Author's Note: Well, I've done it once again and submitted a contest entry just barely in time. Please -- read, enjoy, vote and send feedback! And of course, happy holidays to all!
(C) 2009 All Rights Reserved
"You sure you don't need me, Sir? I don't mind sticking around."
"No, Don. Go on, enjoy a few days off before we get swamped."
"All right, then. Thanks."
Don left his boss, who was in remarkably good spirits considering how close Christmas was and how busy they would get in a week. However, he decided, if the boss said take some time, Don wasn't one to argue. He knew he'd be working his ass off soon enough, so he'd get while the getting was good.
After speaking to the boss, he had a quick chat with Rudy, his supervisor, letting him know he'd be out but back in time for the big rush. Rudy nodded, immersed in schedules and rubbing his cold-reddened nose. Don kept a distance; Rudy seemed to get colds on a regular basis and Don had no wish to catch it.
On his way back to his room, he saw Halley, one of his co-workers. "Hey, Don!" she chirped.
"Hey, yourself. You taking some time off, too?" he asked as she fell into step beside him.
She nodded and ran a hand through long brown hair. "You bet. Never look a gift horse in the mouth, that's my motto."
Don pulled a face and shook his own shorter, darker brown hair. "I never look at horses at all, thanks, gift or not." Halley laughed, a bright, tinkling sound.
"So, what are you going to do?" she asked.
"Oh, a bit of a busman's holiday, I guess. My cousin runs a limo service and he's short a couple of drivers. I told him I'd help out."
Halley frowned. "That doesn't sound like much fun."
"Actually, it is. You meet some really neat people, and at this time of year they're generally in a good mood." Don was looking forward to it. "We might even have time for a hockey game," he said.
Halley rolled her eyes. "Men. Is no season safe from sports?"
"Oh, come on." He poked her in the ribs. "We'll be watching the Wild. Their uniforms are very Christmas-y, lots of dark green."
"Well, that makes all the difference," she said dryly.
"Look, Halley, I've got to run." He gave her a quick peck on the cheek. "I'll be back on the twenty-fourth in plenty of time, I promise."
"I'm not covering for you if you're late," she warned.
He held up two fingers, then crossed his heart. "I swear," he said.
"Good." She snorted. "If I have to look at someone's ass all night, I'd prefer yours to Val's. Idiot thinks he's God's gift to women."
"Hey, a number of women agree." They both turned to see Val walking towards them. His dark, curly hair hung loose around a nearly angelic face. Angelic, one might say, except for the devilish smile and glint in his eyes. He stepped up and threw an arm around Halley's shoulder. "Come on, gorgeous. Open a present early."
"Buzz off, lover boy," Halley said, removing his arm as though it might carry something contagious. "I've got stuff to do."
Val took her rejection in stride. "Your loss, pretty lady."
Halley shook her head. "Enjoy your time off, guys. Bye, Don." She waved as she headed off to her apartment.
"How long are you going to keep hitting on her?" Don asked. Val didn't answer for a minute, watching Halley climb the steps. He sighed.
"Such a nice tail on that one," he said wistfully. Don rolled his eyes and smacked him on the back of the head. Val glared and rubbed at the spot. "Hey, I was just appreciating the view."
"Workplace romances are trouble," Don reminded him. "Remember when Dash tried it with her? It was cold as ice around here for months after that broke up. The boss had to put them in different departments, for crying out loud."
"Vicki and I managed," Val pointed out. Don gaped.
"You and Vicki? When was that?"
Val grinned widely. "See, I told you we managed."
"Forget it," Don said. "I don't want to know any more. I'm going to get my stuff, take some time off and rest up before the big day. You should do the same."
"I will, but your definition of 'rest' is different than mine." Val wiggled his eyebrows.
"I'm sure it is." Don didn't rise to the bait. "I'll see you on the twenty-fourth."
"So when's the last time you met someone?" Val asked. Val had his reputation as a Lothario, but Don suspected he was a romantic at heart. Don shrugged, not in a terribly romantic frame of mind.
"I don't know. Doesn't matter. I'm not looking right now."
"Oh, please." Val rolled his eyes. "Everyone's always looking. That's the problem; it tends to happen when you're not looking."
