"I hate office Christmas parties." Shelby Carter crossed her arms on her desk and buried her face in them. "I want to finish up this damn end-of-the-year report, go home and forget all about the Holiday Card Company until after the holidays." She'd taken a vacation day for Monday, and Tuesday was Christmas Eve, so the office was closed. As soon as she left work tonight, she was actually free for almost a week.
"You and every other employee," Jana Pierson agreed, leaning in the doorway of Shelby's cubicle. Jana's desk was across the aisle - she was responsible for tracking product shipments while Shelby coordinated accounts receivable.
Shelby nodded. "None of us want to go, but Mr. Holiday, Senior, still insists we show up, tug our forelocks and get presented with a new set of livery."
"That's it, I'm cutting you off from historical romance novels," Jana said with a laugh. "Although, god, that's just about what it feels like sometimes. Wouldn't it be nice if they'd just hand us the bonus check and kick us out the door early?"
"Face it, girlfriend." Shelby wrinkled her nose. "We work for a greeting card manufacturer, run by a family named Holiday. We gotta make a big deal out of the Christmas party. The old man would lose face otherwise."
"That's the truth," Jana agreed cheerfully. "Now finish the damn report, freshen your lipstick and let's go before the guys in the IT department empty the buffet table."
"Yeah, nothing like a bunch of computer geeks and free food." Shelby typed in the last few numbers on her report. "And hey, at least there's no sing-along this year. Clever of Noel Holiday to send the piano out for tuning this week."
"Hmm. All the Holiday boys are clever and sexy," Jana purred. Her full lips pursed into a thoughtful smile. "Wonder if I can corner Val under the mistletoe again this year?"
Shelby shook her head. Val Holiday was gorgeous, but to her mind, the real winner was the boss's oldest son Noel. She'd had a massive crush on the company's art director since the first time she'd met him, and every time she ran into him in an elevator or the break room, her heart speeded up and her whole body started to tingle. No way would she admit that to Jana or anybody else.
She saved her work and hit send to forward the report to her supervisor. Then she shut down her computer, pulled a hairbrush out of her top drawer and smoothed out her straight, strawberry blonde hair. After adding a fresh dab of peppermint lip gloss, she closed the drawer and stood. "Okay. Let's get this party over with so we can get on with the real holidays."
Jana clucked and shook her head, making the beads in her long, dark cornrows clank. "Girl, you have got to learn to stop and smell the candy canes."
Noel Holiday stood next to the bar where his brother Sam was pouring drinks. He smiled at his mother and sisters and shared a grimace with his brother Val, who was dodging secretaries and the mistletoe. Noel hated the office Christmas party, probably all the more so since he was the one saddled with the name of Noel Holiday and he'd been born on Christmas day. The old man had a sick f*****g sense of humor.
"Noel, can you run over and check the village display?" Nicholas Holiday called to his eldest son. "Something about the arrangement doesn't look quite right."
"Fine, Dad." Noel was a graphic designer who headed up the company's art department. Making things look right was what he did best. He headed over to check out the antique Christmas village set up his father had just inherited from some long-lost relative in England.
Noel swerved just in time to avoid running into Shelby Carter, the cute little number cruncher in charge of receivables. Shelby was staring at the village display, her big green eyes wide. Clearly she'd just been drawing closer to one of the houses and hadn't seen Noel coming.
"So, what do you think?" He surveyed the town with its church, skating rink, pub and six houses, all lavishly decorated. Each of the buildings was lit with electric miniature lights and a chorus of Christmas carols came from the church. In some of the houses, there was even a holiday meal laid out on the table. There were skates beside the lake and a pair of horses hooked up to a sleigh while the area around the little town was filled with an evergreen forest. It was pretty, Noel thought. Very detailed. But his dad was right. Something about it seemed a little bit - off.
"There aren't any people," Shelby said. "It doesn't seem right. You can hear voices, see food and clothes and all kinds of stuff, but there isn't a single person, not anywhere."
Noel nodded, looking over at Shelby, which was far more interesting than looking at the display. She was a tiny little thing, not more than five-one or five-two, with reddish blonde hair, freckles and a warm, friendly smile. He'd first spotted her at last year's Christmas party and had frankly been avoiding her ever since. Something about her was just too damn appealing and it was bad form for the owner's son to be drooling over the employees. Standing this close to her, however, he couldn't help but react. Her hair smelled like cinnamon, her staid tweed business suit only hinted at sweet feminine curves underneath, and the flecks of gold in her green eyes sparkled as she smiled up at him. He turned back to the display, hoping she didn't notice the bulge in his black trousers.
"You're right, that's it." He studied the display, looking inside the porcelain houses into the amazingly intricate rooms. Not a soul to be found, though there were even hairbrushes on the dressers and coats hanging on wall hooks, all painted on, of course. "Maybe everyone in town is in the church?" It was the one building that couldn't be seen into since the windows were stained glass and the wooden front door didn't open.
Shelby's low chuckle sent another bold of lust straight to Noel's groin. "Could be." She touched the biggest house, the green and gold one with the visible bathroom, luxurious bedchambers and even a stocked pantry. "Look, there's even a sampler painted on the wall that looks cross-stitched. With a magnifying glass, you might be able to read it. This is so amazingly detailed. Where did it come from?"
"Some relative or another from England left it to my father. It's his new pride and joy."
"And I can see why. It's just beautiful."
Noel laid his palm over her small soft hand. So are you, he wanted to say, but he didn't. With his other hand, he traced a finger down one of the pine trees and he swore the flocked snow almost felt cold.
Suddenly, it was as if an electrical current coursed through them, as if his touching her while they both touched the display had completed a circuit.
Instinctively, Noel looked into Shelby's eyes. He saw her fear, a little pain and just maybe the same attraction he felt toward her. The closer he looked, the more his vision tunneled, to the point where he couldn't see anything else. The sound of Deck the Halls filled his ears, swelling until it overwhelmed the buzz of the crowd. And then, he swore, he heard bells ringing, just as the world went black.