Frolic Presents: ‘That Festive Feeling’ Chapter One By Talia Hibbert
By Talia Hibbert
[Note From Frolic: We are so excited to announce our Festive Four Stories! Every week in December we will have a new short holiday story from 4 of your favorite authors. This week we have the amazing Talia Hibbert. Take it away Talia!]
[CW: Story Contains Explicit Sexual Content]
“You again, huh?”
Reagan Thompson bit her lip on a smile, warmth blooming in her chest. “That’s right. Me again.”
“Thought I told you to stay out of my place, Trouble?” Daniel Palmer winked from behind the long, mahogany counter. That counter made this place look like a bar—but Palmer’s was a cozy cafe, with jars of coffee beans and flavoured tea on display like fine liquor. It was December, so tinsel and fake snow had been added to the mix, but Reagan barely noticed the festive cheer. Daniel tended to claim all of her attention.
He grinned. His gaze was soft like melted chocolate, but the rest of him was hard: strong jaw, sharp features, midnight hair cut brutally short. She briefly checked out his broad shoulders and solid chest, because it had been a long week and she deserved a treat. Then she looked away and said, “But annoying you is my Friday entertainment. I left the office early and everything.”
His reply was so familiar she almost chanted it with him. “6:30 ain’t early, sweetheart. You and me need to have a little chat about work-life balance.”
“Says the man who serves coffee at his own café.”
“I clock forty hours a week. I bet you hit sixty.” He was absolutely right and she had no comeback. He rolled his eyes at her silence and sighed grudgingly. “I suppose you can stay, if you must.”
“You’re a doll.” She settled onto a stool and pulled her laptop from its bag.
“Are you tired?”
“I’m ruined. Make it a triple.”
“Reagan.” He arched a brow.
“Daniel.” She arched two.
“Fine. But Jesus, woman, stop working. Honestly, I could throw that computer out of the window.”
“Threats, Daniel? I’m very disappointed in you.”
“You’d understand my destructive impulses if you heard my gritty backstory.” He turned away towards the coffee machine.
“Would that be the part with the loving, supportive parents, the idyllic family home, or the charmed teenage existence of a small-town sports star?”
He threw her a look over his shoulder as he set about pouring espresso and heating milk. The sound of high-pressure steam from the coffee machine swallowed the café’s cheery Christmas music. God, this place made her feel like a Grinch.
“I know, I know,” Daniel said. “It seems like I had a great start in life. But I grew up next-door to this girl… God, she was a pain in the arse. Thought I lost her when I moved to the city. But twenty years later, she walked into my shop. Claims she didn’t know it was mine. You believe that?” He shook his head as if aggrieved. She tried not to giggle. Mature professional women did not giggle. At least, not in public.
She watched him combine foaming milk, steaming arabica, and syrup into a mug. He wasn’t making a cappuccino or a hot chocolate, but he put sprinkles on top and a marshmallow on a saucer for her, because he was the perfect man.
“Triple-shot cinnamon latte for the lady,” he said, and presented her mug with a flourish. “I accept zero responsibility for any heart palpitations you may experience.”
She wrapped her fingers around the ceramic, relishing its warmth. “This girl,” she murmured, “sounds like a problem.”
He leant against the counter, his gaze even hotter than the coffee. “Oh, she’s a problem, alright. But she’s not a girl anymore.”
A lot had changed in the years since Reagan and Daniel had grown up next door to each other. She’d gone to Cambridge to read law; he’d gone to Hull to study business. She’d practiced in London; he’d gotten married in Leeds. She’d moved back to the midlands, only to discover that’d he’d… also moved back to the midlands. That he’d, at some point, gotten a divorce. And opened the only coffee shop in her part of town that stayed open past 6 p.m.
But the biggest change, bigger than all of those, was the way he looked at her now. As if she were something more than the nerd next door. As if she were the kind of woman he might want.
Or maybe she was just imagining that part. Maybe Daniel’s friendliness and unfair hotness were conspiring to mess with her mind.
