Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.
–Norman Vincent Peale
Dear readers, family and friends,
Of all the Christmas presents I could give you, probably the most personal is a piece of my heart and soul. I pour myself into everything I write and I hope that you enjoy this new story that I’ve written just for you. A Christmas Wish gets to what I believe Christmas means. I’ll be sending you new installments from time to time based around the fictional town of Destiny Hamlet, which I’ve created just for you. Destiny Hamlet is a place where miracles happen, hearts’ desires are found, and true love lasts forever. I hope you come to love the small town atmosphere and the characters as much as I do. They jumped off the page for me. The romantic character Mitch is based on my husband and his romantic present to me this year. He still tugs at my own heart strings. You can see a map of Destiny Hamlet here.
May all of you have a joyous holiday season and treasure the many opportunities in the coming New Year.
A Christmas Wish
First in the Destiny Hamlet Holiday Series
by Lori Soard
© Copyright 2002-2010 Lori Soard
All Rights Reserved
The day started with an ear-splitting crash, followed by the sound of Mia’s six-year-old footsteps as she raced up the front porch steps and into the house.
“Mia Sarah Pierson, what was that sound?” Katie could feel the nagging beginnings of a raging migraine as the pressure built behind her forehead.
“Nothing, Mommy.” Mia smiled, showing off the gaping hole where her two front teeth had resided just a few days before.
In the year since Jerry had walked out on them both, her daughter found more ways to get into trouble than a bear with a hive of bees. She knew it was Mia’s way of trying to get Jerry’s attention but she couldn’t let the child get away with bad behavior, no matter how sorry she felt for her. Katie opened her mouth, ready to demand an explanation from Mia when the front door shook on its hinges from the abusive pounding on the other side.
Glaring at her daughter, and wondering how much she’d have to pay for this incident, Katie swung the weathered door open.
“Sheriff Wyte, how nice to see you.” Just terrific. She so didn’t need trouble this morning. In exactly fifteen minutes, she was scheduled at the First Bank of Destiny Hamlet for an interview. If she wanted any chance of Mia getting just a few presents for Christmas, she had to land that job. In fact, if she wanted any chance of even eating this Christmas, she had to land the job.
“I’m afraid we have another problem, Katie.” Mitch Wyte drawled his words out as though he had all the time in the world to stand on her porch and chit chat about Mia’s latest calamity. She didn’t have that time.
“Look, Sheriff, I have an important appointment. Whatever it was, I’ll pay for it.” She had no idea how she’d pay for it, but she would. She started to close the door when his hand shot out with uncustomary quickness and held it open.
“It’s not going to be that easy this time, Katie.” His brown eyes glittered with suppressed anger and Katie swallowed. She knew that look. When she’d dated Mitch Wyte in high school, he’d been easy going and slow to anger but when he finally did get angry–watch out. Ten years later, she still recognized the signs of that slow-burning anger.
“Mitch, I’m sorry. I simply have to go. I can’t be late to my interview. I need the job. But I will stop by your office and talk to you when I’m finished.” She didn’t give him a chance to respond but grabbed Mia’s coat and jammed her daughter’s arms into the sleeves.
“I don’t wanna go to school.” Mia stuck her bottom lip out and huge tears welled in her brilliant blue eyes. Eyes the same color as her traitorous father’s.
“Mia, you aren’t ill. You have to go to school.” She glanced at the plain, round white clock. Five minutes ’till. She was never going to make it to her interview on time. She only hoped they’d be understanding but what a horrible impression to make.
“Don’t wanna.” It took Katie five minutes to put the coat on her daughter’s slim frame. It took Mia five seconds to shrug that same coat back off again.
“Mia, please!” She heard the shrill tone in her voice but was helpless to prevent it. “You have to cooperate. Mommy needs this job. We need this job. Now, put on your coat and let’s go.”
“I can take her to school,” Mitch offered quietly.
She jumped and spun toward the door, her hand covering her heart. She’d completely forgotten she’d left him standing in the doorway although the scent of his lime aftershave lingering in the air should have tipped her off. She chewed her lip for a moment. She rarely trusted anyone with her daughter but she’d known Mitch since she was about Katie’s age herself. She might just make the interview, if she ran.
“Are you going to lecture me?” Mia stared up at him and sniffed.
Katie hid a grin as Mia waltzed out the door and flipped her blonde ponytail in a typical little girl snub.
“Thank you, Mitch,” she called after him.
