Quickie Corner






Taking the Bait


     He'd been watching her off and on all night. A small, huddled figure at the back of the boat, wrapped in some god-awful shawl and moving every half hour to lose the contents of her stomach over the railing. Damn. It was taking her a long time to empty out.
     Mark should have felt detached, indifferent, but something kept drawing his eyes back to the forlorn figure.  Why was she more compelling than the half drunk blonde who'd attached her self to him? Mark snorted. Easy question. He hated overwhelming perfume and vapid conversation. And if his erstwhile companion 'accidentally' stumbled into him one more time, he was going to stop being a gentleman. Hell. He might be tempted to be a prick, anyway. What was it she talked about now? Daddy's stock portfolio? Not interested.
        The woman at the stern leaped up again and turned to heave aft. Her small body shook, and Mark winced with sympathy. He glanced at his watch. At least she wouldn't suffer much longer. If the boat charter for his buddy's engagement party remained on schedule, they'd be docking soon. And speaking of his friend... Doug's voice from the deck above called out for his attention.
        "Mark. Yo, Mark." His friend howled. "You dog, you. Nice arm candy." The man of the evening, along with his fiancée and a couple roommates from college days, sat on the upper deck and leered drunkenly down at Mark. The group, as a whole, was feeling no pain. "Way to go, man. Sweet hook-up."
      Mark tilted his head to the blonde who clung, nails drawn, to his arm. When had she become attached? He peeled her fingers away.
  "Not my type," he called back to his inebriated friends, slapping a fake smile on his face.
     That earned a laugh from Doug. "Oh, yeah. I forgot...you have a different agenda...perv."
     And Mark called these guys pals? Spare me, he groaned. Mark looked at his watch and timed the group, knowing exactly what they'd say next. He counted down. Wait for it...wait for it... Ten years was a long time, but some things never changed. And cue...
     "Sorry to disappoint you, honey," Doug roared to the arm-clinger, hysterical at his own impudence. "But you picked the wrong dude. Mark only dates jail-bait." Everyone above laughed uproariously at the joke.
     Ha, hah, thought Mark, rolling his eyes. He was so over this. But at least this time their banter produced a positive result. The blonde spider-monkey backed away from him to squint up at his accusers.  "What?" she managed, vacuously.
     While she waited for her an answer, Mark smoothly skirted a table and ducked, unseen,
around the corner. With luck, drunk girl would forget all about him, or at least find it difficult to track him in those ridiculous eight inch heels.
     Safely hidden away under a staircase, Mark thought about his friend's taunts. They'd had some efficacy a long time ago, albeit inadvertently, but he'd made sure his mistake was never been repeated.
     Mark had been twenty the last time he'd come to Boston. Two of his roommates lived locally. Stu and Doug. They'd stayed at Stu's house for a few days over summer break, but on one particular night Doug's parents were away and they'd moved their base of operation, prompting a large get-together the pair's old high school friends. 
     Beer had flowed, spirits were high, and Mark flipped a burger on the grill when the most exquisite creature he'd ever laid eyes walked onto the deck. She smiled and his mouth went dry. Holy hell. Mark lost it, then and there. This woman, he had to have.
     Mark had come on to her instantly, strongly, and far from pushing him away, she returned his flirtations boldly. When she'd cozied up close to the grill, the temperature of his libido spiked to incendiary. The girl's long dark hair curled provocatively over bare shoulders. She wore some kind of tiny tube top that did little to disguise her lovely breasts. And when he offered to share his burger, she sat right down beside him--pressed thigh to thigh--and let him feed her bite after painfully erotic bite. Despite his mind-numbing attraction and atypically, near tongue-tied-ness they'd enjoyed the most connected, laugh filled conversation he could ever remember having with a female.
     By the time nothing but crumbs remained of the burger, he was entranced. Almost panting with need, he'd questioned her with his eyes and she'd licked her lips in silent approval. Mark quietly drew her off into a dark corner, gently pushed her up against a wall and ravished her mouth with reverent yet exuberant attention. She'd returned his caresses with fervor.
     Doug found them just before Mark's hand made it into the top of the girl's cut-off jeans. Thank God.
       "Cut the shit, Mark. That's my sister."
     Doug hadn't socked him, but Mark didn't know how his friend held back. He pulled Mark away instead and yelled into his face. "She's fifteen, asshole." He turned to his sister and glared. "Goddammit, Lacey. You're not supposed to be here. Get the hell up to your room."
     Without another word, Lacey had spun around and fled, leaving Mark with a raging
hard-on, and a legacy that had followed him to this day. The good thing? Far from disowning him, Doug had understood Mark's confusion in thinking Lacey was one of the older guests. But as fitting retribution, he'd never let Mark live the incident down.
     And Mark had never forgotten Lacey.
     He had to chuckle in the dark as the yacht pulled in to the pier. In the subsequent
college years, his occasional hook-ups never lived up to his memory of Doug's lovely sister. And he had yet to find a woman to hold his interest. Perhaps until now.
     He shifted his position on deck and his eyes went back, seeking the woman at the stern of the boat. Why did he find her so intriguing? She gained independence from the rail and took a few tentative steps toward open deck, but still looked unsteady. Screw it, thought Mark. It might be weirdly quixotic, but he couldn't talk his brain out of going to her rescue. His feet took him swiftly to her side.
     "Can I help you off the boat?" he asked, clearing his throat. "I, uh, couldn't help but notice that you were sick."
     The woman didn't look up, but mumbled something unintelligible while attempting to move around him.
     Mark blocked her way. "No, really. I just want to make sure you're okay." He didn't know why he insisted. She obviously didn't want his help.
     Their maneuvering brought them into the open where his friends had a clear shot at him again, and Mark prayed that they'd keep their mouths shut. The last thing this girl needed was to hear the shit they dished. He reached for her arm. "How about it?" he persisted. "Let me give you a hand."
     "Mark."
     Great. Doug. Mark bit back the impulse to tell the guy to mind his own business, and , keeping his head low, attempted to move around his friend. His new charge resisted, and with her reluctance, he didn't get two feet.
     "What the fuck, man?" Doug back-handed him in the chest. "Cut the crap. What is it with you and my sister?"
     His si... Huh? Mark froze on the spot. He looked down at the shawl-covered head that barely reached his breastbone. No way. It couldn't be. He swallowed...and waited.
