A new story of romance and adventure by award-winning author, Beth Barany.
What if falling in love put the life you cherished in jeopardy?
Dahlia, a Santa’s Elf, has 21 days left before Christmas to create the best toy in the world without using magic or revealing her true identity. Stuck on how to complete the prototype, and working as a temp in San Francisco’s financial district with no time for love, will her innocent Christmas fling get her unstuck, or will she turn her back on her beloved career for her heart?
Liam, an up-and-coming financial analyst, swore off women after getting dumped by the love of his life. He just found out his ex is going to the company Christmas party with his rival Michael Hendricks. Up for promotion against Hendricks, Liam has to win the favor of his boss. His best bet is to invite the vivacious secretary Dahlia to the party. Will Dahlia be a welcome distraction, or will she turn his life upside down?
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December 1, Oakland, CA
Dahlia strolled through the small neighborhood park. It was great fun to think about how the children would enjoy her toy once she was done with it, but she had to complete it first. She only had twenty-two days to fix whatever was wrong with it before returning home. She’d gone over her designs and schematics and taken it apart and put it back together a dozen times, but it still wouldn’t work.
Dahlia left the park and headed down the street toward the detached studio she rented on Miles Avenue.
A dog bark had her look up just in time to almost but not quite avoid getting tangled up in a long leash. A man with the warmest brown eyes she’d ever seen gazed down at her, a half smile on his face.
She smiled back startled out of her daydreaming, but not before she noticed his endearing dimple on one side of his mouth.
She said, “Sorry, I didn’t see you. Thank goodness for your dog. Oh, she looks like a Husky.”
Dahlia shifted her bag to one hip, so she could bend down and pet the dog.
The dog wagged her tail.
Dahlia said, “You must feed her really well. Her coat is so soft and luscious.”
“She’s a Bernese Mountain Dog. Sally. My roommate’s.”
His voice was deep. She had to look up to smile into his deep brown eyes. He was a whole head taller than she was. Almost two meters. She translated into American measurements. Six foot three or something.
“My uncle, well one of my uncles has one—that he uses for work. But I hardly see him because he lives—” She paused. “I’m prattling, aren’t I?”
“Yes, you are, but I like listening to your accent. Scottish?”
“Yes, wow, you guessed correctly. Most people here can’t do that. Yeah, we’re from Scotland, but it’s been a few generations.” She couldn’t very well tell him how Santa’s elves lived a very long time. It had only been her grandparents that had immigrated with Uncle, known as Santa to most, and some neighbors to set up the North Pole.
“So, you’re in school here?” He waved off toward what she knew was the art college a few blocks away.
“No. I’m here on an independent research project for a few more weeks.”
“So you’re from—”
“Alaska. Well, near Alaska, anyway. I—I best be going,” she interrupted and gestured to her bag of goodies. She shifted from foot to foot on the corner of Miles and Clifton Streets, still tangled up in the Bernese’s leash. “Gifts to wrap. For the kids. Big project.” She gulped and held out her hand. “I’m Dahlia, by the way. Dahlia MacMillian.”
With a half-smile, he shook her offered hand. His grip was firm and strong. “Liam. Nice to meet you, Dahlia MacMillian.” He led the dog around her, slowly untangling the leash.
How he moved with grace and power, even in his simple gestures. He was tall, lean and muscular, broad shoulders identifiable even in his sweatshirt with the UC Berkeley name and logo on it.
“There we go, Sally,” Liam said, his voice a rumbling, soothing cascade.
Sally licked Dahlia’s hand, bringing her out of her staring. She gulped and felt the heat of a blush creep up her neck and onto her cheeks. Dahlia stroked the soft fur to cover her embarrassment. It had been a long time since she’d felt attracted to anyone. Everyone she’d dated at the Pole was so familiar to her, and mostly related. She didn’t have time for a distraction.
She looked up when she heard Liam chuckling. He was shaking his head.
“What?” She couldn’t help but ask.
He shrugged. “I guess I should run into girls more often with my roommate’s dog. I didn’t realize it could be such a pleasant experience.”
“You must not walk her very often then.” Oh my, she was flirting. The Elf boys back home never brought that out of her. She felt her pale skin flush. Och, yes, this was a man, she thought. “Thank you, then. For the pleasant experience. And the untangling.”
“You’re welcome.” Liam said to her, smiling, that one dimple showing again. Then he spoke to the dog. “Come on Sally. Let’s finish your walk, so we can go watch the game.”
Dahlia waved good-bye and turned to go down the street and head for her apartment. But first she had to watch Liam walk away. He fit nicely into his jeans. For a moment, a pang of wistfulness washed through her. She shook her. She had other things to focus on, like completing her toy on time so she could get her Master Elf badge, and even win the Grand Prize.
