One Week to Win Her Boss

Chapter One

The jingling of Santa’s sleigh bells jolted Amber Barnett awake on the couch. Following the bells came a thud, a crash, a clatter, and a long string of muttered curses. That couldn’t be. Santa wouldn’t swear like a sailor, especially not on Christmas Eve.

Time to wake up. She was hearing things and not making any sense. Well, it had been a long, stressful trip here. With the storm racing toward Snowflake Valley, heading up to her boss’s mountain lodge after her family’s open house might not have been the brightest idea ever. But it was the best solution she could come up with.

She glanced at the small playpen near one end of the couch. In the dim light from the table lamp, her four-month-old daughter lay looking up at her peacefully, unbothered by whatever Amber thought she’d heard.

Amber leaned down to tuck Penny’s lightweight blanket around her. “We left later than planned,” she murmured, “and the snowstorm was worse than I expected. And okay, maybe we shouldn’t have come here at all.” She looked around the large living room she had decorated for the holidays only a week ago. “But it’s not like I had much of a choice. The mean old electric company turned off our service. It was either hide out here for a few days, or go to Grandma and Grandpa’s house and face everyone.”

Right. And let Callie and Lyssa know she had screwed up—yet again.

The thought made her shudder. Her older sisters loved her and she loved them. But living with their tendency to fly to her rescue? Not so much to like there. It was as if they both felt they couldn’t trust her to do anything right.

Her ex’s attitude had been even worse. With him, there was no seemed about it. He told her outright and on a regular basis she needed him to take care of everything. Another good reason she now called him her ex.

A loud thump made her heart leap.

Those noises she’d heard hadn’t come from a dream.

Someone was in the kitchen.

It couldn’t be her boss. Michael was spending the holidays with his family in California.

The footsteps grew louder. He—or she—was getting closer to her and her daughter. Scoop up Penny and run. But the car keys were in her room. She would never reach the stairs in time. And even if she could make it as far as the front door, how could she escape on foot in a snowstorm?

Nobody’s getting between me and my baby. She grabbed a heavy ornament sitting on the coffee table.

The footsteps came even nearer to the door.

Swallowing a shriek, she raced across the room and past the dining area. Her slippers padded silently on the wooden floor.

As she reached the doorway, her weapon held high, a towering man stepped through the opening. Recognition hit—too late. Fear and adrenaline had her in full swing. The ornament zeroed in on her boss’s snow-frosted head.

Michael lunged, reaching up to wrench the weapon from her hands. “What the…? Amber?”

Well, one consolation—if you could call it that—he looked as shaken up as she felt. The reply whooshed from her mind straight to her mouth. “You’re not supposed to be here!”

“Neither are you. And especially not armed for battle. I didn’t mean to scare you. Heck, if I’d known you were here, I’d have called ahead, if only to keep you from trying to knock me out with a…with a…” He looked down at the ornament in his hand. “A troll?”

“It’s not a troll. It’s an elf. A Christmas elf.”

“Oh. Well. That makes it all right, then, doesn’t it?”

Her laugh shook so badly, it rattled. “Well, after all, it is Christmas Eve.”

He grimaced. “Yeah, I got that memo. But not the one about why you’re here.”

Frantically, she tried to figure out how to explain to her boss she had become a squatter in his private ski lodge. And as always when she really needed an idea, not even a glimmer of one hit.

As Michael walked over to set the ornament on the banquet-sized dining room table, her heart gave an unsteady thump. She had met him a little over a year ago, at this very lodge when she had come for her interview. One look at him had left her breathless.

She took a quick peek. Nope, nothing had changed. He still had those snapping dark-brown eyes surrounded by thick, dark lashes. Broad shoulders. Muscular arms. And when he had shaken her hand that day, his warm, strong fingers wrapped almost protectively around hers. To top it off, he had the sexiest deep voice she had ever heard.

All those drool-worthy qualities explained her immediate attraction. Any woman would have fallen for Michael DeFranco on the spot.

She would never have taken the man for the owner of an electronics company. Her brothers teased her about working for a techno-nerd. That name didn’t come close to doing Michael justice. Privately, she thought of him as her own personal geek god. A silly idea. Just the right match for her equally stupid instant crush. A crush she had already set a New Year’s resolution to ditch.

Nobody was perfect, not even Michael. Though he sure looked darned close…but then, how would she know? Above all else, her time with her ex had proven she couldn’t trust her judgment when it came to men.

“Come back down to Earth, Amber.” She jumped. Michael stood in front of her, too close for comfort. “When you land, tell me why you’re here. And in your pajamas.”