Glancing at the clock again, she slung on her own coat. With no time to spare for gloves, hat or scarf, she raced for the bank, which was across the park, across Main Street and on the opposite corner. A few snowflakes hit her tongue as she panted for air. They tasted pure, like flakey ice flakes.
She was five minutes late and Shelley Depp didn’t like it. Katie could tell from the bank manager’s tightened lips, sneering glance at her wristwatch, and stiff posture. So much for making a good impression. Of course she and Shelley went a long way back and the woman had hated her since the day she’d married the most eligible bachelor in town. Strange that she would still envy Katie considering the way Jerry had left his family. Katie didn’t care as long as she gave her a job.
“I see here that you don’t have any formal schooling.” Shelley didn’t glance up from Katie’s resume, which rested in front of her on the desk.
“I have two years at the local university and then I got married and had Katie.” Shelley knew this. The bank knew this. Yet, they’d scheduled the interview. Surely they wouldn’t have done that if they didn’t at least think she was qualified for something. She’d do anything. She’d scrub toilets. She just needed enough money to keep them afloat.
“Katie, the truth is that I don’t think we have anything suitable for you.” She finally looked up from the resume and her stare glittered with hostility.
Katie swallowed. She needed this job. She couldn’t drive and even if she could cars were too expensive. Jerry had persuaded her that she didn’t need to learn since they lived in a small town. Opportunities were limited in Destiny Hamlet. Although she hated what she was about to do, it was a matter of survival. If it was just her, she’d be willing to starve before humiliating herself. But it wasn’t just her. She had Mia to think of.
“Shelley, please. I’m a hard worker. I’ll do anything. I–” she swallowed down the bile that threatened to rise and tamped down the hysteria that came with it. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to throw up on Shelley’s desk? Now that would make an impression. “I really need this job.”
“I’m sorry, no.” The bank manager sat back and crossed her arms over her chest.
Katie felt the heavy weight of defeat slam down onto her shoulders and the bitter taste of trodden ashes settled in her mouth. Her last chance for a job in this town had just evaporated like water left boiling too long. Even worse was the glee shining out of the other woman’s eyes. She’d just condemned Katie and Mia to a very sparse Christmas and seemed to be enjoying the fact.
She wouldn’t stoop to Shelley’s level. Somehow, some way, they would survive. She didn’t know how, but she’d figure it out. She rose to her feet and held her hand out to Shelley.
“Thank you for your time. If an opening comes up, please call me.” If my phone hasn’t been disconnected.
Shelley stared at the outstretched hand for a full minute before shaking it and murmuring her goodbyes. The click clack of her heels faded quickly, leaving only the faint scent of her vanilla musk perfume. Katie blinked several times to hold the tears at bay. She wouldn’t cry until she got home. She straightened her shoulders. She had a lawman to see.
“…completely destroyed the gate on my fence.” Mitch crossed his arms and glared at Katie.
She swallowed several times, feeling panic edge in like smoky tendrils of fog. It wasn’t the first time Mia had destroyed something next door and she was certain it wouldn’t be the last. When Mrs. Robson lived in the small ranch next door, she’d overlooked Mia’s escapades as long as Katie repaired anything that was broken. She would replace Mitch’s fence too of course, she just wasn’t sure how.
“I’ll see that it gets repaired or replaced.” She had no idea where the money would come from. An image of her wedding ring tucked inside a pair of scarlet red socks in the top drawer of her dresser flashed into her mind. No. She planned to save the ring for Mia. The child deserved something from her louse of a father and that rock was going to pay for Mia’s first year of college.
“Katie, are you okay?” Mitch reached his hand out and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.
She jerked away. Oh, no. She’d had her fill of men who walked away without looking back. Mitch had kicked the dust of Destiny Hamlet off his feet the second his scholarship to the University of Illinois came through and he hadn’t looked back. Not a word to his friends for four years and not a word to her, the girl he left behind. Okay, maybe he’d said good-bye. And maybe he’d even told her he’d be back in four years. And maybe she’d been married to Jeremiah Pierson by then. She’d had no reason to believe he’d come back. People didn’t leave and then come back. Her own mother had abandoned her as a baby. Her first foster family gave her up after she’d gotten into a fight at school. Her life was all about people leaving and never coming back.
“I’m fine. Just fine.” The tears would wait until the dark hours of the night when the house was still and a cloak of silence had descended upon the tiny community of Destiny Hamlet. That was when the loneliness closed in, clawed at her soul and refused to let go. It was a familiar old friend. One who’d visited often throughout her life.
It was in the wee hours that she’d break and wonder what she’d done wrong. What was it about her that Jerry couldn’t love? What was it about her that her own parents hadn’t loved? What was it about her that no one seemed to love?
