Frolic Presents: ‘That Festive Feeling’ Chapter Three 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]
Reagan usually struggled with an overactive mind and an under-active mouth, yet tonight, her issues seemed to have reversed. Her mind was barely working at all. Her mouth kept going rogue.
She blamed Daniel.
Here he was, in her home, giving her wicked smiles and worrying about her. She saw things in his eyes that weren’t there, heard imaginary subtext every time he spoke. All she could focus on was his proximity, the heat of him, the way his jeans strained over his muscular thighs and the strangeness of seeing his red socks against her cream carpet.
He had really big feet. She’d never noticed that before.
He tugged at her suit jacket and ordered, “Take this off.”
She swallowed. “Is that… necessary?”
“To look at your shoulder, I need to see your shoulder.”
“Oh. Of course.”
“And touch it.”
She looked up sharply. “What?”
His eyes were steady, so much darker in the glow of the living room’s lamp. “Do you mind if I touch you, Reagan?”
Her mouth went dry.
“I want to see if there’s any swelling. If it’s bad, we’ll call 111.”
Oh, right. Yes. Medical things. That’s what they were doing. Medical… stuff… He was frowning slightly, obviously worried by her silence, so she said quickly, “That’s fine! That’s absolutely fine.”
“You sure?” he asked.
“Alright.” But he sounded doubtful.
With no little effort, Reagan pulled herself together. She never got flustered like this. Well, no, that wasn’t true—she got flustered like this around people she was interested in. But that didn’t happen often, because, sadly, there weren’t many people she was interested in.
She was very, very interested in Daniel. But she wouldn’t think about that right now, not with him breathing gorgeously down her neck, waiting to catch her out so he could laugh himself silly about her crush on him.
Actually, that didn’t really sound like Daniel. Sounded more like her sadistic imagination. But still.
Her shoulder ached when she moved her arm too much, so she struggled with her jacket for long moments. Then he murmured, “Want some help?”
Oh, God. Why did he have to be so sweet? Somehow, she croaked out, “Okay.”
His hands were brisk and surprisingly efficient. Once the jacket was off, she unbuttoned her shirt. It would be easier that way, and she always wore an undervest beneath. But her cheeks burned, and her ridiculous mind whispered that she was stripping for him. That was, of course, inaccurate. She was simply taking off some of her clothes for his convenience, which was extremely different and much less sexy.
So why, when she put the shirt aside, did she look up to find him staring at her? Why were his eyes heavy-lidded and his brows drawn into an agonised frown? Why were his lips parted, as if he needed to drag down air?
“You wear that all the time?” he asked, his voice rough.
She blinked down at the plain camisole. “In winter, yeah. I get cold really easy. It’s thermal.” Why had she said that? He didn’t need to know the details of her seasonal underwear choices.
“That’s… that’s cute, Trouble.” He cleared his throat, his odd expression replaced by a teasing smile. “My grandma used to wear those.”
She snorted. “Fuck off, Palmer.”
“Oh, Palmer, is it? Now she’s mad.”
“Are you looking or not?”
“Turn a little—that way. Yeah. Now scoot forward.”
She did as he asked, sucking in a breath when he laid hands on her. Gently, his fingers probed her shoulder-blade, the edge of her collarbone, under her arm.
“That hurt?” he murmured. Then, just before she could speak: “Tell the truth, Reagan.”
“Only a bit.”
He hmm’d, arched a brow, then poked some more. He was touching her the way a nurse might, carefully and apparently purposefully. But his hands were so warm, hot, burning, and a thrumming tension coiled tighter in her belly with every second that passed.
“So you’ve never had a Christmas?”
She blinked, his voice dragging her out of a strange, sensual hypnosis. “What?”
“Christmas. You said you didn’t celebrate.”
“Not after Mum died. But before that… Yeah, I had Christmases.” Her voice was soft but the words felt hard and sharp in her throat. They dragged up happy memories that had turned painful over years of deprivation. No; deprivation didn’t seem like the right word. She’d never been hungry, or cold, or one of those kids who was teased at school for their dirty uniforms and uncombed hair. The only thing she’d missed was any love, affection and support whatsoever.
