“I was just thinking I should go home and get a sweater before we go. It gets a little chillier at night.” Mandy dipped back down to the table and grabbed a paper napkin. “I'll write down directions.”
“I have a GPS.”
She fished a pen out of her purse. “The roads up here give GPS nightmares.”
She leaned over the table, and Jake watched dark waves of hair fall against her cheek as she filled the napkin with a series of lines, curves, and captions with street names. To his relief, she added her address and phone number at the bottom. Which one would get him lost first, between Mandy's directions and his GPSâat this point, he couldn't tell.
He took the napkin from her and squinted. “Let's see. Turn left at the
, follow the squiggly line, make a right at the arrowâ”
“Hush. You'll thank me.”
They parted on the sidewalk, with Mandy heading back to her store while Jake continued his walking tour. He'd just had lunch, but he felt lighter as he headed down the street.
Then he rounded a corner, and his cell phone went crazy.
He pulled the cumbersome thing out of his pocket and watched the messages load.
When it was over, he saw he'd missed eleven e-mails, three texts and a voice mail. Probably Mark at the home office, wondering if Jake had fallen into a hole. He scrolled back and found that the string of messages started at ten-fifteen. Obviously, Tall Pine was in a cell phone dead spot with occasional pockets of service.
Oddly enough, he hadn't even noticed until now.
Mandy-the-Christmas-girl had gotten him a little distracted.
He liked her. A lot. A light shroud of shyness seemed to surround her, but he hadn't seen a hint of it in the shop, or while she'd balked at the idea of his planting a hotel in her hometown. He wondered if she was right about the reaction he could expect from the rest of Tall Pine.
Jake thought about the look on her face when he told her why he'd come here. Startled. Disillusioned. Maybe even betrayed.
Almost like he'd told her there was no Santa Claus.
Mandy pushed open the door to The North Pole with enough speed to set the bells jangling instead of jingling. Mrs. Swanson's head jerked up from the stack of mail in her hands.
Mandy took a deep breath and slowed her pace. She shouldn't come bursting in like a blizzard in the middle of August, even though that was exactly what she felt like. Her head was swirling with thoughts, and she couldn't seem to keep them going in any one direction.
“Hi,” Mrs. Swanson said, and returned to the task of sifting through the envelopes.
She didn't say anything about Mandy's coming back half an hour late from lunch. Maybe she hadn't noticed. Mandy hadn't realized it herself until she was halfway down the block, when she suddenly remembered she had a watch and what it was for. She'd walked the rest of the way here double-time, and now she was trying to conceal the fact that she was out of breath. She drew in another deep breath as quietly as she could, and tried to act normally.
“Did I miss anything?” Mandy asked.
Mrs. Swanson looked up from the mail again to regard her quizzically.
Measuring her stride with care, Mandy walked behind the counter and stowed her purse. She had no idea what “normal” looked like at this point.
“Enjoy your lunch?”
“Sure. Chinese chicken salad. Can't go wrong there.” Mandy smoothed at her hair. “The service was a little slow, though.”
She should just own up to being late and apologize for it. But she wouldn't, for love or money, spill out the fact that she had a date tonight. With someone she'd just met. She was still processing it herself, and she wanted to see how it played out before she said anything about it.
The feather duster wasn't behind the counter where she'd left it, so Mrs. Swanson must have dusted, as she'd expected. What else would Mandy be doing, normally, right now?
Busted. She knows I was late. Okay, no big deal. . . .
“You didn't even notice,” Mrs. Swanson said. “You walked right past it.”
Mandy followed the direction of her boss's nod and saw a large cardboard box alongside the counter. She would have had to make a much wider circle than usual to get behind the counter, and she hadn't even noticed. As she walked up to inspect it, she realized what had to be inside.
“The new keepsake ornaments!”
was ridiculous. How could she have possibly missed seeing the package? Every year she looked forward to the latest line of Christmas ornaments, and they usually arrived by the end of July. The shipment had been delayed in transit, and it had been driving her nuts for two weeks.
