LOVE AT THE CHOCOLATE SHOP – Book 10
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New Year’s Eve
Sometimes, a girl just wanted to have fun.
Gretchen pursed her lips to apply the unnaturally bright and shiny Liquid Sin to her lips. Liquid Sin. Gretchen had laughed out loud when the woman at the makeup counter had picked out the aptly named color for Gretchen’s spur-of-the-moment makeover.
“Girl, you’re going to make Prince Charming’s knees go weak when he sees you at the ball.”
Except Gretchen’s Prince Charming was a stranger. A blind date arranged by her new boss. A man someone on social media had labeled The Prince of Playboys.
“Strange word.” She blotted her lips with a piece of tissue. Too outdated for someone as hip and cool as Daniel Andrews. She tapped her phone to see his online profile photo again.
A squiggly thrill ping-ponged through her upper chest.
Heartbreaker-slash-modern-day-pirate worked better than playboy. Thick, gorgeous hair. An earthy loam lightened either very professionally in a salon or very fortuitously by the sun. His lovely square jaw sported a beautifully masculine shadow of beard.
Will I get whisker burn when we kiss at midnight?
In high school and college, she’d only dated boys who were clean-cut and wholesome looking, the kind who fit her good-girl image. An image that, with luck, was going bye-bye tonight.
One doesn’t reinvent oneself and keep all of one’s old baggage. Like the virginity she’d naïvely saved for the father of her future children.
A familiar tightness in her chest made her stare critically in the mirror. Too much cleavage? Maybe I should have left my hair down.
She gave a tug on the silky material of her dress for modesty’s sake. She knew what Samantha, her sister the pastor, would say when she saw Gretchen’s outfit—but tonight was about change, about letting go of old dreams and opening to fresh possibilities in Marietta, Montana. Her new home.
Not a move Gretchen had anticipated or planned for, but sometimes life didn’t give a choice.
A light tapping sounded on the door of the parsonage’s guestroom where Gretchen had been staying for the past couple of weeks. “Knock. Knock. Your date just drove up, Auntie. In a limo.” The last came out with a squeal.
Makayla. Fifteen. Amazing. Gretchen still remembered holding her newborn niece for the first time at age seven. From that moment, she’d known beyond any doubt that she, too, would be a mother. Someday.
She swallowed hard against the lump in her throat and pushed to her feet. Her ankles wobbled on her ridiculously high heels, and she bumped her thigh against the old desk she’d been using as a makeup table. “Coming.”
Did her voice sound tight and squeaky? Darn. She needed to work on throaty and sexy if she were going to seduce the playboy prince tonight.
She threw open the door and stepped back, hands out. “Well, what do you think? Will my date be impressed?”
Makayla’s mocha, heart-shaped face lit up with excitement. “Oh, my gosh, Gretchen, you’re gorgeous. He’s going to fall in love with you.” She reached out to touch the soft, nearly liquid material of the gathered, floor-length skirt. “Your dress is amazing.”
The bodice was made of the same material but cleverly fitted to her form with a sweetheart neckline and beaded cap sleeves that gave the dress an almost off-the-shoulder look. The inch-wide belt made her waist look thinner than it normally was. Six months of stress and depression had killed her appetite.
“I can’t believe your boss gave you a designer gown.”
“Technically, it’s on loan.”
Krista Martin, one of the partners of BlueSky Promotions, was a self-proclaimed Hollywood brat who had access to hand-me-down designer gowns through her actress sisters. “Krista would have worn this if she wasn’t on the West Coast with my date’s older brother.”
Gretchen slipped the white, fake fur jacket that had come with the dress off the padded hanger and picked up the small silver purse she’d filled earlier in the day. “Would you carry these for me, honey? I hope my date remembered the invitations. I’ve heard this event is pretty hoity-toity.”
Makayla laughed. “Funny word! Must be a Detroit thing. I’ve heard Mom use it, too.”
“Speaking of Sam. Where is she? Not grilling my date on the stoop like Dad would, is she?”
Makayla made a pouty face. “Probably. Luckily, Gage is here, too. He helps tone down Mom’s…um…enthusiasm some.”
