Close to Heaven
She has nothing…
Rain Minear has fantasized about finding herself in Joe Moffat’s arms for years. It’s just her luck that the night it finally happens, he’s carrying her into the emergency room. It’s Joe who steps up to help her when a tragedy brings her life crashing down. He gives her a place to stay, helps her get back on her feet, and even tries to save her Christmas, though he’s never cared for the holiday. But he’s far too ethical to sleep with a member of his staff, holding her at arms length despite the long-simmering attraction between them.
He has everything…
Haunted by ghosts of the past, Joe Moffat moved to Scarlet Springs to repay a debt. He’s struggled for years to keep his hands off Rain. She’s the general manager of his brewpub, and he is not that kind of boss. But, oh, she turns him on. More than that, she has the biggest heart of any woman he’s ever known. He’d do anything to see her smile again, even put up a Christmas tree and listen to carols.
The most important Christmas of their lives…
When a Rocky Mountain blizzard leaves them snowbound and alone together for days, they can no longer ignore their feelings for one another. As their passion turns to something deeper, it becomes clear to them both that this will be a Christmas that changes their lives forever.
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While Joe set up the tree and retrieved box after box of Christmas decorations from storage, Rain rolled out the cookie dough, cut circles in the dough with a glass—Joe had no cookie cutters—then sprinkled the dough with sugar and put the cookies in the oven. She watched Joe as he came and went. Some part of her wanted to pretend that they were a happy couple preparing for Christmas together, but she was too much of a realist to play that game. Besides, Joe was anything but happy. He seemed tense, even grouchy. He was probably still upset about his SUV being stuck in a ditch.
He was always the first person in town to help others in times of trouble, but he had a hard time asking for it. Worse, he hated being out of the action. Now, he was stuck here with her for a couple of days, sidelined by a storm.
Rain cleaned up the mess she’d made, wiping flour off the countertop and getting the dishes into the dishwasher.
Joe walked in, another big box in his arms. He set it down on the floor near the living room fireplace. “I think this is the last one. I had planned to donate all of this. I just never got around to it.”
Rain dried her hands. “Maybe because it means something to you?”
He shrugged. “Nah. I’ve just been busy.”
Rain rested her hands on her hips. “We don’t have to do this, Joe. If this isn’t fun for you, it won’t be fun for me either. We can just chill and watch TV or do our own thing if that sounds better to you.”
He drew in a breath, closed his eyes, the tension inside him palpable. “You’re right. Sorry. I’m being an ass.”
“I didn’t say that.”
He opened his eyes, his lips curving in a lopsided grin. “Maybe you should have.”
“I’m sorry about your SUV.”
“It’s nothing. Compared to what you’re going through…”
She wanted him to know she understood. “It’s hard for you to ask for help, I know, especially when you want to be out there helping other people.”
“Yeah. Pretty much.”
“Okay, now, get over it. Everyone needs help once in a while—even the mighty Joe Moffat.”
He raised a dark eyebrow. “Is that how I come across?”
“Only when you’re beating yourself up for being human.”
Some of the frustration left his face. “Good to know.”
He walked over to his sound system, pulled out his iPod. “Christmas music. Let’s see what I have on here. Andy Williams. My grandmother loved him.”
Rain didn’t want to be negative. “He’s fine.”
Joe frowned. “Okay, so not Andy Williams. How about the Chipmunks?”
“The Chipmunks?” Rain laughed. “You listened to the Chipmunks?”
“No to the Chipmunks?”
She had a better idea. “Do you trust me?”
Rain drew out her cell phone, found her Christmas playlist, then plugged her phone into the sound system and hit play. José Feliciano’s Feliz Navidad spilled into the room. “I love this song.”
She couldn’t help herself. She sang along and then started to dance, the happy melody and the Puerto Rican rhythm calling to her.
Joe crossed his arms over his chest and watched her, a grin on his face, his gaze warm. “You have a beautiful voice,” he said when the song ended.
The compliment hit a sore spot inside her.
