Red Velvet Ribbon. 2

Wesley dragged the tip of the stripped tree branch to make three straight lines in the snow forming a large triangle.

His voice resonated in the air as he outlined the battle strategy. “To the left we have Angel and Cordelia, to the right, Fred and Gunn. Lorne and I will remain here. There will be no crossing the barrier of the dividing line. Each team has thirty minutes to build a fort and mass-produce their weapons.”

“Snowballs,” clarified Cordelia just in case Angel didn’t get it. He reminded her that Ireland wasn’t exactly part of the tropics and that he’d seen a few snowfalls during his nearly two and a half centuries.

The days before Christmas were full of activity unlike any compared to their normal routine. Total cloud-cover provided Angel the freedom to move about outside during hours that he would normally be stranded indoors.

There were no worries to be found here, where new-fallen snow blanketed the earth, and blessedly, no visions called them to fulfill their mission. The season and the wild, natural beauty of their surroundings awakened something basic and childlike within them.

For these few days, the crew of Angel Investigations left their troubles behind, the snow becoming their playground.

Snow battles were waged daily and when the cold drove them inside, Alfred and Mrs. Claymore warmed them up with cups of cocoa, hot toddies and, in Angel’s case, a mug of blood heated to precision. His ‘special diet’ didn’t seem to faze them at all.

Gunn and Wes spent hours in Nabitt’s electronic game room, many of the gadgets designed by the billionaire himself or his extensive technical production company. It surprised them to discover that Albert could beat them at just about any game they tried making them all the more determined to get in some practice.

“I often beta new software for the company,” explained the butler, “in an unofficial capacity, naturally.”

“Naturally,” Wes had replied, realizing that when the lodge was otherwise empty, the Claymores had full access to the game room. “We’ll have a rematch tomorrow.”

When Lorne wasn’t bonding with Mrs. C over Oprah’s Christmas special, he relaxed in the hot tub or on the couch in front of the fire, much preferring the warmth to the cold of the outdoors; though the lounge singer did like the way his voice sounded in the crisp mountain air, often gracing them with Christmas jingles on the spur of the moment.

Fred and Cordelia accidentally found their host’s collection of medieval costumes in one of the spare rooms. “We might have been snooping,” admitted Cordy only after they had amused themselves for an hour or two.

It looked like Albert wasn’t kidding when he mentioned Nabitt’s role-playing games. There were enough costumes here for a theatrical company.

Angel couldn’t remember being more relaxed. Whatever tension remained about the decision to come to the mountains had disappeared, leaving Cordelia apparently carefree. She seemed happier, healthier and somehow even more beautiful than before. He couldn’t take his eyes off her and stopped fighting the urge to do so.

Sometimes, she caught him staring and with doe-eyed reaction would dart away to another part of the lodge. She’d simply stare back from her new location as if silently daring him to keep looking. Typically, she’d eventually confront him and stand there waiting for him to come up with a reasonable explanation for his odd behavior.

He was starting to sense that he might be crowding her a little when she no longer had to turn around to know he was there. A little sigh of exasperation sounded as Cordy asked, “What do you want, Angel?”

The question was far more complex than it sounded. It was something he couldn’t answer, not yet.

Angel wasn’t quite certain what he wanted only that Cordelia was an essential part of it.

Two days before Christmas and Cordelia was getting antsy with excitement.

She was sitting in front of the tree arranging and rearranging the colorfully wrapped gifts for the fourth or fifth time since their arrival. It wasn’t just the thought of the presents, but the fact that for the first time in years, she was actually going to enjoy spending time with her family on Christmas Day.

Her over-indulgent parents had given Cordelia anything she’d ever wanted, except themselves. Their holidays usually involved leaving her at the hotel with a babysitter or, when she was older, keeping her occupied with some activity while they went off alone.

The Christmas they spent in Aspen was the most memorable simply because Cordelia developed a huge crush on her ski instructor. After that, everything about Aspen seemed a little rosier.

