He parked and looked out toward the street to take in the sight, letting it remind him of the street he grew up on.
Just like that street, every house was brightly illuminated and decked out to the nines for the holiday season. Inflatable snowmen and Santas swayed softly in the crisp breeze he knew was blowing outside.
Some homes were decorated in a soft warm white twinkle, while others had multi-color strands covering the edges of their roof-lines. Almost all had extra strands on posts and trees and bushes. There were so many lights up and shining it looked like Disney’s Main Street Electrical Parade.
Two houses down from where he had parked, he watched the new family that had moved in earlier that year walk out of their home. The family of five headed toward the SUV parked in front of the house. Everyone grinned from ear to ear, the kids laughing and smiling as they got in. He kept watching from the distance, as the dad opened the door for the lady of the house and kissed her forehead lovingly before getting into the driver’s side and driving off.
Probably to the mall for last-minute Christmas shopping.
The entire scene would have made most people crack a smile and give them warm fuzzy feelings in their chest while thinking about hearth and family.
Zaiden wasn’t like those people. It only made his scowl deepen and his eyes roll as he rested his head against the headrest of his driver’s seat.
He hated the holidays.
All of it.
From false cheer and goodwill to fellow man to how everyone spent money well beyond their means to make sure they didn’t hurt anyone’s feelings. He had never liked the holidays, and with age he grew to loathe them. People felt entitled to time off during these days, which irked him.
Anyone who knew him wouldn’t be surprised at his dislike of the season and all its greetings. He was known for being a hardass with a heart full of coal. It wasn’t till they met his parents and siblings that surprise hit people.
Matilda and Jake Klausen were the epitome of the holidays and all the goodness it came with, going as far as dressing up as old Saint Nick and his wife on a Harley for different organizations and events.
No. His dislike for the jolly, holly time of year didn’t stem from his childhood. The hypocrisy of it all was the reason. He had always found the idea of dreams and wishes coming true just because of the date on the calendar ridiculous.
Dreams and wishes didn’t come true from looking up at the stars or writing a letter to a big man in a red suit.
Dreams only became reality if you worked hard.
Blood, sweat, and tears made shit happen.
A knock at his passenger side window snapped him out of his cynical diatribe, and he looked toward it, not ready for the beauty that was staring at him.
He was never prepared to see her. He sure as hell wasn’t prepared to see her all casual and comfortable. Though he should have been. He had decided to drive directly to her place the moment his plane had landed after reading her email.
Without a plan.
A first for him.
But he had been compelled to get to her and straighten her out. That’s why he was sitting in his car, in front of her house, on the street that was decorated to extremes, after eleven o’clock at night. Her hair was down and wavy and looked achingly soft; his fingers clenched around the steering wheel.
She raised an eyebrow filled with amusement and sarcasm, aimed solely at him, behind her thick-framed glasses. He tried to push down everything he felt whenever his eyes locked onto hers.
Even if it was fucking futile.
When he pressed the unlock button, she opened the door and sat her beautiful, plentiful ass on his passenger seat. He opened his mouth, then immediately closed it. He didn’t know how to say what he needed to say without giving away more. Neither of them spoke. His jaw clenched and he tore his eyes away from her.
“You do know what ‘I quit’ means, right?” she asked, sass in her voice, breaking the silence. He swallowed hard. The same gut-clenching pain he had felt when he had read her email hit again. A mix of anxiety and fear swirled and shaken up with loss bubbled to the surface. He breathed in, his nostrils flaring, and turned to look at her.
“I just wanted to personally let you know that I don’t accept your resignation.” There. He said it firmly and seriously. No way she would argue with him.
“Zaid,” she groaned.
“I’m serious, Michele. I don’t accept your resignation and—”
“Well, too bad,” she cut him off. He frowned. Too bad?
“What?” he asked her, turning his head to lock his eyes on her.
“You heard me. Look, Z, I appreciate everything you have done for me.”
“You should,” he clipped like the bastard he was.
“But it’s time.” She simply ignored his comment. “My contract ended and—”
“Why now?” he asked. The moonlight washed down over her skin, making her look so damn beautiful he didn’t know what he wanted to do more, take her fucking picture to immortalize this moment or take her. The ways he would do so ran through his head; he wouldn’t even know where he would want to start.
“You want me to work on Christmas Eve,” she pointed out, flabbergasted, and his jaw clenched.
Damn holiday and everyone feeling entitled to have time off.
“It’s one photoshoot. On the eve of Christmas. It’s not like I’m asking you to work the twenty-fifth. Plus, did you not read it all the way through? How much we will be getting paid? Do you understand—”
“Not everything is about money, Zaiden,” she interrupted him. He couldn’t get too pissed at her for doing it when she spoke to him in that soft, breathy, sweet tone of hers.
“That will be your last job,” he blurted, trying to win some time. Worst-case scenario, he would let her go if he didn’t figure out how to keep working with her.
“You have to be kidding me.” She crossed her arms in front of her chest, making her breasts move upward, like a damn offering to the gods. His mouth went dry when he realized she wasn’t wearing a bra beneath the dark gray, off-the-shoulder sweater she was wearing.
“One last job, Michele,” he repeated.
He should have accepted her resignation, sent her a fruit basket, and moved the hell on. But he couldn’t. He liked her too much. She was talented and the only hair and makeup artist he would work with. From the second shoot they had done together, he had had his manager add her into his contract when getting hired on for shoots.