Head in the clouds much, Mandy?
“I didn't think this was ever going to get here,” Mandy stammered.
The box was still sealed. Because Mrs. Swanson knew that Mandy loved being the one to open it.
When she looked up, Mrs. Swanson had the X-Acto knife in her hand. She passed it to Mandy with a flourish. Mandy grinned as she ceremoniously sliced open the box.
For the next hour, she no longer had to worry about what she would normally do. Taking out the new ornaments and setting up the display was a labor of love. This time of year, they would occupy the wall on the south side of the store. By November, they'd be front and center. Mandy lifted each one out with relish. Charlie Brown characters, Barbie and Winnie-the-Pooh were always staples, and she enjoyed seeing them. But her favorites were the trees, the snowmen, the reindeer . . . new versions of the old favorites.
They never could get Santa Claus quite the way she remembered him, though. She supposed her memory could be faulty, but she'd never met anyone to compare notes with. At least, she'd never met an adult who admitted to seeing him.
As she started to hang this year's Santa ornament on the display, she let it dangle from her fingers for a moment. Merry eyes, rosy cheeks, laughing faceâa lot of detail had gone into the tiny figure, and it was well done. What was missing?
Her mind went back to her low-lit living roomâthat face, solemn and friendly at the same time. He'd looked right
her, and that memory still brought a flush of warmth whenever she thought about it. The memory had sustained her through all the kidding over the years, reminding her that there was goodness in the world, withstanding all the moments of doubt and discouragement.
Who in the world could capture that in a two-inch ornament?
Mandy smiled to herself as she hung the well-intended decoration in its place on the display. Then her eyes went to the framed clippings on the wall a few feet away.
Jake hadn't made it over to this side of the store. If he had, she wondered what he would have thought.
She wondered if she'd still have the same plans for the evening.
Just about everyone in town knew her story. Anyone who might have forgotten had a solid reminder, in those clippings and in Mandy's very presence in this store.
You could have worked at a clothing store. You could have waited tables. Maybe even gone into real estate. Or moved somewhere else.
Instead, she'd chosen to embrace her encounter with Santa as a blessing, not a curse. She'd stayed in Tall Pine, in the same house where she and her mother had lived before Mom passed away three years ago. Maybe, if Mandy had grown up in a big city instead of a small town, as time went on no one would have given her belief a second thought. But somehow, in Tall Pine, it had become part of her identity. When Mandy did go out on datesâboth in high school and afterwardâthe conversation always worked its way around to:
“Do you still believe . . .”
And Jake didn't know about any of it.
The idea was freeing. No history of past embarrassing moments, no debate over whether she still believed what she'd seen. A clean slate.
She hung a gingerbread man on the display hook designated for him, then stepped back to survey her work.
Mrs. Swanson came to stand alongside her. “It looks good.”
An unusual comment from her boss, especially on a predesigned display.
Mandy should never underestimate her. Of course she'd noticed Mandy was late coming back from lunch, and her attempts to pass for normal apparently weren't making the grade.
She kept trying anyway. “I think the snowman's my favorite. The eyes really do look like coal, and the carrot nose is perfect.”
Mrs. Swanson fingered the snowman's tiny woolen scarf with a nod.
To Mandy's gratitude, more customers found their way into the store over the course of the afternoon. It kept her busy and helped the time go a little faster. She kept watching the clock, which wasn't hard to do; clocks were everywhere, in the shapes of wreaths, stars and pinecones.
Usually Mrs. Swanson left around four, about an hour before the store closed.
Watch today be the exception,
Mandy thought. But at ten after four, Mrs. Swanson gathered up her purse and headed for the exit.
“Good night.” The older woman opened the door to the sunny mid-August sidewalk. “If you can call it that.”
It wouldn't be dark until after eight. “Good night,” Mandy said.
For the next half hour, Mandy fussed and tidied, waiting on one customer who sighed over the keepsake ornaments, but didn't buy anything.
