Authors: Stacey Joy Netzel
(A Romancing Wisconsin Holiday Story)
Stacey Joy Netzel
Christmas in July at the zoo is the last place single parents Eric Riley and Marissa Wilder expect to find love. Thanks to some mistletoe mischief in the form of their two young daughters and Santa, they discover Mistletoe Rules were not made to be broken
Donna and Jamie,
Thanks for all the plotting sessions.
I look forward to many more!
A high-pitched squeal pierced Marissa Wilder’s ears.
“Daddy! You came!”
Marissa spun around as her daughter’s new best friend, Reese, streaked past and launched her little body into the arms of a tall man. He was dressed as if he’d just returned from a tour in Iraq. Combat boots, desert camouflage pants, and a white T-shirt that appeared a size too small for his impressive physique. Muscled biceps looked huge wrapped around the six-year-old’s tiny back. The only thing off with the homecoming picture was the fact that instead of a military buzz cut, his dark hair was long enough to reveal a hint of natural wave.
“Hey, sweetheart. Wow, what a welcome. I just saw you last night.”
The sexy deep voice matched the man’s devastating smile to perfection. Its smooth texture flowed over Marissa, leaving a warm feeling in the pit of her stomach even though he wasn’t talking to her. She glanced up at the blazing July sun, certain the temperature had risen a good ten degrees in the last twenty seconds. It certainly wasn’t hot flashes at age twenty-nine.
Oh, good Lord—she’d been too long without a date! Besides the fact that usually in Northeast Wisconsin heat variances to that extreme went the other direction, the zoo was the last place to start fantasizing about brandy-flavored kisses and a rock-hard body. At least he
like he’d taste as satisfying as a well-aged brandy—and she just knew without a doubt he’d be as solid as he looked.
Heather gripped her hand tighter. Marissa looked down at her own daughter, jarred from her inappropriate daydream about a married man. A married man expecting another child, no less—she’d spoken to Reese’s pregnant mother, Nina, while waiting to pick Heather up from school yesterday. Her gaze latched on Reese’s father’s left hand, found it bare, and narrowed in annoyance with the reminder that not all married men advertised their attached status.
She wondered if Heather compared her friend’s loving embrace with her daddy to the casual wave she’d received from her own father last month. Marissa wished Ted would grow up and be a better dad for Heather, but until that miracle happened, it was up to her to let their daughter know how much she was loved. She smoothed her free hand over Heather’s straight blond hair and hugged her close to her side.
Reese pulled her arms from around her father’s neck and frowned. “Mom said you were taking me to school this morning. Where were you?”
Marissa realized this guy was one of the no-show parent chaperones who’d caused the summer school program director to beg her for help this morning. With three important projects waiting on her desk, Marissa had started to apologize until she caught Heather’s hopeful expression from the corner of her eye. A mental recalculation of her own personal deadlines to align with the customers’ allowed her to stay and Heather’s jubilant smile was worth it.
But right now, Marissa tapped one high-heeled black sandal and waited for this man’s response to Reese’s question. He had to be close to her ex’s age of thirty, and though he looked ten times better now than Ted had at age twenty, missing field trips, kindergarten promotion programs, and birthday parties was exactly the sort of thing her ex did on a regular basis. Just thinking about Heather’s disappointed face when she blew out her birthday candles last week made Marissa’s jaw tighten.
“Ease up, Sarge,” Reese’s dad said. “I’m here now, and I’m all yours for the rest of the day.”
“All day?” Reese exclaimed, her pretty blue eyes wide. “You never stay all day.”
“All day,” he confirmed, setting her back on her feet and ruffling her dark, silky curls. Reese gave a loud whoop of delight.
He appeared well practiced at diverting his daughter’s disappointment. Either he lacked the imagination to come up with a good excuse, or he was too lazy. With Nina’s grumbles from earlier that morning of the man’s irresponsible ways echoing in Marissa’s mind, her irritation flourished even as a small voice inside whispered,
at least he showed up
Reese ran the few feet back to Marissa and Heather. “That’s my dad,” she proudly declared. “Heather, we’re both lucky today! Dad’s staying all day!”
Marissa smiled down at the excited girl until a battered pair of black boots entered her line of vision. Her pulse sped up. Her gaze drank in camouflaged-clad legs, trim waist, muscled chest and finally met a pair of smiling, smoky gray eyes framed by thick, dark lashes. Her heart thumped hard.
“Hi.” He extended his hand. “Eric Riley, otherwise known as Reese’s Dad.”
With the slide of his calloused palm against her softer one, the temperature rose another five degrees. She caught the faint scent of pine wood. From him, or had the scent released from the nearby trees in the July heat and carried to her on the slight breeze?
She swallowed hard and managed to say, “I’m Heather’s mom.”
He waited a beat before his gaze shifted to her side to focus on her daughter. “Hello—I’m guessing you’re Heather?”
“Hi,” Heather chirped.
He returned his attention back to Marissa with a wide grin. “Nice to meet you, Heather’s Mom.”
“Dad,” Reese giggled. “Her name is Mrs. Wilder.”
