Jaci Burton

A Rare GiftDecember 3, 2012
Carina Press

Holiday KissesAnthology Cover
December 3, 2012
Carina Press
Subgenre: Contemporary Romance, Anthology

The Best Thing
Book Three in the Kent Brothers Series

A year ago, Tori let her guard down and Brody Kent slipped right in, planting one hot, unforgettable kiss on her in a dark corner at the company Christmas party. Though the kiss surpassed her wildest dreams, she can't let it happen again. She loves Brody, but he's got a reputation for loving and leaving. She'll have to keep her heart—and her libido—in check.

Brody can't get the time of day from Tori—ever since that impulsive kiss, she's avoided him with the same brutal efficiency she uses to manage his family's construction company office. The company can't afford to lose her, and Brody's come to realize that he can't live without her. But how can he convince Tori that he's a changed man?

It just might take a Christmas miracle.

Text Copyright © 2012 by Jaci Burton
Cover Art Copyright © 2012 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A. Cover art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited. All rights reserved. ® nd TM are trademarks owned by Harlequin Enterprises Limited or its affiliated companies, used under license.

 

The Best Thing is available as a single novella, or in a combination collection—Romancing the Holiday—containing The Best Thing and two other contemporary romances from HelenKay Dimon and Christi Barth.

We wish you a merry Christmas…and a happily ever after!

A memorable three-night stand gets rekindled in a cabin in West Virginia. An office romance is sparked by an impulsive holiday kiss. And two best friends scout locations for a marriage proposal and discover that they make a perfect match. 'Tis the season for laughter, love and a lifetime of happiness.

Edited by Angela James this anthology includes:
We'll Be Home for Christmas by HelenKay Dimon
The Best Thing by Jaci Burton
Ask Her at Christmas by Christi Barth

 

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A Rare Gift

Chapter One

“You need to fix Tori. She’s broken.”

Brody Kent frowned at his brother Wyatt. “What the hell are you talking about?”

They had an early-morning meeting at Kent Construction Company, which meant their office manager, Tori Lewis, wasn’t there. Which was why they were talking about her. Because normally Tori had acute hearing, and you couldn’t whisper anything she couldn’t hear.

“I’m talking about what you did at the company Christmas party a year ago,” Wyatt said, looking to their brother Ethan for confirmation.

Ethan crossed his arms. “I didn’t see it, but I heard about it. You know—that kiss. The one that screwed up Tori and made her hate you. And apparently us by proxy. For the past year we’ve been walking on friggin’ eggshells around here.”

“More like walking on fire,” Wyatt said. “And we’re all getting burned because she’s turned into a fire-breathing she-dragon. It’s unpleasant, Brody. Fix it. Fix her. Make her not hate you anymore so things can be normal again.”

“She doesn’t hate me,” Brody defended, though it had seemed that way over the past year. Ever since that night at the Christmas party last year. They’d been having one of their usual arguments over—hell, he couldn’t even remember what they’d been arguing about. The only thing he could remember about that night was how beautiful Tori had looked with her fiery red hair pulled up, pieces of it spilling down her neck. He really liked her neck—there was a sprinkling of freckles there that had always caught his attention.

Oh, now he remembered. She’d accused him of staring at her neck, and they’d argued about that. He was so damn tired of her always picking fights with him about the stupidest shit. And maybe he’d had a few beers and he’d wanted to shut her up, so he’d grabbed her, hauled her against him and had done what he’d wanted to do every time she opened her smart, sassy mouth—he’d kissed her.

It had been an accident. Or maybe it hadn’t been. But that accident had been a two-way street, because she’d kissed him back. For a full minute. With tongue.

Until she’d taken a step back, and she’d run like her dress had suddenly fallen off, which it hadn’t, because he would have definitely noticed if it had.

She’d avoided him the rest of the night. Hell, the rest of the year. She hadn’t even come to his family’s house for Christmas that year, something she’d done ever since she’d joined Kent Construction four years ago.

So maybe the guys were right, because ever since that night, things had been different. A lot different.

Like she’d avoided eye contact. She’d gotten quiet, and Tori was never quiet. She was loud and brassy and kind of obnoxious in a lot of ways—all the things he liked about her. But it was a fun loud.

That Tori was gone. The Tori of the past year did her job efficiently, as always, but it wasn’t the same Tori they’d all grown to—

Well, the one they’d gotten used to.

And when she wasn’t quiet, she was mean. Not fun and sarcastic, just downright bite-your-head-off mean.

“If she doesn’t hate you, she sure doesn’t like you,” Wyatt said. “Things are tense now. I don’t like it tense. Nobody does. And you must have your head up your ass not to notice what’s going on.”

A Rare Gift

Brody preferred denial to actually figuring out how to deal with Tori.