But it wasn’t nighttime right now and she wasn’t alone. She’d never let Mitch or anyone else find out about the damp pillow she slept on each night. And she certainly wouldn’t give Jerry’s parents the satisfaction of knowing she hadn’t quite moved on with her life since their precious son had run off with his secretary.
“How did the interview go?” Mitch asked.
“Not well.” What was she going to do? There was no money left. Not even enough to buy a ham for Christmas dinner. Not enough for a small doll for her daughter. Not enough for a gallon of milk.
“Shelley never forgave you for marrying the love of her life.” His lips twisted slightly and she wondered if he’d ever forgiven her for marrying Jerry.
When Mitch had returned from college, he’d shown up on her doorstep one bright June morning. His hair had been disheveled and his eyes the darkest brown she’d ever seen them. He’d spoken one word. “Married?” Then he’d turned and walked away. Katie always wondered if she’d hurt him or he was just in shock. After all, she hadn’t heard from him during the four years he’d been away at school. That was then. This was now. They were both grown ups. She doubted Mitch even remembered that day.
“I did her a favor. She just doesn’t realize it.” She shrugged. Shelley didn’t have a clue what Jerry was really like or she’d drop to the polished tiles of the bank lobby and kiss Katie’s feet for saving her from marriage to a man who couldn’t be faithful, couldn’t be bothered with fatherhood and couldn’t keep his fists off his wife.
“How about a cup of coffee?” Mitch grabbed his heavy tan coat off the rack by his desk.
“C-c-coffee?” Oh, God. Did he mean like a date? She glanced around the room, looking for an escape route.
“Relax. You need a job and I have a line on one. That’s all.” He held the door open for her.
She felt like sinking into the floor. Of course he wouldn’t be interested in a single mother. Or her. The only reason Jerry married her was because he knocked her up. Even that wouldn’t have caused him to propose but his parents had insisted that they wouldn’t have a bastard grandchild. A lot of good that did them as Jerry proceeded to have several affairs and get two women pregnant during their marriage. They now had multiple illegitimate grandchildren. And those were just the ones she knew of.
“Where is this job?” she asked as they headed across Main Street toward Kismet Café. It had to be within walking distance. Even if she’d been able to get her driver’s license, she couldn’t afford a car.
“C’mon, we’ll talk inside. It’s cold out here.” Mitch grabbed her by the elbow to steer her around an icy patch on the sidewalk. Her arm tingled where he’d touched her. She pulled her arm away and rubbed her hand over the spot, telling herself it was just because she was cold in her threadbare coat and his hand was warm.
The only restaurant in Destiny Hamlet bustled with activity. Strands of brightly colored lights twinkled in the windows, the smell of freshly baked hot rolls filled the air, and the clatter of silverware was barely discernable under the low rumble of conversation.
She took a deep breath, remembering what a treat it had been as a young child to come to Kismet for ice cream. She could still taste the sweet, tangy butterscotch topping that Margo, Kismet’s owner, made from scratch mixed with the cold, familiar flavor of vanilla ice cream. How long had it been since she’d had the money to bring Mia here? Tears burned on the rims of her eyes but she blinked rapidly and refused to let them fall. She’d save them both somehow. There had to be a way.
They zigzagged their way to a corner booth at the back of the restaurant. Mitch took her jacket and hung it onto one of the hooks set high on either outside of the booth. She noticed how his tan sheriff’s shirt stretched across his broad shoulders and narrowed at his hips.
“Enjoying the view?” His brown eyes glittered brighter than the lights in the windows.
She felt the heat flood her cheeks. “Just because you’re on a diet, doesn’t mean you can’t look at the menu.”
His smile faded and he leaned forward and took her hands in his. “Katie, you aren’t still waiting for Jerry to come back are you?”
She jerked her hands away. Waiting for Jerry to come back? Other than the fact that he’d left them in financial straights, Jerry’s leaving was the best thing that had ever happened.
“Are you serious?” Hadn’t he heard the low whispers in town? The wonderings about how many times Jerry had hit her? How many affairs he’d had? Once he’d given her yet another reason, she couldn’t divorce him fast enough.
“I just thought—”
“You didn’t think,” she interrupted him. “Why would I want a man back who cheated on me, hit me and insulted me with every word out of his mouth?”
“I didn’t know.” A frown settled on his forehead and he stared pensively at the opposite wall for long minutes.