Twenty minutes to five. Outside, the foot traffic didn't lessen, although the passersby walked more briskly, probably on their way to find a spot for an early dinner. Mandy watched and waited until she didn't see anyone near the door. Then she walked over to the framed clippings.
She picked up the recent one, the one with the very recognizable photo of herself standing behind the counter. It was in a simple document frame, nothing too expensive. Taking another look toward the door, Mandy set the clipping on the edge of a nearby display table. Then she nudged it, bit by bit, until it dropped to the floor with a small sound of breaking glass.
Now she could tell Mrs. Swanson, truthfully, that it fell.
Jake navigated the road slowly, keeping a vigilant eye out for the final turn. Mandy's directions had taken him down a series of streets that weren't clearly marked; he never should have laughed at the landmarks she'd supplied. His GPS had proven useless because, as soon as he turned off Evergreen Lane, his phone lost the signal. He should have seen that one coming, as sporadic as his reception had been all day.
He was pretty sure he'd found the right house even before the number on the mailbox confirmed it. Bright red geraniums spilled out of a window box, and a painted birdhouseâred and green, natchâhung on the porch that ran in front of the little wooden home. The exterior was fashioned like a log cabin, and the varnished wood had been allowed to keep its natural color rather than being painted over.
Jake pulled up the steep driveway, climbed a narrow wooden stairway to her front door and rang the bell.
Moments later, Mandy opened the door wearing a royal blue blouse that brought out the color of her eyes. She seemed slightly taller than she had this afternoon; Jake looked down to see the pointed toes of black dress shoes poking out from beneath her black slacks. She'd traded in the silver bell earrings for little gold hoops, and she carried a sweater over her arm. Her purse was already on her shoulder.
“Hey,” she said with a shy smile, slipping out the door so quickly she might have been hiding a body inside. Then again, Jake wouldn't be anxious for anyone else to see his apartment if he hadn't been expecting company ahead of time.
“Hey.” Maybe it was their snappy repartee, but Jake flashed back to those early dates he'd had in high school. He felt a trace of that awkward, new-shoe feeling. Not quite what he expected at the age of twenty-nine. Awkward, but kind of exciting, too. Walking beside her, Jake caught a light scent that reminded him a little of cinnamon and a little of the shop where she worked, with some sweet, indefinable tang that wasn't quite like anything he could think of.
When they reached his rented pickup truck in the driveway, Jake explained, “The limo was in the shop.”
She looked at him, puzzled. He opened the door for her and gave her a hand up. “I rented it for the four-wheel drive,” he explained. “I figured I might be checking out some undeveloped land up here while I'm looking for a location for the hotel. Plus,” he admitted, “it's just fun to drive it.”
He rounded the truck to the other side and climbed into the driver's seat. Mandy was still quiet. He remembered something else about those high school days: wishing he could cut straight to that first kiss to get it out of the way. Partly to get rid of the suspense, knowing the moment was hours away. Partly because he just plain wanted to kiss her.
Something about the way she was perched on the passenger seat told Jake she was every bit as nervous as he was, probably more so. He thought a quick kiss would put him at ease. He also thought it would make Mandy Reese jump out of her skin.
He ventured a hand on her wrist, and she actually did jump a little. But it got her to look at him, rather than at some undetermined spot on the dashboard.
He smiled at her and got one back. “Where to? I'm the new guy in town. I'm at your mercy.”
Her words spilled out quickly. “There's a steak place a couple of blocks past Evergreen Lane that's pretty good. It's not super fancy.”
He wondered if she was worrying about his joke about caviar and escargot.
“Steak it is.” He started the car. This time of summer, six p.m. was still broad daylight. It felt a little early for dinner. “Would you like to walk around town a little first?”
She hesitated. “You know, I'd better not. I twisted my ankle this afternoon. I was standing on a stepladder, and . . . I sort of stepped wrong when I got down. It's not bad. But I probably shouldn't do much walking tonight.”
Jake didn't comment as he backed down the driveway. But something about her answer didn't quite ring true.