His almost seductive growl did funny things to her insides. Too bad the question hadn’t slipped his mind, the way she’d forgotten what she was wearing—a floor-length, fuzzy, pink bathrobe that had seen better days and floppy-eared bunny slippers no one but she and Penny had ever seen. Nothing like making a fashion statement.

Hopefully, he would be more impressed by her response to his question—as soon as she thought of one. “I…um…didn’t ask if you would mind if I stayed here—”

“That’s obvious.”

“—because I didn’t expect you to drop in.”

“Twice as obvious.” His gaze ran over her from head to toe.

Her body flooded with heat she wished she could blame on the warm robe. Why couldn’t she and Penny have had somewhere—anywhere—else to stay? “What are you doing here, by the way?”

“I own the place.”

She rolled her eyes. “You said you were spending the holidays with your family.”

“Yeah. Huge mistake,” he said, sounding grim as he looked away.

What did that mean? She wanted to know more about his upset holiday plans and his visit with his family. She’d never met them and had always been curious about why they’d never visited the lodge. Besides, she wanted to know everything there was to know about Michael.

Way to get over that crush.

Time to take control of this situation. No matter how inconvenient his arrival was for her or how unsettling his presence was to her heart, the fact was, there he stood. If she wanted to save her job—and she absolutely did—she owed him an explanation. Or at least part of one.

“I need a place to stay, just for a few days,” she said truthfully. “And I don’t want my family to find out.”

“Interesting.” He tilted his head, studying her, making her heart skip a beat. “Do you do this often?”

“No! I’ve never stayed here before. Except when you’ve asked me to. When you’ve come here with guests, I mean.” Get a grip. Falling apart won’t impress your boss any more than the bunny slippers did. Taking a tip from her birthing class, she inhaled and exhaled a deep, calming breath and tried again. “Michael, I’ve never stayed here on my own before. And I wouldn’t have done it without asking you this time. But I knew you had plans for the holidays, and I didn’t want to bother you while you were with your family.”

“Believe me, I’d have welcomed the bother.” His scowl sent her curiosity skyrocketing. “I don’t mind that you didn’t ask. It’s good to have the house occupied once in a while. I just didn’t expect company.”

“I’ll keep out of your way,” she promised.

One dark eyebrow rose as he stared her down. “Somehow, I don’t see that leading to the peace and quiet—and solitude—I was looking for.”

“No worries. Hand to heart.” She rested her palm against her chest. The fuzzy robe tickled her fingers. When his gaze followed her movement, she froze. Had she just seen a spark of interest in his eyes? Right. More like a vision from her own pitiful wishful thinking. She shoved her hand into the pocket of the robe. “I’ll stay far away,” she promised again. “You won’t hear a peep out of me.”

At that moment, as if on cue, Penny let out her usual I’m-ready-to-eat screech. Michael’s suddenly blank expression proved he had heard the baby, too, and wasn’t pleased. But wait—there’s more. Penny’s hunger cries were loud enough. How would he handle her being colicky?

“What was that?” he demanded.

“Uh…not what. Who. My daughter.” Michael had never met Penny. In fact, he hadn’t even known about Amber’s pregnancy until she was so far along he couldn’t miss the baby bump.

“Ah,” he said. “When it comes to not making a peep, it doesn’t look like you were speaking for your daughter.”

She smiled sheepishly. “Sometimes she likes to speak for herself.”

He shook his head, but his mouth curved up at one corner. He was fighting a smile. Even in the midst of this disaster, even with the recent reminder that she couldn’t and shouldn’t trust her judgment around men, that half-smile was enough to make her melt.

So not good. But the thought of having him upset with her had been more than her stressed-out, worried, and exhausted mind could handle.

Penny let out her feed-me-now screech. Guaranteed, one of those cries could send a zombie scrambling back into his grave.

This time, Michael winced.

“I should go get her.” Amber edged toward the living room. “She needs to be fed.”

Another screech.

He nodded. “I think she’s voted yes on that.” He backed a step. “Guess I’ll go and unpack.”

“Sounds good.” Good? No, it sounded more like Michael had decided to get out of range of Penny. And maybe of her, too?

Upstairs in the bedroom of the lodge’s master suite, Michael tossed his suitcase on the bed. So much for the visit to his dad’s. Most of the clothes had never left the case. He had expected to stay only a few days, maximum, but had cut the trip even shorter than that.

And then he’d come here to find Amber lying in wait. Christmas elf or no Christmas elf, one look at her had thrown him—almost as forcibly as the day they’d met. Then, he’d instantly come up with plenty of reasons to ask her out. Dark honey-brown hair tumbling over her shoulders. Bright blue eyes. Curves even her bulky blue sweater couldn’t hide. What item on that list wouldn’t grab a man’s interest?