As the silence dragged on, she imagined she could hear the tick of the gaudy clock surrounded by red neon that rested on the opposite wall. She’d said too much. People didn’t like to talk about the dark side of life. They didn’t want to hear that Jerry sometimes beat her. That he slept around. And that every day she’d prayed for a way out of her marriage and every night she’d gone to sleep knowing she couldn’t feed her daughter if she left him. Her prayer had been answered, just not in the way she’d expected. Unable to stand the ticking seconds of quiet any longer, she waved her hand in front of Mitch’s face.
“Just forget I said anything. It wasn’t appropriate.”
“No, it’s fine. I was just trying to figure out how I can beat the hell of Pierson and not spoil my image as town sheriff.”
“Beat Jerry up?” She laughed.
The waitress arrived to take their order. Katie chewed her lip. She had exactly two dollars in her purse. Money she should use on Mia. She closed the menu, her stomach rumbling in protest and smiled at the waitress.
“I had a big breakfast. I think I’ll just have some hot water with a twist of lemon.”
Mitch lifted one brow and she wondered if he could hear her stomach protesting loudly.
“Two lunch specials, two sodas, slice of cherry pie and blackberry cobbler ala mode.” He yanked the menu out of Katie’s hands and handed both to the waitress.
“Mitch—” What had he just done?
“I haven’t taken you to lunch since high school. I won’t take no for an answer.”
She should say no but the fact was she couldn’t. He’d already ordered the food and she didn’t have enough money to pay for it. To argue would only land her in trouble. She swallowed.
“Thank you.” She folded her napkin into a small square and then unfolded it again. “About the job?”
“I need someone for office work at the Sheriff’s office.”
Work for him? That was a really bad idea. Already she could sense his knees just inches from hers under the table. Each time his warm eyes met hers, her heart picked up its pace just a little. Really, really bad idea. If only she had a choice…
“Isn’t that a city job?” She’d tried to get a job as a secretary with the city just a month ago. After all, she had two years as an English major, she could type eighty words a minute, and take dictation. But Jerry’s parents ran this town and the day their son had walked out she and Mia ceased to exist. That included any jobs in the town. Yet, they wouldn’t help financially either. It was almost as though they wanted to see her lying in the gutter. That she could live with, but it amazed her that they cared so little for Mia.
“Rules say I get to hire an assistant of my choosing.”
“Mitch, are you just doing this because you feel sorry for me?” Not that it mattered, she was going to take the job if he was offering it. She needed it too badly.
“No. I really need an assistant and I’m tired of ditzy high school girls who don’t know how to file alphabetically.”
Well, if he was going to give her the job, she was going to let him know she actually was qualified for it. No one was going to feel sorry for her! She’d been through too much in her life to give into pity.
“I can type eighty words a minute, have two years toward an English degree, and take dictation.” She ticked the points off on her fingers. “And I know my alphabet.”
“You’re hired.” He held out his hand.
“I’ll take it.” She placed her fingers in his. Her fingertips quivered from the contact and she yanked her hand away. It was still there. That instant physical connection she’d always felt with him. And it scared her senseless.
“When can you start?”
“Tomorrow?” Please let them pay weekly. She couldn’t hold out much longer and there were only ten more days until Christmas. Just enough time to get a present for Mia.
“Tomorrow it is. We pay on Fridays and you will get paid this week.”
The waitress set a hamburger and French fries in front of her. Katie stared at them as tears threatened to fall. She sniffed.
“Mitch, you don’t know—” the words got caught in her throat.
“Don’t, Katie. You’re doing me a big favor.” He lifted the hamburger and took a huge bite.
What would her life had been like if she’d waited for Mitch to come home from college instead of marrying Jerry? But the thought no sooner presented itself than she kicked it away. She wouldn’t have Mia if she hadn’t married Jerry and she wouldn’t trade her daughter for anything. Mia made up for every rotten thing that had ever happened to her. Her child was a bundle of energy, joy and promise. No, she wouldn’t change things, even if she could.
“It’s too cooooooooooold for this.” Mia wiped her nose on her coat sleeve.
“We’ll have hot chocolate when we’re finished.” Katie twisted the screwdriver, tightening the new hinges she’d bought for Mitch’s gate with her last two dollars. Just because they were destitute didn’t mean Mia couldn’t learn about taking responsibility for her mistakes.
“I want it now.” Mia pouted.
“Good afternoon, ladies.” The front door of Mitch’s brown brick ranch stood open and the man stood in the doorway looking sexy as sin.
Katie tried to swallow but her mouth had gone dry.
“Mommy said we hafta fix your stupid gate.”
