Deck the Halls

Deck the Halls

Heather MacAllister

October 2013 $12.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-369-6

Holly's not having a Holly Jolly Christmas, but only because Santa's finally dropped a man in her stocking.

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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

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The DECK THE HALLS decorating service is on the verge of major success after five years of backbreaking struggle. No one knows better than Holly that now isn’t the time to let romance get in the way . . . not even if blue-eyed attorney Adam Markland is always there when she trips over her own fast-moving feet.

The last thing Holly Hall needs is a handsome, angry lawyer wondering why she outfitted his law firm in holiday décor and a pet bear rug named Bianca.

Adam’s effect on Holly quickly becomes obvious to her grateful sisters. Any man who can distract Holly from her take-no-prisoners management style is fine by them.

This is Holly’s chance to prove that she not only knows where to display the perfect sprig of mistletoe, but what to do when Mr. Perfect pulls her close beneath it.

A Golden Heart Finalist!!


"Witty, romantic, sexy, and fun . . . and Heather’s books aren’t bad, either.” —New York TimesBestselling Author Christina Dodd


Chapter One

"I NEED A HUNDRED and fifty polar bears.” Holly Hall paced as far as the phone cord would let her. "Right now!” She stopped abruptly and then took a deep calming breath.

"Yes, I know you close at eight, but this is an emergency and right on your way and—” She listened, eyes shut tightly in annoyance. "All right... yes, I understand.”

One eye opened to glare at the partially-decorated Christmas tree. She plucked off an innocent brown teddy bear ornament and glared at it, too. "If a hundred bears are all you’ve got, fine. I’m in the Meecham building—the penthouse—and please, please hurry.”

Holly had begun to hang up the phone when a loud chattering made her jerk it back to her ear. "What? But Mrs. Bloom—” She stopped abruptly, not daring to antagonize her best supplier. Besides, she’d already exhausted all the others.

"Yes, I’ll pay you now. Well, by check...”

"And have it bounce all the way to the bank?” Mrs. Bloom’s grating voice screeched in Holly’s ear.

"We’re doing better this season, Mrs. Bloom.” Holly ignored the familiar flush of humiliation that stung her cheeks. She gripped the receiver. "Deck the Halls hasn’t bounced a check all year. And you know I always pay you back as soon as I get the money.” Holly kept her voice coolly professional and took out her frustration by yanking off the bear ornaments.

"That you did,” Mrs. Bloom wheezed. "But who’s to say this check will be good? Your credit’s shot. I gotta eat, ya know.”

You haven’t missed a meal in thirty years, Holly wanted to say. She also wanted to slam down the receiver and never deal with this cantankerous old woman again. And she would have, if she didn’t need those darn polar bears.

"The bank’s closed, and I don’t have that much money in my purse. I’ve got to have those bears tonight.” She hated begging.

"Do you now?” Mrs. Bloom fell silent, making Holly wait. "Cash, or nothing.”

Holly stared at the gorgeous but nearly naked, white-flocked Christmas tree. "I’m doing the decorations for Town Square’s Christmas issue. People might want to know where I buy my ornaments.” Holly swallowed and licked her dry lips, hoping her unspoken implication would be enough to sway Mrs. Bloom.


"So, if you could bring those bears to me and some of the little black top hats”—she gulped in a quick breath—"I’d... I’d be willing to pay extra,” she finished in a rush.

Mrs. Bloom cackled. "You must be in a spot, sure enough. Last-minute job?”

Holly raked her fingers through her curly brown hair and sent an agonized look heavenward. "No,” she mumbled, wishing Mrs. Bloom wouldn’t enjoy the torture so much. "Whoever is staying here,” she explained glancing toward the nearest bedroom, "will be back at ten o’clock. The photographers are coming tomorrow morning.”

"Get one of your sisters to pick ’em up.”

Another deep breath. The smell of new fabric dye and fresh paint was beginning to give her a headache. "They’re on another job right now.”

Holly snatched the last bear off, threw it on a white silk sofa and kicked one of the boxes filled with tiny, medium and large brown bears. What idiot had chosen that theme for this elegant apartment?

A professionally-decorated art deco penthouse with a breathtaking view of the Dallas skyline shouldn’t have cutesy brown bears cavorting on the Christmas tree. This was a place of shiny black and white punched with red and silver—and she had an absolutely perfectart deco tree in her portfolio.

Well, the scheduling sheet did say the law firm had chosen the bears, but at least she could change their color—if only Mrs. Bloom would cooperate. Detestable woman. At least she hadn’t prattled on about how the "mighty had fallen” again this year.

"I said, maybe we could work something out.” The voice boomed in Holly’s ear.

Holly shook her head slightly, suspecting what would come next. Smiling wryly, she decided to get it over with. "Got a fancy party coming up?”

"Ruthie’s wedding. Herman’s niece? She’s marrying the Battley boy. You know him?”

"No,” Holly said faintly.

"Course you don’t,” Mrs. Bloom continued, undeterred. "I wanna look nice. Herman’s people always look down their noses at me. So I wanna look nice. You know what I mean?”

Holly squinted at the bears and thought about the photo spread in Town Square magazine. Her biggest break. Free advertising... "You want to borrow Mama’s necklace again.”

Mrs. Bloom’s smile was nearly audible. "Call it collateral until your check clears.”

Holly thought briefly of the diamonds sparkling around her mother’s neck and sighed softly. "Let me give you directions to the penthouse.”

She allowed herself the luxury of slamming down the receiver—after giving detailed directions to both Mrs. Bloom and her husband, Herman.

"Old bi—” Holly stared at the phone. "No,” she said thoughtfully. "Battle-ax.” She tried the word again. "Battle-ax.” That was Mrs. Bloom.

Now for the tree. Holly collapsed on the sofa, grabbed the teddy bear and absently tossed it from hand to hand. "You and your friends will have to go bye-bye,” she said to the ill-treated bear as she surveyed the boxes of decorations she’d brought.

The green plaid ribbon was also out for this room; there weren’t even any plants. She got up and scanned the living area, trying to see it through the photographer’s eyes. The tree would stay in front of the massive windows to capitalize on the fabulous view, no doubt about that. It was too bad the magazine people were coming in the morning; with the colors in this apartment, a night shoot would have been spectacular.

Holly glanced at her watch, then dragged both hands through her hair. Two hours wasn’t enough time to do the kind of job she wanted. This Christmas tree had to be perfect. No, more than perfect.

Not that she was complaining. This was a good year, but it could be better—it hadto be better. And she didn’t need a couple of hundred cute bears giving her trouble, either.

Now, what could she salvage? Holly studied the tree. She’d keep the tiny white fairy lights. Thank heavens the tree was heavily flocked with white. Unfortunately, the green plaid tree skirt was the only one she’d brought. It would have to go, and so would the gold beading. She ripped the strands from the tree, thinking furiously. Dumping the handful of beads into a box, she looked through the extra odds and ends she’d brought with her.

