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The Billionaire's First Christmas - A Sweet Christmas Romance

 

The Billionaire’s First Christmas

 

 

By Holly Rayner

 

https://www.facebook.com/hollyraynerbooks

 

 

Copyright 2014 by Holly Rayner

 

All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part by any means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the explicit written permission of the author.

 

All characters depicted in this fictional work are consenting adults, of at least eighteen years of age. Any resemblance to persons living or deceased, particular businesses, events, or exact locations are entirely coincidental.

 

 

 

 

Table of Contents:

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER ONE

 

~

 

 

 

AARON

 

 

I was sitting at my desk with the windows behind me frosted over with the snow that seemed to be continuously falling in this cold city. It was only the first week of December and I was already craving my yearly vacation; this year I was headed to Belize. I’d had three phone calls this morning about the Christmas Party already. Going away every year kept me from having to endure the friendly Christmas get togethers and gift exchanges, but as CEO of Winters Inc. it couldn’t save me from the annual party. I had to re-direct the calls all back to my assistant. I paid for the party, but I didn’t take any part in arranging it. I’m no Ebenezer Scrooge. It’s not that I don’t believe in Christmas or want to deny it to anyone else; it’s just that I find no charm in it myself.

 

I had done my best every year to avoid all things Christmas since then, except for the party. I had an obligation to my employees, one that I fully planned to continue fulfilling. I had to make an appearance and wish them well. They worked hard for me; I truly appreciated their dedication and I wanted them to know that. I also gave the yearly address to inform them all how the company had fared over the past year and what kind of changes we may be looking at in the future. I have to do it, but I don’t have to like it.

 

The buzzer on my desk phone went off and I picked it up.

 

“Yes, Janice?”

 

“I’m sorry, sir but I just need one more signature from you and then I promise unless it’s a dire emergency I won’t bother you again about the party.” Janice had been with me long enough to know that enduring the Christmas season was a chore for me. She did a wonderful job of stopping it at my door. Unless it was about money, she handled it.

 

I’d founded my company eight years before. It was a one man operation back then and I was the man. Janice had walked in off the street one day looking for a job and because I’d just gained two new clients that same day, and I was feeling like I deserved some help, I hired her. The first six months there were times when I had to dip into my savings just to pay her. I thought so many times during that time in my life about letting her go, explaining to her that I just couldn’t afford her salary, but I didn’t do it. She was more than an outstanding employee, although not quite a friend. I didn’t have many of those. I didn’t have time for it. Back then I was working to get the company off the ground. Within a year my company was making high six figures and then I was working hard to keep it off the ground. I barely had time for myself much less a bunch of people who might expect my attention outside of work. I had to hire ten people that year and I was glad that I’d held onto Janice. If it hadn’t been for her, there were days when the whole operation would have fallen completely apart. Now, eight years later she is still my right hand gal.

 

“No worries, Janice. Bring them in and I’ll sign them and then I have to meet with Max over in marketing.”

 

“Thank you, sir.”

 

I smiled as I put the phone down. I had told Janice a million times that she didn’t have to call me “sir.” For one thing, I was twenty-nine and she was fifty-one. I felt silly answering to “sir” from a woman who could have been my mother. It was so hard for people to see me as a twenty-nine year old man. When you sat behind a desk as powerful as mine, they forgot that you were only human.

 

Janice came bustling in. Everything she did was with haste, like the very foundation of the company depended on it. Sometimes it could be just a little bit annoying, but it had served the company well so I couldn’t complain. She was one of the employees that I appreciated so much, and one of the reasons that I showed up at the Christmas party at all.

 

“Here you go, sir. The first document is the mini-contract we drew up for the charity auction and the second one is for the employee gift cards.”

 

I signed them both, trusting Janice enough that I wasn’t going to read through a simple document for the party. When I finished she said, the same as she did every year at this time, “If your plans change or your flight gets cancelled because of weather or anything sir, please remember that you’re always welcome to spend Christmas with my family and me.”

 

“Thank you, Janice.” I had yet to meet her family. Maybe I am Scrooge. “I already have the trip arranged and barring a blizzard I’ll be out of this cold city before the sun sets on Christmas Eve. I’ll be in Max’s office for an hour or two if you need me.”

 

“Thank you, sir,” she said.

 

I gathered my tablet and the files I needed for the meeting with my Director of Marketing, Max Stone. Max was another lucky find. He’d come to me from a corporation that Winters Inc. had taken over. It wasn’t a hostile takeover per se, but it was gut-wrenching for the owners who had to sell because of age and medical issues. Max was brand new to their company when all of that happened and while I was still in the early stages of the take-over and the employees of the previous owners were up in arms about whether or not they would still have a job, I met Max purely by accident in the conference room one day. I’d slipped in, trying to find a place where I could have a moment’s peace and eat my lunch since I didn’t have an office there yet and in bursts this boisterous young man who, as I’ve found out since, never stops talking.

 

Without knowing who I was at the time, Max took out his own lunch, sat down and began to talk about the “tyrant” who ran the company that was “swallowing up” the one he was working for. Max went on to speak about the ideas that he still had in the works for marketing the company that I was absorbing. He had some amazing ideas and when he finally stopped talking for five minutes, I introduced myself. The look on his face was comparable to that of a man headed to the gallows to be relieved of the burden of carrying around his head. I let him sweat over it for two weeks before I had HR inform him that his position would be rolled over to the new company if he would like for it to be. He was brilliant at what he did, but he had no idea when he should keep his mouth shut. We’d become friends since then, and Max was one of the few people who worked for me that didn’t kiss my ass or cow down to me. It was a big part of why I liked him.

 

I took the elevator down to the third floor where marketing was located. When the elevator door slid open; for a second I thought I’d landed in a dream. There was a young lady standing there, waiting to get on. She had long, honey blonde hair and deep blue eyes, but the thing I noticed most about her was her smile. It was big and genuine and she had deep dimples on either side of her face. I was so stunned by her that I almost forgot to step off. She didn’t seem to know who I was, but she jauntily said, “Have a nice day!” nonetheless as I finally remembered this was my stop.

Before I could reply, the doors were closing. I did see that she had a lanyard and a key card around her neck, so I assumed she worked for me. I’d have to look into that after I get back from my trip. I didn’t have the time between now and then to date or cultivate any type of new relationship. Besides, during the holidays if you were dating a woman, she expected you to spend them with her. No matter how beautiful she was, that wasn’t going to happen.

 

Although it was hard, I re-focused on what I was doing and headed on down the hallway to Max’s office, preparing myself for an hour or two of Max’s overly enthusiastic company.

 

 

 

ROBYN

 

 

I was in the middle of a brainstorming session with Gary when HR called and said they needed me to sign some slips to authorize a couple of employee’s vacation time. I’d only recently been promoted to Assistant Manager of the Marketing department at Winters Inc. I didn’t have all the ins and outs of it quite down yet and I’d signed them in the wrong place. Normally, a person might find it tedious to be pulled from what they were doing to sign a few forms. I didn’t today, however, for two reasons: One, Gary was completely infatuated with me so it was uncomfortable when we had to work alone together. It’s not that he’s a bad guy; he’s just not the guy for me. I feel no attraction to him whatsoever at all, and I don’t want to put myself in a situation where I have to tell him that and hurt his feelings. Since I started at Winters nine months earlier he’s been asking me out. I told a white lie…that I was seeing someone the first time he asked, so now he “check’s in” on it periodically. I always tell him that same fib, one of these days I’m sure it’s going to run out of steam. I looked upon the call as a gift and I hurried right out to take care of my obligations.

 

The other reason I was happier than I should have been about getting interrupted was that when the elevator doors opened, I’d come face to face with the most beautiful man that I’ve ever seen. He looked a little distracted and stood still when the doors opened for a few minutes, like he wasn’t sure if this was the right floor. It gave me several seconds to notice his dark eyes and perfectly tailored suit. It fit him like a glove and when he had his back to me as he stepped off; I noticed how nicely it fit his broad shoulders and rippled across the muscles in his back. His hair was as dark as his eyes and when he finally smiled at me it was the slow, easy smile of a confident man. My hormones were practically raging like a teenager just from that one delicious look. By the time the doors closed, my mouth was as dry as a desert.

 

I forced myself to tuck away the vision of him for now as I stepped off the elevator on the first floor and made my way to the HR department. I’m sure I’d be calling it back up later. When I pushed in the door of the office I saw Mary, the HR manager for the company.

 

“Hi Robyn! I’m sorry to have the girls pull you away from your work, but with the holidays coming up, we have so much paperwork in for these day off requests.”

 

“It’s okay; I apologize for signing them in the wrong place.” I didn’t tell her how much I appreciated her timing.

 

Mary waved a hand at me and said, “They’re not that user friendly. We’re working on re-designing them. We should have new ones out by the New Year. By the way, did you sign up for the auction yet? You can do that here if you like? I’m volunteering and I think Max is too, isn’t he?” I had no idea what she was talking about.

 

“Volunteering for what?” I asked her.

 

“To be sold at the auction?” My face must have been blank because she said, “For the children’s Charity?”

 

“I’m sorry Mary. I’ve been a little bit overwhelmed with my new management duties so if I did hear about that, I didn’t process it. I got my invitation for the Christmas party yesterday. I’m super-excited about that.” I loved Christmas. It was literally my favorite time of year and I savored every part of it. My last job had been at a bank and the administration there had been so concerned that they may offend someone they had cancelled the “Holiday” party all-together. That was the reason they gave us anyways. I’d always been suspicious that it was just about saving the money it cost them. From what I heard about this party, Mr. Winter’s spared no expense. The expense wasn’t what I looked forward to though; it was just that festive spirit of sharing the holidays with other people that was irreplaceable.

 

“Yes, the party is a lot of fun,” Mary said. “I look forward to it every year. The auction though is kind of a company tradition too. That will be held on the fourteenth, it’s a Thursday evening. Two members of management from each department are auctioned off to the highest bidder and in doing that they agree to be “ordered around” by their purchaser for an entire day. We do that the next day on Friday since most of the managers normally have that day off anyways. The money from that goes to a children’s charity Mr. Winter’s supports.”

 

“What sorts of things do they order you to do?” I asked her.

 

“It’s all in fun. Last year I had to sit by the fire, drink hot chocolate and eat homemade cookies while watching a marathon of old black and white Christmas movies with Lance in the production department.”

 

I laughed, “That actually sounds like my kind of day.”

 

“Right? Me too. It’s fun, you should volunteer. It’s for a good cause too. Mr. Winter’s not only gives all the money earned to the Children’s foundation but he matches it as well.”

 

“I’d love to do it,” I told her. It really did sound like a lot of fun. My boss sounded like a really generous man too. I liked that. I came from a family where generosity was looked upon fondly. “I’m looking forward to finally meeting Mr. Winters at the Christmas party,” I told her.

 

“Oh, you haven’t met him yet?”

 

“No, the day that I was hired, it was one of your girls who interviewed me…Lucy? I think that was her name. Then the promotion was just inter-departmental so Max handled that. I could have passed him in the hallway I guess and just didn’t know who he was.”

 

“Maybe,” Mary said. “But I guarantee you wouldn’t forget him if you saw him.”

 

“Why’s that?” I asked her. Mary smiled a naughty smile and said, “You’ll see at the party. Here, there are the forms for you to sign as well as the sign up forms for the auction.”

 

Smiling I said, “Thanks. You’re not going to tell me what it is about Mr. Winters that is so unforgettable?” It seemed from the look on her face that he was as attractive as he was generous. But, I guess it could have been the opposite as well.

 

“He’s just hard to describe,” she said. “You’ll see him soon.” I left there wondering if the man had two heads or something. Either way, I was looking forward to finding out. What I’d read about him was all good. He was lauded as one of the most brilliant business minds of the century. He’d invested his life savings…which according to Forbes was a paltry sum and eight years later he was a billionaire running a multi-national company. Money didn’t interest me much, but I was fascinated by intelligent, driven people.

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

~

 

 

 

ROBYN

 

 

I took the paperwork for the auction back with me when I resumed the meeting with Gary. That was a mistake. As soon as he saw that I was up for bid, he was all over it.

 

“This is going to be the best auction ever!” he said, enthusiastically. “Last year I bid on and won Aurora from accounting. She and I had the best day. We went to the movies and had dinner… I’m sure I’ll have plenty of competition bidding on you,” he said. “But for you I’m willing to break the bank.”

 

As much as I was looking forward to doing a good deed for charity, and I thought Gary was harmless, I was afraid that spending the day with him would only perpetuate this fantasy he has of us being together someday.

 

“Oh, don’t waste your money on me.”

 

“Waste? Are you kidding? I’d pay just to be seen with you, Robyn.” He was so sweet and he had innocence about him as well. But, he did nothing for me. I honestly thought something like this would only encourage him, and that wouldn’t be right.

I agonized for almost two weeks over what to do about it when I got an idea and went to see my friend John in production.

 

“Hey Robyn! Long time no see!”

 

“Hey John,” I said, accepting his kiss on the cheek. “How are Phyllis and the kids?” John and I had known each other since college. His wife and I had become friends over the years and they had the most adorable pair of twins I’d ever seen. John was the one who had referred me for the job I have now.

 

“They are great. The twins are finally sleeping through the night so Phyllis and I are getting used to seeing the world with clear eyes again.”

 

I smiled and said, “I might have an idea that could help us both out.”

 

“I’m game. What’s up?”

 

I told him about the auction and about Gary. He laughed.

 

“Gary’s crushing on you hard, huh? He’s kind of relentless that way. The last girl he attached himself to around here got another job out of state. There was speculation she only took it to get away from him.”

 

I laughed too. I knew that John was only half kidding. Gary was the kind of guy who never gave up until he wasn’t given any other choice. I really didn’t want to crush the poor guy. But, I didn’t want to be saddled with him either.

 

“So if I give you the cash, will you bid on me?” I asked him.

 

“Sure, then I can order you to watch the twins while Phyllis and I have a real date?”

 

“Absolutely,” I said. “I’ll let you know that night how much I’ll be able to afford,” I told him.

 

“What if there are multiple guys bidding? Should I bid against them all?”