She was sure she’d be able to make progress on her toy tonight. Maybe it was something about meeting a happy dog and tall brown-eyed man that made her feel hopeful. Yes, she would get her toy done in time.
Liam tugged on Sally’s leash. It had all happened so fast. She’d practically run into him. He’d had to yank on Sally’s leash to prevent the girl from running into him, which had made the normally quiet Sally bark.
The girl, well, actually more like a very nice looking woman—all that wild hair and those sparkly eyes that seemed to practically twinkle when she spoke. Must have been a trick of the afternoon light. She seemed so light-hearted. Dahlia MacMillian, with the soft lilt in her voice. Her mess of red hair part frizzy, part curl that turned golden red as the winter light touched it. A winter jacket covering tantalizing curves. Strong legs in hugging jeans. He almost wanted to make her do a pirouette so he could check out her ass. But he hadn’t.
She was so unlike the highly polished co-workers and high-rise office colleagues he worked with. He loved that environment. He loved his eclectic neighborhood, too. They were right next to an art school. By now he should expect to run into the artsy design type of people in this neighborhood in Oakland. So different from the financial district where he spent over sixty hours a week in downtown San Francisco.
He realized he’d been standing on the corner with Sally when she tugged on the leash, done with her business with sniffing every fifth bush. She needed to get walking. His roommate Josh Kleine, one of his best buddies from college, was away in Paris at a conference and had made him promise to walk Sally himself at least once a day. He did, even though a dog walker helped out during the week, while he was at work. But on the weekends, Liam thought he should walk Sally himself for her twice-daily walks, as he promised Josh.
“Okay, girl. Let’s go.” He picked up the pace and jogged with her up the quiet street.
Dahlia had been so friendly to the dog. She’d made him smile. God. He couldn’t remember the last time a woman made him smile like that. Maybe he could ask her out. No, he’d sworn off dating, even casually, since the fiasco with Christine back in February, seven months ago.
He turned up Clifton, crossed College Avenue, jogged up it a little more until he got to Broadway, then he crossed Broadway and took the dogleg turn and hiked up Broadway Terrace at a good clip to the golf course. On his way back down the hill, his cell phone rang. It was Josh, no doubt checking up on him to see how well he was treating Sally.
“Hey,” Liam answered.
“So?” Josh asked.
“She’s fine. We’re just heading back from our walk. We went as far as the golf course today. She’s got her miles in. Don’t worry. Second walk today, too.”
“And she got her food?”
“Of course. Who do you think I am?”
“It’s just the responsibility—”
“Seriously? We’re going to have this discussion again? I manage crazy-ass databases with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line for Cooper, Andrews & Sons. And you don’t trust me to feed your dog—”
“Cool your jets, Liam. Numbers don’t require regular feeding and—”
“Sally is your baby, I know, Josh. You’ll be back in a week, and you can look after her yourself. How’s the Transportation conference going? Meet any hot Parisian chicks yet?”
“It’s good. No, on the Parisian chicks. Just—no, never mind. Hey, I ran into one of your colleagues here. Michael Hendricks. He’s in your department, right?”
“Yeah, he handles the transportation portfolio analysis. Right. I forgot he was going.” Liam frowned.
“He told me he’s bringing his fiancée to the company Christmas party. And implied that you were going to lose out big time. Something about gaming you out of the corner office. MacAuley, that guy has it in for you.”
“Yeah, always does. He always wants what I have. Now he wants the same promotion I’m after.” He stole his girlfriend, ex-girlfriend from him. And Christine let it happen. “What’s this about bringing his fiancée to the party? What fiancée? Is it Christine?” He really didn’t want to see Christine ever again. He ground his teeth.
The promotion was a straight shot to a corner office, weekly golf with the shareholders, and a seat at the C-level table.
“I don’t know who,” Josh said. “Not surprised he plays the field. He’s a jerk. I heard his talk was poorly attended. Don’t worry, man. I didn’t go.”
“Anytime. Hey, how’s Brett? You guys do your weekly squash game last week?”
“Yeah. Like always. What? You’re homesick or something?”
“I don’t know. Yeah. Whatever. Something happened in our behind-the-scenes tour of the Paris Metro that shook me a little. I’m fine. We’re fine. It’s nothing. Just miss home, and my buds—”
“And your dog.”
“Yeah. I miss Sally. Put her on the phone.”
“I’m on the street.”
“So? It’s a crazy town, so just do it, okay? Hey, the French wouldn’t think it’s weird. They love their dogs.”
