White-Hot Holiday

By: Coleen Kwan

She put on an expression of mock astonishment. “But I saw him down at the shopping mall just the other day!” She grinned persuasively. “C’mon. Santa’s a real man, and real men wear pom-poms.”

She was speaking to him like he was a five-year-old who needed to be cajoled into doing the right thing. Goddammit. He might not enjoy the silly season, but he wasn’t going to have her thinking he was petulant and difficult.

“Fine.” He took the elf hat from her and jammed it on his head.

Naomi grinned up at him. “Here, let me fix that for you.”

The hat was hideous, but as Naomi leaned closer to straighten it, he began to appreciate the benefits of wearing it. Her fingers brushed against his temples, causing him to take a quick breath, and as he did so, he inhaled her fresh, green scent. Her face was mere inches away, so close he could see her dilated pupils and count the tiny freckles on the bridge of her small, straight nose. She really was lovely. He held his breath, pulses suddenly hammering, transfixed by the acute urge to kiss her. Holy hell, how could he control himself against such temptation? He held himself rigid, half wishing she would stop this exquisite torture. Their proximity appeared to affect her, too. Her dense eyelashes flickered, and her fingers trembled before she stepped back.

“Uh, there you go,” she murmured.

Hope rose at her flustered appearance. Naomi wasn’t unmoved by him. Maybe she was even starting to like him, but if she did, she masked it well. Her demeanor became brisk and professional as she gave him a rundown of the store operations. They had a part-time waitress, Beth, who helped out in the café section, and Ally, who co-owned the store with Tyler, would come in for a while, but otherwise Naomi was in sole charge. She guided him around the art gallery, showing him what was proving popular this year and what was not. Aaron focused his attention on her as he realized being a retail assistant might not be as easy as he’d assumed. The gallery sold a lot of products, and he wasn’t familiar with any of them. If it had been loan refinancing and leveraged buyouts, he would have had no problem, but glassware, prints, candles, and jewelry were another matter.

He didn’t have much time to acquaint himself with the store before customers began to arrive. At first they were just a trickle, but it soon grew to a deluge. People came not just to shop but also to chat over coffee and cakes and snacks. The clientele were ninety percent women, and they seemed to find him quite a novelty, even more so when they heard his accent. He was kept busy all morning long, and by eleven thirty he was surprised at how tired he felt.

He’d just finished serving a customer when Naomi came up to him. “I’m impressed,” she said with a smile. “You’ve sold five of those stained-glass flowers in one morning. Those dimples of yours must be working overtime.”

He grinned, disproportionately pleased by her praise. “I can be quite persuasive when I want.”

“Hmm, that’s a worry.” She gestured at the street outside. “Why don’t you take a break now and grab an early lunch?”

“What about you?” he asked, aware that Naomi had been working far harder than he, as she’d had to manage the café as well as the gallery.

“I’m going to have a quick coffee and sandwich here now that Beth’s arrived.” She hesitated, then added uncertainly, “I thought you might like a stroll outside, but you’re welcome to join me, if you prefer.”

Aaron didn’t want a stroll outside. Small towns were the same the world over, whereas Naomi…well, there was still so much he wanted to find out about Naomi and not much time to do it.

“I’d love to join you.” He gave his dimples another workout.

As Naomi sat down at the table with Aaron, she tried to ignore the cheeky wink from Beth, their part-time waitress, who was wiping down a nearby table. Beth had been all agog over Aaron as soon as she’d spotted him, and she wasn’t the only one. Just about every regular customer wanted to know about the handsome, charming American helping out at the store. Who was he; where did he come from; how long was he staying? At one stage, Aaron had almost been mobbed by a group of ladies from the country club. All good for business, and Aaron had proved himself surprising adept at selling. So why had it niggled her to see him surrounded by admiring women, and why had the niggling intensified when she observed his suave manner with them? Could she actually be jealous?

Aaron lowered the tray containing their coffees and sandwiches, and she busied herself distributing the food. She couldn’t be jealous over him. Sure, those twinkling brandy-colored eyes and flashing dimples were entrancing, and she appreciated him giving up his time to help her out, but they weren’t compatible and had nothing in common.

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