Gretchen smiled. Her sister was the most zealous pastor she’d ever met. Samantha never tried to convert a stranger to the church, but she’d talk an arm and a leg off to bring them into the family fold—and in Pastor Sam Zabrinski’s opinion, everyone was family.
Gage Monroe, Gretchen’s brother-in-law, had already proven invaluable in keeping Sam from prying too aggressively into Gretchen’s reasons for moving to Montana. At the Christmas Eve cast party for members of Cornerstone Mission’s Living Crèche, he’d stood between Gretchen and Sam like a referee when Samantha’s second eggnog made her demand to know the real reason behind Gretchen’s impulsive move. “Your sister will tell you in her own good time, Samantha. Give her some room to get settled.”
“We’d better hurry. I don’t want him to hightail it and run the other way. Krista told me the food was prepared by a famous chef and the dessert bar is to die for.”
She took her niece’s hand and squeezed it the way she had whenever they’d walked together throughout Makayla’s childhood, from toddler to teen. Until Gretchen left for college, she’d probably seen Sam and Makayla every day. Then, two and a half years ago, Samantha was offered her own ministry in the small town of Paradise, Montana—a short drive from their father’s family in Marietta.
“You’re not coming home tonight, are you?” Makayla asked in a low whisper. “I heard you and Mom talking.”
Gretchen’s cheeks heated up. “As I told your mother, I have no expectations, one way or the other. But I’m done setting limits on myself, too. I’ve played by the rules all my life. Now, I’m not.”
She stopped short of the living room door and put her lips close to her niece’s ear. Makayla’s tightly curled Afro tickled Gretchen’s nose and made her smile. “But I’m twenty-two and a half. You’re not. Don’t forget that.”
Makayla rolled her eyes. “Yes, Mom.”
Mom. A brutal shaft of pain sliced through Gretchen’s chest wall, exposing the still-bruised heart she’d fled to Montana to nurse. “Idiopathic premature ovarian failure,” the specialist had said. “With the right dosage of estrogen, you should live a long and healthy life, free of complications. You just won’t be able to bear children.”
The word still brought a spurt of anger. Such a small thing, right? Only the one truth she’d considered an integral part of her chemical, biological, and emotional makeup for her entire life.
She plastered a fake smile on her face and inhaled deeply. “Let’s go meet Prince Charming.”
Daniel stood on the stoop of the old parsonage, gloved hand raised to the door. The exterior temperature gauge in the limo read nineteen degrees. He needed to grab his date and get back in the warm car, not stand there like a teenager at prom, shifting from one foot to the other, hoping the soles of his Salvatore Ferragamos wouldn’t wind up encased in ice.
Just do it. Knock and get this over with.
He’d mastered the complexities of dating in college. Women were fun, interesting, and interchangeable. And this particular one—Gretchen Zabrinski—was a one-off. A favor for Krista, his future sister-in-law. A break from the mindless boredom of dog-sitting for his parents, who were due to return in three days.
He glanced over his shoulder at the nearby church steeple backlit by a bright moon reflecting off the recent snowfall. His date lived in a church rectory? How had he missed any mention of that in the fifteen-plus texts he’d received throughout the day from Krista Martin?
“You’ll be a gentleman, right? I’m starting to get nervous about your reputation. Jonah called you a playboy.”
He’d shot off the sort of reply he would have sent his brother. “Playboy? Who says that? Did you two go through a time warp in California?”
He barely knew Krista. They’d commiserated over wine and pasta about the unwelcome news she’d received concerning her mother’s health before she’d handed him three dog leashes and raced out his parents’ door to track down his annoying older brother in California. Now, Jonah and Krista were zipping along the sunny, warm West Coast while making plans to move in together.
News Daniel hadn’t seen coming and was still coming to grips with. Jonah was supposed to be the bachelor geek of the family. Everyone knew it was only a matter of time before Daniel found Ms. Right and settled down. But then the holidays hit with a vengeance. Daniel’s girlfriend of six months broke up with him on Thanksgiving, declaring he wasn’t “marriage material,” and eloped with their company’s head of human resources two weeks later.
Since the company closed from Christmas to January third, Daniel honestly wasn’t sure what this awkward situation would mean when they got back to work.
