Carly Gatlin stomped down the hallway carrying another box of sparkly, holiday-themed crap. She nudged open the door to Due South’s bar, her ears once again assaulted by non-stop music.
Seriously. If she had to listen to Michael Bublé sing Winter Wonderland one more time, there’d be bloodshed. No jury would convict her, since a girl could only take so much holiday cheer before homicidal urges kicked in.
West, her oldest stepbrother and boss, topped her hit list—insisting they play Christmas music for the two weeks prior to the Big Day. In second place came Kip, the hottie bartender—according to everyone possessing two X-chromosomes, anyway. If the man’s smug smile was any indication, her co-worker enjoyed watching her wince at the noise blaring from the bar’s sound system.
Due South was the hub of the tiny town of Oban on Stewart Island—travel any farther south and you’d hit Antarctica. Go figure why anyone thought Winter Wonderland was appropriate, when the only glimpse of ice here in New Zealand’s summer was the stuff served in glass tumblers.
“Now now, Zoomie,” her father’s voice piped up, as real as if he stood beside her. “Where’s your Christmas spirit?”
“Gone, Daddy.” Carly hauled the box through the doorway. “Disappeared the night you joined your flyboys in the big blue sky.”
“You say something?” From behind the bar, Kip paused in the act of tacking tinsel to the wall and glanced over his shoulder. “Hard to hear over the waves of good cheer rolling off you.” He had to raise his voice above Bublé jazzing about building a snowman. Ugh.
“Bite me,” she said.
Kip’s blue eyes crinkled at the corners, and he flashed his pretty-boy grin. Her lower belly squeezed around a little kernel of warmth. Weird. Since she’d arrived in Oban seven weeks ago for West’s wedding and had worked with Kip from almost day one, she should be immune to his charms by now.
Hmm, perhaps her immunity was on the fritz.
Carly dumped the box on a table by the corner West had designated as the Kissing Area. The corner was normally set up for musically inclined locals to perform or for the MC to use on quiz nights. But for the next ten days, people could position themselves in front of a huge Halfmoon Bay sunset poster with a bunch of mistletoe above their heads and take kissy-face selfies.
Ho-ho-ho. What fun.
Before the bar opened this morning, her job was to help Kip decorate Due South—starting with attaching a bunch of fake mistletoe to the ceiling.
Carly hoisted the step-ladder leaning against the wall into position. “Building up biceps, though.” She opened the ladder underneath the ceiling hook. “You’ll be one lean, mean, Christmas Grinch soon.”
“Do you ever stop talking to yourself?”
An embarrassing chicken-squawk of a sound exploded out of her and she whirled.
“Double-dammit! Don’t sneak up on me!” She bunched a fistful of the Due South polo shirt over her rabbiting heart. “What if I’d been up the ladder?”
“Then you would’ve fallen on your ass.” His gaze twitched to her hip level.
Kip Sullivan was the biggest flirt on the whole damn island. He stood five-foot-eleven, had dark brown hair, bright blue eyes above the devil’s own smile, and a muscled upper body barely concealed by his matching work polo shirt. And the way his jeans hugged his hug-able bits…
Anyway…He hadn’t earned the nickname “pretty-boy” in her head for no reason, and women drooled over him. Most women.
But not her.
Because the best way to enforce West’s low opinion of her would be to sleep with his bartender.
So. No sexy-time with Kip.
Carly grabbed the pre-tied, leafy bouquet from the box. “Since you’re here, hold the ladder steady.”
“Sure.” He braced his hands either side of the hinged spreader. “Up you go.”
Her heart gave another rabbit hop as his cologne curled into her nose. Spicy, sexy, understated yumminess. The kind of smell tempting her to use the mistletoe as an excuse to drag him closer.
The metal rungs vibrated under her ballet flats as she climbed, deliberately not staring at the sprinkling of chest hair visible beneath his shirt’s open collar, or his yummy throat, and even more yummy face. Yes, she’d noticed the muscled contours of his chest. No, she hadn’t imagined how far that crisp, dark hair trailed down below his collar. Much.
