Underneath my christmas.., p.1

Underneath My Christmas Tree, page 1

 part  #1.50 of  Always Love Series

 

Underneath My Christmas Tree
 


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Underneath My Christmas Tree


  Underneath My Christmas Tree

  Elizabeth Hudson has one goal in mind for this holiday season: ignore it. With her complicated family, non-existent love life and demanding job, skipping Christmas seems like the best plan ever.

  Until a Christmas tree lot pops up just outside her office, run by the hot and hunky Trent Wagoner.

  Trent took this job because he needed to get away from life in his small Georgia hometown. Hauling a truckload of Douglas firs and blue spruces from his uncle’s farm in Michigan to sell in Florida sounded like the perfect plan to find the space he needs and finally get his life on track.

  Neither Trent nor Elizabeth planned on the instant sparks of attraction between them. But no matter how hard they fight it, something unexpected—and wonderful—may show up beneath the Christmas tree this year.

  Trent and Elizabeth’s story continues in

  Always My Own

  The Burton Books began with

  The One Trilogy

  The Last One

  The First One

  The Only One

  The One Trilogy Box Set

  And continue in

  The Always Love Trilogy

  Always For You

  Always My Own

  Always Our Love

  And don’t miss the related series

  The Crystal Cove Romances

  The Posse

  The Plan

  Chapter One

  Friday before Thanksgiving

  Elizabeth

  “Hey! Lady, didn’t you hear me knocking?”

  With no little effort, I pulled my eyes from the computer screen and looked toward my office door, frowning. “What? No. I’m sorry, what do you want?”

  For the millionth time, I kicked myself for not hiring a secretary, let alone a receptionist. When Darcy had talked me into moving to Florida to be her law partner, she’d also convinced me that with our computer skills, we didn’t need to hire an office staff yet. Pretty sure she was wrong.

  The man standing in the doorway was staring at me as though I’d lost my mind. He was in jeans so faded they were barely blue and so tight they didn’t leave much to my imagination. His gray T-shirt fit pretty damn well, too. But it was the scowl on his face that grabbed my attention.

  “Is that your Beamer out there in the parking lot?” He hooked a thumb in the direction of building’s front door.

  “Uh, well, yes, if you mean the dark blue one. Oh, God, did you hit it?” Dismay filled me; I didn’t have time to deal with a wrecked car today.

  “No, I didn’t hit it.” If it were possible, the guy looked even less friendly. More annoyed. “It’s in the way.”

  “I’m sorry, in the way of what now?” My finger twitched over the keyboard. I really needed to get this motion finished.

  He stuck his hands in the front pockets of his jeans and leaned against the door jam. “We’re trying to set up the tent for the trees, and your car is the only one that wasn’t moved.”

  A vague memory sparked in my mind of an email from Logan Holt, reminding all of his building’s tenants to park on the side instead of out front. Was that today?

  “Trees?” I blinked at the man in my doorway.

  “Christmas trees.” He spoke slowly, as though to help me understand. “We’re selling Christmas trees. We drove all the way down from Michigan, we got a tent to put up and a tractor-trailer full of trees, and your car is the only one in our way. Can you move it?”

  I looked down at the computer screen. “Damn, it’s almost four.” Adrenaline surged through my veins, and I fought to keep my hands from shaking with it. “Listen, I’m sorry about that. About the car. But I’m under a time crunch here. I have to have this motion finished and delivered to the judge’s office in forty-five minutes, or I’m screwed. The keys are in my purse, hanging on the hook behind that door. Can you possibly move it for me?”

  The man squinted at me. “You want me to go through your handbag and drive your car?”

  I tossed up my hands. “Listen, buddy, right now, this motion is all I can think about. Go through my purse. Help yourself to any cash. Check out all my personal stuff. Tampons are in the zippered pocket. Do whatever you need to do, but just let me finish this.”

  He stared at me a minute more, and I made a noise in the back of my throat meant to convey exasperation before I turned my attention back to the computer screen. In one part of my distracted consciousness, I heard him muttering to himself as he dug through my purse, but I tuned out all other noise and focused.

