Christmas Cheer – The End

Blurb | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Joe glanced over at Christine. She was deep in thought, her brows scrunched together, a pencil stuck behind her ear, another pencil sticking out of her ponytail. Her fingers flew over the keyboard. Every once in a while she’d make a humming sound that made him smile.

It’d been two days since he convinced her to work in his apartment. He was surprised she agreed until he saw the vulnerability in her eyes and the confusion. It’d made him feel better that she was just as confused, just as vulnerable as he.

He had no idea what was going on between them and in some ways it scared the crap out of him. Whatever this thing was, it wasn’t something he’d ever felt before with any of the other women he’d been with. Christine was special. Was that what he felt the first night he met her? If so it was merely a drop in the bucket compared to what he felt now.

Normally, in all of his other relationships, he enjoyed spending time with the women he went out with but there were moments when he wanted space. He hadn’t felt any of that with Christine. In fact, it was just the opposite. He wanted to hold onto her tightly, to never let go. Inevitably a little bit of panic followed that thought because he had to let her go. She wasn’t going to be here much longer. A week at the most before she headed back to her life and her job.

She talked about her job a lot. Told him about the ad campaign she was working on. He’d even helped her bounce ideas around and given her some suggestions which she seemed to appreciate. He didn’t mind. He liked working with her, liked watching her nimble mind operate and was proud of her. But regret nudged away all of that. Regret that they hadn’t met sooner. Regret that she would be leaving.

He’d been where she was at one time and while he could warn her that what she was working so hard for wasn’t going to fulfill her he also knew she had to learn that on her own. If he convinced her to stay here with him, to give up everything she was working toward—and that was a big if—she would always wonder what could have been, how far she could have risen. He never wanted to be one of her regrets and so when the time came he would let her go. Even though it would tear his heart out.

He sat beside her, not surprised when she didn’t notice. Carefully he pulled her hands from the keyboard, a trick he’d learned a few days ago. Sometimes it was the only way to get her attention. She looked up at him, but he could tell she didn’t really see him. Her mind was still on the ad she was creating.

“It’s time for me to go to work,” he said.

She blinked and the fog lifted from her eyes. “It’s that late already?”

“You’ve been working for nearly eight hours.” He’d made lunch and placed it next to her, then ventured down to the restaurant to receive a delivery. When he returned the sandwich was gone and the plate clean. She probably didn’t even remember eating.

She rubbed her eyes with the pads of her fingers and sighed. “I’m sorry.” Her hands dropped to her lap. “Not a real fun date, am I?”

He smiled back and rubbed the knot between her shoulder blades. “This isn’t a date. If we were on a date I wouldn’t let you bring the laptop.”

That startled a laugh out of her and made him inordinately pleased with himself. Reluctantly he stood when what he really wanted to do was lay her down on the couch and have his way with her. She might have been consumed with her project during the day but she made sure her nights were just for him and the thought of that constantly kept his blood warm.

“I’m heading down to the restaurant before we get sidetracked. Remember to come down for dinner.” Usually she’d come down to eat with him. Sometimes she’d get too caught up in work and forget. When she did that he’d send dinner up.

She smiled, but it was a tired smile that made him worry she was working too much. “What would I do without you?”

For a moment neither of them moved, their thoughts probably going in the same direction. His gut twisted like someone had taken a steak knife to it and his breath lay suspended in his lungs, too paralyzed to let it out.

He bent down and kissed her on those parted lips, savoring her sweet taste, remembering it for the long winter ahead of him when there would be no Christine sitting on his couch in front of his fire. When he straightened there were tears in her eyes that she quickly blinked away. But he saw them and inside, there were answering tears.

***

After Joe left Christine stared into the fire and let the tears that she’d tried so hard to hide from him fall. She didn’t even bother wiping them away. What was the use? More would replace them.

She hurt like she’d never hurt before, a pain so great she feared nothing would alleviate it. Not even time.

She’d known staying here was a bad decision but she’d assumed it was bad for the project. She never thought she’d fall so hard so fast.

Her cell phone rang and for a moment she thought about ignoring it. No one would need her on Christmas Eve, but then the idea that someone was calling on Christmas Eve when no one should be made her pick the phone up.

***

“Hey, Joe!”

Joe looked over the shoulder of his sous chef before turning to the guy calling his name. It was his manager, Marty, who’d been with the restaurant since his parents owned it. He didn’t look as if the place was packed with people waiting for tables. But then this was his twentieth Christmas with the restaurant. Nothing fazed him.

It’d become tradition for most families to eat dinner here on Christmas Eve and those who didn’t, came on Christmas day. Being in the restaurant business, Joe and his family never celebrated Christmas on December twenty-fifth. They waited until New Years when they closed the restaurant down for a week.

Marty jerked his head, telling Joe to come closer. “Yeah?” Joe wiped his hands on the towel he’d tucked into the front of his jeans and eyed a waitress as she hefted a heavy tray.

“Someone here to see you,” Marty said.

“Me?” Who the hell was here to see him? Everyone he knew was here tonight, including his family who were helping serve.

“Christine,” Marty said above the noise of cooks yelling and pans banging against each other.

Joe glanced at his watch. Usually Christine came later, after the crowds died down, but then this was Christmas Eve and the crowd wasn’t about to die down soon. He felt a tinge of regret that they wouldn’t be able to eat together. Not now, at least. He pushed through the swinging doors and into the restaurant. Christine stood against the wall watching the crowd. Her face was flushed, her eyes bright. When she spotted him, she launched herself at him. He caught her in midflight, her body slamming against his. Her soft curves molded to him as they’d done so many times in the last few days and he couldn’t help but hold her closer and inhale the fruity scent of her shampoo. The same scent that saturated his bathroom every morning, reminding him of her.

“Whoa,” he said, bracing himself so she wouldn’t knock him over. “What’s this?”

She kissed him on the mouth then smiled up at him. “He loves it.”

“Who loves what?” But he knew and instinctively his arms tightened around her in an attempt to keep her next to him forever.

“My boss. He loves my idea and the company wants to see it the day after tomorrow. They said if it’s executed as well as I claim then they want to go for it.”

She slid from his grasp and bounced on her feet, those wild curls bouncing with her. Her smile nearly stretched from ear to ear and her eyes sparkled with laughter and pride.

He smiled back, although it took effort to force his facial muscles to obey. “That’s great, sweetheart. I’m very proud of you.” And he was. Really he was.

She grabbed his hand and squeezed. “This is it, Joe. This is what I’ve wanted. What I’ve worked for.”

“I know.” He squeezed back, his heart breaking. “I know it is. Congratulations.”

