Poppy Spencer has discovered that there's one thing worse than Christmas alone in her flat, and that's spending it with Isaac Blairher sworn-enemy-turned-reluctant-flatmate! And that's not just because he knows all her secrets but because his sexy-as-sin smile and taut physique are making her all hot and flustereddespite the icy cold outside!
Unless a casual hookup is just the thing she needs ? It'll certainly break the simmering tension between them. The trouble is, with their history, this is going to be anything but casual!
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1st December. Operation Christmas
Christmas music. Check.
Dodgy Christmas tree and decorations from attic. Check.
Decent bottle of red and one extra-large glass. Check Oops one bottle down. Better make that two bottles of decent red
Poppy Spencer dumped the years-old artificial tree by the corner window and started to pull back its balding branches, creating a kind of sort of battered tree shape.
It was about time someone in this apartment got into the Christmas spirit and if that meant she had to do it on her own, then she would. So what if her AWOL flatmates were too busy to care about the festive season? She had to do something to fill the long, empty holiday that stretched ahead of her.
'Never mind, poor thing.' She was talking to a tree? That was what being alone in a flat, which until recently had resembled a very busy Piccadilly Station, did to a reasonably sane woman. 'Looks like it's just you and me. We'll soon have you shipshape and looking pretty and sparkly for when everyone comes home. Cheers.'
She chinked a branch with her glass and took a large gulp. There were few things in life that beat a good Shiraz. It went down rather quickly, coating her throat with the taste of blackberries and well, wine. She poured another. 'And here's to absent friends.' All of them. And there appeared to be more going absent every day.
The box of baubles and decorations seemed to have ended up in a similar state to the tree: a nibbled corner, depilated tinsel. Mice perhaps? Surely not rats? She shuddered, controlling the panicky feeling in her tummy. Rats were horrific, nightmare-inducing, disease-ridden rodents and mice their evil little siblings.
So maybe she wasn't alone after all.
Standing still, she held her breath and listened. No telltale scurrying, no squeaks. Quiet. The flat was never quiet. Ever.
Oh, and there was some woman crooning about not wanting a lot for Christmas. Yeah, right, said no woman ever.
Note to self: ask big brother, Alex, to look for evidence of four-legged friendsthe man had fought in Afghanistan; he was more than equipped to deal with a little mouse infestation.
Second note to self: Unfortunately, Alex was sunning himself on an exotic beach somewhere with Lara. And Isaac, the only other male flatmate, was well, hell, who ever knew where Isaac was? He was like a sneaky, irritating nocturnal magician, here one minute, gone the next, probably expanding his uber-trendy bar portfolio along with his list of short-term female conquests.
Tori had gone with Matt to South Africa. Izzy had moved in with Harry. That was it, all her friends out, happy, settled. Doing things with significant othersor, in Isaac's case, insignificant others.
Was it too much to want a little bit of their collective happiness? Someone to care if she died alone, suffocated under a box of musty decorations or knocked out by a toppling balding Christmas tree, toes nibbled by starving mice. More, someone to care if she never ever had sex again. Like ever.
She imagined the headlines.
Doctor's body found after three weeks! Nobody noticed recluse Poppy Spencer had died until the smell
Miracle of regrown hymen! Autopsy of sad, lonely cat lady Poppy Spencer discovers born-again virgin
No doubt somebody somewhere who bothered enough to listen would say she had lots of things to be thankful for. A good jobalbeit varicose-vein inducing, with long hours of standing. Friendsalbeit all absent. A flatalbeit leaky.
And a new, less-than-desirable flatmate, with fur. Which she would tackle, on her own, because she was a modern evolved woman and not because she was the only person around to do it. Seriously. It was fine.
She took another decent mouthful of wine. Mr Mouse could wait; first, she'd cheer herself up and decorate the tree. Putting a hand into the box, she pulled out a bright red and silver bauble and almost cried. This was the first house-warming present Tori had bought her. Tori always bought the best presents; she had an innate sense of style.
And Poppy missed her.
'No.' More wine fortified her and put a fuzzy barrier between her and her wavering emotions. 'It's okay. I'm a grown up. I can be alone.'
She'd read, in an old tattered magazine in the doctors' on-call room, about a famous reclusive actress who'd said that once. German? Swedish? Poppy couldn't remember; in fact things seemed to have gone a little hazy altogether.
She picked up two baubles and hung them from her ears like large, gaudy earrings, grabbed a long piece of gold tinsel and draped it round her shoulders, like an expensive wrap over her brushed-cotton, pink-checked pyjamas. Lifted her chin and spoke loudly to the street below. 'I want to be alone. Or is it, I want to be alone ?.'