As she considered the issue, her gaze caught his and held. This happened sometimes; they got stuck. As if their eyes were magnets. There was a black ring around his irises and his pupils were expanding subtly. Without looking away, because she couldn’t, Reagan popped her marshmallow into her mouth. That tested him a little. For a moment, she thought he might transfer his focus to her lips, but he didn’t. A few more seconds passed, or maybe an hour. Her skin heated and sparks of pure feeling danced over her most sensitive places. She squeezed her knees together because she was an absolute pervert.
“Dan!” one of the baristas called. “How do I void, again?”
He blinked hard, as if he’d been jolted back to earth. She knew the feeling. He was tan, for a white guy, but she swore she saw his cheeks flush. “We got new software for the register this week,” he told her, and then he went to deal with the barista.
Reagan flitted in most mornings for an espresso to go, but she hadn’t noticed any issues with the register because she rarely paid. When Daniel was around, he wouldn’t charge her. She wouldn’t stop leaving enormous tips. It was a game they played.
She finally opened her laptop and pulled up a contract she’d been working on. Her head was starting to ache a little from the rigors of the day, but she still had a couple of hours in her. She started typing.
Time flew as fast as her fingers. When she finished her latte, the mug was quietly removed, replaced by a glass of lemon and ginger tea. She took deep inhalations as she drank it, and the zing tricked her brain back into alertness.
The murmur of chatter around her grew quieter as the evening went on. Eventually, there was nothing to be heard but cheerful Christmas songs and the steady hum of the coffee machines being drained and cleaned for the night. Reagan came back to herself with a blink, checking her laptop clock. 7:52. It was almost time, then. She saved her work and slid her laptop into its case. On went her coat, her scarf, her gloves. She eased a satin-lined wooly hat over her kinky pixie cut, and then she finally looked up.
The lights were low, the café empty, the chairs and barstools around her put away. Daniel leaned against the unobtrusive back door behind the counter, his face in shadow. “Perfect timing,” he said, “as always.”
“You should’ve thrown me out an hour ago.”
“And yet, I never do. Maybe the sound of you typing nonstop inspires me to close up faster.” In the semi-darkness, she saw the flash of his white teeth. His smile, even caught in the shadows, sent a giddy thrill through her. That thrill had hit her two years ago, the first time she’d walked into this café, and she’d been waiting for the sensation to fade ever since.
She hurried around the counter towards him, and he opened the door, flicking the bobble on her hat as she stepped outside. “You get a lot done tonight?” he asked.
“I did,” she answered over the howling wind.
“What are you working on? Top-secret shit?” He locked the door, checked it, then checked it again.
“Very important government contracts involving clowns, Brazilian waxes, and Marmite.”
“I see,” he said gravely, turning to face her. “Sounds—Reagan!” His voice sharpened on her name. Then a thousand things happened at once, and her mind went haywire, and she forced herself to sort through sensory input like a bomb specialist picking apart coloured wires.
The hard thing at her back was Daniel’s chest. The steely thing wrapped around her waist was Daniel’s arm. The heat rushing past her icy cheek was Daniel’s breath. He’d grabbed her.
The wrenching feeling in her shoulder was pain. That pain was coming from a huge man who’d leapt from the shadows, his face obscured by a balaclava. He was trying to take her laptop bag, but her frozen fingers wouldn’t release the handle.
She tightened her grip. She gritted her teeth.
“Let go,” Daniel growled at her ear.
“It’s my laptop!”
“Which, knowing you, is insured and password protected. Reagan. Let. Go.”
“No!” she cried, even though he was right. It didn’t matter: she was in fight or flight mode, and her tiny cavewoman brain had chosen ‘fight’. “Bugger off!” she snapped at the man. He did not. So she kicked him in the shin.
He shouted a rather unpleasant word and drew back his hand to hit her. Oh, dear. In thirty-six years of life, Reagan had never been hit. She knew with sudden certainty that she would not take it like a champ.
In fact, she didn’t take it at all. Daniel shoved her out of the way, so hard she fell to the ground. She felt the cold concrete through her clothes. Then she looked up, just in time to see Daniel punch the would-be laptop-thief in the face.
The huge man went down like a rock.