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Judging from his sexy ho-ho-ho laughter and amazing dark eyes, the man beneath the Santa suit might have been hot enough to end winter at the North Pole forever. Add in the way he'd gently listened to each of the underprivileged children who'd lined up to tell him their Christmas wish list, and the hotness factor shot up at least ten more degrees.
This is bad. Very bad.
Normally, Holly Campbell didn't let men turn her head. Too many potential complications.
The man shifted in the old gold spray-painted chair and helped the last child settle on his knee. "Tell Santa what you want for Christmas."
"I don't want to live at the homeless shelter anymore." The little boy speaking couldn't have been more than six.
The room fell silent. A lump the size of a turkey grew in Holly's throat. Been there, done that, she thought, blinking back tears over the little boy's heartache. She moved forward, intending to see what she could do to help. Before she reached the child, Santa rose, took the kid by the hand, and walked across the room to the boy's mother, a woman in a faded blue tracksuit with deep bags beneath her eyes. She looked as if life had kicked her repeatedly. Santa put his hand on the woman's shoulder and spoke into her ear.
Though his voice was low, Holly heard him say, "I'll help you with a place to live." The woman began to cry, and Holly turned away to discreetly wipe her eyes. She longed to hug the man and thank him on behalf of the little boy.
A draft blew across the room, and Holly shivered, wishing she'd worn thermal underwear. Last night, the weatherman predicted a cold snap for the Windy City and it had definitely arrived. The heater in the old building sandwiched between S. Wentworth Street and W. 44th couldn't keep up with the December chill. Still, of all the places Holly had run away to, she liked Chicago best.
Heart full, wishing she could wave a magic wand and ensure there was never another child in need, she busied herself cleaning up empty boxes of cookies and half empty cups of juice. When her autistic brother had asked her to play an elf at a party, she'd flatly refused. Liam had signed on to do it, and one of his former therapists said he needed to learn to take responsibility when he made a promise. But when Liam said he was sick, and that the party was for poor kids, Holly had given in.
If there weren't enough volunteers to help, the party would have to be cancelled. Holly couldn't say no. Being disappointed at Christmas — hell, every other day, too, for that matter — had been the staple of her life as a child.
Her attention centered on picking up the mess, she didn't hear someone come up behind her until a sexy voice said quietly, "You rock those elf shoes."
Holly turned, putting on the face she wore to fool the world, and waved one foot to make the bell on the tip of the curly-toed shoes jingle. Hands on her hips, she batted her eyelashes and grinned up at Santa. "I'll bet you say that to all the elves."
His gaze drifted slowly to the top of her head. "Only the red-haired ones."
Holly kept her smile in place, trying to decide how to handle his obvious flirting. Usually she came up with something deliberately weird to say to make people back off, but this time, her mind drew a blank.
"It's raining!" a little girl cried out. All the children rushed to the window, jockeying for positions, calling out their hopes the rain would turn into snow.
Holly groaned. With the current temperature, the rain would more than likely turn into ice.
"Should have brought my boots," she muttered, thinking of the useless high heels tucked into the back room with her jeans and sweater. At Santa's quizzical expression, she said, "My car gave out several blocks from here, so I walked."
"We can share a car after the party."
So not happening.
Holly studied what little she could see of the man beneath the bushy white eyebrows and thick, full beard. Pursing her lips, she arched her eyebrows. "Sorry, but Mrs. Claus standing by the tree over there looks like she could take me."
He glanced over his shoulder at the older woman dressed in costume and swung his attention back to Holly, his eyes sparkling with amusement. "She's the director of the children's club. Our relationship is strictly platonic."
"Uh-huh. That's what they all say. I don't even know your name."
He leaned slightly forward, his lips curving into the kind of smile that made her think things that could land her name on the naughty list. "And you are?"
"Unavailable." If she guessed correctly, this one was interested in her only for a night. She didn't do one-night stands, and since long-term relationships weren't in her future, either, the smartest thing to do was ignore the tingling in the pit of her stomach. Tingles, coupled with the need to run away, were never a good combination.
Reaching up, he tugged the beard down, revealing a strong jawline. When he pulled off the eyebrows and Santa hat, Holly's stomach tightened.
Chestnut hair, five o'clock shadow, and impossibly long lashes. She couldn't look away like she wanted to, like she should. Instead, her mind conjured up images of the man sans costume, and the two of them tangled together in ways that would set the naughty list on fire.
"Well, then, Unavailable, save me some milk and cookies, won't you? I'll get out of this suit and return in a few minutes."
