Six months ago, Eben Meiser drove away his business and bed partner with his scroogely ways. Marlie Jacobsen is back now, and she didn’t come alone. Expecting his baby, she needs his help to keep her safe from her new employer’s mob ties. Dragons guard their treasure with their life, and he soon realizes there has never been a better treasure for him than Marlie and the baby she carries. The more time they spend together, the more Eben regrets the past as he tries to keep them safe in the present to ensure they have a future.
This novella is a fun twist on the classic “A Christmas Carol,” reimagined with new elements. It is told entirely from Eben’s point-of-view.
Eben looked up at the knock on his office door, waving in his employee without really looking away from the spreadsheet. The positive total at the bottom was a nice, healthy balance, and his dragon purred with satisfaction. When Robert Kane arrived at his desk, he asked, “What do you need, Robert?”
Robert cleared his throat. “It’s Christmas Eve, Mr. Meiser.”
Eben nodded, though he had temporarily forgotten the day. “And?”
“I wanted to make sure it’s all right if I still leave early today? Of course, I’ll be back the day after Christmas. The Dubai markets don’t monitor themselves.”
Eben glanced out his window, startled to see snow starting to fall. Every business on the street was spruced up with some sort of Christmas décor—at least every business but Meiser Brokerage. With a distracted wave of his hand, he nodded in Robert’s direction before returning his attention to a spreadsheet. “Go on then.”
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Meiser.” Robert ducked out, not waiting for a reply.
That was smart of him, because Eben wasn’t likely to give him one. Christmas was just like any other day of the year, without the distraction of work. It left far too much time for him to dwell on his thoughts, and to think about things better forgotten.
He curled his lip at the sound of her name in his head. The last thing he wanted to think about was his former business partner, Marlie Jacobson. She was an even less welcome topic of thought than the looming holiday.
He didn’t like how much effort of will it took to turn his thoughts from her, but he was soon immersed in columns of numbers and found them soothing as always. The wealth that they represented also pleased him and the dragon inside. Who needed Christmas or family, or even a warm and willing bedmate, when you had millions of dollars available?
The outer door of the office closed, and he assumed Robert was leaving. It was unexpected when his door opened a moment later, without even the benefit of knocking. He looked up, preparing to turn a censorious frown on Robert, but only managed a strangled sound of surprise when he identified his visitor.
She was as lovely as ever, with her creamy complexion and long dark hair. Her green eyes sparkled, but he was dismayed to see the bruises underneath them, signifying she was exhausted. Her face was a little rounder than he remembered, and there was some redness in her eyes that suggested she might’ve been crying.
He steadied himself as he prepared for an emotional reunion. Their relationship had ended six months ago, and when he had ignored her attempt to communicate with him three months ago, he figured that would be the end of it. Christmas must have left her maudlin, trying to reignite a relationship that would never work. He shook his head as he leaned back in his chair, bracing himself to withstand the temptation of his former business partner. He wanted her as much as he ever had, but that didn’t mean they were compatible.
Her lips trembled slightly as she took off her hat, offering him a tentative smile. “Hello, Eben.”
He nodded. “Marlie.” As he started to ask what had brought her there, she reached for the buttons on her coat. Her fingers were unsteady, but she had it off in seconds. What she revealed underneath shook him to the core.
His dragon roared in his ears, reverberating through his head at the instinctive protest that someone else had claimed their treasure. He stared at her stomach, distended and with only one obvious cause for being so, certain his horror showed. She sounded angry when she spoke to him, but he couldn’t tear his gaze away from her stomach long enough to confirm it by her expression.
“You don’t have to be so horrified about it. I get that you want nothing to do with me or our baby, but this isn’t about that.”
Eben jerked in shock as her words penetrated the roar of the dragon in his head. “Our baby?”
She was clearly enraged with him, judging by the sparkle in her eyes and bloom of color in her cheeks. “Of course it’s ours. If you’d bothered to return my calls or emails three months ago, you would have known by now.”
He frowned at her. “Nowhere in your voice messages or emails did you mention why you were trying to get hold of me. If you had said something about being pregnant, I would have responded.”
“I wanted you to respond because you wanted to talk to me, not because you felt like you were guilted into it.” She almost shouted the words and was clearly as emotional as ever.
He was actually surprised by how quickly she seemed to gain control of her emotions. She breathed deeply a couple of times, closed her eyes as though counting silently to herself, and appeared calmer when she opened them.
“What do you want from me?” he asked.
She frowned at him. “I wouldn’t want anything from you that you don’t want to give, but I need your help. Don’t worry. It has nothing to do with financial support.”
