Tara Hartnell loves her best friend, Kelly Martin, but Kelly's older brother Mason has been her worst enemy since grade school. Now Mason's back from active duty in the Middle East, and Tara's visiting the Martins for Christmas. Can they call a truce for the weekend or will close quarters spark World War III?
The death of her parents and Kelly's marriage have made this a difficult year for Tara. The last few months have been the loneliest of her life. Mason's advances don't help matters, especially since she's convinced they're a setup to yet another of his tricks. She's come prepared, however, and she's determined to get the revenge she's been waiting for since sixth grade.
Mason's had more than his fair share of combat experience, but he never expected Tara to be such a cunning adversary. All he wants is a kiss, but getting close to her is like fighting his way through a minefield. Now it's time for the Martins' oldest family tradition: Christmas Eve paintball. Can Mason finally capture the woman of his dreams, or will Tara's plans for revenge succeed all too well?
By Jennifer Traveler
Copyright 2010 by Jennifer Traveler
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer's imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.
All Rights Are Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author.
Tara Hartnell took a deep breath of frosty air before she rang the doorbell of the Martin residence. She wasn’t sure she was ready for any of this. How strange to be back in Dunstan on this familiar front stoop when her own childhood home just down the street was inhabited by strangers. No tears, she reminded herself. She’d cried enough this year after her parents’ accident last January. She appreciated the Martin’s invitation to share Christmas with them, and she wouldn’t bring everyone else down with her private sorrow.
Things seemed the same as ever here. A Christmas tree sparkled in the front window right where it stood every holiday season. The house blazed with lights. The Martins had four grown children, two girls and two boys. She met Kelly Martin on the first day of kindergarten and they’d been friends ever since. She liked Carly, Kelly’s older sister, tolerated Lance, the oldest of the bunch, and had worshipped Mason. At least at first.
Everything was more fun at the Martin house when they were young. She was an only child and her parents, both accountants, were in their forties when she was born. She'd escaped her own small, quiet house almost every day to come here. When it came time for college, she’d applied to the same schools Kelly did and breathed a sigh of relief the day it was settled they would attend the University of Pittsburgh together.
Ensconced in her world of academics and friends --Kelly’s friends, really, but hers by association -- she’d been perfectly happy until her parents’ death in a car accident eleven months ago. She’d managed to pick up the pieces of h?er shattered world as best she could after the funeral and returned to school. When Kelly announced her engagement to Richard Mansfield it hit her nearly as hard, although she should have seen it coming. Of course she was thrilled for them and of course she’d stood up as Kelly’s maid of honor at the wedding just days after their graduation, but with her parents gone and Kelly gone she knew she’d be on her own in a way she’d never been before.
She was proud of the way she’d handled all these changes. She grieved for her parents, but didn’t drop out or let her grades slip. She missed her best friend, but found an apartment and position at the university for the summer, then started graduate school this fall. She went to the gym, volunteered at a homeless shelter, had lunch with some of the old crowd at least once a week.
She was fine on her own. Absolutely fine.
She set her suitcase down and shivered in the icy wind, remembering how profoundly grateful she felt when she received the Martins’ invitation to spend the holiday with them. Who was she fooling? She was lonely as hell and she dreaded Christmas.
Alice Martin, Kelly’s mother, worded the invitation very nicely, but the Martins were a military family, and she had spent enough time in their midst to know when she had been given an order. They hadn’t given her a choice this time -- she was spending Christmas with them, and that was that.
The front door swung open and Kelly greeted her with a happy shriek.
"You made it! Mom -- Tara’s here!"
She was swept into the tiled front hallway that was decorated to the hilt. Christmas Cards hung from red and green ribbons on the walls. Swags of greenery looped over the stairway banister. Delicious smells wafted from the kitchen and Tara’s mouth watered for a taste of Alice’s home cooking.
"Tara, so good to see you. Come in, honey. Hal -- Tara’s here," Alice called out, wiping her hands on an apron as she bustled out of the kitchen and gave Tara a floury hug.
"Hey, Tara!" Carly waved at her from the living room where a number of members of the extended family were seated around the television. A fire crackled in the hearth at one end, and the Christmas tree she’d seen from the stoop stood in the corner in front of a bay window.
She swallowed a lump that formed in her throat. It was as if she’d gone back in time. If she ran up the street, would her own house be just as warm and bustling? Would her parents...
"Hey," Kelly said softly. "Are you all right? Let me know if you need a minute..."
"I’m fine," Tara said. She shook off the memories that threatened to overwhelm her. "What are you cooking, Mrs. M? It smells delicious."
"Just something to tide us over until our late night meal. It’ll be ready in a minute and you’d better fill up. We won’t eat dinner until after all the festivities."
Tara sighed. Ah yes, the festivities. The Martins might look like a nice, normal family, but they had some strange ideas about how to celebrate Christmas.
She stiffened as Mason Martin clattered down the stairs, pulling a polo shirt over his head. She caught just a glimpse of his washboard abs and sculpted biceps. Enough to send the old thrill of attraction coursing through her from head to toe, followed immediately by the just-as-familiar burn of fury.
