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If only my love life were as perfect as Selfridges at Christmas.
Cassie Fitzgerald let out a wistful sigh as she gazed at the explosion of festive bling in the iconic London store's window display. The Sugar Plum Fairy sparkled flirtatiously on the shoulder of a hunky mannequin dressed in a dinner suit, silver snowflake lights making her tiny wings twinkle. Cassie's heart lifted. Selfridges' Christmas window dressing never let you down. It always captured the hope and expectation of the season of goodwill so beautifully. And okay, maybe her love life wasn't perfectin fact, it was non-existentbut that was still a big improvement on last year.
A frown creased Cassie's brow as she recalled the Christmas wish she'd made the year before while standing in front of Selfridgesinvolving Lance, her boyfriend of three years, and a proposal of marriage.
She wrinkled her nose in disgust, the frozen air making it tingle, as her mind conjured up the image of Lance and Tracy McGellan getting up close and pornographic on the sofa in Cassie's flat a month after Valentine's Day. A month after Cassie had accepted that wished-for proposal.
Colour hit her cheeks as she remembered her shock and disbelief, swiftly followed by the shame of her own idiocy.
What on earth had possessed her to agree to marry a dead-beat like Lance?
As Christmas wishes went, it was one of her worst. Right up there with wishing for a pair of inline skates when she was eightwhich had resulted in a broken wrist and four hours in Accident and Emergency on Christmas Day. Marriage to Lance would have been worse, but in her typically romantic fashion she'd overlooked all his shortcomings, determined to convince herself that he was The One.
Cassie hunched her shoulders against the brisk winter wind. From now on she was going to stop looking at life through rose-tinted glasses because all it did was blind her to reality. And she wasn't making a Christmas wish this year, because it might come true.
It would be a shame not to have anyone to wake up with this Christmas morningand she'd been in a funk about it for days. She adored bounding out of bed, brewing a pot of spiced apple tea and then savouring the presents artfully arranged under the tree. Having to do all that alone wasn't quite the same.
But as her best friend Nessa had pointed out, Cassie was better off doing it alone than with Lance the Loser. Cassie huddled in her coat. Absorbing the bright sparkle of Sugar Plum and her beau, she let the thought of her lucky escape from Lance strengthen her resolve.
'What you need is a candy manto give your girly bits a wake-up call. Then you wouldn't need another deadbeat boyfriend.'
Cassie's lips edged up as she recalled Nessa's use-him-then-lose-him advice when they'd chatted on the phone that morning. Sometimes she really wished she could be as pragmatic about sex as Nessa. If she could just take sex a little less seriously, maybe she could have some fun without getting tangled up with creeps like Lance.
Bidding goodbye to Sugar Plum, Cassie jostled her way to Bond Street tube. Frantic shoppers herded in and out of the shops along Oxford Street on a mission to buy all those essential last-minute items that would make their Christmas complete. Stopping at the kerb as the traffic barrelled past on one of the cross streets, Cassie squeezed her eyes shut and fantasised about her candy man. Hot, hunky and devoted to making her feel fabulous, he would be magically gone by the New Yearso she'd never have to spend time picking his socks up off the bathroom floor, or washing the dirty dishes he left piled in the sink, or persuading herself she was in love with him.
Her erogenous zones zinged pleasantly for the first time in months.
She opened her eyes as the roar of a car engine interrupted the warm, fuzzy glow. Then shrieked as a wall of freezing water slammed into her. The elderly gentleman next to her muttered, 'Damn inconsiderate,' as a puddle the size of the Atlantic sluiced back into the gutter, and a sleek black car sped past.
Cassie gasped. The warm, fuzzy glow replaced by ice-cold shock. 'What the !'
The driver hadn't even stopped. What a prize jerk.
Flinging her bag over her shoulder, she turned to glare at the vehicle, which had braked at the crossing ten feet away. Her fingers curled into tight fists at her sides.
Normally, she would have let the matter pass. Normally, she would have chalked the drenching up to bad luck and assumed the driver hadn't meant to splash her. But as she stood there, the other shoppers edging past her and gawping at the huge wet patch on her favourite coat as if she had a contagious disease, she felt something new and liberating surging up her torso.
Whether he'd meant to do it or not, she was soaked. And she wasn't going to just stand by and take whatever life had to throw at her any more.
Dodging through the crowd, she drew level and rapped on the passenger window. 'Hey, Ebenezer.'
The tinted glass slid down with an electric hum. She blinked, the zing tingling back to life as a man peered out from the shadows on the driver's side. Dark hair swept back from a broodingly handsome face accented by a strong jaw and hollow, raw-boned cheeks. She felt the odd jolt of recognition as the scent of new leather wafted out of the car. Did she know him?
'What's the problem?' he demanded.
Clammy water dripped down inside Cassie's boots and kick-started her tongueand her indignation.
'You're the problem. Look what you did to me.' She held up her arms to show him the extent of the damage, ruthlessly silencing the zing. He might have a striking face, but his manners sucked.
He swore softly. 'Are you sure that was me?'
The blare of a car horn had Cassie glancing at the lights. Green. 'Of course, I'm sure.'
The horn blared again. Longer and angrier this time.
'I can't stop here.' He straightened back into the shadows and Cassie saw his hand grasp the gear shift.
No way, pal. You are not driving off and leaving me in a puddle on the pavement.