He grimaced. “You must know I’d support you and the child financially. I bought out your half of the business promptly and at full market value.”
She shrugged off his comment as she approached the desk, collapsing in the chair across from his, as though the weight of the world had pressed down upon her. “I took a job with Anderson and Wang.”
He curled his lip. “They’re a disreputable group of bastards. How could you bring yourself to work for them?”
She shrugged. “Jobs aren’t exactly growing on trees these days, even for financial analysts. A job was a job, or so I thought.”
He shook his head. “I’m not even certain why you bothered with getting a job just yet. You could have invested the proceeds of your share of the business and made quite a tidy sum. It would have supported you and the child for years.”
She looked briefly uncomfortable. “If you must know, I don’t have that money anymore.”
His eyes widened in shock. “What could you have possibly done with all of it? Did you make a bad investment?”
She glared at him as she leaned forward, hands on her belly. “I invested some of it in a trust to take care of my mother. The rest, I donated to several charities.”
His mouth tightened, and he was certain his disapproval radiated from him. “That was a foolish choice to make. Didn’t you spare any thought for the child before you did such a thing?”
She glared at him. “I didn’t know about the child then.” She put special emphasis on the words, mocking his inflection. “My mother died two months after you bought me out. I was a wreck, because I hadn’t expected it. I figured the Alzheimer’s would be slow to take her, and she’d linger. No one expected her to have a stroke. It was almost a month after she died that I realized I hadn’t had a period, and I finally tested. That was when I called you, but you wanted nothing to do with me. I had already made the donations, so I took the job with Anderson and Wang. That turned out to be a mistake.”
“As much of a mistake as throwing away all your money on charitable causes?”
She glared at him, but didn’t respond to the question. “Anderson is in deep to the mob. I discovered that inadvertently yesterday morning. They have a second set of books, and they’re laundering funds through the business.”
He wasn’t particularly surprised to hear about Joseph Anderson’s felonious pursuits. However, he was deeply concerned on Marlie’s behalf. “Does he know that you know?”
She nodded, biting her lip. “At first, I thought I had discovered a glitch in the program, and I was investigating to unravel the problem. I went to Mr. Wang, and he provided me the data I needed, but it didn’t take long to realize it was a deliberate oversight. I pointed it out to Mr. Wang, and we were both concerned. I don’t think either one of us realized at that point yet that Anderson was involved and was deliberately facilitating the laundering. We figured it out when he and his goons confronted us. Mr. Wang shielded me so I could escape, but he’s dead.”
She was trembling freely now, obviously still stricken by what she’d witnessed, along with her own brush with death. Eben surged to his feet, a protectiveness overtaking him that he was unaccustomed to feeling. If Anderson had been before him right then, he would have ripped the man to shreds—or at least let his dragon do it.
He rounded the desk, acting on instinct when he knelt in front of Marlie and put his arms around her. When she started sobbing against his shoulder, he felt like the world’s biggest bastard that all he could do was appreciate the familiar scent of her hair, and the soothing warmth of her body against his.
Only the baby bump was different, destroying the illusion that things were like they had always been, at least as long as they had been involved. They had owned the business together for four years before becoming lovers for the last year, and the six months they had been apart could have all fallen away if not for the surprisingly firm reminder that a lot had happened since then.
She lifted her head finally, sniffling a bit before she clearly regained control. “I’m sorry. I know how you hate emotions.”
He flinched, but didn’t argue the point. It was a bit snarky of her, but it was true that strong emotions, or at least the visible manifestation of them, made him uncomfortable. Maybe it was a lifetime of being an orphan, and of not having any strong emotions directed toward him, but he had never handled them well. “Why did you come to me?”
She glared at him. “I was under the mistaken impression you might help us.” She reared back away from him, getting jerkily to her feet. “I didn’t realize we’d be such an inconvenience.”
He let out an impatient sigh as he grabbed hold of her arm while getting to his feet. “It’s not an inconvenience. Of course I’d like to help you. I simply wondered what made you turn to me?”
“A complete lack of options. I have no family, and I couldn’t risk dragging any of my friends into this. Even as much as you love money, and would do anything to acquire and protect it, I’m confident you aren’t tangled up with the Perettis.”
He let the comment about money slide, knowing she was upset, and she was lashing out at him. Truth be told, after ignoring her attempts at communication three months ago, perhaps she was entitled to some lashing. He also felt it would have been helpful if she had bothered to mention why she was trying to get hold of him, and he wasn’t prepared to concede the point that he should have taken her call until she admitted she should have giving him a clue about what she wanted to discuss.