Holly sighed as he strolled off. Gorgeous. Deep voice. Kind, too, from what she'd witnessed tonight. The type of man a woman with a normal life would be thrilled to spend time with. If only she had a normal life ... But that ship had sailed a long time ago. Slipping her hand into the pocket of her green button-up tunic, she gripped the train tickets to reassure herself. She never went anywhere without them.
The first thing she did when reaching a new city was buy train tickets to another city in case she needed to leave in a hurry. Keeping ahead of her past was the only way to leave it behind. She was thankful the newer Nationwide Train Service had established Anytime Travel Tickets allowing passengers to hop a ride on a moment's notice. There was always the risk that the train would be full from passengers who'd booked in advance, but so far, her luck had held.
"Holly?" The director peered at her over the tops of the wire-rimmed spectacles and motioned her over. "The parents will be here any moment. Could you help the children find their coats? Last year, there was such a chaotic mix-up."
"Sure." Tired of her hair flopping around her face, Holly scooped it together and quickly put it into a ponytail high on the top of her head. Then she divided the children into lines. As she sorted them by their reindeer name tags, the tired mother Santa had spoken to joined her to help, introducing herself as Mona.
"The man dressed as Santa is going to change our lives." Hope shone on her face. "He knows someone who can get us into an apartment. That's all my boy wanted for Christmas."
"Santa seems like a good person," Holly said, happy for Mona. She frowned when she noticed the sneakers with an obvious hole on one side. Pulling out her last two twenties, she slipped them into the other woman's hand. It was only a few days until payday, and Mona looked as if she needed the money a lot more than she did.
Mona protested and tried to give the bills back, but Holly wouldn't take them. She closed her hand over the woman's and said in a quiet voice, "I've been there."
Mona's eyes widened, and her hands stilled. "You were homeless?"
Holly nodded. "When I was a kid."
"But you're okay now?"
As long as I'm prepared to run at any second. "Yes, I am," Holly assured.
"I don't know how to repay the kindness."
"It's a gift from one School of Hard Knocks student to another." She hugged the woman tightly, whispering, "It'll get better. Hold on."
Mona returned her hug fiercely, then pulled back. "We'd better get a move on. I caught a ride from one of the other moms, and I don't want to miss that."
Holly helped Mona's son put his gloves on and then bent to tie his shoe. She hugged him and walked with them to the door, stepping into the hallway to watch as the two made their way down the graffiti marked stairwell to the first floor. All the children left and Holly turned to get started putting everything back in order.
"Oh dear." The director rushed past her with a purse over her arm. "Brenda left her purse here. I'm going to see if I can catch her. If I'm not back in ten minutes, go ahead and lock up. I have the key to get back in."
"No problem." Holly waved the woman off and then went back into the room to start tying up bags of garbage. She sang holiday songs, badly and off-key, while she cleaned. Dancing around, she shook her hips and belted out the lyrics at the top of her lungs, kicking her feet every now and then to shake the jingle bells. Out of all the seasons of the year, winter was her favorite.
Working on the third bag of garbage, she abruptly stopped singing when it hit her she hadn't heard a peep from the Santa man. After washing her hands, she made her way toward the makeshift dressing area in a room off the main room and gently tapped on the door. "I'm afraid Mrs. Claus left you behind."
The door swung open and he growled, "Get me out of these clothes."
One fantasy after another fought for preeminence in Holly's brain. She wished she could take him up on his order, but she knew better than to play with fire.
"You're a pretty confident guy, I'll give you that." Shaking her head and muttering to herself that undressing him would definitely start something she didn't need to get involved with, Holly started to walk away when his fingers closed around her arm.
"I'm serious." He scowled, his frustration evident. "The damn suit is stuck. I'd rip it off, but the director's late husband wore it until two years ago. It has sentimental value for her."
"Oh, of course. Turn around." As soon as he did, Holly could see the material bunched beneath the zipper at the center of his back. She grabbed a handful of the suit at the butt and pulled it upward to find some give. The suit was stuck tight.
The man threw his hands out against the wall to keep his balance. "Careful, sweetheart."
He grinned over his shoulder at her. "Really? You're not making a Christmas joke?"
"Nope, Kris Kringle, I'm not."
"My name is Jake." He grunted as Holly yanked on the pants again.
"Well, Jake, what do you do when you're not trapped in a Santa suit?" She inched a tiny bit of the material free.
"I guess you could say I'm into computers. You?"
"I'm an elf. I thought that was pretty clear. Hang on. Got it!" Holly straightened in triumph as he spun around. Her nose bumped into his chest.