 

“I doubt that’ll happen,” I said.

 

“Oh please, I know you’ve seen you. You own a mirror, right? Besides, I was witness to the droves of men who lined up to date you in college.”

 

“Shut up,” I said. Yes, I knew that men found me attractive. I didn’t ever hurt for a date if I wanted one. But, I was also mature enough these days to know that there was so much more to me than that, and I wanted a man who would appreciate all of me. The thing about being twenty-six was that as much as I loved to have fun, I was beginning to think about settling down. I wasn’t sure who I was looking for, but I’m sure when I do meet him, I’ll know. Until then, I wasn’t willing to get myself in a position where I’d miss “Him” when he showed up. I’d rather spend my Friday babysitting the twins than giving some poor guy false hope.

 

The time flew by and on the morning of the auction I stopped by and gave John the money I could afford for him to bid on me.

 

“Wow, this is a good deal of money,” he said.

 

“I have an account that I put money into all year for Christmas charities. I just love Christmas so much. I enjoy knowing that my money helps make someone else’s better. This year, it will all go to the kids I guess. That’s okay though, I’m sure they will put it to good use.”

 

“Okay,” he’d said with a grin and fanning the money, “Get prepared for dirty diapers and a lot of spitting up.” I didn’t know much about kids, but I knew that I’d be able to figure it out. John’s twins were three months old, a boy and a girl. As much work as I knew they‘d be to take care of, I also knew it was going to be a fun, rewarding experience. I was looking forward to the challenge.

 

After I left John and Phyllis’s house I went to work for a few hours. I took off early and went shopping for something new to wear to the auction. I spent too much time wandering around the mall. The Christmas decorations and lights were up and the smell of pine and cinnamon wafted around as soft Christmas music played in the background. I stopped and watched as the children lined up to see Santa Claus. Watching them made me happy and reminded me of how, when I was small, my parents would always take me to see him on the first day of December. My mom would dress me up pretty in my Christmas clothes and my dad would enthusiastically snap photos as Santa and I went through my list. Then at the end when Santa asked, “Have you been a good girl this year?” My daddy would look at me with so much pride in his face.

 

“She’s the best.”

 

I wasn’t in a hurry to have kids, but I’d really love to someday. I fantasized about what it would be like when I was the one to take them to see Santa Claus.

 

After a while I finally realized if I didn’t get home soon, I wouldn’t have time to get ready. I forced myself to leave the Christmassy atmosphere and went home to my apartment that I’d begun transforming for the season just this week. I didn’t have my tree yet to put the final touches on, but the rest of the place looked, smelled, and if you stuck a hand in the candy bowls, even tasted like Christmas.

 

I took out the pretty new dress I’d bought today and looked at it. I wasn’t a girl who liked to go with the latest fashions. I was always looking for something that would make me stand out from the crowd. Today, I found the cutest 1950’s retro blue, green and black plaid Audrey Hepburn style dress. It was sleeveless, so it was marked 50% off too. I had a blue sweater that matched it perfectly and a blue pair of heels, so the only other thing I bought to go with it was a little petticoat that made the skirt flare out. When I put it on I felt soft and feminine.

 

I curled my hair in long, soft curls and applied my make-up carefully. When I was ready, I took a final glance in the mirror and decided I should at least be worth a couple of hundred bucks.

 

The auction was being held at a hotel in town that was also owned by Winters Inc. The company seemed to dabble in almost everything and from what I’d heard; Mr. Winters had founded it on his own with very little capital. Of course, what he considered a small amount of money to someone else could be a large one.

 

I found the ball room and was surprised to see how many people were already there. Gary spotted me and waved eagerly. I waved back, nervously scanning the room for John. I finally spotted him sitting right up front. Good boy! I knew I could count on him. I felt much better.

 

They called those of us who would be auctioned off to the back and we waited together in a nice little room that they had set up a table full of drinks and snacks in. Max brought a deck of cards, knowing from experience how long the wait could be. I was second to last on the list and Max was last, so we entertained ourselves with raucous hands of “go fish” and “21.” Max could be loud and crass sometimes, but he was a lot of fun. His personality had scared off the last woman in my position with marketing I was told. I was okay though; I didn’t scare easily at all.

 

I could hear some of what was going on out front and I was both surprised and happy to find out that I worked with some really generous people. Some of my co-workers were going for over five hundred dollars. It did make me worry that maybe I hadn’t given John enough cash. He had five hundred, but in my mind I thought the bidding would be stopping around three. There was nothing much I could do at this point other than hold my breath, cross my fingers and hope for the best. I didn’t know Gary’s financial situation, but I doubted he could afford to throw away five hundred bucks.

 

When it was my turn Max winked at me and said, “Knock ‘em dead kid.” I wasn’t shy about being the center of attention; thanks to my parents who put me in every sport I was interested in including dance and gymnastics while I was growing up. I stood on the stage and waved at a few of my friends in the audience. The auctioneer told the audience my name and what department I worked in and then he started the bidding at a hundred dollars. I was literally shocked to see about eight hands go up. Gary had moved to the front and he and John were on opposite sides of the stage. The other six or so men were scattered throughout the audience.

 

The auctioneer took the bidding up to two hundred dollars and then three before a couple of the men dropped out. At four it was John, Gary and another man that I thought may have worked with John in production. When it went up to five, Gary and John were all that was left. I knew that was all John had… I thought I was doomed to spend a day doing Gary’s bidding until I suddenly saw a hand go up in the back and heard a smooth, masculine voice say, “Six hundred.”

 

“Six fifty,” Gary said, smugly.

 

“Eight hundred,” the man at the back called out. Gary was so close to the stage that I could see his face. I felt bad for him actually, he looked distressed. I hoped he wasn’t going to bid so much that he wasn’t able to afford it.

 

“Eight-fifty,” I heard Gary say. The man in the back smoothly countered.

 

“One thousand dollars.” Gary’s face did nothing to hide his emotions. He was sunk and he was not happy about it. The auctioneer asked if he heard ten fifty before wrapping up the bidding.

 

“Going once at a thousand, going twice, sold for one thousand dollars.”

 

I was flabbergasted that someone had paid that much money to spend the day with me. I could see John’s face as I climbed down off the stage and it said, “I told you so.”

 

I went over to see him first and he said, “I told you there’d be a battle over you.”

 

Smiling I replied, “I was a little nervous there for a minute. Gary came close.”

 

“Who was that who out-bid me?” John asked.

 

“He was too far back and the lights were in my eyes so I couldn’t see him. I was hoping you knew.”

 

“Nope, I was too intent up here on doing my job,” he said with a grin. “I didn’t recognize the voice as anyone I know though.”

 

“Well, thank you for trying.” I gave him a kiss on the cheek and he handed me back the five hundred dollars I’d given him. I tucked it away to now be used for what I’d originally intended, thanked him again and headed to the back to see if I could catch my new employer-for-a-day.

 

I didn’t know who to look for or who to ask, so I went to the table where they marked down who bought who and for how much.

 

“Excuse me, can you tell me who it was who won my auction? I’d like to thank him,” I said.

 

The lady at the table’s name was Janice. I’d met her at a few meetings and knew she was Mr. Winters’ assistant. She smiled and said, “I’m sorry sweetie; he very generously requested we keep it a secret for now. He’ll contact you.”

 

“He paid you not to tell me?”

 

“He didn’t pay me. He gave an extra thousand for the charity though with that request.”

 

Wow, this man just laid down two thousand dollars for me. Who in the world was he?

 

 

[~
**
CHAPTER THREE]

 

~

 

 

 

ROBYN

 

 

I went home that night and had trouble sleeping as my mind combed through every male employee I’d met since beginning at Winters Inc. It was a huge corporation and our offices alone had eighteen different divisions. We worked in a ten story building in Manhattan and so far, I hadn’t had a need to go above the sixth floor. That meant even if I had met everyone on the first six floors which I strongly doubted, there were four more floors of mystery. Well, actually only three. The top floor was reserved for the offices of Mr. Winters himself, so I don’t think that one counted. I doubted the man himself showed up for silly things like that. Besides, he already employed us all, he didn’t have to pay for one of us to work for him for a day.

 

I finally took a long, hot bubble bath and drank some tea and by one or two a.m. I at last fell asleep. It seemed like only minutes later I was awakened by an annoying ringing sound. I couldn’t open my eyes at first; I just lay there and wished it would stop. When I realized it was the phone, my thoughts jumped to discovering the identity of my mystery man. I was suddenly awake and alert. I picked up the phone and said hello. I wasn’t disappointed.

 

“Hello, is this Robin?” It was the same silky, masculine voice that I’d heard bidding for me last night.

 

“Yes it is. Who is this?”

 

“I’m the one who bought you for the day.”

 

“Don’t I get to know your name?”

 

“Not just yet,” he said. I wondered what all the mystery was about. “I have my chauffeur on his way to your apartment. He’ll be dropping off a costume for you soon.”

 

Oh great, a kinky one, I thought. But then he went on to say, ‘He will also have a car full of presents which you will drop off, in costume at the local orphanages and elder care homes. The driver will know where to take you and the presents are wrapped, but marked with the appropriate place to drop them off.”

 

“That sounds like fun!” I said, “I love Christmas!”

 

He didn’t respond to that. Instead, he said, “When you finish that task, you’ll be contacted again with further instructions.”

 

“Sounds like a plan!” I told him, excitedly. I was looking forward to the day, and hopefully to finally meeting him later on. He must be a really generous man to hand out presents all over town, and I just couldn’t get that voice out of my head. As I was pondering it all, my doorbell rang. I opened the door to an older man in a chauffer’s uniform, holding a box.

 

“Miss Hurst?”

 

“Yes,” I told him. “But please call me Robyn.”

 

He smiled slightly and said, “I’m Jeffrey. This box has the costume for you to wear and I’ll be downstairs waiting with the car when you’re ready.”

 

“Okay… hey Jeffrey, who sent the costume?”

 

This time he smiled outright and said, “That’s not for me to say, Miss.” He tipped his hat at me and turned and left. I shook my head and carried the box inside. I sat it down on the couch and pulled off the ribbon that held it together. When I slipped off the lid I was surprised to find a green and red elf costume inside. It was a green, sparkly dress that came to about mid-thigh with red fur trim around the neckline and sleeves. There were slippers with pointed toes and silver bells attached to them and even a hat to match the dress with pointed ears sewn on. I was ecstatic! I loved stuff like this. This was what Christmas was about.

 

I got ready as quickly as I could; knowing Jeffrey was waiting for me. When I finished dressing I looked in the mirror to see the perfect reflection of an elf. I was tickled and looking forward to this a lot. I grabbed my bag and keys and headed down to meet Jeffrey. He was standing next to the car and when he saw me, an amused expression lit up his face. He opened the back door of the giant limousine for me and as I slid in on the supple leather seat he said, “You look fabulous, Miss.”

 

“Why thank you, Jeffrey. I feel fabulous.”

 

He closed the door and went around to his side. There was a partition between us that I assumed was for privacy, but I didn’t need any and the car was so big, I felt lonely in the back all alone. I tapped on the window and Jeffrey lowered it a few inches.

 

“Did you need something, Miss?”

 

“It’s just lonely back here, Jeffrey. Can we leave the partition down?” He smiled and lowered it the rest of the way. That felt better to me, I could breathe, and Jeffrey and I could talk.

 

The first place we stopped was a home ran by social services where kids who came into the system were sent while they awaited a spot at a foster home, or court with mom and dad, or adoption. It was a large, three story Victorian home that had been converted. Jeffrey told me they knew we were coming and should be ready for us. I knocked and was let in by a plump middle aged woman whose red dress and dark red cheeks reminded me of Mrs. Claus. She introduced herself as the “headmistress” of the house, Mrs. Grover. She led me and Jeffrey who was carrying a large sack and an armload of packages behind me into a big open room with a Christmas tree in the center and about twenty small children gathered around it in a circle.

 

“Hi! I’m Robbie the elf!” I had made up the “Robbie” at the last minute. I thought it sounded more elf-like than Robyn.

 

“Hi Robbie!” came the resounding reply from twenty small voices.

 

“Santa Claus is extra busy this year. He asked that I come by and deliver some gifts to you because you’ve all been so good.” One of the little girls in the front row raised her hand. She was about four years old. Her hair was blonde and had two pigtails. The dress she wore was worn, but her face was scrubbed clean and she looked healthy. “Yes?” I said, looking at her.

 

“Brady hasn’t been good. He pulls my hair.”

 

I tried to keep a straight face as I said, “Well, Santa Claus must have seen him doing something nice to make up for it, because he was on the nice list.”

 

“He did give me his extra pancake at breakfast,” she said.

 

I smiled then and said, “That must have been it.”

 

Jeffrey helped me and we handed out presents marked “Male” to the boys and “Female” to the girls. When all the gifts had been handed out, we also gave them little bags of Christmas cookies that looked homemade. When we left, they all had smiles on their faces and my heart felt full and happy. We traveled the city for the next few hours spreading the same kind of joy. After the first couple of stops, the formerly stoic chauffeur was smiling from ear to ear and laughing at all my jokes.

 

Carrying the packages in and passing them out was no small task and I began to wonder if my mystery boss was afflicted somehow and that’s why he’d hired me to do this. He was definitely a wealthy, generous man. The kids were getting toys and clothing that kids in two-parent homes may not have been able to get because of the expense and the elderly were receiving robes and slippers and for some of the men, boxes of cigars that I know didn’t come cheap. I’d tried to prod information out of Jeffrey along the way, but he wasn’t forthcoming with any.

On the way to one of our stops, I said, “I know you can’t tell me who this man is, but can you answer just a question or two about him?”

 

“Hmm, that would depend on the question, I believe,” he said with a grin.

 

“Is he always so generous, or only at Christmas time?”

 

“He’s a very generous employer throughout the year,” Jeffrey said. “He does always give quite a bit to the community during the holidays.”

 

“Why doesn’t he take the presents out himself?” I asked. Jeffrey looked sad.

 

“Christmas is a time of year that our boss doesn’t care for. He avoids Christmas and everything he can that goes along with it. He wants to give back to the community however and this is a way he can do that. He usually just hires people to deliver them. I like this idea better.”

