Make the Yuletide Gay
Ivy L. James © 2020
All Rights Reserved
Grace Taylor, junior editor at Pembroke Press, had doubled as the temporary assistant to senior editor Nicola Valentine for two weeks now, and she had mixed feelings about the whole thing.
Pros of working so closely with Nicola:
- It might provide an advantage when promotion time came around.
- Grace saw Nicola’s beautiful, beautiful face all day.
- When not seeing her beautiful, beautiful face, she saw her beautiful, beautiful ass.
- God, she was beautiful.
Cons of working so closely with Nicola:
- Grace had to see her beautiful, beautiful face all day.
- When not seeing her beautiful, beautiful face, she had to see her beautiful, beautiful ass.
- God, she was beautiful.
For obvious reasons, Grace kept these thoughts to herself.
At least she had the week of Christmas off. Some time away from the office—far away—might help reset her brain. There was nothing like her moms’ obsession with tinsel and oversized yard décor to get a girl’s mind off real life.
But right now, real life offered her a direct view of Nicola leaning against her oak desk during a conference call, and visions of sugar plums dissipated from Grace’s head.
The lamplight gleamed on the silk of Nicola’s deep-blue blouse, highlighting her curves, business tinted with pleasure. The neckline dipped low to bare smooth brown skin and a tempting shadow of cleavage. Her charcoal-gray pencil skirt fit tight over full hips and ass, and with her ever-present high heels… God.
Phone tucked between her shoulder and ear, Nicola traced the edge of the desk, her slim fingers tipped in short, gray-polished nails.
Grace sucked in a breath.
Those nails scraping on her skin, with the heels and prim clothes scattered across her apartment floor…
Not that that’s ever happening. Grace had no illusions about office relationships, casual or otherwise. It never ended well for anyone involved. Still…when she went home, no one had to know she fantasized about going to Nicola’s desk, with that silky shirt unbuttoned and dark hair loose, and pulling her into a deep, lazy kiss.
Late at night, the fantasy darkened. Panting breaths, exploring hands, parting legs…
You can’t think about this at work. She huffed and stalked over to the employee break room to busy her hands with preparing the morning coffees—one with plenty of creamer, one black. The beige office walls and bland cubicles around her did nothing to reflect the holiday season.
When Nicola ended the call, Grace opened the office door and offered her the second steaming mug. “How’s your morning so far?”
Nicola swigged from the cup, unfazed by the heat and bitterness. “I just learned I have to cancel my holiday plans to attend a work conference that Craig was supposed to cover. So I’ve had better.”
Craig Harkness, the other senior editor. Grace winced. “That sucks. Is it at least nearby?”
Nicola’s lips twisted into a humorless smile. “Of course not. It’s in Maine.”
Over a ten-hour drive away from their work in Washington, D.C. “Oh, no, will you—?”
“And, of course, I’ll need you with me.”
“Between the holiday and the late notice, there aren’t any flights left, so we’ll take my car. We leave tomorrow, return next Saturday.”
Maine? For the entire week? Her brain threw up a blue screen of death, and she laughed. “Sorry, what?” You can’t possibly have said… No. No way.
Nicola scrolled through something on her phone screen. “I know it’s last minute. The company will reimburse you for any cancellations you have to make, plus our meals and accommodations, and you’ll get overtime. But you’ll need to go. I’m sorry for the inconvenience.” When she glanced up, she really did look apologetic. “I know it’s not ideal.”
Not ideal? Grace’s family. Her traditional Christmas. Her chance to get Nicola Valentine out of her head. So close, and yet so far away. “I’m not sure I understand.”
With a tsk, Nicola set aside her coffee mug. “It’s the publishing conference of the year. If Pembroke Press isn’t there, we’re screwed. And Craig had some sort of personal emergency—” Her jaw ticked despite her even tone. “—so it falls to me. And I need my assistant with me to help keep everything on track.”
But I have to go? Grace had only been an in-office assistant so far. Scheduling meetings, answering emails, entering data in spreadsheets. Small things, relatively speaking. Conference of the year? What if I screw it up for her?
But she’d volunteered to assist, and she didn’t have the sway to say no. Not to mention the ever-looming mountain of college debt. I need this job.
Nicola stared at her with an are-you-stupid look. “Well?”
It wasn’t a question.
Nicola Valentine might, perhaps, theoretically, have not thought this through very well.
Which was unusual for her. Highly unusual. Growing up the way she had, she’d learned to think through every possible outcome and choose the best solution while still preparing for outside parties to fail her.