     Slowly she unwound her scarf and let it drop. She raised smudged, gray eyes to his and regarded him, her small body trembling.
     Bloody hell"Lacey?" Mark didn't recognize his own voice. It squeaked from his throat as he took in her shiny dark hair, her pert little nose and the uncomfortable twist to her mouth.
     "Hi Mark," she whispered, huskily, and everything deep in his gut, danced.
     "Hi, yourself." Mark's brain came up with two things, simultaneously. First, he would definitely be the one to bring her home, and second, (mental fist-pump) Lacey stood before him, a twenty-five year old woman who still made every cell in his body stand up and take notice.
     "Let me take you home," he heard himself saying. "I just need to get my keys." Doug had made everyone place their car keys in a locked box below, so that a designated key-keeper could determine whether people were sober enough to drive. Good idea, but it would take Mark away from Lacey while he retrieved them. He didn't like that one single bit. "I'll just be a minute," he chafed, a bad feeling in his stomach. His feet pounded down the companionway. It took him less than a minute to retrieve his keys and return, but by the time he came back to the main deck, Lacey was gone.
                                  ****
     The knock on her door had Lacey cursing under her breath. It had to be Doug. Her
brother was such a busy-body, but screw that. She wasn't fifteen any more. She had her own apartment, a full time job, and he couldn't stop the attraction she felt, regardless that it was all for naught.
     She assumed Doug had come to warn her off. Well, he had nothing to worry about. Despite the instant attraction she'd once again felt toward Mark, she'd made a terrible fool of herself. Her cluster-fuck of barfing had been extremely attractive. Clearly she'd totally blown it with the man of her dreams.
     Doug had been fast, coming to scold. Lacey had barely thrown on some sweats, and the toothbrush attempting to sweeten her breath still perched haphazardly in her mouth. She'd brushed three or four times already, but the taste of bile was persistent. Of course. It was probably in her nose. Yuck.
     What had she been thinking? She always got sea-sick. But when Doug invited her to his engagement party, and let slip that Mark would be there, Lacey knew she had to attend. Just to get a look at him. He'd haunted her mind for ten years, ever since their soul-sharing kiss on the deck of her parents house. And she needed to know if he lived up to what she imagined...and had held as a template to every other guy she'd ever dated.
     So yeah. He had. Mark was hot. Even hotter than when he was twenty. She'd remembered his dark eyes and squared off chin correctly. But had he grown taller? Six foot two? Three? Who cared.  He still looked snuggling-under-his-chin height. Just perfect.
     Lacey sighed. His body had filled out nicely in ten years. The way his chest muscles
bulged under his dress jacket and white shirt was downright sinful. He'd eschewed a tie, and the buttons undone at his neck showed a sprinkling of dark hair that triggered a fine memory. She remembered pressing her nose against him, and inhaling the clean, soap smell of his skin.
     She slowly walked to the door, absently mushing the toothbrush around in her mouth.
     Lacey had watched Mark deal with a sexy blonde all night, and she'd silently cheered every time he'd peeled her off. She might have even imagined that his eyes had sought her out.  Wishful thinking.
     Between bouts of puking, she sat and wondered if Mark remembered her at all. Probably not. He'd been twenty, and she'd been a kid. Just because she'd never gotten him out of her mind, chances are he'd forgotten she existed the minute Doug had sent her to her room.
     Dammit. Doug. He knocked again. Lacey used her sleeve to wipe away a dollop of toothpaste foam, and with the brush still hanging from her mouth, she sprinted the rest of the way down the hall to answer the door.
     "What the hell, Doug," she groused around bristles. Lacey removed the chain and yanked the door open. Oh shit. Please let the floor open up and swallow her whole. The grinning face of the last man she ever expected to see returned her greeting.
      "Hi, Lacey. It's not Doug." His eyes roamed her face like molten chocolate.
     "Mark," she drooled down her chin, and groaned. Argh. So smooth. Surely he'd tag her for a loser now, cut his losses and leave.
     Mark reached forward with a gentle hand and wiped away the fallout. He looked more beautiful than any human being had a right to be. "I hope you're feeling better." His gaze darkened with a need he didn't disguise. "You don't know how glad I am to see that you've brushed your teeth."
_____________________________________________________________________


The Encounter


     Whitney crouched low in the driver seat of her car, focusing myopically through the one spot on her foggy windshield where her car's defrost cleared. Junk-box, she groused silently. And tonight was the night she had to forget her glasses? Of course.
     Rain beat down a relentless tattoo on her roof, and she held a death grip on the wheel while navigating the unfamiliar city streets. If she got out of this unscathed, she would never leave the safety of the suburbs again. What a stupid impulse, thinking she should greet someone she'd never met before at the train station. And then, duh, because of traffic, she missed the damned inbound by twenty minutes. And yup...the platform had been empty of humanity when she finally arrived.
     Luckily she'd done some apology texting, but now she needed to get home as quickly as possible to meet her guest, and her car and the weather were doing her no favors.
     The sudden glare of headlights in her rear-view made her curse. Damn. She hated those big SUV's. Their illumination always aimed directly into her mirrors. She huffed, then rolled her eyes forward.
     "Shit!" The yellow traffic light directly in front of her turned red. She barely managed to slam on her brakes. A split second later, before she could draw a breath, a massive jolt to the rear of her car sent her lurching forward in her seat-belt. The airbag exploded in her face.
     White powder--she knew it wasn't smoke--burst from the safety device, making it difficult to see, but she refused to panic, and instead, coughingly took stock.
     Her nose hurt from the impact of the bag, and her eyes watered from both pain and the irritant in the air, but other than that she seemed to be in one piece. Whitney felt, rather than saw her door being opened.
     "Ma'am? Are you alright?" A deep, masculine voice filled with concern wafted into her car.
     "I ab." Whitney coughed, then moaned when she moved her hand to her nose, pulling it back to see blood. Okay. Maybe she wasn't.
     "Stay still for a minute," the voice ordered. Fingers pressed gently at the bridge of her hurt appendage. "Now lean your body slightly forward."
     Whitney moved to comply when his touch stopped her. "Careful. I'd rather you not bend your neck," he advised quietly.
     Whitney did as she was told, although if left to her own devices, she would have dropped her head back. Wasn't that what you were supposed to do when you had a nosebleed? But the male voice had given her instructions so nicely, it made her want to please whoever was attached to it.