"Great, thanks.. Now, to quote the inimitable Halley: buzz off."
Jeanette stood on the sidewalk at the train station. It was freezing and she pushed her gloved hands further into her pockets. Where was he? Ben had said he'd be here to pick her up and she'd been waiting over half an hour. She was willing to cut him some slack for traffic and the weather, but he should have at least called her by now. She debated calling him, but it meant taking her gloves off and she decided she could wait a little longer.
Sighing, she moved to sit on the bench, dragging her suitcase with her. Sitting was cold, but so was standing and her legs were tired. She would stay on the bench until she couldn't take it, then she'd stand again, although she hoped by then Ben would have arrived.
She stared idly around. The station was decorated for Christmas with lots of sparkling angels and wreaths, and she could see a Christmas tree in the little square down and across from the station. Jeanette always enjoyed Christmas, although her spirits were a little down this year.
Ben had refused to visit her family, saying that his mother would simply come apart at the seams. That had sent up a warning flag, but since her parents had planned a few months ago to take a cruise over the holiday, Jeanette decided to visit him. She wasn't crazy over the idea of being on a boat on all that open water; she was sure she was overreacting, but couldn't help it. Visiting Ben seemed like a good idea. She'd have company over the holiday and get to meet some of his family, then a couple of days later she'd head to her sister's and finish the holiday week with them.
"I wish he'd show up so I could get this started," she said to herself. She pulled her hat down more tightly over her blonde hair and wished she'd brought earmuffs.
Just as she was about to give in and call, her phone rang. By the time she'd pulled her hands out of her pockets, her glove off and retrieved the phone, it had stopped ringing. Cursing under her breath, she clicked to see a text message from Ben. I wish he wouldn't text while he's driving, she thought. Then she read the message and wished he'd text himself into a tree.
Sorry. Cant do it. Met someone. Take care.
Jeanette stared at the words on the tiny screen. Met someone? Take care? My God, he'd broken up with her via text message and had barely used complete sentences. I've been dumped with a tweet, she thought numbly.
Then her situation caught up with her. She was alone in a strange city, four days before Christmas, with no hotel reservations and no car. She covered her face with her hands and took a deep breath.
Okay, I can deal with this. One thing at a time, she told herself. She could get a cab and find a hotel, that wasn't really a problem. It wasn't how she thought she'd be spending the night, but it could have been worse. She'd have to charge the room, which wasn't what she wanted after all the Christmas shopping she'd done, but as a friend of hers had once advised, she wouldn't worry if she could solve it with money. Sighing, she stood and reached over for her purse.
Her hand fell on the empty bench. She whirled around, staring at the bench and the sidewalk underneath it. It was blank—no sign of her purse. Her heart started to race and she forced herself to take deep breaths until she was calm again. When had she last seen her bag? She thought back, couldn't remember.
Don't panic. Don't panic. She had her debit card, her driver's license and her cell phone. She could work something out. She looked around for a cab but only saw a black Town Car. Grabbing her suitcase, she pulled it behind her as she walked towards the station entrance, hoping they had a phone book or brochure with some useful phone numbers.
Don watched the pretty blonde go through a startling range of emotions in a short period of time. First there was boredom, then a bit of anger and anxiety after she checked her phone, then he thought he saw a bit of panic. She recovered nicely, though, only covering her face once. It was a cute face, he thought.
Sitting in the car, he idly tapped his fingers on the steering wheel to whatever Christmas music was on the radio. He preferred the classics, but didn't mind hearing jazzed up versions of old favorites, either. Keeps the season fresh, he thought.
Since not much was going on, and his passenger was late, he amused himself by keeping an eye on the blonde woman. He thought about offering to let her sit in the warm car, but wasn't sure how that would be received. Val could have pulled that off with no problem, but Don didn't have the savoir faire of his friend. She'd probably call the cops on him.
He watched as she walked over to the station door and tugged, stumbling when the door didn't give as expected. She tried once more before studying a flyer taped on the glass and then she let her head fall back, exposing a pale, smooth neck that Don suddenly found himself itching to nuzzle. Surprised at himself, he shook the image from his mind but kept watching.
