Jolly Hour by Melissa Williams

 

1

Happy Hour, but Make It Christmas

Nadia

I flickmy wrist in time with the holiday music I have playing softly on my computer. The paper bells I constructed to practice with at work are securely held in both my hands and I’m humming along. I just cannot get this part of the chorus right and it’s driving me crazy.

I don’t extend the ring long enough, again, and throw my hands down on the desk. This is so frustrating. Shaking my head, I restart the song and wait for my part to come up. I may not be practicing with real bells, but I need to get the flicks and arm movements right, and paper stand-ins are all I can use at the moment. I’m supposed to be signing off work for the rest of the holiday but instead, here I am, ringing imaginary bells in my closed-door office.

As a member of the handbell ensemble group All My Jingle Ladies, practice is necessary. This is our busiest time of year for performances. The last three weeks had seen us booked for over a dozen hour-long shows. We have a couple more after Christmas and I’m determined to nail this song even if it kills me. Or all my holiday spirit.

I’m so focused on my count-in that I don’t hear my office door open.

“What are you doing?”

My hands smack the edge of my desk as I try to hide my paper practice bells.

“Nothing. What? Nothing.” I sound like a lunatic.

My coworker Gloria gives me a knowing smile. She knows about All My Jingle Ladies, but I’m slightly embarrassed she caught me. If she didn’t know about my ensemble group, she would think I’m waving my hands around wildly to Christmas music. Like a merry little freak.

“Okay,” she draws out the word with humor in her tone. “Are you heading down soon?”

I give her a confused look. “Pardon?”

“Are you heading down to the company Christmas party soon? They arranged a jolly hour for everyone at the corner bar. And we all get tomorrow off.” The sentence ends with her speaking slower, making sure the words sink in. In all fairness I had forgotten.

“A jolly hour?”

“It’s happy hour but with a Christmas twist!” she exclaims, clutching her hands in glee.

“Ah. I see.” I give her a strained smile. The party honestly sounds like the first circle of hell, but I know I have to show my face. As the new director of marketing, it’s no longer acceptable for me to miss events like this. Our CEO takes pride in the fact that the leadership team is accessible to everyone in the company and encourages us to participate in social outings. Even if some of us (cough cough—me) have to be metaphorically dragged to them.

I don’t hate the events. I just never understood cutting a workday short to have a relay race in the park or play a round of mini golf. Couldn’t we bond with other coworkers within the Battlements Inc. building, while doing actual work? Eyeing Gloria, I have a feeling her innocent drop-in to my office is staged.

Taking a deep breath, knowing I can’t let my team down, I nod at her. “Yeah. Yes, I’ll be there. Just let me”—I wave my hands over the piles of paper on my desk—“stack these and power down. I’ll be there in ten.”

Pointing a playful finger at me, Gloria tries to be stern. “Okay. I’ll be timing you.”

That has me smiling. Gloria is one of the newest members of my team and a great, energetic addition. I have no doubt she will actually be timing me. When she disappears, I lean back in my chair, sighing. Today is my last day in the office for the rest of the year. My boss practically demanded last week that I use my remaining vacation days—because I had only used two so far this year. Apparently, taking time off to rest and rejuvenate is strongly encouraged. Whatever. I could work from home and no one would be the wiser. I’d send my emails in the dead of night and blame an elf or something.

Logging off and stuffing everything I’ll need for the next few weeks into my bag, I take one last look around my office. Everything looks clean and tidy, arranged exactly how I like it. My cell vibrates at the same moment I reach for it.

LIBBY: I have a dinner date tonight at my place! With a dreamy firefighter! If I turn up dead, start with those clues.

I pause, confused by her text. The dinner date part. Not the murder part. We do this sort of thing all the time. A girl can’t be too careful these days and my best friend and I always update each other when a stranger is involved. Libby very rarely dates. This guy must have made quite an impression. Or maybe he caught her attention by wearing a light-up Christmas sweater. Libby is the biggest Christmas fanatic—and like attracts like.

