Oh, Lord help her, she hated that woman. Her gaze bounced from the blue to the red walls. Okay. It kind of did remind her of Sesame Street. “You don’t?”
“Nope. I like it. It fits you.”
Her little heart got all a-fluttery at the sound of that, which was bad and so needed to stop. “What are you doing here, Chad?”
“Sit.” He patted the spot beside him again.
“You’re not leaving, are you?” She winced as she caught sight of Pepsi peeking out from the bedroom.
More nervous than she’d ever been in her entire life, she tugged the robe a little closer and sat down beside him. He leaned back and tipped his head toward her. His gaze traveled over her damp hair and then moved to the vee in the robe before going to the belt she was grasping like a lifeline. “I should’ve swung by about ten minutes earlier.”
Bridget wanted to laugh, but then she remembered—not that she’d really forgotten—what they had done in the Jeep after dinner. Er, what she had done, actually. Each time they did something, she told herself it wouldn’t happen again. It was a useless mantra as she watched him out of the corner of her eyes.
Without warning, a blob of orange jumped up onto the arm of the couch. Chad turned, brows rising as Pepsi stared back at him. “That is the biggest cat I’ve ever seen.”
As if Pepsi had understood the difference between big and fat, the cat eased down off the arm and tentatively approached Chad. She held her breath.
Chad reached out and scratched the cat behind his ear. “What’s his name?”
“Pepsi?” Chad laughed. “Why that name?”
She smiled. “I found him in a Pepsi case when he was a kitten. The name stuck.” Surprise flickered through her as Pepsi climbed onto Chad’s lap. “I’m shocked that he’s letting you pet him. He’s not that friendly.”
Chad glanced at her, a wicked gleam. “What can I say? Pussies love me.”
A short laugh burst from her. “I cannot believe you just said that.”
“Yeah, that was kind of bad.” He ran his hand over Pepsi’s belly. A few moments passed in silence, and then he said casually, “Madison told me.”
“Told you what?” Her stomach immediately knotted.
He threw an arm along the back of the couch, his fingers catching a strand of damp hair. “About your parents.”
Looking away, she took a deep breath. “So you’re here because you feel sorry for me? Because if that’s the case, you can save your sympathy. I don’t want pity. It’s why I don’t talk about—”
“Hey there…” He gently tugged on the strand of hair. “I do feel sorry for you, but it’s not pity. It’s empathy.”
She turned to him, brows raised. “Empathy?”
He smiled his lopsided grin as he continued to shower Pepsi with attention. “Yeah, you’re surprised that I know what that means, right? But I do. And there’s nothing wrong with feeling empathy for you.”
Bridget stared at him.
“And what happened to your parents sucks. And the fact that you can’t enjoy something like Christmas is even worse.” Chad twirled the hair around his finger, and she found that she liked it when he played with her hair. “I get why you don’t want to. At first, I was against the whole Daniels clan Christmas party, even when I was a kid. You know, it was Chase who started hanging out with Mitch first. Chandler and I were older and thought we were too cool, but the Daniels invited us over one Christmas Eve and we were like, what the hell?”
Bridget settled back against the couch, quiet as he talked. What was rarer than her talking about her parents was Chad talking about his and his childhood. In a way, they kind of had that in common. Their families and pasts were something both of them held close, and they respected that about each other.
“It was strange being around a family—a normal, happy family.” His gaze left hers, centering on the box on the table. “My parents really didn’t celebrate anything. Both of them were too wrapped up in their own worlds really to care for much else. When my brothers and I were really little, they’d put some stuff up for Christmas, but that stopped as soon as my father…”
He didn’t need to elaborate. Bridget already knew from what Madison had told her. The senior Gamble had been a well-known businessman, controlling and hard-partying, and if someone looked up the definition of womanizing in the dictionary, their father’s picture would’ve been under it.
“Anyway, once I started going to the Daniels house for the holidays, I was glad I did. And I know you have your reasons. I respect that, but you shouldn’t be alone on Christmas.”
“Chad…” She didn’t know what to say as she watched him gently place Pepsi on the cushion next to him and sit forward. Her heart was pounding in her chest like she’d just run circles around her living room.
“And I’ve spent a dozen or so Christmas Eves with the Danielses and more than I want to remember with my brothers.” He flashed that teasing smile of his. “And I haven’t spent one with you. So that’s why I’m here. Don’t argue with me about it.”
Her fingers loosened around the robe as she shook her head. Part of her was dancing around like a hippie chick, but the other part was terrified—scared senseless by this act of kindness and caring.
And then he opened up the box.
“This is what my mom used to put up in the house for Christmas. It’s kind of dumb and really pathetic, but I always liked the stupid thing.” Chad pulled out a faint green ceramic Christmas tree about two feet tall. Each limb had a tiny bulb attached to it. An electrical plug dangled from the base. “Pretty cornball, huh? But this was our tree for years.”
