All I Want For Christmas

Last night, Anna Gardner was the life of the office Christmas party—right up until she threw herself at gorgeous advertising executive playboy, Hugh Munro. Again. Last year, Hugh let her pretend their passionate kiss never happened, but this year he’s determined to make Anna admit she wants him as much as he wants her.

Except, Hugh doesn’t know the office party is the only night of the year his friend lets her hair down. That every hour she’s away from the office is spent caring for her sickly mother. That her mother’s condition, early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, is hereditary.

When Hugh finds out what she’s been hiding, he’s forced to do some serious soul-searching. It’s not fair to Anna or her mother for him to get involved casually, but casual relationships are all he knows. Can he prove to himself—and to Anna—that she’s all he wants for Christmas?


What readers are saying

“This was a wonderful story. Any book, no matter what length, that can make me cry is always a winner in my book. But this was exceptionally written and gives everyone a little hope that love can conquer anything.” – Shannon at Cocktails and Books

“It was so sweet and charming, heart-warming and very romantic. It’s a story about people you’d really want good things to happen to. A story that will make you go “awwwwwww”. For anyone who wants a short-read/pick-me-up, any time of year, you’ll love this little gem of a story. I kept picturing it as holiday film too, so someone please get on that. Okay??” – Lena on Goodreads. Totally on the film, Lena!

“…a cute love story where the characters are humorous and lovable. Moreover, their love for one another is endearing and everlasting. … [A] refreshing, well-written Christmas story that exemplifies the true spirit of the season and will put a smile on your face, as well as a tear in your eye” – AJ at Blackraven’s Reviews


Anna was never, ever going to the office Christmas party again.

With her head still thumping like a herd of elephants, she’d dragged herself into work. Now she had to face the knowing glances and smothered grins of her colleagues as she walked past them on the way to her office. Grateful for some privacy, she slumped into the cushioned leather chair behind her sleek glass-topped desk and checked her watch. Half an hour late. Half an hour wasn’t too bad after the night she’d had.

A quiet knock, and then her assistant slipped in, closing the door behind her.

“Coffee,” Jennifer said. She set a large paper cup on Anna’s desk, together with a blister pack of pills. “And painkillers.”

Anna raised her head and grimaced. “Is it that obvious?”

Jennifer cocked an all-too-perky eyebrow. “I went up to the second floor.”

The second-floor machine dispensed double-strength brew. Usually Anna stuck with a normal level of caffeine, but today she was grateful Jen had made the effort to go upstairs. She nodded her thanks.

Mistake. Bad mistake.

Anna closed her eyes and waited for the hammering in her head to subside. Within a few minutes, the sweet black coffee and the painkillers blessedly began to work their magic. She looked back at her assistant, who still waited patiently.

“It’s not good news, is it?” Anna asked.

Jen grinned. “Well, that depends how you look at it. I saw Mr. Munro while I was up there.”

Anna exhaled slowly. Hugh Munro was the shining star of the company’s creative firmament—and the star of all Anna’s most embarrassing memories.

“He said he was taking you to lunch,” Jennifer added.

Any other day, that would be good news. But not the morning after the office Christmas party. Anna groaned. “Please tell me you said I had a meeting.”

“I told him your diary was clear all day.”


“You’d better fill me in on what happened last night,” Anna muttered. “I remember there was karaoke.”

“I’m afraid so.”

“How badly did I embarrass myself?”

“You had everyone going,” Jen said with a smirk. “They all joined in on the choruses. ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day,’ ‘Rocking Around the Christmas Tree.’ All the classics. And then you did your solo.”

Anna shut her eyes. She couldn’t have. Not again. Please say she hadn’t sung—

“‘All I Want for Christmas Is You.’”

“What did they put in that punch?”

Jennifer shrugged. It was all very well for her—she hadn’t made a fool of herself singing out of tune in front of the entire staff. And after the singing…

“I kissed him, didn’t I?”

“I think he kissed you, really. It was sweet.”


Anna laid her head on her desk. “I don’t want to see anyone today, Jen. If someone asks, tell them I’ve got something urgent to catch up on before the Christmas break and I can’t be disturbed.”

“Shall I bring you another coffee?”


No amount of caffeine would make this better. She’d drank too much and kissed Hugh Munro at the office Christmas party.


Last time she’d been so mortified, she’d managed to avoid him entirely until the New Year. Hugh had eventually tracked her down and asked her out for a drink after work, but when she’d refused, he hadn’t bothered to try again.


Still, his polite indifference meant she hadn’t needed to keep coming up with excuses. After a while, they’d settled back into a comfortable routine of occasional chats in the lift or by the coffee machine and semiregular lunches at the Italian restaurant around the corner from the office. As far as Anna was concerned, the kiss had been all but forgotten, and she was grateful for his friendship.

But after two glasses of punch, friendship just hadn’t been enough.

Next year she was definitely sticking to the apple juice. She shook her head. Next year she wasn’t going to the party at all.

Excellent plan.

This year, she would just have to hide again. Down here in finance, there was no reason to spend time with the advertising agency’s creative directors. No professional reason, anyway, and she always had work as an excuse to avoid anything else.

Anna picked up her phone and dialed Hugh’s extension. “Look, about lunch…,” she began.

“Good morning to you, too.” He was smiling. She could hear it.


“I can’t make it. I’m very busy today.”

“Doing what?”

“Well…” Anna cast around for a plausible excuse. “I’ve got to finish the end-of-year budgets.”

“You did them last week.”

Damn. “Yes, well, there are some, er, amendments. Urgent ones.”

He laughed. “Anna, I’m taking you to lunch. I already booked a table at Giovanni’s.”


“The tiramisu is on me.”

She could never resist Giovanni’s lusciously rich, creamy tiramisu, and he knew it. “Hugh, I’m not sure—”

“I’ll pick you up at twelve.”


“I’ve got a client on the other line. I’ll see you later, Anna. We’ll talk then.”


At five to twelve, Anna picked up her bag and coat and hid in the ladies’ loos.

Three minutes later, Jennifer followed her in. She grinned and said, “He says you’ve got two minutes, and then he’s coming in to get you.”

“He can’t!”

Jennifer glanced at the flimsy swing door. “He can, you know.”

“Ninety seconds!” Hugh’s voice echoed with amusement but did nothing to disguise his determination.

Anna whipped out her comb and tidied her hair. If she were going down, she’d do it with all guns blazing.

“Thirty seconds!”

She dashed on a streak of dark pink lipstick and pinched some color into her cheeks. Nothing could disguise her faintly bloodshot eyes. Resigned, she slipped her arms into her coat and picked up her handbag.

“Coming, ready or no—” Hugh cut off as she emerged into the foyer. “Good decision.” He winked.

Anna glared at him. How did he manage to look so good the day after the office party, anyway? “I’m not talking to you.”