His grip on her fingers loosened, and a flicker of what looked like regret flashed in his eyes. “Mrs. Wilder.”
Marissa pulled her hand away, feeling like an idiot. She was relieved yet oddly disappointed to be free of his warm, rough touch. Heather reclaimed her right hand, reminding her of their surroundings. Other parents and children strolled past them at this very moment. She raised her other hand to brush at a wayward strand of blond hair that had become glued to her glossed lips. “It’s Marissa.”
His gaze followed her hand down to her side. Then she felt the sweep of his gaze over her tan skirt and sleeveless black blouse on its way back up to meet her eyes.
“Pretty,” he murmured, the gray of his eyes a shade darker.
Did he mean her name…or her? A flirtatious smile lifted the corners of his mouth. Marissa flushed so hot she had to fight the urge to fan her burning face. Yep, three years was definitely too long without a date.
In the next instant, she stiffened. What was she doing? The man was married for heaven’s sake! And she’d just met him! A little harmless flirting among established friends may be no big deal, but this
felt like something Ted would’ve done.
one too many times.
Marissa looked pointedly at her watch and did her best to ignore Eric Riley. “Well, girls, we have about an hour to finish the scavenger hunt before it’s time to feed the giraffes.”
“Oh, oh, I wanna feed the giraffes! Can I, Mom? Please?” Heather bounced up and down, jerking on Marissa’s hand every time her feet hit the ground. From alongside her father, Reese mirrored her friend’s movements.
“Me, too. Me, too!”
It was impossible not to smile in the face of their exuberance. “Miss Patti assured me everyone gets to feed Larry and Lucy.”
“Yay!” The two girls grinned at each other before running ahead to the next zoo enclosure that housed the raccoons. Marissa pulled their alphabet score sheets from her bag and started after them as fast as her high-heeled sandals allowed. She’d had a heck of a time keeping up with their endless energy all morning.
“Me, too?” Eric Riley teased, falling into step beside her.
His deep, seductive voice made her stomach flutter, so she purposely cast him an annoyed glance. The sight of him easily matching her hurried steps with long, confident strides didn’t help her awareness or her ire. What she wouldn’t give for a pair of her beloved tennis shoes right now.
She thrust Reese’s paper at her father without saying a word. His brows rose in surprise at her outright rudeness, but he accepted the paper and perused it. When they reached the raccoon exhibit, Marissa had Reese read the display out loud, and then she asked a few questions about raccoons based on what they’d just learned. After they’d answered, the girls wrote ‘raccoon’ in the box for the letter R.
“What’s with the Christmas lights and holly everywhere?” Eric asked on their way to the porcupine habitat.
Her gaze swept over numerous large candy canes and randomly placed decorated trees. If you asked her, Christmas belonged in December. With a mental eye-roll at the decorations and an inward sigh that she’d have to at least make small talk to avoid appearing like a total bitch, she explained briefly, “Christmas in July. After lunch they’re having reindeer wagon rides and a visit with Santa.”
“Oh, cool. The kids will love that.”
The smile in his voice made it sound like
love that. She risked a glance, found him watching her, and stumbled on the uneven pavement.
Eric caught her arm and steadied her, his lightning fast reflexes somewhat stunning.
“Yes, thank you.” The huskiness in her voice contradicted her efforts to ignore the tingle of awareness that radiated from his hand, up her arm, and into the rest of her body.
“Don’t mention it.” Then he ruined his chivalrous act by smiling down at her aching feet. “Tennis shoes might’ve been a better choice for a field trip.”
Marissa pulled free of his grasp and stalked toward the porcupine enclosure where the girls waited.
Went right along with the couple snide looks a few of the mothers had given her—like she’d purposely dressed up in a skirt and heels for the trip just to get attention. Trouble was, if she tried to explain her clothes and impractical sandals to Eric now, suppressed frustration would raise her voice, and she didn’t want to do that in a public place, not to mention in front of the girls.
She held her temper, put a hand on each of the little shoulders in front of her, and waited for Heather and Reese to find the ball of quills underneath a log on the side of the concrete-enclosed area. This time Heather read the display, Eric jumped right in and interjected with two questions about porcupines, and the girls added to their sheets. Onward they went to the lynx cage, then the wallabies, and the river otters.
Reese’s father continued to participate and Marissa had to fight a frown more than once at the silly questions he came up with.
“Wonder how they’d do on a trapeze?”
“Daad, it said otters are
It didn’t help that though the girls seemed to have been having fun before Eric arrived, now they were having a ball.
On their way to the monkey cages, when the girls ran ahead again, he asked, “You said we had an hour to finish these?”
He leaned until his shoulder brushed hers and indicated another group of parents and kids walking a few feet away from them. Pine scent flirted with her senses again. Although he stood too close to risk direct eye contact, Marissa caught the frown on his face from the corner of her eye before he said in a low tone, “They’re all done already.”
He might as well have stated she was taking too long. His apparent criticism of how she handled the scavenger hunt, coupled with his earlier comment about her shoes, put her simmering annoyance over the edge. She stopped dead in her tracks and planted her hands on her hips when he faced her. A deep breath helped her tone down the volume of her response.