All I Want For Christmas ONLY
by Ros Clarke
Last night, Anna Gardner was the life of the office Christmas party—right up until she threw herself at gorgeous advertising executive playboy, Hugh Munro. Again. Last year, Hugh let her pretend their passionate kiss never happened, but this year he’s determined to make Anna admit she wants him as much as he wants her.
Except, Hugh doesn’t know the office party is the only night of the year his friend lets her hair down. That every hour she’s away from the office is spent caring for her sickly mother. That her mother’s condition, early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, is hereditary.
When Hugh finds out what she’s been hiding, he’s forced to do some serious soul-searching. It’s not fair to Anna or her mother for him to get involved casually, but casual relationships are all he knows. Can he prove to himself—and to Anna—that she’s all he wants for Christmas?
Title: All I Want For Christmas
Author: Ros Clarke
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Imprint: an Edge novella
Length: 50 pages
Release Date: December 2011
Pricing is not guaranteed
© 2011 Ros Clarke
Anna was never, ever going to the office Christmas party again.
With her head still thumping like a herd of elephants, she’d dragged herself into work. Now she had to face the knowing glances and smothered grins of her colleagues as she walked past them on the way to her office. Grateful for some privacy, she slumped into the cushioned leather chair behind her sleek glass-topped desk and checked her watch. Half an hour late. Half an hour wasn’t too bad after the night she’d had.
A quiet knock, and then her assistant slipped in, closing the door behind her.
“Coffee,” Jennifer said. She set a large paper cup on Anna’s desk, together with a blister pack of pills. “And painkillers.”
Anna raised her head and grimaced. “Is it that obvious?”
Jennifer cocked an all-too-perky eyebrow. “I went up to the second floor.”
The second-floor machine dispensed double-strength brew. Usually Anna stuck with a normal level of caffeine, but today she was grateful Jen had made the effort to go upstairs. She nodded her thanks.
Mistake. Bad mistake.
Anna closed her eyes and waited for the hammering in her head to subside. Within a few minutes, the sweet black coffee and the painkillers blessedly began to work their magic. She looked back at her assistant, who still waited patiently.
“It’s not good news, is it?” Anna asked.
Jen grinned. “Well, that depends how you look at it. I saw Mr. Munro while I was up there.”
Anna exhaled slowly. Hugh Munro was the shining star of the company’s creative firmament—and the star of all Anna’s most embarrassing memories.
“He said he was taking you to lunch,” Jennifer added.
Any other day, that would be good news. But not the morning after the office Christmas party. Anna groaned. “Please tell me you said I had a meeting.”
“I told him your diary was clear all day.”
“You’d better fill me in on what happened last night,” Anna muttered. “I remember there was karaoke.”
“I’m afraid so.”
“How badly did I embarrass myself?”
“You had everyone going,” Jen said with a smirk. “They all joined in on the choruses. ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day,’ ‘Rocking Around the Christmas Tree.’ All the classics. And then you did your solo.”
Anna shut her eyes. She couldn’t have. Not again. Please say she hadn’t sung—
“‘All I Want for Christmas Is You.’”
“What did they put in that punch?”
Jennifer shrugged. It was all very well for her—she hadn’t made a fool of herself singing out of tune in front of the entire staff. And after the singing…
“I kissed him, didn’t I?”
“I think he kissed you, really. It was sweet.”
Anna laid her head on her desk. “I don’t want to see anyone today, Jen. If someone asks, tell them I’ve got something urgent to catch up on before the Christmas break and I can’t be disturbed.”
“Shall I bring you another coffee?”
No amount of caffeine would make this better. She’d drank too much and kissed Hugh Munro at the office Christmas party.
Last time she’d been so mortified, she’d managed to avoid him entirely until the New Year. Hugh had eventually tracked her down and asked her out for a drink after work, but when she’d refused, he hadn’t bothered to try again.
Still, his polite indifference meant she hadn’t needed to keep coming up with excuses. After a while, they’d settled back into a comfortable routine of occasional chats in the lift or by the coffee machine and semiregular lunches at the Italian restaurant around the corner from the office. As far as Anna was concerned, the kiss had been all but forgotten, and she was grateful for his friendship.
But after two glasses of punch, friendship just hadn’t been enough.
Next year she was definitely sticking to the apple juice. She shook her head. Next year she wasn’t going to the party at all.
This year, she would just have to hide again. Down here in finance, there was no reason to spend time with the advertising agency’s creative directors. No professional reason, anyway, and she always had work as an excuse to avoid anything else.
Anna picked up her phone and dialed Hugh’s extension. “Look, about lunch…,” she began.
“Good morning to you, too.” He was smiling. She could hear it.