The light in her eyes dimmed and the smile disappeared. “I have to pack. I’m leaving in the morning. I have to get to the office and polish this up. My meeting’s the day after Christmas.”

“Hey, Joe, could you c’mere?”

Joe nodded to his head waiter. “Give me a minute, Russell.”

Christine stepped back, the elation gone, her expression serious. “We’ll talk when you get home,” she said.

He nodded again, not trusting himself to speak. Afraid he would say things better left unsaid. Afraid he would make a fool of himself by begging her to stay when he knew in his heart he needed to let her go.

***

Christine was waiting for him when he got home, her suitcase beside the front door, her laptop case beside it. That more than anything told him this was real. She was leaving and there was nothing he could do or say to stop her. Not that he would. He would never do that to her, but all the same, he wanted to. Man, how he wanted to.

She looked over her shoulder at him, the Christmas tree lights like a halo around those golden curls. “Hi,” she said softly.

He closed the door behind him and dropped his coat. “Hey.” His feet appeared to be glued to the floor so they stared at each other for a long moment, so much to be said hovering between them.

“Are you ready to go?” he asked.

She nodded. Christmas music played softly in the background. The fire was still going strong. She must have gone outside and lugged some logs into the house.

She stood and faced him, the couch between them, and held her hand out. “Come here, Joe.”

He moved although it felt like he was walking through sludge, and took her hand to sit beside her. She curled a leg beneath her and faced him, dropping her gaze to their linked hands. Slowly her thumb rubbed his knuckles and she cleared her throat. “My dad left my mom and I when I was born,” she said. “Mom told me he wasn’t ready to have a family yet. It was just the two of us when I was growing up. Mom got pregnant with me out of high school and didn’t have many skills other than waitressing. Sometimes she’d work in retail, but those jobs never lasted long. Things were tight. We moved around a lot. Many Christmases were spent in shelters and standing in line at soup kitchens.”

Joe turned his hand in hers and squeezed her fingers but remained silent, aching inside for the little girl she’d been.

“When I got older and was able to take care of myself she found more steady work. Still waitressing, but steady. She always told me not to trust a man to take care of me. That only I could take care of myself. She said love was a fantasy. Love didn’t put a roof over your head or food in your belly.”

She paused and he allowed the silence to stretch.

“I took her words to heart,” she said. “I studied hard and earned good enough grades to get a full scholarship to the local college. Mom wasn’t around by then. I think she worked herself to death but I knew she was proud of me.” She finally looked at him. The firelight reflected off the tear tracks on her cheeks but she made no move to wipe them away.

“I have to go back to New York, Joe. I have to do this.”

“Love may not put a roof over your head or food in your belly, but it can bring you comfort and security.”

A tear rolled down her cheek. “I know that now.”

But it didn’t change her mind. He knew it wouldn’t but a small part of him still hoped.

In the end, he let her go because he had no choice. To keep her here would ruin what they had together. In time she would come to hate him and that he couldn’t live with. When he awoke the next morning the sheets were still warm from their frantic lovemaking but she was gone. A small package wrapped in bright red paper with a silver bow sat on his kitchen table. For a long time he simply stared at it, unwilling to reach for it. Finally curiosity overcame his reluctance and he carefully removed the wrapping to reveal an ornament of a little boy pulling a bright blue sled behind him. He smiled through the cracks in his heart.

***

Christine stared through gritty, sleep-deprived eyes out the window of her office. She spent all of Christmas day on the road then in the office finalizing the project and listening to her boss’s “advice” that was really commands to change this and that until the project she’d worked so hard on wasn’t hers anymore. Despite that she’d pushed through and delivered the best sales pitch of her career, convincing the Fortune 500 company to use their advertising firm for their business and thus securing her future.

Her boss was elated and already hinted at a big raise and an even bigger promotion. She smiled through it all, accepting congratulations and slaps on the back while inside the sadness that had been plaguing her began to take over.

All her life she’d worked hard—at being a dutiful daughter, at being a good student, at being an indispensible employee. All of that work came down to this moment. The pinnacle of her career. She should be feeling elated. Everything was within her grasp. This was the happiest day of her life and yet she couldn’t shake her melancholy.

She wanted Joe to celebrate her success alongside her.

She looked at her watch. He’d be in the restaurant right now getting ready for the big rush. She knew Christmas Eve and Christmas were his biggest days. Was the day after as well? Or would they be slow tonight? Should she call him and tell him or leave it be? Maybe it was best that they have a clean break.

The thought had her nearly doubling over in pain. She didn’t want a clean break. She didn’t want a break at all. She wanted to be in front of his fire reading a book or talking to him about nothing in particular. She wanted to go downstairs and enter the restaurant with its close clientele. The people who accepted her with open arms and not one question as to why she was there. She wanted to go to sleep with Joe’s arms wrapped around her and wake up spooned against him.

“Christine, you ready? Everyone’s waiting. We managed to get into that Italian restaurant you recommended.”

She turned from the window and smiled at her boss. “Yes, sir. Let’s go eat.”

***

“You sure you don’t want me to help clean up?” Julie asked.

Joe looked at his normally tidy apartment, at the ripped wrapping paper strewn all over, at the glasses and empty plates piled onto every available surface. “I’m good,” he said.

Julie looked at him pointedly. “No, you’re not.”

He sighed, picked up a plate and headed toward the kitchen, not willing to listen to his sister any longer. She followed, not taking his hint. “Call her.”

“No.”

She plunked her hands on her hips. “Why not?”

“Because she doesn’t need me mucking this up. She needs to do this on her own.”

“She’s a fool. You’re a fool.”

There wasn’t any disputing that so he kept his mouth shut. December twenty-sixth had come and gone with no word from Christine. He’d waited all day but she never called. In hindsight he knew it was best. Talking to her would only delay the inevitable. She was gone, back to her life where she should be. He understood her reasoning a little better. She needed her job for security, to know that she would never have to enter another shelter again or live off the generosity of others. He could tell her he had plenty of money to keep a roof—hell, several roofs—over her head but he understood that wasn’t the point. She needed to provide for herself. Being reliant on him was no better than being reliant on the nearest soup kitchen. He got that. It didn’t mean it hurt any less.

Julie began shoving wrapping paper in a trash bag, her silence speaking louder than any words could. She felt he should run after Christine. He knew better.

“My agent called yesterday,” he said in an attempt to make small talk but also to get her mind off Christine. And maybe his mind as well although that might just be impossible.

She made a non-committal sound in her throat.

“The deal went through on the cookware.” In late spring he would launch his own line of pots and pans and cooking utensils, designed by him.