Louder, just so she could feel the words and believe them, she shouted to the smattering of falling snowflakes illuminated by the streetlights, to the dark, cloudy sky, and to the people coming out of the Chinese takeaway with what looked like enough delicious food for a party. A far cry from her micro-waved meal for one. 'It's fine. Really. You just go and enjoy yourselves with your jolly Christmas laughing and your cute bobbly hats and fifty spring rolls to share with your lovely friends and don't worry about me. I'll just stay here, on my own, and think about adopting a few stray cats or crocheting toilet-roll-holder dolls to pass the time. Crochet is the new black. It'll be good for my fine motor skills. I'm fine. I want to be alone. I do.'
'Oh,' came a voice from behind her. 'In that case, I'll leave you to it. Goodnight.'
'Ah! What the hell?'
Isaac. She'd know that voice anywhere. Half posh, half street. All annoying. And very typical. Strange kind of skill he had, always turning up at her most embarrassing moments.
She winced, slowly swivelling, bringing her arms down to her sideshad she ranted out loud about her pathetic misery and lone-someness?
Damn right she had.
The tinsel hung pathetically from her shoulders and the baubles bashed the sides of her reddening neck in a not-quite-in-tempo accompaniment to her heart rate. She probably looked a complete fool, but then, where Isaac was concerned, she was used to looking like a prize idiot.
He, however, looked his usual scruffy 'male model meets bad-boy done good' self. He needed a shave and a decent haircut; his usually cropped crew cut stood up in little tufts making him look angelicwhich he wasn't. His cheeks were all pinked-up by the cold winter air. A light dusting of snow graced his shoulders. No doubt some unknowing bimbo would think he looked adorable. But Poppy knew better. Isaac's looks were deceiving.
He'd been part of the Spencer family's life for so long he was almost a member of it, and had a habit of turning up like a bad penny at the entirely wrong time, giving her that disappointed shake of his head he'd perfected over the years. But it didn't affect her quite as much as he hoped because her parents had been doing the exact same thing since she was in nappies.
And now he was here, occasionally living in her lovely flat, because her big brother, Alex, had let him rent a room without asking her first.
Isaac's head shook. Disappointedly.
She feigned nonchalance because any kind of in-depth conversation with him was the last thing on her Christmas wish-list. 'So, the missing flatmate returns.'
'I wasn't missing. I was working in Paris and then on to Amsterdam, checking out some decent bar venues.'
'Oh, lucky for some. The other day I managed to get all the way to Paddington for a sexual-health meeting, and once I even made it to the dizzy heights of Edgware Road.' She loved her job, she really did, but sometimes delving into women's unmentionables lacked any kind of glamour. And definitely no travelapart from visiting the dark underworld of repairing episiotomies and doing cervical smears. Where she discovered a lot of women were having a lot of sex. Sadly, she wasn't one of them.
He shrugged. 'Oh. You got a whole mile away. Whoop-de-doo. Aren't you adventurous?' The animosity was a two-way thing.
He dumped his large duffel bag on the floor and threw his coat on top, cool blue eyes roving her face, then her ears, the tinsel, her flannelette pyjamas. Which had to be the most sexless items of clothing she owned. Which didn't matter. Isaac was just a flatmate. Her big brother's best friend. Nothing else.
Apart from weird, his eyes were vivid and bright and amused. And somebody else might well have thought they were attractive, but she didn't. Not a bit. Not at all. They were too blue. Too cool. Too knowing. He gave her one of his trademark long, slow smiles. Which didn't work the way he might have hoped. She did a mental body scan to check. Nope. No reaction at all.
Through her pre-pubescent years she'd done everything to garner his attentionand had probably appeared as an exasperating little diva. Then she'd woken up to the reality that he was not interested, and then neither was she once she'd discovered bigger andshe'd thoughtbetter men to chase. Real men, not teenage boys and then The shame shimmied through her and burned bright in her cheeks. Eight years and she still felt it.
Well, and then Isaac had been lost in the whole sordid slipstream.
He took a step forward and plucked the tinsel from her arm between his finger and thumb, gave it a sorry little look then let it drop to the floor like an undesirable. 'I'm very sorry to have to break this to you, Poppy, but I think your Christmas fairy days might be over.'
Grabbing a bauble from her ear, she wrapped it round one of the needleless branches. Then did the same with the other one. In a last act of defiance she placed the tinsel from the floor in pride of place in the middle of the tree. 'Well, gee, thanks.'
'I just think it might be a little unstable.' He glanced up at the wonky, droopy top of the tree, then watched her sway. 'Like you perhaps?'
'Hey, be rude about me all you like, that's normal service. But you do not insult my tree.' She eyed the wine bottle behind him. No harm in a little more. 'Me and this tree have been together a long time, and no one's going to criti be rude about it. Pass me that glass?' She pointed to the bottle and the glass and then realised that, irritating or not, she should at least be polite to him. Who knew? He might be an expert at rodent removal.
