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Beneath The Christmas Stars by Alvarez, Tracey (1)

Chapter 1

December 22

If Karen Wallace listened to Mariah sing her Christmas list one more time, someone was getting a candy cane shoved up their nose.

Blasting a glance at Moira, currently wailing along—a feat considering the high notes must’ve depleted her oxygen supply—Karen considered steering Moira’s slug-gray car into a ditch to shut her up. Don’t get her wrong. She loved holiday songs as much as the next twenty-four-year-old three days before Christmas. But since they’d left Christchurch three hours ago, she was done with Mariah, Bublé, and every crooner known to man.

Moira caught her and now you die stare. “What? You know you love me.”

Karen restrained herself from rolling her eyes heavenward. Keeping them on the country roads and out of a ditch was kinda crucial. Would Jeff mind if they arrived at his place with his younger sister gift wrapped and her mouth duct-taped? Considering how long he’d known the pair of them, he’d probably consider it an early present. 

“How much farther?” Karen directed her gaze back out the windshield to the winding ribbon of highway. Because it was summer, the majestic Southern Alps to the north were brown and dry instead of covered with snow. But it was an incredibly picturesque part of New Zealand, without a doubt.

Small blessings, Moira quit singing and wriggled on her seat, clasping her hands to her chest. “About five minutes from here, max. I can’t wait to see him, and I can’t wait to see Mum and Dad.”

So she’d been saying in an endless loop for the past two weeks after her boss had granted her two weeks off for the holidays. Like her brother and parents, Moira was a chef who worked long hours. Borderline workaholics, the whole lot of them—which explained why Moira hadn’t seen her brother for four months. He’d been forced to cover extra shifts at the restaurant last Christmas, but this year Moira was determined to swamp her brother in the holiday spirit. Even though that meant an overnight detour to pick him up on the way to their parents’ place, because Jeff didn’t see the need to own a car when he could bicycle everywhere.

“Somehow you’ll have to find the strength to wait until tomorrow to see them.” And Karen would be stuck in the car with the siblings for the five-hour drive farther south to the city of Invercargill.

Dear Santa, kill me now.

Her lips curved because she couldn’t wait to see Moira’s parents either. Her mum had passed away four years ago and Moira’s family had informally adopted her as one of their own. The Nicholsons had lived next door since Karen was a baby, and she and Moira had been best friends forever. And when the Nicholsons moved to the bottom of the South Island two years ago, Moira had moved into Karen’s inherited four-bedroom family home along with Karen’s other roommates, Becca and Amy.

Moira checked her phone for the umpteenth time. “Jeff was on lunch service today so he should be home by now. Maybe he’s even had time to make some of his famous fruit mince pies.”

Karen’s stomach gave a groan of complaint, reminding her that it’d been a few hours since lunch. The car rounded a lazy curve, the highway verges covered in flowering lupins. Colorful explosions of purple, pink, and blue blooms literally stopped traffic so people could take photos. Then the lake’s startling turquoise waters were spread out in front of them, a backdrop of distant mountains rising behind it. 

“There it is!” Moira squeaked in a helium-level voice. “Welcome to Lake Tekapo. Isn’t it gorgeous? I can’t believe you’ve never come out here before.”

The lake did cause her heart to give a little jolt. As they drove closer, the unusual light-bluey-green water expanded until it dominated the view. A parking lot of tour buses caught her attention and she studied the swarm of people crowded around the beautiful old stone building that stood on a small bluff overlooking the lake. Church of the Good Shepherd, she remembered reading it was. One of the most iconic postcard scenes in New Zealand.

They headed into the heart of the village and stopped behind a Jeep signaling to turn into a small but busy strip of souvenir shops, tourist depots, and restaurants. Behind the bustling shopping center, late afternoon sunshine sparkled off the pristine lake.

Following Moira’s instructions, Karen turned at a resort-style hotel and continued along the road until they found a parking space near a two-storied house. Jeff and his roommates all worked in different aspects of the tourist industry, Moira had told her on the drive down. Worked long hours, too, if the overgrown front lawn was any indication.

They strolled up the driveway to a huge deck facing the lake, providing the kind of view that made you forget about the need for a lawn mower. Glass sliding doors opened onto the deck and from what appeared to be a living room—she spotted a battered black leather couch inside—came noises of two arguing males.

Karen recognized one of the voices as Moira’s brother.

“Just tell me if you prefer the tinsel star or the angel.” There was laughter but also more than a hint of frustration in Jeff’s voice. As if this argument had been going on for a while.

“I don’t care. Stick them both on your fat, stubborn head if you like. I told you I didn’t want a pine tree shedding needles all over the place.”

She cocked her head at the second man’s voice. The deep tones had a subtle, and yeah, sexy rasp. And if he hadn’t sounded seconds away from stuffing a Christmas bauble up Jeff’s nose, she would’ve described his unmistakable British accent as cute.

The men suddenly went silent when she and Moira came into view, both staring guilty-eyed in their direction. Jeff was still holding a tinsel-wrapped star in one hand and a kitschy haloed angel in the other. His face creasing into a huge grin, he tossed the angel onto the couch and Frisbeed the star at the other man’s chest. 

