A Contemporary Christmas Romance by Regina Scott
This story was originally written for a very dear friend of mine, the inspiration for Hannah Alexander in the Lady Emily Capers. It is one of the few contemporary romances I've ever written. Please enjoy this free story. Merry Christmas, now and always. Regina Scott
For the fourth time since 6:00pm, Nanine Roberts went to the window of her small, Seattle condominium. Pulling back the brocaded drapes that had come with the place, she was confronted with the reflection of her pale face, dark eyes tight and chocolate brown hair falling past the shoulders of her red velvet dress. She peered deeper into the dark December evening. A soft rain was falling, blurring the Christmas lights of the houses across the street to a warm glow and making the parked cars below her sparkle like diamonds. Two Camrys and a Nissan Sentra-the same three cars she'd been seeing all evening, the same three cars she saw every evening after work. Conspicuous in its absence was the shiny black Porsche that had been hugging the curb for the last three months. She let the drape fall back into place.
Turning from the window, she met the gaze of a black-and-white Australian shepherd. Mac's tongue lolled as he panted, head cocked, watching her.
"Not yet," she told him in what she hoped was a soothing voice. Mac, as cognizant of her moods as his master was, gave a sharp yelp. She wasn't fooling him any more than she was fooling herself. She crossed to the chair by the gas fireplace and patted her thigh. Mac trotted to her side and leaned against her tight-covered leg.
"He'll be here," she told the dog. "He wouldn't miss Christmas Eve." She ran her hand over the soft hair in comfort, but she simply couldn't relax. Pulling out her cell phone, she texted a number that came up instantly now. Everything all right?
Though she stared at the glowing screen for minutes that felt like hours, no one answered.
She set down the phone. He was driving. He shouldn't text while driving. She ought to be glad he hadn't answered. How about a distraction? She jumped back up to her feet and paced to the stereo on the other side of the fireplace. Fiddling with the knobs, she found a station playing Christmas carols and turned up the volume.
"There," she told Mac, "that should put us in a festive frame of mind."
Mac lay down on the carpet and sank his head onto his paws, sighing heavily. His melancholy threatened to seep into her skin. She had to think of something else or go crazy!
Her gaze drifted to the small Christmas tree in the corner. Only one present lay under it. There had been others, but they were safely delivered to friends and family. She'd turned down two offers to spend Christmas Eve elsewhere, one from her mother in Tacoma and another from her friend Gina in Port Orchard. She'd been almost giddy in her refusal. She had someone else she wanted to spend this special night with, someone who was as warm and wonderful as the season. She caught herself drifting toward the window again and made a sharp turn toward the kitchen instead.
"I bet he'll be cold when he gets here," she called to Mac. "What do you think would be better-hot chocolate or coffee?"
The shepherd obligingly yelped in response as she opened this cupboard and that, looking for something to take her mind off this awful waiting. The third cupboard she opened had the cookies. Biscuits, she corrected herself. That's what he'd call them. The Tim Tams stared back at her. She took the chocolatey treat out slowly and held it in front of her, picturing an evening earlier in the fall.
She'd always been fascinated with Australia, the wide-open spaces, the diversity of landscapes, peoples, and animals. Now that more Australian products were finding their way into her local supermarket, she'd been sampling the wares. Tim Tams were one of her favorites.
She'd seen the last package on the shelf that day from far down the aisle and had made her way swiftly toward it. A large, motherly woman with three children in tow had gotten in her way. At only a few inches over five feet tall, she couldn't see past or over them. She'd waited until they'd cleared the aisle and darted forward, focused on the brown package, only to see another hand snatch it off the shelf. She'd pulled up in surprise and puffed out a little sigh of disappointment.
"I say, Miss, were you after the Tim Tams too?"
She'd turned toward the voice, prepared to argue for her favorite cookie, and blinked, mouth half open as she forgot what she was going to say.
He was simply gorgeous.
Tall and slender, with a dancer's athletic build, he filled the flannel shirt and jeans. Laugh lines etched the corners of his brown eyes. Well-spaced and warm, they drew her in. Was she after the Tim Tams? No, she had her sights on something else entirely. Her mother would be shocked. Her friend Gina would cheer her on. Could she really be this bold?
"Miss?" he asked, smile fading. "Are you all right?"