She straightened to look at him. “That’s great, Joe.”

The warmth in her voice told him she truly meant it and that he’d successfully changed the subject.

“So does that mean you’ll be traveling to New York?”

Or maybe not. Damn she was like a dog with a bone.

“Maybe. We haven’t discussed it yet.”

She made that sound again. He was beginning to think it meant she didn’t approve of whatever he was saying.

Someone knocked on the door and they looked at each other. “Maybe pop forgot something,” he said as he made his way to the door. But when he opened it his pop wasn’t on the other side.

He leaned a shoulder against the doorframe because he wasn’t sure his legs would keep him upright.

“I heard there was a party going on here.”

He looked her up and down. It’d been a week since he last saw her. Seven days of pure hell. There were dark circles under eyes that watched him warily, gauging his reaction, weighing whether or not she’d made the right decision.

“You missed it,” he said. “Party ended a half hour ago.”

His sister slapped him in the shoulder as she sidled past him, then looked pointedly at Christine. “Ignore him. He’s been salty the last week or so.” Julie disappeared into the night leaving him alone with Christine.

She raised a brow. “Salty, huh?”

He shrugged, not quite knowing how to respond to that. Telling her he’d been lost without her seemed a bit premature considering he didn’t know why she was here.

She shifted from one foot to the other, making him glance down. No flip-flops this time. He stepped back and she entered his apartment. “Looks like it was a good party.”

“Lots of presents.” He shut the door behind her and walked to the couch, leaving her to follow.

“Did Santa bring you everything you asked for?”

He turned around to find her right behind him, looking up at him, the warmth of her skin just inches from him and yet he didn’t touch. Not yet.

“Depends,” he said.

“Depends on what?”

He moved closer, throwing caution to the wind, needing to feel her skin beneath his, to smell the fruity scent of her shampoo. “Depends on why you’re here.”

She looked away and bit her lower lip before sinking down into the couch and patting the spot next to her. He hesitated before sitting beside her, bracing himself for what she had to say.

“The company loved my idea. They bought it.”

“Congratulations.”

She shrugged as if it were no big deal when he knew it was.

“I’m serious, Christine. Congratulations. You worked hard and you deserved it.”

“Thank you.” She looked away again, into the fire. “But it was hollow. I just…” Her shoulders rose on a deep breath that she held for a few moments before letting out slowly and turning to him. “It just wasn’t what I thought it would be. You were right when you said it wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

“That was me and my experiences. Yours will be different.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. All I know is that we went out afterwards to celebrate and even though I was in the best restaurant in the state–”

He raised an eyebrow and she smiled.

“Okay, the best restaurant in the city, I was still lonely. All I thought was that I wanted you there to celebrate with.”

His heart turned over and with it a kernel of hope sprang forth. Hope he tried to squash before it bloomed and flowered.

“My mom was wrong,” she whispered. “Love can’t buy you a house with a roof or food for your belly but it can bring you security and comfort. Just like you said.”

He swallowed, almost too afraid to speak. “What are you saying?”

She touched his cheek with her warm fingers and he wanted to lean his head into her touch but held back.

“I’m saying I want to work this out between us. Somehow we can make this work.”

A smile slowly worked its way up from his insides. “I think we can make that happen. I’m not willing to work in New York but I’m not unwilling to live there from time to time if you don’t mind coming back here every once in a while.”

She blinked rapidly but it wasn’t enough to stop the tears from forming. “I can arrange that.” She shook her head. “I’m not sure what happened, how it came to this in such a short amount of time.”

He didn’t either but he wasn’t going to dwell on it too much. It happened. They were together. Call it fate. Call it magic. Call it love. Whatever forces were at work he was just damn glad they came his way.

Note from Sharon:

Some stories are difficult to write, like pulling teeth. And some stories just flow out of your fingertips like it was already written and the author is the conduit to get it on paper. Christmas Cheer was the latter. Joe and Christina’s story came to me within minutes and the story effortlessly flowed from me. It was a joy to write and I’m so pleased everyone has enjoyed it. Thank you for stopping by week after week and for following Joe and Christina’s story. I will definitely have to do this again.

Happy New Year and may 2012 be prosperous and wonderful for you!

 

Christmas Cheer Part 5

Blurb | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Finally warm and a little mellow from the wine she’d consumed, Christine sat back and sighed. “That was probably the best meal I’ve had in forever.” And that was saying something. As one of the top producers in her marketing firm she’d been courted by some of their best clients and taken to some of the best restaurants in New York. However, nothing could compete against Joe’s cooking. What a waste that he was holed up in Pinemarsh.

She studied him through the soft light of the fire burning in the grate, the only light besides the candles on the table. “Have you thought about taking this cooking thing on the road?”

He stilled. A moment ago he’d been as relaxed as she, kicked back in his chair, empty dinner plate pushed to the side, now suddenly he was a different person. “Why do you ask?”

She shrugged, uneasy. His shoulders were tense, his jaw muscle ticking, his blue eyes more like ice chips. “Because that’s the best food I’ve ever tasted and I think you could go far in a bigger city.”

For a long moment he didn’t say anything, just sat there staring at her. She got the impression he wasn’t seeing her. Had she said something she shouldn’t have?

She sat forward and moved her plate out of the way to make room for her elbows. “Forget I said anything. None of my business.”

She hated that she’d shattered the mood and the closeness they’d found, but it was also a reminder that she didn’t know this man very well. She’d like to get to know him but that wasn’t possible. Not now. Wrong place, wrong time. For once the saying made sense.

He stood and held his hand out to her. She stared at it, an internal battle waging inside her. The practical part of her, the sensible part of her, screamed that it was time to go back to work. The softer side of her, a side she didn’t even know existed until today, told her to take his hand and what it offered. She took his hand, the war lost before the first shot was fired.

He led her to the couch situated in front of the roaring fire. A huge, nearly nine foot Christmas tree was to their right, its hundreds of lights twinkling, festive packages beneath. Christine did the calculations. Christmas was three days away.

Joe pulled her down next to him and draped his arm around her shoulder, nudging her until her body was flush against his. She tried to ignore the fact that she fit perfectly in the space carved out for her, that his body was richly warm and his sweater so soft. He smelled good. Not of expensive cologne but of herbs and spices. She had an almost overpowering urge to tuck her legs beneath her and snuggle into him. A strange sensation washed through her and it took a couple of minutes to recognize it as contentment.

“Where do you live in New York?” he asked.