Sending her a quick text back, I let her know I’m going to my work party. Grabbing my winter coat, I head to the elevator bank, smoothing down my red jewel-toned shirt and tight pencil skirt. While I didn’t go overboard on festive holiday outfits like some Christmas enthusiasts, I did enjoy the colors of the season. They worked well with my dark caramel skin tone.

When I walk into the bar a couple minutes later, festivities are already underway. The noise is loud as I make my way inside, smiling and nodding at everyone who greets me. I can’t hear a word they’re saying. Holiday music is playing faintly over the speakers and fake garland is wrapped around various poles and the windows to give the space a festive feel. I have to press my lips together to keep from howling with laughter when I see games are set up in the corners of the room: pin the nose on Rudolph, bean bag toss into Frosty’s mouth, and some weird game where you have to move a cookie around your face. Oh my God, is that karaoke? I will be avoiding those areas of the bar at all costs.

I catch Gloria’s eye, making sure she knows I’m here, before aiming for the bar. If I’m going to make it through an hour of yelling small talk and politely declining to play holiday games, I’m going to need a strong drink. A large, strong drink.

I’m halfway to the bar when a tingling sensation crawls up the back of my neck. The feeling cascades through my whole body, causing me to stop and slightly shiver. I’ve never felt something so…overpowering before. What the hell?

Turning, I scan the room, trying to figure out what’s causing this sudden feeling. Maybe someone opened a door and I’m feeling a cool breeze in a different way because of all the bodies? Or maybe I’m getting sick? Yes, that has to be—

I lock on to the greenest eyes I have ever seen, staring straight at me. A shiver goes through my body again. He’s sitting at the back of the room, surrounded by other people, but I swear with the way he’s gazing at me it’s just the two of us. The sounds of the bar dim, becoming nothing but murmurs as I let my eyes roam over him. There’s a subtle five o’clock shadow on his strong jaw, matching the dark black hair that is pushed back from his face. The left side of his lip is hitched up in an amused grin, the bottom lip plump and inviting. When his lips quirk up higher, I know I’ve been caught staring. My gaze flicks back up to his. He’s still looking too.

Shaking myself out of it, I turn back to the bar. Gripping the edge of the wood surface, I fight the strong compulsion to turn around. To get his eyes back on me. I’d never had a reaction to a man like this before. Who is he?

The bartender finally comes over to take my order.

“Can I get an Old Fashioned?”

He doesn’t say anything, merely points at the blackboard behind him.

“You’ve got to be joking,” I complain, thinking this can’t be real. Over his shoulder is every drink order with a holiday name and a disclaimer that anyone who doesn’t play along gets their picture taken and put on the bar’s naughty list. Fuck me. Some people take these holiday-themed parties too far. Knowing that I can’t risk getting on the naughty list (I can’t believe I just thought those words), I sigh and say as low as possible, “Can I get a Ye Old Fashioned Christmas.”

He nods and I can see he’s fighting a smile. Saying those words felt like swallowing nails. I scan the drink list, seeing if there are any options that aren’t completely ridiculous. Nope.

I swear it takes the bartender a million years to make my drink, but as soon as it’s in my hands I take a long sip. I need to get myself under control.

Okay, game plan. I would avoid the corners of the bar where Mystery Man sat and where all the games were located. I didn’t want anyone thinking I was interested in those sorts of activities. I’d try to mingle as quickly as I could, then dash out the door. I’ve promised to stay only an hour and I’m sticking to that if I can. Squeezing my glass tight, I turn with a small smile on my lips, prepared to go to battle—I mean, mingle. Prepared to mingle—when a hand on my forearm stops me. My head turns to see who’s got me.

My smile falls.

It’s the Mystery Man.

“Hello,” he says simply, his deep baritone voice vibrating through me.

I don’t know why I say what I do, but I can’t stop the words. My brain and mouth have apparently stopped corresponding and I’m spewing nonsense. “This is a company event. Are you party crashing? Do you work for Battlements?”

That stupidly attractive lip-hitch smile thing happens again. He doesn’t seem thrown by my attitude or the questions I’ve hurled at him. “No, I’m not party crashing. And no”—he leans on the bar, his hand not leaving my arm—“I don’t work for Battlements.”

I tilt my head, curious. Stepping closer so I can hear him better, I take another sip of my drink. “So you know someone here then?”