Concentrate on the task at hand, zoomie. She grabbed the ladder’s top rung.
“You’re not afraid of heights, are you? You look kinda flushed. Don’t worry; I’ll catch you if you fall.”
Carly looked down at Kip’s upturned face and his to-die-for long lashes. An Air Force officer’s daughter afraid of heights? Puh-lease. Afraid of the effect of men with big blue eyes and sinfully-scented skin? Just a smidgeon.
“This isn’t one of West’s better ideas,” he said. “Who’s going to donate a buck to charity and kiss their lady under a bunch of fake mistletoe?”
“Plenty of women around here would kiss you for a dollar. Mistletoe or no mistletoe.” Hell, they’d probably pay at least ten and cat-fight to be the first in line. “I don’t know why West insists on hanging it up instead of letting the guy dangle it over his girl’s head.” She looped the string around the hook.
“Because the way a man should kiss a woman requires having both hands free.” His voice was as smooth and intoxicating as eggnog, the kind her dad used to make with a healthy dollop of brandy.
It’d been a while since a man had kissed her like that—and even then, the guy had definitely not been as magnetic as Kip Sullivan. Carly’s knees trembled as if she’d downed a half dozen spiked eggnogs—not enough to tip the ladder, since he had a firm grip, but enough for her precarious balance to go AWOL.
Her gut plummeted first, and then Kip got a hell of a lot closer as she toppled off the ladder.
In movies, when a woman falls off a ladder, the leading guy swoops in and catches her with masculine agility.
Reality proved a little different and a lot more painful.
Kip lunged for Carly’s legs to steady her—an epic fail—but she slammed into his chest, a flailing mass of limbs, and propelled him backward. Some body part collided with his forehead, something else smacked him dead center of his chest, and a knee delivered the coup-de-grace to his balls. His butt whacked the table behind him, sending it screeching away. They collapsed to the floor, the spilled box of Christmas decorations tangled around them.
A not-so-manly wheeze exploded from his lungs. He folded himself inward to cup his throbbing junk, only to receive a face-full of long auburn hair and a whack to the ribs as the woman sprawled on top of him wriggled like a landed fish.
Kip fell back, his head thunking on wood.
Squeezing his eyes closed, he counted the thud-thud-thud of his heartbeat as blood pounded in his temples. Focused on not humiliating himself by puking all over his prickly pillow of tinsel. In his old life on his dad’s dairy farm, Kip’d had the memorable experience of a pissed-off cow kicking him in the gut. Right now, he’d prefer to deal with a pissed-off cow than the woman struggling to untangle herself.
“Stop. Moving,” he choked out, clamping his palms over his eyes.
Carly stilled, allowing the tiny elves stabbing daggers in his nut sack to do their evil work.
“Are you okay?” she whispered.
Most useless question in the English language.
He groaned, an oh-God-I’m-dying sound and ran through an internal diagnostic.
Head? Tender spot on forehead but not concave.
Chest? Heavy with female body slumped on it, but ribs seemed solid, despite receiving a beating.
Gut? Almost out of the danger zone of upchucking this morning’s breakfast.
Junk? Not happy, but since she hadn’t scored a direct hit, probably wouldn’t explode. And God willing, he’d be able to produce the grandkids his parents were desperate for. Maybe. He’d settle for working order, since kids meant a wife and family, and he wasn’t going there any time soon.
Kip’s hands slipped from his face and he blinked, flashing colors clearing from his vision. Carly had the most beautiful whiskey-colored eyes he’d ever seen. For a moment, the elves quit stabbing at him and he soaked up her creamy skin—flushed pink high on her cheekbones—the tiny beauty mark between her nose and her slightly parted mouth. He’d never been this close to her, and if death wasn’t imminent, he’d appreciate having her curvy body snugged up against him.
At least that’s what he thought she said. He couldn’t be sure, since her soft, lush lips were moving and causing all sorts of brain-to-body malfunctions.
Maybe he’d smacked his head harder than he thought.
With tentative movements, she scraped her hair off his face and tucked the strands behind her ear. “Can I move now?”