  Thirty minutes later, I leaned over and tugged the final page from the printer tray. Shrugging into my suit jacket—Judge Gardiner was a stickler for propriety in all things—I grabbed my handbag from the hook behind the door and spent the next two minutes digging through it, looking for my car keys before I remembered.

  Damn.

  I slammed my office door behind me, not bothering to lock it. I wasn’t going to be gone long, and Crystal Cove wasn’t exactly the crime capital of Florida. Plus Logan and his admin were still upstairs, and the people who worked in the title company office here on the first floor would be around for a while longer.

  Sliding sunglasses over my eyes, I stepped outside, and for a moment, I was disoriented: the warmth of late afternoon confirmed that I was still in Florida, but the almost overwhelming scent of pine made me feel like Vermont might’ve moved in next door. Christmas trees were everywhere: under the huge tent that took up most of our parking lot, leaning against the front of our building and some still in the truck. Two men were hefting the trees onto their shoulders and moving them into the tent.

  I glanced around, looking for the guy who’d taken my keys. When I finally spotted him in the far corner of the tent, working the stump of a six-footer into the square of a makeshift stand, I practically sprinted over to him.

  “Hey. I need my keys.” I thrust out of my hand, as though he might simply deposit them there.

  He grunted and looked at me over his shoulder, that same frown from earlier still wrinkling his forehead. “Huh? What’re you talking about? Joe brought you back your keys.”

  I shook my head. “I don’t know who Joe is, but no one returned them. And I’m in a hurry. I need to get—”

  “Yeah, yeah, to the courthouse.” He gave the tree a small shake, testing its stability, I guessed, and then pushed himself to stand. I realized he was a good head taller than me. “I remember. I moved your car, and then I gave Joe the keys and told him to run them back inside to you.”

  “He didn’t.” Nervous tension made me feel like I was about to jump out of my skin, and I shifted my weight from foot to foot.

  “Are you sure? I mean, you were pretty much zoned out when I came in, so maybe he dropped them on your desk and you didn’t even notice.”

  A moment of doubt flittered over me, but I shook my head. “No, I would’ve seen him. And the keys weren’t there.” I didn’t think they were, anyway.

  “Well, hell.” He scowled even more, which I hadn’t thought was possible. “He must’ve gotten sidetracked and forgot.”

  “Okay, fine. It happens. I get it. Where’s Joe now? I’ll just find him, get the keys and be out of your way.” I took a step backwards, ready to dart away.

  “Shit.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Joe just ran over to check us all in at the motel. He won’t be back for at least twenty minutes. Maybe half an hour.”

  I felt the familiar and maddening prickle of tears at the back of my eyes. Crying when I was angry or frustrated wasn’t anything I could control, and it pissed the hell out of me when it happened.

  I turned my head, but not fast enough that he didn’t see my face. “Hey, hey. Don’t start that. It’s okay
. I’ll, ah . . .” He shoved one hand into the pocket of his jeans. “Here. Take my truck. It’s parked right over there.” Pointing to the far edge of the parking lot, he picked up my hand and closed my fingers around a small set of keys.

  “Are you sure?” I wanted to be polite, to do the typical oh-no-I-couldn’t-possibly-impose deal, but in the back of my head, all I could hear was a loudly ticking clock.

  “Yeah. Just don’t lock the driver’s side door, because it doesn’t work. Oh, and you drive stick, right?”

  My heart sank. “No. I mean, in theory I know how—I had a boyfriend once who—but no. I don’t think I can.”

  The guy muttered something dark under his breath. “Fine. Come on.” He snatched the keys out of my hand and strode away, leaving me to scurry after him.

  “Hey, hold up!” I paused just long enough to kick off my heels, scoop them up and run over the asphalt, hissing as the small pebbles bit into my tender feet. “Are you sure you don’t mind—”

  “Do you have another solution? I don’t know where your courthouse is, but unless you can run there, I’d say you need me.” He stopped at the passenger side of the old blue truck and wrenched open the door. When he caught sight of me wincing my way toward him, his eyebrows shot up, and he shook his head. “Yeah, looks like the running idea isn’t going to work. Get in.”