He laughed. “Fine. You can eat spaghetti alla vongole and sip a delicious Montepulciano, and I’ll do all the talking.”

She shot him a dark glance, then turned away. “We’re not talking about last night.”


Anna looked back, surprised by the stern tone of his voice. He had folded his arms and narrowed his eyes.

“Not again. This time we’re going to talk about it openly and honestly. Like adults, not teenagers.”

Ouch. That was below the belt.

“Couldn’t we just ignore it and move on like adults?” she muttered.

Hugh raised an eyebrow. “We should get going if we don’t want to lose our table.”

Outside, the pavement was slippery with frozen slush. Three days earlier, the freshly fallen snow had been pretty. Now, melted and refrozen several times, it was just ugly gray ice. Anna walked gingerly, careful to keep her balance. The last thing she wanted was to slip and give Hugh an excuse to catch her.

They paused, waiting for a chance to cross the busy road. Anna’s hand bumped against Hugh’s.

“You’re cold,” he said.

“It’s winter.”

“You need a pair of gloves,” he remarked as they crossed the street to the restaurant.

“I lose them.”

“Here. Get inside, where it’s warm.” Hugh held open the door for her.

Giovanni greeted her with a kiss on both cheeks. “Bellissima signorina!”

“Hello, Giovanni.” Anna couldn’t help but smile. Giovanni’s outrageous compliments were one of the reasons she loved coming here.

“Today I have a special for you,” he told Hugh. “Beautiful oxtail, cooked since yesterday so it will melt in your mouth.”

Hugh’s lips twitched into a smile. “I think I’ll take a look at the menu.”

Giovanni sighed dramatically and shook his head. “No soul. That is the problem with English men.”

“No heart, either,” Anna agreed, with a pointed look in Hugh’s direction.

“Come, then. I have your table here.” Giovanni handed them each a menu. “A bottle of wine?”

“Anna?” Hugh asked.

“I don’t think that would be a very good idea.”

He laughed. Bastard.

“We’ll have a bottle of sparkling mineral water, thanks.” Hugh raised a knowing eyebrow at Anna. “Still feeling it from last night, huh?”

“I thought we were forgetting last night.” She was not blushing. The heat in her cheeks was perfectly normal after the cold outside.

“No.” Hugh’s eyes twinkled. “You were forgetting. I was going to have an adult conversation about it.”

Anna hid behind the large leather-bound menu. “The penne sounds good. Or maybe I’ll try the chicken with dolcelatte and spinach.”

“Or maybe you’ll have the same thing you have every single time.” Hugh whipped the menu out of her hands.

Anna glared at him. “Maybe I’ve decided to start taking some risks.”

He let out a bark of laughter. “Risks like last night?”

She sighed. “Last night was a mistake. I’m sorry. Can we please move on from it now?”

“No.” Hugh shook his head decisively. “We can’t.”

Giovanni returned with the water. Hugh ordered the lasagna for himself and the spaghetti for Anna. She frowned.

“Sorry, did you want something different?” Hugh raised an eyebrow.

“For the signorina, it is always the spaghetti alla vongole,” Giovanni said with a cheerful nod. “The best spaghetti inLondon, no?”

“Yes,” she admitted. “And yes, I’ll have the spaghetti.”

Hugh poured them each a glass of water, then leaned back in his plush red chair, watching her. Anna glanced around the restaurant. Deep burgundy gilded ribbons had been twisted into classic bows and elegant festoons. Golden candles lit the windows, and fresh greenery scented the air. It was lovely.

And Hugh was still watching her.

One of them would have to break the silence. She didn’t see why it should be her. He was the one who wanted to talk. She shifted in her chair, then took a sip of water.

Fine. If he wasn’t going to say anything, he could listen to her. “Look…”

“I’m looking.”

His lips twitched until he was almost laughing, but not quite. She wished he wouldn’t do that. It always made her want to lean over and kiss his lips into a proper smile. Anna tightened her grip on the water glass to stop herself from doing anything so stupid.

“I like what I see,” he said.

“I thought this was supposed to be an adult conversation.”


“So am I. It shouldn’t have happened. It was unprofessional, and I’m sorry. Next year, I just won’t come to the office party.”

“That would be a shame.”

Anna shrugged. “I don’t know what else to say.”

“You could tell me why.”

“Why what?”

“Why you can’t keep your hands off me once you’ve had one drink too many.”

She reached for a slice of Giovanni’s delicious focaccia bread and began to crumble it on her plate. “People do the strangest things when they’re drunk.”

“That’s true.” His eyes narrowed. In the candlelight, they were almost golden.

Anna ducked her head. “So, that’s all it was.”


The waiter arrived with their food. Anna asked for grated Parmesan and freshly ground black pepper. If she took long enough, maybe Hugh would let her get away with changing the subject.

“Delicious,” she pronounced, tucking in hungrily.

“Good. Did you have breakfast today, by the way?”


“Had you eaten anything this morning?”

“I had coffee.”

“That explains it. You’re always grumpy when you’re hungry.”

“I wasn’t hungry,” she replied automatically.

“Eat your lunch.”

She twirled her fork into the spaghetti. As the pasta warmed her from the inside, her irritation began to seep away. Maybe Hugh had a point.

“Better?” His voice was surprisingly tender.

“Yes. I needed that. Thank you.”

“My pleasure. Is there a reason you keep running away from me?”

He spoke softly. Anna’s cutting retort died on her lips. She closed her eyes and took a ragged breath. “I’m not running now.”

Hugh laid his hand over hers. “I’m glad.”

His hand was warm and oddly comforting. It took a considerable effort for Anna to draw hers away.

“This isn’t a good idea.”

“Why not?” He smiled. “I like you, Anna. You like me. Why isn’t this a good idea?”

“I’m not looking for a relationship. I’m happy just being friends.” She picked up her holly-patterned napkin and folded it between her fingers.

“Friends who can’t keep their hands off each other after a glass of punch?”

She shrugged, fixing her gaze on her empty plate.

Hugh leaned across the table. “I don’t believe you, Anna. I didn’t believe you last year, but you ran away so fast every time I tried to tell you how I felt. I told myself I’d read you wrong. I tried to believe it had been just a drunken mistake you didn’t want to repeat.”

His voice lowered. Anna instinctively moved closer.

“But then you did it again,” he murmured, and she shivered as if he had touched her. “Once might have been a mistake, but not twice. I know what I heard in your voice when you sang for me last night. I know what I saw in your beautiful brown eyes when you walked toward me, never taking your gaze from mine. I know whose name you whispered when you put your arms around my neck. My name, Anna,” he said savagely. “And then I kissed you. Because you wanted it, and so did I.” He leaned back in his chair, leaving her staring up at him, pulse racing wildly with desire. “So don’t tell me you’re happy being friends.”