With a grunt of disgust, he tossed his jacket onto the bed beside the suitcase. On his way downstairs he gave himself a familiar reminder: Amber is off-limits.

Outside the kitchen door he hesitated, taking a deep breath. Mama DeFranco would have scolded him in three different languages for the way he had sworn at Amber when he’d come into the house. But guilt instilled by his grandmother wasn’t what kept him hanging outside in the hallway. No, it was his eagerness to join Amber that rooted his feet to the floor. Better for him to stand out here than to be alone with her.

A wail went up inside the kitchen.

With her and her baby, he amended.

In one corner of the kitchen, the infant lay in the playpen Amber must have moved from the living room.

She stood at the counter. She had shed her robe, revealing a soft-looking yellow sweater skimming her waist and a pair of jeans hugging her hips. His mouth watered. And no matter how he tried, he couldn’t connect that reaction to the appetizing smell of coffee filling the kitchen.

As if she’d heard his thoughts, she frowned. “I hope you won’t be too disappointed.”

“Me? Never.” He cleared his throat and brought his voice down a few octaves. “Ah…disappointed by what?”

“I still have coffee on the hot plate. But the fridge is nearly empty. If you want something to eat, you’ll have to settle for eggs or canned soup. Or a plate of my mom’s leftovers.”

“I’ll pass for tonight. But for the record, leftovers are my favorite meal.”

Her laugh was exactly the response he’d gone for. Instead, he should have been focused on finding out why she was here. He followed her movements from the counter to the fridge and back again. As her employer, he should have been noticing her competence in the kitchen.

Not even close.

From the playpen, her daughter babbled for a bit. Probably saying You’d better watch yourself, mister.

He darned sure would.

At the time he’d met Amber, he had been clueless about her pregnancy. But even before they’d gone their separate ways that day, his interest in her had kicked off a craving he wanted to satisfy. Stupid thinking, when he had no intention of getting involved with a woman like her, a woman who had one big flaw, at least as far as he was concerned.

She had already started a family.

He’d had his fill of raising his brothers, who added a few new twists to the word dysfunctional. Seeing how some of them had turned out, no way did he want to risk going through that again with kids of his own.

Amber’s daughter and Amber’s dedication to her family were the deal breakers for him. The steps he wouldn’t take. The places he wouldn’t go.

And so, he’d made a mental note: Scratch her name off the Dating Potential list. Permanently.

Yet on his visits here with a houseful of business associates, he always found time to talk with her. To check up on the lodge and the property… Yeah, sure. The truth was, there had always been something drawing him to Amber. Something different about her from all the other women he knew. Something enticing him close to a line he couldn’t cross.

As he had no guests with him this visit, he’d also had no intention of asking her to work. Didn’t take a brain surgeon to understand he’d wanted to avoid temptation.

“Earth to Michael this time,” she said. “Were you able to park in the garage?”

“Barely, thanks to all the snow.” Good thing the rental place at the airport had an oversized vehicle with snow tires on hand. “Does that stuff ever stop in Snowflake Valley?”

The grin she sent him shot his pulse up a few dozen notches. “Only when we turn off the giant snowmaking machine.”

He laughed. “I always knew this place was too good to be true.”

“No, it’s not.” She sounded shocked. “Snowflake Valley is perfect.”

“Maybe for some. Considering the weather, I’m surprised you wanted to make the trip all the way up here. You couldn’t have found someone to put you up for a night or two?” No answer. Even from this distance, he saw her face turn pink. She had told him she’d needed a place to stay “for a few days.” For all he knew, she’d camped out here for weeks. Not that he cared. But why the big secret? “If you’ve been kicked out of your apartment—”

“I didn’t get kicked out,” she said quickly. “I was looking for peace and quiet—and solitude.”

Yeah. In my lodge. “That makes two of us.” Grinning, he added, “And yes, I caught my own words thrown back at me.”

She hadn’t told him the full story yet. One way or another, he’d make sure he found out what was going on. As her employer, he had an obligation to watch out for her, didn’t he? But that could wait. Nobody was going back down that mountain in the snow at this hour.

On the floor beside the back door sat a paper grocery sack. He’d nearly broken his leg stumbling over it when he entered. “About what else I said earlier. Excuse the swearing. I was still off-balance from your warm welcome.”

“The elf probably had something to do with that. Sorry.” Flushing again, she reached up to run her hand through her hair. The long strands shifted against the front of her sweater.

Something inside him shifted, too. Fighting the urge to wrap his arms around her and kiss her senseless, he grabbed the twine handles of the sack. Deep breath, man. Keep this light. “Since you thought I was breaking in, I won’t press charges.”

“Since I was protecting your property, that’s very generous of you.”