“You’re coming home with me. We’ll figure out a course of action from there.”
She nodded, surprising him by not arguing. Of course she didn’t argue though, because she had come to him for help. He could well imagine how much that had cost her in pride alone. When she had stormed out six months ago following their huge fight, she had proclaimed that she never wanted to see him again, and she’d never come crawling back.
Not that she was exactly crawling. He held open her red wool coat, and then assisted her with the buttons before snagging his own gray pea coat. As he shrugged it on, he evaluated her frame as she walked to his office door. Waddled was really the only word for it, but there was a sensual sway to the motion that was surprisingly arousing. It was true that he would probably react to Marlie in any circumstances, but seeing her lush frame changed by pregnancy was definitely making his zipper press uncomfortably into his growing erection.
He did his best to suppress the reaction. It wasn’t productive, and it certainly wasn’t why she’d come to him. They were simply too different to make a relationship work, and Marlie wasn’t the type to sleep with anyone just to scratch an itch.
Eben wasn’t really either, because that required getting closer to someone than he liked. He certainly hadn’t been a virgin before he and Marlie had become lovers, but he had been highly selective and careful to maintain an emotional distance between himself and the few partners he’d had in the past. Only Marlie had gotten through his defenses, and that had spectacularly imploded, underscoring how right he’d been to avoid emotional entanglements through the years.
His car was in the lot, and he bundled her inside before going around to the driver’s side and slipping behind the wheel. He turned on the car and blasted the heater when he noticed how she was trembling. With his dragon’s metabolism, the cold barely bothered him at all, but he wanted her to be comfortable. Her and their child.
That was such a foreign thought that he almost stomped on the brake on accident. Fortunately, he quickly recovered, and she seemed not to notice his temporary lapse in good driving skills. He moved slowly from the parking lot through the streets, which were rapidly accumulating snow. He was actually glad it was a holiday for a change, because so many people would have been on the roads otherwise that the commute back to his house would have been a nightmare.
His home was upstate, an hour outside of the city, but he hadn’t chosen it for sentimental reasons. It had simply been a good investment, and he often slept on a cot in his office if he didn’t feel like making the longer drive to the old Victorian. Marlie was silent throughout the drive, and he realized she had fallen asleep. She seemed exhausted, and he wondered if she had been running since yesterday.
As they approached his house, he was thinking about settling her in the guestroom, wondering if she would like the sunken bathtub, or if she would prefer the old-fashioned freestanding tub in the other guestroom’s bathroom. That room wasn’t as large, but he had a feeling she would appreciate the vintage touches more than she would the state-of-the-art bathroom he’d redesigned.
Well, not him personally, but his design firm. They had modernized the home when he had changed his mind in mid-renovation, but some of the rooms remained as he had originally envisioned—restored and reimagined to be classic Victorian.
He squirmed slightly in his seat when he remembered exactly why he had changed his mind in the middle of the remodel. He’d purchased the home because it was certainly a good investment, but that hadn’t been the only reason he bought it. He and Marlie had been dating for six months when he signed the papers in April and got his construction crew in to renovate.
Knowing her sentimental streak, he’d planned to restore it. When their relationship had blown up, he’d gone the exact opposite direction, making the decision to modernize instead. It was only now, months later, and with the benefit of perspective and distance, that he realized he had made such an abrupt change because he’d been deliberately seeking to create a house that Marlie wouldn’t find homey and charming.
Instead, he’d ended up with a Frankenstein of a house, a mix of both styles, and not truly a home. He had the disquieting thought that it wouldn’t be a home until Marlie was there beside him in some other capacity besides needing protection.
As he parked in the driveway, he quickly squashed that thought. There was no future between them. Their outlooks on the world were just too vastly different, and they themselves were too different.
He was emotionless and analytical, while she was all impulsiveness brimming with an overflow of emotions. For a financial analyst, she was careless with her own money, and she didn’t really think about the future. She lived life in a completely alien way to him, and he couldn’t imagine seeing things from her point-of-view. It was simply too foreign. Without some commonalities, all the passion in the world wouldn’t keep their relationship together. They had learned that the hard way already, and he had no intention of making that mistake again.
As he turned off the car, he touched her shoulder. “We’re at my home.”
Her eyes fluttered open, and she seemed to like her first glimpse of his house. Her mouth parted slightly, and there was a hint of excitement in her gaze. She stared at it for a moment, taking it in in the late afternoon light, before looking at him. “It’s beautiful. So unlike your usual style.”
He just shrugged as he got out of the car, barely glancing back at her to say, “It was a good investment.”
