A Touch of Christmas Magic
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by Leta Nolan Childers
Description: BAH HUMBUG! Cammie might be willing to go through the motions and make it appear she was enjoying the Christmas season, but it was only a facade. It was the worst Christmas ever! A faithless lover, missing parents and the constant peel of Christmas carols was just a bit too much to take. Enter handsome new neighbor Quinn--a man from her past with an eye on her future. Could Christmas get much worse with that perpetual pest just next door blackmailing her into holiday happiness? From the best selling author of "The Best Laid Plans," Leta Nolan Childers.
eBook Publisher: DiskUs Publishing,
eBookwise Release Date: December 2010
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [121 KB]
Reading time: 72-101 min.
Staple gun in one hand, gnarled knot of stiffened electrical cord in the other, Cammie Smith struggled for balance on the teetering ladder. For a moment, she looked down ten feet to the sparkling snow, now rutted with footprints and ladder tracks, and thought that maybe a quick drop would be the answer to all her problems.
With her current string of bad luck, she'd break her leg in the fall. Then, she could spend Christmas in a nice, quiet, white hospital room, well removed from the hustle and bustle of other people enjoying their Yuletide cheer-and unconsciously forcing her to painfully remember happier times.
There'd be no reddened cheeks and sparkling eyes bidding her a "merry Christmas." No unceasing assault of Christmas carols, electronically rendered into almost bland monotones to the point where they were indistinguishable from one another, blaring from the audio systems of every store and office building in the city. No crowds of people, their arms burdened by bright wrappings and rustling packages of Christmas delights, to press against her as she made her daily rounds.
To Cammie, the quiet, antiseptic sterility of a hospital room-with no tantalizing aromas of pine and cinnamon-seemed like the ideal locale for her to celebrate her first Christmas alone.
Yet, as she struggled to free another couple of feet of wire free from the knot, Cammie decided it just wasn't in her to take the easy way out. No, Christmas would just be another of those challenges she would face straight on, bravely and with grace. She lined the wire up on the wooden eaves of her small house, carefully poised the staple gun over it and squeezed the handle. KER-PLOP! The staple drove itself into the wood-a little lopsided, but still secure. It would just have to do.
Since Tony's abrupt and final departure at Halloween, Cammie had decided that most things just had to do. No sense putting forth more effort than necessary. No need to look very far into the future to dream about things that just would never happen. Just tackle what needed to be done with minimal effort and forget the rest. Stick to the basics.
Still, hanging up Christmas lights on the house couldn't really be deemed a necessary task for survival. Wistfully, an unbidden memory of her father struggling on this very ladder, with these same knotted strings of Christmas lights, forced itself into her mind. She could almost see the air around her turning blue at the recollection of her father's unique choice of words as he fought to string up the lights. Cammie could almost smell the luring aroma of hot chocolate her mother would be stirring up from pre-made packets in the kitchen. Her mother would always be waiting for both Cammie and her father when they completed the job on the house. Just a minute in the microwave, toss in a few mini-marshmallows and give it a quick stir with one of those plastic spoons with the reindeer molded on the end...instant Christmas moment.
Cammie sighed as she straightened out another length of wire and stretched from the ladder to hold it against the wood. So, her mom wasn't Betty Crocker and her father wasn't "Father Knows Best." They were hers though, and those moments they'd shared were all she had left of them now they'd journeyed to that Paradise far away.
"A fast trip down Memory Lane isn't getting this done any faster," Cammie grumbled to herself, as she stretched even farther and fumbled to position the staple gun. She could feel the soles of her boots slip slightly and the ladder groan in protest. Impatient to finish the job quickly, Cammie grabbed the handle of the gun and began to squeeze it.
"You're going to fall off that ladder, lady," a deep voice boomed up at her from below. Distracted by the unwelcome intrusion, Cammie glanced down just as the gun fired the staple. It skidded across the icy wood and slipped from her hand just as she noticed that she'd neatly stapled the cuff of her coat to the eaves.