     "Is there any sharp pain?" He spoke again, while with a calm, sure touch he lightly palpated her nose. His fingers caused nothing more than mild discomfort.
     "Doh," she answered, sounding like Homer Simpson, but the smooth, deep chuckle that resonated from her care-giver, let her know she'd said the right thing.
     "That's good. I don't feel anything broken," he assured her. "Here." He raised her hand to her nose. "Keep applying pressure while I get something to clean you up." 
     The blurry figure rose from his crouch and backed out her door, picking up her...what...purse...where it had fallen in the street. He called back over his shoulder as he retreated. "Oh. And I'm really sorry for running into you."
     What? Mr. Tender-hands was her rear-end collider? He of the giant SUV with mega-watt headlights? Whitney hated that. And suddenly she felt furious.
     She hung onto her nose and loosened her seat-belt at the same time. She stumbled from the car, overcome by a coughing fit and accompanied by earth-spinning dizziness. Ah hell. She was on her way to a face plant, she could just feel it. She groped the air helplessly, but right before she went down, two strong arms circled her shoulders.
     "Hold on, there." That soothing voice again, but Whitney suddenly remembered who it was attached to. She tried to twist away, but strong hands didn't let go. He gave Whitney a bark of an order while effectively trapping her. "Stop."
     Oddly, she did.
     "You need to keep still in case there's a neck injury," he scolded. "EMT's are on the way." His voice quieted. "When you have an injury, you're not supposed to move until they give you the all clear."
     "You hid me," she accused, still not enunciating correctly. She blinked back the fuzziness and focused on a broad chest now no more than six inches from her bloodied nose--which thankfully no longer dripped.
     "Well, technically, my car hit you." Was that amusement in his voice? "And if you hadn't slammed on your brakes..."
     "Are you sayig id was by fault?" Whitney's voice rose.
     "Let's just wait for the police, shall we," he answered quite reasonably. "We can do all the report stuff and place blame after you've been checked out."
     Had he seriously just brushed the hair away from her forehead in a warm, possessive gesture? That felt really nice, but...
     Whitney huffed. Tough. She didn't want charming, even if he remained the only thing between her reeling body and the pavement. She wanted vindication. When you got rear-ended, it was always the other guys fault, right? Righteousness took over. She would inform her human prop that he wasn't going to get away with a thing. Whitney took a couple of deep breaths, and with her eyes finally in focus she raised them to issue a challenge and...every word she wanted to utter, died in her throat.
     Oh. My. God. She drank him in. The man was  utterly beautiful. And Whitney didn't mean beautiful in a girly kind of way. No. This guy was aged-whiskey, one hundred proof handsome, and just like that dangerous alcohol, he wiped all the vowels and consonants right out of her head with one small sip.
     He must have taken her dumbfoundedness for accident-caused confusion, because he suddenly looked worried and hastily lowered her to the ground. "Stay still," he commanded with an air of don't- mess-with-me, and it was then that Whitney noticed the green fatigues and military t-shirt that clung to all of his glorious muscles. Okay. So the command thing came naturally.
     Geeze. She blinked. He'd opened her purse and taken out her wallet, extracting her ID, and she just let him. So, yeah. Definite brain injury. Or hero-worship. Whitney dreamed of larger than life, swooping to the rescue males like every other girl, but she never thought she'd be quite this overcome by a guy in uniform. She swallowed hard. Damn. It must have been the blow to her face that made her such a sap. Yeah. That was it.
     She squinted up at the super-god, feeling sucker-punched, but more reasonable now that she lay prone. He was probably right. The best thing to do was to stay quiet. No matter what she did: ranted and raved, hemorrhaged blood, or threw herself into his arms, he'd most likely attribute it to her befuddled state. And who's to say he wouldn't be right? Because she must be having some kind of hallucinations. She could swear he now studied her with way more absorption and intensity than necessary.
     Whitney became aware of sirens--loud sirens that shut down abruptly--and figured that help had arrived on the scene. She tried to turn her head, but the soldier who'd taken control of her mind and body, held a firm grip on her chin. "You really don't like being told what to do, do you?" he murmured, and now she didn't imagine it. He paid much closer attention to her than the situation warranted. He smiled right down into her face while one hand smoothed her unruly curls back in a comforting gesture. Holy shit. She could lay here and let him do that all night. Okay. Time for medical intervention.
     Oddly, Whitney felt almost bereft as the soldier let her go and two very efficient EMT's took his place. He stood back and conversed with a police officer, handing him her wallet and ID. She didn't see what happened next because the medic shined a light in her eyes, then up her nose, took her vital signs, and asked a bunch of are-you-concussed questions while palpating her limbs. She must have passed with flying colors because, eventually, they let her sit up, cleaned the blood away with an economy of motion, and asked politely if she wanted a trip to the hospital.
     Just as politely, Whitney declined, signing a form to let them off the hook. As she watched them walk away, she grunted. Now how the hell she was going to get up? Her legs didn't feel anywhere near ready to support her.
     "Hey, Whitney." That lovely deep voice hit her in the solar plexus again. "The police want a quick chat, and then when you're through, I'll take you home."
     She was a tad out of it, but not so far that she didn't notice he'd used her name and knew where she lived. "Uh, guy? Have you been in my wallet?" she asked waspishly.
     "Guilty as charged," he replied happily.
     "So you do understand that when I turn up dead later," Whitney continued, "the police know you're the last person I talked to?"
     That amazingly warm chuckle encircled her again, a luscious rumble in his large chest escaping from between perfect lips. "Yup," he agreed. "The last person you talked to, and the last person you texted." His smile appeared even broader.
     "Texted?"
     He helped Whitney to her feet and maybe, just maybe she was still a quart short of a gallon, because...what the hell was he talking about?
     He caught her look of consternation, but instead of more words, he pulled his cell phone from his back pocket and held it up in front of her face, pushing a few buttons.
     Wanted to surprise you, but I missed your train, dammit!
     Wait. Hadn't she written that, earlier?
     Wow. Didn't expect that. Am in a rental and picking up a quick burger. Next GPS location, your house. You still want me? He'd responded playfully.