 

I had a hard time imagining anyone who didn’t like Christmas. Christmas was literally my favorite time. I enjoyed it when I was a child even more than my birthday.

 

“Why doesn’t he like Christmas?” I asked him.

 

Jeffrey chuckled and said, “You’ll have to ask him that yourself when you meet him.”

 

“What should I call him when we meet?”

 

He laughed outright again and said, “Tricky Miss Robyn, but I’m not falling for it.”

 

We took care of our last stop, a residential care facility for the elderly. More than one of the old ladies and even one old man got tears in their eyes when they received their gifts. I was touched to see that my secret employer had also thought about the elderly who weren’t able to intake sugar because of a medical condition. He’d sent sugarless snacks that looked as appetizing as the sugared ones.

 

I realized after we left the care home how tired I was. I also realized that it was after one o’clock and neither Jeffrey nor I had lunch yet. I was about to ask him about it when the car phone rang. Jeffrey put it on speaker and I heard my mystery man’s beautiful voice float out.

 

“Hello Robyn, how is the day going?”

 

“It’s been so much fun,” I told him, sincerely.

 

“Good,” he said, sounding amused. “And how did you like the costume?”

 

“Loved it!” I said.

 

“Really? That’s great,” he said, sounding surprised. I could tell that he found it strange and amusing that I hadn’t been embarrassed to dress like an elf. “How would you like to go to the offices and hand out the presents to each department in full costume?”

 

“I’d love to,” I told him, “You must be one of the executives…” He didn’t answer that. I was fishing, I hadn’t expected him to. But then I said, “Just as long as I can have lunch first.”

 

“Oh my goodness, I’m sorry,” he said, actually sounding remorseful. “I should have thought about lunch. I suppose you could have Jeffrey go in and get it.”

 

“Why couldn’t I go get it?” I asked.

 

“I was just thinking of you. You’re still in costume, correct?”

 

“Yeah, but I don’t see the problem. I like the costume and it fits very nicely.” He was obviously not one of my friends or close acquaintances or he would know that I loved to have fun and very little embarrassed me.

 

He chuckled, but I could tell he found it odd. “Okay then, have Jeffrey take you out to lunch. On me, anywhere you’d like to go. Then he’ll take you to the offices.”

 

“That sounds perfect,” I told him. “And when do I get to see you?”

 

“Have fun Robyn,” he said, and then he hung up.

 

I could see Jeffrey’s face in the mirror, he was smirking. “What’s so funny?” I asked him.

 

“Nothing, Miss.”

 

***

 

 

 

After much cajoling, I convinced Jeffrey to join me for lunch at a nice steakhouse. He’d wanted to wait for me at the car. He seemed a little uncomfortable about it as we were walking in and I asked, “Are you embarrassed to be seen with an elf in public?”

 

He smiled and said, “No miss, but I was thinking about what a picture an elf having lunch with a chauffeur might present.” I laughed.

 

“I hadn’t thought of that, we’ll have to ask our waiter to take a picture of us. Everyone at work will love it.” Jeffrey just shook his head and followed me inside. I think he was as surprised as our mutual employer for the day that I wasn’t uncomfortable at all in the outfit.

 

We enjoyed our lunch, Jeffrey told me about growing up in the U.K. and that he’d met his employer just after coming to the States for his mother’s funeral. He’d had to stay in New York to care for his ailing father and when Jeffrey told him his predicament, the man had hired him on the spot. He’d also helped Jeffrey obtain his work visa and eventually his citizenship.

 

“He sounds like a wonderful man this Mr…?”

 

Jeffrey actually stuck his tongue out at me. It cracked me up because I’d be willing to bet he hadn’t done that since he was five. He said, “When will you figure out that you can’t trick an old English chauffeur like me?”

 

“I’m persistent like that,” I told him.

 

I felt so much better after lunch, my energy was renewed. I was wondering if I’d ever get to meet this man or not as it would already be almost the end of the workday when we finished at the office. I wondered what he looked like and if he was as handsome as his voice sounded. I hoped that I’d get the opportunity to meet him and find out first hand.

 

Jeffrey drove us to the offices of Winters Inc. and I set about my task delivering the gift baskets to each department. Jeffrey followed along behind me and I showed everyone the picture of Jeffrey and I having lunch and took a few orders that I promised to take straight back to Santa Claus. It had a great time and was starting to think I’d like to add something like this to my yearly Christmas

Traditions. I had some of my own already that I’d been putting into practice since I was a kid. No one that knew me seemed the least bit surprised that I was dressed like an elf, and the rest of the staff found it amusing. I ran across Gary when I was in the building and looking me over he said, “Who was it that beat me out last night?”

 

“I have no idea,” I told him.

 

“Really?” he asked, suspiciously.

 

“Really, I haven’t met him; I’ve only spoken with him on the telephone.”

 

“Hmm, the guy is obviously loaded,” he said. “It would have to be someone from upstairs.”

 

I shrugged, “I don’t know. He’s generous, that’s for sure. I better get back to my task.” I could feel Gary watching me until I was out of his sight. Sighing, I wondered if he would ever give up.

 

I finished handing out the gifts at work and Jeffrey drove me home. When he opened the car door for me he had another package, similar to the one he’d given me this morning in his hand.

 

“What’s this? A present for me?” I asked, like a child on Christmas morning. I’d always rather give gifts out, but everyone likes one of their own sometimes. Jeffrey smiled.

 

“I think whatever it is; you deserve it for your hard work today.” I surprised him, not for the first time that day, by giving him a hug. I really liked the old guy and because of him my day had been more enjoyable.

 

“You worked just as hard. Thank you, Jeffrey.”

 

“You’re very welcome, Miss Robyn.”

 

I carried the box up to my apartment and I was about to open it when my phone rang.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Hello Robyn, how did things go at the office?” It was him, the mystery caller. My belly fluttered just at the sound of his voice.

 

“Spectacular,” I told him. “Everyone was so pleased with their gifts.”

 

“Good, Jeffrey said you should be commended for the job you did today. So, I commend you. Thank you for taking care of all of that for me.”

 

“You’re welcome, I enjoyed myself. I hope Jeffrey will also be commended. He’s great.”

 

“He will be. I’d like to take you out to dinner as a reward for a job well done if you don’t have an objection to joining me?”

 

“I’d love to,” I said. Not only did I believe I deserved a treat after my long day, I was so excited about meeting him. I was really hoping that he was as beautiful as his voice.

 

“Great. We have reservations at a very exclusive restaurant in Manhattan. Put on the outfit I sent for you and I’ll send Jeffrey around to pick you up at eight.”

 

“Okay, I’ll see you then,” I told him, before hanging up. Finally, I pulled open the box. Inside was a cornflower blue silk dress. It had a designer label that I recognized. It was a very expensive dress. It had probably cost him over a thousand dollars. It was beautiful and when I slipped it out of the box, I realized there was a lovely matching scarf, stockings and shoes.

 

I took it into my bedroom and held it up to me in front of the mirror. It was the exact shade of blue as my eyes, and the soft material of the dress would cling to all of my curves, no doubt. I wondered if this man had matched my eyes on purpose. Did he actually go shopping for it himself, or did he hire someone to do that? I looked at the size of both the dress and the shoes… both perfect. Who was this man? How could he possibly know my shoe size of all things? I looked back at the dress and realized suddenly that the only thing that had bothered me about him all day was that he didn’t trust I had enough sense and taste to dress myself for a night out. I loved it, but it wasn’t me. I was never one to be anything or anyone other than myself. I got an idea then… it was a terrible, awful idea…

CHAPTER FOUR

 

~

 

 

ROBYN

 

 

I really did like the dress a lot, but the fact he’d told me to wear it was nagging at me. Since I was in kindergarten, I had my own sense of style. I used to drive my mother crazy with some of my choices. I choose my clothes because I like them and I’m comfortable in them. I wear what’s appropriate for the occasion, but rarely what everyone else would be wearing. Designer labels didn’t impress me either. I’d found dresses at second-hand stores that were just as nice.

 

When he simply said, “Put on the outfit I sent you,” that was when the idea came to me. My mystery man had sent me two outfits today. He told me to wear the one he sent, but he hadn’t specifically said which one. It made sense to me that he couldn’t really be offended if I happened to wear the wrong one then, right? I took a bubble bath while I considered it. By the time I stepped out and wrapped myself in a towel, I’d come to a firm decision. I was wearing the elf outfit. If he was offended… oh well, what had I really lost?

 

As I fixed my hair and did my make-up I thought about what he’d said about going to an “exclusive” restaurant. I decided that I’d take the dress with me and I would change after I played a little trick on him. There was no harm in a little fun. I didn’t know if they had a dress code though and I may get asked to leave. This way I would have the dress to change into.

 

My hair and make-up were ready for a night out. I put on the elf dress with the shoes that went with the dress and then slipped the elf slippers over them. I wore a pair of diamond stud earrings that my parents had given me when I graduated high school, they were my favorite pair, and I’d always thought they’d brought me good luck.

 

I chose a delicate silver chain that would complement the dress and after I put it on, I tucked it inside my elf suit. Jeffrey arrived right on time, and when I opened the door and saw his face, I wished I’d had my camera at the ready.

 

“Um, Miss Robyn… did you open the other box?” The poor guy looked like he was about to pop a blood vessel in his head.

 

“I did, I like this one better,” I said, as I slipped on my black trench coat.

 

“Oh, well…” I couldn’t keep a straight face. Jeffrey looked relieved when he realized I was laughing. “Oh, it’s just a joke, thank goodness,” he said.

 

“It’s a joke on your boss, Jeffrey. I am wearing this to dinner.”

 

“Oh, I don’t think… I’m not sure you should… well he’s kind of…”

 

“Serious?” I finished for him.

 

“Yes miss, he’s very serious. I don’t think he’ll be pleased.”

 

“Too bad,” I told him with a wink. “It sounds like he needs to learn to loosen up a bit.” Jeffrey didn’t say any more about it, but I could tell it made him anxious that I was going through with this. I couldn’t imagine a man so generous that didn’t at least appreciate a little humor. Besides, he wasn’t really my boss. What was he going to do?

 

When Jeffrey drove the limousine up in front of the restaurant, I almost lost my nerve. When he’d said exclusive, I had no idea he was talking about Per Se. It was THE most exclusive restaurant in New York and if he didn’t own his own table here, then he’d made these reservations either weeks or months ago. When Jeffrey helped me out of the car he raised an eyebrow.

 

“You’re sure about this miss?” he asked.

 

I looked back at the fancy restaurant and all of the fancy people going inside and I suddenly realized that I was sure. If this man couldn’t take a joke, what have I lost? A fancy dinner? I’d obviously not met him after nine months of working at Winters Inc.; I’d likely not see him too frequently after this. He probably works somewhere up near the top like everyone seems to think, judging from the fact that he was obviously wealthy so I doubted we’d have to mix and mingle much. I was going for it; I thought it would be fun.

 

“I’m sure,” I told Jeffrey with a deep breath and a confident smile.

 

“Good luck then,” he said, as if I were headed to the gallows.

 

“Oh, who should I ask for?”

 

“Just ask for Aaron,” Jeffrey told me.

 

“Thanks, Jeffrey. I enjoyed my day with you.”

 

“And mine with you,” he said. He tipped his hat at me and I went inside. “Good luck,” he said again.

 

I walked into this beautiful restaurant, very serene and intimate with wide open, and I have to say, spectacular views of Central Park and Columbus Circle, in my elf costume. Granted at this point I still had on my coat, but I wasn’t the least bit worried about taking it off. It was gorgeous, but everyone in the place including the staff looked like they could use a little Christmas in their lives. The only way I could describe them all was just way too serious.

 

“Hello ma’am, can I help you?” the beautiful, soft spoken woman at the counter asked me.

 

I matched her whispered tone and said, “Yes, I was supposed to ask for Aaron.”

 

“Of course,” she said. “May I check your coat?” It was the moment of reckoning. As I slipped off my coat and handed it to her I watched the change in her facial expression. It wasn’t the least bit subtle and I wouldn’t say she was the least bit amused.

 

“Thank you,” I told her as I handed my coat over. I’d often heard the word “gaping” used, but I don’t believe I’d ever actually seen anyone “gape” before. She was definitely gaping at my outfit. Had it not been a joke, I may have been offended. Actually, since she didn’t know it was a joke, I was a little bit offended.

 

She swallowed hard and said, “Follow me, please.” I did as she asked slipping the hat that went with the costume out of my purse and onto my head as we walked across the crowded restaurant. All eyes were on me and I made a point of making eye-contact with a few of the appalled looking patrons and smiling. It was a hilarious experience. The serious little dinners they were having in their designer clothes were suddenly interrupted, by an elf. Some of them looked as if they thought it was the end of the world. People needed to learn how to have more fun. As she led me to a table in a far corner of the room right next to one of the big windows, I finally saw him. My confidence waned a bit when I realized my mystery man was the gorgeous man I’d seen get off the elevator that one day, and I hadn’t been able to get him out of my mind since. At least I knew now that his voice matched his looks. He was looking at me with a controlled expression. I had no idea what he was thinking. The hostess turned towards me and her gape turned into pure shock when she realized I’d put on the hat. She turned back to my “date” that had stood up to greet me like a perfect gentleman.

 

“Mr. Winters, is there anything else you need?” she asked. When I thought about it later, I decided that she’d been wondering if I was a crazy person and perhaps she should have me shown out. But at that moment all I heard was “Mr. Winters.” It was echoing inside my head. This was Aaron Winters, CEO of Winters Inc. He was a billionaire business mogul… and he was my employer, my real employer.

 

“Everything is fine, thank you Shelby.” That was the voice, it was definitely him. Oh geez, I wondered, what have I done?

 

When the hostess was gone, Aaron looked me over and I could at last see an expression in his eyes. It was confusion. He was wondering what I was doing and at that moment I was sure that Jeffrey had been right, he wasn’t pleased.

 

“Hello Robyn,” he said, obviously ever the gentleman.

 

“Hello… Mr. Winters,” I said as he pulled out my chair.

