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His Gift by Price, Ashlee (1)

Chapter One

Lance

Two weeks before Christmas

2012

"Well done, Lance. You've made another girl cry."

I look up from the screen of my laptop to see Michael standing in the doorway of my office with a sarcastic grin. His arms are crossed over his knitted red sweater, and some golden crumbs are clinging to the yarn. His hand clutches the source - a bag of Lay's Classic potato chips, his favorite all-day snack. He's even more addicted to them than I am to my cigarettes, but as long as he keeps doing his job as well as I do mine, I don't mind.

I turn my gaze back to my screen. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"That girl who just left your office - Amy, I believe - she left with tears in her eyes."

I continue typing. "That code she gave me was full of errors. I simply pointed them out to her."

"And very kindly, as usual."

I stop typing and lean back in my leather chair. It creaks.

"Is there something you want from me?"

Michael shrugs. "Maybe a little warmth, considering it's almost Christmas? You do know that, don't you?"

"How can I not?" I lean on one arm. "The whole office is wrapped up in red and green. Your idea, I presume?"

He grins, then glances above him. "Not the whole office, apparently. Where's the mistletoe that was hanging here?"

"I got rid of it," I tell him.

Michael frowns.

"If you want some warmth, go snuggle with your dog or something," I say as I lean forward to open the drawer of my desk. "And stop sounding like my mother. You're my business partner. You do know that, don't you?"

He sighs.

I grab my pack of cigarettes, close the drawer a little harder than I need to, and leave my desk.

"Where are you going?"

I slip the hard pack into one pocket and my hand into the other.

"For a smoke."

"You know that's not good for you."

"Neither is that." I glance at the bag of chips dangling from his fingers. "Hold the fort while I'm gone."

Michael lifts the bag and slips his hand inside. "As always, boss."

I grab his hand. "And don't get crumbs on the carpet."

He chuckles. "Who's sounding like a mother now?"

I don't answer. I simply slide my hand back into my pocket, step around him, and step out of my office.

I'm immediately hit by the smells of coffee, cheap perfume and hand sanitizer, but thank goodness, I don't smell any cinnamon.

As I pass by the cubicles, the chatter dies down and so does the typing frenzy. In the silence, I hear a song drifting from one of the computers.

"Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree".

I frown.

Maybe if people didn't slack off around Christmas, or if they suddenly grew hearts, I wouldn't be against it so much. As it is, I find all the fake smiles, party invitations from strangers, and increased number of calls from home irritating if not suffocating.

Then there's the decorations.

As my eyes wander around the room, I find the gleam of tinsel and colorful Christmas ornaments on every cubicle almost blinding, the boughs of holly on the wall and the reindeer and sprigs of mistletoe hanging from the ceiling too much.

Too bright. Too cheerful. Too desperate.

I hope Michael didn't spend too much on them.

As I open the glass door, a cluster of bells jingle. A few steps later, I spot Amy coming from the restrooms clutching her handkerchief and wearing a fresh layer of makeup.

So she was crying.

Apparently, I make them all cry - the ones who can't handle me in pain and the ones who can in pleasure. Nothing new.

I pay her no attention as I pass her on my way to the elevator. The doors slide open moments after I push the button, and I step in. Even in the elevator, a Christmas song is playing - "Frosty the Snowman" this time. It almost makes me wish I had taken the three flights of stairs down to the fifth floor.

Thankfully, I only have to listen to a few lines. The doors open and I step out. I go all the way down the hall to another pair of sliding doors.

The smoking room.

Most of the people who come here come for a breather, ironically, or to engage in idle gossip about their boss and colleagues, or even to flirt as that woman in the corner is doing.

I simply come here to smoke.

I take the box out of my pocket and grab a stick with my lips. Then I take one of the lighters on the shelf and light it. With a deep breath, the warm smoke swirls in my lungs and I take the cigarette out to puff some of it into the already nicotine-laden air.

Good.

