It’s a Wonderful Lie by Wren Michaels

1

Eden

No onein real life went to a tree lot and came out unscathed. What the greeting cards and Christmas carols didn’t mention was the sap clinging to your fingers like some alien life-form sucking the happy from your soul. And if the sap failed, the pine needles that embed into your skin pierced whatever remaining dignity you had left, until you Grinched-out on some poor unsuspecting seventy-year-old lady just wanting to get a poinsettia plant for church.

I felt really bad about that and ended up buying her five more. I also loaded them into her car.

Then again, most people didn’t wait until Christmas Eve to buy their tree. I normally didn’t either, as I expected to be on my honeymoon in Barbados with Grayson right about then. But after I walked in on him stuffing his neighbor’s turkey—metaphorically speaking—on Thanksgiving Day, I hadn’t been in the Christmas spirit much. Everything in my life slid in a downward spiral, including my favorite time of year.

I decided to sulk my way through the holidays. In the midst of drowning my sorrows in two cartons of eggnog that morning, I succumbed to the ridiculous urge to buy a live tree. For the last couple of years, I’d put up a gorgeous prelit one that played Christmas songs as it rotated. Grayson bought it for me and tied a ring to one of the branches when he proposed. But thanks to my drunken eggnog rage, that one was now smoldering in a snowbank on my front lawn. So I figured, why not get a real tree?

Fighting between last-minute shoppers and Scrooge-like employees regretting their decision to work retail, I took a breather and stood near the exit of the lot. As I stared at the overwhelming tree choices, the soft whimper of a crying child interrupted my pity party. I found a boy, probably no more than ten, standing at the cashier trying to buy a wreath. Tears clung to his little frozen cheeks as he walked away, bowing his head.

“What’s the matter?” I asked the cashier and pointed to the child.

“He didn’t have enough money.” She shrugged and picked up her phone.

I walked over to her. “How much was he short?”

She huffed as she tore her attention from the phone, glowering at me like I’d asked her to donate a kidney. “About thirty cents.”

Burying my annoyance, I shook my head as I laid down my credit card and bought the damn wreath. Poor kid. I raced after him, slipping and sliding over the snow-covered ground.

“Here you go,” I said between gasps of breath as I caught up to him, fighting to keep upright.

He turned around, and tears poured out of his wide eyes. Why was he crying even more? I hadn’t scared him with “stranger danger,” had I? I probably should have rethought my “Flight of the Bumblebee” approach.

I handed him the wreath, wheezing like I’d just gotten chased by zombies, which I was sure didn’t help the fright factor. I decided to throw getting back into shape onto my list of New Year’s Resolutions I wouldn’t keep. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. I just know you were short a little money, so Merry Christmas.”

“Thank you,” he whispered. “Momma always told me there were angels. I never thought I’d get to meet one.”

A twinge of warmth cracked my cold heart. “Oh, sweetie, I’m no angel. But sometimes people can do nice things too.”

“She’s gonna love it. I always save my allowance and buy a wreath for her grave at Christmas. Gran hasn’t been able to pay me as much for my chores like she used to. Thank you.” He wrapped the arm not holding the wreath around my waist, gave it a squeeze, and ran off toward an elderly lady standing in the parking lot. She gave me a nod and a smile as the boy held up the wreath with pride.

I fought my own onslaught of tears as his words hit me, packing a punch to my already emotional state as the sudden ache to talk to my dad overwhelmed me. No matter what problem I had going on in my life, Pops somehow made it better, and I knew I’d get through it. But I didn’t have that luxury anymore. He died six months ago, carving a giant hole in my heart that had only widened with Grayson cheating on me.

At least my mom was still alive—if only we were speaking. She had warned me about Grayson the minute we started dating. In my infinite wisdom and invincible twenty-nine-year-old mind-set, I ignored her. It snowballed into a source of contention between us. When we announced our engagement, she even refused to come to the wedding, and I shut her out of my life.

I had yet to tell her I called off the wedding, mainly because I’d be riddled with I-told-you-sos, and I needed that right now like a hole in the head.

Swiping my tearstained face, I made my way over to the myriad of trees and tried to make a quick decision. I had to get out of there fast. I couldn’t “people” anymore today. I would either end up a blubbering mess under the blow-up lawn ornaments or in jail from high-fiving the heartless cashier right in the face who couldn’t fork over thirty cents to help a kid buy a Christmas wreath.

In my unstable mindset, I made the poor choice to go for the nine-foot Douglas fir. As I yanked the leaning tree from the fence, little did I know I held a death trap in the palm of my sticky hand. The laws of physics mocked my existence as the tree toppled over, taking my five-foot, six-inch frame with it.

It’s completely true how your life flashed before your eyes in those last seconds of mortality. Mine happened to be stuck on repeat of Grayson stuffing Suzie as I cursed his name in all six languages I spoke. If he hadn’t cheated on me, I’d be in Barbados as Mrs. Jilani, not splattered on the floor of Trees-R-Us as the jilted Eden Credere.