Leaning far off the ladder, pinned to her house with a staple and desperately grabbing for any sort of handhold with her empty hand, Cammie looked down. That ten feet looked closer to ten miles as she reconsidered the notion of a broken leg and a quiet Christmas in the hospital. Now that the possibility seemed to be veering dangerously close to reality, she regretted her wish.
"Hey, lady, you'd better come down before you fall. I'm not kidding. That ladder looks like it's ready to collapse," the voice called again.
"I'm...perfectly...in...control...of this...situation." Cammie bit her words off with more determination than she felt at the moment. Slowly, she started leaning back toward the ladder, her gloved fingers burrowing into the shingles on the roof. Feeling the ladder settle more securely in the snow, Cammie breathed a sigh of relief and attempted to pull her cuff from the staple.
With no warning, the ladder toppled over from beneath her feet. Cammie slapped her hand on the roof, digging her fingers into a small crevice between shingles. Her legs swung back and forth, as frigid air pushed its way beneath her coat and sweater, instantly freezing the more delicate parts of her anatomy. Great, she was now looking at a broken leg and frostbite-frostbite in places she'd rather not have to explain to a doctor.
"Looks like you've got a bit of a problem there," the voice called yet again. She could tell by the way it carried to her that he must be walking down the sidewalk toward her. Cammie wanted to tell him that his ability to recognize the obvious was staggering. She would have enjoyed wiping the no doubt smug look from his face with a wet, cold snowball. But, Cammie realized that under the present circumstances she only had two choices-allow herself to fall from her precarious perch clinging to the roof or to ask this stranger for assistance. Neither choice seemed a winner, but if it meant keeping her bones intact, she'd choose the lesser of two painful options.
"Instead of making brilliant deductions, I could use a hand," she called out to him. His slow, steady clapping broke through her concentration. Great...not only a Sherlock Holmes in the making, but also an aspiring comedian. "I meant, could you grab the ladder and put it back up."
"I suppose I could do that," he replied, as Cammie listened to the ladder scrape across the hardened snow before thumping against the side of the house. Blindly, she swung her legs seeking the safety of a rung.
"I wouldn't do that," he commented. "Just hold on and let me climb up and help you."
"I can do this myself," Cammie protested, swinging her legs in even wider arcs.
"Sure you can. From the looks of it, you're doing a terrific job of just that." She felt long fingers grab her ankle and pull it toward the ladder.
Strong fingers then embraced her other ankle as Cammie's body lost the momentum of its swinging. She felt the cold aluminum of the ladder press against her legs, as well as the warmth of a human touch as it enfolded itself around her legs. Cammie searched with the toes of her boots for purchase on the rung, sighing when she'd achieved that small victory. She knew she'd be free of the ridiculous position in which she'd placed herself in just a few moments.
The ladder creaked and groaned under their combined weights as the man slowly climbed.
"Okay, now I've got a hold of you. See if you can pull that staple out," he ordered. Irritation eroded the momentary gratitude she felt toward her rescuer. Did he have to state the obvious? As if she were a child incapable of deciding what to do next? She bit back the sarcastic remark that flew to her lips and focused on slowly pulling her cuff free.
With a small ripping sound, the material tore from the staple. Not anticipating the results of her quick release, Cammie repelled away from the eaves. For a second, she stared straight down at the frozen, snow-covered ground beneath her. Then, strong arms pulled her back up and around until her footing was secure on the ladder.
Cammie tore her gaze from the ground and looked into the eyes of her rescuer. Blue-green eyes, bracketed by tiny laugh lines, set on a field of deep tan and topped by thick, black, artistically sketched eyebrows. She took a breath-inhaling an intoxicating concoction of pine, soap and pure male pheromones-before pulling an inch back from his embrace to take his entire face into her view.
Those eyes of his were just a preview of coming attractions. His face was angular, chiseled cheeks and a square jaw, with the slightest hint of a dimple in the center. It wasn't his only dimple. Double dimples surrounded his smile, a smile created by two of the most incredible lips she'd ever seen. All in all, this guy was drop-dead gorgeous, a hunk in anyone's estimation. In other words, Cammie thought, probably a vain, egotistical, selfish male who couldn't see beyond his own reflection, which was probably something he studied more closely and more often than a straight-A kid with a schoolbook.
