One overly enthusiastic elf.
One poorly timed snowstorm.
Is it a recipe for disaster? Or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for holiday romance?
Teddy MacNally loves Christmas and everything that goes along with it. When he plays an elf for his charity’s events, he never expects to be paired with a Scrooge masquerading as Santa Claus. His new mission: make the holiday-hating soldier believe he was born to say ho-ho-ho.
Sergeant Major Nicholas Nowicki doesn’t do Santa, but he’s army to his blood. When his CO asks an unusual favor, Nick of course obliges. The elf to his Kris Kringle? Tempting. Too tempting—Nick’s only in town for another month, and Teddy’s too young, too cheerful and too nice for a one-night stand.
The slow, sexy make-out sessions while Teddy and Nick are alone and snowbound, though, feel like anything but a quick hookup. As a stress-free holiday fling turns into Christmas all year round, Teddy can’t imagine his life without Nick. And Nick’s days on the base may be coming to a close, but he doesn’t plan on leaving anything, or anyone, behind.
This book is approximately 65,000 words
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The Santa suit didn't fit. It itched. And it tugged against Nick's skin as he drove out of Fort End, heading southeast toward the small town of Mineral Spirits. On the rare occasions he ventured off base into what he still thought of as the wilds of upstate New York, he got on the interstate and went straight to Watertown. He did his shopping or went out to eat and never bothered with these narrow state highways and back roads leading to tiny villages and hamlets, most of which seemed to have Mills or Crossing in their name and were pretty interchangeable as far as he was concerned.
Mineral Spirits was slightly bigger than most of the towns, notable for the covered bridge that his older F-150 creaked over on the way into a downtown that seemed fresh out of the 1950s red- and gray-brick buildings with signs announcing homey businesses such as Nancy's Diner and Pete's Pet Store. And apparently the village was also known for a borderline freaky obsession with the holidays — even now, a week before Thanksgiving, he spied Christmas decorations on more than one storefront and cutouts of turkeys and pilgrims on a few others.
His stupid GPS kept going out — something about the hills around here made cell service spotty — but the Helping Hand Resource Center was easy enough to find, right off Main Street as Commander Grace had told him. The low white building was decorated with giant colorful handprints on the sides and a large cheerful sign that proclaimed its name and All Are Welcome. He parked in the far corner of the lot, backing into the space, as was his habit.
A bitter wind greeted him, but he didn't bother with his jacket. The damn suit was hot enough, the way it clung to his back, plush red fabric anything but breathable. He remembered to grab the beard and wig, but no way was he putting those on until the last minute. He opened the door to the center only to be greeted by an honest-to-God green-clad elf.
"Nick?" The elf grinned at him like they'd been introduced already. And okay, he wasn't a literal elf, just a small young man with curly blond hair in an elf outfit he seemed perfectly comfortable in — green-and-white-striped tights, hat with a bell, curving slippers, and all. "Sergeant Major Nowicki, yes." It had been years since he'd been just plain Nick for someone outside of his own head, and he wasn't about to start with this overly friendly elf.
"Yes, Miriam told us to expect you. I can't tell you how much we appreciate you filling in for Wallace."
Nick couldn't remember ever hearing Commander Grace referred to by her first name. He knew it, of course, but she was his commanding officer first and foremost, even if she had made efforts over the last few months to make sure he felt welcome at Fort End. And when she asked him for this favor, he'd felt unable to say no, mainly because she was kind and generous and wasn't one to abuse her position and ask for special treatment.
"Of course. Everyone at the base is hoping for a full recovery from Mr. Grace." The commander's husband was an elementary school teacher in Mineral Spirits, and they'd made their home here rather than on base as Nick did.
And apparently, every year they'd been stationed at Fort End, Mr. Grace had played Santa for this charity. The job entailed letting the local paper get photos of him in unusual locations around town so it could run a contest where readers tried to guess "Where's Santa now?" And then he'd appear at a couple of different town events over the course of the season as part of a campaign to raise money for the charity's holiday efforts. The Graces loved this season and this tiny town. But Mr. Grace had suffered a heart attack two days ago and had been life-flighted all the way into Syracuse for open-heart surgery. Commander Grace had called him from I-81, worried not about making it to the hospital, but about whether there would be a Santa for this year's fund-raiser. And he, fool that he was, had said he'd handle finding a replacement. Except everyone he talked to was already committed to something this weekend and, somehow, he'd ended up being the one in the suit.
A suit that was far too small, smelled vaguely of mothballs, and had probably seen better decades. But he was here to do his duty.
"I'm supposed to see Mr. MacNally," he told the elf, who was still looking up at him expectantly.
"That would be me. Call me Teddy though. Everyone does." Another broad grin. And, of course, Mr. Casual was a Teddy. Despite his small stature and baby face, he had to be at least twenty-five since he was the director of this charity. Far too old and in-charge to be a Teddy.
"Who's the one taking the pictures?" He was eager to get this show on the road.
