Another sneak peek! GASP! Read on, for a first look at another upcoming release, “Chipping at the Ice.” 🙂
“She has a tendency to overshare. He does not, but it doesn’t scare him away, even that embarrassing story about last Valentine’s Day. Claire isn’t sure what to make of Luke when they meet, but she likes him. Against all odds, he likes her too, and before they know it, they’re in deep, and neither wants out.”
When the apartment grew dark, and Claire couldn’t take another minute of stewing alone, she dressed up in her warm layers and walked down to the street. It was quieter now, the traffic having died down after the dinner hour. Everyone was at home, hanging stockings and drinking eggnog. Not like Claire, who strolled a few doors down to stare at the flickering neon sign over a dive bar she was more familiar with than she liked: Low Places.
After moving into her sad little apartment, she’d found this place and whenever she had an extra ten dollars, she’d stop in. She had a few friends inside, if one could call them friends. There was the old man at the end of the bar. Always at the end of the bar, always munching on peanuts and nursing a dark ale. There was Hugo, the chatty one who often chatted at no one in particular. And the bartender, Hazel, who didn’t chat much, and barely offered acknowledgment every time Claire sat at the bar.
Claire slid onto a stool with a cracked cushion, and unbuttoned her coat. “Hi, Hazel. Can I get a daiquiri, please?”
The woman scoffed but moved around behind the bar to mix Claire’s drink. Claire was the only one who asked for the ‘fancy’ drinks, as Hazel called them. Most everyone else ordered beer or liquor, like whiskey or scotch.
For once, Hugo wasn’t around. The old man at the end of the bar was, peanuts and dark ale in place. Claire nodded at him and glanced around the rest of the narrow space, at the line of tables along the wall behind her, and the dirty, filmed-over windows across the front, a couple more tables in front of them. And the bar, long, old, pockmarked, and stained, along nearly the entire length of the space.
Claire looked up as Hazel set her drink down with a clink. “Thanks, Hazel. Merry Christmas.” She saluted the bartender and took a long sip of the cold, lime-flavored drink. Traditional, just like the one time she’d traveled out of the country, and had three-dollar daiquiris under a tropical sun. She could write a book about how much she’d enjoyed her journey to a foreign country, ninety miles off-shore as it was. In her daydreams, she imagined trying drinks under suns in as many different countries as she could. Dreams, though. That’s all they were.
“Merry Christmas, sweetheart.” Hazel actually smiled at her. “Why aren’t you at home with your family, hanging your stocking, and wearing one of those ugly Christmas sweaters?”
Claire snorted. “Home is a long way away and I can barely keep a job, let alone fly to San Francisco for Christmas.”
“California?” Hazel tsked. “How on earth did you end up in Boston?”
“A guy.” It hurt to admit it. Not because she was still in love with him, but because she was embarrassed to admit she’d left a good job behind—dream career or not— and a nice apartment, all for the semi-romantic thought that she was meant to be with him. “Ridiculous, right? I mean, I’m smart, modern. I know I shouldn’t have to give up anything to be with a man. And yet, here I am. Alone, broke, far from home on Christmas. Pathetic.”
“Well, you’re not entirely alone.” Hazel leaned on the bar and gave her a kind smile. “You got me and Harold over there.”
Claire shot a look at the old man at the end of the bar, who stared back, munching on those peanuts.
“Hazel, I like you, but I don’t even think you want me here on Christmas Eve.”
“Only because it means I can’t close early.” She reached over and patted Claire’s hand. “But you sit there, sweetheart, stay warm, and I’ll bring you as many of your special daiquiris as you want. On the house.”
Claire’s eyes prickled with tears that she hid by sipping on the drink she already had. “Thanks, Hazel.”
It might have been minutes, or hours later, when the stool next to her creaked. She glanced up, had a brief image of dark hair and dark eyes, scruff on a square chin, and a subdued smile.
“Can I get a beer, please?”
Hazel nodded and set a foaming mug in front of the new arrival. “Here you are.”
“Thank you.” He took a sip and nodded. “Merry Christmas.”
“Same.” Hazel moved away, taking up a spot down near the old man at the end of the bar.
Claire was left alone with the new arrival. She glanced at him again, turning the glass in her hand around in a circle on the bar. Hold on. Her head swiveled back towards the man. She knew him. He was Luke from the fancy party the night before.
“Merry Christmas,” she heard herself saying before she could overthink it.
He nodded but didn’t respond or even look in her direction as he sipped his beer.
