Stella Jackson was one corny Christmas carol away from grabbing her grandfather’s portable stereo and hurling it out of a second-story window. It wasn’t that she hated Christmas, quite the opposite in fact. But it was Christmas in July and therefore not a real Christmas. She was also in England, meaning it was summertime. And wasn’t the whole point of Aussies doing the festive thing in July so they could enjoy a roast lunch and tacky Christmas jumpers while it wasn’t boiling hot outside?

Frankly, the whole thing was confusing. But Grandpa had insisted, and she never could say no to him. She suspected it was so he could have a Christmas with his family in England, without breaking his promise to her that they would always celebrate the real Christmas together in Brisbane.

Still, Rudolph was driving her crazy.

“Stella Jackson, wipe that sour look off your face young lady.” A mocking voice caught her attention.

Evan Foss. He was twenty years old, three years her senior and he loved to remind her of it. He was also the hottest guy on the face of the earth. It’d been two years since she’d seen him last. Two whole years while she’d thought about him any time the subject of England came up.

And in that time he’d changed. Grown. He towered over her by a head and a half, and she would swear his shoulders were bigger. His arms, too. Muscles pressed against the confines of his soft white t-shirt in a way that made her mouth feel uncomfortably dry.

As usual, the words tripped on her tongue and her lips refused to cooperate. In an unsuccessful attempted to hide her awkwardness, she scowled and crossed her arms under her underdeveloped bust. Suddenly the pretty sundress she’d chosen for today—with its thin spaghetti straps and sunflower yellow fabric—made her feel far too exposed and overdone. Like a kid playing dress up.

You’ll be eighteen in six months. You’re practically an adult and you can wear anything you like.

But that didn’t mean she looked good. After watching all her friends develop breasts and hips and that gentle womanly sway when they walked, Stella remained rail-like and gangly. More baby giraffe than woman.

“Cat got your tongue?” Evan grinned. The way his light brown hair flopped over his eyes always made her sigh. So. Damn. Dreamy.

“What do you want Evan?”

Excellent come back. Not.

Stella groaned inwardly. She wasn’t particularly good with talking to boys back home, but Evan made her even more tongue-tied than usual.

He braced a hand against the doorframe, right next to her head. “Just to talk. I’m trying to be a good host.”

He wasn’t the host. Not really. Her grandfather’s estate was run by a small team of people, and Evan was simply one of the people who worked there. He used to live there too, but now he’d gone off to university now. Lived on his own and probably did whatever he liked, unlike Stella who was confined to her mother’s strict rules. She hated that Evan was older, that he got to try everything before her.

Part of her worried that he might not ever come back. That after he’d left the estate she might not see him again. But he was here, now. Real life and in the flesh. Her heart thumped unevenly in her chest.

“How’s university?” she asked, trying to be polite.

“Fine.” He lifted one shoulder into a shrug. “They tell you it’s the be-all and end-all, but I can’t wait to get out into the real world.”

The real world. To her, university was exactly that. A chance to spread her wings and be her own person. To explore and forge her own life. The future stretched out in front of her like a great sparkling ocean.

“I’ve thought about maybe doing an exchange program,” she said. “Some of the universities offer a semester abroad.”

He raised a brow. “And where would you go?”

“I could go to the US. Or maybe Canada.” She swallowed. “Or even here.”

“I thought you hated England.” His lip twitched as though a smile was trying to burst free. “Too cold, too wet.”

“It might be nice to try something different.” She toyed with the strap on her dress and his eyes followed the movement. “Find out why Grandpa seems to love this place. Who knows? Maybe England will prove me wrong.”

He nodded. “Well, if you come I’d be happy to be your tour guide.”

Her stomach fluttered at the thought. She knew Evan had his own place, an apartment she shared with a friend. She couldn’t even fathom that kind of freedom. Oh what it must be like to decorate the walls with whatever you liked, to wear what you felt like without having some pass judgement every time you waked out of your bedroom.

“I’ll let you know,” she said, hoping she sounded far more non-committal than she did in her head.

The fact was, her semester abroad was all but planned. All she had to do was make sure she got into the right university, then she could apply to come to England in her final year. It felt like a lifetime away. But the thought of being here without her mother was exhilarating. And if Evan meant what he said about being her tour guide…

Oh boy.