     Whitney stood rooted to the spot, as the implications washed over her. Oh my God. This was Mike. Her soldier. Mike! She'd been e-mail pals with him over the course of four tours of duty in Afghanistan, and although they'd agreed--early on--that all their communication would be done in writing, they'd shared everything else about themselves: their names, hometowns, and countless dreams and secrets. Whitney knew all there was to know about him...except what he looked like. Their meeting had been a long time in the planning.
     Whitney remembered giving no hesitation with her answer. Hell, yes. I can't wait to meet you! :)
     Her heart clenched as she took in the handsome, grinning face that devoured her where she stood. Whitney bit her bottom lip, so overwhelmed that her gaze went back to his phone again, where she read her response.
     Can't wait to meet you...
     She looked up into the eyes of the soldier, her best friend for the past three years, and let loose a smile that held all the joy in her heart. She reached out a trembling hand and stroked his square, solid jaw, unable to believe it.
"Really? It's you?" Her voice trembled.
     "It is. And Whitney? I'm really pleased to meet you." He drew her close, giving her time to draw away if she wanted to, but...hell, no.
     His mouth slowly descended to capture hers, and Whitney marveled that a night which had been so bad, suddenly turned magical.





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Wishful Kicking

     Jeb knew he'd picked the wrong door the minute he stepped inside. A dozen or more bodies reclined in the semi-darkness, while others sat beside them. He couldn't see particulars. The lights were too low. What the hell? He'd been looking for the x-ray department, and this sure as shootin' wasn't it. He spun on his boot for a quick escape, but a hard, firm hand grasped his bicep then shut the door, cutting off his escape.
     "You're late. And where's your partner?"
    Jeb eyed the stout woman who had hold of him and started to speak, but her glare cut him off. She put a finger in front of stern lips. "Do not say a word," she whispered testily. "Some of these women are already deep into their meditations."
     So that was the reason for bodies strewn helter-skelter. He choked back a laugh. Definitely not his scene. He stifled a cough. The air filled with some kind of flowery smell that Jeb supposed tried to be pretty, but it totally missed the mark as far as he was concerned. He went to raise his hat to beg the stalwart woman's pardon, and found it tugged from his fingers and tossed to a table.
     "Since you came in alone, I'll assume your companion didn't show up." The woman pointed toward a body in the corner. "Olivia has the same problem. You can partner up with her." She gave him a shove in the direction indicated. "And take off your boots," the woman hissed.
     Jeb didn't know how he could leave without making a scene, so he shrugged instead. How long could the damned class take? Twenty minutes, tops? He'd play along, then he'd skedaddle and get his x-ray before heading back to the ranch. He knew his brothers could do without him for the day, but it still burned his ass not to be there to help unload the new horses. Damned inconvenient--not to mention stupid--getting kicked by the first stallion out of the trailer.
     He limped across the room, favoring the knee in question, and wondered how the hell he was going to lower himself to the floor. The damned thing was so swollen he couldn't bend it, and short of doing an inelegant flop, he remained at a loss. Pondering all this, he almost missed that the woman...what was her name...Olivia?...stood to greet him. When he focused on her, one totally messed up thing came to light. His mouth dropped open. Oh no. Not on your life. This wasn't just a meditation class. This gathering was for gawl-blamed pregnant ladies, If Jeb hadn't been up close and personal with his two ready-to-burst sisters-in-laws at home, he might have dared stay. But his brothers' wives had wised him up. Gestating hormones scared the hell out of him. He was so out of here.
     "Hi." Olivia greeted him quietly before he made his get-away. She glanced down at his leg while hitching a shoulder at sergeant pushy near the door. "I heard she's partnering us up. Do you need some help getting to the floor?" Olivia had astutely taken stock of his situation as he crossed the room.
     Jeb searched for a polite way to beg off when the woman turned her smiling face up to his. He stuttered, then swallowed, hard. Stunning blue eyes regarded him from a pale, gamin face, and without meaning to, he found his brain shutting off, and his mouth smiling back.
     The girl...Olivia, was a little bit of a thing. No taller than his breastbone, if not for her burgeoning belly, a good strong wind would have blown her away. High cheekbones emphasized the grin she gave him, and his hands itched to tuck the stray blond hairs into the long, thick braid that hung over her shoulder. God-damned beautiful, thought Jeb, then bit down on his tongue and reminded himself. Someone else's wife.
     "I'm here by mistake," he managed to whisper, but apparently not quietly enough. Mistress-Maternity at the door gave him a look to kill. Well pardon him for having more of an outdoor voice, than a drawing room drawl. He spent most of his days whooping at horses and cattle, not tippy-toeing around remunerating moms-to-be.
    Olivia took his arm and fire shot up and down his spine. Holy hell. Jeb hadn't felt that in a long time...and he wasn't going to now. Married and very pregnant, he told himself. Get a grip.
     "Let's ease you to the floor before we're kicked out and you can tell me all about it." Olivia's voice must have passed protocol because she received not so much as a glance from the wrangler in charge. Then before he could protest, one strong, steady arm went around his shoulders while the other surrounded his waist. The vanilla scent of shampoo filled his nose and knocked the smell in the air on its ass. Seems like the battle ax had made a mistake. Bottling Olivia was the way to go...or maybe not. Her smell left him far from Zen. Jeb gulped for air as she lowered him to the floor, and thank God she mistook his discomfort for pain.
     "Did I hurt you," she asked following him down and settling in beside him. Her voice tickled his ear.
     "No ma'am," he choked. "I'm fine." That was a lie.
     "I'm Olivia," she said, holding out that electrifying hand again. Jeb steeled himself to take it.
     "Jeb," he answered, and yup. There it was again. Live wires where his guts should be. How was he going to survive the rest of the class?
                                      ****
     Olivia looked the tall, broad cowboy up and down. He appeared equal parts hell-raiser and Mama's good boy if she wasn't mistaken. His original glare at Nurse Ames had indicated where she could put her class, but the polite words that came out of his mouth told Olivia that he'd been brought up well. The minute he stepped foot in the door, she knew he'd come to the wrong place--and she suspected the nurse did, too--but her friend Doreen hadn't showed up today, so he'd been recruited whether he liked it or not.
     And did he like it? Olivia puzzled over that one. He'd seemed hell bent on leaving when he reluctantly limped across the room, but when he turned his melting chocolate brown stare to hers, she'd seen the fight go right out of him. If she wasn't mistaken, there'd been something else in his eyes, but that had to be wrong. Nearly eight months pregnant, she was nobody's dream. Her mouth went tight. Certainly not her smooth talking boss's. The minute he'd found out she was carrying his child, he'd sent her as far away from his New York office as possible.