Daniel hadn’t been in any rush to return to Denver after celebrating Christmas in Florida with his parents and sister. When Jonah begged him to fly to Marietta and watch the dogs for a few days, Daniel had boarded the private jet Jonah chartered for him and, after a quick stop in Denver to pick up warmer clothing, came home. The shocker was finding Krista bawling her eyes out on his mother’s kitchen floor.
Daniel still wasn’t sure how he felt about Jonah’s romantic windfall. For a guy who once settled a ridiculous palimony suit outside of court because he felt his ex had a point—“Living with me isn’t easy, Daniel”—to wind up falling madly in love with the co-chair of a Marietta charity Mom and Dad had been involved with for years, defied understanding. After just a few weeks together, Jonah and Krista were talking marriage, babies, getting a dog, and buying a house.
Jonah wins. Again.
A dinging sound made him reach into the pocket of the dark gray woolen overcoat he’d impulsively worn when he’d boarded the plane in Denver. Too dressy for dog-sitting but warmer than his ski jacket. Besides, he liked it.
A new text from Krista showed up on the screen. “Gretchen’s a sweetheart and needs a little TLC. Just be nice, okay?”
“Nice?” What did that mean exactly? Polite? Attentive? Charming without a full-court press resulting in hot, meaningless sex?
If it hadn’t required him to remove his lined leather glove, he would have typed: “I’m always nice. Want testimonials? A thousand women can’t be wrong.” Instead, he pocketed the phone, adjusted the wool scarf at his throat, and then used the side of his fist to rap on the tiny bit of space outside the huge holiday wreath encircling the frozen knocker.
He leaned sideways to put his ear to the door. Christmas music. Still?
The multicolored lights spilling from behind the curtains of the picture window should have been his first clue. These were holiday people. Daniel had deconstructed the holiday décor Jonah and Krista set up at his parents’ home the day after Christmas.
The tips of his gloves were too thick to get under the brass knocker but he managed to dislodge the tapper part, rattling it with some force. The door swung open a second later, nailing him in a swatch of bright, golden light. He blinked, trying to make out the backlit figures opposite him.
“Good evening. Happy New Year. I’m Daniel Andrews. Here to pick up Gretchen.”
The taller of the two shadows grabbed his hand in a firm, commanding shake. “Daniel. Welcome to the lion’s den. I’m Gage, and this is Sam.”
“Come in. Come in.” Sam, the woman who barely reached his shoulder, leaned out, grabbed the sleeve of his coat, and tugged. “My sister is almost ready. You have no idea how exciting this is. I missed her prom. Never forgave myself. Now, we have a second chance. Sort of.”
She slammed the door and spun about on calf-high Uggs. Her reindeer-print fleece pajama bottoms were tucked into the boots and her red I-Heart-Paradise sweatshirt sported a necklace of crumbs and a blob of what looked like whipped cream just above the pink heart. Hair pulled into a messy topknot and no makeup, she obviously had the what-you-see-is-what-you-get thing down to a science.
“I need pictures.” She poked her hands into the pockets of her PJs. “Where’s my phone? Makayla?” she hollered. “Do you have my phone?”
“I think I saw it in the kitchen. Be right back,” Gage said.
The man walked away with a long-legged gait that didn’t fit in the small house. Daniel could picture him on a ranch somewhere doing an honest day’s work for an honest day’s wage.
“I bet Makayla has it. She’s been trying to play fairy godmother all day. Thank God for Pinterest. That’s all I can say.” The woman marched off in the opposite direction toward a hallway leading, presumably, to the bedrooms.
Alone, Daniel removed his gloves and unbuttoned his coat as the comforting heat from a wood-burning stove filled the room. Homey holiday decorations clustered on a mantel with a pine-bough background. Three regal angels with wings made of real feathers were grouped together, not far from a lighted ceramic nativity scene. The other anchor point was a white church with a tall steeple not unlike the building adjacent to this home. A candle—fake, he hoped, for safety’s sake—flickered inside, showing off the building’s stained-glass windows.
Gage returned first, smartphone in hand.
Daniel nodded toward the six-foot tree, its green boughs nearly obscured by ornaments and twinkle lights. “Still have your tree up, I see. My mom is the same way. Milks the season for all it’s worth. Dad, on the other hand, would take down their tree on Christmas night if Mom would let him.”