Katie opened her mouth to reprimand Mia but Mitch walked to the little girl and squatted down so they were eye-to-eye.
“Mia, do you know why you have to fix the gate?”
She looked away with a stubborn set to her chin. “’Cause I broke it.”
“After I asked you to stop swinging on it and tightened the hinges several times. But you broke it anyway and the consequences are that you have to fix it.”
Bravo! She couldn’t have put it better herself. Mia’s personality had undergone a change since Jerry left. Before his desertion, Mia played quietly. Katie suspected to stay out of Jerry’s way and to avoid his temper. Although he’d never lifted a hand to Mia—she wouldn’t have stood for that—he’d often grown irritated with her for normal childhood behavior. But once he left it was as though all the anger and rage inside Mia that had built up over the years poured out. Would it ever stop? Katie sighed.
Mitch stood and turned to Katie. “Do you need help getting your Christmas tree up?”
“Christmas tree?” Okay, like she could afford a tree.
“Mommy says there isn’t enough money for one this year but we’re going to hang our decorations around the house.”
Katie wanted to sink into a snow bank and hide there until spring. She tightened another screw, allowing her hair to fall in a curtain and hide her face from Mitch.
“I didn’t know. I’m sorry.” He turned and walked back into his house.
“Guess we made him uncomfortable.” She smiled at Mia but it hurt that Mitch had walked away. Abandoning the difficult topic, she supposed.
Two minutes later, he returned. His forefinger rested inside the ring of his keychain and he swung it around in mini circles. “Let’s go.”
“Go where?” Finished with the fence, she wasn’t sure where to look.
“To get a tree.”
“But I can’t afford—”
“Let me do this for you, Katie. Everyone should have a tree at Christmas.”
“No.” She wouldn’t accept charity. Not from him.
“Please, Mommy.” Mia tugged at her coat and looked up at her mother with wide, hopeful eyes.
Crap. Being proud and being a mother didn’t always go together.
“Okay, but I’m paying you back.” Somehow.
“Whenever you can.” He grinned and she glimpsed the boy she used to know. The one who loved to spend lazy summer days sailing a small boat in the park pond. The one who’d brought her a single perfect yellow rose every Monday because she was the only thing that made Monday’s worth getting up for. The one who’d left her behind and who she’d given up on a long time ago. Her heart jerked in her chest leaving behind a sharp pain.
Lost Acres Tree Park rested southwest of town on forty rolling acres. To the north stretched farms, Dome Inn, Destiny Hamlet High School and the new housing edition. To the Northeast lie Main Street, and her home.
The ground lay tucked beneath a blanket of snow and the trees reached for the sky, regal and green and much too beautiful to cut down.
“I can’t do it.” She stared at a six foot white pine. “It’s too beautiful to cut down.”
“If you don’t do it, someone will.” Mitch lifted his ax.
“Wait!” She stared at the full branches of the tree. It seemed such a shame to kill a living thing in this way and simply for amusement’s sake.
Mitch waved to Herb Johnson, owner of Lost Acres. “Herb! You still got that backhoe?”
“Sure do, Mitch,” Herb called back.
“Can we pull this tree up and tie the roots in burlap?”
“Strange request but we could do that.”
“There you go, little lady. We’ll get you a live Christmas tree and then we’ll plant it in your yard.”
She couldn’t help herself. Her arms threw themselves around his neck and she planted a quick kiss on his lips before she realized what she was doing. She pulled away quickly. Oops. What had she done?
Mitch didn’t say anything and she hoped he’d just forget that she’d thrown herself at him. What was wrong with her? But she knew…Mitch had put more thought into a Christmas tree than Jerry had shown her in five years of marriage.
Herb offered to put the tree into the back of Mitch’s four wheel drive Ford truck. As they followed their snow indented footsteps back to the parking lot, Mitch swung Mia onto his shoulders. The girl squealed with fear and delight and clung to his hands.
This had to stop. Here and now. What was she doing? She couldn’t allow Mitch to spend time with Mia. It would only hurt her daughter when it didn’t go anywhere. All she needed was Mia to start looking at another man like a father figure and have him disappear on her. No matter how sweet he acted or how attracted to him she was, this stopped here and now. From now on, it was business only.
“Hurry, Mommy!” Mia tugged on her hand. “We’ll miss Santa.”
She only hoped she’d have enough money to buy whatever it was Mia wanted for Christmas. Each year, the week before Christmas, the town council erected a small playhouse known as Santa’s Stopover. The children of Destiny Hamlet scurried through the park on the northeast side of town. She and Katie simply had to walk out their back door, across the snow packed ground, past the frozen pond and stand in line for five minutes.
