There’s no place like home for the holidays . . . unless Old Man Winter has other plans. Hannah Nolan loves to loathe her devil-may-care roommate. Or maybe she loathes her love of him. Whatever it is, she’s had enough. It’s a good thing Christmas is here. She’s heading home to spend the holidays with her family in the small town of Heart’s Ease and figure out her life. Toby Sweeney doesn’t have time for love. The handsome owner of an Irish pub, and one of St. John’s most sought-after bachelors, wants nothing more from the Christmas break than to be alone, drink beer, and watch hockey. And maybe figure out how to get his problematic lust for his roommate under control. If living under the same roof can’t bring them together, perhaps Mother Nature and a good helping of Christmas magic will do the trick.
Her first mistake was watching Man of Steel before going to bed. There was something about Henry Cavill as a too-ripped-to-be-true fisherman that spoke to her inner bayman. Hannah liked her men big and beefy and hard-working. The thing about Superman was that he put all the real-life fishermen of Heart’s Ease to shame. She knew it wasn’t fair to compare real-life mortals to a superhero, but damn it all, once a gal saw Henry Cavill stomping around a small fishing village all wet and shirtless, well, there was no way to erase that from the pleasure bank that resided deep in her brain.
Hannah’s second mistake was falling asleep on the sofa. Or, more specifically, falling asleep on the sofa wearing her roommate’s hoodie. A hoodie that carried the sandalwood scent of the bane of Hannah’s existence. Hannah Nolan loved to loathe Toby Sweeney. More to the point, she had to convince herself that she loathed him, because the other possibility was too much to bear: she loathed her love of him.
With these two missteps, was it any wonder that her dreams were plagued by equal parts erotic fantasy and tempestuous reality? As far as the face was concerned, it wasn’t a stretch that Superman turned into Toby. They both had the same dark brown hair bordering on black. And then there were the eyes. The piercing, intense blue eyes that dared a woman to look away. But that’s where the similarity ended. Toby wasn’t a towering six-foot-plus mass of muscle. He was an average five eight, five nine? A decent body. Hell, you couldn’t live with a guy and not see him shirtless or prancing around in boxer briefs from time to time. But he wasn’t strapping and heroic, and he had no place in her dreams.
Try as she might, Hannah couldn’t exorcise Toby from the lusty scene. So she did the only thing a girl who hasn’t had sex in nearly six months could do. She settled in for the night and let Henry and Toby interchangeably have their nimble way with her.
In the gauzy wonderland of sleep, Toby had just started doing something wicked with his tongue. She’d made her peace with the notion that he couldn’t keep out of her dream, and had learned that he was far more gifted in the arts of the bedroom than the man of steel. His tongue traced a path down her belly, and she tingled with the knowledge of where this was leading. Which is why it was puzzling to hear him speaking in her ear when his mouth was about three inches from heaven.
“Hannah, go up to bed.”
“I am in bed,” she muttered, slightly annoyed with him for speaking. Toby always ruined things when he talked.
“Come on. You’ll be crooked in the morning if you don’t move.”
“Keep this up and I’m getting Henry back,” she warned.
“Shut up and get back to work,” she said.
Now he was tugging at her hand. “I’m just home from work. Now get your arse up and go to bed.”
Forcing her eyes open, she saw all too clearly. The dream was over. This wasn’t the Toby of her dreams. It was the real one. The one who made every moment of her life a battle of wills.
“Why did you wake me?” she grumbled as she sat up.
“Because the last time I let you crash on the couch all night, I didn’t hear the end of it for days.”
She was too tired to argue. And too embarrassed by the memory of what he’d been doing to her moments before in her sleep to want to stick around and be civil.
“Don’t be pissed at me,” he said, pulling her to her feet before flopping into her recently vacated spot and grabbing the remote. “Can’t blame me for wanting you to have a good night’s sleep before hitting the highway in the morning. Oh, and I’ve got a few presents for Dillon and Fiona laid by the door. Tell your sister I expect to see them both at the pub for New Year’s Eve.”
“You’re not going to have breakfast with me before I go? I’m not planning to leave until around eleven.” She was almost to the narrow stairway.
“I won’t be home. I have to work at the shop tomorrow and try to get those last-minute Christmas Eve sales.”
“You work too much,” she said, trying to hide the trace of genuine concern in her voice.
“It’s not work when you love it,” he said, flashing that devil-may-care smile of his at her. “One of these days you’ll figure out what you want to be when you grow up and you’ll understand.”