“I can’t make it. I’m very busy today.”
“Well…” Anna cast around for a plausible excuse. “I’ve got to finish the end-of-year budgets.”
“You did them last week.”
Damn. “Yes, well, there are some, er, amendments. Urgent ones.”
He laughed. “Anna, I’m taking you to lunch. I already booked a table at Giovanni’s.”
“The tiramisu is on me.”
She could never resist Giovanni’s lusciously rich, creamy tiramisu, and he knew it. “Hugh, I’m not sure—”
“I’ll pick you up at twelve.”
“I’ve got a client on the other line. I’ll see you later, Anna. We’ll talk then.”
At five to twelve, Anna picked up her bag and coat and hid in the ladies’ loos.
Three minutes later, Jennifer followed her in. She grinned and said, “He says you’ve got two minutes, and then he’s coming in to get you.”
Jennifer glanced at the flimsy swing door. “He can, you know.”
“Ninety seconds!” Hugh’s voice echoed with amusement but did nothing to disguise his determination.
Anna whipped out her comb and tidied her hair. If she were going down, she’d do it with all guns blazing.
She dashed on a streak of dark pink lipstick and pinched some color into her cheeks. Nothing could disguise her faintly bloodshot eyes. Resigned, she slipped her arms into her coat and picked up her handbag.
“Coming, ready or no—” Hugh cut off as she emerged into the foyer. “Good decision.” He winked.
Anna glared at him. How did he manage to look so good the day after the office party, anyway? “I’m not talking to you.”
He laughed. “Fine. You can eat spaghetti alla vongole and sip a delicious Montepulciano, and I’ll do all the talking.”
She shot him a dark glance, then turned away. “We’re not talking about last night.”
Anna looked back, surprised by the stern tone of his voice. He had folded his arms and narrowed his eyes.
“Not again. This time we’re going to talk about it openly and honestly. Like adults, not teenagers.”
Ouch. That was below the belt.
“Couldn’t we just ignore it and move on like adults?” she muttered.
Hugh raised an eyebrow. “We should get going if we don’t want to lose our table.”
Outside, the pavement was slippery with frozen slush. Three days earlier, the freshly fallen snow had been pretty. Now, melted and refrozen several times, it was just ugly gray ice. Anna walked gingerly, careful to keep her balance. The last thing she wanted was to slip and give Hugh an excuse to catch her.
They paused, waiting for a chance to cross the busy road. Anna’s hand bumped against Hugh’s.
“You’re cold,” he said.
“You need a pair of gloves,” he remarked as they crossed the street to the restaurant.
“I lose them.”
“Here. Get inside, where it’s warm.” Hugh held open the door for her.
Giovanni greeted her with a kiss on both cheeks. “Bellissima signorina!”
“Hello, Giovanni.” Anna couldn’t help but smile. Giovanni’s outrageous compliments were one of the reasons she loved coming here.
“Today I have a special for you,” he told Hugh. “Beautiful oxtail, cooked since yesterday so it will melt in your mouth.”
Hugh’s lips twitched into a smile. “I think I’ll take a look at the menu.”
Giovanni sighed dramatically and shook his head. “No soul. That is the problem with English men.”
“No heart, either,” Anna agreed, with a pointed look in Hugh’s direction.
“Come, then. I have your table here.” Giovanni handed them each a menu. “A bottle of wine?”
“Anna?” Hugh asked.
“I don’t think that would be a very good idea.”
He laughed. Bastard.
“We’ll have a bottle of sparkling mineral water, thanks.” Hugh raised a knowing eyebrow at Anna. “Still feeling it from last night, huh?”
“I thought we were forgetting last night.” She was not blushing. The heat in her cheeks was perfectly normal after the cold outside.
“No.” Hugh’s eyes twinkled. “You were forgetting. I was going to have an adult conversation about it.”
Anna hid behind the large leather-bound menu. “The penne sounds good. Or maybe I’ll try the chicken with dolcelatte and spinach.”
“Or maybe you’ll have the same thing you have every single time.” Hugh whipped the menu out of her hands.
Anna glared at him. “Maybe I’ve decided to start taking some risks.”
He let out a bark of laughter. “Risks like last night?”
She sighed. “Last night was a mistake. I’m sorry. Can we please move on from it now?”
“No.” Hugh shook his head decisively. “We can’t.”
Giovanni returned with the water. Hugh ordered the lasagna for himself and the spaghetti for Anna. She frowned.
“Sorry, did you want something different?” Hugh raised an eyebrow.
“For the signorina, it is always the spaghetti alla vongole,” Giovanni said with a cheerful nod. “The best spaghetti inLondon, no?”