She let out a soft scoffing sound as she got out, slamming the door behind her. She didn’t wait for him to come assist her and shrugged off his hand when he tried to offer her support up the snowy driveway. “I’m pregnant, not an invalid.”
He pulled his hands back and shrugged, determined not to offer assistance again unless she requested it. He followed more closely than he would have normally though, ensuring he could catch her if she slipped or started to fall. She went slowly and was fine, and they reached the front door a few seconds later.
He put in the code, and it opened. The door swung in on its own power a few inches, and he pressed harder on the wood, indicating she should precede him.
She stepped inside, and her eyes were wide. As much as he didn’t want to, he evaluated her expression as he turned on all the lights to reveal the foyer. He could see the light dimming from her own gaze the more she looked.
Trying not to feel defensive, he viewed the house from what he thought might be her perspective. It was striking visually, with crisp, clean lines, but it didn’t really mesh with the outside. The exterior had been reasonably sound and had only required minor touches and had been done before he had ever decided to change direction on the design. It spoke of Victorian charm. The inside was anything except that.
Her shoulders fell as she gave him a look full of disappointment. “It’s hideous. How could you take such a beautiful home and…?” She trailed off, waving a hand as she blinked her eyes. Apparently, pregnancy had made her even more emotional than usual if she could find tears over such an inconsequential thing.
Feeling like he had let her down, his voice emerged gruffer than he’d intended. “Come with me, and I’ll show you your room.” He was tempted to put her in the modernly designed guestroom, which was a pure reaction based on her expressed disappointment.
He wanted to reinforce the notion that he was as cold and practical with the house as he’d been with everything else. He didn’t want to give her a renewed sense of hope, or ignite a spark of excitement in her. Somehow, he still found himself leading her to the other guestroom instead. He stepped back as he turned on the light, indicating she should go before him.
In here, her excitement returned, and there was a sparkle in her eyes. She seemed to love every kitschy bit of it, from the vintage print wallpaper to the old-fashioned hearth. She appeared to be particularly enraptured with the four-post bed and its hanging velvet curtains. “This is so much better than the rest of the house.”
He didn’t like the approval gleaming in her eyes, directed toward him. Feeling like a bastard even as he did so, but unable to quell the impulse, he said, “The design crew just hasn’t gotten to this room yet. It will soon look decent like the rest.”
She glared at him for a moment before turning away. “I guess it’s a good thing I won’t be here long then. I wouldn’t want to hold up your plans to convert this room into a soulless showpiece like the rest of the house.”
He sighed, regretting his words and the tension between them again. Things had changed in the last six months, and the biggest one of all was in her stomach, though it wasn’t too big yet. They had to find a way to meet on middle ground for the sake of their child. “When are you due?”
“February Fourteenth.” She rolled her eyes. “That’s just about the worst day your child could ever be born, isn’t it, Eben?”
He gritted his teeth to avoid responding to the provocation. “I have nothing against Valentine’s Day. I just don’t consider it a real holiday.” Except the previous one. They had been together as a couple then, and he had actually tried to make it special for her by taking her out to dinner and giving her jewelry.
She had seemed appreciative, but the real celebration had happened later that night at her apartment. That was the part he remembered, not the forced romantic air of the restaurant, or the ruby heart necklace he had given her that had been such a cliché, though she seemed to have enjoyed it.
She sighed. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I’m still angry with you, but I need to get it under control. It’s not going to do any of us any good to keep sniping at each other. You’re stuck with me for a little while, and I’ll try not to make it too unpleasant for you. Mostly, I’ll just stay in my room. I think that would be easiest for everyone.”
He frowned as he took a step forward. “I don’t want you to hide in here.” He paused a few steps away from her. He could have crossed the distance remaining and put his arms around her, but instead he shoved his hands in his pocket to resist the temptation. “It’s good to see you again, and I’d like to see you more. We have a lot of things to discuss and situations to figure out.” His gaze darted briefly to her belly. “We also need to come up with a plan to keep you safe from Anderson.”
She shook her head. “I don’t think it was Anderson. I mean, he was clearly involved, but he specifically referred to Angelo Peretti, and it was a pair of strangers who came into the office and killed Mr. Wang. I don’t know much about organized crime, but I’m sure I’ve heard his name in the papers a few times.”
Eben grimaced. “Maybe not him specifically, but definitely the Peretti family. Try not to worry. We’ll come up with a plan.” Of course he was frightened on her behalf, but she had an ally she didn’t even know about. It would take a lot to take down his dragon, and though they were no longer involved, he still cared about her. He certainly felt protective toward her and the child, and he would fight to protect them until his dragon drew its last breath.