She gazed out at the water, the ducks and geese on its surface beginning to darken into silhouettes. “How long will you be here, Jake?” Her voice sounded wobbly to her own ears, less casual than she'd intended.
“Well, your city council might decide that.”
council,” she corrected him. “We call Tall Pine a town, not a city. Don't forget that.”
“Thanks.” He rested his cheek on top of her head. “Well, if the council gives me the go-ahead, there's a lot to do to see a project like this through. Usually six or seven months. If they say noâ”
The thought set off little flames in her stomach, tickling at the bottom of her ribs.
He sighed. “I don't know. I've never had a project turned down before. But I don't plan on giving up without a fight.”
She dreaded having Jake leave. But she was almost as afraid to have him stay long enough to find out her whole story. So far, things were perfect, and part of her wanted to leave them that way.
She shivered again, and Jake brought his other arm across her waist, encircling her. It shut out the cold air wonderfully. It even did a little for the chill she felt inside.
“It's getting colder,” he said.
Mandy felt the beginnings of goose bumps on Jake's bare arms. Belatedly, she realized that in his short-sleeved polo shirt, he must feel the chill in the air more than she did. “You need a jacket.”
“I brought a couple with me. Thing is, they're all suit jackets. Someone told me this was Southern California, and this was summertime.”
“Someone should have told you it's colder up here in the mountains.” Even with Jake's arms around her, Mandy could feel the breeze from the lake starting to cut through the knit of her sweater. She huddled a little closer, this time trying to share some of her warmth with him. “And it probably doesn't help that you're full of ice cream.”
“Good point.” He kissed the top of her head. “You could talk me into watching the sunset from the truck.”
As they reached the parking lot on Evergreen Lane, they saw a pretty blond woman with two little girls, even blonder. The woman was sliding open the door to the backseat of a family van parked next to Jake's truck.
The bigger girl, about four years old, turned toward Mandy. “It's the Santa lady!”
“Santa lady?” their mother echoed.
Tongue-tied, Mandy took in the blond trio now staring at her. The older girl's eyes were brown, like her mother's. The younger sister's eyes were a blend of blue and green. Such pretty variations on a theme. She remembered the similarities and the differences....
“You were at Christmas in July, weren't you?” Mandy said.
The girls nodded, their eyes even bigger than before.
“I met them at our sidewalk sale,” Mandy told their mother. “I work at the Christmas store. They were there with their daddy.”
And, of course, she'd told them about Santa. Aware of Jake standing behind her, Mandy's heart hammered.
“July,” the mother said. “It must have been when I was out of town at my sister's.”
The older girl tugged at her mother's blouse. “Mom, she told us one night sheâ”
“Your name is Bailey, right?” Mandy interrupted.
Bailey nodded, pleased to be remembered, and forgot to finish what she was going to say.
“And Rosie.” Mandy turned her eyes to the smaller girl, about two years old.
Their mother stepped forward. “We just moved here at the beginning of the summer. I'm Renee.”
She shook the woman's hand. “I'm Mandy. This is Jake.”
Jake shook Renee's hand. “Nice to meet you.” He looked down at the girls, who hovered shyly near their mother. “And Bailey and Rosie. Nice to meet you, too.”
And they left, before Bailey remembered what she'd been about to say.
Mandy turned the key in the front door, letting Jake into her house for the first time.
They'd finished watching the sunset from the front seat of Jake's rented pickup, followed by kisses that had made her heady. That headiness might have accounted for Mandy's next idea: when they didn't find a movie that appealed to them at the multiplex, she'd invited him to her house to watch a DVD from her collection.
She dropped her keys on the floor as they stepped into the entryway, nearly clunking her head into Jake's as they both bent to pick them up.
“Here you go.” Jake's fingers brushed hers as he handed her the keys.
Mandy stepped away and switched on the lights. The living room was immediately to the right of the tiled entryway, and she tried to see it through his eyes. To her, it still felt sparse compared to the way it had looked a few days ago. Was the pine garland hanging from the mantelpiece too Christmasy for summer?
“It's warm in here.” Jake sounded relieved.
