When are Helene and Mr. Wonderful getting here?" a muffled feminine voice asked as the kitchen door clicked closed behind Sam McKendrick, enveloping him in holiday scents of roasting turkey, pumpkin pie and fresh evergreen.
His sweeping glance, the practiced eye of a professional photographer, took in a green bean casserole in a glass dish waiting its turn in the oven, a mixing bowl surrounded by an opened bag of flour, measuring spoons and other baking paraphernalia on the yellow Formica countertop.
The crash and clang of falling pots and pans immediately followed from the lower corner cabinet where a very rounded rear was poking in the air, the speaker's top half swallowed by the cabinet. "Got it," the voice declared.
His new sister-in-law wiggled backward, freeing herself from the cabinet, an oversized cookie sheet in tow.
She straightened, stood, saw him and promptly dropped the cookie sheet. "Oh, hell." Within seconds, however, laughter offset the momentary consternation in her hazel eyes. "Mr. Wonderful, I presume."
Sam grinned. "Actually, it's McKendrick. Sam McKendrick. And you must be Giselle."
"Right." She glanced at the teakettle-shaped clock on the wall. "You're early."
Giselle Randolph was a hot mess.
Her long brown hair, caught up in a clip, stuck out at an odd angle on one side, and flour dusted the end of her freckled nose. She wore a white T-shirt with I Brake For Elves in green lettering across the front, a bright red, very sexy bra visible beneath the thin T-shirt and snug gray sweats. He noted her bare feet and red toenails, a green-and-white holly berry design detailed on each of her big toes.
Enchanting with an earthy sensuality, she was the sexiest woman he'd ever met, flour or no flour on her nose.
She quickly recovered her aplomb. She smiled, wiped her hand on her thigh and extended her hand in greeting. "Welcome to the family."
"Thanks." He shook her sticky hand and the oddest sensation zapped him, as if he'd just found something he hadn't known he was missing. Feeling slightly stunned, he shook his head to clear it and realized he was still engulfing her hand in his. He released her.
She grimaced an apology and wiped her hand ineffectually along the bottom of her T-shirt, which only tugged it tighter and threw her red plunging bra into further relief. "Sorry, didn't realize it was sticky." She waved her right hand, "Anyway
so, I guess I should thank you for eloping with my sister and saving me from some god-awful pink taffeta bridesmaid dress
or worse." She pretended to shudder.
"Glad I could help." He'd met Helene, a tall, cool blonde who turned heads everywhere she went, when she was on vacation at a resort in the Caymans and he was there shooting a brochure adnot his typical assignment but he'd done it as a favor for his friend, who managed the resort. What followed was atypical, as well. Six whirlwind weeks and one Vegas elopement and honeymoon later and here he was, meeting the parents
on Christmas Day in suburban Atlanta.
"And my blushing-bride sister is where?"
"Your parents were out front working on the light display"
She interrupted him, laughing. "More like fighting over the light display. You might as well get used to it. It's a ritual."
He laughed along with her, "Got it."
"Helene?" she prompted, as if she hadn't interrupted and he was the one who'd veered off topic. She retrieved the cookie sheet from the kitchen floor and put it on the counter.
"Talking to the next-door neighbors at the fence," he said before she cut him off again. "She sent me in with the luggage."
"Oh, right," she said, her expressive eyes widening as if she'd just noticed the rolling suitcase handle in his left hand and the travel bag slung over his shoulder. "Come on. I'll show you to Helene's old room."
He followed her down the hall of the rambling Victorian, which held a charming mix of antiques, clutter and Christmas decorations. They passed the front room, where a heavily decorated tree filled one corner and a cheery fire crackled in the fireplace. The setting could've been lifted from a made-for-TV Christmas special, a far cry from the public housing he'd grown up in. Buying his mother her own small house, complete with the white picket fence she'd longed for, had been one of the most satisfying moments of his life.
He started up the staircase, following Giselle, the stairs creaking loudly. Four steps up, he realized he was the only one setting them off. Giselle knew precisely where to place her foot to avoid the loud creak that seemed to come with every riser. He followed her lead, and there was no more creaking. She stopped and turned. Given the difference in their heights, it put them eye to eye.
"I see you've got it." She shook her head, smiling. "Once she started dating, Helene spent half her life grounded 'cause she'd get caught sneaking in late."
It was an amusing tidbit about his wife, but he found himself wondering about Giselle. "What about you?"