He raised a finger, his arm muscles like pureed gelatin. “Give me a sec.”
A small white tooth appeared on Carly’s lower lip, dimpling the skin as she bit down. “Did you hit your head? Oh, God. Concussion?”
“Nope. Damage is lower.”
“Your ribs? Crap, did I crack one?” Her forearm braced beside his ribcage as she pushed up a little to scan the length of him.
Just as well his junk was out of action, since the movement brushed her full breasts over his chest.
“Not my ribs. Or legs. Or stomach—though that feels like a semi-trailer dropped on it.”
“Then your—?” The pink spots on her cheekbones darkened, spreading up to disappear under her hair. Her gaze returned to his. “My knee hit you?”
“Connected with the meat and two veggies, yeah.”
“Oops. But you did say you’d catch me if I fell.”
He grimaced. “I’m a guy; we’re meant to say macho shit like that.” Then it occurred to him. “Are youokay?”
She patted his chest. “You made a great landing pad. Guess I’m no delicate, dainty flower dropping into your arms.”
More like a red-headed, smokin’ hot cannonball.
The bar door creaked open, and a gust of brine-tinted sea air blew in, followed by what sounded like a small stampede of buffaloes.
Honestly, couldn’t people read the Sorry, we’re closed sign?
Carly’s head jerked up. “We’re closed,” she yelled.
Then a flurry of warm female limbs moved over him, tinsel dragging over his face as Carly rolled off with a soft oomph.
“Uncle Kip! Uncle Kip!”
Little boy voices. Pitched high with excitement. In perfect stereo.
Kip remained flat on his back and arched his neck, gawping at two five-year-old boys dressed in matching shorts and tees. Two dark-haired heads, two wide grins, two sets of curious eyes.
His twin nephews, Lucas and Logan—which meant…
Two more familiar faces appeared, towering over the boys’ shoulders.
“Hey, boys. Hello, Mum.” Kip swallowed with a sawdust-dry throat. “And Dad.”
“Hi, Uncle Kip!” The twins chorused then dived into the tinsel.
“Aren’t you too old to be playing with decorations, son?” his mother asked.
His dad grinned so widely, he exposed a gold capped molar. James Sullivan was close to retirement age, though he looked to be in his early fifties. Nothing wrong with his dad’s deductive powers, either—the laugh lines crinkling around his eyes indicated the old man knew what Kip would rather play with.
“My fault,” said Carly from his side. Tinsel and clothing rustled as she scrambled to her feet. “I fell off the ladder, and Kip’s the collateral damage. I’m Carly, by the way. I work with your son.”
“Lovely to meet you.” His mum rushed over and skimmed her hands down Carly’s arms. “Are you all right? My Rachel fell off a barn ladder when she was ten, fractured her wrist, poor thing.”
“I don’t think I’ve broken anything, Mrs. Sullivan,” Carly said. “Except, perhaps, Kip.”
His mother’s head whipped around, eyes like CAT scan lasers examining him from his canvas shoes to his fortunately unbroken nose. Heather Sullivan in mother-hen mode was a terrifying thing. He sure as shit wasn’t telling her what part of his anatomy felt broken.
Kip propped himself up on his elbows and restrained another groan as his balls throbbed. He held up a palm. “Mum, I’m good.”
His dad edged around his splayed legs to offer him a hand. “Workplace accidents, eh? Bugger.”
Kip grabbed the outstretched, callused palm, and with the extra boost, his dad hauled him to his feet and straight into a back-thumping man-hug. His old man was still as strong as a two-year-old Holstein-Friesian bull. As soon as he let go of his dad, his mother snagged him, dragging him in and squeezing his wrist, no doubt checking for protruding bone shards.
Kip loved his parents, he really did.
But he loved them more when they were in Bounty Bay, near the top of New Zealand’s North Island and over eight hundred miles away from his life down here.
“What are you guys doing here?” A moot question. A better one would be: Now that you’re here, when the hell are you leaving?