There. Classic Toby. Equal parts cocky and dismissive. With a side of charm that made it all the worse. Problem was, if she picked a fight with him over this, he wouldn’t have a clue what he’d said to insult her. Because to Toby, she was a kid. She might be twenty-four and aimlessly floating from one nearly completed degree to another, but that didn’t mean she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life. She just needed to narrow it down. And that wasn’t childish. It was smart. She was trying to be like Toby. Find the one thing she wanted to do with her life above all else and then rock that world to its core.
Making him take her seriously when she tried to tell him was too much work. After Christmas she was going to have to do something about this. The rent was awesome, but living with Toby was taking its toll. Hopefully there’d be enough early January dropouts to leave a housing vacancy. Having the most eligible bachelor in St. John’s for a housemate wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
“Don’t stay up too late,” she said, stifling a sigh. “Night, Toby. Have a good Christmas.”
She was three steps higher when he replied.
“Merry Christmas, Hannah.” A pause. And then, even though it was hard to hear, she knew he’d said it. “Wish you’d come out tonight.”
Argh. This always happened with him. He’d say something, just some little thing that would set her into overanalysis. Did he care for her at all? Or was she misinterpreting? Again?
The wise thing to do at this point would be to go to bed. But she was a sucker for punishment.
Standing her ground on the stairs, she turned.
“Yeah,” he said, leaning his head back against the sofa, the glow of the television flickering on his face. “It would have been nice to—”
His cell rang, that annoying classic phone ring that could wake the dead.
“What are ya at?” he said, answering the call with a deep voice that she knew was reserved for booty calls.
The indignity. She should just march up to bed. Right now. Instead of waiting for him to finish his call. Instead of breathlessly wondering who was on the other end, and if he’d leave the house in about five minutes.
She didn’t want to listen. But when it came to Toby, she was helpless. Another reason to move out. How was a girl supposed to find a decent guy when her soul was in a constant state of flux?
“I have to work in the morning,” he said to whomever it was. “Had to call it an early night.”
Only Toby would call four o’clock an early night.
“Sorry, I can’t.” Pause. “No, really.” A sigh. “I’m not giving you the brush-off. I’ve just been busy with work lately.”
Go upstairs! Stop listening. Stop torturing yourself. Just go.
Following through on one’s thoughts was harder than you’d think.
It was easier to walk back down the stairs, plop on the sofa next to him, and make faces.
“Oh please, Toby,” Hannah whispered. “There’s a chill in my bed only you can fill.”
He gave her a stern look.
“Listen, drop down to the bar for New Year’s Eve. It’ll be a grand time, and I’ll see you then,” he said to the girl on the phone.
Hannah clasped a hand over her chest and sighed her best woe-is-me moan.
With a quick flick, Toby reached over and grabbed her foot, triggering an instant tickle. Trying to pull her foot away only made it worse as he jammed the phone under his chin and lunged for her other foot.
“Don’t!” she screamed.
“I gotta go, darlin’,” he said into the phone. “Take care.”
And without even checking to see if the call had ended, he let the phone drop onto the blanket between them and proceeded to tickle her senseless.
“Stop,” she panted. “Stop! Seriously. You’ll make me . . .”
There was no way she would suffer the indignity of saying she’d wet her pants. But if he didn’t stop, that was going to be the very likely outcome.
It took a bit more begging and pleading, but finally he stopped. Then he tousled her hair. That condescending little action of his always drove her off the deep end. Why couldn’t he ever touch her like a man would touch a woman? It was always playful. Teasing. Like an older, annoying brother.
Hannah pulled herself to the far end of the red microfiber sofa, her hands creating a barrier.
“I thought you were going to bed,” Toby said, lying back and unfurling his long legs on top of her.
“I figured you’d be out all night. After all, it’s Tibb’s Eve. I thought you’d be too drunk to see. How many nubile young lushes tried to coax you into being an early Christmas gift? Besides the one who just called?”
“Despite your opinion of me, I am not knocking boots with half the city. And it’s been a long time since I’ve gotten drunk at work. It’s bad for business. And me.”
“My mistake. Just a quarter of it, then?”
He sighed. “Hannah. You wound me. I’ll have you know that in the past six months I have gone home with exactly—Forget it. It’s none of your business who I sleep with.”
