Unwrapping Holly by Lisa Renee Jones

Chapter One

Holly Redding sat in front of the crackling fireplace of her parents’ New Hampshire living room and sipped the decadent dark chocolate concoction in her Santa mug. How her mother made it taste so rich and perfect, she did not know and she didn’t care. It was the closest she’d come to sin, or satisfaction, in about six months, so she planned to enjoy every last drop. With one more sip she finished it off, set the cup aside, and began unpacking Christmas ornaments from a box, the perfect ending to a quaint Thanksgiving dinner with just her and her parents.

Murphy, the family Labrador retriever, appeared by Holly’s feet and nuzzled her hand. Well trained by her longtime pet, Holly absently stroked his head, thinking of the days to come. The rest of the Redding clan would be showing up over the course of the next few weeks for the traditional holiday celebration; her two younger sisters, their younger brother, and a number of other friends and family members. It would be insanely wonderful and no doubt filled with a typical family rumble here or there.

Holly laughed as she thought of last year’s Christmas. Prior to Christmas morning, Mason and Rachel had discovered that they’d gotten Mom the same perfect present, and the fight over who had to trade theirs in for something else had ensued. Holly and her youngest sister, Tori had been more than happy to volunteer to take credit for the gift and to let them pick another one, but as she’d suspected, they had suddenly managed to compromise and had then shared credit for the “perfect” gift.

Smiling to herself, Holly remembered how easily they had fallen for that little nudge and wondered if any other families the size of theirs were able to call a gathering anything but “eventful.” Her family kept things interesting, to say the least. Still, the calm before the storm was enjoyable. Everything about the big sprawling farmhouse and its many memories said “cozy family holiday” to her. And as tempting as it was to tuck her feet beneath herself and snuggle into her parents’ overstuffed brown couch, to simply soak in the warmth, there was a tree to be trimmed that could not wait. Tomorrow there would be no holiday playtime for her. The whole point in coming home a month before her siblings was to take advantage of the quiet, and break through a wicked case of writer’s block.

After dreaming of the chance to leave her day job as a criminal attorney and focus on her next legal thriller full-time, she had learned that her fourth book had snagged a run on the USA Today list and had turned that dream into reality. That was sixty days ago, and she hadn’t written a page worth reading since. It was as if she had simply lost every creative bone she once owned—a fact she secretly attributed to a burning desire to move home. That one was hard to admit, considering she had once said she wanted to escape small-town living, never to look back. But when her mother suggested she spend a month in her late grandma Redding’s cottage to write, she’d agreed. This was a chance to evaluate her urge to move home without any confessions required or any decision-making pressure. And since the cottage was only a short walk from the main house, she’d be close to family.

Holly dug through the decoration box, searching for the ornament hangers and finding none. She shoved her long, blond hair from her eyes and pushed to her feet. Where were Mom and Dad anyway? They’d been checking on that pie a long time.

She padded socked feet across the carpet and pushed open the kitchen door. Huh. The kitchen was empty. A muffled laugh drew her gaze to the pantry. Another muffled sound, this time a moan. Oh my God! Mom and Dad are getting it on in the pantry.

Blood rushed to Holly’s cheeks, and she half ran from the kitchen. She rushed to the sofa and reached for her boots, shoving her feet inside. Good Lord, she was thirty years old, and her parents had a better sex life than she did. Of course, anyone who had a sex life had a better one than she did.

She darted for the door and pushed her arms into her white, down-filled parka. Reaching for her scarf, she wrapped it around her neck and snagged her purse and keys. Her suitcase was still by the door, since she’d arrived that evening just in time for dinner.

She hesitated and then yelled out, “Running to the store! Be back in . . .” How long did they need to, uh, finish? She wasn’t taking any chances. “Be back in an hour!”

Ten minutes later, Holly pulled into The Tavern, a familiar stomping ground for the Redding siblings during their visits home. Big fluffy snowflakes floated around her blue Toyota Camry as Holly parked among numerous cars in front of what appeared to be a surprisingly busy establishment.