"Nothing like the warmth of a cigarette on a chilly morning, huh?"

My lips curve into a frown. I don't have to turn my head to see who's standing beside me. I know that voice well.

Kevin Watts. The CEO of the company on the floor above mine. A smaller company that dabbles in video games. Children and amateurs.

I put my cigarette back between my lips.

As always, whether in this room or in the elevator where we sometimes bump into each other, I ignore Kevin.

"Or maybe the weather doesn't bother you at all, Iceman."

I cast him an icy glare. So what if it proves his point? I hate the man. I hate his perennially messy blond hair and his stupid printed ties. I hate how Michael keeps comparing me to him, saying I should care about my employees as much as he does. And most of all, I hate how he can never take a hint and keeps on talking to me in spite of all the times I've ignored him.

"Just kidding." Kevin pats my shoulder. "It's the holidays. You should relax."

I shrug off his hand. "Aren't you guys already relaxed enough for everyone in this building?"

He scratches the back of his head and gives a sheepish grin.

"I guess our company is a lot of fun."

I narrow my eyes at him.

"Speaking of fun, we're having our Christmas party at the office tomorrow night. Want to come?"

"No," I answer right away.

"Don't worry. There won't be anything with cinnamon, I promise."

I turn to him with a frown. "Let me guess. You got that piece of information from that employee you stole from me last week. What was his name again? Damon?"

"Dylan," Kevin answers. "But I'm not surprised you didn't get his name right, since you never even bothered to stop by his cubicle."

"Why would I do that?"

"And I didn't steal him. He wanted to be a part of my company, and I happened to have an opening."

I take another puff. "How convenient. You always seem to have openings when people leave my company."

"Lucky me," he says. "After all, it would be a waste to let such talented people go."

"Incompetent people," I retort.

"They seem to be doing just fine for me. They've been showing excellent results, actually. It's funny how a bit of appreciation can go a long way. You should try it sometime."

"I didn't ask for your advice."

"No. You don't ask anyone for advice. After all, you're perfect, aren't you? And you think you can get everything done perfectly all by yourself."

I narrow my eyes at him. "As opposed to someone who can't do anything by himself."

He snorts.

"Although I guess you have to do some things by yourself now that your secretary's gone. What was her name again? Sharon?"

"Cheryl," Kevin corrects as he meets my gaze. "And don't you dare - "

"Too bad," I go on. "I could tell she would have been at least a bit amusing in bed. But I guess she couldn't handle - "

My sentence gets cut off as Kevin swings his fist at my face. I dodge in time, but the tip of my cigarette brushes against his arm.

"Shit," he hisses as he covers the burn.

Then he lifts his head to glare at me.

"You're a big jerk, you know that? You're the worst kind of boss and the worst kind of man."

I extinguish my cigarette. "I wasn't asking for a compliment, but thanks."

"Why, you..."

Kevin swings his fist again. This time I catch it in my palm as I toss my cigarette butt into the bin with my other hand.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," I warn him. "You wouldn't be able to handle the consequences."

He grits his teeth.

"Whoa!" I hear Michael's voice as he enters the room. "That's enough playing, boys. Recess is over. Back to class."

I let Kevin's hand go. He turns on his heel.

"Hey, Kevin," Michael greets him. "Merry Christmas!"

He leaves the room without another word.

Michael turns to me with a sigh. "What did I say about being nice at Christmas?"

"Nothing important," I answer. "What are you doing here?"

"There's a client at the office," he tells me. "Wants to meet you."

"Okay."

I follow him out of the room.

"Merry Christmas, everyone!" Michael tells everyone with a wave and a smile before walking out the doors.

I frown. "Who are you? Santa?"

"Actually, I will be Santa for our Christmas party, which I hope you haven't forgotten is three days from now."

"Not going."

Michael sighs. "Really, Lance, where is your Christmas spirit?"

"On leave," I answer as I step inside the elevator.

He laughs.

I say nothing as the elevator begins to move.

What's so special about Christmas anyway?