 

“You can call me Aaron,” he said. He pushed my chair in and went back around to take his own. He kept staring at me as if he didn’t know what to say. I may have been staring as well. First, I was shocked at whom he was and second …he was drop dead gorgeous. I swear Adonis didn’t even come close to describing this man. I hate to use the word “perfect” but there was no other description for him.

 

“Would you like a glass of wine?” he asked.

 

“Sure, I’d love some wine,” I told him. He picked up the bottle out of the brass canister it was chilling in and poured us each a glass of white wine. My mouth was completely dry and I picked it up and took a sip… it was almost as dry as me. Aaron still hadn’t cracked a smile and the butterflies in my stomach had grown into pterodactyls. I finally just blurted out what was on my mind.

 

“I was playing a joke,” he still looked confused, but he offered me a weak smile and a soft chuckle. “I was hoping you would think it was funny.”

 

He looked around at the others in the restaurant before speaking.

 

“It’s just a little… uncomfortable, all the attention. You definitely stand out in here.”

 

I glanced around too. He was right; we were getting a lot of strange looks. It wouldn’t have bothered me, but it obviously did bother him. For some reason, I wished that he would lighten up, just a little bit. I finally gave in however, mostly because he was my boss. Besides, I was hoping if he was more comfortable he would relax and we could get to know each other.

 

“I brought the other dress,” I told him. “I can change if you’d like.”

 

“I’d like that, yes,” was all he said.

 

I was unfazed by the stares of the other patrons as I walked across the restaurant once more. The only thing I was feeling was disappointed that this beautiful, brilliant man didn’t seem to have any humor at all. I thought that humor was one of the most important things in life. Some days, mine was all that had gotten me through. I considered walking out and just going home for a fraction of a second, after all, this wasn’t a real date. But he was Aaron Winters, and he was beautiful and no matter what that said about me, it was enough to make me want to stay and give him another shot.

 

I quickly changed in the restroom and ran my fingers through my hair. I reapplied my lipstick while I was there and then I stuffed the elf costume into my bag and headed back out to our table. I watched the expressions change again as I walked back by, but none more so than my “date’s.”

 

Aaron stood up when I was about three feet from the table. This time his expression was easy to read. He was pleased with what he saw… very pleased. He pulled my chair out for me again and once he’d taken his seat again he said, “You look stunning.”

 

I smiled, “Thank you, and thank you for the outfit. It’s beautiful, just not quite what I might pick for myself.”

 

“It looks like it was made for you,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you have picked it?”

 

“I’m just not one to go along with the “norms” of society as I’m sure you can tell by the fact that I wore an elf costume to dinner.” I was smiling, he was still not. He was looking at me like he was trying to figure me out. It shouldn’t have been that hard. I was just a girl who enjoyed having fun. Aaron wasn’t looking like fun was something he did often to me.

 

I was saved from Aaron’s gaze by the waiter who came to take our order, until I realized that I hadn’t even looked at the menu. Aaron asked me if I minded if he ordered for me or if it would be like the dress and I’d pull a hamburger out of my handbag. He was making an attempt at humor and I felt encouraged suddenly, and strangely… proud of him. He at least possessed a sarcastic wit.

 

“You go ahead,” I told him. “I’ll eat pretty much anything.”

 

I listened as he told the waiter we would both like to have the Charcoal grilled Miyazaki wagyu. I had no idea what that was so I quickly glanced at my menu. It offered no explanations. It just said that it came with, “Salsify Dauphinois, Bluefoot Mushrooms, Arrow leaf Spinach and ‘Sauce Bordelaise,’” and that it was a hundred and twenty five dollars a plate. So as not to embarrass him, I waited for the waiter to leave before I asked my next question.

 

“At the risk of sounding like an ignorant diner… what did you just order for me?” The corners of his mouth twitched. My outfit didn’t amuse him but my ignorance of fancy dishes apparently did.

 

“It’s Japanese black beef with a side of potatoes and the salsify is a European root vegetable. It’s very tasty the way they prepare it here. I’m sure the rest you recognized.”

 

I appreciated that he didn’t find me ignorant enough to explain spinach and mushrooms to me.

 

“Thank you,” I said. “That does sound good.”

 

We made small talk about my day and my experiences with the kids and the elderly while we waited for our meals. The only time he seemed bothered by my chatter was when I veered off into how much I loved Christmas, or things I liked to do myself. Then he would shut down and I’d have to think of a way to start the whole conversation all over again. Jeffrey had been right, this man did not like Christmas.

 

When dinner arrived, I couldn’t deny that it looked delicious on the plate and my assessment was confirmed with the first bite. The portions were small, but everything was so rich and satisfying that you didn’t need a lot of it to be completely satiated. We were about halfway through our meal when we hit a lull in our conversation. I hadn’t meant to pry, but suddenly I heard myself asking, “I was wondering what it was about Christmas that you didn’t like?”

 

He raised an eyebrow. He does that a lot. He paused for a long minute and then said, “How do you know that I don’t like Christmas?”

 

“I asked Jeffrey why you didn’t hand out the gifts yourself. They’re so generous. That’s all he told me, was that you didn’t really care for the season.”

 

He looked like he was thinking of how to phrase it.

 

“I’m just cynical, I guess. It’s so commercialized these days.”

 

I had to admit that was true about it being commercialized but I said, “I don’t worry about what society thinks of it, kind of like I don’t worry about what they think of me. When I was a little girl I saw “A Christmas Carol.” My favorite line, even then was when Ebenezer Scrooge said, “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” I try to live by that as much as I can.”

 

I wished that I could read his looks. If I had to chance a guess I’d say that he was trying to decide if he believed me or not. It was true, I had no one to impress but myself. I loved Christmas, but I didn’t stop there. I loved being alive and every morning, rain or shine, I started the day by reminding myself of that fact.

 

“Does your family celebrate Christmas?” I asked him.

Instead of really answering my question, he said, “I go away every year at Christmas time. I go to one of the Islands, some place warm. I leave on Christmas Eve and come back a few days later. I’d go earlier but I feel it prudent that I attend the company holiday party. I don’t care for the cold either.”

 

“Prudent, huh?” I asked with a half-smile. “Some people look forward to the holiday party all year. You don’t find it fun at all?”

 

“Not really,” he said, simply. “What about you? How will you be spending your holidays?”

 

I thought about opening up to him, but I didn’t think he’d understand since he was so unwilling to open up to me. I simply said, “With my family, of course.”

 

After dinner we shared a piece of the best cheesecake in the whole wide world. By the end of the night I was torn by my feelings for him. He was gracious and charming and I’d found out earlier today… very generous. But, he was also so serious about everything it seemed, even Christmas. He didn’t even smile at the cheesecake. The other thing was that I could definitely stare at him all day and all night. He was the most desirable man I’d ever laid eyes on even when he was being serious. When he relaxed just a tiny bit and smiled… I felt my insides melting.

CHAPTER FIVE

 

~

 

 

 

AARON

 

 

I looked across the table at this woman that I didn’t know enough to say hello to in an elevator a couple of weeks ago but now suddenly found myself completely enchanted with. She was like no other woman I’d ever met. She kept bringing up Christmas which both frustrated the hell out of me and intrigued me. It frustrated me because I’d given it up so long ago and never looked back. She was trying to get me to question that. Of course she didn’t know why I’d given it up, but I had a feeling this woman would say that I had handled it wrong. If anyone else told me that I’d tell them to go to hell, but somehow as I looked into Robyn’s pretty blue eyes I knew I would never tell her that. I got the impression she wasn’t just being nosy when she asked why I didn’t like Christmas… she truly loved it that much and couldn’t fathom why anyone else would not.

 

The thing I liked most about her, beyond her beauty… was the fact that she was blindsided by her boss; the CEO of the company she worked for was her date and she didn’t seem the slightest bit intimidated. She hadn’t tried to kiss up to me or cowl down to me, she’d treated me like any other human being and that, I appreciated tremendously.

 

“So what about eggnog?” she asked. She wouldn’t let up on the Christmas kick. She was trying to insist that there was something I liked about Christmas, no matter how much I insisted there wasn’t.

 

“I don’t care for it,” I said.

 

“Peppermint candy canes?”

 

“I’ve never had one.”

 

“The smell of pine?”

 

“My housekeeper uses pine-sol.” She wrinkled her nose and made a face at me when I said that. It made me laugh, in spite of myself.

 

“Think of it this way Robyn, you’ve read Dr. Seuss, right?”

 

She seemed amused that I would be considering quoting Dr. Seuss but she said, “Of course, everyone has.”

 

“Christmas is like green eggs and ham to me. I don’t like it here nor there, I don’t like it anywhere.”

 

She laughed and said, “I’d be willing to bet that’s the oddest analogy a brilliant CEO has ever come up with for anything.”

 

“You’d be surprised,” I told her. “Besides, I’ve been more lucky than brilliant I’m afraid.”

 

“I doubt that,” she said. “Winters Inc. is a conglomerate because you made it that way. It takes a lot more than luck to do that. Maybe you got lucky in the family department and one of them was willing to finance the start-up, but I suspect you took it from there.”

 

“I got a small inheritance when I was twenty-one. That’s what I used as my start up capitol.”

“And eight years later your company is a household name. What about when you were a boy, didn’t you believe in Santa Claus and all that?”

 

“Of course I did,” I replied.

 

“So, what happened?”

“I realized he was a fraud, like everyone else did.” The sentence came out more bitterly than I’d intended, and I could see from Robyn’s expression that she wanted to know more. Thankfully, she refrained, and for a moment I thought I could see a trace of pity… or was it sadness in her eyes.

 

“Are you ready to go or would you like more coffee?” She made a face at me again. I knew she wanted me to open up more, but it was a subject I didn’t care to talk about with anyone.

 

“I’m ready,” she said.

 

We picked up our coats on our way out and I walked her to the limousine.

 

“I’ve got it, Jeffrey,” I told him. He got in behind the wheel and closed his door. I looked at Robyn in the moonlight and I was overcome with an urge to kiss her. I didn’t know what it was about this woman, but she’d definitely gotten under my skin. From the day I’d seen her getting on the elevator I had been thinking about her. I asked Max and he told me who she was and then I’d seen her name on the auction list. We’d been doing the auction for five years and I’d never bid before. It didn’t seem like the sort of thing a CEO should do. That night I went there on impulse, and even more impulsively I began to bid. I felt like I had to have her, if only for a day.

 

Once I had her, I hadn’t known what to do with her. It wasn’t that I didn’t have a fantasy list, but that would never do on a first date and with an employee to boot. I had made the false assumption that she’d be intimidated by me, so I set up the whole costume and delivering presents first to get a feel of what kind of person she was. Jeffrey had checked in with me periodically and had nothing but glowing reviews. They had bonded right away and here I was a little afraid that now after our dinner conversation, that she would think of me as a Scrooge and not want to see me again. It was a new experience for me that someone liked my chauffeur better than they liked me.

 

“I had fun, Aaron. It was a great day all the way around. Thank you for everything,” she said.

 

“I had a good time too, thank you, Robyn.”

 

I didn’t kiss her; it was too soon no matter how badly I wanted to. I watched her get into the car and I closed the door behind her. Suddenly her window came down and she said, “Aaron?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“I was thinking. It’s such a shame that you haven’t done anything festive in years. There’s a lot more to the Christmas season than presents and parties you know. You just need to explore it a little further. I was wondering if you might do me a favor.”

 

I was very interested to find out what kind of favor she might want from me. I didn’t want to commit to anything without hearing what it was however.

 

“What kind of favor do you need?”

 

“I’d really like to help you enjoy the season this year, if you’ll just give me a chance. Maybe I could have you for a day, the way you did me today?”

 

I was tempted to laugh. Instead of angering me like it would if someone else harassed me about Christmas, she amused me. I decided that one day couldn’t hurt anything. I didn’t have to enjoy it after all. I doubted that I’d enjoy any of it except for spending the day with this beautiful creature that I didn’t understand at all, but couldn’t get enough of. That was the bottom line here. I wanted to see her again.

 

“How about next Saturday?” I asked her. She looked surprised that I accepted.

 

“You’re on. You are going to so love Christmas when I’m done with you,” she said with a smile.

I chuckled and said, “Don’t get your hopes up Robyn. Good night.”

 

“Good night Aaron,” she said, “Thank you.” I watched the limousine until it was out of sight. I missed her already.

 

 

 

ROBYN

 

 

I went into work on Monday morning still feeling the glow of the weekend. I hadn’t been able to think about much other than Aaron all weekend. I had already started planning our activities for the following Saturday. I just knew if I could get him to experience a few traditional Christmas time events and have fun while he was doing it, he would change his outlook on Christmas. We lived in the Christmas capitol of the world. The whole of Manhattan was lit during the month of December while we waited for the day to come. It was a travesty for him to miss out on that. I tried to convince myself that taking him out on Saturday was a charitable thing to do, but the truth was, I really couldn’t wait to see him again either.

 

I had a meeting with Max when I got in and when he asked me how my weekend went I said, “It was good, quiet.” That wasn’t a lie. After Friday night I hadn’t gone out again, and I had had a good one. I baked cookies and made Christmas ornaments and yes… I know I’m a dork, but I watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” three times and cried every time. I cried sometimes because the ending of the movie made me so incredibly happy and sometimes because the memories of watching it with my mom when I was a little girl. Those were happy tears too, happy memories.

 

Mostly, I didn’t want to complicate whatever this thing was between Aaron and I. I worked with some amazing, smart, professional people. One might be surprised at how fast a rumor can spread amongst them. I wasn’t delusional enough to believe that news I’d gone on a date with the CEO would be something even the people I was closest to would be willing to keep to themselves, so I kept it to myself.

 

Monday was as usual, a busy day. It was over before I knew it and as I was wrapping up and getting ready to go home I reached to turn off my computer. On impulse, I typed Aaron’s name into the company directory. There were job titles and short bios and a small photo of each of us in the company directory. Once I’d typed in Aaron’s name, I was looking at his face. He was more perfect in person, but since I wasn’t going to see him until Saturday the little photo would do. I wondered what kind of Monday he had and before I even realized what I was doing I started composing an email.