Holly shoved open the rental-car door, a smile touching her lips as she stepped into the winter wonderland of the snowstorm and stared in awe at the flakes glistening like crystal stars in the glow of the streetlights. This was how the holidays were supposed to be—wintry white. Back in Houston, the temperature was seventy degrees, and people were still in shorts. A glass of Irish coffee and a walk down memory lane sounded perfect right about now. She turned and stared at the white blanket of snow already covering her windows, walking backward as she did.

“You aren’t in Texas anymore, sweetheart,” she whispered with a laugh, shoving her gloved hands into the pockets of her coat as she turned to The Tavern and ran smack into a hard body.

“Whoa there, sweetheart,” came the deep, rumbling male voice.

Holly rotated around and blinked at the man standing a mere two steps away, her jaw dropping at the pure heat he exuded despite the chilly winter night. At well over six feet tall, the hunky male transformed faded jeans and a dark jacket into the things fantasies were made of—her fantasies to be exact. The ones she’d been having when she should have been writing the next chapter of her book. She swallowed hard as she noted the snow dusting his dark, wavy hair. It was the kind of hair that a girl would want to run her fingers through while calling his name—or really just calling out, “Oh God.” Actually, any affirmation that indicated immense pleasure would do quite nicely.

Inwardly, she shook herself and cleared her lust-laden throat. “Sorry about that,” she offered. “I just got home and the snow, I . . .” She stopped herself. She was rambling. She was an attorney. She never rambled. Determined to gain some composure, she straightened her spine, standing taller. “I should have been watching where I was going.”

For an instant, Holly thought she saw amusement dance in the deep brown eyes staring back at her but changed her mind at his reply. “Yes. You should have been.” His square jaw was set firm, no humor in his ruggedly handsome face. “And I see only one way to solve this.”

“Excuse me?” she asked, not sure what he meant. “Solve this? Solve what?”

“The need for a proper apology,” he stated. “There is only one acceptable way for you to properly apologize.”

She narrowed her gaze on him, certain now that despite his stern expression, she detected a sparkle in his eyes. “What would that be?”

“You can buy me a drink.”

Unbidden, a fizzle of excitement zipped through her limbs. “I see,” she said with one long nod, her best courtroom mask in place. “I can buy you a drink.” She fully intended to press onward, when a sudden shiver chased a path down her spine. It seemed her blood had thinned a bit in those barely detectable Texas winters.

Responding instantly, the man pulled open the door and waved her inside. “Why don’t we finish this conversation inside before you freeze to death?”

Holly found the idea of going inside and overheating with this man immensely appealing. But guilt stabbed at her. She wasn’t here for play. She was here for family; she was here to work. Yet . . . she had promised herself a little slack time today. It was, after all, Thanksgiving. And it was just a quick drink. Plus, she had time to kill before returning back home.

Decision made, Holly stepped forward, but she didn’t immediately go inside. She stopped directly in front of her newly discovered fantasy man and faced him, butterflies uncharacteristically fluttering in her stomach. Their gazes collided, his brow lifting in expectation and challenge. She’d known many a smooth-operating male in her courthouse days, faced them down both personally and professionally, and none of them had affected her the way locking gazes with this one did. She felt like melting butter warmed her insides.

Thankfully, she’d long ago learned how to adopt an easy facade of steady, cool composure. “I don’t buy drinks for strangers,” she informed him.

A slow, sensual smile tugged on his full, kissable lips. “Then I guess we should introduce ourselves.”

“Better yet,” she countered, casting him a not-so-innocent look, a look that she would never have dared before this night. She was really enjoying their little exchange. “You can buy me a drink.” She didn’t give him time to respond, darting inside the warm inviting Tavern, his deep laughter following her.