Her body suddenly felt warm and tingly. Nervous. Like an electrical currant was running through her.

“Good.” He cocked his head. “Have you noticed where you’re standing, by the way?”

“Uh, in a doorway?” She looked around with exaggerated curiosity and slapped her palm against the wooden frame, hoping the sarcasm might hide the fact that she was feeling anxious and excited and swoony. “Yep, it’s a doorway alright.”

“Look up.” He pointed to the top of the frame above her, where a sprig of mistletoe hung.

The glossy berries—fake, of course—gleamed in the cosy lighting of the lounge room. How had she not noticed them hanging like a silent booby-trap above her head? Did Evan think she was standing here on purpose?

What if he thinks you planned this all along?

The only thing more humiliating than having to kiss her biggest crush where anyone could catch them, would be if he thought she wanted it. Which she did, duh. But he could never know that.

In Evan’s mind, she’d always be a kid. When they were younger, he was like an older brother always helping to patch her cuts and scrapes, teaching her to climb trees and scale hedges. He’d sat with her by the fire, drinking hot chocolate with marshmallows bobbing like little boats.

You’re not a kid any more.

“You know what it means?” His pale green eyes gleamed. She could stare into those eyes for hours without getting bored.

“Nope. No idea,” she lied.

He chuckled. “Denial. Interesting.”

“It’s not denial. Maybe we simply don’t have your stupid traditions in Australia.” She stopped short of poking out her tongue because that would make her seem like a little kid.

“It means I can kiss you.”

“What if don’t want to kiss you?” She folded her arms tighter, tilting her chin up at him as if she had far more better things to do than deal with the silly issue of mistletoe and its meaning.

That didn’t stop her knees from feeling like they were about to give out on her, nor did it stop the flutter of her heat as it beat wildly in anticipation. She’d never done it before, and the inside of her elbow sure as hell didn’t count. That’s right, seventeen and never been kissed.

Well, aside from that one time she’d played spin the bottle at a party where she’d landed on the most heinous boy in her class and gotten out of it by barely brushing her lips to his. But that wasn’t a real kiss. Not one where her skin felt tingly and tight because she wanted it so bad.

“I’ll believe that if you don’t kiss me back,” he said, his grin cocky and sure.

How on earth was he so damn confident? She bet the girls at university fell all over themselves for a chance to kiss him. Stella’s cheeks burned fiery hot and she hoped that he could see how she was blushing at the mere possibility of what he might taste like. Would he be soft and sweet? Or firm and take-charge? Would he use his tongue?

“Fine,” she said, her voice shaking almost as much as her hands. “We’ll see who’s right. But I can tell you now I’m going to hate every second of it.”

“You’re a sucky liar.” His breath puffed over her skin as he ducked his head down, so close that his nose was merely an inch from her own.

She felt her lips part, almost as if she had no control over them. There was no way she could hide exactly how much she wanted this kiss. Evan was right, she was a sucky liar. This kiss had been the subject of her dreams for years now. The subject of every birthday wish that she’d chanted silently in her head before blowing out an increasing number of candles on her cake.

“So prove me wrong,” she whispered.

His lips tilted up in a satisfied smirk before he closed the remaining few inches between them. But he didn’t crush his mouth down to her right away like she expected him to. The pad of his thumb caught her lower lip, running along its length in preparation for what was to come. Opening her mouth in anticipation. Her breath hitched, a delicious swirl of nerves filling her belly.

Then it happened. Soft, full lips claimed her own. It was gentle, sweet—not the furious gnashing of lips she’d seen on TV. But it wasn’t a chaste peck like he could have gotten away with, either. It was somewhere in the delicious middle. Not too soft, not too hard. The Goldilocks of kisses.

It was a kiss that told her he wanted it, too.

The taste of candy canes and cola made her sigh as his tongue slipped past her lips for a brief second. Her hands automatically went to his chest, his muscles hard beneath her palms, and she kissed him back as best she could with her head spinning like a top. Everything inside her was wound tight—from the breath hovering the back of her throat, to the excited knot in her stomach, to her fists curling into his t-shirt.

“Yeah, try and tell me you didn’t want that.” His breath was hot against her cheek, eyes glimmering.

She’d never wanted anything more in her whole life. Thank you Santa.