It’s the perfect answer to her annual problem until a midnight crisis lands her in the arms of a sexy bartender named Marco.
He’s smart, he’s kind … but he also has a secret that could tear them apart.
Will their passion flame out in holiday heartache? Or will he be the one to finally break her Christmas curse?
Tilly shifted in her seat and waited for that now-familiar half-smile to break Marco’s stoic facade.
He didn’t move.
She looked away and fidgeted with her fork. “You can’t be serious.”
Now she was getting worried. Maybe a little irritated. “I spent half the night on that stage. You don’t really expect me to get back up there, do you?”
Marco turned to the dark and empty platform on the other side of the room. “You danced, true. But only to music you chose.”
“You said you could dance to anything. So dance to something I choose.”
Was he for real? His blank stare told her nothing.
She threw up her hands. “Fine. If you want me to dance, I’ll dance. You can pick the music, just let me finish my food.”
He pinched the corners of his collar and hiked them to his jawline. “Of course. Stall as long as you like. If you take enough time, the police will arrive and you won’t have to dance at all. But I’m sure that’s not your intention.”
How could someone so adorable be so annoying?
“No, it isn’t my intention.” She devoured another bite of chicken parmigiana and rose to her feet. “Let’s just get this over with, shall we?” She untied the shawl around her shoulders, retied it around her hips, and made her way to the stage.
Marco followed, flipping switches to bring up the stage lights and turning knobs on the sound system, making them crackle and hum to life.
She stopped at the center of the stage. “So what’s it gonna be, cowboy?”
He picked up a tablet plugged into the system and scrolled through the song list. “I don’t want to make it too difficult for you.”
“Don’t hold back on my account. I can take whatever you dish out.”
His thick, Roman brows shot up. “We’ll see about that.” He tapped the screen and set the tablet back on the mixer.
The hum in the speakers gave way to a familiar jingling of bells. Her chin dropped to her chest and she groaned. “Really? Jingle Bells?”
His lips wrestled, fighting back a smile beaming in his eyes. “You said anything.”
She sighed. “Right. Fine. If you want a Jingle Bells belly dance, you can have a Jingle Bells belly dance.”
She turned her back to him because there was no way in the world she was going to pull this off if she had to look at him and that arrogant smirk.
Dashing through the snow…
She began her usual taqsim by twisting her chest to the beat, to the right and then the left, and then rolled the movement down to her hips.
In a one horse open sleigh…
She repeated the combination in her hips, then rolled the movement back up to her chest.
With the next verse she crossed the stage with a grapevine step before dipping into a full hip circle and whipping her hair forward and back. She stole a glance his direction and caught him smiling. Not a snicker or a smirk, but a bona fide smile. She wiggled her eyebrows.
Was that a flush creeping up his cheeks?
By the end of the song, she almost wished it wasn’t over.
“I told you.” She strutted to the top of the stairs when the music faded. “I can dance to anything.”
He shook his finger. “You aren’t done. Not yet.”
“No way. I proved my point.”
He gave her a sad-puppy frown. “One more?”
She tried to sound annoyed, but the truth was, she didn’t mind. She kind of liked the tingle she felt when he watched her, when she had his complete attention.
He swiped through the music again. What was it going to be this time? Something quick and up-tempo? Probably something bouncy that would get her shoulders and chest jiggling and her hips and thighs wiggling. He was a guy after all.
But she was wrong. The first sound out of the speaker wasn’t bright or cheery or even danceable.
Oh, no. Every ounce of anticipation rolled up into a reeking ball of regret. This had to be the most lethargic version of Silent Night she’d ever heard. It had no pep, no rhythm. It didn’t matter. She wasn’t going to back down.
She straightened, reached out her arms, and swayed in a snake-like way, drawing out the movement to match the lethargic beat. How was she going to keep this up for an entire song?
An idea struck her. A wicked, naughty, and kinda sexy idea. Slowly, 0h-so slowly, she worked her way down the stairs to where he was leaning against the sound system.
She wasn’t entirely sure about her plan until she saw the fire in his eyes and the way he gnawed his lower lip when she got close.
He wanted her.
She could see it, and it made her bolder. She shimmied up to him and made circles with her chest. Her crimson knit top brushed softly against the smooth, black cotton of his shirt.
When she looked into his wide, anxious eyes, she could see passion simmering in their depths. When she looked at his lips—his soft and tender lips—she could see them twitch with longing.
She tried to focus on the music, but her thoughts drifted, her control slipped. He was so close. She could touch his arm, his cheek, his chest. The air intoxicated her with his sweet cinnamon scent.
He watched her without saying a word, but his lips were getting closer. Closer…
She pivoted around. If he kissed her, she’d be done. She had to hold strong. Had to keep dancing. She closed her eyes and followed the music, let it guide her hips and her hands. Slowly she lifted them over her head and her hips began slow, vertical figure eights.
That’s when his hands wrapped around her waist. She gasped. Surprised, but still eager for more. He pulled her closer, and his lips dragged along her bare neck and shoulders. Every inch of her exploded with sensation.
“Oh, bella.” He touched the tip of his tongue along the curve of her ear.
Whatever defense she had left dissolved into the pool of those words, that touch.
She reached behind herself and grabbed the thick denim of his waistband.
He spun her around and pinned her against the wall beside the audio equipment. He stared into her eyes without a word, but the question was clear in his expression: Do you want this?
She answered by rising to her tiptoes and catching his lips with hers. The kiss was hot and urgent, and the flick of his tongue against hers sent a legion of lightning bolts through her, igniting every nerve and need within her.
He lifted his hands to her jaw and held her with a gentleness she didn’t expect. Then he pulled away.
“Don’t stop.” She could hear the need in her voice, but she didn’t care. She was beyond caring about anything.He pulled her close again and kissed her quickly. In her ear, he whispered, “Come with me.”