“Ho! Ho! Ho! It’s Mia Pierson.” The deep voice curled across the crisp early evening air and skittered down Katie’s spine.
Mitch? She looked around the white beard and under the red fuzzy hat and saw chocolate brown eyes staring back at her. He winked.
Since deciding to avoid any hint of a relationship with Mitch, she’d bumped into him at the grocery store, and twice as they were both leaving for work. The sheriff’s office sat behind their houses, so they’d walked together. Now he was Santa? She looked toward Heaven. What are you doing to me here? I’m trying to keep my sanity. A little help if you will.
Mia jumped onto Mitch’s lap and held up three fingers. “I don’t need a lot, Santa. I want a doll baby—you know the one. I want my mommy to stop crying at night when she thinks I can’t hear her. And I want Sheriff Mitch to be my daddy because he likes me and my real daddy doesn’t.”
Mia’s words slammed into Katie and sucked her breath away. She hadn’t just said what she thought she’d heard her daughter say. No way. She wanted to cry for Mia’s pain. She wanted to die of embarrassment at the same time. She wanted to disappear. There were no rocks handy to crawl under, but she could jump into the pond and turn into an ice cube until spring.
“Santa will see what he can do but even I only have so much magic.” He set Mia on her feet and handed her a wrapped present.
Mia clasped it to her chest. “Thanks, Santa. Mommy, look what I got!”
Mia waved the present in the air as she ran back to Katie. She swallowed her embarrassment and enjoyed the pure elation shining out of her daughter’s eyes.
“Do you think we should open it now or wait until Christmas?”
Katie laughed, and glanced at Mitch. He smiled and she looked away. Did he have to look so cute in his Santa costume?
“Mommy, it’s a book! It’s a book! Can we go home and read it right now?”
“Sure, sweat pea.”
Katie gave a small wave to Mitch as they turned to leave. Seeing it, Mia handed the book to her mother and ran back to Santa. She jumped onto his lap and threw her arms around his neck as she planted a loud kiss on his cheek.
“Thank you, Santa. I love you.”
She’d have to talk to Mia later and explain that what she’d asked for couldn’t happen. At least as far as Mitch was concerned. However, she was going to make every effort to give her daughter her other wish and not cry herself to sleep anymore. A twinge of guilt tugged at her. She hadn’t realized Mia was aware that she cried every night. No child should have to worry about that. It was over. She’d shed a few too many tears in her life. There was nothing left to cry about. She had a beautiful daughter, and a job that would support them. So what if she felt a little lonely? It would pass.
“Mitch?” She handed her paycheck to him. “You made a mistake on my check. It’s too much.”
“Signing bonus.” He held the check out to her.
She looked at it. “It’s too much.”
“Take the check, Katie. It’s not too much. I planned to give whoever I hired a bonus. It’s almost Christmas.”
“Thank you, then.” A six hundred dollar bonus? She felt the tear slide down her cheek. She turned quickly so he wouldn’t see.
Six hundred dollars! She could buy a doll for Mia. And a stroller for the doll and a baby bed. She could pay the bills that had begun to pile up on her desk at home. She could take Mia to Kismet Café for ice cream. She could buy a ham and they could have a real Christmas dinner. And it was all because of Mitch and this wonderful chance he’d given her by offering her this job.
She hesitated. She should invite him to share dinner with them. His mother had died last year and he was an only child. Did he have anyone to share the holiday with? Would he be all alone? Even when she’d faced having no money for presents or food, she’d known she’d be with her daughter. She shouldn’t allow him to get close to them. She should just walk away and not worry about where he spent his days or his nights. Especially after Mia’s request to “Santa.” It wasn’t fair to her daughter to build false expectations. But Mia had said she understood that Mitch was only a friend. And no one should be alone at Christmas.
“Do you want to join us for Christmas dinner?” she asked. Oh why had she opened her big mouth? “I mean we do it on Christmas Eve and then we wait for Santa until we can’t stay awake anymore and then I sneak outside and make reindeer footprints in the snow and then Mia wakes up the minute the sun rises and then we have hot cocoa and pancakes for breakfast.”
She was rambling on and on but she had to cover the pounding of her heart. Could he hear it?
“I’d love to. Pancakes and cocoa will be nice.” He smiled and two dimples appeared on either side of his mouth.
“Oh.” She hadn’t meant he should stay for all of that. Just for the dinner on Christmas Eve. But she could hardly take the invitation back. “We’ll see you at six o’clock tomorrow then.”