The man, who probably had ten years on Daniel, held up his free hand and crossed his fingers. “I’m shooting for the Super Bowl. If it stays up any longer, the Volunteer Fire Department may have a say in the matter.”
Daniel had just loosened his scarf when Sam came hurrying toward them. “Here she comes. I know I’m going to cry.”
She charged into her husband’s open arms.
When he showed her the phone, she gave Gage a noisy buss on the cheek. “My hero.” Then she spun about, phone upraised. “Wait. Wait. Not yet. I need to turn on the video.”
She managed to get the camera working just as a slim, ethereal vision with dark, upswept hair stepped into view. Her dress of liquid silver moved with a faint hushing sound, as if to still the common riffraff. A young, adoring minion followed a step behind, carrying the princess’s white fur coat and sparkly purse.
“Wow,” he and Gage said together.
So beautiful. An invisible elephant resting on his chest made it hard to take a full breath. His lungs seemed to have forgotten how to work. He experienced the oddest sense of stepping outside his body as he walked toward her, hand out in greeting. “It’s lovely to meet you. You look like a dark-haired Princess Diana. Regal and elegant.”
His glib greeting brought a natural blush to her beautifully sculpted cheeks.
Also sweet and much too innocent for you, buddy boy.
The last came across in his brother’s voice.
Daniel’s shoulders straightened as he brought her hand to his lips. “I’m Daniel. I have a feeling I’m going to be the envy of every man at the ball tonight.”
Then he reached into the inside pocket of his coat and pulled out the two masks he’d purchased that morning in Bozeman—one black, the other silver.
“Oh, it’s beautiful. Silver. How did you know what color to buy?”
She showed it off to her sister and niece with obvious delight. When she ran her fingers lightly over the crystal beads outlining the eyes, he felt a shiver pass down his spine. It was as if she were touching him intimately.
“Your fairy godmother told me.”
At her delightfully mocking look, he leaned closer to whisper, “Krista. The Queen of Texts.”
Her laugh did something crazy to his equilibrium and her perfume made him want to bury his nose in her neck and come up for air next year. Which, with luck, might well be the case tonight.
The orchestra finished playing the Big-Band-era classic “The Way You Look Tonight” as the MC for the evening walked to the microphone. Austen Zabrinski, CFO of Big Sky Mavericks Charitable Group and older brother of Paul Zabrinski, who Daniel vaguely remembered from high school, cleared his throat and waited until the crowd on the dance floor quieted.
Daniel reluctantly released his hold on his date and checked his watch. Holy crap. We’ve been dancing for three hours?
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d danced so much. “Do you think someone spiked our champagne with a magic youth serum?”
She tossed back her head and laughed. “We are young. What I can’t get over is how great you dance. You make me feel like I know what I’m doing. I don’t want the night to end. I’m having a ball.”
From the moment he’d helped her into the limo and handed her a glass of champagne, Gretchen’s surprise and delight had made his heart swell and contract in a crazy way he didn’t have the words to explain. Her infectious, wide-eyed wonder made him want to readjust the slightly jaded spectacles through which he looked at life.
He’d not only attended dozens of high-end fundraisers over the years, but he’d also organized a few for clients who demanded only the best. He knew what to expect from the evening—dinner, an auction, maybe a speaker or two promoting the goodwill and accomplishments of their charitable cause. Normally, that would be his cue to write a generous check…then dance his date straight to the hotel he’d splurged on just in case things went as he hoped they would.
But tonight, he oddly wanted to slow things down. He needed time to memorize the softness of her hand nestled trustingly in his. To recall perfectly the slightly crooked smile she’d flash when someone bumped into them on the dance floor. Kind and gentle weren’t words that came up often in his normal life.
Austen motioned toward the orchestra. “May we have a big round of applause for our band, please. Like last year, we’ve invited them to dine with us, then join the party when our fabulous DJ takes us to the final countdown of the year.”
Gretchen applauded politely before leaning toward him to whisper. “I loved the ballroom dancing—I truly did—but I’m going to need a faster beat to work off all the fats, protein, and carbs I plan to eat tonight.” Despite the glittery mask that made reading her expression a challenge, he recognized the flirtatious twinkle in her eyes when she added, “Unless you can think of some other cardio activity to burn off calories and get our heart rates up.”