Anna slumped in her seat. She wasn’t happy, but she couldn’t tell him why. She wasn’t ready for that. She couldn’t bear the inevitable pity. She didn’t want to hear his excuses. Neither of them needed that embarrassment. Much better to let him down gently.

“Fine,” she said in a bright voice that sounded false even to her ears. “I won’t tell you that. But we can’t be anything else. I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry,” he repeated slowly. “For what, exactly? For kissing me like I was the only man in the world? For running away from me? Or for lying to me again?”

“I’m sorry for ever making you think we had a chance.”

Hugh gave her a long, measuring look, then called for the bill. She took her purse out of her pocket, but he dismissed it with an impatient gesture and handed his credit card to Giovanni.

“No tiramisu for the signorina?” Giovanni asked as he processed Hugh’s payment.

Anna mustered a smile. “Not today.”

He gave her a knowing look. “It is good for the heart, the tiramisu.”

“There’s nothing wrong with my heart,” she said sharply, then shook her head. “Sorry. I’m a bit on edge today.”

Hugh jabbed his number into the card machine and handed it back.

“She needs dessert,” Giovanni said with a nod toward Anna.

Hugh looked her up and down coldly. “So she does.”

Anna gritted her teeth. “Actually, I need to get back to the office. Maybe next time,” she added politely, for Giovanni’s benefit.

Hugh merely helped her into her coat and nodded farewell to the restaurateur.

They headed back toward the office, Anna half a step behind Hugh. At the corner he turned left instead of right and Anna, focused on the treacherous pavement, walked right into him. Hugh grabbed her arm before she hit the ground. He hauled her upright and grasped her shoulders.

When they were both steady on their feet, she said, “The office is the other way.”

“Jennifer said your diary was clear. I thought we might take a walk.”

“Because it’s such a nice day?” she said dryly. “And we’re enjoying each other’s company so much?”

He let her go and resumed walking.

“Next time, you could try asking me,” she shouted after him.

Anna paused on the street corner. She didn’t want to be back at the office all that much. She wouldn’t get any useful work done.

“Are you coming, then?” Hugh grunted over his shoulder.

She smothered her giggle at his bad temper. “Fine. Wait while I catch up.”

A few minutes later, they turned into a small square with a number of brightly lit shops and open market stalls, all strung with Christmas lights.

“We need to get you some gloves. Here.” Hugh walked over to a nearby stand. Patterned scarves in vivid jewel tones waved like banners in the chilly breeze. Chunky hand-knitted hats and gloves were piled high on the table: bright reds and greens in Christmas patterns for kids on one side and subtle, sophisticated shades in adult sizes on the other. Hugh picked up a pair of thick gloves and held Anna’s hand against them to check the size.

“Green or blue?” The soft cashmere gloves were warm against her skin, but it was Hugh’s casual grip that set her pulse racing.

“Blue. I mean, you shouldn’t be buying me gloves. I’ll lose them.”

“Tie them on a string.”

She looked up into his laughing eyes, and her heart skipped. She wanted to say yes to him. To everything. She nodded slowly. “Maybe I will.”

“Here, try this on.” Hugh handed her a matching woolly hat. “That should keep you warm.”

Anna pulled it on, but it wouldn’t fit over her neatly pinned knot of hair. Hugh raised a challenging eyebrow. She shrugged and took out the pins, letting her hair spill down below her shoulders.

He smiled. “Beautiful.”

“The hat?”


December 2011
12,000 word short story
Amazon US | Amazon UK | B&N | Books on Board | Kobo

The Oil Tycoon and Her Sexy Sheikh

His duty, her dreams, undone by their desire…

In the male-dominated oil industry, executive Olivia McInnes plays a careful game – she’s cold, uncompromising, and ambitious as hell. Once she seals the deal to drill in the clear waters of Saqat, she’ll finally prove herself worthy to take the reins of her father’s oil company. Her only obstacle is marine biologist – and Saqat’s royal heir – Sheikh Khaled Ibm Saqat al Mayim, who’s determined to protect both his people and his country from environmental devastation…

It’s not long before Olivia’s icy cool exterior is shattered by the intelligent and wickedly hot sheikh, and business is surpassed by sweet, stolen pleasures. But outside the bedroom, there’s reality to be faced. Soon Khaled must return to his obligations – and his betrothed – in Saqat.

Caught between duty and ambition, can an oil tycoon and a sexy sheikh find room for love…or will this business deal spell disaster for them both?

What readers are saying

“As the title promises, it’s sort of an arch, feminist-aware twist on the Harlequin Presents tropes. It’s also a straightforward sweet story about two people trying to make their way in their respective fathers’ shadows.” – Cecilia Grant on Goodreads

“Ros Clarke gives classic romance a fresh spin in this tale of star-crossed lovers, with warm, believable characters and a tender love story that kept me smiling long afterwards.” – Kate Hewitt, USA Today Bestselling Author

“I was utterly delighted by The Oil Tycoon and Her Sexy Sheikh! Once again Ros Clarke brought us great, well developed characters who were interesting on their own but when put together, wow, the chemistry was sizzling!” – Stella at Booklovers Inc


Khaled leaned back against the mirrored wall, folded his arms, and tried not to think of all the places he would rather be this morning than in the lift on his way to the boardroom. He was here because his father had asked him to come. When the Emir of Saqat asked, his son knew better than to refuse. So Khaled was in the embassy, speeding up to the twelfth floor to meet the CEO of an oil company.

Oil. He practically choked on the word. It was the very thing that made this meeting such a waste of time. There was no way on Earth that Oliver McInnes of MCI Oil could persuade Khaled to let him drill in the unspoiled waters in his part of the Persian Gulf.

The door pinged and he strode out of the lift. He nodded politely at Saleema, the receptionist. It wasn’t her fault he’d been sent on this fool’s errand.

“Good morning, Your Highness.”

“Morning, Saleema. Is my appointment here?”

“Not exactly.”

Before he could ask what she meant, a woman—a new secretary, he presumed—stepped out of the photocopying room and hurried toward him.

“Excuse me,” she said, without looking up at Khaled. He stepped aside automatically to let her pass. She had to be new if no one had informed her of the correct etiquette when addressing him.

He turned his head to watch her disappear along the corridor and into the ladies’ loo. Not a Saqati woman, which was unexpected here. English, he guessed, with her pale skin and dark hair, and smartly dressed for a secretary in an extremely well-cut trouser suit that clung beautifully to the curves of her backside. A shame she worked for him.

“Sheikh Khaled?”

Saleema’s question dragged him back from his contemplation of the secretary’s curves to the reason for his visit.

“You were saying about Oliver McInnes?”

“Yes, sir. I am afraid he is indisposed. He has sent a representative instead.”