Smiling to herself, she tugged away her gloves and stuffed them in her coat pockets, surveying the dimly lit bar as she did. People were mingling here and there, none of whom she recognized, and she found that a relief.

Holly quite enjoyed the idea of this little game she’d entered into with a stranger, a secret flirtation. Sure, it had to end quickly—her mom and dad would miss her soon enough. But for now, she wanted to enjoy herself, to lose herself in the moment, and in the man responsible for that moment.

Holly calculated her best position in this game, passing the booths lining the wooden walls, and the tables in the open L-shaped seating area. Instead, she headed for the short side of the bar, where a four-foot Christmas tree adorned the edge of the long, wooden counter.

The jukebox kicked into play, the sound of Dean Martin’s voice lifting in the air with “Baby, it’s cold outside.” The playfully sexy song fit her mood exactly. How long had it been since she’d simply had fun? She’d gone from workaholic to hermit. Not exactly inspiration for good writing. Living created inspiration and sparked creativity. The tingling awareness sparked by a stranger that she felt right here, right now, was the most alive she’d felt in far too long.

Excitement fluttered through her as Holly stepped to the bar and claimed a bar stool. She hung her purse on the back of the stool and then started to shrug off her jacket. Suddenly, he was there, pulling it off her shoulders, his hands gliding down her arms in its wake.

Holly shivered again, and it had nothing to do with being cold. Her nipples pebbled, ached. Heat swirled deep in her belly. She could smell a spicy male scent, mingled with a hint of vanilla. She could feel the heat of his body near hers. He slipped her coat onto the coatrack at the edge of the bar, and then leaned his arm on the back of her chair as the bartender appeared.

“What can I get for you folks?”

Her fantasy man removed his coat, and she forced herself to remain attentive to the bartender.

“Irish coffee,” Holly ordered.

The sexy stranger eased to the side of her chair, his hands still strategically placed at the back.

“Make that two,” he said.

She rotated in her chair to face him. He leaned on the bar, that one strategic hand still on the back of her bar stool. She was trapped and loving every second of it.

“You don’t seem like an Irish coffee kind of guy,” she commented.

“Is that right?” he asked. “What kind of guy do I seem like?”

He had on a black T-shirt that clung to nicely defined pecs. She smiled. “A Bud Light man.”

Tilting his head, he studied her. “Guess I’m not as predictable as you thought.”

“Oh, I don’t think you’re predictable at all.” In fact, one of the things she enjoyed about this man thus far was how hard he was to read—well, beyond the primitive attraction simmering between them. She’d spent years learning to read the desire people hid beneath the surface. She’d made her living profiling people, learning to size up their inner desires. Rarely was anyone who they seemed on the surface. You had to ask questions, probe a little deeper to find the real person beneath.

The bartender set their drinks within reach, but Holly and her stranger simply stared at each other. God, she wanted this man. It was crazy. Insane. She was here to see her family. Her mom and dad were back at home probably wondering where she was now.

He lifted her hand into his, and she welcomed the touch. His hand was big, warm, strong.

“Cole,” he said, introducing himself.

“Holly,” she offered, feeling flushed all over. She’d thought she wanted to stay fully anonymous. And yet she liked knowing his name. There was a rich intimacy between them that couldn’t be created. It had to exist naturally. The kind that came so rarely, when it did, it was like fine wine you wanted to savor and make last.

Without breaking eye contact, he reached for a cup and tasted the coffee. “Not bad,” he said, a drop of that rich liquid clinging to his lips. She wanted to kiss him. She wanted him to kiss her.

She settled for another touch, covering his hand with hers, and sipped from the same mug. “Hmmm,” she agreed, as warm liquid slid down her throat, heating her already sizzling limbs further. “It is good.”

“You say that like you’ve never had Irish coffee before,” he commented.

“I haven’t,” she explained, flirtation in her voice. This playful banter sparked boldness in her. She cast him a sexy look. “Seems a good night to . . . explore new things.”