"Fine," she said. "Fine. And yes, I like Tim Tams too. Unfortunately, you seem to have taken the last package."
Mr. Tautorus, the man who owned her local grocery, came puffing up. Black hair slicked back, black mustache sharp, he always had a twinkle in his dark eyes. "You better watch yourself, Diamond. This lady knows what she wants." He flipped his thumb at the Australian. "You should be kind to this foreigner, Nan. He's a stranger in a strange land."
The smile reappeared and with it a faint pink in his cheeks as if he weren't sure of his own audacity either. "I am indeed. I couldn't pass up the last biscuit from home. But I'm willing to share. A bloke will do just about anything for a home-cooked meal." His cultured Australian accent teased her ears.
Mr. Tautorus rubbed his hands together. "A home-cooked meal? Mrs. Tautorus had you over only last week. He's a bum, I tell you."
The way the grocer grinned told Nanine how fond he was of the stranger. Did she dare mention that more often than not she picked up pre-cooked meals from the store? No, not today. Today, she'd be the Iron Chef, Gordon Ramsay, and Wolfgang Puck all rolled into one if that's what he wanted.
"You've got yourself a deal," she hurried on before she could talk herself out of it. "Tomorrow night. Here, let me text you the address."
"I'd be obliged," he murmured before reciting his phone number and watching as she keyed it into her phone. Mr. Tautorus cited two teens near the soup display and bustled off. Her handsome stranger kept his gaze on her. "By the way, I'm Wynn, Wynn Diamond."
What a wonderful name. It suited him-as natural as the sky, as priceless as a gem. "Nanine Roberts," she said, annoyed with how breathless her voice sounded. "It's a pleasure to meet you."
She looked up in time to see his eyes alight with interest that nearly stole what was left of her breath. "No, darlin'," he replied, "the pleasure's all mine." He handed her the package of cookies. "I'll see both of you tomorrow night. Does 6:00 work for you?"
"Perfect," she'd said watched as he nodded and turned to stroll away.
That described their first dinner and the many dates afterward. They were at home in each other's company almost immediately, although it was several weeks before he was willing to confess that he'd gotten that first meal under false pretenses. He was the west coast sales representative for Arnott's, the makers of Tim Tams. Instead of buying that last package, he'd been there to make sure there was enough room on the shelf to expand their offerings. His work took him once a month through Oregon down to California, but otherwise he arranged everything from his base in Seattle. That gave him plenty of time to spend with Nanine.
He was just as interested in her work as a commercial artist for one of the city's premier advertising agencies. If she was at a loss for creative ideas, his teasing usually broke the artistic block. He was openly admiring of her talent, so much so that she had decided to paint a portrait of him with Mac for his Christmas present. The painting had been finished and framed only days before and now waited under the tree. Why didn't he come?
Think of something else!
No matter how many times she ordered her mind, she couldn't seem to comply. They had found that they shared a number of interests, like a devotion to Star Trek and a fascination with history. They each were the oldest in their family and had one other sibling--her a brother in California, him a sister back home. When his landlord had insisted he give up his dog, Mac, she had been quick to offer the perky pet space in her condominium, which didn't have a rule against pets. At times, she wasn't sure Wynn spent enough time at his place anymore to make the two rents worthwhile, but she wasn't ready to suggest they move in together. Like Wynn, she believed some things should be saved for marriage.
She put the package back in the cupboard and slammed the door. Then she leaned her head against the hard wood. Where was he? Ever since that first dinner he was always here by 6:00. She knew it was now after 8:00, and on Christmas Eve. What could have happened to him?
Despite her best intentions, she strode back to the window and yanked open the drape. The rain had turned to snow, lilting past the brightly colored Christmas lights, covering the cars and the road. As she watched, a neighbor turned the corner a bit too fast and slide against the curb. She shivered.
Mac trotted to her side and nudged her knee with his head. Absently, she gave him a pat, even as she worried her lower lip. "He'll be here soon," she told him. "I know he will."
Mac made a low grumbling in his throat as if he disagreed. Nanine tried to shake off the premonition. It was Christmas-time for the Light to come into the world. Why did everything seem so dark?
As if in agreement with her thoughts, the lights shut off.