“The only place my head is right now is on these bids. Can we get back to work?”

Ethan pulled up a chair. “Are you going to fix Tori?”

He didn’t want to talk about Tori, or think about Tori. He wanted to think about work, which was uncomplicated and not difficult and definitely not emotional or a woman. Or pissed at him. “There’s nothing wrong with her.”

“There is. Even Mom and Dad have noticed and keep asking me what’s bothering her. She doesn’t come over to visit and hasn’t been to any of the family functions. They keep asking what they did to make her angry.” Wyatt gave him a pained expression. “And Calliope tells me about all the conversations she has with Tori, since they’re best friends. Though Tori isn’t really talking about you. All Calliope tells me is that Tori is unhappy. I have to hear all the time about how unhappy she is, and isn’t there something I can do to make this better. Come on, man, give me a break here.”

Brody wasn’t going to fall into this trap. It wasn’t his fault Tori treated him like a pariah. It had been just a kiss, for God’s sake. Nothing life-altering, even if the kiss had been everything he’d expected it to be. And more.

“What are we, a bunch of women here? How about those bids?” Brody gave both his brothers a stern look, and they finally dropped it and got back to work.

At least until Tori swept in two hours later wearing her normal skintight jeans, sweater and boots, her shocking red hair a riotous mess on top of her head.

She always looked good. More than good. Sexy without trying to be sexy. And she smelled good, like something exotic he wanted to taste, but he didn’t know what it was. Not that he noticed or fantasized about her or anything.

What he did notice was the mood went from joking and friendly to instantly arctic. And dead quiet.

“Morning, Tori,” Ethan said.

“’Morning, Ethan.” She set her bag down, went to the coffee pot and grabbed a cup before settling in at the conference room table, giving their spread-out mess a glacial once-over. “You started without me.”

“We had bids to go over,” Wyatt said.

Tori fixed them all with a cold stare. At least she gave Ethan and Wyatt a stare while glossing over the top of Brody’s head. “And what? I’m suddenly too stupid to sit through a bid meeting?”

“Nobody said you were stupid,” Wyatt said. “We’re all due out on jobsites this morning so we wanted to discuss the bids before we headed out.”

“Which didn’t really answer my question, did it?” Tori said. “Who do you think is going to be submitting these bids?”

“Maybe we thought you might want to sleep in instead of attending a meeting at five-thirty in the morning.”

A Rare Gift

She gave Brody the most cursory of glances before opening her laptop. “Maybe you should do less thinking and let me do my damn job.”

Wyatt and Ethan gave him the Kent eat-shit-and-die look.

Okay, so maybe she was broken. She’d always had a smart mouth, but she’d been fun, had joked around with them, teased them.

This Tori wasn’t fun anymore.

So maybe it was time he did something about that.

He didn’t know exactly what that “something” was going to be, but he’d figure it out.

Midway into the day, Tori acknowledged she had turned into a raging bitch over the past several months. She’d nearly bitten Ethan’s head off this morning, had snarled at Wyatt and, as usual, pretended Brody didn’t exist.

She sighed and packaged up the bid Ethan would deliver on a potential new building on the west side of their small town, then started to work on the numbers for Wyatt’s project. Business was flush at Kent Brothers’ Construction, all the guys were busy, and her job as office manager was secure. She should be happy.

Instead, she’d been decidedly unhappy for almost a year now, ever since Brody had kissed her at the last company Christmas party. Everything had changed then, because that silent dance they’d done around each other for years, and all the look-but-don’t-touch fantasies she’d had about him had become a definite reality.

She thought all her feelings had been one-sided, that she could simply adore him from afar and be content with that. And then they’d been in the middle of an argument and he’d kept staring at her mouth and suddenly his lips had been on hers and it had been all whoa—so incredibly amazing her world had turned upside down in the space of a heartbeat.

His body had gone flush against hers, his hand had dove into her hair and his mouth—oh his mouth—had been everything she thought it would be—and more.

Which was the worst thing that could ever happen, because she loved her job, adored his family, and getting involved with Brody Kent, who never met a girl he couldn’t date, sleep with and summarily dump, would be nothing short of the end of her security. There was no way she’d ever become a Brody Kent statistic, no way she’d jeopardize this job she held so dear or her relationship with the Kent family—the only family she knew.

The problem was, that kiss still burned on her lips all these months later, the feel of his rock-hard body pressing against hers still lingered in her thoughts and her nightly fantasies, and she absolutely hated Brody for crossing that line and making her want him even more now than she did before.

When the door to the office opened, she prayed it was either Wyatt or Ethan.

It wasn’t. Brody came in. From the first day she’d hired on at Kent Construction—hell, even before that since she’d known the Kents in high school—she’d had a massive, soul-searing crush on Brody. He didn’t know it, of course. No one did. It had been a secret she’d been keeping for over ten years, and one she’d intended to take to her grave.