"Yes!” She pounced on the new silver ribbon she’d ordered. She’d use it to make the big bows that were a trademark of her Deck the Halls Christmas-decorating firm.

As her fingers flew over the ribbon and wire, Holly smiled to herself. Bows weren’t that hard to make, but they didn’t store very well. On the other hand, they were lightweight, which counted for a lot, and filled the gaps in nature’s less-than-perfect trees. Deck the Halls couldn’t afford to own more than a few artificial trees. In her typical fashion, Holly had turned this into an asset and boldly charged more for decorating "real” trees.

The buzzing of the intercom broke the silence. Holly collected her checkbook and the key to the private elevator on her way to answer the intercom. "I’ll be right down,” she told the security guard.

A couple of disgruntled Blooms stood beside the guard’s desk.

"You and your sisters up to your fancy ways again, young woman?” Mrs. Bloom’s nose was in the air.

"Everyone entering the building has to check in with the guard, Mrs. Bloom.” Holly smiled sweetly. "As an employee, I just follow orders.”

The thought of Holly as an employee apparently mollified Mrs. Bloom.

Holly gestured toward the two large clear plastic bags. "I hope the bears aren’t all crushed,” she said, then wished she hadn’t spoken.

"And beggars can’t be choosers, can they?”

"I’d hardly call it begging, at your prices,” Holly muttered as she reached for the sacks.

"The necklace?” Mrs. Bloom snatched them back.

"I don’t have it here!” Holly’s patience was nearly gone. "Mama’s necklace is at home. Come by tomorrow morning.”

Mrs. Bloom eyed her shrewdly. "Thought maybe you’da run home and got it by now.”

"Then I would’ve been able to get the bears, wouldn’t I? Besides—” Holly looked her right in the eye—"it makes me nervous to carry it around at night by myself.”

Mrs. Bloom snorted. "Hmph. Your mama wore it at night. I still got that picture that was in the paper, the one of her and the governor dancing at the inaugural. Gonna take it to Ruthie’s wedding.”

Herman Bloom winked at Holly. "Nobody’d believe them sparklers was real otherwise,” he said in an undertone.

And they’d be right. Holly kept a smile plastered on her face as she lugged the two plastic sacks of bears into the penthouse elevator. "Mama’s diamonds have more of a social life than I do,” Holly complained to the bears as the elevator whisked them up to the penthouse.

Holly pushed up her sleeves and dragged the bears to the Christmas tree, then dumped them onto the floor. Hands on her hips, she surveyed the immaculately decorated room and the mess she’d left in front of the windows. She had managed to get the bears, hadn’t she? Holly glared at them defiantly as the image of Mama’s diamonds twinkling among Mrs. Bloom’s chins came to mind.

Mama, of all people, would have understood. Laughing suddenly, Holly scooped up a handful of the bears and tossed them over her head.

IT HAD BEEN A long day. Adam Markland loosened his tie and leaned against the plush walls of the elevator. He closed his eyes and stood for a moment after he heard the doors swish open.

When he finally opened his eyes, he saw an angel—no, an elf—sitting in the middle of his living room. The sound of her laughter filled the quiet as fuzzy balls rained down on her curly brown head.

He smiled, revealing deep dimples. What was she doing here, this elf? This nicely-shaped elf, he noted, watching her jump gracefully to her feet to gather the balls.

Holly turned off the lights, leaving the room in darkness except for tiny white lights twinkling on the Christmas tree. Nodding to herself, she flipped the room lights back on and turned in his direction.

"Oh!” She stopped and looked at her watch, then back at the dark-haired man lounging against the elevator door.

"I’ve been trying to think of something witty to say. With all of this—” he gestured as he advanced into the room—"there’s bound to be a great line somewhere, but I’m so tired, I’m afraid you’ll have to settle for ‘Hi, I’m Adam Markland.’”

"Holly Hall, with Deck the Halls.” Holly automatically extended her hand and looked straight into impossibly blue eyes. His dazzling smile, bracketed by deep dimples, made it unthinkable not to smile back. Her internal quality-control alarm went off.

Holly had a Texan’s firm handshake. She noted the approval in Adam’s eyes as he held her hand longer than good manners required. "What are you doing with the bears?” he asked, still smiling. She gently tugged her hand away, and laughed, then stuck both hands in the back pockets of her jeans. "I’m decorating for the photo shoot tomorrow.” She quirked an eyebrow at him. "I don’t suppose you were the one responsible for choosing these bears?”

Adam glanced down at the fuzzy brown sea at his feet. "No,” he replied shaking his head, "I didn’t choose the bears. Not that I have anything against bears,” he added, covering all possibilities.

Holly frowned. "Neither do I, but brown bears don’t go here and we had the perfect—well, never mind. Anyway, I’m changing them to white—that’s why I’m running late. I thought I had until ten o’clock.” There was just a hint of accusation in her voice.

Adam gestured expansively. "As the sole occupant of the penthouse suite, I grant you permission to stay. How about some help? I’ll be with you in a minute.” He walked quickly to the nearest bedroom, ripping off his tie on the way, not giving her a chance to refuse.

Holly sank back into her pile of bears and stared at her fingers. Those couldn’t be tingles. And if they were, it was because he’d gripped her hand too hard.

Mindlessly, she grabbed a brown bear, pulled off the perky red bow around its neck and retied it to one of the polar bears. In spite of herself, she kept glancing toward the door through which Adam had disappeared.

The bow was crooked. Sighing faintly, Holly threw back her head and stretched her arms, then hooked her hands behind her neck. It had been a long day. Not for the first time, she wondered how Laurel and Ivy were doing with their tree. They’d insisted they could handle the decorating job alone. Holly smiled wryly. Her little sisters were growing up.

Adam paused in the doorway, tugging on a pullover sweater. "I’ve been doing that for the past hour, myself,” he said, kneading the back of his neck before raising one hand and carelessly pushing back a lock of black hair.

Holly opened her eyes at Adam’s approach and got another mental jolt. Not now.Not in the middle of the Christmas season. Besides, she thought she’d turned off quality control long ago.

"Are we tying bows here?” Adam squatted with difficulty. "Not broken in yet,” he offered by way of explanation, grimacing at his jeans.

"Unlike these.” Smiling, Holly gestured toward her own.

"Yeah.” Soft from repeated washing, they hugged her lovingly. Holly studied him as his eyes unabashedly traced her curves, then flicked back to her face.

The pale blue of his sweater was a perfect foil for his cobalt-black hair and sapphire-blue eyes. Did he know that? Holly took inventory of his dark brows, his dimples and the tiny cleft in his chin. She liked the way his growing beard shadowed his face, giving it a rough look that contrasted with the soft sweater. Cashmere. Holly knew cashmere.

