We’re on Part 3!! If you missed Part 1 or Part 2, just follow the links to catch up 🙂 I hope you enjoy it. It’s unbeta’d, as is the entire story, so please forgive any mistakes or goofs on my part. Hint!! The next instalment posts at Austen Variations!
The Advent Calendar
From the moment Elizabeth stepped into William Darcy’s arms, she struggled—struggled to think about anything but what it felt like when his hand touched hers, struggled make any sound at all come from her lips, and struggled at how sensitive her skin became to everything. Every tiny hair on her body prickled like it stood on end, her dress caressed her legs with every touch of the fabric, and other bits of clothing that rubbed . . . well, she wasn’t going to go there!
She had to get her mind off of this effect he had on her. Think! Anything! Had he seen any good movies lately? That was stupid. This was her boss. He arrived at work before the rest of the office and left later than all of them. When would he have gone to the movies? Christmas! That was it! “I understand you will be at Charlie and Jane’s tomorrow to open gifts and for Christmas dinner.” The words came out rushed, but she’d gotten them out!
His eyes lifted to her face. Had he been staring at her lips? No, not William Darcy. He would probably find the quarterly reports more interesting. No, he wouldn’t be looking at her lips. He was more likely to glare at her like she did something wrong.
“Yes, my sister is spending the holidays in Maine with her boyfriend’s family. By her pictures on Instagram, she appears to be having a wonderful time.”
Charlie had mentioned Darcy had a sister, but Instagram? He was too uptight for that kind of social media account, wasn’t he?
“You have an Instagram account?”
He smiled—not one of those tense, tight-lipped half-smiles he gave at work, but a real, wide, dimple-revealing one. She pressed her lips together to prevent the gasp that almost escaped. Wow! She wasn’t blind. She’d been well aware that the man was good-looking, but when he smiled like that, he was more than just good-looking! Most of the women in the office would shuck their panties rather than cringe at his approach if they saw that smile on a daily basis.
When he’d spoke of his sister, a part of her heart ached just a bit for him. He’d put on a good face, but something in his voice was sad and a little wistful. Charlie had indicated Darcy and his sister were quite close. He must miss her terribly.
She bit her lip and glanced around. What should they talk about now? They’d discussed work earlier, but she had to be capable of speaking of something that wasn’t work related. She re-situated her hand on his shoulder, inadvertently slipping to his chest and rubbing more than she’d intended. Was that muscle under the expensive suit coat? He worked out? She trained her eyes on his tie and tried to tune out the pounding of her heart echoing in her ears. This was ridiculous! He was William Darcy, her boss, not a freaking Calvin Klein underwear model!
How she heard the song end over the pounding beat in her ears was a mystery, but when the music faded out, she thanked him, turned tail, and made her escape. As she hurried from the floor, a corridor appeared to one side of the crowd so she walked in that direction as quickly as her heels would allow. A ladies’ room door was just inside on the right, and she rushed through, hightailing it into one of the stalls. Once she’d locked the door, she pressed her back against it and covered her face with her hands. What was that? She groaned. “He must think I’m an idiot.”
A dance! It was only supposed to be a dance until she groped his chest. Thank goodness she didn’t grope anything worse!
What was she doing? This was ridiculous. So what if the guy worked out, or if he was devastatingly handsome. She would just need to focus on how much of an ass he’d been and everything would be fine. “Okay, Elizabeth. Time to suck it up and get back out there. As Aunt Maisie always says, ‘You’re making a mountain out of a mole hill.’”
She took a deep breath, unlocked the door, and checked her reflection in the mirror. Once she’d tucked a few stray strands of hair back into place, she made for the exit, but stopped in the doorway at the sight of Darcy turning toward the party.
Her hand cushioned the door closed behind her, and she watched him take a few steps before the sound of something hitting the floor reverberated down the corridor and made her look down near his feet. She cocked her head to the side. Why did that look so familiar? Without thought she stepped forward, knelt down, and picked the small box up, but was met with resistance from the hand on the other side.
“What’s this?” As she said the words, the light reflected just so off the silvery glittered numbers she knew so well. Her eyes hurt like they popped from their sockets as she looked at him. “You? You’re my Secret Santa?”
Somehow, they both ended up standing while still holding the package. Her final Secret Santa gift. Her last Secret Santa gift from William Darcy.
“You are my Secret Santa? You? You purchased the bath products, and the coffee and muffin, and the scarf, and paid for the car tonight?”
He awkwardly scratched the back of his head and nodded. “Yes.”
She stared at him for a moment, but when he only watched her with his eyebrows drawn down just a little, she put her hands on her hips, leaving him to hold the present by himself. “Well, you’ll just have to take it all back?”