And what a broad, muscular target.

The star bounced off a T-shirt-hugging pectoral and fell past a flat stomach and well-worn blue jeans to the floor. While Moira and Jeff rushed together in a long lost sibling hug, Karen stood, sandals glued to spot, studying the man in front of her.

For a Christmas Grinch he was less green and hairy, and more tall, tanned, and buff. He had neatly styled hair close to a dark caramel color, but it was his eyes that rendered her speechless. They were a clear light blue that reminded her of the lake, with a darker gray ring encircling the irises. And those eyes were now aimed at her face, widening with slight curiosity.

Oh, right. She was staring—checking him out, to be precise. Probably she was overtired from the long drive.

Hauling her gaze from this stranger, she swung around to accept a bone-crushing hug from Jeff, inhaling his familiar scent of coriander and whatever cologne Moira had picked out for him for his last birthday.

“Hey, other little sis.” He pulled back and angled her around to face the wide open doorway. “Ladies, this is my roomie, Arthur Donnelly.”

“Art,” the man corrected. “Nice to meet you both. Sorry you had to overhear us discussing our interior design issues.”

She flicked a sideways glance at the corner of the room where a pine tree was propped up in a red bucket. A few sparkly baubles dangled from the branches, most of them lopsidedly placed on one side. Interior design was definitely an issue if Art was talking about holiday decorating. 

“Please tell me one of you has allergies?” Art added, aiming a hopeful stare their way. 

Karen managed to find her voice. “Nope.”

Ouch. The word came out almost as high-pitched as fingernails on a chalkboard.

She cleared her throat and tried again. “Guess you don’t believe Santa will leave you presents under the tree if you’ve been good.”

There, that sounded almost normal.

Art’s eyebrows did the cutest scrunched-up wriggle before he broke out in a smile. And, oh my—switch on the electric fans—his smile took him from scruffily handsome to jaw-dropping gorgeous in a heartbeat. Her face warmed, the heat of it spreading to the tips of her ears.

“Oh, I’m good,” he said. “At least fifty percent of the time.”

“And the rest of the time he’s a know-it-all pain in the rear.” Jeff gestured them to follow him inside. “Like being a dick over the Christmas tree.”

Art threw up his hands and stalked into the open-plan kitchen adjoining the living room. “It’s pointless. I’m the only one going to be here over the holidays.”

“Now, now, boys.” Moira chuckled, draping herself over the leather couch. “We’ll sort something out after you fetch your guests a big glass of celebratory bubbles.”

Karen slunk inside to sit next to Moira, her stomach doing a triple flip. There’d been a sliver of sadness in Art’s voice when he’d said he’d be alone for the next few days. She knew the feeling all too well. No one should have to be alone at Christmas.

* * *

Three fun facts Art knew about the Sun.

One. Light from the Sun takes eight minutes to reach Earth.

Two. One million Earths could fit inside the Sun.

Three. The temperature inside the Sun can reach fifteen million degrees Celsius.

Three fun facts he knew about Karen Wallace.

One. She still believed in Santa Claus.

Two. She was only here for a night.

Three. She was at least ten degrees hotter than the Sun.

At first he’d pegged her as just another pretty girl who’d banter with them over a few drinks, giggle at his roomie’s sometimes inappropriate jokes, and take photos of every damn thing including their half-decorated tree to post on social media. Pretty, but superficial. Like dozens of other women in their early twenties who passed through the little town of Tekapo.

But he was rapidly being schooled as the afternoon wore on. His initial thought of superficial and a little shy was proving to be a misjudgment. Quiet and reserved toward him, yeah. But he suspected that was a normal feminine response to a guy making a terrible first impression.

He hoped to make a better impression working side by side with her in the kitchen while Moira and Jeff were creating a barbecue dinner. He also hoped to learn more about her since the siblings had directed and dominated the earlier over-champagne conversation.

“You must’ve known Moira and Jeff a long time for them to allow you to make a green salad.” He leaned a hip against the kitchen counter, keeping an eye on the garlic bread warming in the oven. The only task Jeff the Chef trusted him not to muck up.

Her knife paused mid chop through a bunch of spring onions. “Since we were kids. I’m an only child, and Moira and Jeff have become like my sister and brother.”

She thought of Jeff as her brother? Score one for him in killing two birds with a single stone.

He’d seen her give him a curious once-over when they were first introduced, and he’d admit it—he fancied her, too. Just because science was his first love didn’t mean he didn’t notice when an attractive woman appeared under his nose. And by attractive, he meant long dark brown hair halfway down to her arse. Curves in all the right places. Eyes that were more green than hazel and gleamed with wicked humor as she teased Jeff about his OCD-ish kitchen organizing obsession.

“Do you have brothers and sisters?” she asked.

“One older brother, one younger. They’re still back in the UK with my parents. I was a typical rebellious middle child and abandoned the home country to come down under.” Something his family had never really understood.

