Saturday, December 20th
Ohhh, you better watch out, you better not cry! You better not pout
Noelle jabbed the radio button, ready to cry and pout and then cuss and
kick the car, as well. "Mom, do you see all those frickin' stairs? How the hell
are we going to--"
"Noelle, stop! My head's throbbing and my leg feels paralyzed from
sitting in this seat and--and I just want out!"
"Well, that makes
two of us!"
"If your father were here, he wouldn't be yelling at me and--"
Noelle shoved her car door open, eager for peace and quiet and--
anything but this! If her father were alive--if Nick had kept it in his
pants--none of this crap would've happened. She closed her eyes against a fresh
welling-up of tears. Instead of clean air she got a blast of salty mist that
smelled of dead fish. And none of this gave her any inspiration about how she
would cart all their luggage, not to mention her mother, up the beach house's
steep flight of stairs.
"Whose idea was this, anyway?" she muttered, and then slammed her car
door harder than she intended. Pale gray clouds loomed over the rolling ocean,
and when a gull squawked overhead, a plop hit the hood of her car. Not here five
minutes and the natives were shitting on her.
The tall, Victorian-style beach rentals, which stood
shoulder-to-shoulder around the cul-de-sac, looked deserted, and even though she
had the key in her pocket, she had the urge to drive back to Buffalo. The
pounding of an insistent fist on the windshield brought her out of her dark
musings. After these umpteen hours behind the wheel, Noelle wanted to lock the
car--with her mother in it--and stalk off. Didn"t matter where! If this wasn"t
the pissiest Christmas ever, well--
"Oh, ya better watch out! Ya better not cry! Ya better not pout--"
Noelle pivoted toward that too-cheerful male voice, ready to
sucker-punch whoever dared to sing that song again.
"--I'm tellin" you why! Santa Claus is comin"--"
She choked on her rude remark. The guy walking toward them looked
compact and strong and cocky, and the furry red Santa hat did nothing to improve
her opinion of him. Had to be a nut case. And when he stopped a few feet in
front of her, his eyes actually twinkled! This was too much.
How can I help?" he asked with a dimpled grin.
He's a blonde. Remember how you despise blondes. Can't trust them.
Noelle forced a smile and then gestured toward her mother: Mom was
again pounding desperately on the windshield, as though she'd been locked in the
car by her evil daughter. "I won't bore you with the gory details of these past
miles and hours since we left upstate New York," she began, "but we've got a car
full of stuff and my mother can't bend at the knee because of her damn cast and
I'm looking at the longest frickin' flight of stairs I've ever--and this is
supposed to be Christmas vacation! I just want to be home! Except I don't have
one," she added in a final gasp. "I'm sorry, I--"
Noelle blinked. Mr. Santa had opened the passenger-side door as though
he'd found a wonderful present inside her car. "Hey, that's my mother! Don't get
any funny ideas about--"
Her mom stepped into this guy's arms as though he'd asked her to dance.
"I can't thank you enough, dear! You must be a Christmas angel--or at least one
of Santa's elves--to show up when we needed you most!"
"Validation at last!" The blonde smiled as though he were sincerely
glad to assist her. "Can you walk to the foot of the stairs? Or shall I sweep
you off your feet?"
Mom looked ready to swoon. "I--I'll be better once I stretch my legs--"
"And how'd you earn that cast? Not falling on the ice, I hope?"
"I didn't know what hit me! One minute I was walking out to get my
paper, and the next thing I knew--wham!" her mother recounted with a smack of
Had she not used the same inflections and held her hip the same way for
the gazillionth time, Noelle would've envied her mother's miracle mood recovery.
She was hobbling along, clutching Mr. Wonderful's arm as he nodded indulgently
at her nonstop chatter.
And damned if he didn't slip an arm under her hips to lift her into his
arms! His Santa hat slipped down his forehead, and as he flashed her a grin,
Noelle almost grinned back.
"Could you go up ahead of us and unlock the door?" he suggested. "And
if you'll get my hat out of my eyes--"
Her mother swiveled to reposition the furry white band. Then she kissed
his cheek loudly. She looked ecstatic; charmingly childlike, cradled against
this guy's chest with her red cast sticking straight out in front of her.
"Sure, I--" Noelle held the screen door for them, and then clomped up
the steep wooden stairs. She opened the door into a vestibule where the floor
and walls glowed like a white sand beach. Stairs carpeted in pale blue led up to
an airy, open living area with a white kitchen and a fireplace and overstuffed
couches and chairs in shades of blue and peach and pale mulberry.
The house felt like an oasis of sanity: so quiet and fresh and clean.
And wasn't it wonderful, to be walking into a fully furnished dream home where
the decor was contemporary and coordinated--and none of it reminded her of Nick?
She stared out the huge picture window, to watch the waves curl gracefully at a
distance before they surged toward the misty shoreline that was a mere boardwalk
away. The beach was deserted, yet even in its pale gray mystique it called her
to come walking...to get lost in its ancient rhythms.
"We'll sit you right here, Mrs. Felton--"
"Oh, call me Vicki! Thank you so much, dear!"
Not here two minutes and her mom was on a first-name basis with Mr.