“Not beautiful enough to make a career out of it.” She walked into the kitchen, checked the oven timer.
“Come on now. You don’t know that.” He was still watching her, and she knew he was trying to decide whether to let it go. He changed the subject, pointing to the speakers. “What’s playing now?”
“Celtic harp. Kim Robertson.” Rain searched for an oven mitt, grateful that he hadn’t pushed her. “She’s incredible. I saw her play in Denver a few years ago.”
The timer beeped, and Rain took the cookie sheets out of the oven, the sweet scent of fresh sugar cookies mingling with the bright pine scent of the tree. She left the cookies to cool, joining Joe in the living room, where he was going from box to box as if trying to decide where to start.
He glanced over at her. “Let’s open these up, and see what we have.”
“You don’t know what’s in them?” She found this funny.
“They belonged to my mother. They were handed down to me after she passed, but I haven’t opened them.”
Was that it? Was that why he’d seemed so tense?
“If this is going to dredge up unhappy memories for you or make you sad, we can decorate with popcorn or ribbons or old socks for all I care.”
“Old socks?” He chuckled. “It’s fine, really. I wasn’t close to my parents. At Christmas, staff decorated the trees—several of them—for my mother’s Christmas parties. They also did all of my mom’s Christmas shopping. I was away at boarding school until right before the holiday. By the time I got home, everything was decorated, and the gifts were under the tree. It’s not something we did as a family.”
An ache in her chest, she watched as he chose a box and lifted it onto the coffee table. It made her sad to think that he had no real attachment to any of these decorations, no happy memories of putting up the tree with his parents and hanging his favorite ornaments year after year. The stuff in these boxes was just stuff to him. No wonder he’d planned to donate it.
“Let’s see what we’ve got.” He lifted the top off the box he’d chosen.
“Oh!” Delight washing through Rain. “They’re precious.”
On top sat a box of old European-style blown glass ornaments in pastel colors with glittering white, gold, and silver details—angels, Kris Kringles, shimmering birds with feathers for tails, elves, a little church, a trumpet, a cello, a violin. Each ornament was tucked carefully into tissue paper.
Joe took out one of the angels, turned it over in his hand as if it were a Rubik’s Cube. “How do you hang them on the tree? There are no hooks.”
“What do you mean?” Rain gaped at him. “Have you never decorated a Christmas tree before?”
“I told you. We had staff for that.”
“Well, it’s about time.” She found a small box of ornament hooks and opened it. “You take one of these and pass it through that little loop there. See?”
“Okay. Yeah. I get it.” He took it from her, started toward the tree.
“Oh, no, you can’t put it up yet. First, you have to put up the lights.”
He stopped mid-stride. “Lights? Right. I wonder where those are.”
Putting Christmas lights on a tree could test the patience of a saint. They found two big boxes of the damned things—dozens of strands of white lights—and went to work replacing old bulbs and putting the strands on the tree one by one. Rain took charge, imparting her vastly superior experience in Christmas tree decorating to him.
“You don’t want to drape the lights over the ends of the branches. You need to weave them through the tree, get them deep inside.”
She showed him how this was done, starting at the bottom of the tree and passing the lighted strand around its girth to him, their fingers brushing as they handed the strand back and forth. Awareness sang through him at her touch. Their gazes met through the tree’s green branches, the warmth in her eyes a provocation.
Twinkling lights. Soft music. The scent of pine.
Joe was in trouble. He knew he ought to distance himself from her somehow, maybe go back outside and try digging out his Land Rover again, but he couldn’t get himself to step away. Their fingers lingered now, the touch deliberate.
They put strand after strand on the tree until it glittered and Joe was about to lose his mind. Then they moved to the ornaments—a new kind of torture. Every time they opened a box, a look of wonder came over Rain’s face, her smile and happiness putting a hitch in his chest. His pulse was tripping, and he wasn’t even touching her.
He got to his feet, walked to the window, needing some distance.
“These must be antique.” She held up a trio of angels. “Look. The faces are made of painted wax, not plastic.”