“Right. I bet you didn’t expect to be spending your Christmas Eve in Low Places either.” Claire sighed and scratched her eyebrow. “I didn’t think I’d be here. This time last year I was with my family in California. We used to spend all the holidays at my parents’ cabin in Lake Tahoe, but the last couple years, they preferred staying home. So we did.”
Still no response, but when she looked his way, he was watching her, the slightest curl to his lips. Great. At least she amused him.
“Hey, I know you.” His smile grew, became something more genuine. “Champagne girl.”
Claire’s smile dimmed and she gave an embarrassed laugh. “Oh, is that my nickname? How classy. Better than vodka girl, I guess.”
He chuckled. “If you hadn’t run off so fast, I might have learned your real name.” He held a hand towards her. “Luke.”
Claire took his hand and shook it once. “Claire.”
“Nice to meet you, Claire. Properly.”
She nodded and drew her hand away, disconcerted by the warm touch of his palm on hers.
“So, California is a long way away. You must miss the warmer weather.”
Claire glanced out the grimy window and shrugged. “San Francisco isn’t like San Diego. We do get stretches of cold and bad weather during the winters. I’m used to the snow here now, and this is my second winter here. I moved here about a year ago, in November.”
“I can’t imagine spending Christmas without this kind of snow, though.” Luke shifted on his stool and fell silent.
Claire glanced at him, twisting the stem of her drink in place. He wasn’t looking at her now, instead gazing into his glass of beer and taking small sips. They might as well have been sitting on opposite sides of the bar, unusual meeting the night before or not.
So Claire opened her mouth to fill the silence, unable to stop herself now that she was more than two daiquiris in.
“Christmas in San Fran isn’t so bad, even without three feet of snow everywhere. There’s always lots going on around the city. At my old job there, the owners used to throw the biggest parties. One for employees, one for their catering clients, and another for anyone willing to make a charitable donation to their chosen charity for the year. We were all always invited, even to the charitable one. That’s where I met Paul.”
She paused, recalling with perfect clarity the night she’d met him. He’d looked so handsome in his suit, with the French cuffs and smooth hematite cuff links. His dark blond hair had been cut and styled just so, and he’d smelled incredible. Her brain had probably short-circuited, which was the only explanation for how she’d ended up in his bed later that night.
All this and more, she shared with the near stranger in the bar.
“It wasn’t so bad as all that though.” She gave him a weak smile. “He actually called me a week later, and let’s be honest, most guys don’t call the woman a week after a one-night stand. Amiright?”
He chuckled, her first indication that he was still listening. She flushed but pressed on. Her biggest flaw was not knowing when to stop. She’d talk for hours if people let her. Most didn’t. Her own family would often talk over her when they’d had enough. Didn’t matter what the conversation was. Like the time she’d been telling them about her senior year at UCLA and her older sister had started talking about her wedding plans. Or that other time, she’d been trying to get around to telling them about the suspicious lump she’d had removed from her breast, but her older brother had started talking about the new woman he was seeing.
Then she’d met Paul. At first he hadn’t minded her chatty demeanor. After a time, he’d devised his own way of getting her to slow the stream of words that would be pouring forth. He’d touch her hand, and ask her something else, a pointed question of some kind, to limit her response. She’d appreciated his efforts, and it had been a contributing factor in why she’d liked him so much, and so fast. So when he’d said he was being transferred to his firm’s headquarters in Boston, she’d suggested she go with him. Never mind that they’d never even lived together at that point, or that she had little in the way of savings of her own, and that she’d been utterly reliant on Paul and his wealth.
“Well, I learned my lesson.” She sighed and downed the rest of her drink, having lost count of how many Hazel had placed before her. It had certainly helped to loosen her tongue, as if she’d needed it. “Hey, Hazel. I’m out. Thanks for all the daiquiris.”
Hazel looked up with an absent-minded wave, and Claire turned away.
She didn’t need to have the stranger from the party beside her interrupt her one-sided conversation or touch her hand to know he must be tired of her sob story. She gave him a smile as she pulled her coat on and wrapped the scarf around her neck. “Merry Christmas. Sorry if I made yours a little worse.”
She was out the door and two steps away when he finally responded.
Claire froze and turned around. Luke stood a few feet in front of her and she hadn’t realized inside the bar how big he was. When she’d met him at the Christmas party the night before, she’d had on heels, bringing her own height closer to his, but now she saw he towered over her five-foot nine height by a good six inches, and probably outweighed her by a hundred pounds. And yet, he wasn’t overweight. He was bulky, like a body-builder, or an athlete of some sort.
“You didn’t ruin my Christmas.” He smiled as he walked towards her. “You actually made it a little better.”