Yanking the heavy door open, she launched herself into the passenger seat.
'Hey!' he said as she slammed the door behind her. 'What the hell do you?'
'Just drive, Sir Galahad.' She pinned him with her best disgusted look. 'We can discuss your crummy behaviour when you find somewhere to stop.'
His dark brows drew down, the piercing emerald of his irises glittering with annoyance.
'Fine.' He slapped up the indicator, shifted into First. 'But don't drip on the upholstery. This is a rental.'
The car purred to life, and a blast of heat wrapped around Cassie, engulfing her in the subtle aroma of man and leatherand wet velvet. Her heart careered into her throat as the flicker of Selfridges' fairy lights disappeared from her peripheral visionand the surge of adrenaline that had propelled her into the car smacked head first into her survival instinct.
She was sitting in a complete stranger's car being driven to who knew wherewhich probably rated a perfect ten on the 'too stupid to live' scale.
'Actually, forget it.' She grasped the door handle.
The driver pulled to a stop at a loading bay. 'So it wasn't me after all.'
Cassie's fingers stilled on the handle at the accusatory tone and her common sense dissolved in a haze of outrage. 'It was definitely you.' She glared at him over the gear shift. 'Don't you know it's Christmas? Show a bit of respect for the season and stop being such a jerk.'
Typical. When Cassie Fitzgerald is on the hunt for a candy man, what does she get? A candy man with a crappy attitude.
Jacob Ryan cranked up the handbrake, slung his arm over the steering wheel and stared at the furious pixie in his passenger seat whose wide violet eyes were shooting daggers at him.
How the hell did I end up with Santa's insane little helper in my car?
As if it weren't bad enough that Helen had manoeuvred him into accepting an invitation to her 'little soiree' tonight, now he had a mad woman in his rented Mercedes. A mad woman who was dripping all over the custom-finished leather upholstery.
He'd never been a fan of the season to be jolly, but this was getting ridiculous.
The sight of the filthy splatter on her coat, though, had the tiniest prickle of guilt surfacing. The car had hit a rut in the road.
Hoisting his butt off the seat, he tugged his wallet out of his back pocket. Okay, maybe he had been the culprit. He'd been so aggravated by Helen's petulant demands, he hadn't been paying attention.
'How much?' he asked. A hundred ought to cover it.
Her full Cupid's bow mouth flattened into a grim line and the daggers sharpened. 'I don't want your money,' she announced. 'That's not what this is about.'
He counted five crisp twenty-pound notes out of his wallet and presented them to her. 'Here you go. Merry Christmas.'
She gave the money a cursory glance, and the line of her lips twisted into a sneer. 'I told you. I don't want your money, Ebenezer.'
The sarcastic name grated, but then she tightened her arms under her breasts, and his gaze dippeddistracted by the creamy flesh exposed by the wide V in the lapels of her coat.
Hell, is she naked under that thing?
The wayward thought came out of nowhere, and sent a blast of heat somewhere he definitely didn't need it.
'What I want is an apology,' she demanded.
He tore his eyes away from her breasts. 'Huh?'
'An apology? You do know what that is, right?' she said, as if he had an IQ in single figures.
He shook his head, struggling to stem the immature fantasy. Of course she wasn't naked under the coat. Not unless she was a lap dancer. And he doubted that. Given her big doe eyes and the helping of Christmas whimsy she'd dealt him, the picture of her getting sweaty tenners folded into a G-string didn't fit, despite that eye-popping cleavage.
He stuffed the money back into the wallet and dumped it on the dash.
'I apologise,' he said curtly, deciding to humour her.
He didn't usually bother with apologies. Especially to women. Because he'd discovered from experience they didn't count for much. But these were extenuating circumstances. He needed to get her out of the car before that glimpse of cleavage melted the rest of his brain cells and he did something really daft. Like hitting on a crazy lady.
'That's it? That's the best you can do?' She twisted in her seatall the better to glare at him, he suspectedbut the movement made her breasts press against the confines of her coat and threaten to spill out. His mouth went dry.
'I'm going to have to spend an hour on the tube,' she ranted. 'Then get hypothermia walking across the park. And you can't come up with a better'
'Look, Pollyanna,' he interrupted, the heat tying his gut in knots as he breathed in a lungful of her scent. Cinnamon and cloves and orange. 'I've offered you money and you don't want it,' he ranted right back when she remained silent. 'I apologised and you don't want that, either. Short of sawing off my right arm and gift-wrapping it I don't know what else I'm supposed to do to make amends.'
Her mouth closed and her delicately arched eyebrows launched up her forehead into the soft brown curls that haloed around her head.
That had certainly shut her up. Although he wasn't quite sure what he'd said that had put the shell-shocked look on her face. The unusual colour of her eyes had darkened to a vivid turquoise and all the pigment had leached out of her cheeks.
She covered her mouth with her fingers. 'Jace the Ace.'
The words were muffled, but distinctive enough to make him tense. 'How do you know my name?' he asked, although no one had called him by that particular nickname for fourteen years. Not since he'd been kicked out of school when he was seventeen. The minute the thought registered, another more disturbing one hit himand the insistent throbbing in his groin increased.
Damn it. That had to be it. What other explanation was there for his instant response to her?
She hadn't replied, so he forced himself to ask the obvious next question.
'Have I slept with you?'