Her teasing smile would’ve been worth getting decked by that elf. “Consider it a Christmas gift.” He hefted the bag. “This feels heavier than it looks. What is it, your arsenal of backup weapons?”

She laughed. “No, that’s just the canned soup I offered you.”

“Who needs soup when you’ve got leftovers?”

“No one. So don’t let my mom or sisters hear about it. I wasn’t feeling well earlier, so I stopped at the store for a few things. Just in case I’m not up to either Christmas dinner or party leftovers tomorrow.”

“Do you need to see a doctor?”

She shook her head. “No, I’m fine now, I think. Anyway, I’m also sorry about leaving the sack there. Once I got here, all I could think about was putting on my robe to get warm.”

He could think of other ways to accomplish that. But the suggestion would probably get his face slapped. “You’re welcome to stay tonight, too. But if your symptoms hit again, you’ll be in big trouble. A can opener I can handle. I’d have to pass when it comes to taking care of a baby.”

Because I’m never doing that again.

He also wasn’t going to give in to his desire to kiss Amber, which increased with every minute he spent in her company.

For both their sakes, she had to go. Tomorrow, he’d see if she could find somewhere else to camp out. Meanwhile, he’d make the best of a bad situation, doubled. A sick mom and a screeching baby. The two things in this world he felt least ready to handle.

“Penny and I are having dinner with my family tomorrow,” Amber said. “You’re welcome to come along.”

Make that three things.

“As my dad always says,” she went on, “‘the more the merrier—especially on Christmas Day.’ And you won’t want to be here all by yourself.”

If she only knew. He shrugged. “No big deal. Just another day. Same as New Year’s.”

“You’re staying till then?”

“I have an early flight on the second.” Her eyes widened. Not in pleased surprise, as he might have suspected—and maybe welcomed. No, the expression in those blue eyes radiated dismay. What the heck did the woman have planned for this lodge?

“An entire week,” she said faintly. “What about your business?”

Yeah, the business. The electronics company he had built from the ground up. The same one his lack of enthusiasm threatened to run right into that ground again. Not a subject he wanted to discuss. “It’s closed until the new year. My office staff can reach me if needed.” He stayed in touch by way of texts and emails, using all the technology he never traveled without. “But I don’t expect them to have the need.”

He glanced from Amber to Penny and back again. He hadn’t expected them, either. After the disaster at his dad’s house, he’d driven right to the lodge, planning to close and lock the door behind him. He hadn’t intended to see or speak to anyone until the beginning of next year. If then.

As if she’d read his thoughts again, she said, “I’m sorry something happened to spoil your family holiday.”

He laughed shortly. “Family holiday. An oxymoron, isn’t that what they call it when two halves of a phrase contradict each other? Definitely a load of contradictions in that house.”

“With only three of you there? It’s just you and your dad and your stepmom, isn’t it?”

“And a whole gang of half-brothers and stepbrothers. Believe me, spending time with my stepmother and her kids is no kind of holiday. I suffer through it for my dad’s sake.”

At least, he tried. Today’s final straw had driven him from the house. His inability to handle the situation only stirred up memories of years ago, when he’d had even less control over the bad times in his life.

When his own mom had gotten sick, his dad and Mama DeFranco had taken care of her. He’d wanted to help but had been too young to do much of anything. To this day the thought of his helplessness ate at him.

A few years after his mom was gone, his dad had remarried. Once Carmen moved in along with her kids, he’d had plenty of time around babies. Too much time. He’d been in grade school, still a kid himself, still missing his own mom. But his stepmother hadn’t tried to mother him at all. Instead, almost from day one, she had put him in charge of his stepbrothers and later his half-brothers.

“Living with that bunch was no picnic, either,” he said. “I couldn’t wait for the day I headed off to college and left them behind.”

“You didn’t visit them at all?” She sounded shocked.

“When I could force myself to go. It was always the same waste of time. Or worse. Today’s shouting match over lunch was a perfect example.” He shrugged. “But those visits all have a positive spin. They remind me why I don’t want a family of my own.”

Amber stood staring at him. In the middle of that silence, her daughter let out the most ear-piercing shriek he’d heard from her yet. He started, darned near dropping the sack of soup cans he’d been carrying to the counter.

How could such a small baby make such a racket? He had plenty of memories of crying kids, but none of the boys had reached that decibel level. “You just fed her. She can’t be hungry again.”

“That’s not a hunger cry.” Amber hurried over to the playpen. “She has colic.”

“Does she have it often?”

“Too often, I’m sad to say. But it’s chronic, not constant. And she’s improving every day. Aren’t you, sweetie?” She lifted the baby and settled her against her shoulder. “She’ll feel better again. Soon.”

The line between Amber’s eyebrows told him not to start counting the minutes.

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