His brain drew an instant picture of naked, sweaty bodies tangled in fine cotton sheets and nothing else. His pulse spiked, erasing from his mind every glib, uber-cool sexy comeback he’d ever used to seduce an interested female. And Gretchen was interested. He had no doubt whatsoever.
Austen filled in the dead air, thank goodness. “Feel free to head toward the tables, where dinner will be served momentarily. Those of you planning to wait till the last minute to bid on silent auction items should make your last-ditch effort sooner rather than later.”
As the crowd around them started to move, Gretchen put her hand on his arm. “I hope you don’t mind. I bumped into my aunt, Sarah Zabrinski, in the restroom. She invited us to join their table for dinner. I said yes without thinking you might have made other arrangements. I’m sorry.”
The women he usually dated didn’t apologize for anything. They were professional types who fought tooth and nail for the success they quite rightfully achieved and didn’t feel the need to explain squat. “I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t given our table arrangements any thought.” Because my mind doesn’t work right when I’m with you. “I’d be happy to join your family. I grew up in Marietta, remember? I’m sure I’ve met a few of your cousins, although I’ve haven’t been back much since I left for college.”
She let out a relieved sigh. “Thank you. Hopefully, they’ll be too busy eating to grill you too badly. I think Sarah and Uncle Robert are trying to keep an eye on me for my parents.”
He tilted his head. She’d already told him she was twenty-two. And that she’d lived in a dorm for two years and had been sharing a house with three other students for the last year and a half. “Are your folks a bit overprotective or is this a youngest-daughter thing?”
“Probably a bit of both. They weren’t crazy about my moving to Montana. But here I am.” She did a little pirouette that made her gorgeous dress float about her ankles in a Disney-princess sort of way.
A feeling of bone-deep yearning made him reach for her hand, but at that exact moment, a male server around ten years older than Daniel bumped into him, causing the giant serving platter laden with cloche-covered plates to wobble and tip. Adrenaline kicked in, and Daniel grabbed one edge of the platter to keep the contents from sliding to the floor as the server caught his balance.
“Oh, man, thank you so much. I was hurrying too fast when I clobbered you. I’m sorry. That could have been a disaster.”
Daniel waved off his apology. “Been there, done that. I waited tables all through college. Go. Do what you gotta do. It’s all good.”
Gretchen sidled up to him and slipped both arms around his middle. “My hero,” she said, unknowingly echoing her sister’s words from earlier in the evening. The look in her eyes made his heart jump painfully.
Adrenaline overload or something else? He was afraid to look too closely for an answer. Instead, he pointed toward the dining area, where the beautifully set tables were quickly filling up. “Lead the way, milady.”
She pretended to curtsey. “I’m starving. My cousin, Mia, told me they serve bison steaks so tender you can cut them with a fork, and their vegetables are flown in from an organic farm in California. And the dessert bar includes a special treat Copper Mountain Chocolates owner, Sage Somebody, makes especially for this gala. I love chocolate. How ‘bout you?”
She rose on her toes to search for her family’s table. “Which is your favorite? Dark? Or milk?” She turned so abruptly she nearly tumbled into his arms. “If you say white, I will make you sit at a different table.”
A grin the size of the steak on a nearby plate stretched his facial muscles, dislodging the mask he’d nearly forgotten he was wearing. A lightness he hadn’t felt in years made him want to shout or dance a jig or blurt out something equally inappropriate. Instead, he forced himself to whisper in her ear, “Dark.” Like my soul…until you appeared.
“Gretchen,” a voice called. “Over here. We saved you a place.”
Once seated, Daniel noticed nobody at the table was wearing a mask, so he removed his, too, and used it to tap Gretchen on the nose. She turned her back toward him. “Can you undo my tie?”
Her proximity made the heat between them rise. The sweet curve of her bare shoulder begged to be kissed. The innocent glimpse of flesh displayed by the décolletage of her dress made him instantly hard. His hands trembled in his haste to untie the silver ribbon.
She caught the mask and set it in her lap, followed quickly by the large, black cloth napkin. Once settled, she looked around and smiled. “Hi, everyone. I saw most of you at Sam’s Christmas open house, but it’s good to see you again. I’d like to introduce my date, Daniel Andrews.”