Yet, even as she was busy judging him harshly for the blessings bestowed upon him genetically, Cammie also felt her senses come alive within his embrace. She felt the mental locks she'd secured on her emotions melt beneath the smiling warmth of his gaze upon her. Her skin, even beneath the layers of coat and sweater, tingled with excitement and possibility. Worse yet, Cammie could feel her breasts thicken, the tips standing in salute to his masculinity, as a fiery warmth spread through her loins.
This was not supposed to happen. She'd left all this behind when Tony decided to pull a Houdini on her and disappear with that bimbo before her very eyes. Cammie'd promised herself she would never allow those primitive urges of femininity to blind her to the fickle, selfish nature of men again.
Yet, her body had a will of its own. She could feel herself shifting forward into his embrace, finding a comfort and security there she'd never felt before. That hazy glow of passion settled about her, as she fought the desire to taste those smiling lips.
No! Been there, done that. Posed as the poster kid for Suckers Anonymous. Cammie would not follow that path to heartbreak again...as tempting as it might be. Fearing her unwelcome reaction to him, she shoved him away from her.
For a moment, shock replaced mirth in his eyes. Then, she felt herself slipping from the ladder just as she noticed him making a quick grab.
It was too late. Down Cammie fell from the ladder. Clouds of snow flew up around her upon impact. Breathing deeply to restore the air knocked from her lungs, she mentally checked each extremity for pain, but found none. Why, this wasn't bad at all. It wasn't even that cold on her rear.
Cammie jumped as she felt the snow beneath her move. She rolled away and looked at where and what she'd landed on-him. Her rescuer, who was spitting snow and shaking the white stuff from his head and arms.
"Whoops," she said in a near whisper. She watched as one eyebrow arched and his gaze fell on her.
"Whoops?" he asked, his formerly deep voice taking on a tinny, squeaking, high-pitched quality. "You land on me-probably crushing any chance I have for fathering offspring and all you can say is 'whoops'?"
"Umm...sorry? Thanks? Actually, having never encountered this situation... I'm not sure just what to say or do."
"Well, the least you can do is invite me in for some hot chocolate," he replied, voice cracking as he obviously attempted to modulate it back to somewhere near normal. "And you better have cookies to go with it."
Cammie set the mug of water in the microwave, hoping that all it would take to prevent a lawsuit was a double dose of chocolate-cocoa and cookies. She knew chocolate had magical healing powers. Well, those powers were about to be put to the test. Cammie punched the button and turned to the stranger sitting at the kitchen table. This was ludicrous. Sure, maybe he saved her from breaking one, if not both, legs. Of course, he'd made her feel uncomfortably alive within his arms. But he was a total stranger. In the hopes of placating this guy out of suing her for her last piece of tinsel, she'd welcomed a stranger into her home. For all she knew, he might be a homicidal maniac who cruised the streets of the city looking to prey on women hanging from the eaves of their houses.
"Please, don't think I'm ungrateful," Cammie began cautiously. "But, I'm really not in the habit of freely opening my door to people I don't know-even when they do save me from bodily injury." She watched as he lined up the fingers on his discarded gloves perfectly before looking up at her.
"So, you're in the habit of placing yourself in harm's way? Seems to me you could find something more productive to do with your spare time," he sighed, a touch of a smile dimpling his cheeks and sparking a tiny twinkle in his eyes. "Besides, I'm not a stranger."
Cammie leaned back against the counter and folded her arms across her chest while she scrutinized his face. There was something...a tiny notion that pushed its way into her mind that she might have encountered this guy somewhere, but she tossed it aside. He must simply resemble someone she knew, but couldn't quite recall. "I landed on my rear, not my head," she replied. "Believe me, you I would remember."
The man threw back his head and laughed-a deep chuckle that filled the kitchen with warmth, nearly melting the frost off the tiny window over the sink-not to mention making the room almost too hot for Cammie's comfort.
"I'll admit it's been a while." The man smiled and shook his head. "Let's see, the last time we actually talked to each other was about fifteen-no sixteen years ago."