Adam picked up one of Holly’s bears and she immediately realized she’d been staring. Feeling chagrined and a little embarrassed, she burst into speech. "You don’t have to help me if you don’t want to. The law firm hired me to do this. It’s my job.” Now, why did she say that? She was desperate for him to stay. No, she wasn’t. She didn’t have the time or emotional energy to get involved with anyone.

"I want to,” Adam said deliberately, his eyes holding hers.

All thoughts of insisting on her independence and self-sufficiency fled from Holly’s mind.

They sat cross-legged, tying bear bows and exchanging unimportant tidbits of information about themselves. Holly decided there were enough red bows and began tying black and silver ones. She wanted to avoid looking at him. He sat there, surrounded by fuzzy bears, his long slim fingers tying elegant little bows around tiny furry necks. He seemed remarkably at ease.

"The brown bears and anything with green on it goes back in the boxes. How did you luck out and get to live in a place like this?” That seemed another in a series of safely innocuous questions. Holly knew that suites like this were often used for out-of-town clients, and she figured Adam would launch into a discussion of whatever company he worked for and its dealings with the law firm.

"The living arrangements are only temporary. Or they’re supposed to be.” He laughed lightly. "I’m the new partner at Swinehart, Cathardy and Steele. I came down from Boston a couple of months ago and haven’t had time to find a place of my own yet.” Adam was about to add more when Holly’s rigid posture and frozen face stopped him.

Her eyes, a deep brown, were opened wide, and she didn’t bother to hide the dislike flooding them. "So you’re one of the stealing swine?” Each word was an icicle.

Adam didn’t laugh. "An odd way to refer to the name of the firm that hired you.”

"A rather appropriate name, I’ve always thought.”

"You’ve dealt with us before.” It was more of a statement than a question.

He was treading very carefully. Just like a lawyer, Holly thought scornfully. She went back to strangling bears and didn’t speak immediately, feeling a sharp disappointment. She’d been betrayed by blue eyes and a pair of dimples. "This is the first time... professionally.” There was bitterness in her voice and she knew Adam could hear it.

She’d nearly choked when the law firm hired Deck the Halls, but she was a professional, and successful professionals didn’t let emotions interfere with sound business decisions. Wasn’t that what Mr. Steele told her when he’d refused to represent her case several lean Christmases ago?

Holly finished the last bear, tossed it at the others and watched as it bounced and tumbled down the mound. "A partner, no less,” she said, looking at him directly.

"Yes.” Adam nodded, his eyes assessing.

Holly hated it when lawyers did that, closed off their faces and gave nothing away, all the while conveying the impression they were privy to the secrets of the world. "I thought you might be a client. Or maybe a specialist here to testify.”

"I’m not a trial lawyer,” Adam offered, trying to ease the tension. "I’m a bankruptcy lawyer. "

Holly’s face whitened briefly and she turned away, gazing out at the skyline. "Lots of bankruptcy cases in Texas now.”

Adam sat with his arms looped around his knees. "Not as many as there were.”

Holly’s eyes swiveled back to him. She owed him an explanation. It was just such a shock to learn he was one of them. "I haven’t had very good experiences with lawyers.”

Adam studied her. "Nasty divorce?” he asked in an impersonal tone. "Or was your husband the lawyer?”

"I’ve never been married.” She said it without apology, but her staccato tones warned him not to pry.

Adam felt inwardly cheered at finding out that she was single. So, she hated lawyers. From the tight look of her lips, it was going to take an abundance of charm to melt away the icicles.

With that thought in mind, he strolled over to the fireplace and lit the log he found there. It was one of those fake ones, the kind that didn’t burn very long. He stayed by the fireplace longer than necessary, since the log caught fire so efficiently, and considered how to approach Holly. He wanted to get to know her. She had a direct quality that attracted him and her brown eyes had assessed him without coyness. He liked women who didn’t play games.

She was the first woman he’d met who wasn’t a fellow lawyer since he’d come to Dallas. He knew Holly hadn’t been indifferent to him. Adam sighed, not caring whether or not she heard him, and poked at the log, which didn’t need it. As he slowly replaced the poker, his fingers traced the elegant engraving on the pewter fireplace tool rack: S.C.S.—the Swinehart, Cathardy and Steele logo with its flowing script. The log shifted and the fire popped. It was a loud silence.

Stop being such an ass, Holly. Now that she’d created the uncomfortable silence, it was up to her to break it. She knew all lawyers weren’t like the rich, parasitic vultures who had fought over the remains of her father’s estate for the past four and a half years. And so far, Adam hadn’t exhibited that cocky I’ve-got-you-right-where-I-want-you attitude, either. He’d even been helping her—without charge. That alone put him in a different category.

Gathering an armful of silver bows and garlands, she approached him. "My parents always put colored sprinkles on our fires.” She gave him a tentative smile and was rewarded with a breathtaking one in response.

"So did mine,” he said, his voice rich, velvety.

"A fire in the fireplace made it a special day.” With difficulty, Holly dragged her eyes away from his and watched the dancing flames. Why was it so difficult to think all of a sudden?

Adam laughed. "Yes, it does take the chill off the air-conditioning.”

Holly joined him in his laughter, her brown eyes reflecting the warmth of the fire, her brown curls glinting with copper lights from its flames.

"That’s better. You have a nice laugh.” Adam closed his eyes and inhaled. "You even smell like Christmas.”

Holly grinned at him, revealing faint dimples of her own. "It’s frankincense. It helps me get in the holiday mood.” She indicated her armful of silver. "Want to help decorate a tree?”

"I’d like that,” Adam said quietly. "I’ll miss out on all that in Boston. Won’t get home in time.”

They stood in front of the tree and Holly handed Adam a bow triple the size of the rest. "This one goes on the very top.”

Adam climbed the stepladder, leaning over as far as he could. "Is it straight? I can’t tell from here.”

"Yes, but be careful,” Holly warned. "The tree is so full, I’ve been wondering how I was going to get the bow up there.”

Adam finished securing the bow and gingerly straightened. "I assumed you’d have a giant bear sitting on the top.”

Holly busily fed him more bows. "A Deck the Halls tree is always topped with a bow. We do make exceptions for angels, but then we have tiny bows surrounding them and ribbons hanging from those. But every other theme has a bow. I had a great one for the brown bears. It’s just a simple bow with bears sliding down the streamers. Move that one over a bit.”

"How’s this?”


Adam looked down into her pleased face and caught his breath.

Holly was chatting merrily away, apparently putting her earlier animosity aside. "This is really going to work. I had my doubts and we don’t usually go overboard on the bows, but I just couldn’t leave brown bears on the tree, could I?” Holly looked to Adam for confirmation and flashed a quick smile.

"No.” He loved hearing her voice. A pitch or two lower and it might be called a whiskey voice. It wasn’t as rough as that, though. More bourbon-cured.

Her movements were quick and precise, without wasted motion, as she flitted from one side of the tree to the other, anchoring bows. "Here.” She pulled on one of his arms and draped long ribbons over it. "We’re almost ready for the bears.”