“Fine. Send him in and arrange for some coffee, please.”


Saleema paused. Khaled gave her a curious glance. “What is it?”

“That was her.” She tilted her head down the corridor where the secretary had gone. “He sent his daughter.”

Khaled’s gaze ran up and down, lazily assessing his opponent in the boardroom. Expensive, charcoal-gray pinstriped suit. Smart, polished shoes. Blue and lavender striped silk tie. White, perfectly laundered shirt. Not Oliver McInnes.


Although, if he were judging by appearances, he’d have guessed that she would have preferred to be Oliver. This businesswoman was dressed in the nearest thing to a man’s outfit that she could get away with. If she was hoping to disguise her femininity, he could have told her it wasn’t working. Earlier he’d noticed her curves from behind, and now that she was facing him, he had a whole different set of curves to appreciate, all of which were wholly feminine and utterly alluring. Noticing that was not helping Khaled concentrate on her presentation, nor was the way her short dark hair showed just a hint of curl at her collar. She wore discreet gold studs in her ears and barely a trace of makeup, which allowed Khaled to see exactly how her cheeks flushed delicate pink with nervousness. Ms. McInnes was not quite as in control as she would have liked him to believe.

For the hundredth time, she tucked a nonexistent strand of hair behind her ear and glanced down at her notes. Khaled watched in silence. The boardroom might not be his natural environment, but he’d been involved in enough negotiations to know when to let his opponents speak. It was usually easier to let them dig their own grave than to surge into battle head on.

He had to admit that the MCI Oil presentation was impressive. Olivia McInnes had done her research. He wondered whether she really was a last-minute substitute for her father, or whether the exchange had been deliberately planned to set him off guard. She spoke confidently about the engineering required and gave cogent reasons for the proposed figures. She even knew a little about Saqat. Not much, but more than a glance at a Wikipedia entry could have told her. He was impressed. Most people Khaled met in England had barely heard of the tiny nation on the shores of the Persian Gulf that was his home.

Olivia had stopped talking. She was smiling coolly at Khaled, waiting for his response. Something in the way she met his eyes indicated that she was expecting him to agree.

He tossed the report onto the table and stood up. He needed to think. Instinctively, he wandered over to the glass wall of the London office. Gray buildings, gray clouds, gray smoke. This was what the world called civilization? He took a slow breath and looked again, more carefully. Bright-eyed pigeons circled below. Green trees pushed up defiantly toward the sky. The harder he looked, the more he knew he would see. Nature was too strong to be beaten down, even in the center of a concrete city.

“Your Highness?”

His lips tightened, but he turned to speak to her. “Ms. McInnes.”

She was standing up, presumably because he was.

“Sit down.” He called for more coffee and thumbed idly through the MCI report again. It was thorough, but not thorough enough. Not where it counted.

Saleema refilled his cup, and he waved at Ms. McInnes, indicating that she should have whatever she wanted. She smiled at Saleema and asked for tea. It was an unexpected smile, wide and full, with a flash of warmth that was immediately extinguished behind the cool façade of the businessperson.

But the smile remained in Khaled’s vision. A smile like that could intoxicate a man if he weren’t careful.

Khaled turned his attention to the report on the table. “This is an excellent proposal, Ms. McInnes. My father has done extensive research on MCI Oil and I know that he is eager to do business with you.”

She nodded. “As is my father eager to do business with the nation of Saqat.”

“Quite. And yet, neither your father nor mine is here.”

She had apologized for that at the start of their meeting.

She frowned. “Are you telling me you are not authorized to make the deal on your father’s behalf? I understood that…”

“I have the authority.”

“Good. So do I.” She folded her hands in her lap.

“But I am not so easily satisfied as my father.” He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t just sign Saqat’s future away.

“What do you mean?”

He picked up a pen and tapped it against the report. “Tell me about the environmental impact of your proposals, Ms. McInnes.”

“As I mentioned before, a full environmental survey of the area has been undertaken, and the results are in the report you were sent. Provisions are laid out in the contract should any unforeseen consequences arise from the drilling.”


“Financial compensation. Restoration. Containment.”

He’d seen the contract with its standard industry clauses that covered everything from minor habitat damage to the devastation of a full-scale leak. None of them went far enough.

“Have you ever been to the Persian Gulf?” The starched and suited Ms. McInnes looked as though she’d never been out of her air-conditioned boardroom.

“No. I’ve traveled to Dubai and Saudi Arabia, but never to the Gulf itself.”

“I see. And have you ever seen the consequences of an oil spill in a natural environment?”

“Yes. It’s terrible. That’s why MCI employs a belt and braces approach to safety, Your Highness.”

“Enough with the highnesses.” No one in England bothered with that except his embassy staff. “Call me Sheikh Khaled.”

“Yes, Your… Sheikh.”

He shook his head, but he smiled. It was reassuring to know Olivia McInnes could get flustered. “Not ‘Your Sheikh.’ Sheikh Khaled.”

She batted the mistake away. “Sheikh Khaled,” she repeated coolly. “As I was saying, our safety record is second to none, and we employ a stringent set of checks to ensure that such a disaster will never happen.”

“Never again, you mean.” If she wasn’t going to mention it, he would.

“That was a long time ago.”

“Yet the effects are still being felt.”

“What do you mean?” She couldn’t quite hide the anxiety in her voice.

Khaled pressed his advantage. “The mating population of puffins on Straer Island has never recovered to its previous level. The fish population is steady, but there is a locally high proportion of adults with stunted growth and abnormal tumors.”

Twenty years ago, an oil leak in the North Sea had hit Straer Island, off the eastern coast of Scotland. The clean-up job had been finished for nearly fifteen years. Olivia’s eyes grew wider as he continued to list the ongoing effects of the spill.

“Residual oil in the sand continues to affect the shellfish. Just because the seaweed has grown back and you can see a seagull or two overhead does not mean that the environment has recovered.”

She shook her head slowly in stunned amazement. “How do you know all this?”

“How do you not know? Is this the way MCI Oil makes provisions for disaster? By doing the sketchiest possible clean-up job and moving out as soon as the public outcry has died down? Because I assure you, Ms. McInnes…” He stood and leaned over the table, “…that will not do for Saqat.”

“No… I… yes… I mean…”

He laughed, though he felt no amusement. “That’s what I thought. You really should have done your homework a little better.”

She pushed back her chair and stood up to him, her cool blue eyes flashing like flint. “Tell me about your country, Sheikh Khaled. Your people. They enjoy a high standard of living, do they? All that wealth of the Arab nations. Some of it must have trickled down to them. I expect they all wear gold watches and drive flashy cars, don’t they?”