She let out a laugh. “I doubt that very much, but you’re nice to say so.”
“I mean it.” He stopped before her, still smiling.
“Please. You didn’t want to listen to me drone on about my sad life.” Claire shoved her hands in her pockets, her shoulders hunching against the cold wind that whipped along the street. “I mean, I even told you about Valentine’s Day when I fell over trying to do a striptease.” Embarrassment flooded her when she realized how much she’d shared with this man. And he’d listened to every word. This was the hangover setting in now, the humiliating regret after oversharing for far too long. This was why Paul and her family stopped her all the time. They knew it would get too embarrassing for everyone involved. They did it to save themselves more than anything.
“I liked that part. Paul was an idiot for not sweeping you into his arms.”
“What?” Claire laughed, shivered, and shook her head. “No. I was an idiot for thinking I was special.”
His smile faded and he shook his head, his eyes remaining on her face. “I stand by my original assessment.”
Claire, for once, was struck silent.
“Can I give you a lift home?”
Claire looked down the street at her door, not even a hundred feet away. She smiled and shook her head. “Thank you, but that’s not necessary.”
“Come on. I don’t mind, really.” He pulled his keys from his pocket and pushed the button on the fob. A dark SUV parked at the curb lit up and he gestured with one hand. “I promise I’m not a serial killer.”
She laughed. “Said every serial killer, ever.”
He grinned at her and she was almost swayed, but she’d already admitted far too many embarrassing things to this man. She didn’t want him to know she lived in a bachelor suite with peeling paint next to a bar called Low Places. It was a little too on-the-nose right now.
“Do you have a phone?”
“What?” She blinked at his unexpected question.
“Take out your phone, turn on the location service. That way you’ll always know I’m taking you exactly where you direct me.”
She pulled the cracked three-year old phone out of her pocket and stared down at the screen. It was eleven thirty-three. On Christmas Eve.
When she still didn’t say anything, he shoved his hands back in his pockets, the keys jingling.
“If it makes you feel any better, I never offer women rides home.”
She looked up with a smile. “Do you ever take women back to your place?”
Now he was the one surprised by the question. “I’m sorry?”
Claire slid her phone back in her pocket. She might regret this in another thirty minutes, but then it would be Christmas, and suddenly, she didn’t want to be alone on Christmas.
“Why don’t we go back to your place?”
He stared at her, his mouth opening and closing. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather just go home?”
No. At least she knew that much, especially after her spectacularly depressing Christmas Eve. She shook her head.
They stared at each other for another minute. She could almost see the wheels turning in his head. Neither of them knew each other, not really. Running into each other at a big, black-tie event was hardly grounds for complete trust, but it was better than putting the moves on Harold in Low Places.
After another moment, Luke pulled his keys back out and walked over to the waiting vehicle. He pulled open the passenger door and faced her. “Your chariot awaits, my lady.”
Claire ducked her head but smiled as she crossed the sidewalk and climbed in. The inside was clean, bare of any knick knacks or dangling ornamentation on the rear-view mirror. It smelled new still, and faintly of what she suspected was his cologne. He walked around the front of the car and she watched him, a thought occurring to her.
As he climbed in and pushed the ‘start’ button, she faced him.
“What’s your last name?” Talk about leaping before looking. What name would she have given the authorities after he’d finished with her? Assuming he wasn’t a serial killer and she made it out alive.
He grinned and pulled his seatbelt across his chest. “Beaufort.”
“Nice to meet you, Luke Beaufort. I’m—”
“Claire Morris, from San Francisco.” He winked at her before putting the vehicle in drive. “I remember.”
Oh, she was already regretting this. Embarrassment crept up her neck until her cheeks flooded with heat. The SUV rolled away from the curb and Claire looked out the windshield, hoping the darkness around them would keep him from noticing.
They slowed to a stop at the end of the block for a red light and he turned to her.
“If you’d like to get out, I understand.” He smiled, though his expression was wary. “I’ll go home, and you can go your own way. It’s all good.”
She met his eyes and found herself shaking her head. She’d barely learned his name but some instinct told her she could trust him. Maybe not with her heart, but not every strange man late at night was out to hurt women.
Then again, she’d trusted Paul and look where that got her. She wasn’t sure she could call herself a solid judge of character.
“I don’t want to be alone.” Probably another overshare, but at this point, what did she have to lose?
His expression softened and he nodded. “Well, any time you want me to turn around and take you home, or drop you off, let me know.”
