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"Our family photo is scheduled for Thursday afternoon, so I'll need you at the house by twelve at the latest."
Monica Newell sat at her big mahogany desk in her office on the thirty-seventh floor of Chicago's Willis Tower listening to her mother go over the holiday plans.
"Remember, we're all wearing green this year," her mother went on. "You got the color swatch I sent, right?"
"Yes, it came in the mail last week."
"Make sure you find the right shade." Her mother added hopefully, "Or you could let me pick out a sweater for you. Really, that would be so much easier."
"I can pick out my own sweater," Monica affirmed, though it was likely pointless. She suspected her mother had already bought the perfect green sweater for the family photo and had it on hand in case whatever Monica showed up with was deemed unsuitable. Perfection was Phyllis Newell's way. Monica may have earned the position of chief financial officer for one of Chicago's oldest insurance agencies, but that title held no rank when pitted against the Newell family matriarch.
"If you must," Phyllis said through a sigh. "Just make sure you don't buy a V-neck. You know how unflattering they look on you."
Monica smiled tightly. "Of course."
She made notes as her mother continued to jot off the holiday schedulefive days of meticulously arranged events that would keep the entire family busy through the holidays. The way Phyllis treated the Christmas season one would think the earth would implode if a single toast was so much as missed. Everything had to go a certain way and everyone had to be there. If notwell, up to this point, no one had dared to find out what would happen.
"On Friday we have to move up Christmas Eve brunch an hour because your father has a call to China he apparently can't get out of," Phyllis went on, the disappointment clear in her tone. "And did I tell you that Michael didn't get that big account he's been working on?"
"No, I hadn't heard."
Monica's brother owned a commercial real estate firm in Manhattan and had been spending the past six months trying to nail down a sales contract with a large downtown developer.
"Be a dear and don't mention it," Phyllis said. "It's a sensitive subject and the holidays are a time for cheer." "I won't."
As her mother went on Monica eyed the crystal clock on her desk. The company Christmas party had started almost an hour ago. By now, even John Stryker would be there taking inventory of the staff. She didn't want to be the only executive missing from the room. John felt company functions played an important role in fostering teamwork at Stryker & Associates. Employees bowing outparticularly anyone on his senior leadership teamwere highly frowned upon.
"So you'll be flying into LaGuardia when?" Phyllis asked.
"I'm hoping for Wednesday night, but it might be Thursday morning."
"You should come in Wednesday. I'd hate to have you looking harried for the photo after trying to rush here Thursday morning, and you never know what traffic could be like on 95."
"I'll do my best."
She listened patiently as her mother went over the last few details then promised to call back next week to further finalize the plans, and after the two women shared goodbyes, Monica was done for the day, finally able to head upstairs to the company's holiday party.
Quickly, she touched up her makeup and made her way to the makeshift ballroom, pleased to see the party was just starting. People were still getting their food and eating, which meant she hadn't missed anything important. Breathing a sigh of relief, she stepped into the room, tossing off a few casual greetings to her associates and making her presence known.
Her assistant, Laura, slid up beside her. "You made it. I was about to come up and see if you needed a hand."
"I had to tie up some loose ends, but I think I'm done for the day."
"Good. Come eat."
Laura led her to the buffet table, where the two women picked up plates and surveyed the selections.
Laura pointed to various items. "Get some of Leonora's lumpia before it goes. They're delicious. The meatballs are sweet and sour, and that custard-looking thing is an egg dish Carol Peterson brought in."
Monica crinkled her nose. "What's in it?"
"Vegetables and some kind of meat. Pork, maybe. I'm not sure, but people have said it's good."
Monica picked up a lumpia but decided to pass on the custard. Instead, she searched the table for something more recognizable when her eyes zeroed in on a familiar white box with a signature LB logo on top.
She gasped. "Are those petits fours from Lady Baltimore?"
She opened the lid and the little chocolate delights winked back.
"Nick Castle brought those."
Nick, you prince.