"Fine.” He hopped down from the stepladder. "Have you eaten?” he asked suddenly.


"Is that a yes or a no?”

"It’s an I-had-a-late-lunch-and-I’m-too-busy-and-not- hungry-enough-to-stop.”

"I suppose that’s a good thing since I don’t think there’s any food in the kitchen.”

Holly shot him an unreadable look. "Typical lawyer behavior.”

"Hey,” Adam protested. "There are all sorts of people who make a living delivering food to mean old lawyers.”

"You don’t get out much?”

"No. I flew to Boston for Thanksgiving last week. Other than that, you’re the first person I’ve met outside of the office.”

"Business must be good.” Holly’s voice was muffled as she bent over the mound of bears. "Here, take these for me.”

Adam took an armful of bears from her.

"Start hanging those on the back of the tree by the window.”

Something flared in Adam’s eyes. "Please,” Holly added belatedly. "You have to watch me or I’ll start treating you like one of my sisters.”

Adam raised a black brow. "Not for long, you won’t.”

Holly watched him negotiate his way behind the tree, turning before he caught her at it.

"What do you think?” she asked a surprisingly short time later, her animated face filled with satisfaction as she checked the tree.

"It’s... cute.” Adam’s half smile neatly displayed an engaging dimple. "Cute but simple. I like simple, but I thought you wanted extraordinary.”

Holly sighed. "I do and you’re right.” She stared at the tree. "I’m not used to changing themes like this. I like to plan in advance.” She was silent for a moment, going over her inventory in her mind. "I’ve got some white-and-silver-glittered snowflakes, and maybe some clear ones. If I had more time...” She looked at him. "I hate to impose—”

"It’s no imposition,” Adam assured her hastily.

"I was supposed to be finished by now. On the other hand, if I had a chance, I could get to a fabric store tomorrow morning. Silver lamé would make a great tree skirt. I could settle for white batting in a pinch...”

"But you don’t want to settle when you could be outstanding.”

Holly nodded. "If I could keep the key for another day...”

"Sure.” Adam gestured negligently. "Come any time.”

"Thanks.” Holly ignored the extra invitation she heard in his voice. "May I use the phone?”

"Help yourself.”

Holly was already reaching for the telephone when she jerked her hand back. "No, I’m not going to call them.” She backed away from the phone, clasping her hands together. "My sisters,” she explained to Adam. "They’re doing another tree and it’s the first time I’ve let them handle a job on their own. I can’t call them, or they’ll think I don’t trust them.”

Adam slowly packed the boxes. "How about a toast to a job well done?”

"It’s late...”

"But not as late as it would have been if you’d done this all by yourself.” Adam smiled persuasively and headed toward the liquor cabinet. "This is bound to be well-stocked. Yes,” he confirmed, "it is. Now, what would you like? White wine, sherry, scotch... bourbon?”

Holly didn’t hear him. She had pushed the sleeves of her sweater above her elbows and stuck her hands in the back of her jeans, still studying her Christmas tree.

The room darkened just as Adam reached for a rich old sherry he thought matched Holly’s eyes. He made his way toward her, avoiding the nearly invisible black Steinway piano, guided only by the flicker of the fire and the twinkle of tiny white Christmas-tree lights.

Holly sat on the floor, leaning against the couch. "Wishing for a bearskin rug?” Adam asked as he placed the bottle and glasses on the coffee table and sat next to her.

"Oh, Adam! Yes! Do you know where I can get one? I’ve got an idea, but it’s a long shot.” In her excitement, Holly grabbed his arm, preventing him from pouring their sherry. "Just think—the perfect touch!”

"No, I—”

"TheTown Square people will love it. Maybe they’ll even use my tree for the cover.” Holly hugged her knees to her chest.

Adam felt the potential mood slipping away. "Sherry?”

"Mmm.” Holly was still dreaming of magazine covers. "It’s good. Exactly right.”

Adam shifted closer. "It matches your—”

The jangling of the telephone made them both jump. Adam was already off balance and managed to slosh a few drops of sherry onto his jeans. He looked around for something to dab it up, ignoring the phone.

"Aren’t you going to answer it?”

"Why? The only calls on this phone are wrong numbers.” Adam headed for the kitchen and a paper towel. "Calls for me come on the private phone line in the bedroom. But go ahead and answer if it bothers you.”

"Penthouse,” Holly said, wondering if she should add the law firm’s lengthy name.

"Holly! There’s been a terrible mistake. We’re ruined.”

"Laurel, calm down. Are you all right? Is Ivy?” Hearing the agitated voice of her normally placid younger sister upset Holly more than she would have expected. She was only vaguely aware that Adam had returned.

"No one’s hurt—yet. But the sorority is furious. They said I switched decorations on purpose. I’ve never been so humiliated.”

Holly took a deep breath. "What happened?” she asked with a sense of foreboding.

"The Alumnae Christmas Coffee is tomorrow and they said they picked the teddy-bear theme—you know bears are our mascot.”

"And you’ve done a lovely art deco tree for them.” Holly stared at the white bears—and the brown ones—in dismay.

"How did you know?”

"I’ve got the bears.”

"Holly, you can’t,” Laurel wailed. "Listen, some of my friends are here. They brought food by for the coffee. It’s bad enough that they see me working, but they’re being so nasty about everything. The deco tree is classy.”

"But it wasn’t what they chose. Is Ivy there with you?”


"Get her to help you strip the tree. I’m on my way with the teddy bears.”

As Holly hung up the phone, she could feel a heavy fatigue settling around her. Her shoulders slumped and she frowned in disappointment. She had counted on them, really counted on them.

"That was my sister.” Holly gestured to the phone as she turned to face Adam. He stood leaning against the wall, arms crossed over his chest. "It appears the design orders were switched. She has the art deco tree your firm must have ordered.” Holly wearily rubbed her temple. "All that work—”

"Leave it,” Adam ordered. "You’re done in. I say the tree is wonderful. It stays as it is.”

Holly hesitated, wanting to believe him.

"I heard you tell your sister you were bringing her these other bears. Let’s get moving.” Adam began loading boxes onto the dolly.

"Thanks for your help.” Holly secured the boxes with cords. "I’ll try not to wake you when I get back here tomorrow morning to do the tree skirt.”

"I’m coming with you now.”

"Adam...” It was tempting, really tempting.

"It’ll be fun for me and you’re too tired to enjoy anything right now.” Adam lifted a hand to the base of her neck and kneaded it briefly. Then he swung her gently around and pressed the elevator button.

"No. I’ll be fine.” Holly shrugged off his hand and wheeled the dolly into the private elevator, realizing she sounded curt. She was tired and she was honestly sorry her younger sisters had botched the orders.

She turned—and saw Adam’s expression. A frown had etched faint lines of concern around his mouth. "I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said to soften her refusal.