His lip twitched on one side. “Take them back? You want me to take back the coffee and muffin?”
“Of course not!” She placed her palm on her forehead and closed her eyes. “Some of the bath products remain unopened, so I will need to return those to you along with the scarf. They are lovely gifts, but simply too expensive. I would also like to know how much the car cost you for the evening. I want to reimburse you for it.”
“No?” Heat unfurled from the deepest portion of her gut and spread throughout her body like a spark takes hold and becomes a fire that engulfs a dry field. She clenched her hands into fists and opened her mouth, but startled when it wasn’t her voice.
“Elizabeth, I gave you those gifts because I knew you would take pleasure in them. I wanted you to have them.”
“They’re too expensive.”
“I know the gift exchange had a spending limit, but I never considered the cost an issue.”
Why did that not surprise her? He didn’t have the same worries most people had when it came to money. He could spend more than the average person and not blink an eye. “Maybe not to you, but what about the rest of your employees who didn’t have the boss for their Secret Santa? It’s hardly fair to them.”
He frowned as his eyes shifted to the gift in his hands. “I never considered how others might feel. I only thought of you. I wanted to do something special for you. Mrs. Reynolds keeps an ear out for office gossip. She would’ve told me if anyone became upset over it, but no one seemed to notice.”
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath before opening them again. Why did he not understand how much this bothered her? “Because I didn’t advertise the gifts. One or two of the other assistants noticed the coffee and muffin and a couple of the bath supplies, but Charlotte and I kept quiet about most of it—especially the scarf.” She clenched her hands into fists as something she hadn’t considered popped into her brain.
“You were in my office the morning I opened the scarf. You knew how uncomfortable the price of that gift made me and you still arranged for the car service tonight. Why?”
He held his hands out, palms forward, in front of her. “It’s not what you think. The car is one of mine and Carson is my driver. I had him drop me off an hour before the party started since Mrs. Reynolds needed me for a few last-minute decisions. He then drove to your apartment and brought you here.”
She deflated and covered her eyes with her hands before she dropped her arms back down to her sides. “That’s not what I asked.” How could he stay so calm when she was holding her anger in by a thread?
“You wanted to know why I chose the car?”
“Perhaps before, but not now. Now I just want to know why me? Why do all of this for someone you don’t like?”
“I thought I explained earlier that I don’t dislike you at all,” he said, shifting on his feet.
“You apologized for your attitude my first day and said you were pleased to have me work for you but do you think I don’t notice how you glare at me all of the time? You might approve of my work, but there’s something that you dislike. I don’t know what it is, but it’s pretty obvious by the looks you send my way.”
He let out a long exhale and blinked a couple of times. “Wow, I never realized just how badly I’ve screwed up with you until now.”
Her hands landed on her hips again and she threw that one foot out, just like she did whenever she was furious. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t hate you, Elizabeth.”
“You don’t?” Her voice had that edge to it. The one that would normally have Charlotte sending out for hard liquor.
I don’t dislike anything about you. I actually . . .” He cleared his throat and shifted on his feet again. “I actually think you’re very beautiful—especially your eyes. They sparkle when you are happy and talking and have this fiery quality when you’re angry or inspired. I can’t explain it, but they draw me in and I can’t look away.”
As he spoke, her hands gradually slid down her hips until they hung at her sides. He what?
“At first, I tried to ignore it. You work for me, so I considered you inappropriate. I try not to date employees.” A strangled chuckle faded away. “Not that I’ve dated anyone in a few years.” He glanced at her and then to the package still in his hands. “You’ve become all I think about. I . . . I’ve fallen in love with you.”
Then, the thread snapped.
“You what?” Her hands had clenched again at her sides and her tone was rough. Maybe he shouldn’t have said anything.
“I’ve fallen in love with you.”
An odd laugh fell from her lips, one that was high-pitched and forced. He’d debated numerous times whether to tell Elizabeth the truth—whether to reveal to her that he was her Secret Santa, whether to tell her of his feelings. With her dislike, it wasn’t as though he expected her to rush into his arms, and even though he’d had plenty of fantasies where she had, it was always unlikely.
“Was this entire month of gifts meant to buy me? Did you think you’d tell me it was you and I’d fall into your embrace like some sad, pathetic creature in a sappy romance novel?” Her voice rose with each question until she glanced over his shoulder at the party behind him and her volume dropped dramatically. “Did I get the promotion because of your . . . your feelings?
“No, you earned that promotion with your work and your intelligence. You were Hurst’s top recommendation and I happened to agree with him. My personal feelings had nothing to do with it. I would never base such an important decision on anything but a person’s ability to do that job.”
She stepped forward, her eyes shooting daggers. “I don’t believe you.”