“My people are quite content.” He hoped they were, but he knew it was hard living in a poor nation surrounded by the opulence of oil-rich neighbors. Very few Saqati citizens had vehicles at all, let alone flashy cars to show off their wealth. The souks in Saqat City sold food, spices, serviceable fabrics, but not gold or jewels. As far as he knew, no one went hungry, but few were rich, as Olivia McInnes no doubt knew.

“They are content to be the poor relation, living on handouts from their rich neighbors, are they? How long do you suppose that generosity will last before Saqat is expected to start exploiting its own natural resources? If not with MCI Oil, with some other company whose environmental track record is far worse than ours.”

He turned away from her to stare out of the window again. She was right. Damn her, she was right and that was why his father had set up the meeting. The Emir had always done his duty by his people, and now it was Khaled’s time to step up to the mark.

“Your people need this deal, Sheikh Khaled. They deserve the opportunity to earn the freedoms that come with wealth. They deserve a better education system, health care, technology, everything your oil could provide. Surely that is more important than protecting against the unlikely chance of an environmental problem?”

“Problem! Disaster would be a better word. Destruction. Devastation.”

“Call it what you like. Can you deny your people their inheritance?”

No, he couldn’t do that, but there was more than one kind of inheritance that mattered, and he couldn’t explain it here in a gray office at the top of a gray building in a gray city.

“Come with me.”

“What? Where?”

He didn’t wait for her. If she wanted this deal, she would follow. She caught up to him at the elevator, still shoving papers back into her briefcase. The door slid back, and he indicated she should enter. He pressed the button for the ground floor.

“Are you kidnapping me?” she asked calmly.

Khaled smiled briefly. “Certainly not. You are free to leave at any time. Of course, if you do, I won’t have signed your contract.”

She nodded. “Very well. But won’t you at least tell me where we’re going?”

A car was waiting for them outside the building. Khaled opened the door for Olivia, then went around to the other side. As they pulled away smoothly into the busy London traffic, he answered her question.

“The Natural History Museum. I want to show you my people’s true inheritance.”

It had been twenty years since Olivia last visited the London museums. As a child, she’d been unimpressed with the dull old paintings in the National Gallery and unsure what to make of the elaborate, useless exhibits in the Victoria and Albert. It was the Science Museum that had held her spellbound with its interactive displays that opened a fascinating window into the way the world worked. After that, the Natural History Museum could only ever have been second best. She had vague memories of skeletons and trays of butterflies pinned horribly through their stomachs for display. It was hard to see what that had to do with the Saqati oil.

The sheikh’s car drew up outside the main entrance. Olivia exited and stepped onto the pavement before Sheikh Khaled could help her out. He raised an eyebrow at her, but said nothing and leaned into the car to give a murmured instruction to his driver.

“This way,” he said, walking away from the grand entrance with its impressive Victorian gothic architecture.

Olivia followed hastily. “Where are we going now?”

“Tradesman’s entrance,” he told her, with a teasing smile.

He led her around the back of the building and through a series of security gates, which he opened as easily as if he worked here every day. When the receptionist greeted him with a warm smile and an assurance that his lab results were waiting, Olivia couldn’t hold back any longer.

“You work here?”

“Of course,” he replied smoothly. “It is the best.”

“The best what?”

He laughed. “The best place for my research, of course. Come.”

“What research? What work?” But he was already striding down a long corridor and showed no sign of answering her questions. Eventually, he stopped by a door with a brass plate screwed to it. By the side of the door, a black plate listed the names of the researchers involved with the collection. The first name on the list was disconcertingly familiar.

“Dr. K. Saqat? You’re a doctor?”

“Ph.D. Yes.”

“In what?”

“Marine biology.”

“Marine biology. That’s how you know all about the oil spill.”

“Yes. My doctoral dissertation was on the long-term effects of oil spills on marine life. The results were not good.”

“But we have scientists, too,” she said. “They say that so long as we clear up properly, everything will be normal again within a few years.”

“Is that what you pay them to say?”

“No!” She met his enquiring gaze squarely. “No. At least… not as far as I know.”

Sheikh Khaled nodded. “My research was self-funded. There was no external pressure to come up with the ‘right’ results. And believe me, no one would have been happier than I to know that the human greed for oil was not destroying the world around it.”

“I would be happy to know that, too,” she asserted firmly.

He looked at her for a long moment. “Very well,” he said at last. “See for yourself.”

He unlocked the door and held it open for her.

She nodded at the brass plaque. “‘The Al Mayim Collection.’ Is it yours?”

“It is the collection from my country, Saqat al Mayim. But since the collection focuses on the marine specimens found in our waters, it seemed appropriate to give it that name. Al Mayim is the Arabic word for the sea.”

“The Natural History Museum has a collection from Saqat?”

“Of course. They have specimens here from all over the globe, but this collection is at the heart of my research.”

As Olivia entered the room, she saw shelf after shelf of jars and trays containing all kinds of fantastical and faintly gruesome creatures.

“What is your research?”

“I’m making a collection of all the indigenous marine life in the Persian Gulf. There are many species unique to the Gulf and several whose natural habitat is found only in the Gulf and the Great Barrier Reef.” He shrugged off his jacket and rolled up his shirtsleeves to reveal tanned forearms. Beautifully muscular tanned forearms that had nothing to do with the reason she was here.

Olivia dragged her eyes away from the sheikh’s arms and tried to come up with a sensible question. “Isn’t the Great Barrier Reef endangered too?”

“Everywhere that human activity reaches is endangered. But they have done some good work in recent years to protect the reef.”

“Do you have coral in Saqat as well?”

He grinned. “See.” He took her to another part of the room and swept his hand carelessly along the row, where hundreds of specimens of coral in all colors and shapes were stored.

She gasped. “It’s beautiful.”

“Yes. More beautiful at the bottom of the sea.”

“You dive?” She shook her head. “Stupid question. Of course you would have to.”

“I learned as a child. It was years before I bothered with scuba equipment.”

He had already moved on to the next shelf of specimens. Olivia followed in fascination. He was totally absorbed in the work, describing to her the smallest details of feeding habits and breeding colonies. She barely understood half of what he was saying. Preserved fish and crustaceans were not the sort of subjects that easily held her attention. But Sheikh Khaled—or Dr. Saqat—was an object of profound interest to Olivia. She was entranced by the way his eyes narrowed slightly when he focused on some minute feature of the specimen he was describing to her. She watched the way he handled the tiniest glass jar with delicacy and precision, and noticed the sure touch of his long fingers when he reached out to stroke the coral. He would know how to touch a woman.

She shook her head firmly, throwing out the rogue thought. She had no business wondering how Sheikh Khaled would touch a woman. As penance, she forced herself to listen carefully to his final lecture on the significance of Saqati marine life and the potential for irreversible damage from an oil spill in the region.

“Look at this.” He pointed to an enormous tank containing the preserved body of a creature quite unlike anything Olivia had ever seen before.