"Okay.” Adam’s smile didn’t reach his eyes.

She had to face him until the padded doors whispered shut. She felt horrible. What was the matter with her? He had no business coming along. He was a client.

Her fingers hovered over the buttons, then pressed one. The doors opened. "Get in,” she said, relenting, "if you still want to come.”

Adam did, and he entered the elevator with a blinding smile that temporarily banished all her misgivings.

"You won’t regret it, ma’am. I’m an experienced tree decorator.”

Holly laughed, feeling lighter and, well, merrier.

"Wait!” Adam stopped her from releasing the button and stuck his head outside the elevator. He gazed at the ceiling, then nodded.

"What are you doing?” Holly asked as the doors slid shut.

Unblinking, he regarded her lips and smiled slowly. "Measuring for mistletoe.”



Chapter Two

HOLLY MANEUVERED her dark green van between the parked cars on the crushed-gravel drive and drove to the front of the white plantation-style sorority house. Two familiar figures sat beside a stack of boxes strapped to a dolly like the one in the back of the van.

Holly looked at Adam and sighed. "My sisters.” She hopped down to unlock the van’s double doors.

"Let me.” Adam reached inside for the dolly, his shoulder brushing hers. Startled by the jolt of awareness she felt, Holly quickly backed away. Her sisters provided a welcome distraction.

"I’msorry,” Ivy apologized with an aggrieved look at Laurel. It obviously wasn’t the first time she’d done so.

"It was humiliating,” came Laurel’s whiskey-voiced declaration. "And in front of my own sorority sisters. It’ll be all over SMU by tomorrow morning. I never wanted to do this in the first place.”

Holly quickly intervened before Adam was exposed to any more sisterly squabbling.

"Laurel, it was your idea to approach the sororities, since the students are busy with finals. And it was a good one,” she added hastily. "With all the jobs we’re doing this season, a mix-up was bound to happen sooner or later,” she said, directing a reassuring look at Ivy. "Don’t worry about it. I’ve got the right decorations, but we’re going to have to trim the tree now. I know it’s late—will it be a problem for the girls to have us working?” she asked Laurel.

But her sisters had noticed Adam. He flashed them a grin as he shut the van’s doors. "Hi.”

"Hello.” They spoke in unison and turned questioning eyes to Holly.

"Adam is a temporary recruit. Adam Markland, my sisters, Laurel and Ivy.”

Laurel sidled forward. "I hope you’re aware of the honor, Adam. Holly never allows us to have guests on a job.” Every so often, Holly noticed, there was a drop or two of vinegar in Laurel’s syrupy voice.

"Adam lives in the penthouse that should have had the art deco tree. You remember—the one being photographed for Town Square tomorrow morning?”

If she hadn’t been so tired, she would have been able to keep her own caustic remark to herself. She regretted the words even before Ivy’s eyes filled with tears.

"I’ve ruined everything!”

Holly closed her eyes briefly as she geared herself up for another pep talk. "Are you kidding? This is nothing compared to what we’ve faced before. Hitches like this are going to happen. We just have to go on. We can make it work—we haveto—and we will!”

Laurel and Ivy nodded as Holly spoke, responding to a litany they’d heard before.

Another crisis averted. Holly breathed an inward sigh of relief until she stood in the foyer. She came to a sudden halt, lips parted. "Did they steal the White House Christmas tree?”

The beautiful fir in the sorority-house atrium soared two stories above them.

"We always got one like that when I lived here,” Laurel said. Holly’s shocked face didn’t seem to faze her a bit. "You’re worried about the top, aren’t you? No problem. See, you can get to it from the balcony.”

"I’m worried about the middle.” Holly slumped onto the bottom step suddenly feeling very tired.

"I’ll start unloading, Holly.” Adam’s voice sounded just above her.

"Wait. I need to think. We might not use these.” Holly stared at the giant tree, elbows on her knees, hands steepled. Adam’s hand rested briefly on her shoulder and he sat quietly beside her. The reassuring warmth of his simple touch relaxed the kinks in her upper back.

"Quiet! Genius at work!” came Laurel’s snide remark.

"I’m open to suggestions,” Holly countered. Couldn’t Laurel behave herself just this once? "Even if you’d had the right decorations, there aren’t enough for that tree. Didn’t you tell them what size to buy?”

"We’ve always had a big tree here,” Laurel said matter-of-factly.

"What did you decorate it with?”

"A mishmash. It never looked very good.”

Holly rolled her eyes.

"That’s why I was able to persuade them to hire us!”

Holly ran her hands through her curls. "That tree will swallow decorations. It needs more—that’s why we charge extra for large trees.”

"You always said simple was more elegant, that it was easy to overdo,” offered Ivy in a small voice.

"That’s not the problem here!” Holly said, her exasperation evident.

Laurel narrowed her eyes. "But you’re oh-so-thrilled we had one, right? All evening, Ivy and I wondered when you’d show up.”

"You called me,” Holly reminded her.

"Just giving Mama hen an excuse to rescue her baby chicks.”

"Laurel,” Holly warned, acutely aware of Adam beside her. "We’re all tired and edgy. Let’s just do the best we can.”

"If the tree in the penthouse is a sample of your usual work, your best will be more than enough.” Adam leaned closer as he spoke, his words caressing both her cheek and her bruised feelings.

Adam had been so terrific, he didn’t deserve to be subjected to this. Holly turned to him with a sheepish smile. "We usually get along just fine.”

He smiled. "Sure you do. I’ve got a younger brother and sister myself.”

She wrinkled her nose. "But you’re not still living with them.”

"Holly?” Ivy spoke hesitantly, her hands clasped nervously together.

Adam noted idly that Ivy’s voice had the same low pitch as her sisters’ and he’d run out of liquor to describe it to himself. Brandy? Holly jumped up and offered him a hand. He found himself grasping it, glad of an excuse to touch her again. He didn’t let go, and for the moment, Holly was content to leave her hand in his.

Ivy continued, "If we’ve got the deco and the bears here, what did you put on Adam’s tree?”

Holly looked quickly at Adam and laughed. "Polar bears.”

"We don’t have them.” Laurel began bumping the dolly down the two steps onto the tiled floor of the atrium.

"We do now.”

Laurel shot her a shrewd look, which Holly met blandly.

"Buy them from Bloomie?”

Holly swallowed. "Uh-huh.”

Laurel and Ivy exchanged a glance before unsnapping the cords and opening the boxes.

The four of them stared at the contents of the boxes and then at the tree. "Okay, here’s what we’ll do,” Holly said briskly. "Ivy, go back home and get the ribbons and bows left from that job where the tree was too small. And... don’t we have some grapevine wreaths somewhere? Bring lots of ribbon. Any color.” Holly closed her eyes to the wine-colored furniture in the public areas ringing the atrium. They didn’t have time for the nuances of color coordination now.

