Renee tugged on the fir, guessing the height while she checked the branches. It was a pretty tree, and it would fit her tiny living room.
“Don’t get that tree.”
She turned to see who’d murmured the advice, but saw no one. “Excuse me?”
“It’s lousy for holding needles.” The voice came from behind another tree. “Don’t buy it.”
“I’m not taking advice from a Christmas tree.” Renee chuckled. “I think you might be telling me fibs, so I take you home with me and get you out of the cold.”
An answering chuckle sounded through the branches, then a man stepped around the tall tree — and Renee’s mind went blank. Holy crap. Adonis was alive and kicking, and giving Christmas tree advice.
Adonis winked at her, an amused smile on his lips. “Hey, if it gets me fed, I might just come home with you. I never pass up turkey, especially not if I don’t have to cook it.”
Renee couldn’t get over the laughing deep blue eyes in a face that belonged on the cover of a magazine. He was about half a foot taller than her. Strong and well built, with long legs encased in denim and a torso covered by a sheepskin jacket, he looked as sturdy as an oak. Unruly dark hair surrounded his face. He reminded her of a Viking she’d once seen — only this guy would give her sigh-worthy painting a run for its money. Where did they make men like him?
Wait a minute. Had he just invited himself to dinner?
Ignoring his comment, she smiled back. “So why shouldn’t I get the fir? It’s pretty.”
“Your fir is a spruce. A Norway Spruce, to be exact. It’ll drop all its needles on the floor if you so much as sneeze.” He took the tree from her, lifted it, and dropped it on its stump. A rain of needles dropped out of it. “See?”
“Oh.” No, that wouldn’t do. She lifted the label on the tree. “But it says here it’s a fir.”
“Mislabeled.” A boyish grin lifted the corners of his mouth.
“All right, not that one then.” She looked around the lot. “What do you suggest?”
He took her hand and led her to a bluish tinged tree. “This one wants to come home with you.”
Renee was still recovering from having a large male hand engulf hers and stared at the tree without really seeing it.
“Your hands are icy, Renee. Why aren’t you wearing gloves?” He took her other hand and held them in his.
She’d forgotten them, but the warmth from his hands more than made up for it. Wait. “How do you know my name?”
He flashed another of those cheeky grins at her. “I know everything.”
“Really.” Despite loving the feel of his hands on hers, she tugged them away and shoved them into her pockets. Everything inside her cried out to snatch his hands back, and not just for the warmth. Damn. What was going on with her? “You’re Santa and you know I’ve been naughty?”
A sad look entered his eyes as he looked at her. “You haven’t been naughty.”
No, she hadn’t, and judging by that look — he knew. “Who the hell are you?”
No shit. He certainly didn’t look like Santa, or she’d be pushing kids aside for a chance to sit on his knee. And other places. Renee blushed. God, what was she thinking? “How do you know my name?”
He shrugged. “I just know.”
Was he some kind of freak stalker? Like she didn’t have enough of those already, what with Brian watching every move she made. Renee pushed the thought of Brian’s obsessive behavior aside. She wouldn’t think about him. Buying her first tree was supposed to have been fun, now it had turned into something sinister instead. She touched the branches of the tree he’d led her to, just to stop herself from reaching for him. The urge was there, and she couldn’t explain it.
“Renee, I won’t let him hurt you,” the stalker said, taking her hand again. “I promise.”
Was he reading her mind? Renee yanked her hand back. “All right, mister. Who are you, how do you know my name, and why do you know about Brian?”
She’d never heard such a ridiculous name and didn’t recognize it either. “Go away, Mr. Maceiriel. You’re creepy.”
He took a step back, clearly offended. “It seems I don’t know everything, after all.”
“Must come as a shock.”
Those beautiful eyes cooled and he turned to walk away. “I didn’t know you were so mean.”
Renee stared after him, feeling as if she’d just kicked a puppy. He had no right to be offended. What woman would trust a stranger? Especially one who seemed to know far too much about her? She dragged the heavy pot-grown Blue Spruce to the checkout and paid for it, cursing the stalker for landing her with one of the most expensive trees on the lot.
The lot owner helped her strap the spruce to her car and told her how to look after it. Why on earth had she taken some stranger’s advice on a tree? All she’d wanted was a pretty, not too tall, not too short, tree. Now she’d ended up with something a lot more permanent than she’d wanted.