“What is it?” She ran her fingers along the glass of the tank and peered closer. It was at least two meters long with a fish-like tail but no other fins.

“A dugong. In your language it is known as a sea-cow.”

“Is it a fish?” It was incredibly ugly, whatever it was.

“No, it’s a marine mammal. See, here, on top of its head. Those are its nostrils.” Olivia looked where the sheikh was pointing and saw the two holes in its skin.

“So it breathes?”

“Like you and me. They can survive underwater for several minutes at a time and dive to thirty or forty meters. But they need to come up for air.”

“Wow.” Olivia gave him a quick glance. His face was set in hard lines. This wasn’t just a hobby for him. He cared about the unprepossessing dugong just as much as the pretty coral or the spiny mollusks.

“How have they been affected by the oil spills in the Gulf?”

He sighed. “Loss of feeding environment.”

“What do they eat?”

“Sea-grass, mostly. They live in the mangrove beds on the shores of the Gulf.”

“But the oil has polluted the mangroves,” Olivia said. She stood up and looked sadly at the dugong. “Are they endangered?”

He shrugged. “They’re not on the official list, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“It’s not.”

“We don’t know,” he said, after a brief pause. She felt as if she had been given the benefit of the doubt. “There are still good numbers in Australia and one or two other places. But numbers are declining everywhere, especially in the Persian Gulf.”

“Yes. Yes, I see.”

He looked down at her grimly. “So what are you going to do about it, Ms. McInnes? Withdraw the offer from MCI Oil?”

Olivia’s mouth opened, but no words came out. She had forgotten why she was here. How could she have forgotten the deal? A couple of hours in the company of this man and she had put aside the ambition of a lifetime. The MCI deal was going to secure her position as CEO of the company when her father announced his retirement later in the year. If she failed, the board would have excellent grounds to refuse her appointment. Many of them already believed her to be too young—and, though they might not say it aloud, too female—to take over.

“I can’t do that,” she managed to say eventually. “I can’t.”

“Well, then, we have a problem.”

“Yes, we do.” Gathering her wits as much as she could manage, she said, “It’s your problem as much as mine. Your father wants the deal, and your people need it. What happens if you just say no?”

He glared at her for a few moments then sighed heavily. “I don’t know.”

“Well, then, we have a problem.”

Sheikh Khaled twisted his lips ruefully. “I already said that.”

“So now what?”

She waited in the corridor while the sheikh locked up the collection. He slipped the keys in his pocket and turned to face her. They were standing close to each other. Too close. His lips twitched. He obviously knew exactly what he did to her, with his tie pulled loose and his shirtsleeves rolled up. The top button of his shirt was undone, revealing a tantalizing glimpse of golden skin and dark hair, with a steady pulse throbbing at the base of his throat.

He was irresistible.

She had to resist him.

She sucked in a breath and stepped back.

The sheikh’s hands shot out and gripped her elbows. He didn’t pull her closer, but he wasn’t letting her go. She could feel his warmth through the layers of her wool suit and silk blouse.

“Now, you invite me to Scotland and I decide whether MCI Oil has anything to offer my country. Or not.”

July 2012
45,000 word category romanceAmazon US | Amazon UK | B&N | Books on Board | Kobo | iTunes | All Romance

Previous cover: coverquote


Table for One

When food critic Claudia Thomas gets dumped on Valentine’s Day, she finds herself occupying a table for one at London’s hottest new restaurant. If her job wasn’t on the line, she’d skip the whole affair, but her editor’s waiting for a review—and with luck, an interview with sexy chef Ward Nicholls.

Ward, intrigued by the single woman in a restaurant full of couples, sets out to tease her palate. Claudia has never tasted anything so luscious as the special meal Ward prepares for her, but when the seduction moves from the restaurant to his bedroom, Claudia discovers the only thing more tempting than his food is the chef himself.

Their connection is instantaneous, sizzling, and spicy—until Claudia comes clean about her job, reopening a wound Ward had thought long-healed. Could one accidental lie of omission end a delicious relationship before it even has a chance to start?


What readers are saying

“It was a lovely story. This is the second of Ms. Clarke’s works I’ve read, and again there were intelligent, adult characters. That doesn’t mean that they don’t make mistakes. That means they own up to them and try to find a middle path. They’re grownups. I can’t tell you how refreshing that is.” – Marilyn at Mean Fat Old Bat

“Maybe it’s the hopeless romantic in me but man did I enjoy this book. It involved all my favourite things, romance, a hot guy and food. Seriously could you get anything better in this story? I think not.” – Kayleigh at K-Books

“One of the worst books I have read. Dull and stupid. Wasted 99 cents for 86 pages of drible.” – Anonymous at B&N


“You’re breaking up with me? Today?”

Claudia stared at Andrew in disbelief. As far as she was concerned, she and Andrew had the perfect setup. He was a charming dinner companion and a very satisfactory bed companion. “Why would you do that? Why now?”

He cleared his throat. “Things haven’t been right between us for a while.”

Huh. “You can’t break up with me today.”

“Why not today?” He frowned. “Why would you want to go on pretending everything is okay? Especially on Valentine’s Day.”

“Because it’s Valentine’s Day!” She shook her head. “And we have a reservation at Ward’s.”

“Do we? You never said.” For a moment, she thought he might be reconsidering. Ward’s was the latest restaurant to be awarded two highly coveted Michelin stars, and reservations had to be made months in advance.

“It was supposed to be a surprise.” Genevieve, Claudia’s editor at Galaxy magazine, had only told her about it last week.

His eyes narrowed suspiciously. “And?”

She shrugged. She had been planning to pretend it was her treat, but it didn’t matter now. “And I’m reviewing it for the magazine.” No need to mention to Andrew that the hotshot young chef at Ward’s had recently made it to seventh place on a list of the Sexiest Men in London.

“I’m sure you’ll find someone else to go with you.”

“It’s Valentine’s Day. Everyone I know already has a date. I thought I did, too,” she snapped.

“I could still go with you,” Andrew offered. “We could spend the evening sharing stories of how much we irritate each other.”

She laughed. “I’m not sure that would be a good idea. I might throw my soup at you.”

“You never have the soup.”

“You actually noticed.”

“Yes. I really am sorry things didn’t work out between us.”

“It doesn’t matter.” Which was almost true. If he’d told her tomorrow, it wouldn’t have mattered.

“Enjoy tonight.”

“I might not go.”

“You’ll go. You’ve got to write the review, remember?”

He kissed her cheek and said good-bye.

Claudia closed the door behind him and leaned against it. Damn.

She’d have to do it. Any other night she might have called a few friends and headed out to drown her sorrows and scout a replacement, but tonight she had a job to do. Genevieve had been hinting recently that the magazine might be looking for a higher profile restaurant critic. A celebrity who knew nothing about food, Claudia guessed. A name to bring in fresh readers. This review of Ward’s—with a picture of Ward himself—would be a great way for Claudia to show she was worth keeping on.