“You ever think of celebrating again?” he asked. “Now your dad’s gone?”
“Not really. I don’t see the point.”
“You don’t see the point of stuffing your face and spending too much money on the people you love? I call bullshit on that.”
She snorted an inelegant laugh. She’d perfected a corporate chuckle over the years, perfect for chortling at the jokes of stodgy partners, but around Daniel that chuckle disappeared and snorts took over. “I don’t know. My friends get me little gifts, and I do the same for them. But who would I celebrate Christmas with, really?”
“You could celebrate with me.”
She twisted to look at him. “What?”
“Us, I mean. You know my family always loved you.”
“I… that’s sweet of you, but I couldn’t.”
“Alright.” But the easy tone of his voice said he wasn’t letting the issue drop. If she knew Daniel Palmer, he was already plotting to change her mind. Well, let him. It wouldn’t work. The only thing more pathetic than being alone and miserable on Christmas Day would be subjecting his poor, charitable family to her lonely misery.
They had always liked her—or rather, pitied her. His mother, Natalie, had taken Reagan shopping for her first bra. His father, Charlie, had given her a cupcake every birthday because her own dad wouldn’t bother. But she was thirty-six years old, successful, and reasonably well-adjusted. She didn’t need the weight of their empathy anymore.
“You were right about this shoulder,” he said suddenly. “There’s no swelling. Keep it warm, don’t do anything silly, and you should be fine.”
He looked sheepish. “Not even close to a doctor. I still have this recurring shoulder injury from back when I used to play football.” When he’d been the school’s sporting heartthrob, he meant. Before she could tease him about that, his palms slid down her back, big and shockingly sure, as if he touched her all the time. His breath fanned against her nape. He murmured, as if to himself, “Your hair’s so short.”
Her voice shook. “Yeah.”
“I like it.” His hands splayed over the small of her back. His thumbs massaged either side of her spine, kneading muscles that felt tougher than they should. “This okay?”
Hell. Yes. “Uh-huh.”
Wordlessly, he shifted until her body was slotted between his open legs, her back to his chest. Slowly, steadily, his magical hands moved up. He was unwinding her inch by inch. When he hit a spot between her shoulder blades, her head fell forward, a soft moan escaping. She stared at the paperwork on her coffee table and tried to remember that she didn’t have time to fraternise with gorgeous, addictive, flirtatious men who would probably break her fragile heart.
He asked, his voice rough, “Harder?”
Abruptly, she realised she’d put a hand on his thigh. And she was squeezing. Oh my God. “Um…”
She nodded breathlessly.
The increase in pressure was delicious. The feel of his skin against hers, so immediate and undeniably real, made her almost delirious. She could smell him, like sharp, smoky coffee and cold city air. She pressed her thighs together and realised she was wet. Oh dear. How mortifying. But if he was going to run around being handsome and helpful and touchy-feely, well, what was she supposed to do?
His hands slowed. Stopped. She sagged against him, her body limp with sheer pleasure, her mind fuzzy with need. He hesitated for a moment, then wrapped an arm around her, his forearm against her collarbone. Her racing heart almost gave out.
“You need a massage every day for a week,” he said. “You’re made of knots.”
“Are you volunteering?” Her voice sounded filthy. She hadn’t meant it to, but it was low and rich, lazy and sated. A side-effect of the way he’d just worked her over. She bit her lip.
His voice was slightly hoarse, almost hesitant. “You know me. I live to please.”
“You seem to,” she agreed. She was experiencing some odd combination of aborted adrenaline, relief, and physical satiation that made her feel dizzy with carelessness, high on false confidence. “God knows why your wife agreed to a divorce.”
Of course, as soon as the words left her mouth, all that reckless courage vanished. Good Lord, why on earth had she said something like that? How had she said something like that? Usually, Reagan’s words past through a stringent Is this appropriate? filter honed by years of her dad’s harsh criticism. Now, all of a sudden, she was asking people about their divorces? She stiffened, pulling away from Daniel, suddenly conscious of the intimacy of their position. She could feel his gaze burning into her back and imagined him glaring at her. Her cheeks heated.