His hands fell to her waist, his fingers exerting a slight pressure to hold her in place. She put her own on his forearms and a four-alarm fire blazed through her veins. Tipping her head back, she locked her gaze with his. No man should be this handsome. It was so not fair that her mind was mentally backing off while her body wanted to lasso him.
He dropped his focus to her lips. "Have a drink with me."
His words crashed through the haze of "he's-so-damn-sexy" taking over her brain like kudzu. She blinked and gave a small breathless laugh. "I don't ... I mean, I'm not that kind of girl."
"You don't drink?"
Damn that smile.
"I do. I just ... You're wasting your time." Holly drew in a breath, deciding to lay her cards on the table in case he had expectations. "I'm not going to have sex with you."
"I hope not. I think the bar has rules against public displays like that."
She laughed and shook her head, more tempted than she'd been in a long time. "I probably shouldn't."
"Me either." He slid the suit to his ankles and stepped out of it, standing in front of her in a white T-shirt and a pair of tight-ascan-be boxers that didn't hide the fact that he was a man.
Hold the other presents and gift-wrap that for me!
Holly wrestled her gaze up to his chest. How in the hell did he get that impressive body to fit into that snug T-shirt? "Um ..."
He lifted a shoulder in a shrug as he reached for a pair of black slacks, sliding first one long leg into them, then the other, not looking at all uncomfortable in his state of undress. "I don't have an ulterior motive. I thought it would be nice to have some company."
He's lonely. The thought hit her like a bolt of lightning. Maybe that's why she felt drawn to him. Holly could understand lonely. Boy, could she ever. During the holidays, it was more difficult to ignore, to pretend there wasn't a gaping hole in her life. Maybe all the bustling people, the bright lights, and good cheer of the season was what made the lonely harder to bear for him as well.
Tomorrow, she might be on the run again, but she would stick around for tonight and have a drink in the company of an incredibly good-looking man. She didn't know him well, but she sensed in him strength, courage, and character. And if there was something she'd become good at over the years on the run, it was knowing who she could and couldn't trust.
A few hours of conversation. One drink. She could handle that.
Jake Lawson knew the moment Holly decided to go with him. The change from wariness to acceptance crossed her beautiful face as if she'd decided she could trust herself as well as him.
And he was glad. Tonight, he wanted to quiet the memories that were always so loud. The ones that had gutted him and left a hole in his heart that nothing would ever be able to repair. He'd lost everything when he was a teenager.
He hadn't committed the crime he'd been accused of, but there was no use denying when no one was listening. Other than his grandmother, no one had stood up for his innocence. The entire town had deemed him, his brother, and his friends Mason and Cole guilty of setting an arson fire. They'd been rushed through the legal system with a public defender fresh out of law school and before he knew it, he'd ended up locked away in Butler Field, Texas Juvenile Correctional Facility.
He'd survived that hellhole, but his younger brother, Adam, had not. He'd been killed by one of the brutal guards and his death covered up. The lack of justice still burned like acid through Jake's veins, and he was determined to get revenge. He wouldn't quit until he hunted down the guards responsible for his brother's death.
"You're frowning. Did you decide you don't want my company after all?" Holly asked.
Jake snapped out of his thoughts and did a slow perusal of her body. While he was honest enough to admit to himself her delightful curves and shapely legs encased in the green tights grabbed his attention, it was the woman herself who intrigued him. Usually, he wasn't the kind of man to invite a woman he'd met out for a drink or anything else until he'd had his security team investigate her thoroughly.
It would probably be the wisest course of action to tell her who he really was, but he was sick and tired of women throwing themselves at him for his bank account. Tonight, he wanted anonymity. He wanted to have a drink with a woman who wanted to spend time with him, not his billions. Well, billions as soon as the upcoming deal closed.
"I'll arrange a pickup with Uber," he said, glad now that he'd left his car at home and had his chauffeur drop him off. Neither were exactly inconspicuous.
She folded her arms across her lush breasts. "Did you hear me agree?"
He shook his head and raised an eyebrow in a challenge. "Saw it on your face. You want to have a drink with me, but you don't want to want it."
He hesitated before hitting the app on his phone, waiting to see if she'd deny it. If she told him she wasn't interested, he'd move on. As much as he wanted to get to know her, pressuring women wasn't his idea of a good time.
"You're right." She arched her head toward the ceiling, exposing the soft skin of her neck, and groaned. "Why does temptation always come in such delicious packages?"
Looking back at him, she said, "Ever notice that? What's bad for you always looks so damn good."
"And tastes even better," he added. "But who says I'd be bad for you?"
She licked her full lips and gave a rueful laugh. "I'll go change."
Excerpted from "The Millionaire's Temptation"
Copyright © 2017 Sonya Weiss.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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