Cammie did the math in her head. She would have been nine or ten at the time. Did this guy think she had a photographic memory? Or was he so conceited that he thought his good looks would make an impression even on a child that young? No, because he couldn't have been all that much older than her at the time-maybe only four or five years.
Her blank stare in response to his announcement evidently frustrated the man. The smile turned into a frown as his incredibly long fingers rubbed lightly at his chin.
"Hmmm. Let's see if I can help your memory." His voice took on a tinny falsetto as he continued. "Quinn, can I ride your bike? Quinn, will you let me hold your frog? Quinn, can I go fishing with you? Quinn, can I dog your every step and make life totally impossible for you for the entire summer? Quinn, can I..."
"Enough. Enough. I get the picture," Cammie laughed, suddenly remembering. "Quentin Soalle. Quinn. Mrs. Hutchinson's wild nephew. What brings you back to the neighborhood?"
Cammie's relief at realizing she wasn't about to share hot chocolate with a crazed killer vanished as she thought about her elderly next-door neighbor. She mentally kicked herself for not checking on her more often.
"Mrs. Hutchinson's okay, isn't she?"
"She's going to be fine, though right about now she's pulling her hair out by the fistfuls. She's moving. Finally decided it was time to let somebody else worry about shoveling snow and mowing the lawn. So, she's bought herself a small condo."
Another loss. Would this never end? First, her parents. Then, Tony the Terrible. Now, Mrs. Hutchinson. It wasn't as if she and Mrs. Hutchinson were bosom buddies, sharing their views on life over coffee every day. But Mrs. Hutchinson had always been there. Had been there from the moment Cammie's parents brought her home from the hospital. It was as if another chunk of the security she'd clung to so much was vanishing. Tears pricked uncomfortably at Cammie's eyes. She wouldn't cry...not in front of Quinn. Now that the memories of their shared summer flooded back at her, it was second nature to slip back into that old competitive older boy/tagalong little girl attitude. Cammie had believed she could do everything he could-and better. It had been a constant source of aggravation for her and amusement for him, which of course just made it all the more frustrating.
"I'll miss her," Cammie said quietly, relieved that the microwave's bell finally rang. She took the opportunity to turn away from him and wipe the tears from her eyes before she pulled out the steaming mugs.
"I'll miss your folks, too," Quinn commented, almost too softly for Cammie to hear.
"I just keep telling myself they're in a better place, she replied, working hard to keep her voice from revealing the pain in her heart.
"They're together. They're happy. I guess that's all that matters when you come right down to it."
"Still, it can't be easy for you. Aunt Colette told me all about it. She's sort of kept me informed over the years about the neighborhood. And, I have stopped in a few times. Odd that our paths never crossed until today."
"What's so odd about that?" Cammie asked, popping rock-hard miniature marshmallows into the mug. She was long overdue for a healthy replenishing of her groceries, though she rationalized that for just her, take-out and frozen dinners were more than enough. Hopefully, the hot chocolate would melt them a bit. She'd hate to have Quinn break a tooth or something and really give him cause to sue her. "Face it, you spent one summer here while your parents were working overseas. It's not like you sunk roots down or anything. Your only connection with the old neighborhood is your aunt. I imagine after she moves you won't even think about this place anymore."
Cammie pulled a package of cookies from the cupboard. Each thudded heavily against the china plate as she poured them out of the package. She lifted one and tapped it against the side of the plate-harder than a hockey puck. Forcing a smile on her face, she turned and placed the plate on the table. "Warning. These are dunkers. I haven't been to the grocery store lately."
"I'm sure they're just fine." Quinn beamed up at her. She turned away and grabbed the mugs of hot chocolate. "And, anyway, I think I sunk down deeper roots than you might think. See, when Aunt Colette decided to sell, I decided to buy. So, it looks like we're going to be neighbors again. I just hope this time around I'll be able to keep you out of my bed."
As Cammie comprehended Quinn's words, she felt security, as well as her grip on the mugs, slip away. The loud clatter of shattering ceramics didn't startled Cammie nearly as much as what he'd said. Surely, he couldn't have perceived her unconscious reaction to his embrace. He couldn't understand that briefly-and before her innate common sense and learned distrust took control back from what had to simply be a bad case of chemistry-she'd considered giving into the temptation of tasting his lips and whatever else he might want to offer.