The tension slowly seeped from her body. The fire relaxed her to the point that she feared her bones were melting and he would have to scoop her off the couch. Vaguely she thought of her project and the cold apartment next door. Any thought of leaving vanished. She told him about the street she lived on and her tiny apartment that wasn’t decorated for Christmas because she didn’t have time.

“I know where that is.”

“You’ve been to New York?” Of course it wasn’t that far from Pinemarsh in miles but she was still surprised.

“I lived there for ten years.”

She craned her neck to look up at him. Mistake. The firelight illuminated all of the hard angles of his face and the softness of his lips. Her mind went to their kiss out in the snow, of the slight tremors that went through him when their lips touched. At first she’d attributed it to the cold, but in her heart she knew it was more than that because she’d trembled just as much and she hadn’t been cold at all. Just the opposite.

“You lived in New York?” She turned her thoughts from their kiss to his words. She hadn’t pegged him as a New Yorker. He was too laid back, too carefree.

He nodded, his expression serious, his eyes glued to the fire. She wanted to turn his head toward her, to press her lips against him and erase whatever it was that had his muscles tensing.

“I was a chef.” He named a very popular Italian restaurant that had her head reeling. She’d eaten there at the invitation of a client. One entrée was nearly half her monthly rent and well worth the price. It took months to get in and reservations were hard to come by.

Questions crowded her mind. Why’d you leave? What happened? And why are you in Pinemarsh? But she held them back, sensing his reticence, understanding that he needed to tell this in his own way and his own time. Biting back her questions she did what she’d wanted to do all night. She laid her head on his shoulder and snuggled into his side, resting her hand on his taut stomach. His arm tightened around her and he seemed to relax a little.

“I was very much like you,” he said. “I had a plan. I wanted success. I wanted people to whisper my name in reverence. I was good and I knew it and with that comes the inevitable arrogance. I could write my own ticket, forge my own path and people would gladly allow it. Restaurant owners were constantly trying to win me away. Businessmen wanted to back me if I started my own restaurant.”

He chuckled but there was no humor in the sound. Gone was the fun-loving man of this afternoon. “I started to believe my own press,” he said. “I thought I was invincible. I had the world by the horns and I was determined to wrestle it to the ground. I published eleven cook books by the time I was thirty-five. I had the richest, most powerful men seeking me out. I was at the top of my profession. Everything I’d worked for was in my hand and yet I wanted more. Nothing was good enough. No one worked hard enough for me.”

He lapsed into silence, overtaken by his memories while she remained still, digesting everything. This was not the Joe she knew. Granted she’d only known him a few days but the citizens of Pinemarsh loved him and she couldn’t see these good people loving the man he claimed to be.

How wrong she’d been when she thought him aimless—a party man with no drive to succeed.

When the silence was too much to bear she touched his hand. “What happened?”

He seemed to shake himself from his thoughts. “I just about killed myself.”

She sucked in a breath. Her hand tightened around his arm and she shifted to get a better look at his face but there was nothing to see. His expression was stoic, almost severe.

“I would reach my goal but that was never enough. I never took time to enjoy myself or what I was doing. My thoughts were constantly on the next goal, the next level.” He cleared his throat. Took a deep breath. “One night I was in the kitchen of the restaurant, creating a new dish for my next cookbook. It was late. The place had closed hours ago but it was the only time I had to experiment with my recipes. I don’t remember much of what happened, only what people told me. Apparently I left and headed to my apartment. I owned a sweet Ducati.” He lapsed into silence again.

Tense, Christine waited, dreading what he was going to say.

“Anyway, I woke up in the hospital a hot mess. Broken leg. Broken collar bone. Cuts and bruises all over. The doctors said I was lucky. They also said my blood pressure was through the roof and I was headed for a heart attack.” He took a deep breath. “It was my come-to-Jesus moment. I realized I wasn’t on the fast track to stardom but more like destruction. I knew if I didn’t change, if something didn’t change, I wasn’t going to last long. I came home to Pinemarsh to recover and I’ve never left.”

Christine was a sales woman, she was used to pitching her ideas and selling herself and the company she worked for, but in this she had no words. Emotions crowded her, made her mouth dry and her eyes sting with tears. Joe’s fingers that were draped over her shoulder moved back and forth, a comfort to her but she wasn’t the one who needed comforting.

She’d been so wrong about this man. So horribly wrong. He wasn’t a playboy or a partier. He wasn’t aimless or lazy. She did the only thing she could think of. She leaned up and kissed him. At first he seemed surprised. His shoulders stiffened and he didn’t kiss her back but she was relentless, needing to give comfort. Or maybe she was the one who needed the comfort.

His reticence didn’t last long. He kissed her back with a ferocity that both surprised her and excited her. He turned her, lifted her until she was sitting on his lap, her arms draped around his shoulders, the fire at her back, heating her. If she were honest, though, it wasn’t the fire heating her but Joe.

He pulled away, breathless and with a smile. “If I’d known that would be your reaction I would have told you my story a lot sooner.”

She laughed and it felt good to laugh, felt good to know that Joe could laugh about it as well. His hands were on her hips, anchoring her in place in case she decided to move. She wasn’t going to. Not anytime soon, at least.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “About your accident.”

He looked deep into her eyes, searching for something. She didn’t know what but she knew he didn’t find it when his darkened in disappointment.

“I’m not.” His voice was husky, sexy. “Sometimes things happen for a reason. It may take a while to find that reason but it’s there. I was meant to return here to my family. This is where I’m happiest. All those goals, all those plans, they didn’t make me happy like I thought they would.”

She pulled back. Just a little because he didn’t let her get far. She swallowed the lump in her throat and tried to breathe through the tightness in her chest. She didn’t begrudge him his happiness. How could she when he had to come through a near deadly accident to find it?

No, what brought tears to her eyes was the fact that however perfect this day was, whatever feelings were evolving inside her for this man, none of it mattered. This was where Joe Rossi was meant to be and New York was where she was meant to be.

He nudged her closer, his lips brushing against hers. “No more thoughts tonight,” he whispered, his voice so husky it sent shivers up her back. “Tonight’s just about us, okay?”

She nodded, thoughts of work drifting away on a sea of need.

***

Christine woke to the smell of coffee and burrowed under the covers, not yet ready to face the world. But when she realized the covers weren’t from her bed and there was no way coffee would be brewing unless she got up and brewed it herself, she sat up and looked around.

Joe’s bed. Joe’s apartment. Joe’s coffee.

Joe standing in the doorway with two steaming mugs, low slung jeans unbuttoned but zipped and nothing but a smile on that gorgeous face.

“Morning, sunshine.”

Memories from the night before assaulted her and had her cheeks heating. He hadn’t had to coerce her too much to spend the night and wow, what a night it’d been.