 

Hi Aaron! I just wanted to say I am looking forward to Saturday. I hope your Monday went well and don’t forget to ring at least one bell today. I hit send. While I was waiting to make sure it had gone through, I packed up some pamphlets I was going to take home. I was working on a new marketing campaign for the company and was using the old pamphlets to help design a new one. I got them packed into my bag and reached up to switch the computer off again. I saw that Aaron had responded to my email already and I was surprised. I wasn’t surprised at what he had written.

 

Why would I ring a bell?

 

Because every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings. I was trying to sneak Christmas in on him a little at a time. He didn’t respond to that, but I’d gotten it into his head. I switched off the computer and left for the night.

 

 

 

AARON

 

 

I had been sitting at my desk going over some reports Janice brought in when my computer made the little noise it makes when I have new email. Not intending to read it unless it looked like it was something of earth-shattering importance; I looked up at the screen. I was surprised to see the email was from Robyn. I sat there for a few seconds wondering if I wanted to open it or not. Finally curiosity got the better of me and I did. She was wishing me a good day and telling me to ring bells. I had no idea why she wanted me to ring bells, so I asked her why. Several more seconds later I got another email that said,

 

“Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.” I completely forgot about the work in front of me and I stared at the screen. I still didn’t get it. I decided to forget about it and re-focus on my work. That lasted less than five minutes before I was looking at the computer again. Finally, I cut and pasted the sentence into my browser and came back with about a bazillion hits. It was a quote from a Christmas movie. The movie was called “It’s a Wonderful Life” and it had been made in 1946. I stared at it for a minute and a vague memory came back to me. My mother…who loved Christmas, singing in the kitchen…my father who also loved Christmas hanging up the lights and me, sitting on the couch eating homemade chocolate chip cookies and watching a black and white movie that for some reason made my mother cry. For over twenty years I’d done my best to stuff those memories down deep. My parents were long gone and no amount of thinking about them would bring them back. I’d decided long ago that if it wasn’t helping, it was hindering. It was keeping me from moving on. I let it go and now this woman who I’m completely infatuated with wants to put it back in front of me and make me re-live it.

 

I was torn between being grateful to her for treating me like a human and easing my loneliness, and being angry that she wouldn’t let this Christmas thing go. I had to wonder what she had in store for me on Saturday as her hired hand.

 

I didn’t finish up my work that night until after seven. I called Jeffrey and told him I’d be down soon. I packed up my things and rode the quiet, lonely elevator down to the lobby from the tenth floor. When the doors opened I found myself thinking of Robyn again and the first time I’d seen her in the elevator. I didn’t know her name and we had never spoken a word, but even then I’d felt a connection. As I crossed the lobby I saw Jeffrey waiting by the car. He stepped over and opened the door for me.

 

“Hello sir, how was your Monday?”

 

“Hello Jeffrey. It was busy, as usual. How was yours?”

 

“Busy as well sir,” he said. I started to get in the car and suddenly I completely lost my mind. That’s how I like to think of it anyways. I saw one of those Salvation Army buckets outside the lobby window and currently unmanned. The bell they rang all day was sitting on top of it and without giving myself time to think about it I picked it up and rang it.

 

I sat it back down and stepping in front of a confused Jeffrey, I slid past him and waited for him to close the door before I smiled.

 

The rest of the week passed quickly and every evening about the same time I found an email waiting in my inbox from Robyn. They were short and simple, but they made me feel like someone was thinking about Aaron Winters the man and not just the business guy or the boss or the paycheck. They were nice and it made me feel good to read them. She made me smile from six floors down.

CHAPTER SIX

 

~

 

 

 

AARON

 

 

I received a text message from Robyn on Saturday morning that told me to meet her in Central Park near the coffee cart in front of the ice-skating pond and to dress casually. I put on a pair of jeans that were like brand new because I rarely got out of my suit long enough to wear them. I wore a long-sleeved t-shirt underneath a thick, gray sweater. I grabbed my jacket and my keys on the way out. Every step of the way I was wondering what she had in store for me and I traveled to our rendezvous spot with a mixture of dread and anticipation.

 

I walked about half a mile from where I’d parked my car before I saw her. She was standing near the coffee cart wearing blue jeans and a pink sweater. Even from where I stood, I could see how pretty she was. She had braided her long hair into two braids that hung down past her shoulders and she had on a pink knit beret that matched her sweater. She was sipping a cup of something hot; the steam was evident in the cool morning air. She was looking around, waiting for me and for the first time in probably a decade, I felt the flutter of nerves in my belly. I hated being out of my comfort zone and this was the first time in years that I’d allowed myself to leave it full-bore. I almost bailed, but Robyn suddenly spotted me and waved. She was smiling, as usual, and her face was flushed with color from the cool morning air. God, she was beautiful. We walked towards each other until we met just along the fence around the little man-made ice-skating pond that was surrounded by little decorated Christmas trees and had a little house off to the side for when Santa visited.

 

“Hey there,” she said, coming closer.

 

“Hey.”

 

“Are you ready to do my bidding for a day?”

 

“What does your “bidding” entail?” I asked her.

 

“We are going to spend the day doing all things Christmassy,” she said. I felt the trepidation in my stomach begin to spread across the excitement, swallowing it whole and leaving me only with the dread.

 

“Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea,” I said.

 

“Why?” she asked. “You obviously already re-arranged your schedule so you could be here. Don’t back out now, please.”

 

I realized something new right then, when I looked into her eyes I could hardly remember the word, “No.” I usually didn’t do anyone else’s bidding unless it was beneficial to me. This was not going to be beneficial but I still couldn’t turn her down.

 

“Okay,” I said, “What’s first?” I was sorry I’d asked.

 

“Ice-skating,” she said with what I’d only have to describe as an evil grin.

 

“Oh no… I don’t think so.” I said it steadily without a trace of the anxiety I was feeling coming through.

 

“Did I say no when you sent me an elf costume to wear? Did I balk at wearing it to the office even?”

 

I’d never been ice-skating in my life. I looked over towards the pond at the people sailing across the ice and a few of them making their way across like a newborn deer and I knew which one I was going to look like. This is why I hadn’t felt anxiety in years. I didn’t set myself to do things that would make me look like a fool… ever.

 

“I don’t know how,” I said at last. I hadn’t wanted to admit that, but maybe it would make her change her mind.

 

“I’ll teach you,” she said. Then as if that had settled it she asked me, “What size skates do you need?”

 

“Robyn, really…”

 

“Come on Aaron, live a little. I’m not asking you to risk your life. I think you’ll like it, but if you don’t at least you tried it and you know for sure, right?”

 

“Eleven and a half,” I said. I suppose she was right. I might come off the ice with a bruised ego, but I’d live. I did always think it looked like fun. I reached for my wallet but Robyn was having none of it.

 

“Huh uh, I’m the boss today, I’m buying.”

 

That confused me more than the ice-skating. I always bought no matter where I went or who I was with.

 

“I really don’t mind…”

 

“Listen, I don’t care if you are one of the richest men in the world. This entire day is my treat, okay? Stop resisting everything, you’ll never have any fun if you don’t relax.”

 

This was all so strange to me. For years now, when I took a woman out I made the plans and I paid for it all. I’ve never even had a woman offer to decide what we should do or where we should go, much less take out her wallet. I knew I was defeated.

 

“I’ll try.” I intended to try, but I definitely couldn’t make her any promises.

 

She grinned and said, “That’s the spirit!” Everything she did was with such passion. I was realizing that it was hard not to get caught up in it, even for me. Her energy was all positive and it just drew me in. I watched her go and get our skates and pay for our passes. She smiled at every person she passed and they all smiled back. It would be impossible not to. Her smile was infectious. I was quickly discovering that her attitude was too.

 

She came back with the skates and we sat down on the bench next to the ice-rink. While I changed out of my shoes and into the skates I watched the people on the ice falling and laughing. I saw the couples holding hands and the parents chasing their children. I knew Robyn was right, I did things that made me comfortable and that mostly made me happy, but I really didn’t know how to do things that were purely for fun.

 

“Ready?” she asked with a smile.

 

“As I’ll ever be, I suppose,” I told her. She giggled, like a schoolgirl and stood up. Then she reached out for me and my adventures on the ice began.

 

Robyn, it turned out was a fabulous ice-skater. She turned around backwards, facing me and took both of my hands. As soon as she pulled me onto the ice I felt like the world was falling out from under me. I was concentrating hard, trying to pretend like I did this all the time when all I could think about was that if I fell; I was going to take her down with me. I pictured myself, crushing this delicate girl and being unable to get enough traction to get back up. The thought of it mortified me. I watched a couple skate by holding hands and looking happy. I wanted to trip them. I kept looking down at my feet, willing them to get some traction and begging them to keep me upright.

 

“Look at my face,” she said. I glanced up and then back down. She laughed. It was hard for me to get used to being laughed at. People may want to laugh at me sometimes, but they don’t. Everyone wants to be best friends with a billionaire so they agree with everything I do and say. As much as Robyn’s attitude towards me surprised me, I appreciated it, a lot.

 

“Don’t watch your feet. It’s like striking the keys on a keyboard. The more you watch them, the more they’re going to mess up. Look at my face and look around at the beautifully decorated trees. Let your feet do the work. It’s just like walking, one foot in front of the other. If you ignore them, they’ll figure it out on their own.”

 

I glanced back up at her again and felt myself stumble. She moved her body slightly and said,

 

“See, it’s okay, I’ve got you.”

 

“Right,” I said. “I outweigh you by at least a hundred pounds. What happens if I fall? You’re going to go down with me. What if I crush you?”

 

She smiled and said, “If we fall, we get back up and hopefully we laugh about it. I know I will, and you should try it as well as opposed to that furrowed brow look you’ve got going on there. Besides, you’re not going to crush me. You worry too much.”

 

It took at least ten minutes, but we made it one whole round around the pond. I had to admit that I did feel a little tingle of accomplishment. It was nothing to brag about, but it was a start. I felt good right up until the point that Robyn said, “Okay, I think you’re ready.”

 

“Ready for what?” I asked, sheer terror gripping at my heart. Was she going to let go of me?

 

“I’m going to let go of one of your hands and turn around and skate next to you, okay?”

 

“Sure, I’ve made one round, I’m an expert now.”

 

“Sarcasm,” she said. “I love it.” I loved the way her face was flushed from the cold and her blue eyes sparkled out from underneath the pink knit hat she wore.

 

She let go of my left hand and I watched her feet glide backwards until she was facing forward and right next to me. She made it look so easy. I couldn’t really see myself, but I was sure I made it look ridiculous. I wondered if she was reading my mind somehow because right then she said, “Stop worrying about how you look and relax. Who cares what any of these people think? Chin up, chest out, head held high, and most importantly of all, smile. Have fun!” Easy for her to say, I thought, but I tried. I forced myself to stop looking down at my feet. I stopped looking at the others as they gracefully passed by too. I looked straight ahead and gripped Robyn’s hand like a lifeline. Before I knew it, we’d gone another lap around. On the next lap, Robyn began singing along with the Christmas song playing in the background. She knew every word and she had a beautiful voice. I was enjoying the serenade so much that I hardly even registered the next lap.

By the time we were on our fourth, or maybe our fifth she said, “Are you ready to solo?” My stomach did somersaults. It was something I hadn’t felt since I was a kid. I wasn’t ready, I was scared to death. Sometimes in business when I took a big gamble it was scary, but it was a good scary. This was bone-breaking scary. I couldn’t admit that out loud though. I had my reputation. Instead, I did what I thought would please her.

 

“Sure, let’s give it a shot,” I told her.

 

“That’s the attitude I’ve been looking for. I knew it was in there somewhere,” she said with a wink. Robyn smiled and squeezed my hand and then let it go. Although we were both wearing gloves, the first thing I realized was how much colder I felt as soon as I was missing her touch. The next thing I recognized was that I hadn’t realized how much she was actually supporting me. I started slipping and sliding and my hands automatically reached out for something to hold onto. I didn’t realize it at that moment, but it was like over-correcting in a car when you went into a skid. I grabbed hold of Robyn without considering the consequences. I heard her squeal as we both went down… hard. I landed on my backside and Robyn was lying across the top of me. I was glad at least that I didn’t crush her. As much as this position would have been something I’d love in another setting, I was completely humiliated as people slid by so effortlessly while I sat on my ass on the cold ice. They seemed to all be smiling too.

 

Robyn was squirming, trying to untangle us and it only seemed to tangle us up further. My left leg was twisted backwards at an odd angle and I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to stand back up. Robyn finally got her legs free and I realized I was still gripping her arm. I let that go and she was sitting on her backside facing me, and she was laughing. She was laughing so hard that she had tears in her eyes.

At last she was able to stop and with an escaped tear rolling down her cheek, she said, “See there, that wasn’t so bad now, was it?” Maybe not, but now I was on my ass on the ice and I had no idea how to stand up.

 

“I suppose the falling wasn’t so bad, but now how do I get back up?” I asked her.

 

“Watch,” she said. She got up on her knees and put one skate underneath her. Using her hands she pushed herself up in what seemed to be one effortless motion. She did make it look easy, although I wasn’t going to be fooled into believing it was going to be that easy for me, I felt a little better. “Now you try it,” she said.

 

I got up on my knees… so far so good. Then I put my hands down on the ice and put one skate underneath me and then… I fell forward, flat on my face.

 

“Oh my gosh! Aaron! I’m sorry! Are you okay?” Robyn was suddenly down on the ice next to me. I don’t know what happened then. It must have been breathing in her enthusiasm all morning, but the thought of what I had to look like, splayed out on the ice suddenly struck me as funny. I started laughing and I couldn’t stop. “Oh thank goodness, you’re okay!” Robyn said. I reached up and playfully pulled her down on top of me and once again we were both splayed out on the ice. She was laughing too now and it suddenly occurred to me that we were going to have to get back up and that made me want to laugh even more. It was like Robyn had infected me with her magic and I had to admit that it felt really good.