“Yes, I know a few people.”

“And you love holiday parties so much you couldn’t say no.”

He chuckles at my dry humor, nodding. “I am a sucker for the magic of the holiday season.” His hand slips from my arm to grab my hand, interlocking our fingers. I should pull away, tell him he’s being far too familiar with me, but I don’t say anything. Instead, I let him gently pull me forward until our bodies are almost touching. I’m so close I can see each individual dark lash that frames his moss-green eyes. “I’m Ajay.”

Hypnotized, I reply, “Nadia.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Nadia.” All I can do is nod. I’m intoxicated by this man. There’s something about him that calls to my curious nature.

“Nadia! Come here!” A cry carries through the bar. Reluctantly, I tear my eyes from Ajay and scan the area. I see my team hovering around a table to the side of where Ajay and I are standing. Gloria is waving me over, and a tray of shots is being placed on the table. Oh God.

“Shall we?” Ajay gestures to the group. With more of a grimace than a smile, I nod. God, he is being such a good sport about this. I don’t want to share him with anyone right now, since I’m dying to know more about him, but I also can’t say no to spending time with my team. It is a company event after all.

“We got jolly hour shots. To cheers to an amazing year!” Gloria beams.

Now my smile really is a grimace. I haven’t had a shot since I was in my early twenties. My thirty-year-old body did not bounce back as quickly as it once did after a night of drinking. Could I say no?

“Come on, it will be fun.” Gloria holds out a shot glass to me. I stupidly put down my tumbler and reach for the shot glass. Looking at Ajay, I see he’s also accepting a glass from one of the guys. There’s a twinkle in his eyes as he gazes down at me.

“To an amazing year,” he says, hitting his glass to mine.

“To an amazing year,” I repeat with the group, trying not to think about what I’m doing as I shoot the drink back. An explosion of peppermint hits me, making the shot smoother than I anticipated. Damn, that was good.

“Another!” is yelled.

* * *

I’m not sure how much time has passed but I’m feeling really good. Like, really good. Light and joyful. My body leans into Ajay’s a bit more as we laugh at our horrible attempt to put Rudolph’s light-up nose on his picture. I don’t know how but I end up going south of Rudolph’s face and giving him red light-up balls instead of a nose. When a loud roar of laughter erupts behind me, I peek to see if I’d gotten the position right this second time around.

I see Ajay hunched over, his fist over his mouth to muffle his peal of laughter, and I became an infatuated blob. He’s so crazy beautiful. And I feel so…ahh, it’s frustrating that I can’t name what I’m feeling. But I feel great with him. Calmer and happier than I have in a long time. One smile from him and all my tension melts away.

It’s that damn sexy smile that made me agree to play this stupid game. When I see where I’ve placed the ball and where it’s supposed to be, I burst out chuckling. I completely missed the mark. Poor Rudolph. Looks like Santa isn’t flying anywhere tonight with my help. I don’t think the three blindfolded turns to disorient people is needed at the start when alcohol is already helping with that.

Ajay’s arms open up to me as I walk in his direction. When I’m close enough, he pulls me in close, allowing me to rest my forehead on his chest as I continue to laugh. The weight of his arms around me feels good. At this point I’m not sure if it’s the booze or being around Ajay that has me feeling so free. I feel like I’ve known him forever. He’s easy to be around, to laugh with. He brings out a carefree side of me that I didn’t think existed anymore.

I tip my head up, and we lock eyes. He’s grinning down at me, and I can’t stop my smile from growing bigger. “You gave it a good try, beautiful.”

I snort. “That’s what you tell a small child when they don’t win a trophy!” I cry-laugh at his attempt to placate me.

“You’re right. You really fucked that one up.”

I throw my head back, howling with amusement. Ajay kisses my temple, causing me to lose my breath. My eyes are still glassy with moisture from all the laughing, but I can clearly see the look of adoration he’s giving me. I don’t know what comes over me, but I find myself wrapping a hand around his neck to angle his head down. Slowly, I rise on my tiptoes until our lips are pressed together. The kiss is gentle and brief. Wildly powerful. I open my lust-heavy lids, eyes locked on his mouth, wanting more.