But a woman dining alone on Valentine’s Day would attract attention. Claudia was fine with attention, but she wouldn’t let anyone pity her—or worse, hit on her. The low-cut, tight-fitting, black-velvet sheath dress she’d planned to wear for her date with Andrew wouldn’t work at all. Instead, she picked out a midnight blue silk jersey dress, which fell modestly to just above her knees and draped softly around her breasts without revealing too much. She clipped several bangles onto her wrists and added a necklace of dark, glittery jet. She took similar care with her makeup, then grabbed a black clutch bag and slipped on a pair of killer heels to complete the look. Smart, sophisticated, sexy but not seductive. Perfect for an evening that was purely business.

Ward dotted dark, glossy balsamic reduction around the venison terrine, arranged the slices of rye bread neatly on the side, and slid the finished plates across the counter. Without pausing, he reached up to pull the next order from the rack as he turned back to the ovens. He glanced at the note, frowned, and called over his shoulder, “Table for one?”

“Yes, chef. Table was booked for two, but the lady’s companion couldn’t make it.”

Ward dismissed the waiter with a nod and detoured via the walk-in fridge. He couldn’t serve the Valentine’s Night menu to a woman who’d been stood up. She didn’t need food to fall in love to. She needed food to make her feel fabulous. He had just the thing in mind.

“Compliments of the chef, ma’am.”

Claudia looked at the small plate in front of her. This didn’t resemble anything on the lengthy tasting menu she’d been given.

“What is it?”

“Langoustines with a chili-ginger dip.” The waiter’s voice was as neutral as his expression.

The shellfish looked deliciously plump, and her mouth watered at the tangy scent of the dip. “Thank you.”

She used her fingers to peel the shellfish, extracting the soft pink flesh and dipping it into the sauce. The first taste sent her reeling. Salty and sweet, with a perfect balance of fiery flavors, it filled her mouth with explosive sensations. Claudia slowly worked her way through the next two langoustines, giving each taste a chance to settle on her palate before she set off the fireworks again with the next bite. Incredible.

At times like this, she had the best job in the world.

In a brilliantly run restaurant like Ward’s, waiters appeared as if by magic at precisely the right moment. One came to remove Claudia’s plate and the accompanying finger bowl. A few moments later, another brought a Chinese-style white porcelain spoon, filled with a single scoop of sorbet. He laid it on a chilled silver charger that would prevent the sorbet from melting instantly.

“To cleanse the palate, ma’am.”

Claudia glanced around the room. At every table, oysters on the half shell sat on the ice sculptures advertised in the menu. No doubt hers would follow after the sorbet. Sorrel sorbet, she guessed, with a hint of lemon. Deliciously refreshing without overpowering. Not what she was expecting, but exactly what she’d needed. She discreetly opened her smartphone and made a few notes for the review.

Claudia’s eyebrows rose when the waiter placed the next dish on the table. A pile of deep-fried leeks topped with a seared scallop and a wobbly poached quail’s egg was placed in front of her.

“Has the kitchen run out of oysters?”

The waiter smiled politely and shook his head. “No, ma’am. The chef thought you would prefer this.”

She stared at him. “The chef?”

“Yes, ma’am. He thinks the other menu is not suitable for you.”

“Not suitable?” Claudia shook her head. “Why would he think that?”

“Because you are dining alone, ma’am.”

Oh. She looked back at the plate. It smelled incredible and it looked delicious. The chef was quite right—she would prefer not to eat oysters alone, but she was here to review the restaurant. She always had the set menu when she was working. It was the fairest way of assessing what ordinary customers would be served.

“You may inform the chef, with my compliments, that I will have the menu as advertised, no matter what his views on the matter are.”

“Of course, ma’am. Should I take this away?”

She eyed the scallop regretfully. “Yes.”

“She sent it back?” He didn’t shout. Ward Nicholls never shouted. He didn’t need to shout to get the very best out of his staff. He found that a quiet, measured tone was enough to have them quivering with obedience.

“Yes, chef. She asked for the advertised menu.”

“Damn fool.” Ward took the plate and threw its contents into the nearest bin. The egg was already ruined; he’d have to cook the dish again. He gathered a replacement set of ingredients, working swiftly and precisely. “She’s not allergic to the scallop?”

“She didn’t say so.”

“Huh.” He threw a fresh handful of julienned leeks into a pan of hot oil and dropped a quail’s egg into another pan full of simmering water. Just before they were ready, he selected the plumpest, freshest scallop to sear on the grill.

When the plate had been recreated exactly, the waiter braced himself to return with it.

“I’ll take it myself,” Ward said curtly.

“It’s polite to at least try a dish before sending it back to the kitchen.”

Claudia looked up to see a tall man in chef’s whites glaring down at her. Ward Nicholls was as handsome in the flesh as he was in print. Even when he was angry. His strong jaw jutted out over the mandarin collar of his chef’s jacket and his blue eyes glittered in challenge. Evidently he was a man accustomed to getting his own way.

She eyed him coolly. “It’s polite to serve a customer what she’s ordered.”

He shrugged. “It’s polite to serve her what she wants. Try it.”

He’d brought another scallop, another egg, another pile of leeks. Her taste buds cried out to sample it.

“You enjoyed the langoustines,” he murmured, his voice as sexy as his unshaven jaw. “And the sorbet.”

She had savored every bite of the langoustines and each spoonful of the sorbet. And now she craved the scallop and quail’s egg.

Ward drew around a spare chair to sit beside Claudia, and used her knife and fork to put together a mouthful of all the elements on the plate. Silently, he offered it to her.

He was close enough that she could smell sweet herbs and the tang of fresh lemon clinging to his skin. Close enough that she could see the tension in his brow and the darker roots of his blond hair. Close enough that she forgot all about the job she was supposed to be doing.

“Try it,” he invited.

The food. He was asking her to try the food. Not to try the taste of his lips against hers. That would be ridiculous. She didn’t even know this guy. She mustered sufficient self-control to simply open her mouth and let him feed her in a gesture that felt even more intimate than a kiss.

Soft and sensuous, this dish was all about the contrasting textures. Velvety egg yolk clung to the luscious scallop, a counterpoint to the crispy strands of leek. Instinctively, Claudia whimpered for more. Ward chuckled, but she forgave him when he gave her another taste of ambrosia.

There was a dark, earthy aftertaste to the dish. “Truffle oil,” she murmured between mouthfuls.

“Very good. More?”


“That’s the last,” he said. “Now, about those oysters. Do you still want them?”

She shook her head. “No oysters.” She didn’t need an aphrodisiac. Not when Ward Nicholls was looking at her like that.

