Fat snowflakes fell in lazy drifts and blanketed Main Street in quiet. I eased my Land Rover into a parking space in front of the Turner-Smythe building, hummed the last bars of “Feliz Navidad,” and switched off the radio. Usually I tried to avoid holiday music, but today was special.
I jumped out of my Land Rover, breathed in the sharp, frigid air, and took a moment to enjoy the perfect holiday scene before me. The newly renovated brick building was enchanting with its green garlands and snow-dusted windows. Wreaths decorated with bright red ribbons and silver bells hung on each door, and holiday lights twinkled merrily in the dark night.
Ah, the most wonderful season of all… Cozy fires and snuggling under blankets and finally, finally, getting my girl.
I clapped my freezing hands together, a grin spreading over my face. I’d been waiting for this moment for months, biding my time, a Zen freaking Master of patience. I was trying to pull off a very delicate maneuver, one that had tripped up greater men than me—
Escaping the Friend Zone.
Like any worthy campaign, breaking out of the Friend Zone took finesse, diligence, and unwavering attention to detail.
Good thing I’d gone to law school.
I knew all about hard work and focus. I was good at formulating my argument (Thea and I belonged together), gathering evidence (1. We were great friends. 2. We genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. 3. The sexual chemistry between us zinged like a live wire), and ultimately, presenting my case (a little touch here, a lingering look there).
Finally, last week, my efforts had paid off, and I’d received my signal. Thea had taken my hand at the Denver Art Museum and held it for hours. Not only that, but twice she’d tossed her hair over her shoulder and stared at my lips.
What other sign did a man need? It was chemistry, baby. Biology. Pure and simple.
Operation Escape Friend Zone was nearing success.
And the time was now. I would succeed once and for all or lose my ever-loving mind.
I had it all figured out. It would be like some old-time romantic Hollywood movie where I’d draw her into my arms, tilt her chin up with my hand, look her in the eyes and tell her I couldn’t keep it secret any more, I wanted her to be mine. And then I’d dip her backward and kiss her, if she let me. I even had real live mistletoe in my pocket.
It was going to be so epic.
A little kick to my step, I strode across the shoveled sidewalk. The lights to Bloom Yoga Studio were on, and I could see bodies bending and twisting through the frosty window. On the other corner of the building, Mountain Buzz Café was busy as usual. But The Flower Girl, Thea’s florist shop centered between the two, was quiet. I stepped inside, bells jingling overhead.
“Thea,” I called, stamping snow from my boots. “You in the back?”
I shrugged out of my snow-dusted jacket and draped it over my arm, keeping the mistletoe within reach. The shop smelled like a pine forest. The front of the store was full of holiday cheer—wreaths and centerpieces and mini Christmas trees and small candleholders handmade from fresh-cut aspen. The floral cooler was filled with colorful bouquets, some on order and others ready for walk-in clients. Thea had been hard at work—like always—creating beauty out of flowers and evergreen boughs and berries and pinecones and twine.
I slipped through the narrow hallway leading to the back workspace, picking my way around all kinds of floral-y stuff. The holidays were one of Thea’s busiest times.
But she thrived on the business and the chaos. She wanted to feel like she was useful, purposeful. And she loved making beautiful things.
I knew this woman like I knew the back of my hand. Like I knew just how much bitters to add to make the perfect Manhattan. Just what argument to sway a jury. And just how to make a woman orgasm like a wave of bliss was carrying away her every trouble. “Thea,” I called again when I got no response.
I smoothed down my suit, patted the chocolates in my pocket, and squared my shoulders.
If my hands had begun to sweat, well, it was warm in the shop. And if my heart was pounding, it was just excitement. Anticipation. Certainly not nerves. There was no reason for me to be unsure of myself. I knew what I was doing.
I was going to get my girl.
“Thea.” I pushed through a particularly snaggy bunch of drying aspen branches and into the back room. I wanted to finally draw her into my arms. Claim her lips and taste every inch of her.
“I hate men!!!” Something sailed by my head and hit the wall with a thud.
I stopped short.
Thea was sitting on an overturned bucket, a pile of destroyed flowers at her feet. She held a pair of clippers in one hand and a sad-looking long-stemmed red rose in the other. Muttering under her breath, she chop, chop, chopped that poor rose into tiny pieces, stem first, then tossed the decapitated flower head into a pile of other mangled rose heads.
I looked over my shoulder. She’d thrown a beheaded rose at me. Well, hmm.
One thing you learned quickly in a courtroom was when to press your case and when to skillfully retreat. Thea’s eyes were swollen, her nose red, and her hair in wild disarray. This would be the time to retreat. Dammit.
Zen freaking Master of patience. I stuffed my hands into my pockets. “Bad day?”
She picked up another wilting rose and sent little pieces of stem flying everywhere with her scissors. “Why are men”— chop—“such”—chop—“jerks!?”
She tossed the flower head onto the grave pile and looked up at me with a ravaged look in her eyes.
“You’re not, uh, destroying your inventory, are you?” I asked in a low, even voice like I was talking to a potentially dangerous forest creature. For all I knew this woman, I’d never seen her act so fierce. She was usually quiet. Bookish. Methodical. Not that I minded her passion. It was awesome, really, just not the most convenient timing.
Thea looked up at me with a “duh” look on her face. “These roses are too old to sell. I’m going to use the petals for rose elixirs.”
“Ah.” I nodded slowly. Methodical in her anger, then.
“I’ll only sell them to women, though. Men don’t deserve my remedies.”
“Because you…hate men?” I asked, still frozen in the doorway.
“What about me?” I shuffled my feet. “Can I come in?”
This was dangerous territory, being that I was very much a man.
