The Christmas Set-UpJill Shalvis
New York Times bestselling author Jill Shalvis delivers a fan-favorite novella in which snowbound rivals are faced with irresistible temptation…
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?
Originally published in 2011.
The Christmas Set-Up
Thank you SO MUCH for buying a Shalvis classic romance! These books might predate the digital age, but they’re still fun and sexy! We hope you enjoy this peek at my earlier work!
Best wishes and happy reading!
“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, so he gathered his things and stood. “It’ll be fine,” he repeated.
He hadn’t had any problems rising to the top before. He’d finish this year off in the same vein, secure the promotion and maybe find h
is damn happy while he was at it.
“Maybe you should combine forces,” Mike said in a careful voice that had Jason taking a second look at him.
Mike blinked once, slow as an owl, which meant only one thing—he was up to no good. Again. “Combine forces?”
“Yeah,” Mike said. “Work with the hot girl instead of against her. Combine your talents, win the bid and then let your past record up the ante in your favor for the principal-architect position. Win-win.”
“I can win on my own merit.”
“Okay, whatever… If you’re sure.”
He was. Besides, he and Zoe wouldn’t work well together. All they ever did when they were in the same room was raise the temperature. Jason shook his head and left the conference room.
One month. He had one month to create the project of his life, get the promotion and start to earn enough money to get out from the debt threatening to drag him under.
And hope like hell in the doing so that it made him feel something, anything, again.
* * *
THE MINUTE JASON LEFT the boardroom, Mike turned to Alicia, Kent and Tucker, his fellow cohorts in the Trouble Department. “Okay, so where were we?”
They were using Alicia’s iPad to fill out an agreement on a Lake Tahoe rental cabin. Her idea, as she was the romantic of the group. The cabin was owned by Ken and Jillian Vickers, who’d been two of Mike’s favorite college professors. The Vickers had fallen in love for the second time in their cabin and enjoyed nothing more than renting it out to couples—or potential couples in this case.
Jason had seemed really down lately, and Mike wanted to remind his brother that life was about much more than just work. Alicia was helping him execute the reminder.
The thing was, Jason was smart and incredibly intuitive. Which meant Mike’s plan had to be sneaky—not a problem, since Mike had majored in Sneak.
Jason wasn’t going to know what hit him. Mike grinned at the thought.
“Smile now,” Alicia said. “Because later, when he finds out what you’ve done, he’s going to kill you.” She turned her iPad to him, Kent and Tucker and revealed their progress. “We’re on the last question: why is Jason choosing to vacation at the cabin.”
Well, Jason wasn’t choosing to vacation there. Not exactly. Mike was choosing it for him. “Say that he hopes the place will bring him luck in love.”
“What?” Kent said. “Jason would never say that. He doesn’t even know what love is.”
“He used to,” Mike said. “I’m only trying to remind him of it. And it’s not like I can just come right out and say ‘I’m trying to get the two most high-profile, ambitious, fast-tracked architects in the city laid,’ can I? It’d sound crass.”
“As opposed to actually being crass,” Alicia said dryly.
“My intentions are completely altruistic,” Mike said to her. “Look, just write up some romantic, fluffy paragraph about how much the mountains mean to both of them.”
“Zoe’s afraid of spiders and bears, and she doesn’t even know she’s going to the mountains,” Alicia said.
“Yeah, leave that part out,” Mike said.
“Can we put down how anal she is?” Tucker asked.
Alicia rolled her eyes.
“Oh!” Kent said, lighting up like the Christmas lights already strung on the wall behind him. “Make sure to add that she’s a quick drunk. Can’t hold her liquor. One glass of champagne at last year’s office party and she was all up in Santa’s grill—”
Alicia smacked him. “She was dating Santa at the time.”
“I’m just saying, you might want to make sure the liquor cabinet’s stocked,” Kent pointed out.
“I don’t think I’m comfortable with this,” Alicia said.
“It’s for the greater good of the entire office,” Mike told her. “Those two have been sniffing around each other for months. And Jason’s grumpy as hell. This’ll put a smile back on his face.”
“Maybe they’re already sleeping together,” Kent said.
“If they were sleeping together, they wouldn’t still have all that sexual tension,” Alicia said. “Did you see what happened when he looked at her during the meeting? She dropped her portfolio and coffee. Then they both stared at each other like moon birds.”
“What the hell are moon birds?” Kent asked.
Alicia rolled her eyes again. Tucker scratched his jaw. “They do keep staring at each other… Maybe Kent’s right. Maybe they’re already doing it.”