Mac yelped, springing away from her hand. As she blinked against the sudden blackness, she could hear his toenails on the floor as he moved toward the door. She felt her way back to the kitchen and pulled the emergency flashlight from its magnetic holder. The torch sprang to life in her hand. Turning, she caught Mac in the beam. His eyes gleamed greenly. Shaking off the eeriness, she moved into the living room and the guest closet, where she kept her candles.
In a short time, she had the place lit again. The warm, flickering light looked almost romantic, just as romantic as the night Wynn had first kissed her.
She'd finally made her own confession-she didn't really enjoy slaving over a hot stove at night when she came home. Seattle had a plethora of excellent restaurants with delivery services or take out. Wynn had agreed to pick up Italian on the way home, and she had put out candles to make the meal look more festive. Her long, dark hair loose about her shoulders, she'd felt herself blush at his look of admiration as he came through the door. Her blush had only deepened when he continued to gaze at her.
"Is something wrong?" she finally asked.
He shook his head as if in wonder. "No. It's just sometimes I wake up to how beautiful you are, and it just blows me away."
"It must be the candlelight," she teased, embarrassed but pleased.
"Then let's eat by candlelight every night." He took her arm and led her into the room for dinner.
After dinner, he insisted on helping her clear the table and rinse off the dishes to put in the dish washer. She was a little nervous having him right there beside her, and one of the plates slipped from her fingers to crash into the stainless steel sink. She'd jumped, and he'd caught up her hand.
"Are you all right? Did you cut yourself?"
She shook her head, but he stood there, holding her hand in his, looking down into her eyes. Then he'd lowered his head and kissed her.
She felt her heart beating faster now just remembering. Why didn't he come?
She needed something to calm her. The Christmas music had helped a little earlier. She found the battery-operated radio her mother had insisted she purchase for emergencies and slipped the headsets over her ears. Soft carols wafted over her. She closed her eyes, imagining how it would feel to be sitting cradled in Wynn's arms while the storm beat at the house. That spicy cologne he wore would tickle her nose. His warm voice would sooth over any concerns. She could feel a smile forming at the picture.
"You all be careful driving home tonight," the announcer said in her ear. "Looks like Santa's really going to need Rudolph. The National Weather Service has put a winter storm warning in effect for most of the Seattle-Tacoma area, and we already have reports of several accidents. The biggest one is a three-car pileup near Northgate, involving an SUV, a minivan, and a Porsche. Pity the poor guy in what's left of the Porsche. Traffic in the area is down to a crawl."
Every inch of her was suddenly cold, and she knew it had nothing to do with the fading warmth in the condo. She focused on the station, hoping for something more, but the announcer just made more jokes before switching to another thirty minutes of Christmas carols. Easy for him. It wasn't his boyfriend wedged between an SUV and a minivan. But maybe it wasn't hers either. She had to hope. Wynn was an excellent driver. Surely it wasn't him. He'd be here soon, and they'd laugh at how she'd worried for nothing. She could imagine him kissing her worries away. If only he'd hurry!
Outside a car door slammed, and beside her Mac started barking. She yanked the headphones off and ran for the door. As she snatched it open, the snow swirled past her. She could barely make out the vehicles below, but the blue and red flashing lights of the police car were impossible to miss.
She shut the door, forcing Mac to scramble backward. The police car couldn't have anything to do with her. The police officer she had seen standing by the car door wasn't here to tell her that Wynn was dead. She wouldn't let him tell her that. If she didn't hear it, maybe it wouldn't be true. Besides, how would the police have known to come here? Wouldn't they have tried to reach his sister and aunt in Australia?
What was she thinking? It wasn't Wynn. It couldn't be. She hurried into the kitchen and sank onto the stool that stood in the corner. Wynn smiled when she had to use it to reach the upper shelves that were so easy for him. His little half pint of sweets, he'd said. She didn't feel like a half pint right now. She felt emptied, alone, vulnerable. Mac came in and laid his head on her thigh, gazing up at her with his big, moist eyes. She hugged him close to her. They both flinched as someone rapped at the door.
Mac broke away from her and ran back to the door, barking and turning in circles. Nanine clung to her stool. The knock sounded again, harder this time. Even in the kitchen, she could hear the police officer's voice. "Miss Roberts? Miss Nanine Roberts? If you're home, please answer. This is the Seattle Metropolitan Police. We need to talk to you."
