
Her brain scrambled to find more words, to form thoughts or sentences. But she just couldn't. If she'd woken up this morning to find her bed had floated up into the sky on a giant helium balloon, she couldn't have been more surprised than she was right now.
Or more disturbed.
Because she wasn't supposed to see him again. Wasn't supposed to care again. Wasn't supposed to even think of getting hurt by him again.
She'd played this scene once, and at exactly this time of year. No way was she ready for a repeat.
She knew all that, knew it down to her soul. So why, oh why, was her heart singing? Crazy expression that, but it was true. There was music in her head and brightness in her eyes and a smile fought to emerge on her lips.
Because it was Ross. The guy she'd met exactly six years ago today. The man she'd fallen crazy in love with.