His eyes lit up, and his whole gorgeous face broke into a grin. "You want to go get a tree?"
"Is this the part where I can say ‘Bah Humbug?’"
"You don’t like Christmas?"
"Like is such an…inadequate word," I told him, moving to his side as he dug through the bag. It looked more like a bunch of craft junk than Christmas decorations. "I loathe Christmas."
Owen stopped and looked at me, surprised. "Why?"
I shrugged, but even as I did, I felt a thick knot forming in my throat. "My Pops died a few years ago right before Christmas." Hell, I couldn’t even make it through the words without getting all misty eyed. I swallowed hard and waved a hand, trying to make light of my tears. “It’s fine.”
"Ah, damn. It’s not fine. That sucks." Owen grabbed me and before I could protest, he dragged me against his chest in a hug. “I’m sorry, Boston.”
I was stunned. He hadn’t seemed the most demonstrative of people when I’d met him, and having him hug me now threw me for a loop. He was big and warm, though, the top of my head brushing against his chin. And his arms felt great. I sighed, fighting tears. "Sorry. I keep telling myself every year it’ll be different and I won’t get upset this time."
"I understand. You need a distraction.”
“Yeah. You’re stuck in your memories, that’s all. You need new ones so you don’t think of the sad ones when you see a tree or a candy cane."
It didn’t sound like a bad idea. "Maybe, but it’s kinda hard to do. I can’t suggest it to my mom," I told him. "It’d be like trying to replace Pops."
"Here’s the perfect time, then," he said, and wrapped his arms around me. I could have sworn I felt his mouth press on the top of my head. He’d probably done it in the heat of the moment as a mistake, not realizing who I was. Then, his hand tapped my arm. "I know."
"We have an axe in the woodshed. I bet I can find a better Christmas tree than you can."
I snorted. "Are you kidding? You have terrible taste. Look at your wardrobe."
"Sounds like a challenge," he said slowly.
And I knew I was being goaded into it, but I was grinning, so I didn’t much care. "You’re on. Hot water up on the table as the prize?”
WE BICKERED OVER TREES FOR most of the afternoon. I wanted a huge one. After all, why not go in style? But Owen had argued (quite sensibly, curse him) that the last thing we wanted was to haul a massive tree all the way back to the lodge and try to put it up with just the two of us.
So we settled on a nicely sized tree, though neither of us could say for sure which one pointed it out first.
I let him chop down the tree, though I critiqued his swing. And we both dragged it back (which also turned into a race, because that was just how we were). Then, we managed to get it inside and placed in the corner of the lodge before dinner.
We had sandwiches, and then set to decorating. Kitty’s bag had included string and needles and a bag of popcorn for popcorn garlands, and construction paper for colorful chains and snowflakes. It was going to look like a kindergarten Christmas tree, but it would be one-hundred percent ours. And it would be fun to decorate.
"I’m totally making my chain longer than yours, Cupcake. Check this out." I spread out the red and green links that I’d been chaining together for the past hour between bites of my sandwich. "You’re not going to be able to compete."
"That’s because the popcorn’s so much smaller," he protested. He had the needle and thread and was stringing the popcorn on. "We should time how long we get in a half hour and then switch, and see who comes out ahead."
"You’re just jealous because mine’s bigger than yours,” I said archly.
He snorted. "Trust me, Luna, that is not a phrase most people say to me."
My mind went to dirty, dirty places.
MY MIND REMAINED IN DIRTY places for the next day, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of Owen. Why had I hated the man? He was competitive, just like me. I understood that.
He was also flat-out gorgeous. Everything about him drove me wild with lust, from the way the corners of his eyes crinkled a little when he smiled, to the liquid gold color they seemed to be when he was concentrating, to the way his big hands moved when he cooked. I always made him cook, and it was mostly so I could watch him.
When he showered, I tried not to think about him soaping up his big body with those big hands…which meant, of course, I could think of nothing but that. When he went to sleep, I pictured him in bed, limbs twined in the sheets. Did he sleep nak*d? I pictured that, too, and found myself flustered and needing that cold shower before I slept.
I’d gone from despising the guy to having an amicable rivalry with him…to lusting after him. I was pretty sure the lust was purely one-sided, though, so I kept my dirty thoughts to myself.
Kitty showed up the next day with more groceries and a new bag of stuff for us. She looked pleased at the sight of our tree, and we spent the rest of the day making more garlands and festooning the lodge with them. The rivalry remained with Owen, but now there was a weird sort of tension behind it, and every time his fingers brushed mine, or his body brushed up against my own, I’d tense like a skittish cat.
Which was silly. Owen wasn’t acting any different. It was me being the tool.
The next day, I worked on my script for part of the morning while Owen made more cookies for the crew. They’d asked for seconds of his – and told me to stay out of the kitchen. Owen had laughed his head off at that request, and I’d mock-scowled, though I thought it was kind of funny, too. We worked companionably. When I’d get stuck (as I often did), I’d call out a question to Owen, and chatting with him always jarred the stuck part of my story loose. It was great.
That afternoon, we chopped wood since we were low. Even though we’d made it a contest, Owen chopped three times as much as me. I protested that it was because he was a guy. Owen said I couldn’t use his gender against him. We’d called it a truce and headed in for showers, and I changed into comfortable pajamas to sit in front of the fire. Owen had promised me s’mores, damn it, and I was going to collect tonight. I wore a pair of leggings and an off-the-shoulder oversized t-shirt, since it mixed comfy with ‘just a little sexy’ since my bra-straps showed.
When I arrived downstairs, the fire was already going. Big pillows to sit on and a lap-tray with chocolate, graham-crackers, marshmallows, and skewers sat in front of the pillows. I picked a seat and sat down, looking around for Owen. I didn’t see him anywhere. "You coming?" I called out.