     To give him credit, he hadn't just up and fired her. She'd been "relocated". Of course, that might be because he worried about a paternity suit, or a stink that would jeopardize his relationship with his fiancée. Yeah. Fiancée. Not that Olivia had known there was one until she'd dropped her happy bomb. Silly her. Ironic headline: Girl from small town taken in by suave boss. She almost laughed. She'd learned her lesson as he showed her the door. Nothing said go away quite like being transferred to Montana.
     Olivia had cried for about two days, then bucked up and put the past behind her. She had job security, a small but serviceable apartment, and a child on the way. She cut the asshole from her address book, then drowned herself in work, completely avoiding a social life. Yes, she lunched with a couple of the women in her office, and had become friends with Doreen, but that was it. All work and no play would make a safe life for her and her baby.
     In the six months since she'd been here, Olivia sure as heck hadn't come across any of the cowboys who roamed these parts. Cowboys that her new friend sighed over. But ogling the square rugged face of Jeb, she wished maybe she had...before she'd gotten as big as a Montana barn. Who would look at her now? She had to be imagining the interest in his gaze. She was a really bad judge of men.
     Shaking off her delusions, she remembered his original statement and urged him to talk. "You said you were here by mistake," she prodded.
     "Yes ma'am. I was looking for the x-ray department, and stuck my nose in the wrong door..."
     Before he could continue, Nurse Ames brought the room back to attention. "All right ladies. Now that we're all calm. We'll move on to our breathing exercises."
     Olivia looked sheepishly at Jeb. "Do you mind?" She expected him to get up any second and leave, but she was surprised, and secretly overjoyed when he gave her a nod.
     "I don't have a clue which end is up," he drawled. "Well, I guess that's not quite true." He drew a bead on her swollen stomach and gave a chuckle that she felt all the way to her toes. "I guess I can figure this out, if you help me along."
     "No problem," she sighed, and when she settled back onto her pillow, the baby chose that moment to kick.
     "Was that...?" Jeb reached out a hand as if to touch her moving mountain of a belly, then snatched it back. Well, hell. Why couldn't she have picked a caring cowboy like Jeb to have fathered her child? He seemed like a natural. Olivia shook her head. No sense thinking along those lines. She was in this alone, and he'd move on to be nothing but a stranger.
     The balance of the session was the best she'd ever had. Jeb took and gave direction well. He joked, and it almost seemed as if he cared. Olivia was unrealistically disappointed when the clock showed the class to be over.
     She struggled to her feet, feeling much like an elephant seal, and stifled a laugh that the big cowboy had a tough time, as well. "Can I help you?"
     She heard him bite back a curse as he reached full height--which looked to be well over six feet--but he put on a gracious smile and shook his head. "Not letting a delicate pregnant lady haul me up," he drawled.
     "What happened, anyway." Olivia had to ask, pointing at his offending limb. The way Jeb was built, it must have been a Mack truck that hit him hard enough to injure that muscled leg.
     "Kicked by a horse," he mumbled, and she realized that the admission embarrassed him. He had nothing on her.
     "Screwed over by my boss," Olivia let slip, and slapped a hand over her mouth. Had she really said that? Jeb's eyebrows went up and she groaned. Damn. She'd just aired her dirty laundry out loud.
     "No husband then?" he questioned with a hard to read look on his face.
     "Nope. Afraid not." Olivia knew the color moved up into her cheeks, so she bent to retrieve her purse to get away from his penetrating stare.
     "Then let me take you to lunch...after my x-ray," he said, his gaze warm as she stood.
     Olivia's knees just about buckled. Holy crap. It looked like Montana wasn't going to be as lonely as she'd imagined.
     "I'll take you up on that."                    


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The List

        Nicco rapped his knuckles quietly on the door and pushed it open. "Hey big guy." He moved inside, knowing he didn't need an invitation. "I get that you're really busy right now, but something's come up and I need your input."
        Merry, twinkling eyes glanced up from a pile of paperwork. "Nicco, my friend. Not a problem. It's always good to see you. I thought you'd be knee deep in your own seasonal hell right now." The boss indicated his overflowing desk.
        "I am," Nicco laughed. "Mine's just a little neater." He held his laptop up for Santa's wry perusal. "I'm not sure why you don't get on board with the latest technology. It's not like you can't have anything you want," Nicco smirked. "You've been on the 'Nice' list for centuries."
        "Ho, ho, ho." Santa rolled his eyes and gave a sarcastic smile at the oft issued nudge for the reduction of hand written clutter, but Nicco knew his traditionalist employer would never change, so he dropped the chatter and got down to business.
        "If you could risk your eyeballs on some LED's for a second, I'll show you a problem I've run into." Nicco opened his laptop, woke it up and scrolled quickly to the item he wanted Santa to see. He pushed papers aside and set the computer down amidst the mess. Nicco blew out a frustrated breath and pointed. "Right there. Line twenty two. Kareena Lavalier." He drew his finger across the screen. "Tell me what this means?" He tapped the entry. "I've seen Naughty, and I've seen Nice, but I've never seen anyone with this designation before."
        "Huh. Naughty/Nice," the man in red intoned, then raised his eyes up over his glasses to give Nicco a long stare. It was the kind of look that all the guys joked about: the kind that felt like Santa gazed deep into your soul. Nicco must have imagined it, because as quick as a wink, the big man shook his head and closed the laptop--then sighed. "It looks like you'll have to go investigate."
        Nicco rocked back on his heels. That wasn't what he'd been expecting. "Whoa. Santa." He held up his palm. "Let's give that a little thought. I understand this is damned strange, but," he looked at the man whose arms were now resolutely crossed over his big belly, "remember what happened when you sent Miki, and then Ed down to check out a problem?" Nicco swallowed hard.
        "I remember," Santa said quietly. "Two of my finest men." He shook his head. "They never came back."
        "Right." Nicco felt a twinge of apprehension crawl up his spine. He'd never left the North Pole. Traveling south, to...where was the woman from...Lowell, Massachusetts? It had been the farthest thing from his mind when coming across the anomaly. "And now you expect me to...?" He found it hard to finish the thought.