"I’ve got it!” Laurel’s dramatic declaration caught the group’s attention. Holly sneaked a peek at Adam and wistfully saw that he seemed as fascinated with Laurel as every other man who’d met her. Even though she’d long ago accepted Laurel’s effect on men, Holly had hoped Adam would be immune. Of course, she hadn’t staked her claim or anything. And she knew Laurel wouldn’t deliberately steal him—she gave her credit for that.

"You were going to tell us these bears were too small, weren’t you, Holly?”

Holly gave her a lopsided grin. "Eventually.”

"There are hundreds of teddy bears in this house. They’re our mascot, remember? We’ll borrow them and put them on the tree. We can use that pretty green plaid ribbon to tie bows around their necks. The unifying theme, right?” Laurel paused to note the group’s approval.

Holly opened her mouth, but Laurel rushed on, "I know burgundy ribbon would be better with the furniture, but I don’t think we have that much in stock.”

Holly began to nod. "It’ll work.” She grinned at Laurel. "It’ll work, don’t you think, Adam? It’s got to work.” She seized his arm, looking up at him eagerly.

"Bear bows?” he asked faintly.

Holly noticed Adam was more enthusiastic about an hour later, when he found himself surrounded by several dozen pajama-clad young women clutching teddy bears.

"I like your job,” he said to Holly as she whirled past him.

"I’ll bet,” she replied, raising her brows at the line of nymphets waiting to have Adam add ribbons to their bears. She hadn’t missed the fact that when the girls returned upstairs to sort through their stuffed animals, many had exchanged voluminous football jerseys and ratty bathrobes for teddies of quite a different sort.

She could hardly blame them, she thought as she once again pushed the sleeves of her oversize sweater above her elbows. Adam had charm. He was older and had an innate sophistication guaranteed to appeal to the college women. And to her.

The tree-decorating turned into a party. No one had been asleep, even though it was approaching midnight. And clearly, no one had any intention of going to sleep now. Adam was definitely enjoying himself.

"I’ve got no right to be jealous. I’ve got no time to be jealous,” Holly said softly to herself. They’d only just met, but she couldn’t stop reminiscing about the quiet conversation in front of the fire, or stifle the tingle of anticipation she felt at the thought of seeing him tomorrow.

She was glad Adam had come with them, she realized, watching as he deftly fastened the bears to the branches in the middle of the tree. Not that she wouldn’t have been able to handle it herself. She’d always managed before, and she wasn’t about to go all mushy and helpless over an attractive man.

Of course, Adam’s looks transcended mere attractiveness.

"Do you think we can get him to come with us to do all the other sororities’ trees?”

"Laurel! You didn’t tell me. That’s fantastic—”

"Oh, we don’t have them as clients yet,” Laurel said confidently, "but we will. Just wait until word gets out about this.”

"I think it already has.” Holly motioned toward the disapproving housemother who had appeared on the scene.

"Never mind, this will make our reputation,” Laurel said. "I guarantee they’ll be talking about the Epsilon Eta girls for weeks.”

"I thought you meant Deck the Halls’s reputation.”

"I did, but there are other things in life, as I hope you’ve finally noticed,” Laurel replied with a nod upward at Adam.

Holly turned her direct gaze on Laurel. "I noticed.” She chose another bear to hand up to Adam. "But right now, nothing can interfere with Deck the Halls. Nothing.”

"A LAWYER? A bankruptcy lawyer?” Ivy looked at Holly in astonished surprise. Her sisters had fired the expected questions at Holly the moment they’d dropped Adam off at the penthouse. She had carefully sidestepped his occupation until now, though she didn’t know why she’d bothered. After tomorrow, she wouldn’t see him again. She couldn’t.

"You made friends with one of those parasites?” Laurel looked at Holly as if she had betrayed national secrets.

"You mean vultures,” Ivy corrected.

"What’s the difference? Both feed off dead bodies,” Laurel said caustically.

"Or dead companies,” Ivy added with bitterness.

Holly felt relieved. Ivy and Laurel were helping her feel the anger and resolve Adam had dazzled out of her. He’d caught her at a weak moment, that was all.

She unlocked the front door to a home not much smaller than the sorority house they’d just left. "I’m glad you two didn’t let your feelings show around Adam. It would be a novelty to have a lawyer on our side.” Holly propped the door open with a box filled with odds and ends.

"We didn’t know he was a lawyer then,” Ivy reminded her.

"He could have made things very difficult. I was supposed to be finished and out of that penthouse by ten. I wasn’t and had the wrong decorations to boot.”

"Ah, yes. Bloomie to your rescue.” Laurel rolled the dolly out of the van.

"Where’s Mama’s necklace going this time?” Ivy slammed the van doors shut so that Holly could drive it around to the garage.

"Ruthie’s wedding.” It was difficult to meet Ivy’s eyes.

"I wondered why she hadn’t been working in their shop lately. Well, you better hope Bloomie doesn’t dance with any jewelers,” Ivy warned.

"Now that has possibilities,” said Laurel, who’d returned for the second cart. "We could claim the real necklace was stolen. Is it still insured, Holly?”

Holly shook her head as she started the van. "Too expensive. Mama only kept the policy so that Daddy wouldn’t know she’d sold the real diamonds.”

"Sure explains how she stretched the household money.” Laurel dropped the last of the boxes with a soft thud. "I’m pooped. Let’s unpack in the morning.”

"It’s already morning,” Ivy said, heading for the stairs just as Holly came down the hall.

"Ladies, sleep will have to wait.” Holly raised her voice to drown out the inevitable moaning. "The photo shoot at the penthouse begins at ten and that tree needs more work. Ivy, why don’t you look for those silver snowflakes? I’ve got some stuff I’d like to take over just in case they want some of the room decorated. You ought to see it, the art deco would have been—” Holly broke off and hoped Ivy wouldn’t get upset all over again.

"Laurel, if you really think the other sororities would be interested, you should take the portfolio around tomorrow morning. We need to update our supply list so that we don’t have any more mix-ups. After that, you can pack for the Stoffer’s job. I’ve got two trees there. What do you think about doing an angel tree and the deco one, now that the stuff’s available?”

"I don’t think. I can’t think. I’m exhausted.” Laurel pressed her hands to her head. "Holly, the main season’s only a week old and look at us. We can’t keep this up.”

"We have to,” Holly said grimly. "Look, we’re so close to making Deck the Halls support us for the whole year. You don’t want to go back to Exemplary Temporaries any more than I do.”

Laurel brushed her lightened, champagne-streaked hair back from her face. "Lord, I hate that place. Still can’t pronounce it, but right now, it’s looking better and better.” She turned to go up the stairs, nearly tripping over a warm lump.

Ivy had fallen asleep, her head against the railing.

Laurel glared reproachfully at Holly. "It can wait until morning. Come on, Ivy.”