As far as Cordy was concerned, she had a new family. One that depended on each other, stuck together and despite the life-threatening danger, painful visions and lack of luxuries, made her happier than she’d ever been in her life.

The twinkling tree lights provided just enough of a glow to read the nametags on the packages. Picking out one of the small ones marked with her name, she gave it a squeeze. This was one of two presents from Angel and she burned with curiosity to know what was inside.

Standing, Cordelia moved closer to the fireplace where the glow of the lazy flames provided a little more light. Holding the package up toward the light only created a dark silhouette, though she had no idea that the same effect outlined her curves through the silk robe wrapped around her.

“What are you doing up so late?” Wearing his usual combination of black on black, Angel stepped out of the shadows of the connecting hallway, his voice drawing a surprised yelp from Cordelia. “I heard rustling sounds and thought I should check it out.”

Keeping the present hidden behind her back, Cordy turned around slowly, trying to come up with a good explanation for having it in her hands. “I couldn’t sleep.”

“You should try to get some rest. We’ve got a big day tomorrow, one last snow battle to fight,” he reminded softly, those dark eyes fathomless as he approached at a slow pace. “We don’t want to break our winning streak.”

Cordelia faked a yawn, “Good idea. We should be in bed. You go ahead, I’ll be right up.”

Maybe she was tired after all, Angel decided. Cordy didn’t even seem to realize what she’d suggested. Or maybe it was just his imagination taking off and putting words in her mouth. It was all too easy to imagine her in his bed, curled up and sleeping in his arms.

She stood there, painted toenails peeking out from beneath her long silk robe, hands behind her back; hazel eyes pools of pure innocence. It didn’t take Angel’s predatory instincts to recognize that Cordy was up to something, especially when the corners of her mouth curled up into that sweet smile that usually got her anything she wanted.

Entranced by the sight of her surrounded by the fire’s glow, Christmas lights dancing in her eyes as a hint of mischief appeared, Angel stepped close. Whether she realized it or not, she was standing in the perfect spot, directly under the mistletoe. He found that he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to fulfill this one holiday fantasy. Tucking a finger under her chin, he tilted it upward, his mouth coming down to capture hers as it parted slightly with surprise.

Hints of hot chocolate and cinnamon graced her lips. Her warmth drew him closer, hands sliding along the smooth sleeves of her robe and back up to run his fingers through her hair as the soft, explorative kiss deepened on a moan. Cordelia’s arms wound around his neck as she stood on tiptoes, the present in her hand forgotten as sensation took over.

His mouth alternated kisses, soft and gentle, firm and needy, taking and giving. She trembled in response, her body tingling under the skilled touch of his hands as they followed the curve of her spine. Then, just as suddenly as the kiss had begun, Angel lifted his head and stepped away.

Though stunned by their potent embrace, Cordelia was hardly struck silent by the event. “You kissed me,” she blurted as if needing to hear herself say the words for it to be believed.

The desire flaring in his dark eyes belied the simple excuse that followed as Angel pointed toward the ceiling above them. “Mistletoe.” The word sounded foreign as his voice thickened with each syllable.

Cordelia blinked and glanced up at the green sprig dangling from a red velvet ribbon hanging from a beam overhead. “But you kissed me,” her head was still swimming at the notion and seemingly couldn’t make the connection between the presence of the mistletoe and what had just happened between them.

Realizing that she was just as affected by the kiss as he had been, Angel decided he had given them both enough to think about for one night. Cupping her face, he let his thumb trail across the flushed curve of her cheek and smilingly said, “Put your present away and go to bed, Cordy.”

Staring down at the object that had been the target of her curiosity only a minute or two earlier, Cordelia barely recognized it. By the time she lifted her head again, she saw that Angel was already moving into the hallway. His name was on her lips before she knew she’d said it, stopping him in his tracks.

When Angel glanced over his shoulder, dark eyes focused on her, waiting expectantly for her to speak, all Cordelia could manage was a strangled, “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight,” Angel answered back, “pleasant dreams.”


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