They drove in silence for about fifteen minutes. This late on Christmas Eve, there was very little traffic to contend with, even for downtown Boston. Then he turned down a less busy street, then another, and then they were rolling into an underground parking garage. He maneuvered the big vehicle through the garage and into a reserved spot. Before Claire could get free of her own seatbelt, he was around at her side of the car, opening the door for her.
“Thank you.” She slid out onto her feet. “You don’t have to do that.”
“My mother told me to always hold doors for ladies.” A look crossed his face as he shut the door behind her. “Unless you think I think you can’t handle it yourself. Because that’s silly, of course you can, I just like being able to lend a hand. But if you’re offended, I promise not to do it again.”
Claire almost laughed. He was starting to ramble like she did. “No. It was nice, thank you.”
He nodded, locked the SUV and led the way to the elevators. They rode up to the sixteenth floor of what turned out to be a high-rise condo building, and down a short hall to his place on the left. Inside, Claire was stunned by the views out the big windows on the far wall. He had a view over the water, and not the river side.
“This is amazing.” She walked right up to the windows and stared. “What, are you an Irish mobster or something?”
“No, not a mobster.” He laughed and she glanced over her shoulder as he pulled his jacket off and slung it over a kitchen chair. “So I guess you didn’t recognize my name?”
“Should I have?” Oh God, was he some big deal politician, or a local celebrity? She hadn’t even asked Eloise what the event at the hotel was before agreeing to work there. “I don’t get out much. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry.” He shrugged and walked closer, stopping next to what looked like a comfortable couch.
She took in the rest of his apartment, now that her awe over the view had faded. He had a few pieces of furniture, but almost no art to speak of on the walls. Over on one shelf, he had some framed photos. She wandered closer, curious about the man who swore he wasn’t a serial killer.
Family, she guessed, along with old photos of him as a kid with other children. Then her eyes landed on a framed picture of him in a jersey with a familiar logo. Boston Rebels. No wonder he thought she’d recognize his name. San Francisco wasn’t much of a hockey city, though there was a professional team in nearby San Jose. But Boston on the other hand— they had snow, ice, and a team that had been around for longer than even her own father had been alive.
“So you’re a hockey player.”
That was when she noticed his accent again. She turned to face him. “You’re not from here, are you?”
He shook his head. “I’m from a small town outside of Montréal.”
She looked back at the picture of him in the jersey. There was another of him with a tall man in a suit, probably the team owner, and they were shaking hands and smiling.
“Can I get you something to drink?”
“No, thank you.” She sighed and straightened. “I probably shouldn’t have any more.”
He studied her face and she noticed that he still hadn’t moved from where he’d stopped before. He was giving her plenty of space, letting her move around his place and spy on his pictures. She wasn’t sure she’d be so comfortable if the situation were reversed. But then, she guessed he wasn’t embarrassed by his home.
“Would you like me to call you a cab? You could wait in the lobby downstairs.”
She turned to face him fully. “Are you trying to get rid of me?”
“No.” He stuffed his hands in his pants pockets. “You don’t seem very comfortable.”
“I’m just realizing how out of my league you are. Don’t you remember what I told you about Paul? I mean, he had money, but even his place wasn’t on the water like this. I’m the one who should be asking if you want me to leave, not the other way around.”
Oh, good. She was rambling again. She cut herself off and asked a question instead, trying to throw some of the tension his way.
“Why were you all the way down by Low Places? It’s a long way from Liberty.”
He hesitated a moment before answering her. “I had dinner with a friend nearby.”
“A friend nearby?” She frowned. “Why would you have a friend down there?”
His mouth twisted and Claire winced as her own questions sank in. “I’m sorry. That was incredibly rude of me.”
She turned away again, staring at his pictures, but didn’t like seeing his smiling face when she’d made such an ass out of herself by insulting him. She paced back to the windows, wrapping her arms around her middle and wondering how she could bring up his offer of a taxi again.
“I don’t have a lot of friends on the team, actually.” His voice sounded from a lot closer than before and she dared a glance in his direction. He’d walked over and stood several feet away, his gaze on the view as well. “No one invited me out tonight. Or tomorrow night, for that matter.”
Claire stared at his profile, taking in the set of his jaw and the rigidity of his shoulders. Then he turned, his eyes meeting hers, and she sucked in a breath.
“And I don’t want to be alone either.”
The air between them changed. For once, Claire didn’t feel the need to fill the silence with words. His admission relaxed something inside of her and she let out her breath in a long, slow exhale.
She dropped her arms and moved closer to him until they stood almost toe-to-toe. His chest lifted and rose on a rapidly drawn breath, and he still didn’t move.
“Have you got any hot cocoa?”
He smiled at her soft question and nodded. “Yes. I do.”