What had she just done? She rushed to Pierson Drugs, hating that she would be giving that family a cent of her money but they were the only choice for presents in town. The newborn baby doll was one Mia eyed longingly each time they came into the store. She chose a stroller and baby bed to go along with it and several small trinkets for Mia’s stocking.
If she hurried, she’d have just enough time to stop by Pierson Grocery for that ham dinner. And she’d do it all without worrying about Mitch Wyte she told herself as she chose a small electronic personal organizer for him.
He arrived on her doorstep with a huge bouquet of delicate yellow roses, a bottle of red wine and a smile that threatened to melt her knees.
“Thanks,” she said as she took the roses. Their sweet fragrance wafted around her head and she carried them to the kitchen. When was the last time someone had bought her flowers? Easy answer. It was Mitch just before he’d left for college. Pale yellow roses. He always bought her yellow roses. The only other time she’d had flowers in the last eleven years was on her wedding day. And she’d bought those for herself.
“Smells good in here.” Mitch stopped just behind her, close enough that she could feel the heat from his body but not quite touching her.
Katie took a shaky breath. “I’d better put these in water.”
“Anything I can do to help?”
A man actually offering to help in the kitchen? Once again she realized how very different this man was from her ex-husband.
“You can drain the water off those potatoes if you’d like.” She pointed to the pot and the colander resting next to it.
Mia rushed into the kitchen, the wind whipping past her she moved so fast.
“Mitch!” She threw herself at his legs.
“Hi, cutie.” He squatted, lowering himself to her level.
“I get to put the marshmallows on the sweet potatoes.” She leaned close and lowered her voice. “It’s my job every year since I could walk.”
“I’m sure your sweet potatoes are wonderful.”
Mia giggled. “Mommy cooks them, silly. I just put on the decoration.”
“Ah, but what would Christmas be without a little decoration?” He winked at Mia and then moved back to the potatoes.
Mia carefully placed each marshmallow in just the right spot and then skipped off to watch cartoons. The silence she left in the room wasn’t exactly comfortable. Katie shifted from foot to foot. Did Mitch really plan to stay through breakfast? She wasn’t even sure she should let him. Always, it had been she and Mia staying up watching for Santa Claus. Of course Mia always fell asleep but they had such fun.
Jerry had declared it all absolute nonsense and hadn’t participated in any of their fun, refusing to even fill Mia’s stockings. She sighed. Why had she made such a poor choice of a father for her daughter? Something was lacking in her to choose someone like that. But she’d changed. She could admit her mistakes and never again would she subject Mia to someone who wouldn’t love her heart and soul. Never again would she subject her own self to someone who couldn’t love her heart and soul. Would Mitch help fill Mia’s stocking?
Stop that, Katie. You are not going to allow yourself to fall in love with this man again. He’d probably walk out just like Jerry did. After all, he left for college and didn’t look back. But she wasn’t sure she’d ever fallen out of love with Mitch. He’d always had a small piece of her heart. And he came back after college just like he said he would.
After dinner, Mia dragged them into the living room.
“Let’s give Mitch his present, Mommy. Pleeeeaaaaaaaaaaaseeeeee.”
Mitch laughed at Mia’s dramatics and Katie noticed how warm his eyes were when he looked Mia. The one time Mia had begged to open her presents before Christmas, Jerry had gotten irritated and told her she wouldn’t get anything for Christmas if she asked one more time.
“You give it to him, Mia.”
Her daughter beamed a wide smile at them and rushed to the tree, snatching up Mitch’s gift. She raced back to his side and handed him the present, planting herself on his knee.
“Open it now. Open it right this instant!” She bounced up and down in excitement. Something else that had bothered Jerry but didn’t seem to bother Mitch in the least.
Mitch ripped into the wrapping paper and held up the organizer. “This is great. I needed one of these. Thank you, Mia.”
“Mommy picked it out but it’s from me too.” She tilted her head sideways and stared at Mitch but didn’t say anything.
“Did you want to say something?” he asked.
Mia leaned forward and whispered, “I’m not s’posed to ask where my present is. Mommy says it’s rude.”
Katie couldn’t help it, a chuckle escaped. Leave it to Mia to ask by not asking.
“I think I might just have something for you. Right there in that teddy bear wrapping paper.”
Mia squealed and jumped off his lap, making a mad dash for the tree. She slid the last few feet in her stockinged feet and Katie thought she was going to crash into the tree but she stopped at the last minute.