Renee parked outside her house and contemplated getting the tree inside. Somehow. It was too heavy for her to lift, and she didn’t want to drag it off. It would either scratch the car, or crash to the ground and break, and she’d end up doing this all over again. She should have gone with the one she’d initially picked. There’d be none of this hassle now.
“Need a hand?”
Renee spun around to find her stalker leaning against the hood of her car. “How…what…?”
The cheeky grin was back. “Magic.”
Seriously? She stared at him, half believing it. “All right, how did you really get here? And more to it, how do you know where I live?”
His smile became even more endearing. “I told you. Magic.”
She narrowed her eyes at him.
“So do you want help? I feel responsible, since I told you to buy this tree.” He came around the car. “It seems fair that I help you get it inside.”
Inside? Into her house? Was he serious? “What makes you think I’ll let you in? I don’t know you from Adam.”
His expression became thoughtful. “I know Adam. Nice man, but he can hold a grudge with the best of them. Still hasn’t forgiven Eve for that apple thing.”
Cute, real cute. “Are we talking about the original, as in, first man in the Bible, Adam?”
“That’s him. You know him too?” A curious look followed.
Jesus, the guy had a screw loose. “Of course I don’t know him! How could I? He’s fictional, a metaphor of some kind.”
Something was off about him, but Renee couldn’t put her finger on it. Some kind of escaped lunatic? Was he dangerous? “What did you say your name was?”
“Maceiriel. You can call me Mac.”
“All right, Mac. Who are you? I mean, really?” She untied the rope holding the tree to her roof, not paying attention to the back. “You know entirely too much about me, and I’m pretty sure we’ve never met before.”
“Watch out!” Mac rushed toward her.
“Wha–” The tree slipped off the roof, taking her down with it. Mac knocked her sideways into the grass, a split second before the tree could bury her beneath branches and the sturdy pot.
She pushed at the weight on top of her, but it wouldn’t budge. Not the tree. Mac. Finding Mac on top of her, his face a mask of confusion, was somewhat disconcerting. For a brief moment all she could do was lie there, stare into his blue eyes, and feel every inch of his hard body against hers. The shocking truth was…she didn’t mind.
He brushed a strand of hair out of her face. “You’re very pretty, very soft. I didn’t know it felt like this.”
Renee swallowed hard. Pretty? Soft? Okay…it was a welcome compliment, considering she wore more clothes than an arctic explorer, but still…she didn’t know this guy. “Would you get off me, please?”
“Of course.” There was a certain reluctance in his voice, and he didn’t move. His gaze drifted across her face and became pensive. “So soft.”
“Uh, Mac? Let me up?” She pushed against his shoulders. “Kinda uncomfortable here. Not to mention wet.”
Mac blinked. Slowly, as if her words had no meaning for him. God, the man truly had the most kissable lips she’d ever seen. She wanted a taste so bad, it tied her in knots. Without thinking, she lifted her head and kissed him.
He sucked in a sharp breath and jerked at the same time. His eyes were wide and shocked, staring at her as if he couldn’t comprehend what she’d just done.
That went well. Renee blushed to the roots of her hair. She’d kissed him. Good grief, what had she been thinking? “I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me. If you let me–”
He placed a finger on her lips to cut her off. “Would you do it again? It was…it…was…” He sighed. “Please? One more time?”
Hell yeah. Never mind they were lying in the grass in front of her house, giving her neighbors reason to gossip for the next twenty years. She could just picture them whispering about Renee Collins doing the wild thing with a man on her front lawn. Oh yeah, plenty of ammunition — and she didn’t care. Not while the sexiest man she’d ever met asked her to please kiss him. She arched up and kissed him. His sharp intake of breath and the sudden rigidity of his body told her he liked it. His moan of pleasure sent her pulse racing. Renee waited for him to take charge, but he didn’t. He responded, his lips nibbling more than they were kissing, but he neither deepened the kiss, nor did he take over.
Renee pulled back, amazed by the pain-pleasure grimace on his face. His eyes were closed, and his breathing had become erratic. For all his beauty, he looked as if he’d just experienced his first kiss. Which, of course, was nonsense. No man who looked like him would go through life without ever having been kissed.
“It’s…I never knew…I understand now,” he whispered.
Mac opened his eyes and smiled so beatifically, her heart jumped into her throat and lodged there. Wow. No one had ever looked at her like this. As if she were heaven on earth.