She stomped her foot in frustration and grabbed her bag, this time forgoing the wheels and just picking it up as she walked around the corner. Don guessed she was looking for either a phone or a phone number. Pity, he thought, that pay phones were rare and phone books even more so.
He should go to her, he decided. She looked lost, and maybe he could help. He hated to see anyone so upset this close to Christmas. Besides, his cousin Joel had just texted him to say that the job was canceled, as the passenger's flight had been delayed until the next day. Don turned off the car and stepped out into the cold, then started off after the woman.
Jeanette was furious because if she wasn't, she'd be hysterical. She hated, hated being in unfamiliar places all alone. It was almost a phobia and anger kept her panic at bay. There wasn't a phone book to be had, and the station had already closed for the night. There were no cabs and she had no idea who to call. Her sister was two states away, although Jeanette realized that might be her best option -- call Isabella and ask her to find Minnesota cab companies on the computer and give her the numbers. She kicked herself for blocking web access on her cell phone. You are so cheap, she berated herself.
"Excuse me." Her head snapped around and she saw someone walking towards her. "You look a little lost."
The man stepped into the light and despite the knot in her stomach, Jeanette couldn't help but notice the short, wavy dark hair and green eyes. "Can I help you?" His voice was low and sent chills through her. That's the weather, she corrected herself.
"I hope so," she said. "I...I was supposed to meet someone but they couldn't make it. My purse is missing. I need to find a place to stay to get myself together. Do you have the number for a cab company?" She decided there was no reason to explain exactly what had happened; pathetic was not the impression she cared to make.
"Someone stood you up?" the man said in disbelief. Her bruised ego felt a little better for the tone of his comment, but she tried to brush past it.
"Something like that," she said. "Anyway, I just need a cab, if you could get me a number. Or is there a hotel nearby?"
He shook his head. "No, the nearest hotel's about five miles. I can give you a ride to one, though." He jerked his head back at the black car, then smiled. "It's warmer than it is out here."
I'll bet it is, thought Jeanette, who had become decidedly less cold while she stood there talking to him. Then common sense kicked in; she was not getting into a car with a complete stranger who just happened to show up when she needed help and offer a solution.
"No, thanks, a number would be fine," she said. A gust of wind blew threw and she shivered, shoving her hands in her pockets again.
"Please," the man said, holding out a hand. "There aren't many cabs around here, and I'm with a chauffeur service. My job for tonight just fell through." He brought his and back and held it out again with a business card. "I'm Don Nedierre; my cousin owns the business.
Warily, Jeanette took the card. Places to Go, it said and provided an address and phone number.
"Go on, call," he invited her. "My cousin's name is Joel Bristow."
"All right." She doubted anyone would go to the trouble of inventing a business and then staffing the phone line while they harassed women at train stations, but she decided to call. A few minutes later, having spoken to one Joel Bristow and confirmed that he had a fleet of five vehicles, one of which had gone to the train station to pick up a customer who had cancelled, she turned to Don.
"Okay, let's go."
Don took her bag and placed it in the trunk, then opened the front door for her. He thought she might be more comfortable up there, and the heater would be right at her feet, which he was sure must be freezing. She slid in, buckled the seat belt, then hugged herself while he turned up the heat.
"You ready to go?" he asked. She nodded and he pulled out away from the curb. "I'm sorry," he said, "but I didn't get your name."
"Jeanette," she said, and he liked the way it sounded. A little old fashioned, but it fit her. "Although right now I'll just call myself an idiot."
"Why's that?" he glanced over while they sat at a stoplight. She shook her head, then took off her hat and Don caught his breath at the blonde curls that fell to her shoulders.
"Never mind. I feel stupid even thinking about it." She sounded a bit angry and he wondered why.
"I'm sure you weren't stupid," he said. "Oh, would you like some hot chocolate? There's some in the thermos there." He gestured at the bag by her feet.
"Thanks, that would be great." She carefully took out the thermos and waited for another stoplight before taking the lid off and using it as a cup. Don's heart skipped a beat or two as she closed her eyes and sighed over the drink. "This is so much better than coffee." She looked over and smiled, and he missed another beat.