Brody looked around, as horrified to find them alone as she was. “The others aren’t back yet?”

A Rare Gift

She shook her head and firmly planted her gaze somewhere in the middle of the spreadsheets on her laptop.

“Oh. Uh, I need to grab my blueprints for the Handy Market job.”

She didn’t look up. “Not stopping you.”

He made a wide berth around her desk as he headed to the other end of the office.

She hated this tension between them. Before, they’d had easy banter. He teased her mercilessly and she shot him down with cruel barbs. It had been fun—usually the high point of her day.

Now it was just miserable. She felt him behind her and she closed her eyes, wishing things between them could go back to the way they used to be.

Before the kiss that had changed everything. Before she’d erected this wall of protection.

“Tori.”

She tensed. “Yeah.”

“Turn around.”

She swiveled in her chair to face him. “What?”

“Let’s talk.”

Uh-oh. “About what?”

He leaned against his desk. “The Christmas party last year.”

“We’re not talking about that. Ever.” She turned her chair around.

He came over to the front of her desk. “It’s been ten months. Don’t you think you should tell me why you’re so pissed off at me about one little kiss?”

He so didn’t get it. Typical guy. “I’m not pissed off at you about that kiss. It didn’t mean anything.”

“Bullshit. You’ve practically stopped talking to me. Everything changed after that night.”

Her stomach hurt. She needed to get out of here. She stood and grabbed her purse. “I’m hungry. I’m going to grab lunch. I’ll be back in an hour.”

Instead of letting her by, he grasped her by the arms. But his voice was soft and low when he said, “Look at me.”

It had started like this the night of the party. They’d argued. She’d yelled at him and he’d grabbed her. And then their lips had met. She stared at those lips now, hers still tingling at the memory of his mouth coming down hard on hers, the way his tongue had invaded, the hot rush of pleasure that had made her legs tremble.

Maybe she should have just gone with it, indulged in the desire that had burned so all-consuming for him all these years. But she couldn’t. Not with so much on the line. She’d shoved him and run like hell.

Just like now. She shoved him. “We’re at work, Brody.”

He let her go. “I know where we are. But I’ve tried to talk to you. I’ve called you. I’ve texted you. You refuse to talk to me.”

She edged around him and headed for the door. “That’s because there’s nothing to talk about.”

“We kissed. And it changed everything between us.”

She had her hand on the doorknob, ready to walk out. “It changed nothing. Do you hear me? Nothing is changed. Everything stays the same.”

He cocked his head to the side and stared at her. “Tori, nothing ever stays the same. Sometimes things have to change. We all have to change.”

A Rare Gift

Not her life. She liked it the way it had been. Safe. Predictable. “I can’t accept that. I have to have a certain order in my life, and you disrupted that.”

“Well, you’re disrupting things at work.”

Her stomach tightened. There it was. The change she didn’t want to happen. She finally met his gaze. “Are you saying my job’s in jeopardy?”

He moved toward her and she inched close to the door, afraid if he touched her again she’d cave and spill her feelings to him.

“No. Of course not. Whatever gave you that idea?”

“Come on, Brody. You and your brothers own this company. I’m just an employee. If something goes down—something bad—you know I’ll be the first to go.”

Brody gaped at Tori. That’s what she thought? That they’d fire her because of this? “Tori. That’s not going to happen. That’s never going to happen. You’re an invaluable resource to Kent Construction. You’re like—”

He was about to say family, but hell, she wasn’t family. He felt no brotherly bond to her. From the first time she’d stepped foot into the offices of Kent Construction, there’d been an attraction between them. She’d been very young then, so he’d ignored it. Okay, maybe he’d tried to ignore it. There were always plenty of women around his social circle, but that didn’t mean he didn’t notice Tori’s beauty, her flaming red hair, mesmerizing green eyes and her cocky confidence and attitude that he found so sexy.

They’d been playing this game for four years now and on impulse, he’d taken advantage at the last Christmas party. He just didn’t understand why it was such a big deal to her. Until now.

“You think if you and I—that you’ll lose your job?”

She shot him a look. “Come on. You think I won’t? Screwing one of the bosses doesn’t scream job security to me. Besides, you’re not exactly known for hanging on to a woman after she slides between your sheets. Once you’re done with me, do you really think you’re going to want to see me in the office day in and day out year after year? How freakin’ uncomfortable would that be? Furthermore, would I want to see you? Not that I’d have sex with you anyway.”

His mind was in a tailspin as he tried to process what Tori had said. “Just what kind of reputation do you think I have?”