        "It's part of the job, my friend." Santa drew back from his desk and came to his feet. "How old are you, Nicco?"
        "Thirty two, Santa."
        That elicited another sigh.
       "Well, it's time one of these little problems popped up on your list." He clapped a hand onto Nicco's shoulder and gave a gentle squeeze. "Go pack a bag, son. I'll arrange for transportation. Be ready to leave first thing in the morning."
* * * *
        Nicco stood in the ankle deep slush on the opposite side of the street, looking at the address he memorized. It was dusk, and it had taken him all day to get here.
        Shit. It wasn't the finest looking house on the street, and it stood right across from some seedy looking abandoned buildings. That couldn't be safe for a single woman. He scowled. For the first time, he felt thankful for his ruse.
        He hesitated--gathering his thoughts--before committing himself. Nicco drew a number of interested looks from passers-by even though, contrary to popular folklore, he did not stand four-foot-two with pointy ears. Most of Santa's workforce didn't fit that description. Nicco was just over six feet tall, with dark, swarthy features that could have had him hailing from anywhere in the world.
        Two current gawkers? A couple of hip-swaying women...working ladies if he wasn't mistaken, who put a little extra swag into their ass motion as they passed him by. Nicco, not conceited, also knew he wasn't tough on the eyes. His shoulders were broad, his belly flat, and he'd never had a shortage of women at the North Pole interested in keeping him warm. So he'd expected some kind of notice from the ladies in the lower states.
        He gave the pair a broad grin and a shake of his head in the negative. Much as he was tempted to find out what interesting things the natives had to offer, he didn't have time to play. He was here for work...and not their kind.
        Nicco centered himself and went over Kareena's statistics again. Twenty eight years old. Five foot five. Brunette. Construction worker it said on her bio, but didn't give details as to her specialty...if she had one. Living alone. Both parents deceased. One sister in Miami, Florida. Not much to go on, but Nicco knew what had to be done. He had the newspaper in his hand, folded back to her ad that would hopefully gain him admittance. Taking a deep breath, he crossed the street to her house.
        His feet hit the doorstep and he raised his finger to ring the bell, but found it non-functioning; hanging drunkenly from one wire. Okay. Electrical contracting, not her forte. Nicco resorted to a loud knock.
        "Just a minute."
     He heard the melodious voice within and a smile came to his lips. Kareena sounded sweet. Footsteps approached from the other side of the door and it swung open a crack. Nicco was pleased to see the safety chain engaged. Large green eyes moved up to meet his.
        "Who the fuck are you?" Kareena snapped.
        Right. Maybe not so sweet...but damned cute. Her hair was not just 'brunette' as the dossier had suggested, but a halo of colors: auburn, chestnut and mahogany. Her nose tilted up, and even though it winter wound cold fingers around New England, the tiny apendage was covered with a healthy smattering of freckles. Her body, or what he could see of it in baggy sweats and through the crack of the door, seemed tantalizingly proportionate. Nicco fought back an instant attraction. He shook himself to get his head back in the game and held up the newspaper.
        "I'm responding to your ad." He waved a file folder around as if it were identification. "You're looking for a roommate." He strove for his least threatening voice.
        "And how the hell would you know that?" Her eyes got greener and instantly filled with suspicion. "I didn't put my address in the ad. Just a PO box."
        He contrived to look sheepish. "I'm friends with Bill at the newspaper, and I bribed him to give me your address." Thank goodness Santa and crew had done their homework and given him that "in". He could see that otherwise, Kareena wouldn't have given him the time of day.
        "I'm sorry if I overstepped boundaries, but I've been looking for a long time..." His tongue stopped functioning as his mind drifted to focus on her lips. So soft. So inviting. Wait. What? "Uh...I've been looking for a room in an actual house. One that I can afford," he finished sheepishly, and gave her his brightest smile--the one that always got him what he wanted--the one with just enough Christmas magic in it to sway even the crankiest of hearts. "I hate apartment living." He watched her melt. Not too much. But it was enough.
        "Remind me to change papers," she groused half-heartedly, removing the safety chain. "There's such a thing as privacy issues. And the reason I advertised for a roommate is because things around here have become a little less than safe." Kareena eyeballed the street behind him before beckoning him inside.
        Nicco ran a hand through his thick, dark hair and reluctantly gave her a way out in case his presence made her nervous. "If you want, I can just leave you my cell phone number and you can call me to schedule..."
        "No." She turned to walk down a short hallway before bending to fuss with something on the floor. "Now that you're here, I might as well interview you." When she stood up to face him, her hands no longer  remained empty. "But don't think I'm a total air-head." She waved around her acquisition. "This is a cordless nail gun, and if you turn out to be a creep, I won't hesitate to pump a few rounds into you. Where it will really hurt."
        "Ouch." Nicco grimaced, but kept the smile pinned to his face. "Although...don't those things have safetys?"
         She snorted. "Over-ridden."
       Despite his tender bits being in jeopardy, he really liked Kareena. Really liked her.
        She indicated a doorway with a wave of her weapon. "I'm Kareena, by the way. And you are...?"
        "Nicco." He held out his hand to shake but let it fall limply when he realized hers were still full. "Uh, Nicco Clauson. From Canada." He stuck to his cover story.
        She didn't seem to think anything sounded unusual. "Okay Nicco. Let's head to the kitchen and I'll take your references."
        He skirted around her, catching a whiff of crisp winter air and freshly cut wood that clung to Kareena like a blanket. Nicco nearly groaned. Did she have to smell like two of his favorite things?
        "Coffee?" she asked, headed to a pot on the clean but well-loved Formica counter-top. She indicated that he should take a seat at a small wooden table.
        "Sure. I'd love a cup." Nicco sat. He enjoyed coffee. But truly? In a cliched Santa's-helpers kind of way, he preferred cocoa but he wouldn't tell Kareena that.
      He watched her pour the thick, black liquid into two cups and place them on the table. He wondered, trying not to grimace, how long the pot had been sitting.                  Thankfully, Kareena pulled a carton of milk from the fridge, and quickly made a sugar bowl and spoon appear near his right hand. If the slightly burnt smell was any indication, serious doctoring would be necessary. Kareena, on the other hand, sat and took a long chug of the noxious liquid and didn't blink.