“Zaid—” she tried to argue. He knew her. He recognized that tone. She was close to giving in.
“One last job,” he found himself repeating once more, almost begging.
Him. The man who loathed to repeat things. If that wasn’t bad enough, he could hear the pleading in his own voice and almost winced at it. Am I that transparent?
“I cut you a healthy severance check and donation of ten grand to that charity you like so much.” He knew that would make her think it over. His girl was a bleeding heart.
Before he could think anything of it, she put her hands down and ran one through her hair. And just like that, the soft, clean scent of her shampoo wafted into his nose and he was completely under her spell.
“For the animal rescue?” she asked, interest piqued, and he knew he had her. Hook, line, and sinker.
“Yeah. That one.” He shrugged, rolling his eyes purely to throw her off with disinterest. He couldn’t show her how she made him feel. He couldn’t go there with her, because at the end of the day he was a Grade A bonafide asshole. He knew what he would do if he got mixed up with her. He would take and take and take. Fucking everything up. Only hurt her in the end.
Looking at her, he knew he’d cut his balls off first before hurting her.
“Zaid,” she groaned. He scowled at her tone and the way it made him hard. Everything about her made him hard.
“What else are you going to do? Cook?” he huffed, feigning disgust, though the idea of her food made his mouth water. She was an excellent cook.
“I need to go shopping,” she admitted quietly, and he scowled.
“You said you were done with your holiday shopping.” He remembered it clear as day, her cute little happy dance in Hawaii a week ago after a shoot. She was smart, sassy, extremely talented, and somewhat of a goof.
It was what made her stand out.
“I am. I…”
“Then?” he pressed.
“It’s for my new gig,” she admitted, and his jaw clenched.
“You have a new job?” he found himself asking, his heart rate picking up.
“What? Where?” This was news to him. He might have been a dick, but he thought she considered him a friend.
“It’s a movie set.”
“Andy Ramirez’s next project—”
“No way.” He slammed his hand on the steering wheel, but she didn’t flinch. She knew he would never hurt her. His buddy and movie director was the reason she was leaving? The nerve of that asshole.
“He has a new movie and wants me to—”
“The New Zealand job?” His eyes narrowed. She was leaving? To the other fucking side of the world? The idea made his chest seize.
Shit. Am I having a heart attack at forty-four?
“Yes.” She had this expression on her face if it had been any other situation, he would have thought was fucking adorable. “Z, it’s a good job.”
“It’s a steady thing, Zaid. Guaranteed five months in a beautiful location. You’re acting like I’m going to be flipping burgers at Mickey D’s.”
“Andy is a womanizer,” he declared as he looked at her but didn’t see her. He could see Andy all over her. She was a good woman. The kind of woman especially in the industry they worked in was one in a fucking billion.
“Okay. Good for him,” she said slowly and ran her fingers through her dark locks before pushing her glasses up. She was an angelic goddess. Too damn innocent to be around a dick like Andy.
“He wants to get in your pants,” he growled without thinking.
“I’m pretty sure he just wants my expertise of hair and makeup,” she retorted like the smartass she was. She didn’t see what he did. She was fucking gorgeous. Sweet and slightly innocent with those cute glasses, but every so often there was a glimmer of a naughty girl bubbling underneath the surface.
“Please,” he callously scoffed, turning to look at her, and held himself still. Hurt washed through her eyes. She tried to shake it off, but he had seen it. “I didn’t mean—”
“Whatever,” she clipped. See, she never let him get away with shit. “And you seriously wonder why I quit?” When her hand reached for the car door, he put his on her thigh, causing her to look at him.
“I’m sorry,” he muttered, and she raised an eyebrow.
“Wow, and you didn’t melt saying it,” she chastised him softly. He fought tooth and nail not to smirk. He loved how she always called him out on his shit. Not that he would share that with her.
“One job. Ten grand to the puppies and a healthy severance,” he threw out there again.
“I don’t need—” she started on a shake of her head, but he cut her off.
“Do it for the dogs.”
“Fine,” she sighed. “Sales are probably better after Christmas.” She shrugged.
“When does the job start?”
“The second of the year.” Her eyes were still on his hand on her thigh, but his were on her.
She felt good under his hand. Her thigh was encased in an obnoxiously brightly patterned pair of leggings, but it was buttery soft. Shit! What was he doing. Keep your hands to yourself, he reminded himself, taking his hand off and clearing his throat.
“Right. I’ll pick you up.”
“I can drive myself.”
“You could, but you won’t. You know I don’t like missing out on the carpool lane,” he lied.
He didn’t give a shit about carpool lanes. It was just the excuse he always used to pick her up and drop her off for local shoots or when they had to go to the airport. Not that he was going to think about what that alone meant.
“Whatever.” She opened the door and stepped out, his eyes catching a slight glimpse of her ass in those leggings.
“Four thirty in the morning, sharp,” he called out as she slammed his car door.
He sat there and watched her walk to her front door. The small but cozy two-bedroom craftsmen home was cute. Even if it was decorated with multi-color lights that twinkled on and off.
He made sure she had entered her place and closed the door behind her before he drove off, forcing himself not to think about the pain he felt at the thought of her leaving and the loss he felt anytime he drove away from her.