Ajay gives me another peck, not pulling back far. “Now,” he begins, bending lower so I can hear him over the roar of the bar around us. “How about we head to the karaoke corner of the bar. I bet you do a great rendition of ‘Silent Night.’”

“Umm, no,” I say in a teasing yet serious tone. “I draw the line at karaoke. I’m not a singer, I’m a ringer.”

“What does that mean? Are you into boxing?” One of his hands comes up and tucks a strand of hair behind my ear, causing my heart rate to skyrocket. I lean deeper into him before I catch myself. Damn it, I’m so drawn to this man. I can’t help but want to get closer, capture some of his goodness and light.

Wrapping an arm fully around Ajay, I gesture for us to move away from the Rudolph station. A new crowd of people has stumbled over, ready to take their turn, and I want to be able to hear Ajay. My legs are a little unsteady as we make our way to the bar. When we get closer, Ajay lifts me onto a bar stool and my legs open automatically for him to step between. I want him as close as I can possibly get him.

In another bold move, I grab his shirt and pull him in to me. My execution isn’t as graceful as I saw it playing out in my head, but it gets results. Ajay’s hands come down on my upper thighs, and he braces himself so he doesn’t fall on me. His thumbs are an inch away from touching me in my most intimate place. I shudder, the strength of his hands sending ripples of awareness through me.

From beneath my lashes, I look at him. There’s a hungry look in his eyes too. I lean over until our lips are a breath away. He doesn’t move back. Instead, the side of his lip that always tips up when he’s happy hitches further and I close the distance. The kiss is quick, but I feel my whole world shift.

Ajay’s kiss in return deepens quickly, going from soft to erotically suggestive in seconds. His tongue darts into my mouth, tasting all of me. His hands leave my thighs, coming up to frame my face, holding me steady as he explores every inch of my mouth with his lips, his tongue, his teeth. Damn, this is the best kiss of my life.

My hands trail up his chest. I need more of him. I need him closer. I need—

The thought is cut off when I start to register the noise around us. Ajay must notice it too because he breaks our kiss but doesn’t move away. The hoots and hollers get louder when we turn to the crowd around us. My face goes up in flames when I see all my coworkers cheering Ajay and me on. If I could melt into the floor, I would. Taking Ajay with me of course.

“Okay,” I breathe out, completely embarrassed. I give a little wave to the crowd before turning away. “I’m going to need another shot to forget that happened.”

“Don’t worry about it, Nadia,” Gloria says, skipping up beside me. “It’s all in good fun.” I hum, not really agreeing with her. “Here, let’s do another jolly hour shot.”

When a shot glass is instantly placed in front of me, I know it’s not a good idea to take it. Yet I do. They’re stupidly delicious and addictive. I’m a sucker for peppermint apparently, if this drink and Ajay’s eyes are any indication. Grabbing the shot glass, I cheers with Gloria before shooting the drink back. With a wide smile on my face, I angle my body back to Ajay as Gloria is pulled away by one of the IT guys. Interesting.

“Did you want a shot too?” I ask, feeling like a rude sonofabitch for not including him.

“I’m good, beautiful. But I do want to know what you meant by that ringer comment,” he says, dragging his thumb along my lower lip.

“How about I tell you all about that in the morning. Over breakfast.”

The lopsided smile that I’m coming to really love hitches higher. “That sounds like an excellent idea.” He extends his hand, helping me down from the stool. My body rubs against his as I’m slowly lowered, and I gasp. I can feel the hard length of his cock pressed this close. I bite my lip to hold back a moan. Shit. We need to get out of here, now.

He keeps my hand in his, and we head to the front of the bar, quickly looking for our coats. My head is spinning. I’m not sure if it’s the alcohol or the magnetism of Ajay but damn, I feel hot. Needy. And I swear to all that is holy if I don’t find my jacket in the next second I’m going to scream screw it and run out of here coatless.

“Here,” someone says beside me, and I turn to see Ajay holding out my jacket. It doesn’t even occur to me to ask him how he knew what coat’s mine, I just want to get out of here and get his lips back on mine.

The next thing I know, we’re in a cab, heading off into the night.