"That would be my cousin, Rhonda." He beckoned over a younger woman with similar curly blond hair. "She works for the paper. She's got several locations scouted out already. I thought you might like to start with a little tour of our facilities? Get you up to speed on what we stand for, maybe get you more in the spirit of things."
That wasn't possible as Nick didn't have an ounce of holiday spirit left, if he'd ever had any to begin with. But he wasn't out to be rude, so he nodded. "You've got me for the day."
"Excellent." Another megawatt smile, this one worthy of a dental ad, all perfectly gleaming white teeth and wide, full lips. He really shouldn't be noticing MacNally's mouth, full or otherwise. He wasn't here to get sidetracked by pouty perfection.
One more month, he reminded himself. One more month at Fort End, which ironically really was the end for him. End of the line, the army's refusal to let him re-up bringing a twenty-eight year career to a halt at the nation's most remote, northernmost outpost, a place that often felt like the end of the earth, far removed from his desert deployments and years stationed in Hawaii, California, and other warm states. He still wasn't exactly happy about the army's decision to go all-in on a reduction in forces, but he had a pretty sweet plan B waiting for him if he could just make it through this last month. One month and he'd be in Florida, on a boat, no Santa suit in sight, no obligations or distractions ...
Why that vision kept making his chest hurt, he didn't know. It might be the Army's call, but he'd worked nearly three decades to earn the military retirement coming to him. By this time in January, he'd have his own place on the ocean and a partnership with his old Army buddy, who did boat day trips for tourists and made himself a nice little living.
And there would be no snow in sight. Ten months here had been more than enough for him. Even the summer had been unbearable, all muggy and humid with mosquitoes everywhere, and only two really good months before fall hit. And now the weather people were calling for a big storm this weekend. Not even Thanksgiving, and they were already talking snow days. No, Florida would be far preferable to any more time at Fort End.
"So we're a multipurpose resource center here to serve primarily the low-income folks of the village and surrounding towns." MacNally had an unusually energetic speaking voice, all full of bright inflection and exclamation points where a simple pause might do. "We have a food pantry, clothing closet, heating and electric bill assistance, Holiday Giving Tree for kids, and offer a variety of workshops and classes ranging from parenting topics to food preservation to budgeting."
MacNally took him through the large, airy lobby with older couches that managed to look both well loved and inviting. Like the exterior of the building, the room was colorful with a children's play area and library tucked into the far corner. From there, he followed MacNally down a hallway as he pointed out the clothing closet full of warm coats looking for homes, the offices where caseworkers met one-on-one with families, and a meeting room for workshops. Nick tried to make approving noises as MacNally prattled on and on about the work of the resource center. He was relieved when they finally reached the food pantry that took up the rear of the building.
He was trying to listen to MacNally talk about balanced meals and perishable items when he spotted a slight teenage boy struggling under the weight of a huge case of canned goods. The case tottered precariously, and acting without thinking, Nick lunged to save it from landing on the kid's feet.
Riiiiipppp. An awful, foreboding sound happened at the exact instant he steadied the case. He immediately felt a draft on his ass where there had previously been scratchy material. The teen started laughing before scurrying away under the force of Nick's glare.
"Oh dear." MacNally's mouth opened and shut as if his bottomless supply of good cheer didn't have an answer for this turn of events. He wasn't even subtle in how he twisted around, checking out Nick's backside to verify that yes, indeed, the borrowed suit had split. "I guess you are a great deal ... larger than Wallace, aren't you? But no worries, Santa, I've got you covered." Laughing, he dragged Nick into an office off the food pantry, yelling over his shoulder, "Rhonda, we're going to need your assistance."
"I don't think —" Nick really didn't need even more of an audience for his humiliation.
"It's no bother." MacNally patted him on the arm. "Do you have spare pants in your car?"
"No." He suppressed a groan. On his way he'd dropped his uniforms off at the cleaner's, so he didn't have a spare in the truck as he sometimes did.
"Hmm. No way are you fitting into anything of mine." MacNally sighed dramatically. "Rhonda, can you check the clothing closet for men's XL or XXL anything? Sweats would be perfect."
"Now, I know I've got some red thread here ..." MacNally started rustling around a cluttered desk. The small office was busy — desk laden with framed pictures, walls covered with inspirational posters, open box of holiday decorations in the corner, stack of kids' handprint turkeys on the visitor's chair. "And a needle. We don't want to have to staple you shut."
"You are not coming anywhere near me with a stapler." Nick put all his years of MP experience into his voice. As a military police officer, he took no guff, and he wasn't about to start with this ... elf.
But MacNally just laughed. "We'll hope it doesn't come to that." He leaned in close enough that Nick could smell some sort of fruity aftershave. "But I'll be honest, I had to alter my costume to get it to fit, and I totally used a stapler on the shoes."
"Were your feet in them at the time?" he demanded.
"Of course not." MacNally's laugh reminded Nick of the fresh-picked peaches he'd loved when he'd been stationed in Georgia — warm and fresh and far too tempting. "And you're not going to be in the pants either."
