Nikki Crawford's Christmas Eve birthday was her worst ever. Turning forty without a single person to celebrate with has Nikki feeling like a loser at life. When UPS delivers a package for Nikki to her sexy younger next door neighbor, she gets a birthday present she never bargained for. Vincent Warfield delivers Nikki's package and finds her crying. With his protective instincts in overdrive, Vince sets out to convince the shy beauty that she's not a loser. When Nikki puts her pride on the line and asks Vince to stay, passion explodes between them. Can Vince prove to Nikki that life is wonderful if you just open your heart to the possibilities?
On his fourth call to a locksmith, Nikki reappeared. She had changed into jeans and a black turtleneck sweater. Her honey colored hair had been scraped back into a severe ponytail that emphasized the triangular shape of her face. With her face scrubbed clean of makeup, he could see that she had little crow's feet at the corners of her eyes and couple of lines between her arched brows as if she frowned a lot.
“Any luck?” she asked huskily, her hands thrust into the front pockets of her jeans.
He shook his head, and tried again to talk the locksmith into coming out on Christmas Eve. “I’ll pay you triple your normal rate,” he begged.
Finally, the locksmith agreed to come, but he couldn’t give Vince a definite time because he had three other jobs, the roads had turned icy, the traffic sucked, and it was Christmas Eve. Vince hung up and looked at his neighbor. She wouldn’t meet his eyes.
“I’m sorry. He’s not sure how long it will be before he gets here,” Vince said apologetically.
Nikki bit her lip, her shoulders hunching, but she remained silent.
Her misery made him want to gather her into his arms instead of offer to leave her alone. “Look, I’ll call my brother to come get me. I’ll be out of your hair in half an hour,” he said in a rush, ready to do anything to wipe that bleak look off her face.
“No. It’s okay. It’s my fault you’re locked out. If I had answered the door when the UPS guy rang, none of this would have happened,” she replied, her voice whiskey rough from her tears. She turned away, heading for the kitchen. “Can I get you a drink? Something to eat?”
Vince knew the cool, formal tone of her voice was a front. Even though she wouldn’t look at him, he’d gotten a glimpse of her eyes, and seen the deep despair in those emerald depths. Her fragile control barely held back another onslaught of tears.
He followed her, not wanting to let her out of his sight. “A cup of coffee? Or some cocoa?” he replied. “I was just going to light a fire, make some popcorn and watch It’s A Wonderful Life when the UPS guy knocked.”
A shudder went through her when he mentioned the movie. If her tears were anything to go by, life wasn’t very wonderful for her. Vince wished he could convince her that just like in the movie, sometimes things were not as bad as they seemed.
Nikki reached into the refrigerator and pulled out some milk. He watched her pour some in a pan and turn on the burner, take out mugs and expensive Swiss chocolate cocoa mix. She knew he stood there, but she acted as if she was alone in the kitchen, her movements deliberate and economical.
“If you have microwave popcorn, I can make it without burning it,” he offered in an amused voice, hoping to coax a smile from her.
Her eyes flicked toward him and she pointed silently to a cupboard. Vince opened it and took out a box of popcorn. Well, that hadn’t worked, he thought as he eyed her stiff back.
While the popcorn popped and Nikki made the cocoa, Vince looked for a bowl. She pointed to another cupboard and he opened it, taking down a big terra cotta colored bowl. Nikki pulled out a tray and put the mugs of cocoa on them. Vince set the bowl of popcorn on it and took the tray from her. She followed him into the living room and placed some napkins on the coffee table by the tray.
Vince seated himself in the corner of her L shaped couch so that no matter where she sat, she wouldn’t be that far from him. He noticed that she sat on the edge of the cushion as if she were about to jump up at any second. The tenseness of her shoulders gave away her discomfort, and he noticed that her white socked toes curled under, almost as if they were hands clenched into fists.
Vince figured honesty would be the best icebreaker. Maybe then she would relax. “Nikki, I know we don’t really know each other; although, we’ve been neighbors more than a year. I know you were crying tonight. And I have to tell you that I’ve never heard anything so heart wrenching in my life,” he said simply. “If there’s something I can do to help, please tell me and I will do it.”
She lifted her head and her eyes met his. The bleak despair in those beautiful green eyes made his stomach twist. She looked at him silently for a long moment. Then she set her cup down on the table. An expression of determination settled on her piquant face.
“Vincent, am I attractive?” she asked finally.
He blinked. Of the things she could have said, that was the one he never would have guessed. “Yes,” he answered honestly. “You’re a very beautiful woman.”
Nikki looked at him thoughtfully and he wondered what the hell was going on behind those haunted eyes of hers. “You’re sure you want to help me?” she husked, her whiskey soaked tones low.
He nodded, unable to help himself. The more he looked at her, the more beautiful she became. Remembering the sound of her tears, her pain, knowing that she still held it bottled up inside her…no one should feel like that, especially on Christmas Eve. He just wanted to enfold her in his arms and make the pain go away.