In contrast to the mountain breeze outside, the house still held the warmth it had built up from the afternoon sun. As Mandy started to take off her sweater, Jake helped her, sliding the sleeves down over her arms in a gesture that, perversely, set off yet another kind of shiver.
was what she hadn't thought about when she invited him back to her house. The possible implications of being alone with him, at night, in her home, hadn't hit her until they reached the front porch. Standing close to him now, completely alone, it was suddenly impossible to think of anything else.
As he slipped her sweater off, he kissed her lightly. And handed her the sweater.
She thought it might be his way of saying,
You can trust me.
Mandy exhaled a breath she hadn't realized she was holding and debated what to do with the sweater. She decided against opening the precariously loaded hall closet. She draped it over the back of the sofa instead.
Jake turned to survey the living room. “So, this is the house you grew up in.”
“This is it.”
“It feels like it.” She gave him a puzzled look. “I mean, it feels like you. I meanâ” He grinned ruefully.
She tried to remember if she'd seen Jake this tongue-tied before. It hadn't occurred to Mandy that nerves could work on both sides.
“âComfortable' isn't a very flattering word,” he said. “Would you settle for âhomey'?”
“It'll do. How about some coffee?”
She started toward the kitchen, then stopped. “You can have a seat and make yourself comfortable,” she said. “Or if you want to take a look at the movie choices . . .” She crossed the living room to the cabinet beside the television set and pulled it open to expose four rows of wide shelves. There were shelves in the doors, too.
“Impressive.” Jake's eyes took on a gleam, and he crouched on the floor for a better view. “Are they organized any special way?”
“Sort of.” Starting to feel more normal, Mandy crouched alongside him. “Classic dramas.” She pointed a finger along the rows of shelves as she talked. “Contemporary dramas. Thrillers. Romantic comedies. Musicals . . .” She passed her hand in front of the door on the right. “And the very top shelfâcomfort food. My all-time favorites. Those aren't broken up by category. And nothing's alphabetized.”
“I'm surprised at you.”
“Okay, so how are yours organized at home?”
“Easy. They're a mess.”
She laughed and stood up to go and make the coffee.
A movie collection, Jake decided, was a window to the soul.
He started with that top shelf.
of course. He was pleased to find
To Kill a Mockingbird
Breakfast at Tiffany's
The Princess Bride
were obvious, female-friendly favorites. But there were a few surprises.
is comfort food?” he called out to the kitchen.
“Only the first one. But the other two have to go with it, because I didn't want to separate them.”
“You're a regular Library of Congress.” He stood and joined Mandy in the kitchen.
It didn't look like she'd made any progress on the coffee yet. As he entered, she was transferring glasses from the sink to the dishwasher. She closed the dishwasher quickly.
“Something's fishy,” he said.
She turned with a start. “What?”
“I don't see any Christmas movies.”
She grinned. “There wasn't room. I've got a whole separate box for those. They're put away with the Christmas decorations.”
Jake folded his arms. “How many?”
She inclined her head, considering. “About forty. But that's because I'm selective. Did you pick anything out?”
“Help me narrow it down. I can't handle the responsibility.”
“You saw the favorites shelf.”
“That's a pretty broad selection. What are you in the mood for?”
“Well . . .” She opened a cabinet and brought out a can of coffee.
might be my all-time favorite, but I'm not sure if you'd care for it. I've been trying to get Mrs. Swanson to watch it for years. She can't get past the basic idea. She thinks, if it couldn't happen, what's the point in watching it?”
“That rules out a lot of movies. Especially if you count
She started judiciously measuring coffee into the filter basket of the coffeemaker. As she brought out another scoop of grounds, she eyed the size of the mound that crowned over the top of the scoop, then shook it to level it a little more before she dropped it into the filter.
So painstaking . . . and so irresistible.
Jake stepped behind her and spoke just above her ear.
is fine with me,” he said. “Believe it or not, I've never seen it. Something about Demi Moore being haunted by her husband?”
He smoothed her hair back, tucking it behind her ear. A delicate gold pine tree earring dangled from her earlobe. It shimmered when his fingers brushed it.