“Yes,” she admitted. “And yes, I’ll have the spaghetti.”
Hugh poured them each a glass of water, then leaned back in his plush red chair, watching her. Anna glanced around the restaurant. Deep burgundy gilded ribbons had been twisted into classic bows and elegant festoons. Golden candles lit the windows, and fresh greenery scented the air. It was lovely.
And Hugh was still watching her.
One of them would have to break the silence. She didn’t see why it should be her. He was the one who wanted to talk. She shifted in her chair, then took a sip of water.
Fine. If he wasn’t going to say anything, he could listen to her. “Look…”
His lips twitched until he was almost laughing, but not quite. She wished he wouldn’t do that. It always made her want to lean over and kiss his lips into a proper smile. Anna tightened her grip on the water glass to stop herself from doing anything so stupid.
“I like what I see,” he said.
“I thought this was supposed to be an adult conversation.”
“So am I. It shouldn’t have happened. It was unprofessional, and I’m sorry. Next year, I just won’t come to the office party.”
“That would be a shame.”
Anna shrugged. “I don’t know what else to say.”
“You could tell me why.”
“Why you can’t keep your hands off me once you’ve had one drink too many.”
She reached for a slice of Giovanni’s delicious focaccia bread and began to crumble it on her plate. “People do the strangest things when they’re drunk.”
“That’s true.” His eyes narrowed. In the candlelight, they were almost golden.
Anna ducked her head. “So, that’s all it was.”
The waiter arrived with their food. Anna asked for grated Parmesan and freshly ground black pepper. If she took long enough, maybe Hugh would let her get away with changing the subject.
“Delicious,” she pronounced, tucking in hungrily.
“Good. Did you have breakfast today, by the way?”
“Had you eaten anything this morning?”
“I had coffee.”
“That explains it. You’re always grumpy when you’re hungry.”
“I wasn’t hungry,” she replied automatically.
“Eat your lunch.”
She twirled her fork into the spaghetti. As the pasta warmed her from the inside, her irritation began to seep away. Maybe Hugh had a point.
“Better?” His voice was surprisingly tender.
“Yes. I needed that. Thank you.”
“My pleasure. Is there a reason you keep running away from me?”
He spoke softly. Anna’s cutting retort died on her lips. She closed her eyes and took a ragged breath. “I’m not running now.”
Hugh laid his hand over hers. “I’m glad.”
His hand was warm and oddly comforting. It took a considerable effort for Anna to draw hers away.
“This isn’t a good idea.”
“Why not?” He smiled. “I like you, Anna. You like me. Why isn’t this a good idea?”
“I’m not looking for a relationship. I’m happy just being friends.” She picked up her holly-patterned napkin and folded it between her fingers.
“Friends who can’t keep their hands off each other after a glass of punch?”
She shrugged, fixing her gaze on her empty plate.
Hugh leaned across the table. “I don’t believe you, Anna. I didn’t believe you last year, but you ran away so fast every time I tried to tell you how I felt. I told myself I’d read you wrong. I tried to believe it had been just a drunken mistake you didn’t want to repeat.”
His voice lowered. Anna instinctively moved closer.
“But then you did it again,” he murmured, and she shivered as if he had touched her. “Once might have been a mistake, but not twice. I know what I heard in your voice when you sang for me last night. I know what I saw in your beautiful brown eyes when you walked toward me, never taking your gaze from mine. I know whose name you whispered when you put your arms around my neck. My name, Anna,” he said savagely. “And then I kissed you. Because you wanted it, and so did I.” He leaned back in his chair, leaving her staring up at him, pulse racing wildly with desire. “So don’t tell me you’re happy being friends.”
Anna slumped in her seat. She wasn’t happy, but she couldn’t tell him why. She wasn’t ready for that. She couldn’t bear the inevitable pity. She didn’t want to hear his excuses. Neither of them needed that embarrassment. Much better to let him down gently.
“Fine,” she said in a bright voice that sounded false even to her ears. “I won’t tell you that. But we can’t be anything else. I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry,” he repeated slowly. “For what, exactly? For kissing me like I was the only man in the world? For running away from me? Or for lying to me again?”
“I’m sorry for ever making you think we had a chance.”
Hugh gave her a long, measuring look, then called for the bill. She took her purse out of her pocket, but he dismissed it with an impatient gesture and handed his credit card to Giovanni.
“No tiramisu for the signorina?” Giovanni asked as he processed Hugh’s payment.
Anna mustered a smile. “Not today.”
He gave her a knowing look. “It is good for the heart, the tiramisu.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my heart,” she said sharply, then shook her head. “Sorry. I’m a bit on edge today.”
Hugh jabbed his number into the card machine and handed it back.
