A frozen heart…
Three years ago the man who made Carrie Martin believe in happily-ever-afters deserted her after a holiday tragedy. Ever since, she’s seen no reason for holiday joy amid the materialism and chaos of the most stressful time of year. So at happy hour when a drunken man in an elf costume falls into her lap and spouts poetry, it’s just one more reason to be disgusted at the season’s excess.
A prince in disguise…
Brett Virtanen, however, proves a lot steadier than his tipsy entrance. With a buoyant humor and a knack for giftwrap, Brett sparks her interest in the man behind the green polyester. But when Carrie’s ex returns with devastating results, it’ll take more magic than a costumed elf can conjure to make an ice princess once again believe in love.
“Lesson of the day. When someone wishes you a Merry Christmas, it will not go over well if you wish them Happy Saturnalia in return.” Carrie sipped Shawn’s latest craft cocktail and tried to keep a pleasant smile on her face despite the annual gut-clench that started around Thanksgiving and would last until the New Year.
Her best friend Lora, sitting in the swank, faux-leather seat next to her at the bar, blew a hissing breath out her teeth and patted Carrie’s knee in that way she had when she wanted to be nice but thought Carrie had dropped off the deep end. “Is whipping grumpy old men into an angry froth part of the new holiday spirit?”
“He wasn’t old. He was younger than me. But he was definitely grumpy.” Carrie shifted in her seat, trying to find a more comfortable position, and took another drink. It no longer tasted quite right. Had the whiskey gone down smoother without the sour shot of self-righteousness? Probably. Ugh. Three more weeks until peace and normalcy replaced explosions of tinsel and false cheer, and she couldn’t wait. She hadn’t dropped off anything. The rest of the world went crazy every December. “It’s not like I meant it sarcastically. I really would like for him to be happy on Saturnalia. Or I did at the time. There are many holidays celebrated this month. I figured we’d diversify the conversation. He was the one who got all uppity and yelled at me with the finger of death jabbing at my face.” She pointed at the air, her index finger mincing a rapid staccato just like his had an inch from her eye.
Lora swished her lips without saying a word.
“What?” Bad memories hovered, threatening to crash in and make Carrie blubber, but she cast them back. Fine, if she was honest, it wasn’t really this guy that had her so worked up. The memories were of two years ago, the last Christmas she’d ever celebrated—and ever would.
A sigh escaped her as she tapped her fingers on the table and tried to analyze without feeling. “Fine. I know better. He reminded me of a young Lincoln’s father. I think that’s why I went nuts. Some Pagan group was collecting money for coats right next to us. I dumped my whole wallet in because I knew it would’ve pissed Mr. Bryant off, and it wasn’t even him.” It amazed her how memories had the power to leap up at the worst times and turn her into somebody she didn’t like. Not that making a donation was a bad thing, but she didn’t normally do it out of spite.
She shook her head to clear it, and the motion caught her hair in a low-hanging pine swag. Grunting with frustration, she untangled it. Good thing she’d straightened it this weekend, or she’d have left black curls among the gold-painted cherubs. “I hate this time of year.”
“And you have every right to, but don’t let overzealous people get to you, okay? It’s not worth it.” Sympathy rolled through Lora’s voice, making it even harder not to tear up. “I know you don’t want to wish people Merry Christmas. Just stick with Happy Holidays. Or Happy Hanukkah. Or Happy Kwanzaa. You can get away with that one.”
Instead of meeting her friend’s gaze like a brave woman who didn’t let strangers at the mall make her cry, Carrie looked around the room. The dark wood tables and pub décor of her favorite craft cocktail bar were maxed out in evergreen and gold, providing no safe seats. Her house had once looked a lot like this, cheerful and decorated to the hilt like a medieval castle. Now, though, walking through the day, pretending to feel the cheer she used to genuinely possess made her hollow inside. The guy today had been just too much to take, making her all grouchy. It was easier to feel grouchy than barren.
Empty. She meant empty. She muddled over the awkward silence. “This place looks like a Renaissance holiday card, like it’s just waiting for Madrigal singers to come caroling forth with a boar’s head. They have amazing venison stew, with that rosemary turnip puree, and now we have to avoid the bar until New Year’s.”
Lora sucked on her apple cider martini—far too fruit forward and sweet for Carrie’s tastes, but Lora loved them—and eyed her critically, as if determining what tack to take. Everyone wanted to help and no one knew how. Grief made people uncomfortable, and Carrie felt bad for her friends who had to put up with her. Finally Lora said, “You avoid the bar. I’ll be here for our happy hour eating turnip puree. Don’t be a Grinch. I love you no matter what, but maybe getting back into a festive spirit would be good for you.” She grinned and teased, “And you are wearing a holiday-colored sweater in December.”
For the sake of her friend, Carrie forced a smile onto her face and levity into her voice. Fake it ’til you make it, right? Not that that had worked last year. “It’s my favorite sweater!”
The bartender whistled, a bemused smile on his face. He’d been listening.
She waved at him, including him in the conversation. “What do you think, Shawn? Is yuletide merriment a requirement?” As surly as the talented mixologist normally was, he’d have to be on her side.
To her surprise, his grizzled face turned almost jolly as he barked a laugh and said, “Only for happy people.” He swiped under the counter and returned with a Santa hat. “Want to try it?”
Her stomach lurched with the lead weight of his words. No, she wasn’t happy, as the raw feeling climbing up her throat would attest. Sometimes she worried she never would be again, and that terrified her.
But that wasn’t his job to point out, and wearing a silly hat wasn’t going to fix it. Shawn meant well, but this was it. Limit breached. She stood to make a bathroom escape.
Sensing his mistake, the bartender pushed another drink her way. She’d give him a smile and drink his apology when she came back, but now she needed space.