Mitch laughed, tiny lines appearing at the corners of his eyes as he watched Mia’s antics.
The child shred the paper in two seconds, tore open the box and held up the picture inside with a puzzled and slightly disappointed look on her face.
She shuffled back over to Mitch and gave him a hug. “Thank you for the nice picture, Mitch. I’ll hang it in my bedroom.”
“Well, that might work but I think you’ll have more fun riding it. It’s in my garage and I’ll put it together for you later.”
“You bought me a real bike! Wooohooo!” Mia jumped in the air and clicked her heels together.
“Mitch, you shouldn’t have—”
He held his fingers up to Katie’s lips, stopping her in midsentence. “I wanted to. I care about Mia. A lot. I care about you too.”
She swallowed. She cared about him too but she couldn’t say it. What if….stop it, Katie! Take a chance. You’ve loved this man forever. You never stopped loving him. Tell him you care too. But she couldn’t and she didn’t know what to say.
“Can Mommy open hers?”
“Sure, but the timing might be off,” he said.
Mia picked up a small package and brought it to Katie. She swallowed, feeling the weight of a small box in her hand. She suspected it might be a ring and terror filled her heart at the thought of opening it and having to give Mitch an answer right this minute. What if she couldn’t? She was so frightened. She knew he was nothing like Jerry. She knew she still loved him. She could tell her loved Mia. But what if she was wrong? Then again, she knew she wasn’t wrong. Her thoughts swirled with all the confusion of a banana split.
Her hands shook as she tore of the paper. She small, black velvet box rested soft and warm on her upturned palm for long minutes as she stared at it.
“Open it, Mommy!” Mia bounced up and down.
Mitch didn’t say anything, just watched her with those warm, brown eyes.
She snapped the lid open and saw a gold key. Not a ring? Unexpected disappointment flooded her. He wasn’t proposing. And now that he wasn’t, she realized how much she wanted him to. They hadn’t been on a real date since high school, unless you counted lunch several times a week at Kismet Café and shopping for Christmas trees as dates. Why would she think he’d propose out of the blue. Because she’d secretly hoped he’d never gotten over her just like she’d never gotten over him.
She smiled but could tell it was shaky. “What is the key for?”
“You bought me a house?” She frowned. How could he afford that on his salary.
“I bought us a house.” He flushed. “At least I hope I did. I bought a house we all could live in. It’s across the street from the park and next to the elementary. It’s also close the housing edition they’ve started on the Northwest end of town, so Mia would have friends to play with.”
Mitch bent down on one knee and pulled a sparkling diamond ring from his shirt pocket. Katie felt the warm tears well up in her eyes and spill onto her cheeks.
“Katie, will you marry me? I should have asked you years ago but the timing was off for us. I’ve never gotten you out of my heart or my head and I don’t want to waste another second. I promise to be good to you, faithful and to be a good father to Mia.”
Mia gasped. “Oh my gosh! It’s my Christmas wish, Mommy. Santa gave me my wish! You have to say yes.”
“Do you think I could answer, Mia? After all, it is a big question.” She could barely keep her smile in check.
“Okay, but don’t mess it up.” Mia crossed her arms.
“Well, with that pressure hanging over me, I have to say…”
She saw Mitch swallow, although his eyes didn’t leave hers.
“I have to say that I’ve realized something these last couple of weeks. Back in high school I gave you a piece of my heart and I’ve never gotten you out of it. I still love you too and yes, I’ll marry you.”
Mitch placed the ring on her finger and then pulled her into his arms. Mia threw herself at them and they all three tumbled to the floor in a mix of arms and legs and laughter.
“Thank you, Santa Claus,” Mia shouted at the top of her lungs. Then without taking a breath, she asked, “Can I have a dog now? And a cat? And a hamster? And maybe a fish?”
“Why don’t we take it one at a time?” Mitch ruffled her hair.
“Can I have a little sister? And a brother?” Mia’s eyes were wide with anticipation.
Mitch looked at Katie helplessly.
“Why don’t we take it one at a time?” she suggested.
He smiled and planted a firm kiss on her lips. “Can’t wait to get started.”
She snuggled close to him and they all waited for Santa together. Mia drifted off around midnight with a smile on her cupid’s bow mouth. Mitch filled Mia’s stocking while she made the reindeer footprints, tucking in some extra goodies he’d picked up at the store. She snuggled into his arms and just as she was drifting off to sleep she heard the faint jingle of sleigh bells.
“Thank you, Santa Claus,” she whispered. All their wishes had come true, even the ones she hadn’t realized she wanted.