Nice-Guy. He set her gently in the recliner, tipped it back, and then deftly
swiveled the whole chair so it faced the magnificent view of those waves. "Sit
tight, Vicki," he crooned. "Relax and have visions of sugarplums while Noelle
and I unload your car."
"Oh, sugarplums!" she said with a rueful laugh. "Any other December I'd
be baking dozens and dozens of cookies, but...well, it"' been a tough year for
both of us."
My God, had her mom already given this guy their life history? The way
he was grinning at her, Noelle suspected Santa knew way too much--as in, she was
divorced, and so lonely, and all those other endearing details Mom reminded
people of at every possible opportunity.
"Shall we get that stuff now?" She walked out before those shining eyes
could tease at her any more. The last thing she needed was this young
pup--because he was just a kid--getting ideas about hanging around, making a
nuisance of himself.
"Welcome to the Outer Banks," he said as he followed her down the
screened-in stairway. "If you're after a nice, peaceful getaway, Christmas is
the perfect time to come here. Warm enough to walk the beach, yet--"
"Like Mom and I are going to do so much of that!"
Andy chuckled. "She'll be fine, and so will you. You did a good thing,
getting away from the ghosts of Christmas Past together."
"What'd she tell you, anyway?" Noelle turned at the bottom of the
stairway to confront him, but he was gazing down at her from a couple steps
above. For a fleeting moment, he did resemble a Christmas cherub in a red hat.
She did not want to admit how adorable he looked with that fuzzy white tassel
flopping beside those...intensely green eyes.
He smiled. Stuck out his hand. "Andy Hathaway. I manage the rentals in
this subdivision, and I was painting the porch next door when you pulled up. You
looked tired and frustrated, sweetheart, and I just wanted to--"
"I am not your sweetheart!"
His expression dimmed and she kicked herself. He was trying to be
nice--something she desperately needed--and she had no reason to bark and snarl
like a rabid bitch, even if he reminded her of a pesky pup that wanted to play.
"I'm sorry. I don't usually snap like this." She'd left him standing
there with his hand out, so she quickly gripped his fingers.
"Rough year, sounds like. Lost your dad, and then found your man in bed
with two--but enough about real life," he added in a breathy voice. "Let's get
"Yes, let's." Sheesh. Had her mom left nothing out of the
heart-to-heart she'd had with this total stranger? Those two seemed awfully
Yet when Noelle looked into those eyes again, a sizzly jolt passed
through his warm, firm grasp to travel up her arm. This was too freakin' much,
behaving as if--
As if you might LIKE this guy, if he weren't young enough to be your--
Noelle released him abruptly. She felt exposed, as though Andy had
x-ray vision and could see through her fleece jacket to the underwear she wore.
Or didn't. She popped the button on her key fob, sighing over the old duffels
and shopping bags she'd crammed into the car this morning. The trunk and back
seat looked like a hurricane had hit. "I don't usually--Mom and I really do love
each other, but we didn't sleep much last night. So when we left the motel this
"Hey, holidays are the worst, when it comes to missing family members,"
he said softly. "Go back upstairs and take a load off. I'll be glad to carry--"
"No, I'm fine! Really--I'm fine!"
And so convincing, too!
her inner voice mocked. He's being kind. Is
that so awful?
Andy grasped a suitcase handle in each hand. His muscles bunched
beneath his rolled-up flannel shirt sleeve; animal strength radiated from thighs
that flexed in his faded jeans when he lifted the luggage from her trunk. Except
for that cockamamie Santa hat, he had the air of a construction worker who could
throw around a lot more weight than his own, but not in a bullying, gotta-be-king
sort of way.
And isn't that a switch from what you lived with for twenty years?
Noelle told herself to stop analyzing this guy and get the car
unloaded. It wasn't like she'd be spending any time with him these next two
No, it'll be you and Mom trapped in this house with all these stairs,
just biting each other's heads off and having the merriest little Christmas and
"After you." Andy nodded toward the steps, and she took off with an
overstuffed duffel in each hand. The sooner they toted this load upstairs, the
sooner she could get on with letting Mom drive her nuts. Why anyone would come
to the beach in the dead of winter--
"Saw on the Weather Channel where Buffalo got another big dump this
morning. Fifteen inches."
And how many inches do YOU have, baby-cakes?
Where had that come from? Noelle let out an exasperated gasp, damn glad
he couldn't read her thoughts. "Yeah, we got out just ahead of the front," she
remarked as she started the ascent. "Makes you wonder why sane people want to
live there, doesn't it?"
His chuckle came from behind and below...jeez, she'd worn her baggy-ass
jeans to drive in, never figuring some do-gooder kid would be eye-balling her
The duffel in her left hand caught on the lattice. She jerked it, but
the zipper flap was sticking out. So she cussed under her breath and yanked
With a sickening riiiiiip, the old nylon split, and her makeup bag and
blow dryer tumbled out. "Oh, jeez, I'm sorry--"
Andy sidestepped quickly so he wouldn't get hit.
But the duffel wasn't finished with her. It regurgitated her flannel
jammies, and then every pair of faded, stretched-out cotton panties she owned
fluttered down the stairs. They made a pale, pitiful rainbow that reminded her
so much of her shattered life, she burst into tears.
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