This made her successful in business. Unfortunately, business had stabbed her in the back by way of Craig-inflicted travel and self-inflicted personnel torture.
She’d noticed Grace, of course. Five feet ten inches of curvy redhead? A person would have to be blind to miss her. The problem was, Grace smelled good. Too good for Nic’s wellbeing. Light notes of vanilla curled her toes and pressed her thighs together. And Nic had closed herself in a car with her. For hours.
If that idiot Craig had given her a heads-up, she could have planned for this. She could have warned Grace ahead of time, could have bought plane tickets, could have done something, anything, to get herself through this conference intact.
But no, Craig can’t get his shit together, apparently.
Instead, she was trapped in her compact car with her assistant’s long legs and vanilla-tinted, plush curves mere inches away. The radio was set to her favorite station, Symphony Hall, but Nicola’s mind wandered to more interesting territory. To running her hands through those red waves, exploring all that porcelain skin…
She strangled the steering wheel, brown skin flexing pale at the knuckles. Maybe Grace won’t notice if I crack open my window? Of course she’d notice, but it might be worth it. Frozen fresh air might cool her off.
Nicola updated Grace on the conference details as they drove, and eventually they lapsed into silence. The farther north they traveled, the radio crackled in and out, and a blizzard warning cut through what little music they could hear. A curtain of snow spilled from the sky. Nicola turned up the windshield wipers as high as they could go, but they had already iced over. Shit.
Tugging at her sleeves, Grace shifted in her seat. “We should get off the road.”
Nicola pulled off the interstate at the first exit sign, though the snow had obscured the amenities listed. A Marriott or a Hilton is just what I need right now. Instead, the exit ramp turned them onto a single winding road, with white-blanketed fields blurring into the sky in all directions. The only building in sight: a small two-level Tudor house, strewn with wreaths and multicolored lights, warm lamplight glowing through the windows. Five cars were parked outside.
Grace squinted at the large sign by the mailbox, but caked-on snow made it illegible. “Is it a business or somebody’s house?”
Nicola was already inching their car into the long, unplowed driveway. “We’re going to find out.” As soon as they were fully off the road, she threw the car into Park and pulled up the emergency brake to be safe. Yanking on her coat and hat and gloves, she shoved open her door, and the wind bit through every layer. Snowflakes stung her cheeks and wrists. Gritting her teeth, she ducked her head and trudged through the snow as fast as she could. Her high-heeled boots kicked snow up the back of her pants and down into her socks. She swallowed a whimper. Why didn’t I pull up closer to the house?
By contrast, Grace bounded over the snow in long-legged leaps, skidded onto the porch, and rapped so hard on the front door that snow fell from the wreath onto her fist. “Shit!” She yanked her hand back, lips trembling.
Not that Nicola was looking at Grace’s lips.
Jaw clenched, Nic stepped forward to knock again, but the door opened before her knuckles hit the wood. The elderly Chinese woman in the entryway barely reached Grace’s elbow. Her straight white hair was cut short in a bob. A string of bright, plastic Christmas lights looped twice around her neck and hung down over an outdated, well-worn red sweater.
She narrowed her eyes at the two of them, then beamed. “Come on in, sweeties. It’s too cold out here—Earl!” she called over her shoulder. “Pull up two more chairs by the fire!”
A small white man with oversized glasses and two tufts of silver hair poked his head into the hall for a look. “Howdy, kids! Two chairs coming right up. Might be folding chairs though. We’re a little tight on space tonight.”
“Th-that’s fine.” Grace managed a smile. “More than fine. Thank you.”
He disappeared from view, and their greeter straightened. “Welcome to Li Hua and Earl’s B&B,” she announced, beaming. “I’m Li Hua, and that was Earl.”
At least it’s a hotel. Sort of. Hands jammed in her coat pockets, Nic nodded shortly.
Teeth chattering, Grace extended one gloved hand. “It’s n-n-nice to meet you. I’m Grace, and this is N-Nicola.”
“I’m so glad to have you.” Li Hua shook Grace’s hand. “Been a while since we had first-timers. We’ll get you set up in a room quick as can be.”
The singular room startled Nicola. “Two rooms,” she said at the same time as Grace, who added a please to the end. Despite Nic’s grumpiness at the weather and the circumstances, she regretted leaving it off.
“Two?” Li Hua looked between them. “You’re not—?”
“Not together, no— Well, we’re t-together, but not together together. We’re here together but not…” Grace tugged suddenly at her gloves, her fair cheeks flushing. “We’re c-coworkers. She’s my boss, actually.” She lowered her voice on that last bit as if she was embarrassed, although Nicola couldn’t think why. Grace hadn’t been the one straining at her seat belt because her eight-years-younger traveling partner smelled like the perfect dessert.