  I climbed into the cab as my driver—whose name I still didn’t know, I realized—jogged to the other side, got in and slammed the door. I barely had my seat belt buckled when he threw the truck into reverse and then gunned it toward the exit.

  “Which way?” He slid his gaze toward me, tapping two fingers on the steering wheel.

  “Uh, left, please, and then right at the light.” My skirt was twisted under one leg, and I gave it a tug. “By the way, I’m Elizabeth. Elizabeth Hudson. You know, like the river.” It was my old stand-by when introducing myself, and usually the line at least got me a weak smile. But not from this guy.

  “Yeah.” He glanced at me sideways. “I saw your name on the door. Since there was only one of you in the office, I figured that had to be you.” He stopped at the red light, looked in both directions, and then took the right turn. Just when I thought he was going to ignore my introduction, he added, “I’m Trent Wagoner.”

  Trent. I tested it silently. He didn’t really look like a Trent. I gave myself a moment to assess him. Maybe he was more like a . . . Jim. Or a Pete.

  “You’re from Michigan?” I shifted so that I faced him a little more fully. “Oh, we need to turn left at the end of the bridge.”

  “Uh, yeah.” His jaw tightened.

  “I bet it’s strange, being down here in the heat. Is it really cold up there yet? Do you have snow?”

  “Nope.” He took the corner fast and I grabbed for the non-existent oh-shit-bar. He spared me a glance. “Don’t lean on that door. Not sure it’ll hold.”

  With a vision of my body flying out of the truck and hitting the curb, I moved away from the door and gripped my seat belt. “At the next stop sign coming up, veer just a little to the left. The courthouse’ll be on the right, and you can just pull up in front. I’m going to have to run for it.”

  Trent braked to a sliding stop at the curb, and I unbuckled my belt, gave the door a push and jumped down to the sidewalk. I hesitated, looking back over my shoulder as I struggled into my heels, balancing on one foot. “You’ll wait for me?”

  He rolled his eyes. “No, I’m going to drive away and leave you to walk back in those crazy shoes. Of course I’ll wait.”

  “Thanks.” I hugged the manila folder to my chest and sped up the cement steps to the heavy wooden doors. I managed to get them open and double-timed it across the tiled foyer, my heels clicking furiously.

  I swung open an oak door with a frosted window and stepped over the threshold, exhaling loudly. The large pendulum clock that hung on the wall behind Judge Gardiner’s dragon lady assistant said I’d made it with two minutes to spare.

  “Miss Hudson.” Mrs. Alvarez regarded me over the top of her glasses. “I was beginning to despair of you.”

  “But here I am.” I slapped the folder onto her desk. “Stamp that, please, that it was filed today.”

  With a sigh that indicated a portion of her long-suffering, Mrs. Alvarez opened the folder, taking her time with inking the stamp and pressing it carefully to the cover. “Have you considered, Miss Hudson, that your insistence on self-reliance might be hurting your clients?”

  I gritted my teeth. “Mrs. Alvarez, none of my clients have complained. In fact, I think they like the fact that my hourly fee is lower thanks to my, uh, insistence on self-reliance. And to be honest, it’s not so much that as it is a matter of economics.” I curled my lips into a sweet smile. “But you know, Mrs. Alvarez, when I can afford an administrative assistant, I hope I can find one just like you.”

  She shook her head, her lips pursing. “Is there anything else you need today, Miss Hudson?”

  “No, thank you.” I hitched the strap of my handbag a little higher on my shoulder. “You have a good Thanksgiving, Mrs. Alvarez.”

  Her face relaxed a little. “You, too. Are you traveling to be with family?”

  I took a step back, toward the door, thinking of Trent outside waiting for me. “No, I’m staying in town.”

  The older woman’s brow knit. “You won’t be by yourself, will you?”

  For a second, I was afraid she was going to invite me to dinner at her house. “I’m eating with friends.” I waved to her and put my hand on the doorknob. “Thank you, Mrs. Alvarez!”