Especially coming from a woman who was wearing high heels tonight, when she hadn't been this afternoon.
Mandy had only been to Barrymore's Steakhouse once before, on an ill-fated date a couple of years ago. Fact: still believing in Santa Claus at the age of twenty-two made even the former high school chess-club champion feel cool by comparison. He'd laughed at her. Then tried to backtrack. The evening had never quite recovered, and she hadn't gone out with him again.
She wasn't going to let that happen tonight.
If Jake stayed around very long, it was just a matter of time before he heard she'd seen Santa Claus. But like Cinderella with her conjured dress and pumpkin coach, Mandy wanted at least one night of being normal. Of not trying to explain herself.
“That'll be all. Thanks.” Jake handed the menus back to the waiter, a thirtyish blond man she didn't recognize. It was the main reason she'd chosen this restaurant. At any of the places on Evergreen Lane, someone on the staff was likely to be an old classmate, or one of their siblings. It was a wonder that Mandy hadn't known the girl who took their order at the Pine 'n' Dine this afternoon.
“So, I promised you no shoptalk,” Jake said. “Tonight it's your turn. Has Christmas always been a big deal for you?”
If you only knew
. “I know some people get tired of it. I've just never been one of them.”
“Oh, I think most people like Christmas. It's just that for most people, once a year is enough.”
“You know, people say that to me all the time. But they still come into the store.” A smile touched her lips. “You did.”
“You've got me there.”
Jake had changed into a crisp white shirt with a deep brown tie and a tweedy light brown jacket. Almost like the kind of coat professors were supposed to wear, except that he looked way too young to be a professor. He managed to look dressy and casual at the same time. She knew he'd never been here before, but there was something in the way he sat back from the table that gave the impression of comfort.
Mandy picked up her water glass. “Here's what I see every day. Some customers are like me. They love it right away. Then there are the ones like you. Their first reaction is, âWhat the heck?' But they come in a little farther, like they're trying to figure it out. They look around, they hear the music . . . and it usually happens. They get that Christmas feeling.”
Jake's eyes glinted. “And they usually buy something.”
“Well, usually. But that's not the point.”
“Sure it is. The store's in business to make money.”
“Okay. But what do the customers get out of it?” When he didn't reply, she answered for him: “A little piece of Christmas.”
“You're right. If a business doesn't supply a benefit, it doesn't stay in business. But for you, that little piece of Christmas is there twelve months a year. Doesn't it get . . .”
“Less special? Not for me.” Mandy considered. “The way I see it, those other eleven months out of the yearâthey're mine. When the whole world isn't surrounded by Christmas, and people aren't so busy getting stressed out about it, they come into The North Pole and just
it. And I get to give them that.”
Jake nodded. He seemed satisfied. Maybe even impressed. “You win.” He picked up his glass of soda. “I'm not a total Scrooge, by the way.”
“Not many people are. It's just easy to lose sight of Christmas when you're right in the middle of it. What's Christmas like for you?”
“Well, it's the one day of the year I know I won't be working.”
Mandy flinched. “Seriously?”
“Okay, I'm exaggerating. It's a couple of days. And I always spend it with my family. It's . . .” He shook his head with a smile. “Chaos. Complete and utter chaos. My dad calls it the annual invasion.”
That sounded better. “Relatives?”
He nodded. “Two days before Christmas, everyone converges on my parents' house. And I mean
There's me, my mom and dad, my older brother and his wife. They have a little girl, Emily. That's who the pinecone necklace is for. But then there are aunts, uncles, cousins . . . and tons of food. My mom cooks a lot of it, but everyone brings more. There are kids you haven't seen for a year, so you're trying to keep everybody's name straight, what grade they're in, and who got their braces off, and it doesn't really matter because you can't hear a thing.”
“It sounds wonderful.”
“I guess it is.” His gaze drifted past her, and Mandy knew he wasn't seeing the inside of the restaurant at all. “The only one who's not making a racket is my dad. He'll sit in his armchair while everybody's rushing around. He acts like he thinks everybody else is nuts, but you can tell he loves it. But by the next day, everybody clears out to go to their own homes. My brother and his family usually stay a little later. It's amazing how much quieter the house seems with only six people in it.”