“Better climate?” A hint of a smile creased her lips, and they were very nice lips.

“There’s that,” he said, “and then there are better work opportunities for me here.”

Her brow crinkled as she scooped up the spring onions and sprinkled them in the salad bowl. “What is it you do? You haven’t actually said. Jeff mentioned you were always out late at night, then slept through half the day, so I’m guessing drug dealer or vampire.”

He chuckled. “Please tell me you don’t believe in vampires.”

Her eyes sparkled as she reached for a plump red tomato. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.”

“I believe in things I can observe, test, and prove, all with a scientific foundation.”

“Ohhh. You’re a scientist,” she said as if that explained everything she needed to form a final opinion about him.

“Astrophysicist. At the University of Canterbury Mount John Observatory.” He gave her a wry smile. “Astrophysicist by day, tour guide by night.”

“The observatory tours I saw signs for as we drove in?” She tilted her head, watching him with the same curiosity one might give a new species of alien life form. If there was such a thing. “Wow. You’re a stargazing superhero.”

He shook his head. “No, I just happen to enjoy imparting my knowledge of the solar system. The night skies above Lake Tekapo are renown, thanks to the Mackenzie District Dark Sky Reserve. The reserve means minimal light pollution and the ability to see with the naked eye the sheer volume of stars…” He kinda sounded like he was reading from a tourist brochure, and he turned away, crouching down to stare through the glass oven doors. His scalp prickled at the sound of Karen’s knife slicing through the first of the tomatoes. It was often at this point—when he allowed his nerd flag to fly high—that women rolled their eyes and changed the subject.

“You’re doing something you’re passionate about and sharing it with people, letting them in on the wonder through your eyes,” she said. “I admire that.”

Art cleared his throat, giving her the side-eye to check if her expression matched the quiet sincerity of her words. It did, and the initial spark that had drawn him to her combusted into a steady flame.

“You sound like you know a little bit about doing something you love.” He had a sudden vision of her as a law student preparing to defend the weak, or maybe a trainee nurse, because she had a caring way about her. Or even a teacher, hoping to mold impressionable young minds.

“I do.”

She didn’t volunteer anything further, but sliced through a second tomato.

Huh. “Which is?”

Her knife hesitated again. “I’m kind of a tour guide, too. I work on a lifestyle block that breeds and raises llamas and alpacas. The owners have a shop on the property that sells their fibers, plus spun yarn for craft lovers, and other touristy products. I take care of the animals, but part of my job is escorting tourists around the paddocks to see and learn about them.”

He blinked at her and felt his jaw loosen and sag. He couldn’t have been more thrown off guard unless she’d announced she was an exotic dancer—and now wasn’t the time to imagine Karen in a bikini. He snapped his mouth shut before he could drool and straightened. “That’s, um, an unusual occupation. Sort of like a zookeeper, but with…”

Her eyebrow winged up. “But with herd animals that aren’t nearly as exciting as lions and giraffes and endangered pandas?”

He held out both palms. “Hey, sorry. I’ve never met a llama farmer and I didn’t mean to cause a llama drama.”

Her eyes narrowed to slits, then she shook her head and laughed. She had a really compelling laugh, and he found himself chuckling with her.

Jeff chose that moment to come in from the back deck, carrying a steaming platter of barbecued steak, sausages, and kebabs. “Grub’s up. Grab the tomato ketchup, Art, since you and Karen both have the taste buds of eight-year-olds.”

He swept past them and out to the front deck where Moira had earlier set their rickety picnic table up with bowls of potato and pasta salad.

Karen followed Jeff’s progress then turned back to him. “Does it still feel strange celebrating Christmas in summer?”

Three years after immigrating to New Zealand, yeah, it still felt weird to be sitting outside on the summer solstice, eating a barbecue when at home it was winter. Nostalgia for a roaring fire, drizzly cold weather, and his mum’s steamed Christmas pud, with his dad reminding them how he once chipped a tooth on the fivepence coin she’d hidden in it, swept over him.

“I don’t really celebrate Christmas or any other holiday,” he said.

“That’s a shame. I’m a fan of celebrating anything that highlights the need for peace, joy, and love.”

She ducked around him and opened the fridge, rummaging around inside until she withdrew the giant bottle of tomato ketchup. Placing it on the countertop, she sent him an arched look, as if challenging him to deny the importance of ephemeral things like peace, joy, and love. Peace and joy he found through a telescope lens. Love, on the other hand, remained as mysterious and implausible to him as Santa Claus traveling the globe via sleigh and magic reindeer.

Before he could come up with anything witty in response, her nose crinkled. “I think the garlic bread is done.”

He whirled away and flung open the oven door to crispy black-around-the-edges garlic bread. By the time he’d shoved on oven mitts and pulled out the tray, Karen and the bowl of green salad had disappeared outside. The idea percolating in the back of his mind to ask for her number vanished into the trash along with the ruined bread.

Hot as she was, she wasn’t his type, and he wasn’t hers. No matter how much the temptation was to decorate their different life views with Christmas glitter and pretend otherwise.

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