  Before she could say anything else, I escaped, closing the door carefully behind me. The last thing I needed was a pity offer for Thanksgiving dinner from the dragon lady. I hadn’t lied; Logan and Jude Holt had invited me to the huge holiday extravaganza they’d planned. What I’d hedged about was whether or not I actually intended to go. Holidays and me . . . we just didn’t get along. The less I had to think about what the next month would bring—endless Christmas commercials, annoying songs played over and over, gaudy decorations everywhere—the better. Thanksgiving was the entry way to holiday hell.

  Back outside, I heaved a sigh of relief as I blinked in the sunlight. At the bottom of the stone steps, the ancient blue truck still idled, and I could see Trent sprawled on the driver’s side of the bench seat. He had one elbow crooked over the open window, his head leaning against his hand. Now that the pressure was off me, I had a minute to look at him a little more closely. His light brown hair was a little longer on the top than on the sides, and he had a thin layer of matching scruff on his jaw and cheeks. I wondered if it was as soft as it looked.

  I made my way down to the sidewalk, smoothing my hair back away from my face. For the first time this afternoon, I wondered how I looked. I’d pulled my hair back into a low ponytail before work, hoping it would stay put, but between the humidity and the way I’d been rushing hither and yon, I was willing to bet it had frizzed out. Nothing I could do about it now.

  Trent turned with a jerk when I pulled the passenger door open. I bit back a giggle. “Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you. Were you napping?”

  He pushed himself to sit up straighter. “No.” His voice was rough, and I had a hunch I’d been right, judging by that and the way he was blinking. He jostled the stick shift as I settled in the seat and reached for the seat belt. “And you didn’t scare me. I was just . . . thinking about something else.”

  “Ah.” I nodded.

  “Did you make it? To the court in time, I mean?”

  “I did. I actually had to go to the judge’s chambers to drop off a motion for one of my clients. If it wasn’t stamped as being filed before five, the judge wouldn’t consider it.”

  “Okay.”

  I kicked off my shoes and bent one knee, tucking a foot under me. “I represent an architect who was named as a defendant in a case involving faulty wiring at a hotel in Daytona. Sometimes in these cases, the plaintiffs’ attorneys have a habit of including
everyone under the sun in the case. I had until today to file a motion explaining why the complaint against my client should be dismissed.” I turned what I hoped was a blinding smile at Trent. “And thanks to you, I made it.”

  He shrugged. “Wasn’t a big deal.”

  “No, it really was. I’d have been up shit creek if not for you.”

  “If I’d made sure you’d gotten your keys back, you wouldn’t have needed a ride.”

  I laughed. “And if I paid better attention to the email updates from my building management, I wouldn’t have parked in the wrong place to begin with. So like it or not, you saved my ass.”

  As if mentioning it reminded Trent of its existence, he glanced down at that part of my body, his eyes raking over the bare skin of my thigh where my skirt had ridden up. I waited for the smolder, for his gaze to heat up.

  But he only looked away, staring out the windshield as he pulled away from the curb. “It wasn’t a problem.”

  Hmmm. I frowned. No reaction at all. Not what I’d expected. Was he gay? I didn’t get that vibe. It was possible he just wasn’t interested in me. I didn’t have any delusions about my own irresistibility; I was reasonably attractive, and when I was in the right frame of mind and got dressed up, I usually managed to capture some attention. And maybe today, what with the key mix-ups and me running around like a crazy woman, I’d managed to repel Trent more than anything else.

  Still . . . even a guy who wasn’t necessarily interested should give my leg, namely my naked inner thigh, a little more attention. And now maybe my pride was wounded, or maybe my curiosity was piqued, but I wanted him to notice me. If I were really being honest, it was possible that I wanted him to notice me—and more specifically my naked inner thigh—because that thigh, and the rest of me, had gotten precious little action of late.

  Yes, it was sad but true. I’d been in the middle of a dry spell for nearly a year now. This was the longest I’d gone without sex since I’d tossed in my V-card during my junior year of college. I’d been a late-bloomer, mostly because I didn’t party and I was extremely picky. But once I’d uh, bloomed, there’d been no stopping me, because, as it turned out, I loved sex.

 
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