        Nicco began speaking and attempted to divert attention from his crucial, life-sustaining, beverage-ministrations. "So what is it you do for a living?" Since he already knew, he could stir and listen at the same time.
         "I'm part of a framing crew," Kareena supplied. "House framing," she qualified. Her eyes narrowed, waiting for his response.
        "Yeah. I figured. You wouldn't need one of those things to finish off a water color." Nicco jerked his head to the framing gun she left next to the pot. He was rewarded with a quirky grin, and just like that, Kareena went from beautiful to stunning.
         Unfortunately, Nicco sucked in an appreciative breath at the same time he took his first sip. The coffee caught in his throat and he became helpless to stop the barrage of explosive coughing that followed. His nostrils stung, his eyes watered and Kareena went from smiling to full on laughing. Despite his discomfort, Nicco was damned if he didn't want to keep his strangling fit alive just to see Kareena's uninhibited joy.
        "Sorry," he wheezed, grabbing the napkin she held out to mop his face. "It's a little strong."
        "Right," she goaded. "Even after you used half the sugar bowl."
         Shit. She'd noticed. "Okay. You caught me. I'm a lightweight," he admitted.
        Did her eyes just run appreciatively over his broad shoulders? She leaped to her feet and turned too quickly for him to tell.
        She opened the refrigerator again and rummaged around. "I have one of those kid-friendly bottles of mocha-something-frappa-crappa-cino that someone left here a couple of months back." Nicco got a good long look at a nicely rounded posterior that her baggy sweat clothes did nothing to hide. He sighed over the view...and the change of beverage.
        "That sounds right up my wimpy alley," he supplied absently. His hands itched to touch her back--to move around Kareena's tight little waist. Wait. What was wrong with him? He was no fledgling elf to get carried away by a female figure. But for some reason the nearness of Kareena made it damned near impossible for him to control himself.
        While his mind roared with unexplored possibilities, his hostess put a small bottle down in front of him and once again took a seat. "Now tell me about yourself."
         Nicco fought his libido and barely won, pushing the file he'd brought with him over the tabletop instead of dragging her forward across it.
        "I was raised in Canada and fresh out of school went to work for an investigative services company. Now I've been transferred to their office in Boston." That was the cover story Santa had concocted. Nicco had been told that the companies were real and would verify his employment.
        Kareena opened the file. "N.P.I.S." she read. "And that stands for...?"
      "Nor..." Nicco, more than a little distracted, swallowed back the true company name, and remembered to give the one he'd been coached to reveal. "National Protection Investigative Services." He coughed, this time to cover the lie that didn't trip well off of his tongue. In truth, Santa had told him that the firm was called North Pole Investigative Services. The general public was unaware of that moniker.
        "So. Law Enforcement of a sort. Do you do SWAT team stuff like on TV?" She raised an eyebrow.
        "Nothing so dramatic." Nicco laughed, sticking to the truth of his North Pole job. "Mostly I do computer searches and background checks. We're a private company who works hand in hand with...higher powers."
       Kareena asked him more questions which he answered and vollied back to find out more about her. When they were through with the talking part of the interview, Nicco was no closer to figuring out why she'd been given a "Naughty/Nice" designation. This process might take longer than expected, and why did that make him so happy?
        When it came time for the tour, Kareena showed him a very comfortable home, and a modest but warmly furnished room at the back of the house--accompanied by a very small bath--that would be his if she agreed to have him. He nodded, trying to appear relaxed, but Nicco found himself clenching his fists so as not to reach for Kareena, every second. He wondered if he might have caught an interested look in her eyes, too, but no. She'd managed to keep everything between them calm and professional. God knows if she gave him the least little sign that she welcomed his advances, they would warm up his new room so fast their heads would spin.
        After what seemed like a very short time, Nicco found himself standing once again at her front door, and had to concentrate to understand what she said.
        "My job tomorrow will run a little late, so how about you come by at say, seven. If your references check out, I'll have you sign a lease."
        Nicco blinked. "Just like that?" he asked, and received a warm smile in response to his question.
       "I like you, Nicco." Kareena turned shy all of a sudden, something that didn't look totally natural to her character. Like she'd spent too much of her life filled with suspicion.  "There's something about you that's very real...and very...positive. I think you'll be a good roommate." A pretty rosy color suffused her cheeks.
        He'd be more than that if she let him, but he kept that thought to himself. "That's great." He stuck out his hand and their fingers met in a shake. Tingles went all the way up his arm, and by the look on her face, Kareena felt it too. Oh Lord. He was in such trouble.
        He walked away, reminding himself that Kareena was just a job. The first thing he needed to do? Find out what her 'Naughty/Nice' designation meant. Then he might be tempted to...to what? Nicco didn't know. He'd figure that out later.
* * * *
        It was nearly seven o-clock, and once again Nicco stood across the street from Kareena's house. He went over the mind-boggling events of the day. On Santa's advice, he'd made contact with the N.P.I.S. office where he had been purportedly hired, and found--much to his delight and amazement--both Miki and Ed, his old buddies from The Village.
        "What the hell...?" He'd stood inside the office getting man-hugged and slapped on the back. They'd both worn shit-eating grins and told him that they'd been expecting him. As they showed him around, some of the other employees looked vaguely familiar, but Nicco was really thrown for a loop when he recieved a cubicle and a desk.
        "Whoa. Boys. Slow down. I won't be around very long. As soon as I find out what Kareena's classification means, I'll be headed back to the Pole."
        "Yeah. Right." Miki slapped him on the back of the head. "Don't think anything of it. We're just giving you a place to park yourself until you...figure things out." For some reason this sent both men into gales of laughter. As confused as Nicco was about their behavior, he couldn't help but feel right at home as they put him onto a computer and gave him some investigative tasks to keep him busy.
        The day flew by, and once the clock hit six PM, he became so anxious to get back to Kareena that he forwent dinner and waited in the cold so he could catch sight of her decked out in work boots and a tool belt. That thought probably shouldn't have been so enticing, but for some reason the idea of her in work-gear really made him hot.
        A beat up green pick-up slowed down and turned into her driveway, and sure enough, Kareena's lithe form dropped from the high cab as soon as the headlights went dark. Construction garb never looked so good.
        Nicco enjoyed the view, when a movement in the high bushes edging Kareena's house caught his attention. Dammit. Who the hell was that? Another potential roommate? Just as he worked his mind around that possibility, a light from a passing car strafed the yard, and Nicco saw the shiny glint of a blade gleam in the quick flash.