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

~

 

 

 

ROBYN

 

 

Aaron and I spent over an hour on the ice, which is a lot for a first-timer. He was going to be sore in the morning, but I wasn’t going to be the one to tell him that. He had actually started to have fun and I had a feeling it was just what he needed. I sang along with the Christmas music and he had even begun humming along with me. I had a feeling that was a big step for him. The longer we skated, the more crowded the rink became. Skaters of all ages slid around at different levels of skill and speed. Each time a wobbly looking one or a super-speedy teen got close to Aaron, I’d grip tightly to his arm. He laughed at one point and told me that I missed my calling; I should have been a caregiver. At first, he was letting his ankles buckle, but the longer we skated, the steadier he became. I could tell by the feel of the muscles in his arms when he finally started to relax and enjoy himself. When we came off the ice at last, his cheeks were flushed red from the cold and he was smiling from ear to ear. He’d been a really good sport about it all once he got going. I was proud of him.

 

“I’m starving, how about you?” I asked him as we took our skates off.

 

“Definitely,” he said. “That ice-skating takes a lot out of a person. I know a great little restaurant not far from here.”

 

“Uh-uh! My day, remember?”

 

“Oh, sorry. Well then, where will we be having lunch?”

 

I slipped on my boots and stood up. “We’re going to the Christmas market. We can get some food from the vendors there.” Aaron made a face. I doubted that he’d ever bought anything from a street vendor.

 

He finally got the skate he was struggling with off and then he said, “Are you sure? You’re never sure what they put in things.”

 

“Oh please, people eat vendor food all the time and live through it. You’ll be amazed at how good it is.”

 

He didn’t look convinced, but he didn’t argue any further. He slipped on his boots and stood up. Grabbing on to me he said, “Ouch, I may not be able to get out of bed tomorrow.”

 

I laughed, “Yes, I thought of that too. But now that the initiation is over, you can skate more and your body will get used to it.”

 

“Hmm, I’ll have to give that some thought,” he said it like he was going to give it no thought at all. That’s okay; I wasn’t looking to turn him into a professional ice-skater. I was just really hoping to help him learn how to have a little fun. “I have a meeting on Monday afternoon with some really important people coming all the way over from China. Hopefully I’ll be there and not writhing in pain and agony in bed.”

 

“I’m sure by Monday you’ll be as good as new,” I told him.

 

We turned in our skates and walked over to the area of the park where the fair was happening. There were more than 125 boutique-style shops in the park. The aisles were made from festively decorated trees and the shops carried everything that a person might need to complete their Christmas shopping and a lot of it was handmade, which I loved. Personally, I’d so much rather receive something hand-made than something designed and built in a factory. The sights and smells of Christmas were overwhelming. It all made me happy. I looked over at Aaron and realized it was having the opposite effect on him. His glow from the ice-skating seemed to be fading.

 

I saw a hot dog vendor and looked at Aaron.

 

“Hot dogs?” he said, grumpily.

 

“Are you too good for a hot dog?”

 

“Absolutely not,” he said. “But, I did see a sign for steak sandwiches. Doesn’t that sound better?”

“Oh, I see what you’re doing. I said I’d buy and suddenly you want the steak. You’re not a cheap date, are you?”

 

He threw his head back and laughed. That was encouraging. “I admit it, you have me. I have hot dogs every day. I was trying to get my hands on a steak on your dime.”

 

“Well, as long as you’re willing to be honest about it,” I told him.

 

“I’d even be willing to pay for half,” he said. “Please don’t make me eat a hot dog.” It was my turn to laugh. He sounded like an insolent child.

 

“Okay, steak sandwich it is. I’m paying for all of it though,” I said. He opened his mouth and I said, “I won’t accept any arguments.” He opened his mouth again and I said, “Huh uh I don’t want to hear it.”

 

“But…”

He stopped walking and I said, “I’m buying, Aaron. That’s final.”

 

“That’s fine,” he said, pointing up. I looked up and saw the sign for the steak sandwich vendor. I’d walked right past it.

 

“I was just going to turn around,” I told him. He laughed, but to his credit he didn’t make fun of me. We ordered two sandwiches and two coffees. When they were ready, we carried them to one of the park benches and sat down to eat.

Aaron took a bite from his and said, “Oh my God.”

 

“What? What’s wrong?”

 

“This is the best steak sandwich I’ve ever tasted,” he said. “I’ve had them in more than one country and in more than one gourmet restaurant too.”

 

I smiled and said, “Told you so. You’ll be an addict before long.”

 

We finished our lunch and I had to agree with his assessment. The sandwich was delicious. He collected our trash and deposited it in a nearby can. Then turning to me he said, “What now, boss?”

 

“Shopping,” I told him. He raised an eyebrow but he didn’t argue or complain. I led him to a little jewelry stand we’d passed. The lady working the stand told me that her pieces were all hand-made by her and her husband. It was all lovely, sturdy jewelry made out of delicate silver and shaped or hand etched with unique designs.

 

“Are you looking for something in particular?” Aaron asked me.

 

“Nope, that’s the beauty of shopping in a place like this. Whatever is here wouldn’t be something you would have been looking for, because it’s all handmade and original.”

 

“So, how do you know what you want?”

 

“I look for things that match my people,” I told him. “For instance, see this necklace? It looks just like my friend, Heidi. She would love it.” I looked at the price tag and sat it back down. “Unfortunately, Heidi’s friend Robyn is on a budget, maybe next year.”

 

We left that booth and went to the next one. It was all decorations for Christmas. “So here, you’re not looking for anything in particular either?” Aaron asked me.

 

“Well here, I kind of am,” I told him. “I collect Santa Claus ornaments for my tree. I buy one or two every year, but I have so many now I have to really look for unique ones.”

 

“Hmm, Santa Claus, huh?”

 

“You’re not a believer?” I asked.

 

He gave me a half smile and said, “Not since I was about eight.”

 

“That’s too bad,” I told him. “What do you like to put on your tree?”

 

He shrugged. Then he said, “I haven’t had a Christmas tree in my own home ever.”

 

I thought that was so sad. “Why? You really dislike Christmas that much?”

 

“I really do,” he said. I wondered what had happened to him. It had to be something traumatic to make him hate Christmas so badly that he left town because of it every year. I didn’t want to ask him. I thought that he’d share it if he felt comfortable doing so.

 

“What about your family? Do they celebrate Christmas?” I asked.

 

As I watched his face change, I knew that question too had gone one step too far. His eyes seemed to cloud up; the light that had briefly come into them again while we were having lunch was gone.

 

“No,” he said. “They don’t.”

I let it go at that and changed the subject back to my own tree. Picking up an old-fashioned looking Santa ornament I said, “What do you think of this one?”

 

He barely glanced at it before saying, “It’s fine.” I’d lost him again. I went ahead and bought the ornament and we moved on. Between that booth and the next one was another alley that stretched out lengthwise and was similar to a midway at the fair.

 

“Let’s play a game,” I said.

 

He pulled his brows together in the middle and said, “A game?”

 

“Yes, you can win me a stuffed animal,” I said. “I’ll pay for the game of course.”

 

He didn’t look thrilled, but he followed me. I sought out a game I remembered from last year where the prizes were all in the form of some sort of Santa Claus. Aaron would have to shoot a gun filled with water into a clown’s mouth and make his balloon burst before the others. He looked at the three boys less than fourteen year’s old sitting on the benches and then back at me.

 

“You want me to compete against three adolescents for a Santa Claus doll?”

 

“Sure, why not?” I said.

 

“I can buy you one if you want it that badly.”

 

“No, I don’t want a bought one,” I told him. “It will mean more that you won it for me.”

 

He shook his head and smiled, “What is your obsession with Santa Claus?” he asked me.

 

“I’m not obsessed,” I told him.

 

“Okay, not obsessed but you seem pretty fond of him. What’s the deal?”

 

“Tell you what, you sit down here and win me one of these fine Santa’s and I’ll tell you why I love him so much.”

 

He raised an eyebrow and then with a sigh, he took one of the seats. He looked so cute sitting there in his designer jeans in between the boys with their faded and scuffed ones. I laid the two dollars down in front of him and the man running the game picked it up. The bell rang and Aaron took out his gun. His competitors had done this before; they already had theirs in hand. They all started shooting before Aaron got his ready to go. It took him several precious moments to line his water stream up with the clown’s mouth.

I heard him curse and then say, “Yes! There we go,” when he hit it. He seemed to be getting into it as I cheered him on. I hoped he wasn’t looking to the sides of him and seeing how much more quickly the other balloons were filling up. He was having fun and that was all that mattered. We heard a loud pop and when we looked down where it came from we saw a jubilant red-haired boy with a Santa in front of him already.

The man running the game said, “Winner!” The boy picked up his small Santa and handed it to the man who traded it for a larger one.

“Oh well, you gave it your best shot,” I told Aaron. He didn’t answer me. He didn’t look like he was satisfied with only taking a shot. Instead of getting up to go, he reached into his pocket and took out his wallet. After he lay another two dollars down in front of him, he picked up his gun and aimed it. He was a fast learner. I wasn’t surprised. I couldn’t help but smile at the determined look on his face. I wish I had a picture of it to show him.

 

“Okay now, you’ve got this one,” I told him. The other two boys had gotten up and wandered away leaving only Aaron and the red-haired boy down at the end.

 

“The heck he does!” the cocky little boy said, holding his gun in one hand and looking like he was ready for a shoot-out.

 

His attitude seemed to give Aaron an even more determined look. He set his shoulders and clamped down on the trigger of his water gun. When the bell rang, he came out shooting. His balloon was filling fast, but so was the boy’s. “Come on Aaron! You’ve can do it!” I cheered him. Unfortunately, his balloon had different ideas. The little red-haired boy got a bigger Santa Claus that time and before the man turned back around, Aaron had lay down another two dollars. I put my hand on his shoulder and said,

“It’s okay; you don’t have to keep trying.” He glanced over at the little boy whose freckled face was drawn up into a huge smile.

 

“The heck I don’t,” he said, mimicking what the boy had said earlier. I laughed. I could suddenly see that competitive spirit that led him to becoming a billionaire. He wasn’t willing to give up when he knew he had a chance. Kind of like the way I felt about him.

 

He played three more times before his balloon finally popped. When it did, you would have thought he’d won the lottery. He jumped up off his stool and wrapped me up in a tight hug. He swung me around and I squealed and giggled. The little boy was looking at us like we were crazy as he clutched onto his giant Santa Claus. The man running the game lay a tiny little key-chain sized stuffed Santa down in front of Aaron. He looked as proud of it as if it had been a lottery check.

 

He held it up for me to see and smiled broadly. “Congratulations,” I told him.

 

“You’re making fun of me,” he said. “But that kid was tough. I’m thinking of offering him a job. He would make a great HR supervisor.”

 

I laughed, “I’m not making fun of you. I think it’s adorable.” I held out my hand to take the Santa and he pulled it back. With a pout I said, “I thought you were winning it for me.”

 

“I was, but I believe that you owe me something first,” he said.

 

“What?”

 

“An explanation about the Santa fetish?”

 

Giggling, I said, “It’s definitely not a fetish. That makes it sound so sordid.”

 

“Okay, it’s not an obsession or a fetish, but if you want this big guy, you’re going to have to give me a story.” I laughed again, this time because he was calling the tiny little thing in his hand a “big guy.” What was it with men and size?

 

“Okay, here’s the story,” I said, as we resumed walking through the market. “When I was eight years old, some kids at school told me that there was no such thing as Santa Claus. I was devastated. I cried all the way home. When I got home, I told my mother what they’d said. I asked her point-blank if she and my daddy had lied to me. I wanted to know once and for all if he existed.”

 

“So what did she say?” he asked.

 

“She didn’t really say anything. When I think back on it now, I’m sure that she didn’t know what to say. When you first tell your kids about Santa, it’s a fun fantasy. But when they confront you about his existence later on in life, I’m sure it feels like a lie. My mother never lied to me. She suggested that we bake cookies and talk about it when my father got home from work. I also know now that she knew he would know just how to handle it. So we baked chocolate chip cookies; my mother’s were the best… warm and gooey.”

 

“Santa Claus?” he said, trying to re-direct me back to the subject at hand. I did have a tendency to get off track, especially with so much stimulus going on around me.

 

“I’m getting there,” I told him. “Be patient.” We were passing the booth to buy tickets for the carriage rides and I stopped and said, “Ooh! Let’s go for a carriage ride.”

 

“What about the story?” he said. I could tell right then that patience wasn’t one of his virtues. I guess when you’re Aaron Winters; you rarely had to wait for what you wanted.

 

“I’ll finish the story in the carriage. Come on, it doesn’t feel like Christmas without at least one carriage ride through the park.” Aaron was eyeing the horse and the cart suspiciously. He seemed to be checking the wheels on the cart to make sure they looked like they’d hold up. “It’s safe, I promise. Have you never been for a carriage ride?”

 

“I’ve never seen the point,” he said. “I have several cars and…”

 

I laughed, “There is no point. It’s just fun. Don’t you ever do anything spontaneously just for fun?”

He looked like he was thinking about that and then he said, “Rarely.”

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

~

 

 

 

ROBYN

 

 

I was having a hard time imagining what a sheltered life Aaron must have led. I wondered if he had been one of those children who grew up in private school and with a nanny. I pictured him in a mansion in upstate somewhere with two driven, focused parents that rarely had time for him. My heart ached for the lonely little boy who grew up not learning to have any fun. I’m sure that was where he learned how to be so serious, he watched his parents work hard and succeed, not having time for much else… even Christmas for their child maybe. I didn’t know any of that for sure. It was all just a theory. But, there had to be a reason that as an adult, everything Aaron did seemed to be carefully thought out and planned in advance. There was never spontaneity involved. That may be good for business, but it was not conducive at all to living life. I realized that my imagination was getting away with me, but where Aaron was concerned it was really all I had. He didn’t seem to be opening up much about his life other than how much he disliked Christmas. I wished that he would, I’d really love to know him. I hoped if I kept plugging away, he would crack and it would all spill out. My motto was always that I only got one chance at this thing called life. I was going to do it right.

 

“You really need to work on trying to be more impulsive,” I told him. “Life’s so much more fun if it’s not all planned out. Plans are necessary sometimes, but other times they actually get in the way of trying new things. Come on, let’s get a hot chocolate and go for a ride.”