A giggle and the click of heels made them quickly step back from one another until Stacy, Charles’ assistant walked by, looking at them both warily, before she went into the ladies’ room.
Once the door closed behind her, he ran his fingers through his hair. “I would never lie to you.” Oh, Lord! This was going downhill fast and he had no idea how to keep it from devolving further. “I simply wanted to bring a smile to your face. When I asked Charles to ensure I was your Secret Santa . . .” He sucked in a quick breath. Crap! He wasn’t supposed to tell her that bit!
“You set the whole thing up? Charlie knew?”
“I wasn’t supposed to tell you about Charles. Please don’t be angry with him. I threatened to fire him if he didn’t go along with my plan.”
“You did?” she said, her voice flat.
“Not really.” He gave a chuckle that came more from the nerves twisting around in his stomach than amusement. “I hoped to lighten the mood.”
They both startled when Stacy exited the ladies’ room and eyed them both with wide eyes. After glancing back and forth two or three times, she shrugged and walked back in the direction of the party, occasionally glancing back over her shoulder. Not a word was spoken until she disappeared into the crowd.
“Do you find all of this funny?”
He turned back to Elizabeth and shook his head. “No.” They couldn’t go on arguing. Elizabeth needed time to cool off, which meant time away from him, and well, he needed to escape with at least part of his heart intact. “I appreciate your integrity, but the gifts are yours. I would also like you to have this.” He held out the final package. “It is for you. I have no use for it. Please.”
“No,” she said through clenched teeth. “I am your employee, remember? The gifts are as inappropriate as I am.”
His heart dropped and he closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, she stood before him, her eyes hard, her jaw tense, and her lips pressed into a thin line. “Please forgive me. I didn’t mean it that way. Perhaps it would be best if I leave you to enjoy the evening before one of us says something we’ll regret. Carson will be waiting for you after the party. I hope you’ll accept the ride home. I’d like to know that you made it safely.” He watched the package while he turned it in his hands. It was better than looking at Elizabeth’s furious expression. How could something that he meant to make her happy turn out so wrong? “Merry Christmas, Elizabeth.”
Before she could speak, he turned on his heel and strode back in the direction of the party, passing Miss Lucas as she entered the corridor. She took a long look at him then glanced past him at Elizabeth. He didn’t stop, but when he turned into the crowd, peered over his shoulder at Elizabeth, who was throwing an arm up in his direction while speaking heatedly to her assistant. Stacy obviously clued in Miss Lucas, but was she also telling the rest of his employees? That was all he needed for Elizabeth to never forgive him.
He shoved Elizabeth’s gift into his pocket and put on his game face. He had a few more people to greet before he could leave. He didn’t have time to let his personal feelings get in the way of work; however, rather than taking his time, he sought out the last three members of the board and handled the last of what was required of him for the evening.
After one last glance around the ballroom, he began making his way to the entrance when Charles appeared before him. “Sorry I’m late! Caroline had some catastrophe or another that turned out to be nothing more than an attempt to tag along for this. Jane is searching for Lizzy.” He rubbed his hands together with his typical big grin. “So, what’ve I missed.”
“Elizabeth figured out I’m her Secret Santa.” He kept his voice low. If Stacy hadn’t clued in the entire company already, then he didn’t want to be the one to do it.
Charles’ eyebrows lifted. “Why does that not sound good?”
“She wasn’t happy with me.”
His friend gave him a sidelong glance. “You told her you’re in love with her.” It wasn’t a question.
“She questioned whether the promotion was because of my feelings.”
His eyes widened and he gave a bark. “She’s worked at Darcy Holdings long enough to know you wouldn’t sacrifice the company to ingratiate yourself to a woman. You wouldn’t have the reputation you do if you hired and fired women based on your personal feelings.”
“She’s only worked for the company for a few months. She doesn’t know me that well, it seems.” He pulled the gift from his pocket. “Please put this under your tree for tomorrow. I want Elizabeth to have it.”
Charles’ forehead crinkled and his brow drew down. “You can put it under the tree yourself.”
“I think it would be better if I didn’t come. My presence would only make things awkward. Elizabeth needs to cool off and I don’t want to ruin her holiday.” He coughed in an attempt to loosen the knot in his throat. “Please tell Jane Merry Christmas for me.” He patted Charles on the shoulder and strode past while his friend’s mouth hung slightly open.
He needed to understand that Darcy had to do this not only for Elizabeth but also for himself. Fortunately, no one stopped him before he reached the doors. He retrieved his winter coat, and after a few words with Carson, climbed into the first taxi that stopped at his hail and had the driver take him straight home.
Predictions and comments definitely wanted/welcomed!