One night changes everything.
Ten years ago, Sadie Bower and Ryan Young met on a snowy night on a train to London, two young people still finding their places in the world. Now she’s an international film star, he’s the man behind the scenes holding the boom mic, and they couldn’t be further apart.
Sadie is determined to recapture the magic of their past, except Ryan has no interest in being paparazzi bait. Holiday cheer abounds, and one glamorous movie premiere later, they’re reliving that long-ago night together. Except more than just Christmas wishes are on the line—this time, it’s their hearts.
This title is included in the print version of Stripped!
Footsteps sounded outside the door, followed by voices—two theater employees chattering excitedly about the Who’s Who of Hollywood they had seen loitering downstairs. Without pausing to think, Ryan snatched her upper arm and dragged her toward the far side of the booth. “You can’t be found here.” He wheeled the unused projectors out of the way of the closed door he’d noticed earlier, murmuring a quick prayer of thanks when the knob turned easily in his hand. Before she could argue, he shoved her into the pitch-black space and swiftly closed the door behind them—just as the door to the projection booth opened, and the two employees brought their gossip inside.
“—see Bianca James interviewing Declan Murphy down there? He’s so fucking hot.”
“His accent is, like, panty-dropping. Seriously. Omigod.”
“Most beautiful man I’ve ever seen in. My. Life.”
“I dunno about the beard, though. He’s hotter without it.”
“Are you high? The beard is the best fucking part. He’s like all lumberjack-y and shit.”
“You’re such a weirdo. If you ever saw a real lumberjack, you’d be like, ‘Ahhh, save me, Janey, he has an axe and doesn’t believe in soap! Ahhh!’”
Much giggling ensued as the two young women went about checking the status of the equipment for the evening. Which was when Ryan realized he still had a grip on Sadie’s arm, and that she stood silently pressed against his side.
Dizzying heat flashed through him as he bent to whisper, “You know they would’ve whipped out their phones and tweeted your picture to TMZ before you could even so much as offer to sign an autograph.”
Her breath shivered over his throat, and suddenly, his collar and tie were far too tight. “I know,” she whispered back. He listened as she fumbled around for a moment, then her face was lit by the soft blue glow of her cell phone’s home screen. One tap of a finger later, and a low-beam flashlight illuminated their hiding place. “Oh, my goodness.”
Christmas had exploded in this storage room, with all the subtlety of projectile vomit. Giant plastic candy canes leaned in one corner, next to a six-foot fake fir dressed in silver tinsel and unplugged strands of colored lights. Garland had been shoved onto the upper shelves of a metal wall unit, dozens of ceramic winter village collectibles on the lower half, and an oversized Santa suit—complete with fleshy pink cotton padding to go underneath the coat—hung on a wire hanger from the unit’s side. To the left of the door were two midsize filing cabinets, the only flat surface seemingly saved from the viral strain of holiday cheer that had infected the rest of the closet.
Silently, Ryan released her, only to direct the hand holding her phone toward the door. No interior lock, but a rubber gasket ran along the door’s bottom edge. The rubber along the floor would prevent any light from peeking out into the main projection booth—though it had been designed, more likely, to keep in the stuffy air from the non-temperature-controlled storage closet.
He moved her hand where he wanted it, aiming her phone’s light at the tree, and knelt in front of it, reaching through the lower branches until he found what he needed: a cord plug and a wall socket. The closet was immediately drenched in warm color—an amalgam of blue, green, gold, red—from the strands of bulbs wound through the branches.
With a faint smile, Sadie turned off her phone, sliding it back into her clutch before setting the sparkly thing atop one of the filing cabinets. She gestured him closer, and he stood, trying to ignore the blood singing in his ears at the prospect of being beckoned close to her again.
Because regardless of the women outside, they were alone. Alone alone.
He dipped his head to catch her murmur of, “This will make talking difficult.”
And yet it was perfect for so many other activities that didn’t require talking. Instead of voicing that inappropriate sentiment, he shrugged, trying to ignore the handful of inches separating his body from hers. “Maybe we should take the time for…quiet reflection.”
“Isn’t that what we’ve been doing since April?”
Guilt dogged him. That was exactly what they had been doing, and quiet reflection no longer cut it. Forcibly keeping his distance during filming and after had birthed an itch beneath his skin. No matter how adamantly he ignored the itch, its intensity increased, spread. Only Sadie’s nearness seemed to soothe him, bone-deep relief slicing through him even as his frustration grew. “What do you want, Sadie?”
Her gaze locked with his. “From you?”
He nodded, jaw tight.
“All I want—all I’ve ever wanted—was to see if we feel the same now as we did then.” She took a deep breath before straightening her slim shoulders. “Because I remember the wow.”
So did he. That wow was a tattoo on his brain, forever inked into him, at a cellular level.
Slowly, she reached out and grasped the length of his black tie. One tug urged him closer still, until he felt the press of small, firm breasts against his chest and the brush of sequined satin around his legs. Her breath hit his chin, warm and enticing, and he realized she was pulling him down, as though she meant to kiss him. Or force him to kiss her.
He could say no. She was as petite as ever, and he had bulked up some since his college days—not enough to overcome his inherent lanky build with its tendency toward leanness, but he worked out. He was strong. And he could push her away if he wanted to. Time to face facts and accept hard truths.
Fact: He saw her face in his dreams.
Truth: He was harder than he’d ever been, at the mere idea that maybe, just maybe, she was going to let him put his hands on her again.
Her other hand lifted, a single fingertip tracing the line of his jaw, and his back teeth clamped shut. There was fire in her touch—no shock there, because she’d always seared him with the heat and light of her. “Do you think we still have it?” she whispered. “The wow?”
For such a tiny woman, she took up so much of his space. He exhaled, steeling his body against the damage he knew she’d wreck on his self-control. “Only one way to find out.”
2013, 2016 © By Edie Harris