 

“And you’ll finish the story?” he asked.

 

“Yes, I’ll finish the story.”

 

Once we bought our hot chocolate and were snuggled under a red blanket in the white carriage, he said again, “So, are you ready to finish the story?”

 

I laughed and said, “Yes, I’m ready. I have to say though that for a guy who hates Christmas, you sure are interested in hearing a Christmas story.”

 

“I don’t “hate” Christmas,” he said. “I just don’t care for it… and I don’t like the cold weather. Anyways, I’m not interested in the Christmas part of the story. I’m only interested in finding out about your Santa Claus obsession.”

 

“I’m not “obsessed” with Santa Claus,” I told him with a grin.

 

“Whatever you would like to call it,” he said, smiling in return.

 

I resumed my story.

 

“So, my mom and I baked the best cookies in the world while we waited for my dad to get home. I think I ate like ten of them. I loved to eat back then, anything sweet especially. I was a pudgy little thing…”

 

“You’re getting off track again,” he said. I think he was actually getting frustrated with me.

 

“That’s another thing,” I told him. “Sometimes it’s more fun and more interesting to go off track. Life doesn’t have a script you know. Some of the greatest places on earth have been discovered because someone went off track.”

 

He shook his head at me, but he was still smiling. “Okay, I have to say that you “pudgy” is a hard picture for me to draw in my head, but if you say so, I’ll believe you. Did your father arrive eventually?”

 

“Hard picture or not, it’s true. I dieted the whole summer before high school to lose twenty pounds, it was excruciating.”

 

He laughed and said, “Good for you. Now, did your father arrive home?”

 

I sighed at him; he was as relentless as I was sometimes. “Yes, he did. He looked so tired too. The poor man worked sixteen hours a day sometimes back then. He built cabinets and he was really good at it. I think maybe they over used him a little bit at the plant where he worked. I feel bad now when I think about it. He was doing it all for us and I never realized…” Aaron was giving me that “off track” look again. I rolled my eyes, took a sip of my chocolate and went on, “But anyways, while he had some of my mother’s cookies with a glass of milk, she told him about the kids at school telling me there was no Santa Claus.”

 

“She wants to know the truth, she says,” my mother told him. “I didn’t see her wink, but when I think about it now, I’m sure that she probably did.”

 

My daddy stopped chewing mid-cookie. It had to be important to get my daddy to stop eating a cookie. He liked sweets as much as I did. He took a drink of his milk and stood up. “Get your coat,” he told me.

“Where are we going?” I asked him.

 

“You want to know the truth about Santa Claus, right?” he said.

 

“Yes, the absolute truth,” I told him. I didn’t want them to think I was too young to hear it, so that’s what the big word was about.

 

“Then get your coat and stop asking so many questions,” he told me.

“I was also a bit inquisitive…”

 

“Shocking!” Aaron said with a grin. I narrowed my eyes at his sarcasm and went on.

 

“I did as he asked and put on my coat and hat and boots. It was a really cold winter that year, the coldest that I ever remembered. It snowed every day for weeks… but I digress again,” I said with a grin. He grinned back, “Daddy and Mom had that look when I came back into the kitchen; I knew they’d been talking about me. Mama kissed us both and said that supper would be ready when we got back. Daddy and I got into the car and drove into town. We went to a little five and dime store… I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania; we didn’t have malls or department stores. Anyways, he took me into this store where they sold everything from clothes to groceries and handed me twenty dollars.”

 

“What is this for?” I asked him. We weren’t poor, but at eight years old I already knew that we didn’t have twenty dollars to throw around right before Christmas. My parents taught me how to be responsible with money from a young age. Daddy knelt down so we were eye to eye and he said,

“I want you to think really hard, Robyn. I want you to think about everyone you know, or who you just might see every now and then. It’s up to you to decide who you know that might need something very dearly, something that they are unable to buy for themselves. Then, I want you to take the money I gave you and buy it for them. Have the store wrap it up too, okay?”

 

“Okay…but Daddy…”

 

“Go on,” he told me, “The store will be closing soon.”

 

Aaron was listening to the story intently and as the carriage carried us across the park. Suddenly it began to snow. It was just light flakes, not a storm and to me it added to the romanticism of it all.

 

“Oh my goodness! It’s snowing! The first snow if the year. It’s magical, you know. You have to open your mouth and catch it on your tongue and make a wish…” I told him. He shook his head again, but he still had a grin on his face.

 

“One story at a time,” he said. “You can tell me about Christmas snow later. Right now, you’re telling me about Santa Claus. Are you going to finish?”

 

“Okay.” He was right; when it came to Christmas I had so many stories. It was hard to stay on track. I went on, “So, I took my twenty dollars and while Daddy had a cup of coffee and a piece of pie at the counter, I thought and thought about who I knew that as Daddy said, “Needed something dearly.” I thought about my mom saying she needed a new vacuum, but I was old enough to know that twenty dollars wouldn’t buy that. I figured my daddy would buy her one soon enough anyways. I remembered that my granny said she needed a new sewing machine, but the store we were in didn’t carry any of those and twenty dollars probably wouldn’t cover it. Then I thought about this girl in my class. Her name was Lisbeth and she was always wearing old clothes that never looked like they fit very well. I always wondered why her mother didn’t just buy her new ones. I didn’t understand money at all back then. Anyways, it was really cold that winter, colder than I ever remembered it being and Lisbeth used to come to school every day in the same pair of canvas sneakers that she’d been wearing since first grade. I had no idea how her feet still fit in them. I had gone through three sizes by then. I also didn’t know how her feet didn’t freeze. It snowed every day and Lisbeth walked to school. Her shoes were always wet and she always had a runny nose. I remember one of our teachers had given her a coat that had been left in the lost and found the year before, it was pink and puffy and Lisbeth didn’t care that it was second hand, she loved it. Some of the other kids used to make fun of her, but I never did. I did my best to try and be her friend. She didn’t talk about her home life, so I didn’t know why she needed hand me downs, but I didn’t care. She was a nice girl and the other kids were so mean sometimes. I took my twenty dollars and I went to the shoe department. I found a pair of pink galoshes. They were the same color pink as her coat.”

 

“You bought them for her?” Aaron asked. He looked like he was really into the story. I was glad.

 

“I did. I asked the lady for a pair of them in a box and she asked me what size. I had no idea. She asked me if they were going to be a gift and I told her they were and that they were for a girl in my class at school. She asked if the girl was about my height and weight and I said yes, so she gave them to me in my size and said that should work. I asked the lady to wrap them up really pretty and she did. She put a big, pink bow on top and a little card that we could write on. When I went to find my daddy he asked me what I’d bought. I remember not understanding why then, but he got tears in his eyes when I told him.

 

Daddy drove us to Lisbeth’s house and we ducked behind the car in their driveway. Daddy stayed there while I went and rang the bell. I dropped the package on the doorstep and ran back to where Daddy was. We waited and then I saw Lisbeth open the door and look around. She bent down and picked up the package and took it inside. Daddy had written on the tag. It said, “To Lisbeth, From Santa Claus.”

 

I was excited, but I was also eight. I still didn’t really understand what it all meant, what the significance was of what we had done. She smiled really big and ran back inside. It made my heart feel good to see her so happy, but I wanted to know why we’d done all of this.

 

When Daddy and I got back in the car I asked him what that had to do with Santa Claus. He told me first that he knew Lisbeth’s daddy. He asked me if Lisbeth ever talked about him. I told him “No,” and that some of the kids made fun of her because she wore old clothes and hand-me-downs that teacher gave her. I wondered why her mother didn’t take better care of her. Daddy looked sad and said her father was sick and in a wheelchair. He said that he’d gotten sick right after Lisbeth was born and he wasn’t able to work. Her mother worked at the diner in our town. When I got older, I found out that he had Lou Gehrig’s disease. Lisbeth finally told me and she told me that she knew since she was little that he was going to die. We were in eighth grade when he died. It was so sad… I’m sorry,” I said, knowing I was getting off track again.

“Back to the story: Daddy told me that night that they had three other kids older than Lisbeth and money was probably very tight for them, especially around Christmas time. He said that he thought Lisbeth’s mother probably took the best care of her that she should and that I shouldn’t ever judge people by what they wore or how much money they did or didn’t have. People were people. He told me then that Santa was not so much a person as he was a feeling. He lived in our hearts and minds but not in the flesh. He wasn’t the man in the red suit. That man was a symbol of good will and generosity. He said that every time that one person did something nice or helpful for another person it was because we held the magic of Santa Claus in our hearts. He said it was proof that he existed and the kids at school were wrong.” I had tears in my own eyes when I finished the story. That had been my very favorite Christmas. Daddy and I had left several more things for Lisbeth and her family that year. We made a tradition of picking out a family in need every year after that until I graduated from high school. I looked forward to it more than my own presents.”

 

“Your father sounds like an amazing man,” Aaron said. He looked like he meant it.

 

I wiped the tears that had spilled over onto my cheeks and said, “Yeah. Definitely an amazing man.”

 

“But what about Lisbeth? Did you ever tell her that it was you? Did she wear the boots?”

 

“She did wear the boots, every day for the rest of that winter she wore them to school. She told me and all of the other kids that Santa Claus had brought them to her. I never told her or anyone that we left gifts for. It would have taken away from what we were trying to do. I didn’t want any credit for it. I just wanted to see the smiles it gave them.”

 

Aaron was smiling when I finished my story. The rest of the day while we played games and rode rides and even sang along with carolers at one point, the smile stayed on his face. It snowed lightly off and on and just about the time it was getting dark, I dropped down into the snow on the grass and started making a snow angel.

 

“What are you doing now?” he said. I think he may have thought I was a little bit crazy.

 

“Making a snow angel,” I told him. “Please don’t tell me you’ve never made one. You’ll break my heart.”

 

“Well, as much as I hate to break your heart,” he started. I grabbed his arm and pulled him down next to me before he could finish. “What are you doing?” he asked, now covered with snow.

 

“Lie down and make an angel with me,” I told him.

 

“This jacket is a little expensive to be lying around in the snow,” he told me.

 

I rolled my eyes and said, “Please, I know you can afford a hundred more just like it. But, if it’s too cold for you…”

 

“It’s not too cold for me. I just don’t want to ruin my jacket. Sure, I can buy another one, but I like this one.”

 

“Sure, I understand. Some people just can’t handle the cold.”

 

I was beginning to realize how competitive Aaron was after watching him play the midway games earlier. I was egging him on, knowing that if I tested his competitive side, he would do it. He pulled off his coat and lay down next to me. For the next fifteen minutes we made snow angels. He made three until at last one was perfect. When we stood back up, we were both covered in snow. I reached up to brush it off his shirt and before I had time to even react he brought his lips down on mine and we shared the sweetest kiss. It wasn’t the tongue tangling, spit-swapping kind of kiss I was used to men trying. It was closed mouthed and tender, like the kiss of an old soul. It was completely romantic and it made my stomach flutter and my head spin. I may have even felt it in my toes if they weren’t already frozen.

 

When we finally broke apart I had a hard time getting my breath back. Aaron was looking at me strangely. The animation and excitement that had been on his face while we lay in the snow was gone. It was replaced with a look of confusion or regret. Did he regret kissing me?

 

“I’m sorry, Robyn,” he said. “I just remembered there’s somewhere I have to be.”

 

“Oh, right now?” It was quite a coincidence that he only just remembered as we were sharing a kiss.

 

“Yes, I’m sorry,” he said. “Thank you for the day. I had a really good time.” Then he turned and walked away, leaving me confused and quite a bit hurt. Was he sorry that he had to leave, or sorry that he had kissed me?

 

I went back into the park that night and caught the man who took pictures of the carriage rides just before he left for the night. I made my purchase and as I walked to my car, I let my mind run back over the day. I’d heard the way he laughed on the ice. It wasn’t a fake laugh or a polite laugh. It was a hearty, robust, from the gut kind of laugh. The kind that says a person is having a great time. I looked down at the Santa Claus in my hand and remembered the way he’d picked me up and swung me around when he’d won it. Aaron had been truly happy then too. I think he had fun… I know he did, but something was standing in the way of him admitting that and going with his feelings. Maybe he hasn’t been in a relationship for a while. From what he said about Christmas with his family… or without them, he didn’t sound like the relationship there was a close one either. Maybe he’d been hurt in the past and had closed himself off from intimacy. Maybe whatever happened to him had happened at Christmas time and that’s why this time of year made him so unhappy.

 

I was sure that was what it was. He was so successful and so rich that it probably intimidated a lot of people. Some people might think that would give him an advantage in the dating pool, but unless he was looking for someone just as rich as himself, I can imagine how his position would scare a lot of women off. Most men in his position dated actresses or models. They were women with high self-confidence and just as much money. I did have good self-confidence, but I was lacking in the money department. He still didn’t frighten me; even knowing that he was my boss wasn’t intimidating. I’m not sure why, I suppose because I’d been raised not to judge people by the things they had or didn’t have. Should I respect my boss’s authority? Of course. Did that mean I had to cow down to him? Of course not. His businesses and material possessions were only things after all. What really mattered was your heart and soul. I felt his heart today; when he laughed, when he hugged me and most definitely when we kissed. It was a good heart, a romantic one, whether he was ready to admit that or not. Maybe the wall he’d built around it just needed to be chipped away at. I wasn’t ready to give up on him yet. I was willing to do a little chipping and see if I could break through. Besides, my heart already felt a connection to him. I wasn’t going to cheat myself out of the first real feelings I’d had for a man in a long time. I decided that he was definitely worth some time and effort. If nothing came of it, at least I would be able to say that I tried.

CHAPTER NINE

 

~

 

 

AARON

 

 

“Aaron?” Doug, my VP of marketing was looking at me strangely. We were sitting in our regular Monday morning meeting and I guess my mind had drifted off topic. I had no idea what he’d just said. “Are you okay?” he asked me. Doug had worked for me for years. He’d never had cause to ask me if I was okay before this.

 

“I’m fine. I just have a lot on my mind. I’m sorry, Doug. Can you repeat that?”