He crawled onto the bed and handed her one of the mugs. She took it gratefully and sipped. The caffeine hit her system with the power of a steam engine.

“What time is it?” she asked.

“Ten. You were fast asleep and I didn’t want to wake you. I get the feeling you don’t sleep much.”

Ten? She’d never slept until ten. She pushed the blankets off and hopped out of bed. Those bright blue eyes of Joe’s looked her up and down, appreciation and amusement bright in them.

He tipped his head to the end of the bed where her robe was draped across the footboard. “Hope you don’t mind, but I went to your apartment and brought back a few things.”

“Thanks.” She snatched the robe up and put it on, her thoughts muddled but one thing perfectly clear. She’d wasted an entire day playing with Joe when she should have been working. Her project was due in seven days and she had nothing to show for it. Panic leached away the warm contentment she felt just moments ago.

Joe snagged her hand and held on. “Hold up, Christine.”

She looked at him absently. His brows were pulled down, the amusement and appreciation long gone from his eyes, leaving in its place disappointment.

“Don’t go running off just yet,” he said softly.

Her stomach clenched. She looked at the bed, at the rumpled sheets probably still warm from the night before. Then she looked at Joe. Joe with his bright smile that was conspicuously absent. Joe with the contagious laugh she’d yet to hear this morning and her heart turned over. He needed someone more like him. Someone who embraced life instead of charged at it.

She pulled her hand from his to touch the stubble on his cheek. She smoothed the worry lines from his brow and smiled sadly. “I can’t do this, Joe. I have work to do. A deadline to meet. If I nail this ad campaign and the company likes it, it opens doors for me that have previously been locked.”

His lips thinned and he nodded, a short, terse nod that instantly put barriers between them. She’d hurt him and it killed her that she’d hurt him, but what was she supposed to do? Forget everything she’d worked so hard for? Forget her career?

She stepped back, creating more distance between them. Distance that couldn’t be reversed by merely stepping forward again. For the first time she questioned her motives, her drive to succeed. Before Joe she had a clear-cut plan and was determined to meet it. She couldn’t deviate from that now. Not because of one night of sex. One, very wonderful, magical night of lovemaking.

The silence settled on her shoulders, weighing her down as she collected her clothes. Before leaving the bedroom she looked at him one last time.

“I’ve been where you’re headed,” he said. “It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”

“I understand that, but I have to try.” She blinked away the tears that suddenly appeared, blurring him to the point where she could barely see him.

“Joe. I…” She wanted to say she was sorry but the words were so inadequate and she didn’t want him to think she was sorry for last night when that was far from the case.

He slid off the bed and padded toward her. Unable to move, she looked up at him, at the face she’d learned intimately the night before. He touched her cheek with his knuckles, skimming them down to her throat. “Don’t go back to your apartment. Work here. With me.”

She released the breath she’d been holding, wanting nothing more than to stay here with him even if she was working. But she knew as well as he did that no work would get done and suddenly it would be tomorrow and she’d be another day behind.

“I promise I’ll let you work,” he said.

How was it that he knew what she was thinking?

He took a step back, breaking contact and those tears she’d fought, came back. Why now? Why’d she have to meet the man of her dreams now, when her entire career was finally falling together? Where was the fairness in that? For so many years she’d dated men like herself, driven to succeed. Men with a goal. She’d walked away from each relationship unfulfilled and frustrated.

With Joe she wouldn’t walk away unscathed. They’d only known each other a few days but already she understood what they had was different. Better. Deeper. And so much more difficult.

He took her hand and gently pulled her into the living room where a fire burned brightly in the grate and the Christmas tree twinkled with its thousands of lights. Her laptop sat on the couch and all the papers that had been in her apartment. Instead of being angry that he went through her apartment, she was touched that he knew how important all of this was to her. He wasn’t asking her to forget her deadline or her job. He was merely asking her to work here. With him.

“I have work to do too,” he said. “Recipes to transfer onto my computer. My agent’s been harassing me and my deadline is quickly approaching for the next cookbook.”

She looked at him in surprise. “I thought you were finished with all of that.”

“I’m finished with the big restaurants, but not with cooking. Never with cooking. It’s not just what I do but who I am. Creating dishes makes me happy and it’s a good way to earn money.” He smiled and it lit the room more than the fire and the Christmas lights.

Christine’s insides clenched. She was in big trouble here.

“Stay with me, Christine.”

Christmas Cheer Part 4

Blurb | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

“Let’s go sledding.”

Christine squinted against the glare coming off the snow. Joe stood on her doorstep with a bright blue, plastic sled propped against his side and an even brighter smile.

“Excuse me?”

“Come on.” He tipped his head toward the street. “At least a foot of snow fell last night. Excellent sledding snow.”

Sledding snow? There was such a thing as sledding snow? She looked past his shoulder. Sure enough the town was blanketed in the white stuff. Deep grooves were carved in the street where a few intrepid vehicles dared to venture out. Other than that, nothing was touched. Cars were merely lumps, sidewalks non-existent. A group of kids walked down the middle of the street, pulling their own sleds behind them.

Joe shifted into her line of sight and looked at her expectantly. Like a little kid. A black knit hat covered his hair, his nose was pink, his eyes sparkling as if he couldn’t wait to get out there and fly down the snow-encrusted hills.

“Come on, Christine. Just a few hours of sledding. I’ll have you back here before you know it.”

What was it with this man? Why was he determined to keep her from meeting her deadline and why was she so tempted to ignore the deadline when he was here? His enthusiasm was contagious and for one wild moment she thought about actually going with him. Of taking his hand and heading down that street to the biggest hill they could find. But just for a moment.

“I can’t,” she said, true regret in her voice, but proud of herself for sticking to her guns.

Some of the sparkle in his eyes dimmed. The smile faded just a bit and that temptation rose again. Would one afternoon make a difference? Not even an afternoon, just a few hours. A few hours in Joe’s company. Despite her resolve not to think about him, he crept into her thoughts constantly, destroying her concentration.

“Work?” he asked, making the word sound like a curse and causing her back to straighten.

“Yes, work.”

The smile was long gone and he looked at her with serious blue eyes, the sparkle turning to speculation while he held the silly sled in gloved hands. He nodded, as if coming to some conclusion.

“Okay, then. See ya around.” With a two finger salute, he turned and headed down the steps to the street.