“She needs dessert,” Giovanni said with a nod toward Anna.
Hugh looked her up and down coldly. “So she does.”
Anna gritted her teeth. “Actually, I need to get back to the office. Maybe next time,” she added politely, for Giovanni’s benefit.
Hugh merely helped her into her coat and nodded farewell to the restaurateur.
They headed back toward the office, Anna half a step behind Hugh. At the corner he turned left instead of right and Anna, focused on the treacherous pavement, walked right into him. Hugh grabbed her arm before she hit the ground. He hauled her upright and grasped her shoulders.
When they were both steady on their feet, she said, “The office is the other way.”
“Jennifer said your diary was clear. I thought we might take a walk.”
“Because it’s such a nice day?” she said dryly. “And we’re enjoying each other’s company so much?”
He let her go and resumed walking.
“Next time, you could try asking me,” she shouted after him.
Anna paused on the street corner. She didn’t want to be back at the office all that much. She wouldn’t get any useful work done.
“Are you coming, then?” Hugh grunted over his shoulder.
She smothered her giggle at his bad temper. “Fine. Wait while I catch up.”
A few minutes later, they turned into a small square with a number of brightly lit shops and open market stalls, all strung with Christmas lights.
“We need to get you some gloves. Here.” Hugh walked over to a nearby stand. Patterned scarves in vivid jewel tones waved like banners in the chilly breeze. Chunky hand-knitted hats and gloves were piled high on the table: bright reds and greens in Christmas patterns for kids on one side and subtle, sophisticated shades in adult sizes on the other. Hugh picked up a pair of thick gloves and held Anna’s hand against them to check the size.
“Green or blue?” The soft cashmere gloves were warm against her skin, but it was Hugh’s casual grip that set her pulse racing.
“Blue. I mean, you shouldn’t be buying me gloves. I’ll lose them.”
“Tie them on a string.”
She looked up into his laughing eyes, and her heart skipped. She wanted to say yes to him. To everything. She nodded slowly. “Maybe I will.”
“Here, try this on.” Hugh handed her a matching woolly hat. “That should keep you warm.”
Anna pulled it on, but it wouldn’t fit over her neatly pinned knot of hair. Hugh raised a challenging eyebrow. She shrugged and took out the pins, letting her hair spill down below her shoulders.
He smiled. “Beautiful.”
She caught her breath. “Hugh,” she warned.
“It’s my New Year’s resolution.”
“To be completely honest.”
“But it’s not the New Year.”
“No, but I need to start practicing now.”
“Idiot,” she said mildly. She couldn’t be angry with him for a compliment like that.
It was hard to be angry with him at all. If only things were different. Anna couldn’t ask for a better man than Hugh. He was kind, he was thoughtful, and he knew how to make her laugh even on the worst days.
When he kissed her, he made her feel like the most precious, most cherished woman in the world. When he smiled at her, as he did now, it was as though he lit up the world just for her.
“Put your gloves on,” he said.
She did, and then held up her hands to show him.
Hugh grinned and took hold of them. “Warmer now?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Good. Let’s walk along the river for a bit.”
A fine mist diffused the afternoon light, giving the city a soft-focus glow. As they wandered along the Embankment, Anna and Hugh passed street vendors selling roasted chestnuts and others with piles of sweet-scented pine trees. A choir of wide-eyed children sang carols outside the National Theatre, their pure, clear voices full of innocent wonder. Anna stopped to listen, caught by her own childhood memories. The awe she used to feel at a world transformed by tinsel and sparkling lights. The hope that anything was possible in a world where reindeer pulled sleighs full of presents through the sky.
Hugh led her to a nearby bench, where they sat and listened together for a long time. Anna watched the river slumber past, all the lights reflected in its dark water, like an impressionist painting brought to life.
“Are you okay?” Hugh asked.
“Yes.” She leaned forward, gazing into the dark water of theThames. “I just wish every day could be like this.”
“Cold and damp?”
She elbowed him.
“Isn’t it enough just to enjoy the moment?” Hugh asked.
She shook her head firmly. “No. It’s lovely while it lasts, but it doesn’t make anything else better.”
“Anything else being?”
Anna bit her lip. “Work.”
“But you like work.”
“Sometimes I do.”
“So what else?”
“Karaoke?” she offered.
“Your karaoke is excellent,” Hugh replied solemnly. “Especially that last song.”
“‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’?”
“Exactly.” He took her hand in his and leaned down. “Anna?” he murmured.
He smelled so good. So warm. She wanted to kiss him. She wanted to know what it felt like when she wasn’t drunk. Would it stop her heart the way it had before?
Could she just enjoy this moment?