"I never snuck out." She was so close he didn't miss the flicker of wistfulness in her eyes. Her smile lit up her face, and he caught himself just in time from reaching out to wipe away the dusting of flour on her nose. "No one wanted to keep me out late the way they did Helene. You won't be surprised to know your wife always had the boys lined up."
"Not surprised at all. She's beautiful." Helene was beautiful. Sam realized he had a need, as a bastard kid who'd grown up in public housing, to prove himself by having the best. He might wear jeans, but his shirt was always pressed and his jacket was Armani. His condo downtown offered a great view of Atlanta's skyline. At thirty, he was ready to settle down. Beautiful Helene was a head-turner. He'd married her and committed to a lifetime together, and Sam neither made nor took the commitment lightly. Which was why he found it so confounding to be standing on the stairs with his heart slamming against his ribs and lost in the depths of Giselle Randolph's hazel eyes.
"She is," Giselle said on a breathless note. Something real and hot and dangerous pulsed between them. Something organic neither one had manufactured but which they were both caught up in. She inhaled sharply, and for one brief moment, like the slow descent of a single drop of water captured on time-lapse film, she leaned toward him. Her breath tumbled out in a sigh, gusting warm and fragrant against his mouth.
Instinctively, he shifted toward her. The stair creaked like a rifle shot, blasting away the intimacy and bringing them both back to their senses.
She turned abruptly and led him up the stairs, chatting as if that would erase whatever the hell had just passed between them. "That's Mom and Dad's room at the top of the stairs, so you can see how they were right there to bust her. And then Daddy's study is off to the right on the other side of their bedroom. My room is in the attic. I talked the parental unit into letting me move up there when I was twelve. It let my imagination run free." That made sense. Helene had told him her sister was a writer. "And here's Helene's room
well, your room, too, now. Since you're married and all."
He deposited the suitcases at the foot of the bed as Giselle determinedly continued her tour guide monologue. "That's a picture of Helene when she won homecoming queen her junior year," she said, pointing to a particular picture in a wall full of framed glossies of his wife. "And that's when she was senior homecoming queen."
God, he wanted to kiss her to shut her up and, well, he just wanted to kiss her.
A sick feeling blossomed in his gut. Even further out of left field than the urge to kiss her came the traitorous thought that he'd up and married the wrong sister. And that was a helluva fix two days past his honeymoon.
The week before Christmas, two years later
"Hey, Giselle, got a minute?" Monica, Life Trendz magazine's editorial department secretary, stepped into Giselle's cubicle. "Change of plans on the Sedona trip."
Often the harbinger of less-than-stellar news, Monica had a the-shit's-about-to-hit-the-fan-but-don't-shoot-the-messenger smile she put on for such occasions. She wore that smile now.
"Sure." Trepidation crawled along Giselle's spine as she closed the file folder with her Sedona notes. She was flexible. Writing for a monthly magazine that covered recent innovations, new ideas, and current
well, trends demanded flexibility, but a change of plans on Friday when she was flying to Arizona on Sunday to start this project didn't sound promising. "What's up?"
"Do you want the good news or the bad news first?" Monica stepped into her cubicle but remained standing instead of making herself at home, the way she usually did in the folding chair shoved in one corner.
"Start with the bad so we can end on a positive note with the good."
"Darren's bagging the Sedona assignment."
"What? He can't do that." More than just the photographer she'd teamed up with for three years now, Giselle considered Darren a good friend. "Unless he has a really good reason, he's about to be a dead friend." She was only partially joking.
She stared at Monica and drummed her fingers on her desk, awaiting an explanation. "And by the way, he's a chicken to leave it up to you to tell me."
Monica offered a weak smile. "Something about him and Gerald and a progressive dinner and not having enough prep time if he goes."
"A progressive dinner?" Giselle shot to her feet. "That's it. He's dead. I'm going to kill him. I'll wait until after Christmas, but before the new year
"I know you've got a personal stake in this trip and you could've used Darren's moral support."
True enough, she had a personal stake in the Sedona assignment, but Monica was blissfully ignorant, as was everyone else other than Darren, as to the real reason behind her eagerness to cover the story. Writing for Life Trendz meant sifting through scads of material for story ideas. She'd run across an online thread and knew, knew the moment she saw it, it was meant for her.
A New Age guru in Sedona claimed on th...