But most enticing of all was the light of happiness in her eyes. It was the authentic smile he’d been so desperate to lure out of her. The combination threatened to knock the wind out of him every time he looked at her.
“When I picked you up for our date tonight, I didn’t think you could get more beautiful,” he admitted. Colin brushed a snowflake from her cheek. “I was wrong. Right this moment, you are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever laid eyes on.”
Natalie tried to avoid his gaze and ignore his compliment. He wasn’t sure why she was so uncomfortable hearing the truth. She was beautiful and she needed to believe it.
Instead, with a dismissive shake of her head, she said, “Flattery won’t help you win the bet, Colin.”
“I’m not trying to win a bet,” he said, surprising even himself. “I’m trying to win you.”
“You’re here!” Amelia nearly shrieked when she spied Natalie and Colin come through the front door of the sprawling mansion in Belle Meade she and Tyler had bought earlier that year. “I didn’t believe it when he said you’d agreed to come.”
“It’s not a big deal,” Natalie muttered as she slipped out of her jacket. “You just saw me this morning.”
Amelia took both their coats to hang them in the hall closet. “It’s not about seeing you, it’s about seeing you at my Christmas party. That’s a pretty big deal, considering you’ve never bothered to come before.”
“You always held it at your cramped apartment before,” Natalie argued, although Colin doubted that the setting had anything to do with it.
“Whatever,” Amelia said dismissively. “The important thing is that both of you are here. Come in. Everyone is in the kitchen, of course. Thousands of square feet and everyone congregates there.”
Colin took Natalie’s hand and led her away from the nearest exit into the house. It was a massive home, large even by his standards, though it looked as if Amelia and her husband were still trying to accumulate enough furniture to fill it up. They had the place beautifully decorated for the holidays, though. A cluster of multiple-sized Christmas trees with lights sat by the front window like a small indoor forest. A decorated tree that had to be at least fourteen feet tall stood in the two-story family room. Any smaller and it would’ve been dwarfed by the grand size of the house. The banisters were wrapped with garland and ribbon. There was even holiday music playing in the background. Colin was pleased to drag Natalie to a proper holiday gathering.
“Everyone, this is another of my friends and coworkers, Natalie, and her date, Colin. He owns Russell Landscaping.”
A few welcomes and hellos sounded from the crowd of about twenty-five people milling through the kitchen, dining room and keeping room area. He recognized a few of them—the wedding photographer, Bree, and Gretchen, the decorator. Bree was hanging on the arm of a dark-headed guy in a black cashmere sweater. Gretchen was alone despite the huge diamond on her finger. He wasn’t sure what that was about.
“What would you like to drink?” Amelia asked, rattling off a long list of options.
“I also have a nice microbrew from a place downtown,” Tyler offered, holding up a chilled bottle he pulled from the refrigerator.
“Perfect,” Colin said, taking it from his hand. Natalie opted for a white wine that Amelia poured for her.
“Help yourself to something to eat. There’s plenty, of course,” Amelia said, gesturing to the grand buffet table along the wall.
Plenty was an understatement. The caterer in her had gone wild. He and Natalie perused the table, taking in all their options. There were chafing dishes with hot hors d’oeuvres like barbecued meatballs, chicken wings and fried vegetable eggrolls, platters of cold cheeses, finger sandwiches, crudités, dips and crackers, and more desserts than he could identify.
“She’s gone overboard,” Natalie said. “This is enough to feed a hundred wedding guests. She’s just no good at cooking for small numbers. You’d think being pregnant would slow her down, but she’s like a machine in the kitchen.”
After surveying everything, they each made a plate and moved over to a sitting area with a low coffee table. They ate and chatted with folks as they milled around. Eventually Gretchen approached with her own plate and sat down with them.
“I’m sorry Julian couldn’t be here with you tonight,” Natalie said.