        "Kareena! Watch out!" Nicco yelled, but his voice got drowned out by a Logan bound jet passing overhead. Shit. He sprinted across the street, dodging a car--whose owner leaned angrily on the horn--and yelled again. This time, fumbling with her keys, Kareena heard him and looked up.
        She shrugged questioningly, but followed his hand motion to where a shadowy figure rapidly emerged. Her eyes grew wide and she turned to run back toward her vehicle, but the intruder was faster.
        Kareena let out a sharp yell as hands shot toward her and grabbed a fistful of hair, yanking her to a halt. Nicco closed in, but his feet felt clumsy and slow, and his heart beat in his throat as he watched her send an elbow into her assailant. Finally he reached them. He seized the intruder by both wrists, twisting and applying pressure, causing the man to let go of Kareena's hair but barely avoiding the lethal knife.
        Nicco strained and growled. "Get in the house, Kareena. Call the police." Nicco labored against his wiry opponent. He had muscle as an advantage, but the guy was street tough, and not above playing dirty. He aimed a wicked kick to Nicco's knee.
        Pain shot up his leg as the blow connected, and Nicco momentarily lost his grip. The knife came at him, swung in a wide arc, and Nicco managed to duck out of range just far enough that the blade caught him across his shoulder instead of slashing his throat. Somewhere behind him he heard Kareena scream. He roared in anger, the pain making his instincts sharper, and launched himself at the assaulter, taking him to the ground.

  Nicco landed a punch. Then another. But the mugger  panicked and frantically managed to free himself. He wrapped both hands around Nicco's neck and squeezed. Nicco couldn't loosen the man's grip, so rolled instead, attempting to wrench  himself away, but all too soon he began to see stars. If he could just get a breath...

  A loud whack registered somewhere and the sudden release of pressure on his throat allowed Nicco a gasping influx of air. His vision cleared and what he saw made his soul sing. Kareena stood over the now prone body of the intruder with a short piece of two by four clutched in her hands. She'd whacked him in the head. His heart swelled. What a woman.
        "Are you okay?" She dropped the wood and came down on one knee beside him. "Oh my God. You're hurt." He glanced to where her eyes took in the blood dripping from his shoulder.
        "It's nothing," he rasped, his throat abraded, but functioning. "That guy..."
      "Don't worry. He's not going anywhere. And I called the cops. They should be hear any minute."
        Nicco struggled to sit up and Kareena's warm hands came around his shoulders to help him. When his eyes met hers, he saw worry and concern. He hesitated for a split second, but couldn't help himself. He leaned forward a scant few inches and brushed her lips with his.
       He felt her in-drawn breath. Damn. He'd overstepped his bounds. The moment he would have withdrawn and apologized, Kareena surprised him. She leaned toward him, sought his lips again, and pressed harder.
        Nicco groaned, and it wasn't from the pain in his shoulder. This burn was much better, and much lower in his gut. He took over, seeking...teasing...and her mouth opened under his. Nicco became lost. He'd never felt this connection before...with anyone. He was where he belonged, and he knew it with every fiber of his body. By the trembling beneath his hands, Kareena felt the same way.
        Sirens sounded, and Nicco managed to draw his head back to look into her eyes. "This isn't just an adrenaline-fired response to having a bad-guy on your lawn, is it?" he asked, making it sound like a joke. But he wasn't joking in the least.
        "Nope." Kareena shook her head. "I was already crazy attracted to you last night, and today at work I almost fell off a beam...twice...thinking I'd get to see you again tonight."
       Nicco sighed and leaned his forehead against hers. "Tonight and for as many nights as you'll have me." He moved to nuzzle the side of her neck, and loved the little noise she made in response.
        Kareena pulled back, reluctantly, even as his hands remained firmly on her arms. "The police are here Nicco...with an ambulance. Let's see what they have to say about your injury, and then we'll talk about where you're going to spend the night." Kareena's eyes danced impishly in the glow of the red and blue lights flashing around them. Nicco struggled to his feet and swayed a little--whether from loss of blood or promises yet unspoken, he wasn't sure.
        They stood side by side as the police bundled the intruder away, then tried to remain patient as their statements were taken. The paramedics determined that Nicco's long knife slice wasn't deep enough for stitches. Several butterfly bandages and a tetanus shot later, he smiled broadly as he and Kareena, arms tightly wrapped around each other, made their way into her,..and his new home.
* * * *
        Nicco awoke the next morning and tiptoed into the kitchen, leaving Kareena cozy and sleeping in the bed they'd shared. He rummaged in his jacket for his cell phone. There was one important call he had to make. He dialed with shaking fingers.
        "Hello, Santa?" Nicco cleared his throat. His decision had seemed so easy last night, but now he found himself nervous as hell. "It's Nicco."
         "Hello, my boy. It's good to hear from you. What have you found?"
     Nicco felt his face grow bright red. "I, uh, found out what 'Naughty/Nice' means, and ummm...it's...not such a bad thing," he began. "As a matter of fact, it's all good. Very good. This will probably come as a surprise, but with your permission, I'd like to stay on here...with Kareena. She's someone very special," he admitted and coughed. Before Santa could speak, Nicco continued. "Miki has assured me that I have a job with his agency if I want it. I'll be calling him next to take him up on his offer...if that's okay."
        Nicco held his breath. Was he expecting an argument? The voice of sanity from Santa? What he got instead was a great big "Ho, ho, ho!"
        "Ah Nicco. I'm happy for you, my boy. And don't you worry about a thing. I have someone in mind who can move right into your old job. But don't think you're getting rid of me that easily. You'll be hearing from me on occasion."
        "Santa," Nicco choked up. "I can't thank you enough. I don't know what's come over me. I just have a gut feeling that it's my time to move on."
        "Quite so, Nicco. You need to follow your heart. Goodbye, son, and don't worry. I'll get the new guy to change Kareena's designation."
        Nicco felt warm arms go around him from behind, and he smiled, fully content. "Thanks S...sir, and goodbye."
* * * *

        At the North Pole, Santa drew a sheet of paper forward that had been sitting under a pile of chocolate kisses all year.
         "N...N... Ahh. There it is." Santa put a big red check mark in the box next to Nicco's name. "Nice." He said with satisfaction. "Very, very nice."