Hannah hated the hollow silence that filled the room. She wasn’t equipped to keep quiet or still. But she didn’t want to go down that road tonight. What she needed to do was go to bed. But come tomorrow it would be the beginning of a whole week or more without seeing him. An annoyed Toby was better than no Toby at all.
“Was it busy tonight?”
“What band did you have?”
“If it was that busy you could have called me. You know I’d love the extra cash.”
His laugh erupted like a great deep geyser. “I told you, you had your first and last shift at the Banshee the night you dropped that tray of glasses.”
Folding her arms across her chest, she looked into his eyes. “How many times do I have to tell you that was an accident? I was trying to unload the dishwasher. It’s not my fault I slipped on a cherry.”
“If you’d only stacked the glasses two high, it wouldn’t have been an issue. You couldn’t even see over the pile you had in front of you.”
“Doesn’t matter. It was the cherry. Cherries have no business in an Irish bar. I don’t know what kind of place you’re running. Seriously, if someone wants a drink with fruit in it, send them up the street to the fancy-pants gin bar. You shouldn’t serve anything but rum, whiskey, and beer.”
“Duly noted,” he said, stretching out even more. “Wanna rub my feet? They’re aching from running around delivering all those fancy drinks.”
“Eww, get off me.” She pushed his legs off hers and stood up.
“They hurt pretty bad. Come on, be a good friend and rub my feet. I’ll have you know Tibb’s Eve feet are in the top five aching category.”
“You have a category for how sore your feet get?”
She was curious, but not enough to take off those socks and go to work on his size-eleven feet.
He laughed. “Not really. But I do have a category for expected busy nights. Number one, Paddy’s Day weekend. Two, George Street Festival. Three, Asher Corbin drop-ins. Four, New Year’s Eve. Five, Tibb’s Eve. Really, I should just run Tibb’s and New Year’s together and call it Christmas week.”
“But the bar’s not open tomorrow, is it? Or Christmas Day?”
“No, even I close for those. But Boxing Day it’s business as usual.”
There was a stereotype about Newfoundlanders, that they loved to drink and party into the wee hours of the night. Even tonight, Tibb’s Eve, was all about drinking. The night before Christmas Eve marked the end of the long, dry, fasting portion of Advent and was the most acceptable time for good Catholics to dip back into their spirits.
Toby’s business relied on that stereotype. But there was a reason most of his regular customers were in their twenties. Even the most devout party animal had to settle down at some point. Hannah had been on that wild ride, but since both of her sisters had moved home to Newfoundland, she found herself thinking differently about herself, her future, and her role as the wild child of the Nolan family.
A lot had changed for her since Fiona, and then Grace, had returned. Not that Grace had really returned. She was home for a bit during the fall, but was now on tour with her boyfriend, rock and roll bad boy Asher Corbin. Hannah was still shocked that her geeky, quiet sister was with one of the world’s most infamous celebrities.
She glanced at the clock. It was almost four thirty. Grace’s flight got in a little before noon. Hannah wouldn’t get six hours sleep before heading to the airport to collect her sister at this point, but it didn’t matter. There was a big bed waiting for her at home, and she planned to curl up in it with her sister tomorrow afternoon and hear all about life on the road.
“I’m going to bed,” she said. “You want me to open the curtains for you so the sun will wake you for work?”
One whole wall of the living room was a large window, and as she pulled the curtains back, she was delighted to see soft, fluffy flakes of snow falling. The window overlooked St. John’s harbour with all the boats lit for Christmas and the low sprawl of downtown in the background. This was the best view in the city.
“Did you get your snow tires yet?” Toby was more alert than he’d been previously.
“I . . . um. . . . No. I haven’t gotten around to it yet.”
“You knew you were going around the bay for the holidays, and you didn’t get around to it?”
She let out an exasperated breath. “No. I had a little thing called final exams to worry about. And end-of-semester assignments. I’ll get it done when I go home.”
“You’re going to drive in the snow tomorrow, Hannah.”
And the night had been going so well.
“Good night, Toby. Have a great Christmas. Call me if you feel the burning need to practise being the second coming of my father.”
She stomped up the stairs and slammed her door. Just like she was sixteen. No wonder he treated her like a kid. If she was going to act like one, she bloody well deserved it. She flopped face first onto her bed and pulled her duvet completely over her body like a tent.
The last thing she heard before letting out a muffled scream into her pillow was Toby’s deep voice bellowing from downstairs.
“Good night, Hannah. I’ll miss you.”