She set one on her plate, bit her lip and dared to take one more. In her world, chocolate was a precious gem and Lady Baltimore petits fours were the Hope Diamond. Her opinion of the buffet table was definitely perking up.
She picked through the rest of the buffet then spent the next half hour mingling with the staff and chatting with her managers. By the time Monica finished eating and swallowing down a glass of white wine, she found herself alone by the windows reflecting on this past week of deadlines and snowstorms and the rush to scramble together preliminary year-end reports she'd be spending her weekend reviewing. It had been a stressful week. But it had sure started out well, hadn't it?
A faint smile curved her lips as she recalled her trip to Florida and the Chicago snowstorm that had left her stranded at JAX and spending the night in an airport hotel.
In the arms of the sexy cowboy she'd met only hours before.
She tingled just thinking about him, not only from the memory of how he'd masterfully pleasured her body, but also by the sheer lasciviousness of having a one-night stand with a virtual stranger. Her mother would faint at the notion, not to mention the bulk of her staff, most of whom looked up to her as the model of ultraprofessionalism.
Up until Monday night, Monica hadn't been the type to engage in such a sexual trystwith a common Texas ranch hand, no less! She'd fit sex and relationships very neatly into her life much like she organized her closets and set aside time for yoga. Men had always been carefully selected from an assortment of business associates and partners in the industry. And while each and every one of them had been logical and well-suited, none had stirred the coals like the Stetson-wearing stranger she'd met in the airport lounge.
It had been such a primal night of lust, unearthing passion so hot it had literally scared her into fleeing in the wee hours of the morning, leaving only a terse note of thanks for the good time.
It was shameless, really. She would never treat an acquaintance so dismissively, much less a man she'd made love to, but she'd panicked. She'd never had stranger sex before, had no idea how to handle the morning after, so instead of tackling the situation with the same confident professionalism she held in the boardroom, she'd ducked out like a frightened teen, too awkward and embarrassed to do anything more.
But if she had, if maybe she'd walked away with a phone number or a way to get back in touch, she might have reserved the chance to meet up with her mystery cowboy again. Instead, her secret lover would have to remain a most delectable memory.
And, oh, what a memory.
"Are you enjoying the party?"
Monica pulled her thoughts to the present and looked up at the man in the red silk Santa suit.
"I am, thank you," she replied, raising a brow as she noted his appearance. He was an interesting rendition of Santa Claus, for sure, presumably hired by Jeannie as entertainment for the party.
The man moved his gaze over the room. "It's quite a festive night with all the lovely decorations, glorious food and sparkling music. Yet you look as though you're hundreds of miles away."
She crooked her mouth into a half smile. "Yes, I suppose for a moment I was."
He touched a hand to his full white beard. "Ah, to be many places at once. It's a common wish during the holidays." He handed her a candy cane, one of those cheap miniature ones sealed in a cellophane wrapper, and asked, "And if you could be anywhere this Christmas, where would you be?"
She considered all her choicesat home curled up on her couch with a cozy fire and a good book, back in Connecticut with her family, or maybe sharing a girls' weekend with her good friend Connie up in Ontario. But when she opened her mouth, the place most prominently on her mind tumbled from her lips.
"I'd love to be back in Florida."
He placed his palms to his fat belly and let out a roll of jolly laughter, just like every Santa in the movies. "Ah, yes, Florida. The state with plenty of warm days and even warmer nights, eh?"
Her eyes widened. Had she heard him right? It was hard to tell over the music, but the knowing gleam in those bright blue eyes said she hadn't misunderstood.
"I'm afraid there's no room in my sleigh for travelers," he went on. "I can't take you to Florida, but I might be able to bring a little of Florida here to you."
He winked then glanced out the window, and she followed his gaze, half expecting the dark night sky to open up to bright sunshine while rows of fluffy palm trees sprouted along Lake Michigan. He was a strange man and it was an even stranger comment, passing between them like a shared secret as if somehow this odd rental agency hire knew exactly what she'd been doing Monday night. But that was impossible. No one knew about the affair. She hadn't told her closest friend, much less anyone at the office.