Tears filled her eyes as he got up and sat the tree on the end table and then plugged it in. The little tree lit from within, glowing a soft green, and the multicolored bulbs glimmered.
“Ta-da!” He straightened and faced Bridget. The wide smile immediately faded. “Oh no…”
“I’m sorry.” She dabbed at the corners of her eyes with the sleeves of her robe. “I don’t mean to cry. I’m not upset.”
He looked more confused by each passing second.
“This is just such a nice thing,” she hastily added. “I love the tree, really, I do. Thank you.”
And she was pretty sure in that moment she knew there was no turning back. She had fallen hard for him, irrevocably so. Nothing was going to change that. Not even the fact that their whole relationship was built on lies.
Bridget was in love with him.
That realization couldn’t have come at a better or worse time. Her heart was swelling while her brain was plotting ways to kick the ever-loving crap out of her. Falling for Chad was so dangerous to her heart, but she couldn’t help it.
Her heart didn’t belong to her anymore.
It belonged to the man in front of her.
Chad’s grin was a little unsure, something she’d never seen before. “Man, if you’re going to cry over that, I better find some tissues.”
Bridget started laughing. “Why?”
“Prepare yourself.” Chad reached back in the box and pulled out a small red box wrapped with red satin. “I got you something.”
“Oh, Chad, you shouldn’t have.”
He arched a brow. “You haven’t even seen what it is.”
“But I didn’t—”
“I don’t care that you didn’t get me something. That’s not what this is about.” He sat back down, and Pepsi rolled over against his leg like a blob of orange fat and fur. “And besides, you’ve pretty much given me my future with the team, even if you agreed to do this to increase your dating pool.”
Bridget opened her mouth, because that so wasn’t the reason why, but she couldn’t tell if he was teasing or not, and how could she admit to the truth?
She was basically blackmailed. What a mood killer.
Chad placed the little box in her hand. Very carefully, she hooked her pinkie under the ribbon and pulled. It slid off easily, and then she pried off the lid.
Bridget sucked in a sharp breath. “Oh my God…”
“I’ll take that as you like it?”
“Like it…?” Bridget reached inside and with shaking fingers, she lifted the necklace she would’ve skipped rent to get. It was the one from the Little Boutique; the emerald on the silver chain.
Chad took the box from her and placed it on the coffee table. “That is the one you were looking at in the store, right?”
“Yes,” she breathed, blinking back fresh tears. “Why would you do this?”
“Because I wanted to.”
“And you always do what you want?” The jewel was the perfect weight.
“Not always,” he said quietly. “I used to think I did and maybe I did, but not anymore—not always.”
She lifted damp lashes and her eyes locked with his. “Thank you. You shouldn’t have, but thank you. And I’m sorry about yesterday. I was such a bitch and you were just being nice. I’m sorry—
“Hey, it’s no big deal.” Chad reached forward and took the necklace from her hands. “Turn around and lift your hair.”
Twisting at the waist, she obeyed and lifted the heavy mass of hair. Chad was quiet and quick as he moved. It was only the cool slide of the emerald between her breasts that alerted her to his closeness. Then the necklace must’ve been clasped, because his hands were around hers, lowering them so that her hair came down over her shoulders. He let go, though.
Bridget faced him, her heart and pulse pounding in every part of her body. She didn’t know what she was doing.
Leaning forward, she placed her hands on the small section of the couch between them, and she pressed her lips to his. “Thank you,” she said again, and pulled back. There was no mistaking the hunger in those cobalt eyes.
Chad said nothing as she stood on suddenly shaky legs. In the dark room lit only by the muted TV and the little Christmas tree, Bridget knew she didn’t want him to leave. Not yet. Not ever. And she also knew she’d only get one of those things.
Her fingers found the emerald, and her chest spasmed. “Would you like something to drink? I think I have some wine or—”
He was on his feet so suddenly that Pepsi shot off the couch and into the kitchen, and Bridget felt a thrill of excitement. There was no mistaking the intent in his expression.
“I am thirsty,” he said, taking a step forward.
Bridget was breathless as she moved back. She didn’t make it very far. He was in front of her in seconds, cupping her cheeks. He kissed her, as quickly and gently as she had kissed him…and she was undone.
“Please…” she whispered.
He grew very still. “Please what?”
She wetted her lips, and Chad’s groan rumbled through both of them. “Touch me, but don’t stop. Please.”
His hands slipped down her neck and landed on her shoulders. Tipping his chin down, his fevered eyes met hers. “Are you sure that’s what you want, Bridget? Because once I start, I won’t stop again. I will take you—take you so hard that every breath afterward is only going to remind you of me.”