Daniel shook hands with those close by and nodded to the couples on the far side of the table. Some faces seemed familiar, but most were strangers. Under normal circumstances, he would have made more of an effort to work the room, so to speak, but tonight, his focus had narrowed to three things. Midnight. Kissing. Gretchen.
As their salads were delivered, Gretchen gamely tried to include him in her conversation with the couple to her right. “Daniel, did you know my cousin, Mia, is the C.E.O. of Big Sky Mavericks Charitable Foundation? Her husband Ryker is a world-famous photographer.”
Daniel recognized the name. “Ryker Bensen? I bid on a couple of your photographs in the silent auction. They’re amazing.”
“Thank you. Do you live around here?”
“Denver. I’m the substitute dog-sitter for my parents. It was either fill in for my wayward brother or join friends in St. Barts.” He looked at Gretchen. “No contest. I’m right where I want to be.”
He hadn’t realized he’d said the last bit out loud until every woman at the table sighed in unison. He was saved from too much embarrassment by the arrival of the same waiter he’d helped earlier. The man delivered each plate with a flourish as he detailed Daniel’s act of “heroism.”
Luckily, the food lived up to its hype. Within seconds, everyone appeared focused on the meal, instead of Daniel.
“The bison is delicious. Thank you for suggesting it,” he said after washing down a bite with a sip of the fabulous merlot Ryker had poured for him. “Note to self—find out the name of the chef for future reference.”
“You’re welcome. And while your risotto looks good, I’m afraid you made a terrible mistake by not ordering the potatoes-au-gratin.” She shoveled a giant bite on her fork and held it toward his face. “I taste three distinct kinds of cheese.”
He laughed because he couldn’t remember the last time someone tried to feed him. After he took the bite, he chewed with his eyes closed to savor the unique flavors. When he opened his eyes, he noticed the matriarch of the Zabrinski clan watching.
“You’re right. Amazing. But let’s see which of us wins the dessert challenge of milk or dark.”
Unfortunately, when it came time to visit the dessert bar, Daniel didn’t have room for another bite. He sipped the cup of coffee their favorite waiter poured and watched his date fill a plate to share with the table.
Mrs. Zabrinski took what looked like a white truffle adorned with bits of candy cane. “Oh, my, this is tasty,” she said.
“Sage has outdone herself. Be sure and thank her for me if you see her before I do,” the woman told Gretchen. “I know she does a lot of business with your company. Robert and I will be busy watching Meg and Hank’s kids for a week so they can have a long overdue honeymoon.”
Mia smacked her lips in appreciation of a dark chocolate morsel and then chimed in, “They’re going to Tahiti. I’m so excited for them. My sister deserves this trip so much. She was the surrogate for our twins, Daniel. Would you like to see their pictures?”
“Daniel, you haven’t sampled a piece of chocolate yet,” Gretchen said, shifting his way. “Or I could get you a piece of the layer cake. It looked amazing.”
He set down his cup to look at her. Was he the only one who heard the near panic in her tone?
Apparently, yes. At least, her cousin seemed oblivious to Gretchen’s sudden distress as she handed him an oversized phone glowing with the image of two toddlers, a boy and a girl, sitting on Santa’s lap. “Cute kids,” he said, passing it back to her. “That sounds like quite a story.”
“It’s pretty amazing,” Mia said. “We are truly blessed. One of Ryker’s old friends owns the resort where Meg and Hank are staying, and he plans to treat them like royalty.”
Sarah Zabrinski tapped his shoulder and motioned for the serving dish. “Thank you. Gretchen, you should bring Daniel by the house tomorrow. Very laid-back. Lots of food, family, and a few friends. And lots of kids, of course.”
For the first time all evening, Gretchen’s smile struck him as fake. “Thanks, Aunt Sarah. I’ll try.”
Or not. He hoped her dissembling meant she planned to be with him at his hotel on New Year’s Day, but maybe that could be wishful thinking on his part. Before he could ask, a loud voice came across the PA.
“Happy, happy New Year’s Eve, revelers. Are you ready to dance your shoes off?”
Gretchen jumped to her feet. “Daniel, I believe they’re playing our song.”
“We have a song?” He got up, tapped his napkin to his lips, and then nodded to the table. “It’s been a pleasure.”