She shook her head and brushed it off, feeling certain it was the culmination of a hectic week getting the best of her. Besides, she'd just been thinking about her Texan lover. It would be natural to put innuendo into anything the gentleman said. She assured herself it meant nothing, and that settled her nerves until she turned back to find him gone.
She darted her eyes around the room but he was nowhere. It was as if he'd disappeared. If it weren't for the candy cane still in her hand, she'd think the whole encounter had been a figment of her imagination, brought on by her tired state or maybe a bit of bad meat from that potluck buffet. But there it was in her hand, proof that the odd conversation truly happened.
Just then, the music stopped and John Stryker took the stage to begin his annual year-end speech, and as he spoke, her mind wandered to the jolly Santa's words.
Warm days and even warmer nights?
She might have passed it off as an innocuous comment if it hadn't been for the "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" look in his eyes. But how could anyone have possibly known what she'd done?
"I don't know about you, but every day that I have to shovel snow makes me wish I had a shorter driveway," John said from the stage, though she only half heard him, distracted by what was on her mind. It wasn't until he added, "Monica got stuck in Florida, the poor thing," that she glanced up startled and embarrassed as though, like the Santa, everyone in the room could read her thoughts and knew exactly what she'd done on her trip.
"They'd closed O'Hare," she stuttered, having no idea why she felt the need to defend herself. Nonetheless, the shrill in her voice drew half the room's attention to her, and now many were still staring at her, all wide-eyed and flustered, surely wondering if she'd lost her mind.
This was ridiculous. Her conversation with that silly Santa had set her off and now she was acting like a fool. As casually as possible, she ducked out of the party and down the hall to the bathroom, where she took a long breath and dabbed cold water on her face.
It was childish, carrying on like this over a one-night stand. So she'd had sex with a stranger. Women did it every day. And as a strong, successful executive in the business world, shouldn't she be able to enjoy a spicy night of pleasure without being overcome with guilt and fearing public scandal?
Okay, so maybe hot sweaty sex wasn't normally her style. Maybe her traditional prep-school upbringing had embedded in her a sense of propriety that didn't mesh well with steamy encounters with blue-collar working men. But hadn't she managed to deprogram most of those antiquated notions from her life?
Monday night, she certainly had. She'd found a man who was too sexy to deny, passionate and fiery, with a gritty smile and big brown eyes a girl could lose herself in. Kit Baldwin had been a riot in the lounge and a magician between the sheets, and she'd enjoyed every second of that flaming night in his arms.
It was only when he'd told her he'd wanted her number before drifting off to sleep that she'd felt the clash of her prim and tidy world closing in on her. And in a sudden move of panic, she'd gathered her things and skipped out into the night.
Proof that she wasn't as pulled together as she'd like to believe.
And now she was standing here in the bathroom trying to fight off an overwhelming sense of indecency. What on earth was wrong with her?
Get a grip, Monica. It was just really good sex, for goodness' sake. And as for Kit, the man has surely forgotten all about you by now.
It was time she forgot about him.
She closed her eyes and restored her senses, taking calming breaths until she felt soothed and ready to go back to the party. It was that weird Santa Claus, she assured herself. There'd been something strange about the man and it had knocked her off her gamemomentarily. But she was ready to take charge again. Feeling refreshed, she checked herself over in the mirror then headed back to the party.
She spent the next hour mingling with the employees, talking business and holiday plans. She congratulated Nick on winning this year's sales award and offered her thanks to those members of her staff who were working hard to meet the year-end deadlines. With the music and chatter and wine, she'd all but forgotten about Florida and her steamy night of passion. So she was completely unguarded by the time she heard John's voice over her shoulder.
"Monica, if you've got a second, I have someone I'd like you to meet."
Without hesitation, she turned and smiled, only to find herself staring into a set of familiar big brown eyes.
"Monica Newell, this is one of my favorite clients, Kit Baldwin." John gestured to Kit. "Kit, meet our chief financial officer, Monica Newell."