“You okay? Should I come with you?” Lora asked, eyes all wide in concern as she stood to join her.
“No, no. I’m fine. Just picking debris from my hair.” Everything would be fine-ish, she’d just had a bad day and needed five minutes alone to get it back together. Five minutes of peace.
She turned and crashed into an elf. The cold stickiness of a mixed drink seeped through her favorite sweater as the tall man in a puffy green-and-red costume stumbled back, muttering, “Sorry . . . sorry . . . sorry . . .”
Carrie looked down at her shirt, now splotched with peppermint-scented red and likely ruined. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
A chuckle came from the doorway, followed by a muttered, “G’luck, Brett,” and the front door pounded shut.
“G—Geirson, sir—” The elf turned to the door, drunkenly lost his footing, tripped . . . and regained his balance.
Carrie’s arms, up to defend herself from accidental elf molestation or, maybe, to help the man stay upright, lowered. On his next step, though, the elf-man slipped on spilled drink and slammed backward onto her. She fell back into her chair with an inelegant “oof.”
A startled, handsome and utterly toasted face looked up from her lap.
She let out her breath as Lora stifled a laugh into a snort. It probably had looked silly. Practically slapstick between the spilling and the slipping. “Laugh. It’s okay.” Somebody should.
The snort became a guffaw.
With a smile that felt more genuine than most, Carrie looked down at the instigator. His wide blue eyes, framed by dark lashes, blinked up at her. His coal hair was styled into disheveled spikes, and his graceful face, free of wrinkles or the usual signs of worry, reminded her a bit of a kid in a man’s body. Not innocent, exactly, but hopeful. Despite his obvious inebriation, it was endearing. Just looking at him made the gloom a little lighter.
But encouraging drunk strangers, no matter how cheerful or handsome they were, was never a good idea. She turned to Lora and motioned at her sweater and the man in her lap. “I hate Christmas.” To her pride, the words came out more snarky than bitter.
The elf—Brett, someone had called him—made a sound more like a giggle than a laugh. “You hate Christmas?”
“Got a problem with that, ye of the pointed ears?”
He still hadn’t removed himself from her lap, so Carrie reached for his upper arm to help him out. He caught her fingers and held them next to his chest.
“Dude—” she started to protest, but the words dried up as his face went awestruck. As he continued to stare, gaze darting across her face in fascinated approval, her cheeks heated self-consciously. She was pretty enough, but not that pretty.
Then he started talking.
“You have skin the dark of twilight on the mountains and eyes bright as the midnight sun.” Brett stood, his shoulders squaring and spine going straight, and she was surprised by how tall he was—well over six feet of lean muscle even the silly costume couldn’t hide. He cradled her hand in a strong but not forceful grip.
Carrie couldn’t tell if he was making fun of her or not, but a drunk guy in an elf suit was waxing poetic at her. She burst into laughter. It was exactly the kind of what-the-effery she needed to break a foul mood.
He ran a free hand over her cheek, and she batted him away, laughing harder. “Soft as new fallen flakes.” Carrie had always been proud of her good complexion, but “fallen flakes” was a new one. “And your laughter, the music of the forest.”
“Hey! Back off!” Lora put a firm hand between them, pushing Brett back a few inches.
He glanced at her, batting eyes in confusion. “Did I do something wrong?” He hiccupped and sat on the bar stool beside them. “I’ve been drinking. I forget to behave when I’m drinking. So I don’t normally drink. But I only told her she was pretty.” He looked back at Carrie and shot her a goofy grin. “You don’t mind me telling you how beautiful you are?”
He was a drunk guy in a bar. Statistics said he was trying to score, and she wasn’t interested in a hook-up. At least his tactics were original. She shouldn’t give him the wrong idea by returning his grin, but one slipped through anyway. “No, you’re fine.”
“Carrie, hon, I know I told you to start dating again, but I was thinking lawyer, not lunatic,” Lora said.
“Carrie . . .” Brett muttered.
“Oh, man. Sorry, I didn’t mean to tell him your name.”
Carrie shook her head and grabbed napkins off the bar to try and sop up her blouse. “It’s okay. I need to get going and see if I can salvage this.”
Brett stood when she did, reminding her of movies set in a more polite day and age. Even if he was swaying a little. He put a hand out. “Wait. You have to let me get you a new sweater. I ruined that one.”
He wanted to see her again? She didn’t want to be mean, but that idea needed to be nipped in the bud before Elf-man asked for her phone number. He looked pretty determined, too, like he wouldn’t take a hint well. She should’ve stymied her earlier smile.
“Where do you work?” Lora cut in before Carrie could decide what to say.
“Huh?” he asked.
She picked at the costume. “What do you do?”
“I’m an elf!” He looked so proud of it. Carrie and Lora exchanged smirks.
“Yes. Where at?” Lora continued.
“Okay. Sorry, not-so-little mall elf, but unless you know Santa personally, you and your actor-wannabe job can’t afford her sweater. Got it?”
Carrie cringed as Lora’s inner Mama Bear came roaring forth. “It’s cool. He’s fine.”
Her friend gave her a withering frown. “No, I know you. You’ll be nice enough to accidentally lead him on.” She turned to Shawn. “Close out our tab. We’ll take it at the other end of the bar.”
As Lora manhandled her down the row of seats, Carrie couldn’t help glancing back. Brett slumped at the bar, looking confused. As if he sensed her watching him, he looked up. His little smile and wave goodbye made her blush, partially from embarrassment but mostly because she had the urge to go back and let him compliment her some more. But that was silly. He was silly.
Reality wasn’t elf-men spouting poetry in bars. It was a real man—a good, stable man—walking out the door on the day she needed him the most.Back to Book Navigation