“Mac? Can we get up now? My neighbors will think–”
“Yes.” He bent down and stole a quick kiss before rolling off her. “Yes.”
She let him help her up, still wondering why he acted as if he’d never been kissed before. They got the tree inside — well, Mac did, refusing to let her help — and put it up in the living room. Renee stood back and admired the beautiful spruce. It had been a good choice, despite the cost and hassle.
“It’s lovely. Thank you for telling me to pick this one.”
“You’re welcome.” Mac eyed the box of decorations. “Can I help? I’ve never decorated a tree before.”
Right now, she’d let him do most anything. He intrigued her. She still had no idea where he’d come from and how he knew about her, but it didn’t matter. For some reason she trusted him not to hurt her, and he seemed to get more enjoyment out of being allowed to pin baubles on a tree, than a three year old kid.
A loud knock on her door made both of them turn. Mac’s expression darkened. “Don’t open the door.”
“Hey. This is my house.” Renee headed out of the room to see who had knocked. The moment she saw Brian on her doorstep, his dark hair immaculate as usual, she wished she’d heeded Mac’s request. All of a sudden Brian’s suited and booted attire seemed pompous, and she much preferred jeans and a sheepskin jacket. “What do you want?” Brian tried to get inside, but she blocked the doorway. “I asked what you want. I didn’t ask you inside.”
“Ah come on, Ren. I just want to talk.” Once more he tried to get around her.
Talk? Paw her, insult her, or threaten her, more like. “We have nothing to talk about. Go away. It’s over.”
Anger sparked in his eyes and he glared at her. “It is not over. You are mine. Now stop with this nonsense and let me in.”
“No.” Renee tried to shut the door, but his foot prevented it. “Move your foot.”
“You’re acting like a spoiled brat. I didn’t do anything wrong, and you only have yourself to blame.” Brian shoved at the door.
“You had sex with other women! How the hell is that my fault?” Renee struggled to shut the door, or at least hold it so Brian couldn’t come in.
“You weren’t exactly forthcoming in the bed department. I had to go somewhere else for it.”
“It’s over, Brian! Quit bothering me.”
“I’m not–” His gaze fixed on something behind her. “Who is he?”
Renee turned and relaxed her grip on the door, giving Brian the opportunity to storm inside. The two men stared at each other, only Mac didn’t look in the least concerned, while Brian seethed with rage.
“What are you doing here, with my woman!” Brian snarled at him.
“She doesn’t belong to you. She belongs to herself.” Mac looked straight into Brian’s eyes. “You want to leave her alone. You want to find someone to love, someone who will love you back. Renee is not that woman.”
Brian blinked and his jaw slackened.
“You can still redeem yourself. If you keep going down the path you chose up to now, you will never gain forgiveness for your sins.” Mac placed his hand on Brian’s shoulder. “Do you understand?”
“Yes.” Brian nodded. He turned and shot a sheepish smile at Renee. “Sorry, Renee. Take care of yourself and be happy.”
Be happy? Usually it was Go to hell, not Be happy. Renee could only watch, her mouth open, as he walked out of the door without a backward glance. When he’d disappeared around the corner, she turned back to fix Mac with a confused look. “What just happened here?”
He shrugged. “You saw what happened.”
“I saw, but I don’t believe it.” She glanced outside to where Brian had disappeared. “What was that? Some kind of hypnosis? You do Jedi mind tricks?”
He smiled innocently. “I just made some suggestions. It is up to him to heed them.”
“Well, damn, Mac. Can you suggest to my boss that he should pay me more money?” Renee chuckled.
“No.” Mac shifted uncomfortably. “Please don’t say damn.”
“Oh. Sorry.” Apparently she’d offended him. “Shall we go and finish the tree?”
“I like this. It’s fun.” Mac tossed tinsel on the tree. “Shame it’s nearly finished. I enjoy helping.”
“Next you’ll tell me you want to help me bake cookies.” Renee clipped a silver icicle on a branch and stood back. “Wow. It looks amazing!”
“You’re baking cookies?” Excitement lit his eyes.
“Not tonight. I’m baking them tomorrow.” She grinned. “Let me guess. You’re a sucker for cookies.”
“Never had one.”
Never had a cookie Renee gaped at him. “Seriously? Do you want one?”
Something flashed in his eyes, and for a moment she thought it was panic. It made no sense that innocent chat about cookies would provoke such a reaction, so she dismissed it.