“Yeah.” He turned to look out onto a windswept world of white, working to get his emotions under control, while she continued to rummage through the box.
He heard her exclamation, recognized the excitement in her voice, but didn’t turn to see what she’d discovered, too caught up in his own feelings.
“Do you have any tape or thumbtacks?”
He answered without facing her. “They’re in the drawer next to the fridge.”
When are you going to tell Rain how you feel about her?
Rico’s words came back to him. Damn Rico anyway. What the hell did he expect Joe to do? Was he supposed to pull Rain aside and admit to her that he’d had sexual fantasies about her for far too long? Should he tell her that her smile, her laughter, the very sight of her put a warm feeling in his chest or confess that he spent more time at Knockers than he needed to so he could be close to her?
Listen to yourself. You’re pathetic, man.
When this storm passed, he would make an effort to meet someone again. He’d sign up on one of those online dating sites and—
“Oh, Joe.” There was a sing-song tone to her voice that cut through his thoughts.
He turned to find her standing in front of the sofa, a teasing smile on her lips, a look of expectation on her face.
She looked up at the ceiling, drawing his gaze with hers.
It was plastic, but she didn’t seem to care.
“Rain.” He shook his head, but his feet began to move. “I’m your boss.”
Her gaze held his, an almost pleading look in her eyes. “Oh, who cares? It’s Christmas. I’m not going to sue you, if that’s what you think.”
“It’s not that.” Joe had come from a long line of assholes, and he was trying desperately not to become one himself.
Just give her a quick peck on the cheek.
Okay. Yeah. Sure. He could do that.
He closed the distance between them, hesitated for a moment, then ducked down to press his lips to her cheek. But his body betrayed him, and his mouth found its way to hers. It was just a brushing of lips, but the shock of it brought him back for another pass and another. Her lips were warm, soft, pliant, the sweet scent of her skin intoxicating. But he was going to stop. Any moment now, he would draw away from her and end this incredible … exhilarating… foolishness.
It was her little sigh of pleasure that undid him.
He drew her against him, claiming her mouth in a hungry kiss. She came alive in his arms, arching against him, matching his fervor, her tongue meeting his stroke for stroke, her fingers curling in his hair. God, she tasted like heaven and felt perfect in his arms, her breasts pressing against his chest, her body soft in all the right places.
Joe’s heart thrummed, blood surging to his groin. Some part of him realized that he hadn’t stopped, that he was still kissing her, but he didn’t care, not when kissing her felt so… damned … right. He nipped her lower lip, drew it into his mouth, felt her tongue graze his upper lip, her fingers fisting in his hair.
Whether she stumbled backward onto the sofa or whether he urged her, he couldn’t say, but one moment they were standing, and the next he was lying on top of her, pressing kisses along her throat, her pulse frantic beneath his lips.
She whimpered, her hips moving beneath his, grinding herself against his erection. She reached for the top button on his jeans. “Joe. I want you.”
“Yes.” What the hell had he just said? “No. No, Rain, we can’t.”
“Why not?” Rain stared up at him, disappointment and desire naked in her eyes. “We’re adults. I want you. You want me.”
As if the hard-on in his jeans left any doubt about that.
“I’m your employer, Rain.” Joe pulled away from her and got to his feet, everything inside him protesting the abrupt loss of contact. Not sure what to do or say, he started packing together the empty boxes.
“Seriously? That is your excuse? I told you. I’m not going to sue.”
“Do you really think I’ve got some kind of risk assessment going on in my head right now?” He glanced over at her. “I’m trying to be fair to you.”
Her expression fell, and she broke eye contact.
He’d hurt her. He didn’t want that. “Rain, I—”
“It’s okay, Joe.” She stood, smoothing her hands over her blouse. “Let’s get these boxes put away and have some cookies.”
Joe said what he’d been trying to say. “I care about you.”
“I know. You care about all of the staff.” She packed tissue paper into two empty boxes then closed them, shutting herself off from him, too.
This is what happened when he ignored his own better sense. He shouldn’t have kissed her in the first place. What the hell had he been thinking?