"Yep," he said, emerging from the mud room and shutting the door behind him. "Sorry. Was working on something."
I frowned over at him. "Working on what?"
"Nothing important, Boston." He rubbed his hand on his shirt. Owen wore his typical cupcake shirt. Strange how such a big guy could make something as silly as a cupcake shirt rather masculine.
"Uh huh," I said. "Well, wash your hands and let’s have some s’mores, shall we?"
"Sure." He seemed unusually tense tonight. Edgy, almost. I watched him as he washed up, frowning to myself. When he sat down next to me, he wouldn’t look me in the eye.
"What’s bothering you?" I asked him.
He looked over at me for a long moment, and said nothing. It looked as if he was considering saying something, then, shook his head. "Nothing."
"Riiight." I gave him a skeptical look.
He rubbed at his thick, dark hair. "Can you help me with something?"
"What is it?"
"It’s in the mud room," he told me, and again, he wouldn’t look me in the eye.
“But you just came out of there.”
“I know. But I need help with something.”
"Are you getting weird on me, Cupcake?" I asked him.
He snorted his answer.
I got to my feet and, curious, I headed to the mud room. The door was shut and I pushed it open, stepped down into the cold little room that we kept our boots and jackets in, and looked around. "Should I put my boots on?"
"Nope, you’re fine." He moved forward and steered me a little toward the center of the room.
"Fine for what?"
"Fine for this," he said, and pointed above me.
I looked up and saw….mistletoe hanging from the ceiling.
My face turned bright red. "Owen, I–"
He leaned down and kissed me.
I was so surprised that my mouth was hanging open a little when his descended. I felt his tongue flick against my open mouth, then just as quickly pull away again. And then Owen was looking at me like there was something wrong with the scenario. Like it hadn’t gone the way he’d pictured it in his mind and he was disappointed.
"What?" I said, the single word sounding more brusque than I intended.
Owen sighed. "I…nothing. Sorry. Let’s just go eat, okay?"
I watched him, confused, as he left the mud room. What was going on? He’d kissed me and then changed his mind? Did he not want to kiss me? Had I not responded properly? He hadn’t really given me a chance to respond at all.
I mean, what the fuck? You didn’t just drag a girl into a mud room, give her a quick smooch, and then run off. Who did that?
Bewildered, I returned to the main room of the lodge. Owen was sitting in front of the fireplace, busily spearing several marshmallows onto his skewer. He looked over his shoulder at me. "You going to come eat?"
It was like nothing had happened.
I sat next to him, picked up my skewer, and resisted ramming it up his nose. "I’m confused."
He glanced over at me. "’Bout what?" He picked up a chocolate bar and then made a face. "These are already half melted because we had them too close to the fire."
"Forget the chocolate bars," I told him, tempted to knock one out of his hand with my skewer. "What just happened back there?"
"Well, I hung the mistletoe there because it was the only place I could reach the roof without getting out a ladder. I figured if I dragged the ladder out here, you would have noticed right away."
I blinked at him. "But why mistletoe?" I felt like I needed concrete answers and the man wasn’t giving me any.
He looked at me with those gorgeous, warm eyes. "It’s a Christmas tradition? You kiss someone under it–"
"I know how mistletoe works!"
"–And I wanted to kiss you." He shrugged and turned back to the fire, shoving his marshmallow-covered skewer into the flames. "Sorry if it made things awkward."
My mouth worked to form a protest, but no words came out. I didn’t know what to say. Did he kiss me just because he felt like it? Because he was bored? Or because he wanted to kiss me?
He glanced over at me. "Quit staring at me, Boston. You’re making me jumpy."
"I just…" I swallowed. Thought. Picked up one of the chocolate bars. Kept thinking. "I guess I just don’t follow."
"Why you’d want to kiss me?"
He didn’t look in my direction, and I could have sworn there was a hint of a dark flush on his cheeks. "I thought it was pretty obvious, Boston. I like you."
I was speechless. That seemed to happen a lot around Owen lately. He liked me? Even though we bickered and fought over everything? Turned the smallest of things into a challenge? He liked me? That was crazy, right? I mean, I liked him, but I thought I was crazy for that, too.
"I…" I began to speak and looked down to compose my thoughts. As I did, I noticed that the chocolate I was clutching was in the process of melting all over the wrapper, and I’d dripped some onto his skin. His gorgeous, gorgeous, lickable skin. "Oops," I said, pointing out his hand.
"Oh." He raised it in the air, and then looked around for a napkin.
I grabbed his hand and dragged it to my mouth, and swiped at his skin with my tongue. Delicious.
His gaze moved to my face, and Owen stared at me for a long, tense moment.
"Did you just…"
"I bet I can kiss better than you," I said, as breathless as him.
Owen threw aside his skewer just as I moved forward and grabbed his shirt. Then, our mouths locked and we were kissing – oh god, were we kissing – and his tongue slid against mine and it was incredible. His hands slid up and down my back as I made small whimpering noises. We were frantic with lust, tearing at each other’s clothes.
His mouth slid over mine, hot, wet, slick, and full of need. "I don’t know," he murmured. "I’m a pretty damn good kisser."
"So am I. I have to admit I’m not seeing anything impressive yet.”
"With my kissing?" He looked startled.
"That’s right," I dared him. "I think I need to see some more imagination if you’re going to win this thing."
His hands cupped my face, and he leaned in and gave me the longest, most exquisite kiss I’d ever experienced. His tongue lapped at my mouth so sensually that I was stunned I didn’t come right then and there. I moaned in protest when he broke it off.
"How was that?" he murmured, his tongue trailing along my jaw.