Tessa Stoneman hasn't been able to get long-time friend and business partner Nicholas Boone out of her head since they shared a single kiss in college. Even when she dated Nicholas's best friend. Now that she's giving up her position at GameNerdz to strike out on her own—and now that she's single—maybe it's the right time to see if there's still something between them.
Nicholas knows once Tessa leaves the company she helped found, they might drift apart. Before she starts her own company in the new year, he wants to woo the woman he fell in love with during college. So he poses as her Secret Santa, sending her items from the song "Santa Baby", and plans a big reveal at the company holiday party. But when his best friend wants to rekindle his romance with Tessa, will Nicholas lose his chance?
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Secret Santa Baby
By Robin Covington, Alethea Spiridon Hopson
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2012 Robin Covington
All rights reserved.
"So, how was it visiting with the newlyweds?"
"Not nearly as disturbing as I thought it would be," Tessa Stoneman said as she chuffed out a laugh and turned down the Christmas station on Pandora Radio. She moved aside to allow her visitor to sidle past the artificial Christmas tree and into her tiny cubicle at GameNerdz. "Grandma and Carl are seventy-five so they went to bed early and kept the PDA down to a reasonable amount. It wasn't as weird as it could have been."
Turning towards her guest, she was glad she was sitting down when face-to-face with the object of her inappropriate desire.
Her best friend.
Tessa's stomach flopped and her pulse quickened. Her cheeks flushed, and she knew they were turning as pink as the ones on the little kids in her favorite snow globe. She resisted the urge to fan herself to stop the reaction. It had been like this for almost a year now. Every time she heard his voice, her body went haywire.
Even though he'd been in the United States for almost eight years, his demeanor still screamed "I'm sexy and British," and when he spoke it was like a sucker punch to her libido. She wanted to hear him whisper dirty things in her ear with that accent. Colin Firth, eat your heart out.
With a slow grin, he pushed his glasses up on his nose and eased his hands into the pockets of his well-worn jeans. The sleeves of his button-up shirt were rolled up, revealing the lean, muscled forearms dusted with the dark blond hair that was also in unruly waves on his head. Tessa loved it when it fell into his eyes. He needed a haircut and she bit back the reminder just perched on the edge of her tongue. Instead, she let her eyes travel down his long, lean form and back up again. Damn, he even made a sweater vest look good.
For a brief moment, Tessa's eyes met his and held his gaze. She could have sworn she saw a spark there. She wasn't sure if Nick felt the same way about her. He played his cards close to his chest and she wasn't about to show her hand and risk ruining their friendship. He was too important for her to lose.
"I think it's brilliant that Grandma Blanche got remarried and found love twice in her lifetime," Nick said.
"Yeah, it's pretty cool." Tessa turned and tapped the bobblehead Santa on her desk, watching as his jolly face lolled from side to side. It was great that her grandmother had found love again after missing Grandpa for so long, and Carl was the best, but it was depressing to think they'd gotten a second chance at something she'd never had. Twenty-five years old wasn't ancient, but it was lonely when she saw so many of her college friends pairing off and settling down.
"Hey, you okay?" he asked. He leaned closer, his hand brushing her shoulder with warm affection. With him this close, she could smell the combination of vibrant male and the cologne Nick always wore. It was from England and it made him stand out in the field of department store scents worn by his American cousins. But then, he always stood out in the crowd.
Nick waited patiently for her to answer, the look in his eye a little too perceptive. She'd seen that look a lot lately and was worried he would one day guess the truth, forcing them to have the awkward conversation that would begin the end of their friendship.
She waved off the question. "I'm okay. Late flight." She perked up when she remembered a great way to change the subject. "You're never going to believe what happened to me at the airport."
Digging down in her purse to grab her planner, she fished out a single strip of paper and handed it to Nick, watching as his brow scrunched up in confusion. He loved a mystery and would totally dig this one.
"Enjoy the upgrade and put the top down. Your Secret Santa Baby."
Nick shook his head. "I don't get it."
"When I got to the rental car place at the airport in Florida I was given that piece of paper and a free upgrade to a blue Volkswagen Bug convertible." Tessa displayed the photo of the car on her phone and laughed at the memory of how cool it had been to slip behind the wheel of the sporty car, put the top down, and speed away in the warm sunshine.
"I still don't get it."
"It's the song 'Santa Baby'." A voice drifted over the half-wall of the cube. On the other side sat Carrie, her dear friend, and the only person who knew how she felt about Nick. "The first verse talks about Sugar Daddy Santa bringing her a powder blue convertible."
Tessa snickered and rolled her eyes at Nick. "Carrie, what did I tell you about eavesdropping on my conversations?"
"You have no walls. I can hear you."
"You agreed to visualize the walls. Visualize. No more eavesdropping, okay?" She swiveled to look across the three-quarter wall in question. This was an old joke, one she'd miss when she left the company at the end of the week. "If you want to talk then come over and join the conversation. C'mon, it's my last week. Do you think you can visualize the walls just once before I leave?"