Instead of hitting the cold, snow-covered ground, something strong cradled the back of my head, radiating a warmth that caressed my skin and soothed what should have been my shattered bones. I would have sworn there were no customers around me as I hid my ever-blackening soul in the back forty of the tree lot. No one could have caught me that fast. Then again, one hundred pounds of Douglas fir swallowed my face, so my vantage point skewed a bit.

“Thank you, Lord,” I whispered on the breath that whooshed out of my lungs.

A melodic yet husky chuckle vibrated around me, filling me with the same warmth that held my head in some bubble of safety. Maybe I did hit the ground, and the warmth was a pool of my own blood. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibilities with as much rum and eggnog as I’d consumed earlier.

“Believe me, I am not the Lord.” A voice surrounded me, and heat tingled straight to my toes, as if his tone resonated just for my ears.

“Oh good, because if you were, I’d be really upset that I’m meeting him in yoga pants and no makeup.” Sometimes the things that came out of my mouth missed the sanity filter in my brain.

Another chuckle vibrated against me before it halted, followed by a sharp intake of air. “You heard that?”

With pine needles burrowing into my closed eyelids, I couldn’t be sure I was actually talking to another person and not just myself. “Heard what?”

“What I said. I didn’t mean for you to hear it.” Worry strained his words as he softened his voice.

“You didn’t exactly whisper it, and seeing as how you caught me like a ninja, you had to be nearby. Which reminds me, I still have a tree on my face. I don’t suppose you’d help get it off me? I’ll buy you a coffee or a beer or something.”

“I’m so sorry. Of course. I…I was caught off guard. Let me help you up,” he stammered.

“Well, I suppose anyone would be caught off guard while having to dive for some stranger being eaten by a tree. Unless you’re like a lumberjack and see that kind of thing all the time.” The spiked eggnog I’d had for breakfast now seemed like a really bad idea as the stupid tumbled out of my mouth in droves.

His harmonious chuckle returned and enveloped me again, like tiny ripples of pleasure bouncing off my body. I loved this man’s laugh, and I hadn’t even seen his face. In the span of thirty seconds, I’d developed some freaky fetish where all I wanted to do was have him laugh near me so I could swaddle in the warmth and happiness of his voice.

Shit, what the hell did I put in that eggnog? Was it expired?

“Hold still,” the mystery man said.

He eased me to the ground. Cold snow soaked the back of my head, my hair sucking it up like a slushy. I cursed the blasted New Jersey winters in three ancient tongues. I’d probably pay for that later, but as an archaeologist, I rarely got to use all the dead languages I studied. Now seemed like a good time.

The tree whisked away from my face, and I blinked my eyes open. The gasp that followed sucked in so much cold air, an erratic series of hiccups erupted. Another sign I was more than likely drunk—Thor hovered over me, or at least he could have passed for his twin brother. Thick blond locks of hair danced across his broad shoulders in the light breeze, framing his marble-smooth, chiseled face. The bluest eyes I’d ever seen sparkled like an ocean, and if I stared into them long enough, I was sure they’d take me to a whole other world. Those eyes looked hauntingly familiar. Where had I seen them before?

“You’ve got quite the naughty mouth, Eden,” he said, warming me with his voice and a smile that probably dropped a lot of panties. He slid his arms under my back and lifted me from the ground as if I weighed nothing. Boy, would he have a backache in the morning.

“How do you know my name? Have we met before?” I blinked again, reassuring myself I hadn’t passed out and that I was indeed alive, awake, and in Thor’s arms.

“Um, your driver’s license was on the ground. Must have fallen out when the tree landed on you.” He glanced away from my inquiring stare.

Hmm, plausible, since I had stuffed my debit card and license in my pocket instead of carrying a purse today. I only planned on getting a tree and going right back home. I dared not go anywhere else on Christmas Eve with all the crazies on the road.

I slipped my hand into my pocket and found both cards there. Did he put it back? Surely I would have felt it. But it had been a while since I’d had a man’s hand in my pants. Grayson and I stopped having sex about six months before the marriage that never happened. He wanted the wedding night to be special. Yeah, so special because he was basting the neighbor.

Wait, he said I had a naughty mouth, meaning this dude knew I cursed in a dead language. Or maybe he assumed it was cursing, since Aramaic and ancient Greek sounded a lot like my angry Italian mother.

But I was dying to find out. “So, what, you speak Aramaic?”

“I do, among many other languages.” He smiled again, and my insides melted with the heat of a thousand suns. An educated man—those were hard to come by. The last three guys before Grayson were bartenders. Grayson owned a bar. I sensed a theme.

“What did I say, then?” I forced the words over my lips before all my thoughts turned to mush at the warmth coursing through my body.

“I can’t repeat it. I don’t curse.”

“Aren’t you just an angel?”

He choked on a cough as he eased me from his arms until my feet touched solid ground. “Are you injured?”

“Just my pride,” I said, reaching for the tree that I would enjoy inflicting revenge upon come Boxing day. But the minute I clenched my hand around the center, a stabbing pain radiated up my arm and a yelp burst from my lips.