His mother folded her arms and gave him the Maternal Overlord stare. “Since you were too busy working last Christmas to come home, and then this year we receive an e-mail—an e-mail, not a phone call, mind you”—she directed this last comment at Carly, as if expecting his co-worker to agree with how terrible a son he was—“saying you can’t make it home for our family Christmas again, your father and I decided to bring the family to you.”
Ice water flushed through him. “You what? Who’s with you?”
“The boys, obviously,” she said, angling her chin at Logan, who was currently tying his brother Lucas to a chair with tinsel. “And Lizzie. Tara and Grace are at the house we rented, and so are Vee and wee Ruby. Steve and Adam don’t arrive until the twenty-third.”
“Of December?” His voice soared up into the soprano range. He coughed and rubbed the back of his neck.
“Yep,” his dad said, obviously enjoying watching Kip squirm. The old man’s blue eyes, characteristic of all the Sullivan clan, twinkled. “We’re staying in Oban until New Year’s.”
Three of his five sisters, two brothers-in-law, twin nephews, a teenage niece, and a wailing eight-month-old? Here for nearly three weeks? Kip glanced desperately around the bar. Was it too early for Happy Hour?
He swallowed. “New Years? But what about the farm?”
His dad grinned like a man who’d covered every option and knew he had the enemy beat. “Got it all sorted. Don’t you worry about us.” One bushy eyebrow flicked up in a silent message: You didn’t worry about the farm when you cut out on us.
Kip brushed aside the nugget of guilt blossoming in his gut. He’d come to terms with his decision nearly two years ago. Didn’t doubt for a moment his parents were here in an attempt to haul him back into the Sullivan fold, though—only his dad was wily enough not to raise the subject…yet.
“We weren’t going to miss your birthday again.” His mother turned to Carly. “He turns twenty-seven on Christmas Eve.”
Carly’s lips peeled open in a huge smile. “Kip’s a Christmas baby?”
“He’s our Christmas miracle.”
“A miracle?” She fake-widened her eyes. “Well. Isn’t he just the sweetest Christmas gift, then?”
Sweet—one of a few words a guy doesn’t want to hear from an attractive woman when referencing him. Cute and adorable were also unacceptable.
“Like the Baby Jesus, but better looking, according to his mother,” his dad said.
Forget Happy Hour; Kip would ask Pete Mackenzie to put him out of his misery with one of his hunting rifles.
His mum swatted his dad’s arm. “Oh, hush, you. At twelve weeks premature, you know his survival was a miracle.”
“Looked like a plucked quail when the surgeon lifted him out.”
Death by gunshot was not fast enough. Cue the corkscrew behind the bar.
“Mum.” He wrapped his arm around her shoulder. “Nobody wants to know the gory details of your C-section—”
“I don’t mind,” Carly said.
“And we’ve got a lot of work to do before the bar opens,” Kip continued, ignoring her. “How about I come see you all tomorrow morning for your world-famous farmer’s breakfast?”
His mother hurrumphed and rolled her eyes. “Always with the food, this one.” She flicked her gaze to Carly. “I’d like you to come too, honey. An apology for my son letting you fall off that ladder.”
Carly glanced at him, a slight question in her eyes. She must’ve read some of the panic on his face, as her lips twisted into an evil smile. “It wasn’t entirely his fault, Mrs. Sullivan. But I’d love to come for breakfast; thanks for asking me.”
While Carly and his mother continued to exchange the usual baffling female pleasantries, he and his dad untangled the giggling twins from the tinsel. Kip’s gaze flicked to his father and James gestured a subtle thumb at Carly, raising his eyebrow again. Kip shot him a wry smile and shook his head. Nope, not doing it with the pretty red-head. His dad pulled a face that said, “Then you’re an idiot.”
Kip shooed his parents and the hyped-up twins out of Due South, promising the boys as many horsey rides as they wanted tomorrow morning. He turned to see Carly bending down to gather up strands of tinsel, her slim-fitting black pants clinging to a truly miraculous ass.
Perhaps his dad was right.
He was an idiot for denying the attraction brewing between them over the last seven weeks. But then, perhaps his first instinct of trouble-in-pretty-gift-wrap was right.
(c) Tracey Alvarez 2014
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