Christine clutched the doorknob to keep herself from racing after him. Deadline. Work. They were the whole reason she was here. She picked Plinemarsh because it was a small town where tourists came in the summer. Summer. Not winter. She figured no one would be around and she’d hole up in her rented apartment and let the creativity flow. Except people were around. It wasn’t as quiet as she’d hoped and it was beginning to look like she’d left her creativity in New York. Along with her good sense.

“Wait!” The word was out before she knew what she was saying, but she couldn’t—didn’t want to—take it back.

Joe turned around and looked up at her.

“Give me a minute to get my coat and gloves.”

When he smiled, it was as bright as the snow coating the car behind him and it stole her breath more than the frigid air.

“Sure,” he said. “But wear something a little warmer than flip-flops.”

She laughed and the sound almost startled her it’d been so long since she’d laughed.

***

Joe still couldn’t believe Christine agreed to go sledding. After talking with Julie last night, he’d decided to give it one more shot. If Christine said no then he’d walk away. Some things in life were worth pursuing but sometimes you also had to know when to throw in the towel.

Of course just because she decided to venture into the sunlight didn’t mean she would go out with him, but he was patient—a trait he’d recently acquired.

She’d turned her face up to the sun and was smiling. Her riot of corkscrew curls poked out from beneath a knit cap. The cap made him laugh. Crazy bright colors with a pom pom on top and braided tails that fell over her ears. Her mittens matched and lo and behold she had actual shoes on her feet. Boots, no less.

“What changed your mind?” he asked.

She shrugged and watched two boys troop past, sleds trailing behind them. “I don’t know. The snow, I guess. I haven’t been sledding in years.”

He was a little disappointed that she hadn’t said he was the one who changed her mind, but the disappointment was slight and easily pushed away. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that she was here.

She slipped on a hidden patch of ice and he grabbed her arm to keep her from falling. She smiled up at him and for a moment he was pole-axed. His feet stopped moving while his heart thundered. Her smile, the first genuine smile he’d seen from her, transformed her normally dour expression into something beautiful.

Instead of letting go of her arm, he slipped his hand down to her mittened fingers and left it there. She didn’t look at him, didn’t acknowledge in any way that they were holding hands. Neither did she pull away.

Children’s shouts reached them before they even saw the hill and the sound brought back so many memories of sledding down this hill with his friends.

“It looked bigger when I was younger,” he said. The place was crawling with kids dragging their sleds behind them as they trudged up the slope. Parents crowded around the bottom, most of them holding steaming cups of coffee and hot chocolate. A few dogs raced up and down the hill, barking and getting in the way.

Christine shaded her eyes with her free hand and peered up the hill. “You lived here as a kid?”

“Born and raised.”

She looked at him but whatever it was she was going to say, she never said it. Did she know about him? For the first time his past made him uneasy. It wasn’t something he regretted, but just the same he wondered what she thought.

She tapped the sled with the toe of her boot and shot him a mischievous, whimsical look that got his nearly frozen blood moving. “You going to show me how this thing works?”

He smiled and headed up the hill at a fast clip. “Last one up buys coffee.” To his surprise she jogged past him, the sound of her laughter leaving him in the dust and he might have, just a little, felt his heart turn over.

***

Christine couldn’t remember the last time she’d laughed so hard. Joe was playful, something she’d never encountered in the men she’d dated before. He loved to laugh and the people of Pinemarsh loved him. She lost count of the number of times women stopped to talk to him or just said hello as they walked by, toting a child or two behind them. Young and old, married and single, men and women, everyone seemed to love Joe. And he always had a nice thing to say to them, something that left them smiling.

The men Christine dated had been more like her, driven to succeed, worried about their smart phones in case they missed that one important call.

Occasionally she thought about her project and a smidgen of guilt would shadow her day, but Joe seemed to sense those moments and pulled her from them, whether it was a snowball aimed at her head or a breath-taking run down the steep hill.

She hadn’t realized how long they’d been sledding when he finally pulled her aside and offered her a cup of steaming hot chocolate from a thermos she didn’t even know he had. Gratefully she sipped the warm beverage and looked over the once pristine, snow-capped hill that was now furrowed with hundreds of runner tracks, green and brown grass poking through the snow.

Her wandering gaze landed on Joe and she almost bobbled her hot chocolate when she discovered he wasn’t looking at the scenery but at her. Those bright blue eyes that held nothing but laughter all afternoon were now seriously regarding her.

“What?”

“Nothing.” He blew on his hot chocolate, causing steam to billow up, obscuring his face.

Feeling more content than she had in a long time, and more sore than she’d ever been before, she smiled. His eyes darkened to a deeper blue.

“Thanks,” she said. “For forcing me out here. I had fun.” Her voice held a tinge of regret that the day was over and her thoughts turned to the mound of work waiting for her in the empty apartment. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to rent the place. She’d hoped to get away from her life so she could concentrate. If she landed this deal, she was guaranteed a promotion. It was everything she wanted, everything she’d worked toward since she entered high school and understood that hard work rewarded you with a full stomach and a constant roof over your head. Everything depended on successful completion of this project.

And here she was playing in the snow with a man who couldn’t take life seriously.

She tossed her empty cup in the trashcan. “I should get back.”

Joe caught her hand and held it. This wasn’t the first time he’d touched her today and there were several layers of gloves and mittens between them but she couldn’t help but feel warmth where they touched. “Don’t go. Not yet. Have dinner with me.”

She drew in a breath, so tempted. Yes, Joe Rossi was a kid at heart with seemingly no direction in life. He was the total opposite of what she wanted in a boyfriend, but let’s face it, she wasn’t here for a boyfriend and she wouldn’t be around for much longer. A week at most. If she got her butt moving and worked instead of played. Which wasn’t happening at the moment.

“Don’t say no.” His fingers tightened around hers. “Not yet.” He pulled her closer and she allowed it. When it came to this man she had no strength of will. He zapped it out of her with his magnetic eyes and bright smile. That should have raised red flags—did raise red flags—but she didn’t seem to care.

Inches separated them. Their breaths blew steam that mingled and drifted away. His nose and cheeks were red and his knit cap was pulled down to his brows but strands of black hair peeked from beneath.

He moved his head closer and suddenly they were kissing. His lips were cold but his tongue was warm from the hot chocolate. He wrapped his arms around her and drew her to him and she stood on her tip toes because she didn’t want to miss any of this kiss. His gloved hands cupped her cheeks, warming them, scorching them, and he pulled away to kiss her nose before resting his forehead against hers. He looked into her eyes and there was no hint of amusement or laughter.

“Have dinner with me, Christine.”

“Why?” The question was a loaded one but he seemed to realize that.

“Because I like you. A lot. And I want to get to know you.”

She should pull away, step back, disengage, but found she couldn’t. “This isn’t a good idea.”