She had no idea what she’d done to deserve her own personal demon, but Mason Martin had made it his duty to fill that role since grade school. If a snowball struck her, she could bet Mason threw it. If she found a frog in her lunchbag, Mason put it there. If she got accidently tackled during a game of tag on the playground, she’d find Mason on top of her. All harmless fun, she supposed, and she’d given as good as she’d gotten, until in sixth grade he snuck into Kelly’s bedroom during a sleepover party and stole her brand new training bra, the pretty pink polka-dotted one she’d begged her mother to buy instead of the plain white cotton one. He wrote "pretty shrimpy" on each of the cups in thick, black permanent marker, then strung it up on the flagpole outside Dunstan Junior High.
Years passed before she lived that down and the school bullies forgot to call her Shrimpy. Mason Martin was the spawn of the devil and she’d hated him ever since. She never, ever let on how much that little prank her hurt her, though. She kept on as usual, trading insults in the lunch room and jabs during the pick-up hockey games they played every winter on the homemade ice rink in the Martin’s backyard.
Thank God he was two years older than she and Kelly. He’d finally left Dunstan, first to attend William and Mary, then to basic training and his post overseas. She’d seen him briefly at Kelly and Richard’s wedding last June, briefly, because she’d spent most of it hiding from him in the ladies’ room, but otherwise hadn’t spoken to him in years.
He paused on the bottom step, grinned and tousled her hair, then pushed past the knot of people gathered to greet her to make his way into the living room. Two teenage boys played a video game with the volume turned up loud. He stole a controller from one of them and fended off the enraged boy with an elbow while he began turning, twisting and tapping away at the controls.
"Grandma, Uncle Mason took the controller again," the boy said, giving Mason a shove. Mason shoved him back and knocked him off the couch.
"Mason, behave," Alice said, heading back toward the kitchen. "Kelly, take Tara’s stuff upstairs and then you two come help me. None of these blockheads are any use."
After Tara had kicked off her snowboots and hung her coat in the closet, Kelly led the way to her room, as if she hadn’t climbed the stairs and paced the hall to the second door on the right a thousand times.
"Still bunk beds, I’m afraid," Kelly said, putting Tara’s duffel bag on the floor near the oak dresser.
"I get the top!" She hoped she sounded lighthearted, but from the look on Kelly’s face, she wasn’t fooling her friend.
"Go easy on Mason. You guys aren’t kids anymore and something’s been bugging him since he got home. Whatever it is, he won’t talk about it, but Mom’s really worried. Just stay out of his way. Okay?" Kelly begged, flipping her straight blonde hair out of her eyes.
"I"ll stay out of his way if he stays out of mine." Tara crossed to the dresser, smoothed her thick chestnut curls into something resembling order. "We’d better go help your mom."
"Go ahead, I’ll be right down. I forgot to hang a towel for you in the bathroom."
** ** **
Mason Martin watched Kelly and Tara Hartnell climb the stairs. Mostly, he watched Tara. She’d certainly grown up during her four years at Pittsburgh. She’d always been cute. If his parents hadn’t made the rule about only dating other students in your own grade, he’d have asked her out back in high school. As it was, he’d played the field, dating every pretty girl he could while keeping his eye on his little sister’s best friend.
He’d had more serious relationships with a couple of girls at William and Mary, but none of them took, and since he knew he had to fulfill three years of military service in exchange for the ROTC scholarship he’d used to pay for college, he hadn’t looked too hard for "the one." He had a sneaking suspicion he’d already found her, anyway.
Too bad it was too late to act on that knowledge. He should have let her know how he felt years ago. Or maybe not. Maybe it was kinder that she never knew. Regardless, he intended to fulfill one fantasy he’d kept to himself for far too long. He intended to kiss Tara Hartnell before he returned to the Middle East. He wished he could do more, but that wouldn’t be fair to either of them.
A low whistle at his elbow caught his attention and he noticed the teenage friend his nephew Mark had invited to spend the weekend was watching Tara climb the stairs, too.
"I’d do her," the boy -- Ryan, he thought -- said.
Mason swatted the back of his head. "Any more of that and I’ll take you outside and give you a beating you won’t forget. You hear?"
"Yes," Ryan mumbled, eyes already back on the television screen.
Mason shook his head, then handed his controller to Mark and stood up. Going directly to the stairs was too obvious. He didn’t want this crowd watching when he confronted Tara. He would skirt through the dining room and kitchen and come around from that angle. No one would notice what he was up to.
"Ah, here’s a set of helping hands," his mother said when he entered the kitchen. "Could you run to the garage and see if there’s another carton of eggnog in the fridge out there?"
"I’ll be back in a minute."
"Where are you off to? You leave Tara alone, you hear?"
Mason stumbled. "I’m not…"
"Yes, you are. I’m not blind, kiddo. You’ve held a torch for her for years. As my father used to say, "It’s time to poop or get off the pot."
"You sure he used those exact words?" he teased.
"Close enough. Get out of here, now, if you’re not going to help."
He bit back an indignant retort and kept going. No one else stopped his progress and soon he was climbing the stairs. He heard voices and a moment later, Tara rounded the corner of the upper hall. Mason couldn’t fight back the smile that curved his lips. She was lovely. One kiss, he reminded himself. A single kiss wouldn’t hurt anyone.
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