“Trust me,” Mike said. “If Jason was getting laid, I’d know it.” He turned to Alicia. “Don’t think of it as a setup, consider it my early Christmas present to my dear brother. Write something mushy on the application and send it.”
TWO WEEKS LATER, ZOE caught herself staring at her cute little miniature Christmas tree instead of her computer screen…and the blank page on her drawing program. Behind that were all the Weller specs, just waiting for the glorious design that she hadn’t come up with yet. She had some ideas and notes on the memory stick currently plugged into her laptop, and the design was in her head, or at least she was beginning to think so, but she hadn’t quite been able to get it on the screen. She had a lot going on in her head.
For one thing, it was already Christmas Eve day. She was leaving here by noon to get to her family gathering up north, but she had told herself she wasn’t going anywhere until she accomplished something.
Jason walked by her office in his usual long-legged, effortless stride. He glanced in at her and slapped a big hand on her open door, slowing his forward motion. There was a beat of…whatever there always was between them. Uncomfortable awareness, she supposed, and braced for its inevitable follow-up—a rush of adrenaline. Yep, there it was now.
She tried to attribute the feeling to a surge of competition, but she knew better than that. He was effortlessly sexy, and while Zoe was a lot of things, she wasn’t immune to effortlessly sexy. Or at least his particular brand of it.
“You finished yet?” he asked.
“Finished what?” she volleyed back, even though she knew exactly what he was fishing for.
Not fooled, Jason smiled. He had a killer smile, and he knew it. He was six foot two, built like the mountain biker he was on the weekends, yet, in an oddly attractive contrast, he dressed like a sexy nerd. Today that meant dark blue khakis and a dark blue button-down shirt with the top button undone behind a loosely knotted, hipster-cool tie. There were hiking boots on his big feet.
That, combined with the full head of unruly dark chestnut hair that fell to his loose collar, equaled a devastatingly handsome combination that he seemed utterly oblivious to. He was also oblivious to her go-away glare.
“Having problems?” he said.
Yes! She was careful not to look at her blank screen. “Of course not.”
“We’ve only got two weeks left before we have to present our concepts to Steele.”
“I realize that, thank you.”
Jason’s brows raised as he studied her, his sharp green eyes missing nothing—not the fact that she was wearing her lucky suit for the second time that week (she’d been hoping it would inspire her), or that she was having a bad hair day, or that her eyes were lined with exhaustion because she couldn’t sleep.
He took this all in, and though she expected him to flash another grin, maybe with some taunting in it—or at the very least teasing—he didn’t.
“You okay?” he asked instead.
Surprised, she was momentarily caught off guard. They didn’t do this, the personal thing. They were much better at competition, and had been since they’d first met, constantly trying to one-up each other on the ladder rungs of ambition.
Zoe knew that everyone talked about her and Jason behind their backs, speculating about the tension between them, wondering if they were sleeping together. They weren’t.
For one thing, she refused to sleep with anyone who routinely went toe-to-toe with her and often won—she got eno
ugh of that with her overly ambitious sisters—no matter how gorgeous he was. And he was gorgeous. But her secret crush on him was going to stay secret. Forever. Because the second reason she’d never sleep with Jason was that he was fond of petite blondes, and Zoe wasn’t petite or blonde.
“I’m fine. Busy.”
“Want help?” he asked, coming into her office with the transparent intent to look at her screen.
Which was blank, thank you very much—something she absolutely did not want him to know. She practically flew out of her chair and around her desk toward him to stop his progress, tripping over her own heels. He caught her against him and she braced herself, hands on his chest, realizing two things. He was even bigger up close and personal than she’d thought. And, even more disconcerting, beneath the office clothes, he was solid with muscle.
She wasn’t a small woman. She’d gotten her height from her six-foot-four father. She was the shortest Anders in the bunch at five-nine, and she liked heels. In them, she was just at six feet tall, but she still she had to tip her head up a few inches to see into Jason’s eyes.
“Nice diversion technique,” he said, his big hands on her hips, holding her upright with a grip that suggested mountain biking did a body good.
“Diversion?” She batted him away, but he didn’t go far.
Because he was very busy trying to look over her shoulder at her screen. “Yeah,” he said. “But you’re going to have to do better than a hug to distract me.”
“I was not trying to hug you! And you are not getting even a glimpse at my screen.” Hell, no. Embarrassing herself was not the plan for today. She pushed him again, ignoring the fact that her fingers were tingling from the feel they’d gotten of him, or the way his scent was invading her senses.
Or how she hadn’t budged him at all.
“If you’re having trouble,” he said, “I could help.”