Holly grabbed her arm. "The Town Square shoot is the biggest break we’ve ever had! If we play it right, we could have more clients than we can handle.” Holly watched in vexation as Laurel ignored her, helping a groggy Ivy to her feet.

"Gotta get snowflakes for Holly,” Ivy mumbled.

"Later,” Laurel murmured to her. "She’s exhausted, Holly!”

"We might get the cover. Don’t you understand how important this is? You can sleep all afternoon!” Holly argued.

"I want to sleep now,” Laurel said, each word distinct and final. "Tomorrow afternoon, you’ll have something else for us to do.”

"You’re right,” Holly said, making it sound like an accusation. "You two get some sleep. I’ll come upstairs in a little while.”

"Lay off, Holly. You can stay down here and play martyr by yourself this time.” Laurel continued to guide Ivy up the stairs. "Besides, the Stoffer job is for charity and it’s stupid to waste our two best themes on them.”

Holly stared at her sisters and blinked rapidly. If they’d just work a little harder. That wasn’t too much to ask. It wasn’t as though it would be forever—just during the Christmas season.

She’d make it in spite of them. In spite of everyone. Holly ran her fingers through her hair and rubbed her neck and shoulders. She ached to follow Ivy and Laurel up the stairs.

The chirp of the telephone on the hall table startled her and she jerked up the receiver before the second ring. Who would call at two o’clock in the morning? Holly was tempted to hang up, convinced it must be a crank call. On the other hand, didn’t relatives always call with bad news in the middle of the night? Memories of another middle-of-the-night phone call haunted her as she spoke softly into the receiver.

"Come have breakfast with me.” The pleasant, honey-coated words instantly soothed her apprehensions.

"Adam.” Holly closed her eyes and allowed her smile to sound in her voice.

"I’ll cook.”

"That’s quite an offer.”

"Is that a yes?”

The almost whispered words wrapped Holly in a sensation of warm intimacy as she stood in the dark hall.


"Sweet dreams.”

Holly smiled and gently put the receiver down. Adam’s words were a good-night caress. Had she already been in bed, she could have fallen asleep with their echoes. The thought was very appealing.

But not as appealing as a Town Square magazine cover. Holly started walking briskly toward the laundry, hoping the plastic snowflakes were stored in what had once been the maid’s quarters.

HOLLY HAD NEVER realized how heavy a polar-bear rug could be. She enveloped herself in its musty warmth and leaned against the padded walls of the elevator, oblivious to the white hairs that rubbed off.

"I don’t believe it.” Adam shook his head as the private elevator opened and Holly and the bear emerged. "Where did you get that thing?”

"From the display window at a travel agency. They were promoting ski trips.” Holly lurched over to the fireplace, heaved the bear off her shoulders and arranged it in front of the white-brick hearth. "Her name is Bianca.”

"They just let you walk out with it—her? Or did you and your sisters do a little breaking and entering after you dropped me off?”

Holly’s angry reaction caught Adam unprepared.

"We don’t break the law.” She gazed at him with a disturbingly intent look. It willed him to believe her.

The twinkle, usually present in Adam’s blue eyes, was momentarily extinguished and his face became a pleasantly bland mask. Yet its mildness was purposeful and controlled. "I’m not implying that you do,” he said in a voice that matched his expression. "I meant it as a joke.”

Holly guessed this was his courtroom face, even though he’d denied that he spent time in the courtroom. It just seemed to be something lawyers knew how to do.

"Furthermore, I resent this unfounded hostility you have toward me. I was not involved in whatever legal problems you’ve had in the past, and I’m tired of tiptoeing around in case I step on your feelings.” Adam stood above her, his face devoid of the warmth she’d come to expect.

Holly’s lips parted slightly. She missed his smile with its outrageous dimples. "What was the question?”

"You three do a little breaking and entering after you dropped me off?” Adam repeated lightly.

"Nah. Would have been easier. One of us has to go back and redecorate their window.”

Holly was wrestling with the bear and missed the look of tenderness on Adam’s face. She looked particularly soft and touchable this morning. She wore camel-colored slacks and a creamy turtleneck sweater, and had negligently cast off a matching tan coat, which had slid from the sofa to the floor.

As Adam bent to pick it up, he noted the label and felt the extravagant softness that told him it was camel hair.

Holly was on her knees, turning the bear this way and that. Adam silently placed the coat on the sofa, next to the shoulder bag Holly had slung down beside it. A rich brown alligator. He shoved his hands into his pockets and checked her shoes. Matching loafers.

Adam began to piece together Holly’s unmentioned past. Last night’s visit to the private and expensive Southern Methodist University campus, accompanied by Laurel’s references to her sorority, told him Holly and her sisters had come from a privileged background.

No wonder she was so defensive. He longed to tell her she wasn’t alone. He’d seen plenty of Texas oil barons who had fallen on hard times.

"Mmm, is that breakfast I smell? Coffee in particular?”

"Uh, yes.” Adam found it difficult to switch gears. "But that coffee has been sitting since six-thirty.”

"That’s only an hour and a half. It’ll be great.” Holly had preceded him into the kitchen and emptied the pot into two waiting mugs. She automatically removed the grounds and began to measure out more for another pot.

"I’ll do that.”

"Good.” She relinquished the pot without argument. "I have a confession. I’ve already been here this morning and I left some boxes downstairs with the security guard. The travel agency wasn’t supposed to open until nine, but I talked them into coming in early.”

She was pleased with herself and had a right to be, she thought. How many cruises had that same agency arranged for her parents when they were alive? And the European "Grand Tour” she and Laurel had each taken the summer they turned nineteen—but Ivy couldn’t. It was a favor for old time’s sake.

"Better make a large pot,” Holly said as she scanned the refrigerator for milk or cream. "I was up until four this morning.” She found a white liquid in a cream pitcher, sniffed it and poured a generous amount into her coffee.

"Ah.” She took a sizable swallow. "It’s good. I’m glad you don’t make wimpy coffee. I can’t stand wimpy coffee.” She drained her cup.

Adam glanced at her and added two more tablespoons of grounds to the filter basket.

"I’ll be right back.” Holly smiled breezily at him.

"I’ll help you.”

His eyes were even bluer this morning than they’d been last night. "Making the coffee is help enough.”

When the elevator doors opened to the penthouse again, Holly had no trouble convincing herself to abandon the boxes and follow her nose to the source of the wonderful smells.

Adam heard her and had a cup of the milky coffee she liked ready for her.

"I could get spoiled,” she said, sighing as she leaned against the doorway to the kitchen. "I see we’re dining in state.” She nodded toward the settings on the smoked-glass top of the dining-room table.

"No room in the kitchen.” Adam handed her a bowl of strawberries.

"How decadent,” Holly said before popping one into her mouth. "Strawberries in December.”

"Imported from New Zealand. I got there just as they were unloading them.”

"Got where? New Zealand?”

"I might have. For you.” He met her eyes briefly before turning back to the stove. "As it was, I stopped by an all-night gourmet grocery not too far from here.”