“It’s not the reputation I think you have, Brody. It’s the one you do have. Everyone in town knows you sleep with any woman who’s available. And you don’t keep them. You get bored after a week or so—if they even get to hang around that long. Then it’s dumpsville, and on to the next one.”

He frowned. “I do not.”

“Uh yeah, you do. So, no thanks, not interested in being just another notch on the great big bedpost of the infamous Brody Kent. I like my job, I love your family, and I don’t want to lose either, no matter how allegedly awesome your reputation in the sack is, though I’m sure that rumor is highly exaggerated. I’m going to lunch.”

She shut the door behind her. Brody stared at the closed door, dumbfounded.

So that’s what everyone thought of him? That he was a womanizing douchebag who didn’t give a shit about women or their feelings?

And what the hell did she mean by “allegedly awesome”? There were rumors about his performance?

He dragged his fingers through his hair. Christ. He had no idea.

Wyatt opened the door and came in, saw Brody and grinned. “Oh, good. You’re here. Ethan’s pulling in, too. I’m starving. Want to have lunch?”

Brody lifted his head. “What do you know about my sex life?”

Wyatt’s gaze went blank. “Uh. Nothing. Thankfully. And don’t start sharing now.”

As Ethan walked in, Wyatt tossed his briefcase on his desk. “Hey, Ethan, what do you know about Brody’s sex life?”

A Rare Gift

Ethan stopped dead, looked at Wyatt, then Brody. “What? Have you been drinking?”

“No. But I think Brody has.”

“I haven’t,” Brody said. “But I just had the oddest conversation with Tori.”

Ethan rummaged through his desk, but stopped to shift his gaze to Brody. “You talked to Tori?”

“Tried to.”

Wyatt took a seat in his chair. “And you somehow got on the topic of your sex life?”

“Yeah. Though I don’t know how.”

“You probably brought it up,” Ethan said with a smirk.

“I didn’t. I was talking to her about the Christmas party, and our lack of communication. I think I may have that part figured out. Or at least some of it. I don’t know, I’m still working on that. But did you know that I apparently have a reputation as some kind of manwhore who has sex with women and then dumps them?”

“Oh, yeah, I’ve heard that about you,” Ethan said.

“You are kind of a dick to women,” Wyatt said.

Brody just stared at his brothers. “Seriously. You both think this.”

“When was your last serious relationship, Brody?” Ethan asked.

“You mean like a long-term girlfriend?”

Ethan shot Wyatt a look. “Clearly the term is foreign to him.”

Wyatt shook his head.

“Okay, so I’ve never had one.”

“And you’re what? Thirty now?”

“So? I’ve been busy.”

Wyatt snorted. “Yeah. Busy screwing a bunch of different women. No wonder they all think you’re an asshole. When was the last time you brought a woman home to meet Mom and Dad?”

Brody thought about it. “Uh…high school, maybe?”

Wyatt looked at Ethan. “Case closed. He’s a douche.”

Ethan nodded. “Agreed. Let’s go have lunch. I’m hungry.”

“Hey,” Brody said. “I’m not that bad.”

Ethan and Wyatt headed for the door. “Keep telling yourself that, bro. You coming with us?”

“No. I’ll eat something from the fridge here.”

Wyatt wrinkled his nose. “The fridge of moldy mystery? Good luck with that, man. We’ll be back in an hour.”

After they left, Brody leaned back in his chair and pondered what Tori had told him.

So he had a lousy reputation with women. He could accept that. He’d been no Boy Scout, but he couldn’t recall any of the women he’d dated complaining about it, no late-night teary phone calls from women claiming they were brokenhearted over losing him. He never made promises to any of them, never wanted a relationship, not while he’d been busy with his brothers building the company.

He’d had fun. He wouldn’t apologize for that. But maybe he’d led these women on somehow, led them to believe there’d be something more when he’d never had any intention of doing anything more than just let off some steam and have a great time.

Then again, maybe none of the women were all that upset about being left by him. Maybe it was him that was lacking.

Ah, hell. This was why he never did the whole romance and relationship thing. He had no idea how to do it or how to do it well. Short-term flings were more fun and more his style.

But the way Tori looked at him, and the things she said…

A Rare Gift

She’d looked horrified at the thought of losing everything that mattered to her just because they’d kissed. Getting involved with him was that big a risk? It had more to do with the possibility of losing her job—he knew it did. But in order to find out what was really bothering her, she’d actually have to talk to him.

“Screw it. Why do I even care?” He dragged his fingers through his hair and went to scrounge through the fridge. Tori was just going to have to be someone else’s problem. He had enough issues to deal with.

Except as he walked by her desk, that exotic perfume of hers lingered in the air, and he realized that she was one big damn problem that had been stuck in his head for a long time.

She wasn’t going away, and she really was his problem to deal with.

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