***

HE STARED DOWN AT HER, the hunter in him silently vowing to brand this woman with pleasure. Her hands were warm on top of his, her mouth lush and temptingly close. Cole Wiley hadn’t come here tonight looking for seduction, but he’d found it. And he’d be damned if he was walking away from it—from the she-devil of a seductress who could make a damned cup of coffee arousing.

He’d never expected to end this night hot and hard for a stranger. He’d come to The Tavern to fulfill a holiday tradition of football and beer with his two younger brothers. In fact, with the bed-and-breakfast that he and his brothers were in the process of buying, and a contracting business still in full bloom, seduction had been the last thing on his priority list. But lingering a few minutes longer than his brothers had set him directly in Holly’s path and changed that list.

Cole could honestly say that not only would exploring new things with this woman be a God-given pleasure he would heartily embrace, he fully intended to make sure it happened. He wanted her in a bad way. Wanted her naked, hot, and calling his name. She possessed a combination of innocence and naughtiness that had him burning to find out more about her. Oh yeah. Holly got to him in a way no other woman had in a very long time. She reached inside him and drew a response that he could no more control the necessity of his next breath.

“Exploring new things makes life interesting,” he said finally, all too aware that she was awaiting his reply.

A smile hinted at the corners of that lush mouth. “I do believe I like ‘interesting,’ ” she murmured, and then lifted the cup to her lips, sipped the beverage, his hand still beneath hers. Her sweet floral scent, unique and sultry, mingled with the scent of coffee.

He lifted the cup from her hands and set it on the bar so that he could step closer to her. “The night is young,” he commented. Her jean-clad knees now touched his thighs, and he forced himself to resist the urge to press her legs apart and step between them. He wanted to enjoy every single second of this game they were playing, take it slow, savor the burn, until it became pure fire.

He set his palms on her legs, and her hands went to his. They stared at each other, arousal darkening Holly’s eyes, telling him what she had yet to say—about her desire, need. His hands began to inch up her legs, his thumbs tracing the line of her inner thighs. Her lips parted, and he sensed her hesitation a moment before she pressed down on his hands. “No. We can’t. I—”

“Wanted to explore new things,” he interrupted. She greeted his words with a prim look of shock that did nothing to conceal the arousal lurking in her eyes. That she pretended to be appalled when she was not, well, that downright had his balls high and tight. Turned him on in a hot, hard way and told him she’d never dared anything sexual beyond the bedroom. He intended to change that. And so he challenged her. “Why not start exploring with pleasure?”

As the seconds ticked by, seconds laden with sexual tension, a magnetic force slowly lowered their heads together. Anticipation charged through Cole; the warmth of her breath teased his face. Would her lips be as soft as they looked? Would she taste sweet like her heart-shaped face and delicate features said she would, or spicy like her attitude? He was seconds from the answer when her cell phone rang once and then started to vibrate. They froze a hair from seeing that kiss become reality.

“Proof,” she whispered. “The night is not so young.” The phone rang again and she pulled back, though her hesitation was clear. “I have to go.”

He didn’t move; he wouldn’t allow her a chance to escape. “Boyfriend?”

She laughed. “Uh, no.” There was a combination of certainty and disbelief lacing the words. As if she couldn’t believe he’d thought such a thing. “Parents. Home for the holidays.”

Good,Cole thought. No boyfriend. Later, he’d examine why that pleased him so much. Right now, he would simply accept that he wanted her, and he wasn’t about to let this end here.

There was no way in hell that Cole was allowing her to escape. And escape is what she intended. He was now clear that she’d started this little game, perhaps played it bold beyond her nature, because she’d known it could go nowhere—not with her parents waiting for her.

He reached for her coat as she stood up, calculating how he was going to deal with her intention to cut and run. She wanted him, but she didn’t know how to deal with him outside a safety zone. And for him, that simply wasn’t acceptable. He draped the coat behind her, allowing her to slide her arms inside while ensuring she remained facing him. The instant she was inside the coat, he grabbed the collar and pulled her body next to his.