'D'you want to get yourself a glass, too? There's plenty oh.' There appeared to be a lot of bottle and not a lot of anything in it. 'You want the last dribble? Or we could open another one?' Two bottles downed already? Now she was all out. 'Beer? Eggnog?'
'No. Thanks. I've just been working down at Blue and I've had my share for tonight.' His too-bright, too-blue eyes narrowed as his gaze roved her face again. 'And you look a little like you might have, too?'
'Hmm. I thought there was more in there. I'm just ' His smile made him look like some major celeb. She'd never noticed that before either. Gangly teenager Isaac was now pretty damned handsome? Who knew? And now he was swaying, too. Oops no, it was her What was she doing? The tree yes, the tree. 'I just need to finish this decorating. Then I really should go to bed.'
'You need a hand?'
'Going to bed? No. I don't think' She looked down at his palm. It was a nice hand. Slender fingers, neat nails and the slightly roughened skin of a man who worked with his hands.
Oh, and his brain. Because he was also too clever and too successfulseemed the man just knew instinctively about bars and where to put them and who to market them to. Clever, and her brother's friend. And then he'd found out her deepest, darkest secret
'No. Thanks. I'm just finishing this. You can go.' She wafted her hand to him to leave,
needed him to leave as that memory rose, scoring the insides of her gut like sandpaper.
She slid her fist back into the decorations box. Something warm banged against it, then darted out of the hole. Something brown. Small. With more legs than she had time to count.
'Yikes!' Jumping back, she stepped on Isaac's booted foot, banged against his bodywhich was a whole lot firmer than she ever rememberedand ricocheted off him into an armchair, which she scrambled on, all the better to get out of the way of a man-eating furball. Her heart pounded against her rib-cage. 'What the hell was that?'
Isaac laughed as he ducked down to the floor. 'Shh it's just a little mouse. Very frightened now, too, by your crazy demonic scream.' He crawled along the carpet, hemming the creature into a corner, then swooped in and grabbed.
It darted away, under the TV cupboard and into a very dark corner. Now the only view Poppy had was of a very firm-looking jeans-clad backside. And a slice of skin between his belt and T-shirt, skin that for an odd reason made her tummy do a little somersault. Seemed Isaac had recently been somewhere sun-kissed as well as wintry northern Europe. 'Have you got it?'
A muffled voice came from underneath the cupboard. 'For an educated woman who uses scalpels for a living you're mighty squeamish when it comes to tiny pests. I think it's escaped.'
'You think? You think? I can't live here thinking I don't have mice. I want to know I don't have mice. I don't like them, they scare me, however irrational that makes me. And where there's one, there's always more. There could be fifty of them.'
'Then at least you won't be alone, right?'
'Sure you are.' He scrambled up, looked at her all hunched up on the chair and grinned. 'So you were yelling at some poor, unsuspecting, innocent bystanders. Very loudly.'
'They were down there across the road and I'm up here behind a window. They didn't hear.'
'No. But I imagine the rest of the building did. Where is everyone?'
She slumped down, choosing not to have any more wine, because, seriously, two bottles were way more than she usually had. The mouse had done a runner, so she shovelled her feet under her backside in case it decided to retrace its teeny steps. 'They're all out. Gone. Holidays, shopping all insanely happy and ' Left behind.
He perched on the arm of the chair, arms folded over his chestlooking as if he was trying to appear sympathetic but inwardly laughing. The way his face lit up when he laughed that mouth, so nice, so weird. And maybe it was Shiraz-coloured glasses because he was so good-looking weird. Attractive weird. Sexy weird. Infuriating Isaac was eye candy, too. Who knew?
She'd been so busy being annoyed at him living in her space that she hadn't thought anything else about him at all. Apart from being aware of an electric current every time she was in the same room as him. She'd always assumed that had been caused by her anger at his general class-A irritatingness. 'Fancy them going off and having a nice time without you. Poor Poppy. Lonely?'
And he was a mind-reader, too, but no way would she fess up to such an idea. 'Don't be silly. It's great that they're all sortedit gets them off my hands. Finally.'
'You love it, though, playing the mum, looking after them all, nurturing them, putting up the tree as a surprise for when they get home. Sweet. You don't want to be alone at all, do you?'
'You make it sound pathetic when really I'm just using you all to pay the mortgage.'
He leant towards her. 'Hey, I was jokingat least you were the sensible sibling and put your money into bricks and mortar instead of partying it away like Alex. And it's a great flat even if it does get a little busy. And leaky. But the company helps, right?'
'Some of the company does '
'Don't worry, message received loud and clear. I'm sorry Alex gave me the room without talking to you first. I wouldn't have moved straight in if I'd known. But I'll be out of your hair as soon as my apartment's done.' Isaac's grin smoothed into that soft smile again and for some strange reason her unmentionables suddenly got hot and bothered.