Table for One
February 2012
12,000 word short story
B&N | Amazon US | Amazon UK | Kobo | Books on Board

Twelve Days

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me… a flashmob proposal.

All Kevin wants is to spend the rest of his life with the woman he loves. He’s been planning the perfect proposal for months. He never planned what would happen if she said ‘no’.

On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me… a diamond ring.

The last thing Laurel wants or expects for Christmas is a big flashy diamond ring. She’d been hoping for a pile of books or perhaps a cashmere sweater. In her experience, marriage is the quickest way to kill a happy relationship. When Kevin gets down on one knee, she panics and runs.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me… a rescue puppy and a trip to Hawaii.

He knows he’s pushed too hard and too fast. Now he’s scrambling to hold on to the best thing that’s ever happened to him, while she’s running hard and fast in the opposite direction. How could it all go so wrong in just twelve days?


What readers are saying

“Sad-cry + happy-cry = *happysigh* (all in only 35 pages!)” – Kelly at Instalove

“You know what I liked best? These people are grownups. They didn’t communicate as well as they could have and they hurt one another. They talked it over, gave themselves and the other person a little breathing room, and then talked it out to a resolution both could live with. They didn’t expect mind-reading, and they didn’t throw the whole thing into the garbage over one misunderstanding. Nobody capitulated, nobody surrendered, nobody lied, nobody was guilted or coerced. They worked it out.

It made me feel all warm and happy inside, the ending worked for me, the whole book worked for me” – Marilyn at Mean Fat Old Bat

“This sweet, feel-good holiday story is a quick read that’s sure to leave you satisfied!” – Aimee Carson

“Ros Clarke’s enchanting Twelve Days is a beautifully written tale of one young couple and how they work through a major road block on the bumpy road to true love. Real, emotional and wonderfully life-affirming with an added dash of Christmas sparkle, it’s a must-read to get you in the mood for the romance of the season.” – Heidi Rice, USA Today Bestselling Author

On The First Day Of Christmas

“Stay there.”

Laurel stayed. They’d had another six inches of snow overnight, but Kevin had already shoveled part of their driveway. She stood on a dry patch, wrapped in her charcoal gray woolen overcoat, with a soft blue cashmere scarf and matching hat pulled on tightly to cover her ears. Her feet were thrust into sheepskin boots, but even so the chill of the ground was starting to seep through. She shifted from one foot to the other and sipped at her coffee, grateful for its warmth.

“How much longer?” she called to Kevin, who was attaching something to the garage door. He stepped back and she could see it was a camera. What on earth had he planned?

“Any moment now,” he yelled back. “Hold on.”

He’d woken her ten minutes earlier with a cup of her favourite Starbucks caramel latte and then told her to come outside for her Christmas gift. She’d been hoping for jewelry. Maybe perfume and a couple of books. Nothing on her list was too big to fit inside the house. She’d bought him a leather iPad cover and a sage green cashmere sweater to match his eyes. It would be really, really awkward if he’d bought her a car. Or a pony. She didn’t even like ponies, but she couldn’t think what else she would need to come outside for.

Kevin had disappeared completely. Laurel squinted to see if he was in the car, or hidden behind the large pine tree. The camera was still on the garage roof, and it seemed to be pointing in her direction. Someone began singing a carol. Even on Christmas Day, eight o’clock in the morning was a bit early for singing in Laurel’s opinion—especially the one about the partridge that went on forever.

A group of workmen strolled down the street, carrying their ladders and tools. Someone must be paying them good money to work today. Kevin’s house was in a great neighborhood just outside the city limits. It wasn’t large, but it was plenty big enough for the two of them. Around the corner, though, the streets were lined with vast mansions owned by the super wealthy and the old Philadelphia families.
Other people had joined in with the carol singing. Laurel had no idea where Kevin had gone to get her present, but there was plenty to distract her. A woman in a scarlet coat had stopped on the sidewalk opposite Laurel and set down a big pot with a tree in it. Two large pears hung from its branches and a plush bird had been tied on top.

A partridge in a pear tree.

Behind the woman, the workmen were setting up a simple scaffold on which one of them hung a bird cage holding two turtle doves. Well, that’s what she assumed they were, though they looked more like pigeons. The singers had already reached the three French hens verse, and on cue a chicken ran across the road. Two more followed, running rings round the man who was attempting to herd them into a cage underneath the scaffold. The whole song was coming alive around her.

Everyone was singing and Laurel had begun to grin, caught up in the infectious enthusiasm of the performers. The workmen had gone to stand behind the scaffold, and at the start of the next verse, four cut out cardboard birds popped up, each holding a large telephone to its ear.

Four calling birds.

She groaned and laughed simultaneously. Then, with a dramatic pause, the whole chorus reached the climactic moment of the song.

Five gold rings.

Laurel looked around, but no one came forward with anything to represent the rings. The singers took a breath and continued through the calling birds, the French hens, the turtle doves, and the partridge in a pear tree. The rest of the song was pure carnival. Six geese had to be herded into place by seven ballerinas in costumes from Swan Lake. Eight dairymaids and nine ballroom dancers paraded down the street, joining the carefully choreographed performance. Ten men in crimson and fur robes pretending to be lords leapt and pranced their way into the dance, eleven bagpipers marched proudly up the road, and finally twelve drummers in solemn formation lined up in their allotted places. It was a Christmas flash mob, and it was fabulous.

Half the neighborhood had come out to see what was happening. Cameras clicked, children were hoisted onto their fathers’ shoulders, and everyone joined in the carol. A glorious cacophony of voices, birds, bagpipes, and drums celebrated Christmas in the old song. The impromptu choir took a deep breath and began the final verse:

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

As each group was mentioned in the song, they bowed to Laurel. She smiled and waved in acknowledgement, laughing at the sheer ridiculous exuberance of it all. The geese squawked through their line and the singers continued. Five gold rings. The notes hung in the air and everyone watching was silent. The performers shuffled slightly to create a path through the crowd. Kevin came forward, his lips tilted into a nervous smile and his eyes glued to hers.

Laurel’s mouth went dry. Her hands clenched into fists inside her pockets. He couldn’t mean to… not here, not like this. Not now.

He knelt down in front of her, heedless of the damp slush seeping through his jeans. Laurel shook her head, desperate for him to understand. To stop. He didn’t, and the next moment he pulled a small black box from his coat pocket and opened it. A flash of light where it caught the morning sun told her everything she needed to know. She didn’t even hear his words, though she saw his lips moving. She just stood, frozen with horror, conscious of all the eyes on her, expecting an answer. Expecting the right answer. The answer she couldn’t give.

December 2012
10,000 word short story
Amazon US | Amazon UK | B&N | Diesel | Sony |
Kobo | Smashwords | iTunes | All Romance eBooks

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