"What...what do you mean by that?" Cammie asked, reaching for a towel and encountering Quinn's hand already there. She pulled her fingers back as if they'd been burned.
"Gee, Cam, don't you remember? I used to sneak off for a little private guy time, and when you couldn't find me, you'd end up waiting in my room and falling asleep on my bed," Quinn chuckled, pulling the towel away and stooping down to mop up the mess on her floor. "I used to complain like crazy to Aunt Colette about it. And, she always told me that someday down the road I wouldn't find it quite so objectionable to discover a beautiful woman in my bed. I thought she was nuts. Smarter woman than I ever gave her credit for."
Cammie released a silent sigh of relief. Thank heavens he wasn't a mind reader.
"Of course," Quinn continued, rising to rinse the towel in the sink, "if you sometime want to re-enact the past, I'm sure I could think of a much more interesting-and mutually satisfying-way of waking you up than picking up the mattress and dumping you on the floor."
Quinn glanced over his shoulder at Cammie, frozen as still as a statue as she gripped the edge of the counter. Man, Aunt Colette had said she'd gone through some bad times recently, but it was worse than he'd thought. Where was the lively chatter? The sparkle in her eyes? Where was the adult version of the kid he'd loved despite himself? She had grown into a dynamically gorgeous woman, classy even dressed in old jeans and an over-sized ski sweater. Her long, blonde hair looped into a loose braid down her back yet allowed soft tendrils to curl in their own abandon around her swan-like neck. Her profile reflected that of an ancient Greek bust of classic beauty: high cheeks, perfectly-formed nose above full lips. But, her deep blue eyes held a sadness that spoke volumes to him.
"I was just kidding, Cam. No offense," he said quickly. "Aunt Colette told me about your fiance. I would have liked to found him just for the pleasure of ripping him from limb to limb for what he did to you." He watched a small shudder course through her body at the mention of Tony's name. Then, he watched the marble stillness of her face crack just a bit as she tried to smile.
"It was for the best. Don't you see, it was all for the best. And I brought it all on myself," she replied. "But, I don't want to talk about that right now. Let me see if I can find some more packets of hot chocolate mix."
It had taken him an hour and three cups of the worst hot chocolate and the hardest cookies he'd ever encountered, but he finally wormed at least some of the information he wanted out of her. Now, as he carefully ascended the ladder to finish stringing up her Christmas lights, Quinn contemplated his next move.
He shouldn't worry about her. Heck, he hardly knew her anymore. Really hadn't known her. Yet, when he decided to move and Aunt Colette offered him her house, a big part of his decision was based on the answer to one question: What's up with Cammie? After the preliminaries about her successful real estate business and her parents' decision to live year-round down in Paradise, Florida, Aunt Colette had started to dish the real dirt. The lengthy engagement to a much older investments consultant who decided to scratch his middle-aged itch with his beautiful, but intellectually-challenged, secretary. The suspicion that Cammie hadn't told her parents about the break-up based on a telephone call between his aunt and her parents. The intimation that Cammie was trying to shoulder suddenly finding herself all alone by holing herself up in the house she'd bought from her parents.
It was all intriguing enough, but it really wasn't his business. His business was finishing his book before his January first deadline. Not only did his literary reputation depend on that, but his ability to pay his aunt for the house did also. Neither was an obligation he took lightly. Yet, here he was-playing the big brother with very unbrotherly notions-and trying to think of some way to bring the life and happiness back into his old friend's face.
It was the Christmas thing, he supposed, as he quickly stapled the light string to the eaves. In his heart, he was still a sucker for that wondrous time of the year when miracles happened. And if he could help a miracle or two on its way, so much the better. Even though his book wouldn't write itself, he was bound to have a little free time once he helped Aunt Colette move into her new place. Maybe just enough time left over to help Cammie move to a new place in her life. And, who knew, maybe Santa would reward him by putting a certain long-legged, cheeky blonde in his stocking as a reward.
* * * *