Slowly, she rose from the stool and moved like a sleepwalker to the door. Dutifully, she peered through the peep hole. In the flashing light from below, she could just make out a man with a police officer's cap on, his face tight with compassion. She closed her eyes and reached for the door.
God, You sent Your child into the world to be near us in our darkness. Please don't take away the light You've given me in love. Please bring Wynn safely home. That's the only Christmas present I want.
Beside her, Mac turned in agitated circles. She grabbed his collar with one hand and opened the door with the other.
"Nanine Roberts?" the police officer, a man in his early fifties, asked.
She nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
"Do you know a Wynn Diamond?"
She nodded again.
The police officer licked his lips, and she tensed.
"Ma'am," he said, "you don't look all that excited about the fact. He swore he wanted a ride here instead of the home address on his license, but I won't let him out of that car unless you give me permission."
She sagged against the doorjamb as relief flooded her. "He's in the car? He's all right?"
Now the policeman nodded. "Yes, ma'am. Are you willing to take him in?"
"Yes, oh, yes," she nearly sobbed. "I'm sorry to sound so strange, but I've been so worried, you can't imagine. He was supposed to be here hours ago."
The policeman's tension eased, and he smiled. "No problem. I'll send him right up. Merry Christmas, Miss Roberts."
"Merry Christmas, Officer." She pulled Mac away from the door and the cold, but both of them trembled as the police car door opened and Wynn stepped into the pulsing light. He said something to the policeman, then bounded up the stairs to the door. Nanine only gave him time to shut it behind him before throwing herself into his arms.
"You're alive!" she cried, holding him close.
"Last time I checked," he joked, but his hand stroked her hair as if to reassure himself of the fact. She closed her eyes, but the tears kept falling through her lashes. She focused on the gentleness of his touch, the strength in the arms that held her, the beating of his heart near her ear. Her prayer of thanksgiving drifted toward heaven. She choked back her sobs.
"Hey, now," he murmured, holding her away from him as if to see her face in the candlelight. His eyes were troubled. "Has something happened? You're whiter than the snow outside."
She managed a weak smile. "I should be. I heard about an accident near Northgate with a Porsche, and when you were late . . ."
He pulled her back into his arms. "You worried. I'm sorry. They probably were talking about me. The Porsche's a mess. I'm just glad it's a company car. The paperwork will be meters deep to get it fixed, but at least the money won't be coming out of my pocket."
"But you're all right?" she pressed. "You weren't hurt?"
"Not a scratch," he assured her. "Though I was a bit shaky afterward. After we sorted everything out, the copper kindly gave me a lift home."
Beside them, Mac yelped for attention. Chuckling, Wynn unwound one arm from Nanine and ruffled his pet's hair. "Don't tell me you were worried too, mate. I wouldn't leave my two best loves, not on Christmas Eve."
"I told him that," Nanine said from the safety of his arm. "Neither of us believed it."
"Then perhaps I should prove it to you," Wynn replied. "Or at least one of you. Come here, darlin'."
He led Nanine over to the sofa and sat beside her, turning so he could take both her hands in his. The warmth of his grip set her to trembling anew.
"I'm very sorry I was late," he murmured. "I know it should be a special night. I just wanted to make sure of it. I had a present to pick up at Northgate, and I want to give it to you now."
He let go of her right hand and fished in his pocket to pull out a small jewelry box. Popping it open, he held it out to her. Inside lay a gently curved gold band with a diamond solitaire in the center. Nanine caught her breath.
"Nanine Roberts," he said solemnly, "I love you. You've already made me the happiest man on earth. Will you do me the honor of marrying me?"
Just as she had at the door, Nanine could not trust herself to speak. She only nodded, gaze on his. In his eyes, she saw the love to address every concern, the belief to send her soaring. He took the ring from the box and slid it onto her finger before pulling her back into his arms.
"I love you too," she murmured against his cheek. "Now and always."
Wynn cradled her face with his hands and pressed his lips to hers, making a memory to cherish for eternity. When he at last pulled away, he stroked her hair where his touch had dislodged it, smiling at her. "If it's really going to storm tonight, I guess I better text for a rideshare and head for home. Besides, if we stay up, Santa won't come. Isn't that the story?"
She returned his smile. "I feel like I've been looking for you for a lifetime, Wynn. I'm in no hurry for Santa."