Competing architects Zoe and Jason have two weeks to come up with the design to win a coveted new project. But when a snowstorm strands them together at a secluded cabin, Zoe sees her chance to show Jason how she really feels. With romance blooming under the mistletoe, can she get the gorgeous Scrooge into the true Christmas spirit?
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“MERRY CHRISTMAS, SIR!” yelled the hot-dog vendor with a wide grin after Jason Monroe gestured for him to keep the change. The kid couldn’t have been more than twelve, hustling hot dogs and churros on the street.
It was December 10, and all of San Francisco had been decorated for the holidays since before Thanksgiving. Jason wasn’t Scrooge, not exactly, but he sure as hell could do without the tinsel, the faux-wrapped boxes, the sappy music, the blinding, blinking lights.
By the time he entered Steele Architecture and Design where he worked as an associate architect, he’d finished his two loaded hot dogs and was working on the churro as he headed directly toward the boardroom for the weekly staff meeting. Most everyone was already there and Jason eyed his brother at the end of the long conference table. Mike was a draftsman for Steele, which meant he was basically an entry-level developing architect. At that moment he was hunched over some paperwork, laughing with some other draftsmen. They abruptly broke off at the sight of Jason.
Jason narrowed his eyes but everyone was suddenly a flurry of motion, busying themselves with their iPads, iPhones, laptops—
Everyone except Mike. He smiled at Jason innocently, and Jason shook his head. Mike was younger than Jason by five years, which put him at twenty-five going on twelve. He was the only person on earth who could pull Jason’s strings and get away with it.
For the past ten years, since their parents’ death, Jason had worked his ass off to keep Mike on the straight and narrow. He’d been moderately successful, but it had cost him—literally. When their parents died there’d been medical bills, a bad mortgage and no savings, leaving Jason and Mike with less than nothing. The debt had only racked up further with Jason’s college bills, followed by his brother’s. And yet somehow Jason couldn’t bring himself to sell his parents’ house, and every month he scraped up as much as he could to pay the mortgage and taxes. So in ten years, he hadn’t even been able to make a dent to his debt-load, something he was acutely reminded of every holiday season when it felt as if all he was doing was whipping out his credit card. And then there was his brother, who didn’t seem to understand that the “minimum payment” wasn’t the credit card company’s version of an early Christmas present.
But that wasn’t what was bothering him now—it was Mike’s expression, that innocence. Mike didn’t have an innocent bone in his body. In fact, the last time he’d worn that expression, he’d just glued the caps on all the cylinders holding Jason’s building plans, including the ones he’d taken into a city council meeting.
This was what happened when your kid brother was a classic underachieving genius who lived to torture his older brother. But before Jason could find out what Mike was up to this time, Stan Steele, the head of their architecture firm, walked in to the boardroom. Just behind him was Zoe Anders, another associate architect like Jason.
Only, she was nothing like Jason. Zoe was a tall, stacked redhead, a woman who was an enigmatic mix of sweet warmth and sharp ambition.
And she was Jason’s only competition for the sole available promotion to principal architect.
Stan waited until Zoe sat…in the only free spot, next to Jason. She crossed her mile-long legs, and though he was sure the sound of smooth skin rubbing against smooth skin was all in his head, Jason was hit with a punch of awareness. An awareness he always felt around her, which actually felt more like…being shot with a stun gun.
He wasn’t sure what it was about her. There were other women in the company, some even prettier.
But the only one who stirred him was Zoe. Every single time.
Their gazes met. She audibly sucked in some air and then promptly dropped her portfolio. When she bent to grab it, she spilled her to-go mug of coffee. “Dammit,” he heard her mutter, and it made him smile. For the first time he had proof that he wasn’t alone in feeling the jolt of awareness between them. He hunkered down to help her gather her things.
“Thanks,” she said when he handed her the portfolio. They were both crouched low, face-to-face. Her gaze dropped to his mouth, then jerked away. “I’ve got it.”
Yeah. She did. She definitely had it, whatever “it” was, and it drove him crazy. It had for the entire year they’d both worked here at Steele.
“Okay, everyone,” Steele said, tossing a memory stick to each of his eight associate architects. “We’re making this fast today, I’m late for a meeting across town. As reported last week, the city’s landmark Weller Building is being torn down. Richard D. Weller III is auditioning firms to design the replacement building which will house a new city library, courthouse and family center.” Stan stared down first Jason and then Zoe, whom everyone knew were the two hottest up-and-coming architects in the company. “Everyone has to come up with something amazing. Did I say amazing? Make that spectacular. I want Steele Architects to win the bid. It’d be our biggest job since the economy took a shit, and we need it. We need it so bad I’m hanging the principal-architect promotion on it. Understood?”
Zoe held Steele’s gaze evenly, coolly, then flashed the smile that could melt the Arctic. “Absolutely, sir.”
Jason looked away from the smile so as not to get sucked into what he thought of as the Zoe-Vortex. If he looked into it too long, he’d fall in and never be able to get out. And right now he couldn’t afford that kind of lapse.
He nodded to Steele. It didn’t matter what anyone’s success had been over the past year, this project was now the only one that counted. He was okay with that. He needed something to occupy him during the “merry” season, and this would be it.
“You have one month,” Steele said. He glared at the pack of draftsmen, including Mike. “And you. You all have work. Go. For the love of God, go impress me.”
Zoe gathered her file, smiled at everyone but Jason and left the room behind Steele.
Jason watched her go. Okay, so he watched her ass go, but it was one hell of a sweet ass…
He turned to Mike, who raised his brows.
“No pressure or anything, huh?” Mike said.
Jason shrugged. “It’ll be fine.”
“I don’t know, man. You’re in your holiday funk. Zoe could totally kick your ass if she wants to.”
Jason was of the never-let-’em-see-you-sweat school, …