That did it. The hope in his eyes, coupled with an expression of curiosity, was hard to resist. She grabbed his hand and dragged him into the kitchen. “Sit. We’re fixing this never-had-cookies thing. Right now.”
Pulling out the container with the remnants of the Christmas cookies she’d baked last week, she watched him. He looked as excited as a kid. Where had he been, to never have had a simple cookie? He looked about thirty, and she couldn’t imagine he wasn’t capable of walking into a bakery and picking some up for himself. So why had he never tried them? Clearly he wanted to.
“Here. Those are almond cookies. They are better fresh, but it’s nothing to sniff at a week later, either.” She held the tin out to him.
Mac pulled the cookie out and turned it in his fingers. “You made this?”
He bit the corner off and chewed slowly, savoring every crumb. His gaze lifted to hers, and he smiled. “Wonderful.”
Renee laughed. “All right. You can come back tomorrow to bake cookies.”
“I’ll be here.” He rose to his feet. “I should leave now. Thank you for letting me help. It was fun.”
Renee watched him walk out, still puzzled why he seemed so odd. Good God…she’d kissed him. A complete stranger — and she wanted more.
A loud thump at the door made her sit bolt upright in her bed.
Not Brian again, please.
It remained quiet for a while, so she relaxed again. The cold draft from the window made her shiver and she got up to close it, casting a cursory glance outside to make sure nothing was going on.
Spotting a dark shape on her doorstep made her blood freeze in her veins. The way the figure was crumpled there in the shadows made it difficult to see if it was man or beast, but she was certain whatever it was…needed help. Renee dragged her bathrobe on and, unable to find her slippers, rammed her feet into a pair of hiking boots. She tied the laces with shaking fingers, then headed down the stairs.
She turned the porch light on before cracking open the door, and a cry escaped her lips when she recognized Mac, a puddle of blood beneath him. “Mac! Oh my God, Mac, you’re bleeding. What happened?”
He lifted his head and smiled. “I fell.”
She tried to see where the blood was coming from. It looked like it was pouring from his back, but she wasn’t sure. There was blood everywhere. “Can you get up? No, wait, I’ll call an ambulance.”
“No. Don’t. It’ll be all right.” He struggled to his feet.
“You need a doctor!” Renee wedged her shoulder under his arm and guided him inside to a chair. “Sit. I’ll get help.”
“No, Renee. It will heal. It’s not so bad.”
She helped him get the soaked jacket off, stifling a cry of shock when she saw his back. There were two large holes either side of his spine. “Not so bad? Are you nuts? If Brian did this, I’ll gut him.”
“Brian didn’t harm me. My brothers removed my wings.”
His wings? “What?” Renee knelt down next to him. “Mac, you’re confused. Try to remember what happened.”
“I told you. I fell.”
Those injuries weren’t from a fall, she was certain. It looked like someone had tried to gouge out his shoulder blades. “Who attacked you?”
“No one. It had to be done. It is always done.” He lifted his hand and stroked her face. “Don’t worry. They’ll grow back. They always do.”
He was delirious. And he needed a doctor. “I’m calling an ambulance. You don’t know what you’re saying.”
Mac caught her hand. “I fell. I did it so I could be with you. My brothers told me not to, but I wanted you more than heaven.”
Renee stared at him. Wings. Heaven. He’d never had a cookie. He’d never been kissed. He’d sent Brian away with just a few suggestions. Her jaw slackened. “You can’t be…You’re not…?”
Mac cocked his head to one side. “Can’t be what? In love with you? I am. It feels wonderful.”
Renee stared at him. It wasn’t possible. He couldn’t be an angel, and yet everything he’d done and said pointed at it. “You’re an angel?”
“That’s how you knew…stuff?”
“And you’re in love with me?”
“Yes.” Worry etched deep lines into his face. “I’ve said too much, haven’t I?”
Or not enough. “I didn’t see wings.”
“I hid them. They would have drawn too much attention.” His gaze lifted to hers. “They won’t be white anymore, when they grow back.”
She’d kissed an angel. Had she caused this? “You fell because of me?”
Mac drew her closer. “Not because of you. Never that. I fell for you. It was my decision to leave, and I did.”
I wanted you more than heaven.
Hadn’t she wanted someone like him? She’d prayed to meet a man who would treat her with kindness, who’d make her laugh, and who’d love her above all else. Renee let him pull her on his lap and snuggled close. “You won’t regret it.”