“What’s wrong?” my knight in jeans and flannel asked.

Bark scraped my fingers as I jumped back, and the tree slammed against the fence. With a wince, I cradled my arm like a baby. “I think I broke my arm or something.”

In a moment of sheer brilliance, I gave the trunk a hearty kick with my furry boot. It helped ease the stabbing in my arm, but only because a new pain jolted through my toes. I couldn’t win today. I blamed the eggnog.

“Let me take a look at it,” Thor said, sliding his fingers up the sleeve of my jacket. “We should probably get you to a hospital for an x-ray to make sure it’s not broken.”

“I’ll be fine. I just want to go home. Stupid tree. Stupid Christmas. Stupid Grayson. I’m a walking catastrophe.” Tears stung my eyes as they leaked over my cheeks, probably all the rum oozing out of me. I wasn’t normally a drinker, despite my dating history, but the eggnog-rum smoothie numbed the ache in my heart, so I hadn’t wanted to stop.

“We’ll take that one and a tree stand,” Thor said to the cashier as he pointed to the tree of horror and opened his wallet.

I limped over to him, channeling Quasimodo. “What’re you doing?”

“Getting your tree so we can take you to the hospital and then home.” After tossing the checkout lady a toothpaste-commercial smile, he turned to me and held out his hand. “Where’re your keys? I’ll bring the car around for you.”

I hitched a shoulder and narrowed my eyes. “I’m not giving some strange guy the keys to my car! Are you insane? ‘Tis the season to get carjacked, buddy.”

He shook his head with a laugh. “Would someone who wanted to rip you off pay for your tree and a stand?”

“Probably not, but hey, criminals are getting smarter these days. Spend fifty on a tree and get a forty-thousand-dollar car in return.” I huffed.

“Your car is not worth forty-thousand dollars. In the condition it’s in, six max, if you had gotten the sunroof.”

“Who the hell are you, some kind of stalker?” Without thinking, I swatted at his shoulder with my bad arm and instantly regretted it as another wave of pain did its best to render me unconscious with each intensifying throb.

“I saw you pull into the parking lot in a 2005 Toyota Matrix that needs new tires.” He raised his hands in defense before reaching for my arm, running his warm fingers along my skin. Whatever mojo he had going on soothed my inner beast, and all I wanted was for him to never stop touching me.

I had to stop thinking about him like that, or I’d be going home with more than a tree tonight. And I needed to get involved with another guy as much as I needed a Brazilian wax from Sweeney Todd. Note to self: too much eggnog caused raging hormones. I realized then just how much I had been missing in my relationship with Grayson if a simple touch from a stranger lit me on fire. Yet oddly enough, this stranger didn’t seem like a stranger. He might not have been familiar to my eyes, but something in my heart felt like he was.

“You’re really frustrating, you know that?” With a pout, I handed over my keys to some strange hippie-lumberjack that oozed sex from every pore. He probably just rubbed CBD oil along my arm to calm me down, but at that point, I didn’t care anymore. I only wanted to be back in my house, drowning myself with more eggnog and rum to erase the giant hole in my heart, swallowing my life.

He jingled the keys. “I’ll be right back.”

I needed a better excuse to tell my insurance company when he didn’t come back with my car than an eggnog lust-fog caused me to lose prudence. “I don’t even know your name, and I just handed over my car keys. Who does that?”

“It’s Theliel.” A dimple pitted his cheek as he smirked.

With such heavenly eyes and perfect skin, I could probably get pregnant from looking at him. He must moisturize. A mixture of jealousy and desire swirled together inside me as I stared at his handsome face, unable to look away. Somehow, just gazing at him calmed me. His entire essence felt like an old familiar sweatshirt you loved wearing for comfort and warmth, or a favorite blanket as a child. He was walking serenity. How could one man be so friendly and comforting while wafting sexiness and throwing off pheromones like an underwear model? He was a walking contradiction.

I rolled his name over my tongue, but it jumbled into a rum ball. “The…Thelio…Theo. I’m just going with Theo.”

He tossed his head back with a laugh. “I’m fine with Theo. Try not to injure yourself anymore while I’m gone.”

My inner defiant toddler stuck her tongue out as he dashed away, and I leaned against the chain link fence. What kind of name was Theliel anyway? He did look like Thor, so maybe he was a Norwegian Viking.

I lost myself watching his thighs flex with each step, threatening to bust the seams of his jeans. A white cotton T-shirt hugged every ripple of his chest. The man didn’t have a six-pack, he had an entire case of muscles. His red-and-white flannel barely fit over his massive arms. How was he not even cold? Of course, he did put off enough heat to warm my house, or at least my bedroom. Maybe he was some descendant of a Roman god, or Athena and a Yeti had a love child—he did have a lot of hair. He probably even looked magnificent in a man bun.

My heart sped every long minute that passed. Sure, there were a lot of cars in the parking lot, but he was in good shape. How long did it take to drive around? I chewed a nail in my worry but jerked back when I hit a spot of sap and licked the roof of my mouth like a dog with peanut butter. Blech. Would this day never end?