"Yeah," he said when his brain worked again. "I'm not a big coffee fan. I do have a big sweet tooth, though." He stopped himself before he could add something awful like, and I'd like to taste a bit of you. Val would have had a smooth line—he had a line for any situation—but Don decided silence was the better part of valor.
"Do you think there'll be any vacancies?" she asked, taking another sip. "I thought I'd be staying with a friend so I didn't make any reservations."
"I'm sure we'll find something," he assured her, and wondered where the 'we' had come from.
"I hope so." She lifted a hand to her mouth and nibbled a fingernail. Don resisted the urge to cover her hand with his and gently push it away. "I can't believe I lost my purse. Someone's probably buying out Macy's as we speak."
"That stuff is usually covered," Don said. "They may not have time to do much, and maybe they just wanted the cash."
"Maybe." She sounded doubtful. "This is the second time this has happened to me." She sighed. "It took days to clear it up. I almost cut up all my cards after that. I guess I should have."
They said little else as Don drove out to a small strip of hotels. He could see Jeanette's face fall a little bit as each one they passed said No Vacancy. He felt badly for her and tried to think of a solution.
Jeanette tried to keep herself together, but every red sign they passed chipped away at her resolve. The lump that had been sitting in her stomach since receiving Ben's text had gradually risen until it was in her throat.
She'd been such an idiot, she thought. How could she have made these plans? The red flags that had started waving when Ben had described his mother's separation anxiety should have been enough of a warning. At that point, she probably could have arranged to stay with her sister, or hell, made plans to stay home. Christmas on her own wouldn't have been so bad; she could have had a nice meal out, a movie, a long bath, anything.
As it stood, she was in a strange place, cold, with only a few changes of clothes and very limited funds. Not to mention a distinct lack of hotel rooms.
"Hey, would you like to get something to eat?" She turned, a little startled, to see Don looking at her with concern.
"Um, yeah." She tried to clear the lump in her throat with a cough. "That would be nice, thank you. I didn't get dinner." The bravado borne of anger had long since fled; panic at the idea of being alone in a strange place was rising. She tried to ignore it.
"Don't worry," Don said. He reached over to pat her hand in reassurance. "We'll figure something out."
We? Jeanette wondered. She said nothing, though, as Don turned around and drove a few miles back to a friendly-looking diner. There were kitschy Christmas decorations in the windows and lights strung around the windows and doors. It made her smile despite everything.
Don held the door for her and she thanked him, wondering when the last time someone had made such a small but nice gesture for her. He winked at her thanks and she bit her lip when her stomach flipped just a little.
They sat in a booth and she was glad to shrug out of her coat, which she felt like she'd been wearing for days. She ran a hand through her hair and realized she must look a mess, and excused herself to the rest room after they ordered. Once inside, she realized she couldn't even fix her hair—her hairbrush was in her missing purse. That insignificant item threatened to break her control, and she laughed roughly at herself. You've lost your purse, your credit cards and your boyfriend, but a hairbrush brings you down. Get a grip.
Resolutely, she splashed some water on her face, dried it with paper towels, and did the best she could with her hair by combing her fingers through it. Resigned to the fact that nothing helped, she went back to the table and Don.
There was hot tea and soup at her place and she sat down, gratefully wrapping her hands around the cup. It almost burned but she refused to move her hands away.
"So, Jeanette," said Don, sipping at his own mug of tea, "how did you get here?"
"I..." She dropped her head, staring intently at the tea. "I told you. I was an idiot." The temptation to tell him everything was strong, but surely he didn't want to hear it.
"No, you weren't." He put his cup down, reached over and put his hands around hers. She drew in a breath; his hands felt warmer than the tea. "Come on, tell me."
"That's sweet," she said, not moving her hands. She managed to meet his eyes and the warmth in them almost made her tell him. "Really, it is. But you don't need a stranger dumping her troubles on you before Christmas. You've done more than enough."
"If you can't help someone at Christmas, then when can you?" he asked. "Please."
Don listened as Jeanette told him her story in a quiet voice. How the boyfriend who was supposed to meet her not only stood her up, but done it in less than ten words. The missing purse and full hotels were just the icing on the cake.