“Tell me why over dinner.”

They both smiled. “You’re incorrigible.”

“Not the first time I’ve been accused of that. Say yes. Let me cook for you.”

She sighed, helpless to say no. Helpless when it came to this man. “Dinner. But then I have to get back to work.”

He stepped away and immediately she missed his heat. Not because it was cold, but because she missed the comfort and security she found when she was near him. She dismissed that thought. She of all people knew comfort and security didn’t come from people but rather things—like a home and clothes and food.

He didn’t let go of her hand as they walked back to their apartments. She was a little saddened to see that the plow trucks had been down their streets, leaving large mounds, dirty and gray.

She turned to head up to her apartment, her mind on what she was going to wear. She’d only brought comfy clothes because she never intended on going out to dinner with anyone. Especially anyone like Joe.

This was a bad idea. No good would come of this and she could think of about a dozen bad things that would come of it. Like she’d miss her deadline because she was spending too much time with Joe.

Just as she was thinking that maybe she should decline his dinner invitation he gently tugged her past her apartment and toward his.

“Oh, no you don’t. No way am I leaving you alone. You’ll just think of ways to not have dinner with me.”

Christmas Cheer Part 3

Blurb | Part 1 | Part 2

“You’re awfully quiet tonight.”

Joe’s sister settled into the chair on the other side of his desk and tucked her legs beneath her. Joe tossed his pencil on the supply order he was reviewing and kicked out his legs, linking his hands behind his head and stretching tight, sore muscles.

Julie sipped her coffee while eyeing him above the rim of her mug, clearly expecting some sort of answer. While Joe loved that he was back home in the comforting fold of his family, sometimes he missed the privacy that living two hours away in New York afforded him.

“So what’s up?” she asked.

“Tired.” He yawned to prove his point. He was tired, but that wasn’t the reason he was quiet and he wasn’t about to tell Julie the real reason. That his neighbor consumed his thoughts. That even though he didn’t know her well, he worried about her all alone all the time, working so hard. It was Christmas for God’s sake. She should be out enjoying the holiday, not locked behind the door of a rented apartment consumed with her work.

Julie raised a brow, elegantly telling him without words that he was full of bullshit. His family. They knew him too well.

“My neighbor,” he finally said.

“The one renting the apartment next to you? She’s the one who complained about the loud noise, right?”

“Yup.” He rocked back and forth in his chair, his gaze resting on the abandoned pencil but his mind on Ms. Christine… Hell, he didn’t even know her last name.

“What about her? She complain again?”

“No.” He tipped forward, resting his elbows on the desk. “I stopped by with some coffee this morning served with a dose of humble pie and an apology. That seemed to do the trick.” He wasn’t about to tell his sister that he’d asked Christine out and she’d shot him down. The rejection still stung.

Julie placed her empty mug on his desk. “So what’s the deal?”

He tapped the pencil on the blotter. “No deal. Just thinking.”

“Right. Thinking of asking her out more like.”

He made a non-committal sound. Been there, done that, had the rug burn to show for it. The problem was, he couldn’t get those hazel eyes out of his mind. All evening he thought of her when he should have been concentrating on his cooking. Not that he couldn’t make these recipes in his sleep, but damn, he didn’t need this distraction.

It wasn’t as if she were going to stick around. And he sure as hell wasn’t going to uproot himself again. Not that it would ever come to that.

He pushed away from the desk and stood, his aching shoulders and back telling him it was time to go home, pop a few ibuprofen and sleep the night away.

No use thinking of Neighbor Christine. She obviously wanted nothing to do with him and he had more important things to think about than a woman who preferred to work her way through Christmas rather than enjoy it.

Still, the next morning he found himself at her doorstep, obviously a glutton for punishment.

Six Sentence Sunday

These six sentences are from my romantic suspense, Obsession. About a husband and wife trying to find their way back to each other. Keeping with the Christmas/holiday week, this scene takes place around the Christmas tree.

“You got rid of me. What’s a box of ornaments?”

She sighed, pulled her hands up into her sleeves and stepped closer to the tree. “Getting rid of the ornaments would have hurt more than putting them on the tree.”

“So you want the memories, just not the person attached to them.”

She spun away. Instead of mere inches separating them, a couch, a dog, five years of marriage and six months of separation lay between them.

Kindle | Nook | Print

Mistletoe Madness Blog Hop

***CONTEST CLOSED***

Welcome to the Mistletoe Madness Blog Hop!! To enter to win a download of Her Dark Knight, just post a comment on this post. To find other fabulous authors who are also participating in the blog hop, click here. Thank you for stopping by and GOOD LUCK!

Happy Holidays!

*Winners are not subject to US residents

Madelaine Alexander is on a mission. When her boss sends her to the hottest nightclub in town to meet with the owner, she won’t be deterred, even if that means standing in line for fifty-eight minutes in torturous heels while she’d rather be home in her pj’s with a bowl of popcorn.

A Knight of the Templar, Christien Chevalier was given immortality along with the responsibility of protecting the treasure of the Templars. He’s been unwavering in his task for centuries until his one true love—who died seven hundred years ago—shows up in his club, demanding his attention.

Christien couldn’t protect Madelaine when they first fell in love. She was married to a lord and he was simply a knight. Now, through some unknown miracle, she stands before him again and they have a second chance. But Christien fears that Madelaine is being used as a pawn in a dangerous game, a game of good versus evil that could affect all of mankind…

Sweet Saturday Sample

It’s that time again. Sweet Saturday Sample. Be sure to check out other great authors and their samples as well!

Keeping to the Christmas/holiday season, this is from my romantic suspense, Redemption. Enjoy!

His hands tightened on the steering wheel, not from the icy road conditions but from the emotions inside him. Had he known coming out of his shell would be this painful, he would have braved the storm days ago and dropped her off at the police station for Mercer or one of the other guys to deal with. Just his dumb luck he’d finally found a woman to pull him out of himself and she was pregnant, possibly married, with no memory and a killer on her tail.

He merged onto the interstate and picked up speed. Out here, the salt trucks had done their work, and the blizzard hadn’t been as bad as in the higher elevations. Returning to civilization was always a tricky process for him. He far preferred the quiet of his mountain retreat to the noise and fast pace of the real world.

“What day is it?” Hope asked, running her hand down her braid and staring out the front windshield.

“Wednesday.”

“Wednesday what? I don’t even know the date.”

“December twenty-eighth.”

She shifted and he pulled his gaze from the road long enough to glance at her surprised expression.

“That means I crashed on Christmas day.”