"I work in CGI, of course I can visualize walls." Carrie grumbled and flipped her the bird, but the smile tugging at her pierced lower lip gave away her enjoyment. She was wearing one of Tessa's favorite Yoda T-shirts today, the one with the little alien in a Santa hat, and the pull in her heart reminded her how bittersweet her moving on was going to be. She'd miss Carrie and that non-existent wall.
"If you guys aren't working then I'm not making money. Chop, chop people! I've got an expensive car payment!" Damien Stanton drawled out in his honeyed southern accent as his head popped into view over Nick's shoulder.
Oh boy, the gang's all here. Tessa rolled her eyes at the grin lighting up the features on Damien's face, observing the difference between the two men who'd been an integral part of her life for the past eight years.
Damien was as dark and reckless as Nick was fair and cautious. It still amazed her that they'd become such close friends freshman year at the University of Virginia. Two people couldn't have been made of more different stuff and yet been instant kindred spirits, remaining so throughout college and then starting a successful business together, GameNerdz. For some reason she still didn't understand, they'd chosen her to join them and become a little circle of three.
But she'd chosen the wrong man.
Damien had been assertive, direct, and generous with his charms. Nick had been reserved, weighing the situation, and she'd never gotten a clue about how he felt about her other than friendship. Well, that wasn't entirely true — there had been one moment, a kiss stolen in the library stacks. But it had passed, she'd become involved with Damien, and then she was forever off-limits. It was the "bro code." You didn't poach your best mate's girl. End of story. At least she thought so until a year ago.
Tessa smiled at Damien and got the conversation back on track. "We were discussing the awesome gift my Secret Santa gave me at the airport." She watched as Nick handed over the piece of paper and she flashed the photo on her phone. "Carrie's theory is that he or she is giving me the gifts in the 'Santa Baby' song."
"Well, that is kind of your song. Didn't you sing it during drunken karaoke at last year's Christmas party? Very sexy as I recall. " Nick waggled his eyebrows, his lips twitching with laughter.
Bastard. Okay, he was a hot bastard, but she still wanted to smack him for bringing up the single most embarrassing moment of her life — again. Fresh from breaking things off with Damien once and for all, and dealing with her feelings for Nick, had made her drink a little too much bubbly. The rest was YouTube history.
"Oh yeah. That was sexy. Off the charts. Right up until you tripped over your feet and fell right into Nick." Damien lightly fist bumped with his friend. "Awesome catch, my man."
"You're all missing the point. While this is very sweet, it is too much. The rules for Secret Santa clearly say that gifts are to be no more than five dollars each or twenty-five dollars overall." She looked at Nick, appealing to his legendary affinity for the rules. He wasn't called "St. Nick" for nothing. "You're in charge of the Secret Santa game so you've got to talk to this person for me."
He glanced at the paper with her secret message printed on it, concern etched over every aspect of his expression. "Are you sure? Maybe they want to make your last week with the company really special. It's a nice thought, actually."
"Whoa!" Damien stepped back, his hand clutching his chest in parody of a sudden heart condition. "Is St. Nick actually suggesting the rules can be broken?"
"Shut up, Damien. I'm merely suggesting it wouldn't be in the true spirit of the season to refuse the gift if someone truly wants to do it." He turned to look at her, taking the steps it took to place the secret message in her hands. Their fingers brushed, and she bit the inside of her cheek to keep from letting the sharp exhalation of breath escape on a gasp. "Do you want me to talk to them?"
Oh man, she felt like a heel. No, the Grinch. If she insisted they stop then she'd look like a person who told little kids that Santa wasn't real. She could wait and talk to the person when they revealed themselves at the company Christmas party on Friday. Once she knew who it was, she'd know how to handle it.
"No, that's fine. I'll be the good little girl my mama raised me to be and say thank you."
"Okay, now that that's settled, can we get back to work?" Damien asked as he backed away from the group. "Time is money, and we have a deadline to make on the next game release."
Tessa turned back to her computer, clicking until the graphic program lit up her screen and she opened the file she was working on. The last project for GameNerdz. The next one would be for her start-up graphic design business "Graphic Girl." She glanced at the business card with the super-heroine caricature of herself smiling out from the middle of her new logo. She was ecstatic. She was scared to death.
The cold tingle of fear began its track through her veins, raising the hair on the back of her neck until a warm hand touched her shoulder softly, and the chill was immediately replaced by calming warmth. She knew who it was without looking.
"You're going to be fine. More than fine. Brilliant."
Nick shifted lower, his warm breath tickling the sensitive skin behind her ear. She couldn't help herself. She had to look at him. His brown eyes were intense, the flecks of gold in the irises sparking with his emotion. He loved her — that was obvious — just not in that way. "But you can't blame us if we don't want you to go."
Tessa sighed. This was hard, but it was something she had to do. "Nick ..."
"I'm sorry. I know you need to do this, but I don't have to like it."
Tessa looked down as he reached out, hand warm as his long fingers wove in with hers. He squeezed and she returned her gaze to his face, the expression full of warmth and, for the briefest moment, something else she couldn't decipher.
"I'm proud of you for starting your own shop. You're a fabulous graphic designer, and you're going to be a huge success. Everybody knows how talented you are."