Mandy measured out another scoop of coffee, not so precisely this time. “I can't concentrate if you do that.”
“That's the idea.” He moved his lips downward and kissed her ear. She gave a little shudder that triggered a matching shudder of his own. She relaxed against him. He closed his eyes and buried his face against the side of her neck, drinking in the scent of whatever it was she wore, that delicious hint of spice. For several exquisite moments, he didn't move, just standing there with her, hearing her breathe.
Then she stepped away and carried the coffee carafe to the sink to fill it with water.
“Seriously, though,” she said. “Have you ever wondered what you'd do in a situation like that?”
He was crushed that she'd kept her train of thought. He'd certainly lost his. “Like what?”
“If you were a character in a movie like that. With ghosts, or angels, or . . . whatever.” Her tone was offhand. Her back was turned, so he couldn't see her expression. “How would you handle it?”
“What if you saw something you thought was impossible? You don't believe inâsay, ghosts, right?”
He blinked. “Right.”
She brought back the water, poured it into the coffeemaker and switched it on. “So what would you do if you walked into your kitchen and a ghost was standing by the sink?”
She'd left him far behind. “I guess I'd figure it was my imagination.”
“But what would you
They're standing right there in front of you.”
“This is a weird conversation, Mandy.”
“Come on. Humor me. Think about it.”
“Okay.” He tilted his head back and squinted up at the ceiling. “If I could see through them, I'd know it was my imagination, or that I was dreaming. And I'd go back to bed. If they looked solid . . . I'd probably try talking to them and find out if they had the wrong house. But first I'd grab a baseball bat.”
It sounded reasonable to him. She didn't seem satisfied. Jake had no idea what kind of an answer she was looking for.
do?” he asked.
“I think about it sometimes.” She watched the stream of coffee trickling into the clear carafe. “And I think . . . I think I might believe my own eyes.”
She looked at Jake again. The coffeemaker chugged out its brewing noises.
He risked a smile. “Mandy, are you trying to tell me your kitchen is haunted?”
“No.” She returned his smile with a much smaller one of her own. “I was just kidding around.”
He had a feeling he'd failed an exam of some sort. And he wasn't so sure that Mandy hadn't seen a ghost in her kitchen.
“Don't get me wrong,” he said. “I love fantasy. I guess I just think if there really were ghosts, you'd hear about a lot more people seeing them. There'd be more evidence.”
How had this turned into a debate over paranormal experiences? He felt a little uneasy. He'd rather argue over which movie to watch.
“It doesn't mean it doesn't make a good story,” he added. “I told you, the old monster movies are some of my favorites.”
She was staring at the coffee again, but the pot wasn't even half full. “Come on. Let's take another look.” She led him back into the living room and leaned over the movie cabinet. “What haven't you seen in here?”
was off the table. He joined her in front of the shelves. “Not a lot, except for the musicals. And those would be a tough sell for me.”
“Men.” She shook her head, but her tone seemed amiable. Whatever that conversation had been about, it was over. At least, as far as he could tell.
They settled on
Breakfast at Tiffany's,
and Mandy returned to the kitchen. “How do you like your coffee?”
“I thought so.”
During the movie, Mandy's mind wandered as she tried to imagine how Jake could ever accept her experience with Santa Claus.
hadn't been a good comparison, anyway. Mandy didn't believe in ghosts either. But a movie was a movie, and life was life. Jake could cheerfully suspend disbelief for a reanimated monster. Everyday life was a different story.
Like most people, Jake lived in a realistic world. And like most people, when he heard who Mandy had seen, he'd never believe her.
They'd darkened the room for the movie, but in the light cast by the glow of the screen, Mandy could still see the fireplace.
She'd seen him.
Jake would be more receptive if she told him Steven Spielberg had dropped by her house.
She sighed and rested her head on his shoulder. He responded by curling his arm around her. And once again, it felt natural and right. Maybe she was underestimating him.
I want to keep this.
With the comfortable weight of Jake's arm around her shoulders, at last Mandy focused on the movie and let
Breakfast at Tiffany's
work its magic.