But the pleasure was nothing compared to what he hoped was coming once the clock struck midnight.
“It’s almost twelve. Do we have to leave our masks on until then?”
The reliable slow-song crowd pleaser “My Girl” made it easy for Gretchen to relax in Daniel’s arms. She’d taken ballroom dance to fulfill a P.E. requirement, but none of her partners danced as well as Daniel. “Not sure. Don’t people throw them in the air after they kiss? Or is that graduation?”
“I can’t remember. Maybe I’ve had too much champagne. What was the question?”
He spun them out of the way of another couple, his arm tightening with just the right amount of pressure across her mid-back. A thrill of sexual tension coursed through her body. A viable pull had blossomed between them, beginning in their first moments in the back of the limo.
“I don’t care. I’m ready to see your face without the silver crystals. You’re more beautiful than this thing.”
He snatched the mask from her face so smoothly she might not have noticed if not for the sudden coolness on her skin and the slight tug of the band that got hung up in her hair. When she pulled it free, a lock of hair tumbled lazily across her shoulder.
“You’re a natural-born rule breaker, aren’t you? I took a class in early childhood education on how to handle mischief-makers.”
“Ooh. Discipline. Tell me more.” Even with his mask still in place, she could see the teasing look she’d fallen a little in love with over the past five hours.
Another desire-laced thrill shot to her girl parts. She liked him.
But do I like him enough?
Enough to spend the night with him?
A resounding yes echoed throughout her brain.
If he asks.
And if he didn’t?
Then she’d make the first move. Or second. Or whatever number they were on by the time they kissed at midnight.
Not that she was worried. They hadn’t left the other’s side for more than a few moments since they arrived. They’d even managed to carve out small, private moments while dining with the loud and boisterous Zabrinski family.
She could have lived without listening to Mia recount the miraculous birth of her twins. One day, hopefully, her heart would grow enough scar tissue that she’d be able to look at baby photos without breaking into tears.
Luckily, they’d been able to escape to the dance floor before she embarrassed herself too badly. Dance. The perfect excuse to touch him. To breathe him in like rarified oxygen.
“How did you become such a wonderful dancer?”
“Lessons. My parents are both teachers. They don’t believe in leaving anything to chance—and given my father’s terrible lack of rhythm, Mom refused to inflict that on any woman in case two left feet was a dominant gene.”
“Please tell her I owe her a debt of gratitude.”
“You can tell her yourself. Dad called this morning. They’re starting home in the morning. My sister is ready to deal with her new reality alone. She might move back to Montana at some point, but for now, she doesn’t want to uproot the kids on top of adjusting to losing their dad.”
He’d alluded to a sad mystery surrounding his late brother-in-law’s death, but there were too many getting-to-know-each-other topics to get into any one conversation too deeply. Including her reason for dropping out of college and moving to Montana.
That would come out later. After the music ended. After the countdown began. After their kiss. After a night of unimaginable bliss in each other’s arms.
She crossed her fingers and stopped thinking. Tonight was about feeling. About taking risks and experiencing life to the fullest.
Moments later, the DJ played an Ed Sheeran song Makayla had shared with her earlier that week. Perfect. A shiver ran down the length of her spine.
She’d immediately downloaded the song and added the video to her playlist. She imagined the love story he sang about was her love story—the one that never happened. She squeezed her eyes tight, wishing she still wore a mask.
Daniel’s hold tightened a tiny bit, then he kissed a bare spot where her neck and shoulder met. “Nice song. I’ve never heard it before, but you truly do look perfect tonight.”
She swallowed the lump in her throat. “Thank you. I love my Cinderella dress. Krista’s sister has great taste.” He pulled back, a questioning look in his eyes. Did he think she was pretending to show false modesty or fishing for compliments? She blurted out a question she’d meant to ask earlier. “So, do you always take a tux with you when you travel to a dog-sitting gig?”
“My best friend has a key to my condo. He took it to a shipper I use all the time.” He looked down. “Luckily, he remembered my Ferragamos. Dancing wouldn’t be quite the same in snow boots.”
She recognized the designer’s name even if she hadn’t recognized the brand on his feet. My first time is going to be with a guy who can afford designer shoes.