Liam huffed, but put his cell phone to Sally’s ear, so Josh could coo or whisper or whatever he did when he talked to Sally through the phone. Sally paused from her sniffing the millionth bush and lifted her ear a little, as if listening. He gave Josh a minute tops, then put the phone to his ear.
“Yeah. Gotta go get some shut eye to get up early for the conference tomorrow. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“Sure. Take care. And go meet some French women, will you? Sounds like you need to get laid.”
“Where did that come from? Speak for yourself.”
Liam barked a laugh and clicked off the cell phone.
Josh was worse than Liam’s own mother for the way he checked up on him. At least his mother only expected to talk to him once a week. Tonight. He groaned inwardly. First he’d watch the football game. Then he’d call his mom. She’d still be up in New York, testing out new pastry recipes for her boutique Italian pastry company.
In five minutes he reached the bottom of the hill and crossed Broadway, turned right on College. A few minutes later, he turned at Forest Street, passing the toy store. He’d never really noticed it before, though he must have passed it hundreds of times on his runs, and certainly seven times in the last seven days he’d been walking Sally for Josh. This store must have been where Dahlia had done her toy shopping, though he hadn’t seen the bag logo clearly. She’d had stuffed animals and some tubes of sparkles sticking out of the top of the bag.
Perhaps she had kids. A wistful pang washed through him. He thought he’d start a family with Christine, but she killed that dream before it had a chance to blossom when he caught her cheating on him with Hendricks. He hadn’t had a serious girlfriend since he ended it with Christine seven months ago. Thank goodness he hadn’t proposed to her. He’d been thinking about it. Since then, he’d sworn off all dating. And he’d sworn off love.
Love was for losers. He had to bring someone to the party and show up Hendricks, and Christine, if it was Christine that Hendricks was bringing. Show them he was fine. Have a great time. Live it up, and all the while beat Hendricks out by getting his analysis in on time and under budget, so he would get the promotion over Hendricks.
His stomach grumbled, tearing him away from the past.
“Time for an early dinner, eh, Sally?” he said.
She gave a soft woof. He picked up the pace and jogged back home to the house on Locksley he shared with Josh. Sally kept pace with him the whole way, the perfect running companion. She didn’t talk and could keep up with him. He’d take her out for their morning run tomorrow at 5 a.m. before he left for work.
It wasn’t until he put the key in the front door that he realized what Michael’s jab about bringing his fiancée to the Christmas party was all about.
“Damn,” he muttered under his breath. Hendricks was bringing Christine. The guy was trying to psych him out, acting like having Christine at his side was his ace in the hole, his secret weapon. Hendricks wanted to push Liam’s buttons and have him lose focus on the big job. He wanted Liam to crash and burn so that he would get the promotion.
Liam slammed the door and felt like throwing his keys down the entry hall. His buttons were pushed all right. But throwing the keys would startle Sally and leave marks in the hardwood that he didn’t want to have to deal with or explain to Josh. So he dropped his keys in the ceramic bowl his grandmother had made for him eons ago. He slipped off his shoes, lined them up next to the entry mat, and unhooked Sally’s leash. She trotted off probably to find her favorite chew toy and settle down for a nap by the fireplace.
He tromped to the kitchen, opened the fridge, and grabbed the celery and Parmesan. He knew how to handle his anger. He’d focus it into something creative. He chopped some onions and celery, hammering the knife against the cutting board. Got the water going. Heated up some homemade tomato sauce. Grated some cheese.
What the hell was he going to do? He really wanted this promotion. It was what he’d been striving toward for the last eight years, through grad school and propelling his way up the ranks in the financial companies he’d been employed at across the country, until he’d landed at Cooper, Andrews & Sons three years ago.
He pictured contacting the vivacious Dahlia, the girl he’d just met, but brushed that thought aside. He didn’t even know where she lived, or how to contact her.
His cell phone rang. “Hi Mom. I was going to call you after the game. It’s about to start.”
“Liam, dear, have you married and made me a grandmother yet?” His mom’s favorite question of the day.
“Mom, not tonight.”
“What? Bad day? Did your team lose?”
“Ma, the game hasn’t started yet. Just got back from the dog walk.”
“You’re cooking, aren’t you?
“You always cook when you’re upset. What’s the matter?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Then at least tell me what you’re cooking.”
Liam sighed and relented, telling her what meal he had in mind. That took them both off his problems. For the time being.
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The Stories in the Magical Tales of Romance & Adventure series
In order of the story timelines, but you can read the stories in any order.
1. Touchstone of Love: (A Time Travel Romance novella) (This novella first appeared in Gargoyle: Three Enchanting Romance Novellas) (#1)
2. Christmas Fling (#2)
4. A Labyrinth of Love of Roses (#4)