The only all-night gourmet grocery in Dallas was twenty miles away. Holly set the bowl on the table with hands that suddenly shook. Caffeine jitters, obviously—and not the disturbing intimacy of sharing breakfast with an attractive man she hardly knew. In fact, it felt perfectly natural to be here for breakfast. That was what concerned her.

"Eggs Benedict?” Holly watched as Adam carried in the plates and presented them with a flourish. "We’ll have to do this more often.” The remark just popped out and in less than a heartbeat, Holly realized exactly how Adam was going to interpret it.

His black brow raised; a half smile deepened a dimple. "Certainly.”

Holly clutched her fork, determined to ignore all innuendos. It wouldn’t be fair to flirt with him now. "I’m impressed. But does it taste as good as it looks?” With Adam watching closely, she took a bite, resolving to be complimentary even if it tasted like sawdust. At this point, she didn’t trust herself to notice the difference anyway.

"I don’t cook often,” he warned.

Holly rolled her eyes and took another mouthful. "It’s wonderful. Beginner’s luck.”

When Adam returned to the kitchen for more coffee, he tossed the empty jar of ready-made hollandaise sauce into the trash.

Holly nearly collided with him as she brought the dishes into the kitchen. "Do you have time for more coffee? Don’t you have to get to work?”

"People can manage without me for a couple of hours.”

Glancing at her watch, Holly wiped her mouth on a napkin. "Good. I want to help with the dishes, but it’s nearly nine and I’ve got to get to a fabric store. Gus—he’s the photographer—and the magazine people will come about ten. They had another shoot before this one. I’ll probably have to beat on the shop doors, but I’m determined to have silver lamé for this tree.”

Holly kept up her nervous chatter as she shrugged into her coat and grabbed her purse. "Thanks for breakfast. And please, if you have to leave before I get back, dump the dishes in the sink and I’ll finish cleaning up later.” She punched the elevator button.

"I thought I’d stick around and watch.” The quiet words silenced her as she stepped inside the elevator.

The doors had already begun to close. Holly jabbed her foot between them and they shuddered apart. The look on Adam’s face might have been the beginning of a smile. The sleeves of his crisp white shirt were rolled to the elbows, revealing the fine black hair on his arms, and he had a dish towel tucked in the waistband of dark charcoal pants. He still held the coffeepot, like a husband seeing his wife off to work just before he left for his own office.

A tiny lock of blue-black hair separated itself from the rest of the smooth wave across his forehead and Holly longed to push it back into place.

He’d be too distracting. She didn’t dare allow him to stay, so this was good-bye. Even if he wanted to see her again, the timing was incredibly awful.

The profits Holly and her sisters made in December determined their standard of living for the next year. She was too busy to nurture a beginning relationship, never mind that he was a lawyer. Even when she’d first admired his appealing dimples and the brilliant laser-blue eyes, she had known the timing was wrong and would be for years.

Holly’s lips were parted as she stared at him. Neither one had said good-bye. She took a deep breath; she was going to have to say it first. "I enjoyed breakfast. A lot. But...” Did he have to be so gorgeous?

The telephone rang. They glanced at it and at each other. "Here, hold this.” Adam yanked her out of the elevator and handed her the coffeepot, then sprinted for the phone. Holly tried to convince herself to carry the pot back to the kitchen and quietly make her getaway. Her feet were fused to the Italian marble floor of the entry.

"Yes, Laurel, she’s here.” Adam waved an arm in her direction. "For you.”

She set the coffeepot on the floor and practically flew to the phone.

"Holly? Do you have the fabric yet?”

"I was just on my way.”

"Great. I’ll be right up. You’ll love this.”

Holly turned to Adam as she replaced the receiver. "She’s on her way up.”

Adam walked over to the coffeepot she had left in front of the elevator. "Good. There’s just enough for three more cups.”

Holly grinned. It hadn’t taken him long to figure out her vice. Off came her camel coat. She really did like Adam, she decided, even if he was a lawyer. What rotten luck.

"Not bad.” Laurel entered the penthouse, looking first at the tree, then at Adam, who was bringing a third cup of coffee. "So you weren’t a mirage.” She took the mug from Adam and presented a Neiman-Marcus shopping bag to Holly. "See what you think of this.”

Holly pulled out a long slink of a dress in silver lame. "Laurel, are you sure?”

"I’ve got no place to wear it and you need the time.” She sipped her coffee as Holly arranged the dress under the tree. "Here, stuff it with this.” Laurel began to wad the tissue paper she’d packed in the bottom of the shopping bag.

"Thanks, Laurel. You’re a lifesaver.” The sisters exchanged a long look filled with understanding.

"I have my moments. What have you two been doing? I don’t see any snowflakes.”

Adam began opening the boxes Holly had brought earlier.

"You don’t have to do that, Adam. Laurel can help.”

"No, Laurel can’t. I’m off to the Alumnae Christmas Coffee. I just stopped by here to deliver the dress—excuse me, tree skirt.”

Holly sat back on her heels. Laurel’s red silk dress and the sisters’ communal fur jacket registered at last. How could she think of going to a party when they had so much to do?

Laurel correctly read Holly’s look. "I was invited to the Alumnae Christmas Coffee.” She dangled a camera from her fingers. "I thought I’d go early and get some pictures for our portfolio, since Gus will be here.”

"You’re right.” Holly offered a smile in apology.

Laurel bent down and ruffled her sister’s curls. "It’s okay. I left Ivy at home waiting for Mrs. Bloom.”

"Oh, no! I completely forgot about Bloomie.”

"You’ve got enough on your mind.” Laurel slanted a glance at Adam and mouthed, "He’s okay for a lawyer.” Holly nodded, with a wistful look over her shoulder as they walked toward the elevator.

"I’ll be late getting back. I volunteered to be on the cleanup committee.” Laurel adjusted her purse so it wouldn’t crush the fur.

"Whatever for?”

"Leftovers,” Laurel said succinctly.

"Good thinking.”

"I told you I can think better when I’ve had some sleep. Just imagine what I could do with a whole night!”

Adam was on the telephone when Holly returned to the tree. "I need to go into the office,” he said, rolling down his sleeves. He passed by Holly and disappeared into a bedroom, reappearing as the consummate lawyer, complete with briefcase. "I’ll try to get back here for lunch. How about deli food and leftover strawberries?”

Holly’s fingers raked her hair in the familiar gesture. "Adam, please don’t go to all this trouble. I don’t even know if I’ll still be here.” It was frightening to see how effortlessly he fit into her life, overscheduled though it was. She’d already caught herself mentally depending on him and she’d known him for less than a day. How could she allow herself to forget that the only person she could depend on was herself?

"I’ll call first.” He waved a hand as the elevator doors shut. "Relax for once.”

Holly smiled to herself. He hadn’t said good-bye.


[B1]Hi Hank! Can we hard format this?


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