She sucked in a breath and stared up at him. “What are you doing?”

“Making sure you don’t forget me,” he murmured, his voice low, laden with the desire coursing through his veins. “I don’t plan to forget you.”

“I can promise,” she whispered. “I won’t—”

He kissed her, pressed his lips to her soft, silky, warm mouth and drank her in. His tongue slipped past her teeth, explored with gentle strokes. She tasted like coffee and whiskey, like temptation and heaven. And when she sighed into his mouth, her tongue melting against his, he decided she felt like a witch because she’d damned sure cast one hell of a spell over him.

Slowly, he turned her to the corner, inched her into the area behind the jukebox. “Not here,” she objected weakly. “Not now.” The battle between the woman who wanted to let him take her to the bathroom and fuck her, here and now, and the woman who would never dare such a thing, was clear, and Cole wanted them both. Wanted to be the man who tore down her inhibitions. He wanted to be the man who found the real woman beneath the reserve.

“Now,” he insisted, his hands caressing the sides of her full, high breasts, his fingers rubbing against her nipples, teasing them through the sheer fabric of her shirt.

Her breathing heavy, her hands covered his, while her back arched into him, silently welcoming him to pull her closer. An invitation he damned sure wasn’t going to decline. Cole slid his hand over her tight little ass and molded her hips against his, fitting his cock into the heat of her body. He was hard, thick, raging with the need to be inside her. And he could damn near taste her desire in the air.

Her fingers spread across his chest, as if she wanted to explore his body but did not dare. When he was through with her she’d dare to do that and a hell of a lot more.

“What if I said I could make you come and no one would ever know?”

She offered no objection, just disbelief. “That’s impossible.”

Cole drew back, fixed her in a steady stare that said he wasn’t going to back down. He’d heard the quaver in her voice, the sound of fear and excitement mixed together. “I love a good challenge, sweetheart.” He pressed her against the wall, using his knees to urge her legs apart. “That’s it, baby.” He watched her expression as he traced a path up her thigh, then slid his hand along the seam of her jeans to caress her clit. She bit her lip, fought a moan.

The thrill of conquest burned through his veins, drew his balls tight, thickened his groin. He wanted her pleasure, wanted her aroused to the point of no return. And she was close, so close to completely letting go. Or so he thought.

Abruptly, her phone rang again and she squeezed her eyes shut. “Oh God. My parents.” Her hands pressed against his shoulders, more firmly this time. “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”

Cole’s gut clenched in disappointment over the sudden shift in her mood. And as much as he burned to run his hands over her hips and feel her softness nuzzled against his rock-hard cock, he sensed pushing her now would send her running for the hills, and that wasn’t where he wanted her. In his bed was where he wanted her. If not tonight, later would do. It was time to ensure the game advanced to round two.

“I have to go,” she repeated. Gone was the sensual, sexy woman of seconds before, her primness fast returning.

“One last kiss,” he said, sliding his hands into the silky strands of her hair and brushing his lips over hers. “I’ll be here tomorrow night,” he said. “Same time.” He released her, didn’t give her time to say good-bye. “I’d really like it if you were here, too.”

She inhaled, pulling her coat around her. “I . . . might. . . . I’ll think about it.”

Knowing he could do nothing more than hope she really did think about it, rather than running scared, he cast her a lingering inspection and then inclined his head. “Happy Thanksgiving, Holly.” He turned away then, ready to find a cold shower, which he hoped like hell he wouldn’t be repeating tomorrow night.

“Wait!” she called after him.

He turned to her and she stared at him as if she wasn’t sure what she wanted to say. Then she said, “Happy Thanksgiving.”

Between now and the next evening, she could certainly talk herself out of seeing him again, but right now, in this moment, she wasn’t willing to turn him down. He smiled, satisfaction rumbling through him.