“And Christmas Eve?”
“Really quiet. Lots of last-minute preparations behind closed doors. Then usually we'll watch a movie. It's kind of the calm after the chaos. Then in the morning, we open presents and go out to breakfast. But the best part is all the buildup.”
Mandy nodded. “That's because when it comes, it's over so fast.”
“Unless you work at a Christmas store.”
Jake picked up his drink. “What about you? What do you do for Christmas?”
“A little quieter than that. The last couple of years, I've had dinner at Mrs. Swanson's. She's the owner of the shop. This year I think I'm going to invite her over instead. I've never cooked a turkey by myself before.”
He frowned. “Where's your family?”
Mandy took in a deep, slow breath. “I lost my mom three years ago. Everybody else is out of state.”
Jake looked startled. He set down his glass. “She couldn't have been very old. What happened?”
“An aneurysm. One of those things you don't see coming. She was forty-seven.”
“What about your father?”
“They got divorced when I was eight.” She felt a tight smile cross her face. “He came to the funeral.”
“I'm sorry. I had no idea.”
“Of course you didn't. You just met me.” She shook her head. “But it's okay. The thing about my mom . . .” She stirred her iced tea with her straw, aware of Jake's eyes on her. “She did so much, and I just didn't realize it. You don't think about those things when you're a kid. She must have worked so hard. She worked at the bank up here, so I was a latchkey kid, but when she got home, she always had time for me. She made sure I knew I was important to her. We never had a lot of extra, but we didn't need much.”
She didn't go into the rest of it. After her mother died, Mandy found out just how hard her mother had worked to make sure her daughter would be all right. The house was paid off, so it was Mandy's, free and clear. There had even been an insurance policy for good measure. Not bad for a reluctantly single mother.
Mandy tried to put her finger on what she wanted to say. “I wish I could have had her longer. Of course. But . . . she left me with something. She made me want to make other people happy. Maybe that's what my job is really about.”
Jake studied her, his eyes quiet and direct. She just hoped he didn't feel sorry for her.
“I've never met anyone like you,” he said finally.
By the time they left the restaurant, the sky was darkening, and a chill had crept into the air. Mandy slipped her sweater on. As they walked toward the car's parking spot alongside the curb, Jake took her hand. Her fingers curled around his, and she was surprised how comfortable it felt.
“Still up for a movie?” he asked.
She hesitated for an instant. “Sure.”
Tall Pine Cineplex was the only theater in town. On a Saturday night, there was an awfully good chance she might run into someone from her old school there, and there was no telling where the conversation might go. She'd just have to think on her feet.
Jake stopped and turned her toward him just before they reached the car. “Mandy.”
She hadn't realized until now just how much taller he was; even in her heels, she needed to tilt her head back to look up at him.
His eyes were fixed on hers in that direct stare she was beginning to know. Now he seemed as close to being uncertain as she'd seen tonight. Somehow, Mandy found that reassuring.
“There's something I've been wanting to do for a while,” he said. “And I'm hoping you won't mind.”
He stepped down from the curb, taking his height down several inches. He still stood taller than Mandy, but now his mouth was just slightly above hers. Jake lifted his hand and ran a finger lightly down the side of her cheek. There was no mistaking what he meant.
Mandy thought of the way it felt when she jumped into the cold water of the Tall Pine pond on a hot summer day.
I'm not ready for this....
Running his fingers underneath her jawline, Jake tipped her chin up toward him. Her heart was thrumming so loudly she was sure he could hear it.
I haven't had nearly enough practice at this....
His lips met hers lightly, and Mandy felt something inside melt. She closed her eyes and drank in the warmth, the softness, the nearness. His other hand came up to frame her face. The kiss was gentle, unhurried, and the street around them felt unusually still. It was as if the world had paused.
Oh, I could do a lot more of this.