He grunted his response, something he knew she hated, but did anyway. Doing things with the intent to irritate another person wasn’t really like him, but with Hope, he enjoyed it.

“John.”

“What?”

“I crashed at your house on Christmas day.”

“I know that.” He was well aware what day she’d entered his life.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

He blew out a breath. Not this again. She seemed to think he was purposely keeping information from her. “I guess I figured you knew that.”

“I couldn’t even remember my name, why would I know it was Christmas?”

He shrugged, still not getting why this was important. She seemed to fixate on the weirdest things.

“No wonder you were mad,” she said after too short a silence.

“I wasn’t mad.”

“Sure you were. You didn’t want me there.”

True enough, but not for the reasons she thought.

“Geez, John. I ruined your Christmas.”

“No, you didn’t.” That he could say with absolute certainty. She’d saved his Christmas. And possibly him.

Kindle | Nook | Print

Christmas Cheer Part 2

Blurb Part 1

When she opened the door to his knock, Joe sucked in a lungful of frigid air then had to let it out on a cough because it damn near froze his lungs.

She was just as pretty as he remembered from last night. Although half those corkscrew curls piled high on her head were escaping the rubber band and she was wearing the same raggedy sweatshirt she’d had on last night. Come to think of it, she was wearing the same baggy sweatpants as well. And, yes, her feet were bare. In this weather.

She looked at him with bleary eyes blinking in the bright sun. He held up the two cardboard coffee cups and smiled. She blinked again and frowned.

“I brought coffee,” he said.

“Why?”

“As a peace offering and an apology.”

She stared up at him. This wasn’t going as he’d planned but if he were honest, he didn’t really have a plan when he knocked on her door. Other than to offer her coffee. Okay, he did have a plan. He wanted to get to know his pretty neighbor and last night was definitely not the introduction he’d been hoping for.

“You mind if I come in? It’s freezing out here.”

She eyed him for a minute, as if trying to decide what he was all about. Finally she stepped back and opened the door all the way. He couldn’t help but sigh when his frozen nose hit the warm air of her apartment.

She shut the door behind him and he handed her the other coffee. “Wasn’t sure how you liked it so I kept it black. Figured you would have the appropriate fixings to make it the way you want.”

“Thanks.” She held the cup but didn’t take a sip. He didn’t have any trouble sipping and nearly groaned in appreciation as the caffeine hit his bloodstream.

“You don’t drink coffee?” he asked after an uncomfortable silence.

She looked at her cup, then back at him, distrust clear in those hazel eyes. She wasn’t classically beautiful. Her eyes were a little too big, her lips not quite full. But, damn, she sure was pretty.

“I thought maybe we could start over,” he said. “I’m Joe Rossi, your neighbor.” He held out his hand for her to shake and held his breath until she reluctantly took his hand. Nope. He hadn’t been wrong last night. Something did tingle when he touched her.

Quickly she pulled her hand from his and took a sip of her coffee. Had she felt it too? He couldn’t tell. She was prickly this morning, probably because he’d kept her up late last night, which he felt bad about. Or maybe she was always this prickly.

He looked around the apartment which was laid out exactly like his only backwards. Papers were scattered across the glass and chrome coffee table, some stacked on the floor. A laptop was open and humming on the couch, an open box of store-bought cookies resting next to it. Inwardly he winced at the cookies.

He turned back to her only to find her watching him. “Look, I wanted to apologize again for last night. My family can get a little out of control. I’m sorry if we kept you awake.”

“You didn’t keep me awake.”

Finally, she speaks.

“Well, I apologize anyway.”

“I was working.”

“On what?” He moved to the papers but she quickly slipped between him and the table.

“Work stuff.”

He kept himself from grinning. She was something all right, but he found he liked her, prickliness and all, even though she hadn’t said more than ten words to him.

“And what’s your work?”

She gathered the papers together, tapping them into a neat pile. A few more curls fell from the knot on her head and she pushed them away with the back of her wrist, an unconscious gesture he found oddly intriguing. “I work in marketing.”

His sister rented the apartment to Christine but she didn’t tell Joe much about the newest renter. Just that she was from New York.

Curiosity piqued, he moved closer. Her shoulders stiffened and she hurriedly gathered the rest of the papers, swiping them off the floor and stacking them together.

Amused, he let her finish while he sipped his coffee and looked around some more. The bright green flip-flops she’d worn last night were next to the couch, no doubt lying exactly where she kicked them off. What possessed someone to go outside in freezing temperatures wearing flip-flops?

She closed her laptop with a snap and finally straightened. “You want to sit down?”

Sure he did, but her body language screamed that she wanted him out of her apartment while those distrustful eyes tracked his every move. He almost sat down just to irritate her but that wasn’t why he was here.

“Nah. I’m sure you have to get back to your work.” Although it looked like she’d been asleep and he wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d fallen asleep on her laptop. He’d done that many times himself. “I just wanted to offer coffee and ask if you wanted to go out sometime.”

Her eyes widened. A few papers fell from the stack she was holding but she didn’t seem to notice.

If his family hadn’t been at his apartment last night he would have definitely asked his neighbor in and offered her some food and something to drink. The food she’d needed. He’d heard her stomach growl. The drink would have relaxed her enough for him to get to know her. Which he badly wanted.

“What did you say?” she asked, disbelief clear in her tone.

“I own the restaurant below us. We could do dinner.”

She pressed a hand to her stomach as if she hadn’t eaten in days. The cookies told another story but of all people, Joe knew cookies were no substitute for a home cooked meal. And by the look of her pristine kitchen, he assumed she didn’t home cook her meals.

“Wow,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting that.”

“So is that a yes or no?” He could have waited, could have taken his time to get to know her better before asking, but if there was one thing Joe learned, it was that sometimes you didn’t have all the time in the world. Why wait when he knew what he wanted? And what he wanted was to have dinner with his neighbor. He was positive he hadn’t misinterpreted her appreciative looks last night and he was equally appreciative of her.

“I’m sorry. It will have to be a no. I have way too much work to do.”

He shrugged as if it were no big deal while inside he fought the disappointment. “Maybe when you’re finished with your work, then.”

She laughed, the sound not so humorous, more with an edge to it. “I doubt that will ever happen.”

There were circles under her eyes and she was pale, as if she didn’t get outdoors much. He guessed if she wore flip flops in the winter she probably didn’t get out much.

“Sometimes you have to put the work aside and enjoy life,” he said softly.

“Someday maybe I will.”

But Joe saw the drive inside her, the same drive he’d once had and he knew she would never put the work aside. People like her—people like him—didn’t know how.

Until something tragic taught them.