In what felt like a blink, Austen returned to the stage, carrying a large digital clock and a microphone. “We are fast approaching the bewitching hour, my friends. A new year is about to begin. On behalf of the Big Sky Mavericks Charitable Group, thank you all for coming. We promise to put your generosity to beneficial use locally, and we’ll see you next year.”
On cue, people started shouting, “Ten…nine…eight…”
Gretchen turned in Daniel’s arms so their fronts were pressed together. Reaching up, she slipped her fingers under the rim of his mask and pulled it free. They looked into each other’s eyes as what she hoped was an unspoken understanding passed between them.
She looped her arms across his shoulders and brought her face closer to his. “Two…one…Happy New Year!”
His lips were warmer than she’d expected. And softer. And when she gave a little “Oh,” his tongue slipped inside her mouth. Curious, friendly, interested. His taste was hers. His smell? Completely his own and something she’d forever identify as Daniel Andrews.
She melted against him, needing to touch as much of her body to his as possible. Gretchen wanted him to be the one. Her first. From what she’d learned about him on social media, he was a fun-loving go-getter who didn’t seem the least bit interested in settling down.
When it came to women, he was…um…experienced. Perhaps a bit of a player.
Works for me.
She wanted to be with someone who would treat her with gentle finesse…or maybe not-so-gentle finesse. How would she know what she liked until she tried it?
An unnatural buzzing sensation near her breast made her startle.
Daniel groaned and pulled his phone from his inside jacket pocket. “My brother. Do you mind? He and Krista are in California. Different time zone.”
“Not at all. We wouldn’t be here if not for them. Please.”
“They’re on FaceTime. With all the noise, we won’t be able to hear a thing. Oh, well.”
He touched a button. A second later, two faces appeared on the screen. Krista let out a squeal of glee. “Oh, Gretchen, you look fabulous. Show me the dress, Daniel. Show me the dress.”
Daniel rolled his eyes, but he took one step back. He lowered and raised the phone as Gretchen did a spin. Then, he pulled her in close again.
Krista blinked as if to keep away tears. “I absolutely love it. You look like a fairy-tale princess. Are you having fun?”
“It’s been magical. Daniel hired a limo, and he dances like a dream. He’s been a perfect gentleman.” Until later, I hope. She bumped her nose against his cheek. “Thank you so, so much for making this happen.”
“No thanks necessary. Jonah and I are having a wonderful time, too. We only called to wish you Happy New Year.”
Jonah squeezed in. “We’re an hour behind you, so we get to make out in public twice. But hey, Daniel, quickly, did you leave the TV on for the dogs? In case someone starts shooting off guns? You are in Marietta, Montana, after all.”
Gretchen missed Daniel’s reply when Sarah Zabrinski walked up to them. “Aunt” Sarah was Gretchen’s father’s first cousin by marriage, but because of their age difference, people forgot they were part of the same generation.
She gave Gretchen a quick hug. “You two are just the cutest couple. We really enjoyed meeting Daniel. I hope you bring him tomorrow.”
Tomorrow. Since she’d never spent the night with a man, she didn’t know what to expect from the morning after.
Gretchen made what she hoped was a noncommittal reply and waved goodbye as the crowd swept Sarah away.
She turned back to Daniel. She reached out to touch his shoulder but stopped when she heard him say in a low, confidential tone, “I never thought I’d say this, brother, but I think I just kissed the mother of my future children.”
She sucked in an involuntary gasp when a pain as sharp and gut wrenching as the one she’d felt in her doctor’s office the day he’d explained the ramifications of her diagnosis made her knees wobble. Panic hit a second later.
No. No. It’s not supposed to be like this. Tonight is mutual fun, no commitment. No future. Period. Anything else wouldn’t be fair.
Especially to Daniel.
But she couldn’t speak those words aloud because then he’d ask why…and she hadn’t said those words to anyone. Not yet.
Intent on disappearing, she turned and melted into the crowd exiting the party. She grabbed her jacket from the coatroom, grateful her tiny purse held her cell phone. Her Uber app showed one driver in her area. Three minutes later, she was on the road back to Paradise. Her sister and niece might not be expecting her, but Sam would understand. And that was all Gretchen wanted. Someone who wouldn’t ask for something she couldn’t give.
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