Li Hua seemed disappointed, but she shook it off with a smile. “Okay, sweetie. I’ll have a look at the guest registry, find those rooms. You two warm up by the fireplace.” She gestured down the hall toward the overlapping sounds of conversation and bustle. Nicola headed down that way, and Grace followed. The archway opened onto a wide-open social area. Circular tables claimed the floor like a checkerboard, with fluffed armchairs in each corner and around the brick fireplace. Greenery and multicolored lights swathed the walls and mantel.
Mood souring, Nicola pivoted to return to the front desk. The sooner she got her room key, the better. The snow had melted into a slickness on her face and clothes, and water soaked through her boots into her socks.
But Li Hua frowned down at the registry.
Oh no. What does that mean?
“Is everything all right?” Grace voiced the same concern with considerably more compassion in her tone than Nic would’ve had.
Li Hua looked up, and Nic couldn’t quite read her expression. If she didn’t know better, she would’ve said Li Hua looked calculating. “We have more guests than usual this weekend. I’m afraid there’s only one room left.”
“Shit,” Nicola blurted, then clapped a hand over her mouth. “Pardon my French.”
Grace stared at her, lips parted. “What…?”
Way to go. Nicola usually kept her potty mouth behind lock and key around coworkers. That way no one was offended, and more important, no one knew her well enough to know she swore at all.
Now Grace knew. And if they had to share a room, she’d learn a lot more. No thanks.
Maybe we can find a different hotel. Somewhere with two rooms. On separate floors, if I’m lucky.
Li Hua pointed her pen at Nic as if she’d broadcast the thought. “Don’t you dare go back out there, young lady. The roads are ugly, and it’s getting dark.”
Nicola held up her hands. “I wasn’t planning to leave.” A lie, but Li Hua was right. It was too dangerous to drive tonight. “I’ll sleep down here, on one of the armchairs.” Far away from Grace Taylor.
Grace folded her arms over her chest, expression stormier than the sky outside.
Li Hua scowled and dropped her pen onto the registry. “That’s ridiculous. You won’t fit in a chair, and you certainly won’t be comfortable.”
Maybe not, but Nicola had slept in worse places. She could deal. “It doesn’t bother me.”
“It bothers me.” Li Hua softened. “I don’t want you to be uncomfortable here. The bed is big enough for two. There’s also a couch in the room—not as good as a bed, but bigger and softer and more private than our chairs down here.”
Nicola couldn’t argue with that…no matter how much she wanted to. “All right. Thank you.” She could manage. Probably. Maybe. It’s only one night, right?
Mollified, Li Hua handed Grace the room key—an actual, spindly, old-fashioned key—and showed them upstairs to their room. The cream-colored sheets, walls, and curtains were easier on Nic’s eyes than the enthusiastic decorations downstairs. The blue flowers on the nightstand and desk bloomed color among the warm neutrals.
Once Li Hua left, Grace hung up her wet coat, but Nic pulled the car keys out of her pocket. “Our things are still in the car.”
“Oh.” Grace sagged. “Right. I guess we should go get the suitcases before the entire car freezes over.” She’d finally stopped shivering, but her face and fingers were still pink from the cold.
So Nicola waved her off. “I’ll get them. Stay here, warm up.”
“No, I can—”
Nicola left. Still damp from the previous time outdoors, she trudged through the snow and retrieved the mismatched suitcases, hers gray and Grace’s golden. Her trembling fingers missed the handles twice. Sweet hell, it’s cold. Gritting her teeth against the arrow-sharp wind, Nic was glad Grace was indoors.
She lugged the suitcases up the stairs, dropped them beside the bed…and tried to ignore the patter of the running shower. Do not think about it.
Something squeaked in the bathroom, and the waterfall went silent. Feet padded on the tile, cloth rustled, and Nicola rifled through her suitcase to pretend she wasn’t straining to hear it all.
Grace emerged in a fresh outfit and sat heavily on the edge of the bed. She said nothing, only started braiding her red-blonde waves…and Nicola had to pull her eyes away. Why did such a simple thing make her want her? And not just in bed. Nic wanted to watch her fix her hair in the morning, help her brush it out at night, see her blow her bangs out of her eyes as they lay side by side.
No, I don’t. Nicola glared at her hands. I want a lot of things, but I don’t want that. She didn’t. She couldn’t.
This was going to be a long night.