It was hard to disguise the overwhelming sense of disappointment she felt when they had their near miss. Natalie had been certain he was about to kiss her. She thought maybe dangling that carrot would serve her on two levels: first that they could call off the silly bet, and second, that she’d finally fulfill her youthful fantasy of kissing the dashing and handsome Colin Russell.
Then...nothing. He knew what he was doing. He’d turned up the dial, gotten her primed, then left her hanging. He was not letting her out of the bet. It might be a painful two weeks until the wedding while he tried, but in the end, she’d get a nice trip to Argentina out of it.
Colin was well-intentioned, but he wasn’t going to turn her into a jolly ol’ elf anytime soon. It wasn’t as though she wanted to be a Humbug. She’d tried on several occasions to get into the spirit, but it never worked. The moment the carols started playing in the stores, she felt her soul begin to shrivel inside her. Honey-glazed ham tasted like ash in her mouth.
With her parents’ marriages in shambles and no desire to ever start a family of her own, there wasn’t anything left to the season but cold weather and commercialism.
That said, she didn’t expect Colin to lose this bet quietly. He would try his damnedest, and if last night was any indication, he was willing to play dirty. If that was the case, she needed to as well. It wouldn’t be hard to deploy her own distracting countermeasures. The chemistry between them was powerful and could easily derail his focus. She wouldn’t have to go too far—a seductive smile and a gentle touch would easily plant something other than visions of sugarplums in his head.
Natalie reached back into the drawer for the mirror she’d sought out earlier. She looked over her hair and reapplied her burgundy lipstick. She repowdered her nose, then slipped everything back into her desk. Glancing down at her outfit, she opted to slip out of her blazer, leaving just the sleeveless burgundy and hunter-green satin shell beneath it. It had a deep V-neck cut, and the necklace she was wearing today would no doubt draw the eye down to the depths of her cleavage.
Finally, she dabbed a bit of perfume behind her ears, on her wrists and just between her collarbones. It was her favorite scent, exotic and complex, bringing to mind perfumed silk tents in the deserts of Arabia. A guy she’d once dated had told her that perfume was like a hook, luring him closer with the promise of sex.
She took a deep breath of the fragrance and smiled. It was playing dirty, but she had a bet to win.
“I brought you a gift.”
Colin watched Natalie look up at him from her desk with a startled expression. From the looks of it, she’d been deep into her work and lost track of time. She recovered quickly, sitting back in her chair and pulling off her headset. “Did you? What is it now? A light-up snowman? A three-foot candy cane?”
“Close.” He whipped out a box from behind his back and placed it on her desk. “It’s peppermint bark from a candy shop downtown.”
Natalie smirked at the box, opening it to admire the contents. “Are you planning to buy your way through this whole bet?”
“Maybe. Either way, it’s cheaper than a first-class ticket to Buenos Aires.”
“You added the first class part yourself, you know, when you were feeling cocky.” She leaned her elbows on the desk and watched him pointedly.
“It’s lovely,” she said, sitting back with a satisfied smile that made him think she was teasing him on purpose.
That was definitely a change from that night at the house. She’d been adamant about being the wrong kind of woman for him and that they should be friends. Now she was almost dangling herself in front of him. He couldn’t complain about the view, but he had to question the motivation.
“It makes my entryway smell like a pine forest.”
At least she hadn’t said Pine-Sol. “You’re supposed to say it smells like Christmas.”
“I don’t know what Christmas is supposed to smell like. When I was a kid, Christmas smelled like burned biscuits and the nasty floral air freshener my mom would spray to keep my grandmother from finding out she was smoking again.”
Colin winced at her miserable holiday memories. It sounded as though her Christmas experiences sucked long before her dad left. His next purchase was going to be a mulling spice candle. “That is not what Christmas smells like. It smells like pine and peppermint, spiced cider and baking sugar cookies.”