Right as he delivered that alarming bit of news, Rhonda returned, hands empty. "Sorry. I couldn't find anything that might fit." Her eyes flashed with appreciation. She didn't make a secret of checking him out, gaze roving over his frame to the point that he felt his skin heat. "It's mainly kids' clothes right now, and Saint Nick here is definitely not in the juniors' sizes."
"Sergeant Major Nowicki," he corrected, even though it felt somewhat like spitting into the wind with these two. "And perhaps we should just reschedule. I can go back to base, change, and then go see if I can find a costume shop in Watertown that might have something more suitable."
"Costume shop there closed after Halloween — the owner retired, and a new one hasn't popped up yet," MacNally said breezily. "And no need for that. Here's thread and a needle. We'll just step out, you'll pass me the pants, and I'll have you done up in a jiffy."
Jiffy? Who used words like that anymore? Nick was forty-six, and he was pretty sure he'd never done anything in a jiffy.
"Fine." He waited until MacNally and Rhonda had left the room to shed the pants. Even with his black boots on, they'd still been a bit short in the leg and the gaping hole in the seat wasn't helping anything. He set the boots aside along with the wig and beard and shucked off the pants, feeling ridiculously exposed in just a Santa coat and his black boxer briefs, which — because it was laundry day — were the ones that probably should have been retired a few years back. Like me. He passed the pants out the door, and then paced the small space, not wanting to sit in MacNally's chair in his underwear and not wanting to move the kid drawings from the other chair.
"Can I get you some coffee?" Rhonda's voice filtered through the door.
"No, I'm good," he said, even though he wasn't. But coffee would mean opening that door again, and he wasn't doing that more times than necessary. He'd held formations, had platoon sergeants under him, trained hundreds of enlisted men and women, and advised a string of commanders as he worked his way up to sergeant major. And in all his years of service, this ranked right up there for most humiliating moment.
"Okay, I think I've got it." MacNally rapped on the door. "I'm no seamstress, but I've put buttons back on coats and closed up rips on donations before."
Nick opened the door just wide enough to stick his arm out for the pants. MacNally laughed, more of that summer warmth hitting Nick square in the center of his chest.
"You are a shy one, aren't you?"
No, I just don't want you seeing my worn drawers. But of course he wasn't saying that, so he simply grunted and took the pants. If possible, they were even tighter now, and they were going to be a devil to get off, but they were better than letting the chilly air continue to batter his bare legs.
"They fit." He opened the door, pulling his shoulders back, straightening his spine, just like he might for an inspection. "Let's go get your pictures."
"Sure. Just let me see —" MacNally craned his neck to see Nick's backside, seeming like he might get in there and inspect his stitches next. Nick quickly moved so that his back was to the poster-covered wall. "Okay, okay. But I'm bringing the needle and thread just in case."
"Where do you want the first picture? My GPS keeps going in and out, so I might need directions, but I'll meet you at the site." Nick was more than ready to get this show on the road.
"Don't be silly." MacNally waved his hand. "I'm parked right out back. My Forrester can easily hold all three of us. Rhonda and I already mapped everything out. I'll drive."
No way in hell was MacNally driving him anywhere, but Nick still searched for some manners. "I don't want to trouble you —"
"It's no bother at all. I cleaned out the car this morning and everything." MacNally grinned up at him.
Fuck. Nick did not want a ride — or anything else, those kissable lips included — from MacNally. However, he was also a realist and wasn't going to waste time arguing or risk stomping all over the other two's feelings.
"Come on." Rhonda led the way through the food pantry.
This is simply another mission, Nick told himself. He'd been on patrols in roasting-hot desert temperatures, conducted murder investigations, dealt with bomb threats and more disorderly conduct than he could even remember. Surely, he could get through one day in this blasted suit with the too-perky elf for company and then be on his way back to base, back to his holiday-free orderly life with its countdown to his retirement.CHAPTER 2
Teddy's dependable Subaru had never looked tinier than with Jolly Old Saint Nick crowded in the backseat, looking ready to murder someone if Teddy so much as took a turn too fast. He'd insisted that Rhonda take the front seat, some sort of chivalry Teddy found both exasperating and cute. This was Rhonda. She'd made him eat a dandelion once. With a ladybug still on it. She'd dared him off the rope swing down by the river, resulting in a dislocated shoulder for him and a month's grounding for her. She could totally ride in the backseat, let the sergeant major and his ample legs take the front, where, not coincidentally, he could also talk more easily with Teddy.
Not that this cranky Santa seemed particularly enamored of him or easy to get to know, but Teddy was determined to give the guy a pleasant day, especially after the disastrous start. Not that he'd call it a disaster — any time he got a glimpse of a muscled ass that spectacular was a win — but Nick's discomfort had been almost palpable. And yeah, he seemed to be rather attached to his rank and title, but Teddy simply wasn't that formal. Commander Grace had always insisted that they call her Miriam, and he was on a first name basis with plenty of other military personnel.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Better Not Pout"
Copyright © 2018 Annabeth Albert.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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