She opened her mouth to apologise and was cut off by his even words. “Lily met someone else.”
Her heart plummeted. “Crap. Daniel, I’m—”
“Don’t be sorry. It was my fault. And I’m over it.”
Astonished, she twisted to face him. “Your fault? How the hell could it be your fault?”
He quirked a brow. To her relief, he didn’t look particularly devastated, or even slightly uncomfortable. “You think I’m so perfect, then?”
“Oh, shut up. I can’t see anything wrong with you, if that’s what you’re saying.”
He laughed uproariously, as if that were the funniest thing she’d ever said. And even though she should still be wracked with guilt and mentally flagellating herself, Reagan was utterly distracted by the sight of his smile and his bobbing Adam’s apple and the light in his eyes.
“Oh, Trouble,” he managed after a moment. “You’re good for my ego, you know that? I mean, I know why you like me so much. It’s all the coffee. But I’ve decided to believe it’s because of my rakish charm and stunning good looks.” He winked.
She barely resisted the urge to tell him that he was absolutely right. But he’d forgotten one thing. She also liked the way he cared, quietly and with his whole heart.
Because that thought wasn’t weird or embarrassing, at all.
Gently, he guided her to turn away from him. After maneuvering her back into position, he wrapped an arm around her again, dragging her into his chest. As if he wanted her close. She felt his deep voice rumbling against her back as he spoke.
“I’m different now,” he said. “Better, I hope. I realised what an arse I was being, how messed up I was, when even my wife couldn’t stand me anymore.” He chuckled wryly. “You know I played semi-pro right out of school? And everyone was always telling me I’d be some big star, play for England or whatever?” He shrugged. She felt the movement. “Well, our town was a small pond, but the real world… not so much. I wasn’t good enough. It took me a long time to be okay with that. Way, way too long. I almost missed my whole life, pining for an imaginary one.”
She nodded slowly. “Do you regret it?”
“I suppose,” he said. “But I’ve also come to terms with it. Moved on, over the last… what, six years? I’m proud of who I am now.”
Absently, Reagan’s fingers traced the pinstripe pattern of her skirt. Since she’d already embarrassed herself beyond any recoverable point, she asked, “Do you have kids?”
He snorted. “It’s been two years since we met again, Reags. Don’t you think you’d know if I had kids?”
Her cheeks flushed. “Well, some men—”
“I’m gonna stop you right there.”
“Now,” he said, his voice wry. “You want to tell me why you’re asking all these questions?”
Oh dear. She pressed her lips together, thought fast, and failed to come up with anything decent. Her tone as cool as she could manage, Reagan murmured, “I don’t know. It’s late. I suppose this is my version of worn-out small talk.”
“You always were intense,” he replied. But he moved her slightly—honestly, he was treating her like a bloody doll tonight—until their eyes met. Her shoulder brushed his chest now, and they were still too close. No more than a whisper lay between them.
That proximity could be dangerous, the way she felt tonight.
“I don’t think this is just your intensity, though,” he said, his voice low. “Because the things you’re asking me sound like the things I want to ask you.”
“Things you want to ask me?” she echoed, sounding oddly breathless. Her chest was tight, her muscles tense, desire swelling between her legs like champagne fizzing after the pop of a cork.
“I want to know everything about you, Trouble,” he said. “Everything I’ve missed, and then some. But I never dared to ask. You strike me as a runner.”
She bit her lip. Then, half horrified and half thrilled at her own recklessness, she reached out and traced her fingers along the line of his stubbled jaw. He sucked in a breath, his eyes darkening, and caged her fingers with his own. Their hands met clumsily and a spark of electricity zipped from his skin to hers, because she was a walking cliché of unrequited attraction. She couldn’t help it. No matter how ridiculous it seemed, he did things to her. Tangible things. Things that heated her skin and messed with her pulse, things that she struggled to hide.
Logical thought abandoned her. Reason faded like mist. She kissed him.