"See, I'm not so sure. I need to know that I'm making it on my own and not because I was the owner's girlfriend."
"Nobody thought that —"
"Everyone thought that, Nick. Or they did at one time. It's time for me to go." She squeezed his hand, biting back the final reason, the most important reason — she had no chance to get over him if she stayed at the company. Seeing him every day was too much. "I've got some good leads on work, a solid client. It's time for me to do this on my own."
He smiled at her, not one of the full cheeky grins that made her insides go all gushy, but a soft, indulgent grin from someone who really did hope she succeeded. Not for the first time did she wish he'd fight a little harder, but that wasn't Nick. He never bullied, never coerced.
Damn British manners and restraint.
"Well, then ... I guess I have to let you go." She was grateful when his grin took over. This was becoming maudlin. "But we still have 'terrible TV' night."
The heavy weight in her chest lightened enough to allow her to laugh as he walked away. She turned back to her computer, noticing Carrie staring at her with an eyebrow raised, her piercing flashing in the fluorescent light.
"What's that look for?" she asked.
"One of you has to break this stalemate and it probably isn't going to be St. Nick. The next time you have terrible TV night, lose the remote." She winked and turned back to her desk.
Carrie was right. If anything was ever going to change she needed to be the one to do it. Now she needed to figure out the best way to get Santa to deliver Nick to her for Christmas.CHAPTER 2
Damn, that was close.
Nick strode into his office, tossing his glasses onto the desk as he flopped down in his chair. When he'd concocted the plan to be Tessa's Secret Santa he'd failed to consider she'd have any reaction other than joy and excitement. The scene in his mind was so vivid: Tessa's brown eyes full of delight, and the dimples on her cheeks begging to be kissed. He'd never thought she'd want her benefactor to stop.
Luckily, talking her out of stopping the gifts had been surprisingly easy. He chalked that up to the good cheer of the season and her nostalgia over leaving GameNerdz. The thought of no Tessa in the office caused his chest to tighten with regret. As far back as he could remember, he'd counted on seeing Tessa at least several times per week, and almost from the beginning her presence had been a singular joy. He couldn't pinpoint the moment he'd fallen in love with her, but he knew it was before he'd lost her to Damien.
Those years had been hard. Watching his best friend and the girl of his dreams hook up was a painful lesson in how being the gentleman didn't always pay off. He'd had his chance, but instead of throwing his hat in the ring with the brashness of an American, he'd held back in stereotypical British fashion. Not his finest moment.
He'd moved on, had other girlfriends, and cherished his friendship with Tessa, fully expecting to one day stand up with Damien and watch her walk down the aisle in a white gown. When they'd broken up last year, neither nursing a particularly broken heart, Nick sat back and waited for the perfect time to make her his.
Now was the time. His last chance.
Damien wasn't pining for her. On the contrary, he was shagging every eligible woman in Charlottesville without a backward glance, and Nick had no qualms about stealing what used to be his best friend's girl.
Nick put his glasses back on and keyed in his password to his computer. Ignoring the emails about various projects at work, he opened the file marked "SSB" and double-checked the remaining gifts he'd planned for her. Her drunken karaoke of the song last year had been an amazing sight. Tessa in a low-cut red dress hugging all of her curves, her blond hair with the funky dark bottom layer falling in curly waves down her back. It had been great fun to Google the song and arrange for the gifts in the verses. The upgrade to her rental had been the most challenging when he'd hit a snag with an uncooperative customer service rep. A little innocent hacking and the VW Bug was a done deal.
Yes, "St. Nick" was willing to break all the rules for this woman.
A knock on the doorframe was the only warning before Damien strode into his office and flopped down on his leather sofa. Nick minimized the screen quickly and scanned the desk for signs of his plans for Tessa. He didn't want Damien ruining the surprise before the night of the office party. Nick also hesitated to tell his best friend about his plans to be the new man in Tessa's life. Technically, he wasn't poaching, but he wanted to know how she felt before letting anyone else know.
"Do have any idea how fast 'Scar' is flying off the shelves?" Damien asked, his face breaking into an excited grin.
"The game is selling so fast we can give all the employees a great bonus, and you and I have enough extra cash to upgrade our cars to something really awesome."
Nick couldn't help but grin back at his friend. His excitement was contagious. "I like my car just fine. It has four-wheel drive for winter and there's plenty of room to take the dogs with me. I don't need a new one."
"Nick, you're missing the point." Damien bolted upright, his hands gesturing wildly. "We're going to make so much money that the question isn't whether you need a new car. It's all about wanting."
Oh, he knew all about the wanting. It wasn't a car he was aiming for.
Shaking his head, Nick pawed over his desktop looking for the proposed release schedule for the next year. He'd gotten together with his design team and figured out how long it would take their next idea to come to life. Damien would take that data and work his business magic.
"Did you get in touch with Lassiter?" Damien asked.
"Yep. He wanted a graphic designer referral. I gave him Tessa's name."
Excerpted from Secret Santa Baby by Robin Covington, Alethea Spiridon Hopson. Copyright © 2012 Robin Covington. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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