Thea waved her scissors like I could do whatever suited me. Like I was not a man. Well, dammit.
Lots of women saw me as a prime specimen of the male gender, just not the one woman I wanted. Just not Thea. I was still the boy next door.
I crossed to the far wall and hung my coat on the hook, being careful not to drip snow onto her collection of colorful ribbons hanging nearby. “Bad date?” I asked, my back to her. My voice sounded normal, but my chest tightened with jealousy.
“Pshaw, like I have time to date.” Chop, chop, chop.
I turned toward her, my shoulders dropping. “So who—”
“Ugh.” She looked up at me and brushed her auburn-colored hair out of her eyes with her forearm. Last night, I’d fallen asleep to fantasies of wrapping that hair around my fist and tasting her mouth. “You know what the worst thing is?” she asked, and I shook my head mutely. “I can’t believe I ever married such an ass.”
I was not going to argue with that statement. “You want me to go fight him?” It would hardly be a chore.
She frowned like she was picturing it. “I wish that would work.”
“Of course it would work. I could totally take him.”
She smiled grimly, then dropped her chin. Jesus, was she going to cry? My heart twisted painfully in my chest.
I maneuvered around her work table, stepped lightly over the bits of rose stem at her feet, and tipped her chin up. “What happened?”
Tears leaked out of her big brown eyes.
“Forsythia,” I said, using her full name. “What did he do to you?” I ground my molars, but kept my hand on her soft and gentle. I couldn’t stand to see her so vulnerable. Whatever it took, I would fix this for her.
She took a deep breath. “He stole my tree.”
I waited, but she didn’t continue. “What tree?”
“My holiday tree. He stole it and I needed it and it was mine and he knew it and he’s just such an ass. Men are jerks.”
I shook my head. “Thea, slow down, you’re not making sense. Also, set the scissors down.” They were uncomfortably close to my family jewels.
She sighed, put the scissors on the table behind her, then shoved her hair back. “For the Festival of Trees, you know, at the Governor’s Mansion. He stole my client.”
She stretched her arms to the side and arched her back. I very much focused on not looking at her breasts in her pale gray sweater. I did not think about what they would taste like, if they’d be the color of rose hips or—
“He didn’t even deny it, the sneaky cheat,” she pushed to standing, and I had to tell myself to step back. She brushed bits of chopped flower stem off her clothes and crossed the workshop to get her broom. I turned to watch her back. “Stupid Lloyd. He claims he needs the money more than I do. The flower shop is booming, he said, you’re rolling in cash.”
She jabbed the broom at the bits of mangled rose stem littering the floor.
“That’s because you don’t take a day off.” Had I ever really noticed the way a woman’s hips swayed when she swept the floor?
“And he’s a lazy ass. We all know this. So, he stole from me.”
I was totally going to punch his face in.
First, because he hurt Thea. Again.
Second, because he ruined my moment.
And third, because I needed to do something. This tangled mess of emotions inside me was the last thing I wanted. I didn’t do emotions.
I patted the twenty-dollar chocolates and ball of mistletoe in my coat pocket. Thea looked gorgeous, as always, and I just wanted to touch her. My patience was frayed to the last thread.
I curled my hand into a ball. And not a ball of mistletoe.
Across the room, Thea stood tall and waved a gloved hand. “You know what really gets me mad is knowing Lloyd thinks I’m going to just roll over and take it. He thinks I’ll just let him have my tree and quietly go away. I get a lot of business from this event. I can’t just lose that.” She exhaled loudly out of her nose like an angry bull. “I need to find another tree, but all the entries had to be in last week.”
She shook her head, then swept the chopped stems into a dustpan and banged them into the big compost can.
“Do you need a bouquet or something?” she asked, coming back toward me. “You have a hot date tonight?”
“No.” I balled my hand tighter. Did she really not notice that I hadn’t dated in months?
“So you just stopped by?” She tilted her head, brows raised, a slight smile on her lips.
Yup, I’d just stopped by. There was the small detail that I’d been prepared to tell her I had feelings for her—feelings that went beyond our awesome friendship. And that I’d planned to pull her into a Hollywood kiss that would change her life forever.
I cleared my throat, forced a grin, and spread my hands wide. I was everything cool and calm and collected. Her pain was my pain, and I’d fix this for her. “It’s actually a crazy coincidence. Very fortuitous. Because I just came here to ask you to do our tree. For the law firm.” We had a tree. I was fairly certain of it.
She froze and stared at me with wide brown eyes. “Your holiday tree?”
“For the Festival of Trees?”
“That’s…that’s amazing!” A smile spread across her face and lit up my heart like a, well, like a Christmas tree. “What a coincidence!”
“Yup.” A fabrication could be a coincidence. So, it wasn’t a straight up lie.
Her brows lowered in confusion. “But your firm always wins.”
We did? “That’s right, we’re the best. And this year, you can win.”
“But…isn’t the designer your boss’s sister?”
Uhh…now here was a pickle I hadn’t foreseen. I pulled out my best lawyerly answer. “I don’t know the details.”
“Her name is Rachel, and she’s won the last five years. Why would she quit now?”
I shrugged. “I only know she vacated the spot recently.” Recently as in as soon as I could call her and pay her off.
Thea squealed, tossed the broom aside, and tackled me in a hug. “You’re the best, Mike.”
I wrapped my arms around her waist, keeping north of her ass. She was warm and soft and the woman of my dreams. I tucked in my chin and inhaled the soft vanilla scent of her skin. This wasn’t exactly how I’d hoped the evening would go, but it could be worse.
Although, now I had to go fire a winning Christmas tree designer who just happened to be my boss’s sister.