 

He was talking about advertisement for the products we distributed to New Zealand. He’d enlisted a production company to shoot short videos and television ads. It was going to cost a fortune, but start-up always did. I never let cost get in the way of a good business decision. Today, I just didn’t care either way. I let him give his spiel for the second time that morning I suppose, and then I let Hal, my Chief financial officer barter with him about the cost. I’d hardly even processed what he’d said. My mind was definitely elsewhere; a few floors down to be exact. I’d been thinking about Robyn almost constantly since… well, I guess since the day I saw her step off the elevator if I’m being honest with myself. That was what started it all. It was why I’d even been at that auction in the first place. If I had been thinking then, I would have known it was too close to Christmas to get so close to anyone. Then I’d agreed to go to that fair. Against my own better judgment, I’d had a good time… too good.

 

“Aaron?” This time it was Hal bringing me back to the present.

 

“Yes?”

 

“I asked if you would be okay with those figures…”

 

“Oh, um… what was it, exactly?” I asked.

 

He repeated them and then said, “Are you sure you’re alright?” Now, everyone at the table was looking at me strangely. I needed to remember that I had a position to uphold here.

 

“Yes, I’m sure. I apologize to all of you. I don’t mean to waste your time this morning. I have something urgent that I should deal with. I trust your judgment on this Hal, and you too Doug. Go ahead and arrange it for whatever Hal thinks the right budget will be and I’ll sign for it.” I looked at Sheila then; she was taking notes for the agenda. Janice usually did that, but she was busy working on plans for the Christmas party. It was another thing I didn’t want to think about at the moment. “Just transfer whatever else is on the agenda to next Monday, unless it’s urgent. If so, star it and Janice can bring it up with me later in the week.”

 

“Yes sir,” Sheila said, standing up. The rest of the executives at the table were still looking at me strangely, but they got up from it and before they finally left me completely alone, Hal hung back to speak to me.

 

“Is this about the meeting with Xiong this evening? Are there problems you’re anticipating?” The meeting was important, crucial actually. Winters needed to branch out into broader markets with the economy the way it was here in the states. We’d gone into Russia and New Zealand so far and dabbled a bit in the U.K., and now we were looking at China. But I didn’t anticipate any problems. I had all my ducks in a row for the meeting. Hal was a worrier though, so I wasn’t surprised that was where his mind had gone.

 

“No Hal. That meeting should go just as planned. It’s a personal matter. But, I’m fine, really.”

 

He gave me a nod and the meeting finally disbursed. I could understand why they were all so alarmed by my behavior. It was definitely unlike me to be so absent during a meeting. I was always on point and I was angry with myself over being distracted today. I never let myself get so off track. That reminded me of what Robyn had said about going off track and making new discoveries. I had discovered plenty by staying on track, hadn’t I? I was focused and driven, that was what had led to my success at such a young age. I started this company with very little and now look where we were at.

 

I was willing and able to put aside things that other young men held up as priorities, such as attachments to pretty women. I never got attached to women. I had plenty of dates, and plenty of women who wanted to attach themselves to me but I just never let it happen. Robyn was just so different though. I wasn’t used to a woman who was so blatantly enthusiastic about life. Not material things, not money… just life.

 

She’d wanted to pay for everything that day at the park. That was another thing I wasn’t used to. It wasn’t that I minded paying for things. God knows I have more money than I could spend in a lifetime even if I tried. But, somehow it felt more human to have someone buy you a sandwich or a cup of coffee for a change, especially someone who knew I could afford to buy my own. I didn’t get the feeling that she was trying to attach herself to me either. I got that feeling from a lot of women. I mean… I think she likes me, but not the me that most people want to be attached to, Aaron Winters, CEO, the guy with the power and the money. She liked the Aaron on his ass on the ice, and the one who felt compelled to beat a silly twelve year old at a silly midway game. I can’t remember the last time that someone liked that Aaron. Heck, I couldn’t even remember the last time that I was that Aaron. Robyn had brought that out in me, the guy who wasn’t afraid of relinquishing a bit of control and having fun. I think that’s what it was about her that had gotten under my skin.

 

I’d gotten so caught up in it all that day that I had kissed her. It was an amazing kiss. It was the kind that sent electric currents running down your spine and into your toes. I wanted nothing more than to deepen that kiss, but instead, I’d run away like a coward and left her standing there alone. I’d probably be lucky if she ever wanted to speak to me again. Someday she was going to see something like whatever it is that she saw in me in another guy. He’d end up with her and I would be right where I am today, rich and lonely. Lately the only time the feeling of loneliness went away was when I was with Robyn.

 

The kiss was two days ago though and I haven’t seen her or called her. I’ve never been afraid of anything in my life. When my parents died I knew instinctively that I was going to be the only person that I could count on for the rest of my life. I’d learned to do everything from that point on, by myself, and none of it frightened me. It motivated me, in fact. Robyn, and the way that kiss had made me feel frightened me to no end. I’d had plenty of kisses, but none of them hit me in the gut the way that one had. The fact that it frightened me made me angry with myself.

 

I sat at that desk in the empty conference room staring at the walls wondering if I should call her. Should I just go down there and talk to her? I’d love to see her. Her energy alone infects me. I hadn’t realized until the moment I’d become infected by it that something was missing in my life. I thought I had everything I wanted or needed. The rest of it was just extraneous and usually required more time and attention than I had or wanted to spare, and if it did I’d always just walked away and left it behind me. Perhaps I should stay up here in my ivory tower and let whatever it is that I feel for her and she feels for me fade away. Surely if I just stay away from her now, the feelings will eventually fade. It wasn’t like I was in love with her…

 

 

 

ROBYN

 

 

I tried not to, but since Saturday night I hadn’t been able to think about anything except Aaron and that kiss. I kept hoping that he would call me, or send me a text or an email or something, but to no avail. I had taken Christmas cookies that I made on Sunday in to my co-workers and I’d even thought about taking some up to him. I was worried about getting the rumor mill started, I didn’t want to make being friends with me difficult, he seemed to be having a hard enough time with that already. I hoped that’s what we were becoming… friends. It had definitely felt like more than that when he kissed me, but then he’d taken off and I didn’t know if that was because he felt regret, or panic. It hurt either way.

 

I thought about him saying that he had a big meeting later today with some men that were coming in from China. I probably shouldn’t expect to hear from him after that. I’m no executive, but I can imagine a thing like that would be pretty stressful. I know from the cues Max has been giving me about the marketing for it on our end that it was a huge proposition Aaron was setting forth to them.

 

“Robyn?” I looked up to see Gary at my desk. He had that look of reverence in his eyes that was always there when he looked at me.

 

“Hi Gary, what can I do for you?”

 

“Nothing,” he said. “I just wanted to thank you for the cookies. My Monday was kind of crappy and then I saw them in the break room with your little Christmas note. Actually, I smelled them first. You could use them as potpourri. I’m sure they don’t last long enough for that though. They were delicious. That was really nice of you. Thank you.”

 

I smiled. Poor Gary was really a nice guy. It was too bad that I wasn’t attracted to him at all. “You’re welcome. That was what I was hoping to do, brighten everyone’s Monday. I love to bake. It’s cathartic for me.” I wasn’t going to tell Gary, but baking all day Sunday was how I’d lifted my own spirits after what happened on Saturday.

 

“It worked. You’re amazing,” he said. He gave me that look again, the one that said he was infatuated, and the one that made me uncomfortable. I don’t know why I couldn’t just fall for a guy like Gary who was so easy going. It must be because I liked a challenge so much.

 

“I appreciate you stopping in, Gary. Was there anything else you needed?” I asked, trying to hurry him along. The way he looked at me made me feel guilty some times for not reciprocating.

 

“No, that was it,” he said. Then he thanked me again and went back to his own office. His visit made me feel good, in spite of the slightly uncomfortable part there at the end. I was glad to know that I’d lifted someone’s spirits. It gave me an idea. I could sneak up to the tenth floor while Aaron was in his meeting and leave a plate of them for him with a note. He’d said the meeting was late afternoon, so when I get off he should still be in the meeting. Maybe it would ease his stress after the meeting. At the very least, it would let him know that I’m thinking about him. I hoped that would be a good thing.

 

I went to go and grab some cookies out of the break room; I had brought several dozen, but I knew from experience they would all be gone soon. Just as I got to the open office door, the phone rang. I went back and answered it, it was my friend Melissa.

 

“Hey Robyn! I’m sorry to call you at work, but I wanted to catch you this afternoon. I’m making reservations for our annual dinner on Thursday. I’m getting a head count. Are you bringing a date?”

 

“N—-Actually, yes…I think I am,” I said, suddenly getting another idea.

 

“Great! I’ll make yours for two. I’m looking forward to seeing you, girl! It’s been what… since Halloween?”

 

“Yes, I know. I’m sorry. I took this manager position and I work more instead of less. How is that possible?”

 

Melissa laughed, “I know what you mean. I worked sixty hours last week. We need to stop this or we’ll turn into some stuffed shirt CEO’s someday.” That made me think of Aaron again. I wondered what my friend would think of my… whatever this was I was feeling for him.

 

“Never!” I told her, jokingly.

 

“I’ll see you on Thursday and then we’ll make a standing date for once a month after that, work or no. You’ll have to dish to me about your date too.”

 

“Sounds great, thanks Melissa,” I told her. I hung up with a smile and a warm glow inside. I’d known Melissa since I was in high school. She’d come to my town to live with her aunt and uncle while her parents were in Europe and she’d loved the school and the people so much that she talked her parents into letting her finish school there. She was originally from New York and I’d come to New York with her for school after graduation. We roomed together for the first two years and then I’d gotten my own place. We talked on the phone often, but she was right, it had come down to seeing each other only on holidays. I was ready to rectify that. I needed my friends in my life. Maybe by the time we had our “standing date” I’d have something to “dish” about.

 

I went to the break room after that and was happy to find that there were enough cookies left for me to take several for Aaron and not wipe them completely out. There were a couple of notes next to mine from my co-workers thanking me too. That made me smile. I filled a little festive plastic plate with the cookies and took them back to my office. Then, I wrote a note:

 

 

Aaron,

 

Here’s hoping that a little sugar and a lot of Christmas cheer can chase your stress away. Happy Monday!

 

Robyn

 

P.S. I have a dinner party to attend on Thursday night with a group of my friends. We do it every year at the Lighthouse Inn and I would love it if you could join me. We’ll be there at eight. I’ll just expect you…whether you respond or not. I won’t take no for an answer.

 

 

I put the note in an envelope and wrote his name on the outside of it in a red, felt marker before I got back to work. That evening when it was time for me to leave, I took the plate and envelope up to the tenth floor. I stepped off the elevator and looked around. I’d never been this high up in the building. It was nice to see that our offices were decorated as nicely and as comfortably as they were up here. It was further proof that although Aaron was loaded, he didn’t hold himself up higher than anyone else. I really liked that about him.

 

I followed the sign to Suite #1 where I knew his office was from our company directory. His assistant Janice’s desk sat outside his door, but she wasn’t there. It was after five, so she was probably already gone for the day. I noticed that she had her little corner decorated for the holidays. She even had a string of colored lights around her desk. I had to wonder what Aaron thought about that. I knocked on his door, but there was no answer. Tentatively, I tried the knob. The door pushed open and I suddenly realized that not exactly everything was the same up here. Aaron’s office was huge; the size of four, or maybe five of the regular offices. There was his desk of course, but also a large oak conference table, a black leather couch and two chairs, a fireplace, a wet bar, a closet and a very large bathroom, fully equipped with a shower. He could live here if he wanted to. I saw a shirt draped over one of the chairs and got a glimpse into the half opened closet where several suits hung. I wondered if sometimes he did. That made me a little sad. Everyone should have a warm home that they were dying to get to after work. I personally loved going home to my own. I noticed in the office that seemed to have everything, that there was one thing conspicuously missing… Christmas. This time of year when everything else was decorated so festively, it made the beautiful office seem a little sad.

 

I went over to his desk and sat down the cookies and the note. While I was there, I glanced out the window. He had four huge windows that took up most of the wall behind his desk. The view was breathtaking. The sun was just beginning to go down and the lights of Manhattan were beginning to burn across the city. It was beautiful. I wondered if it made him happy. I glanced at what was on his desk… office supplies, and what was on the walls… artwork. There was nothing personal, no photographs, no diplomas or awards. I couldn’t help but wonder what his life was like outside of here, and why he kept it so closed off from everyone else. Feeling sad for him, I closed the door behind me as I left and headed for home, hoping that I’d at least brightened his day a little bit.

CHAPTER TEN

 

~

 

 

 

AARON

 

 

The big meeting that I’d been preparing for and anticipating for weeks went well. China was an important market that Winters Inc. hadn’t yet broken into. The gentlemen I met with were more than willing to hear what I had to say about how our products would benefit their communities. They were even happier about it when I told them about our company’s all green plans. It was something their own company prided themselves on. The only difficult part of the meeting was communication. I knew a little bit of Mandarin, I’d taken it in college. My skills unfortunately weren’t honed enough for such an important meeting, so most of it was accomplished via an interpreter. That in itself was exhausting, and a bit worrisome. I trusted my interpreter but I still worried occasionally that things might get lost in translation.

 

When the meeting ended, I said good-bye to my new business partners and headed back to my office to get my things. I felt so weary, but I knew that I wasn’t just tired tonight. Something just felt… off. I had this big, empty feeling in my chest lately for some reason. Usually after a meeting like the one I’d just had, I’d be so excited that I was bouncing off the walls. I’d often go out for a celebratory drink and occasionally meet a nice woman for some temporary company. Not today though, not even the success of the meeting had made me happy. I had no desire to be with a woman either. At least not one I could find in a bar. I couldn’t put my finger on what had changed and it annoyed me.

 

I opened my office door and was surprised by a pleasant spiced aroma. I figured that Janice had bought one of those scented candles or plug in devices for the office. She didn’t force Christmas on me, she knew better. But she had her little subtle ways of giving me hints. Her fragrances were often part of that every year, as was her gaudily decorated desk outside my office door. I walked over to my own desk to retrieve my briefcase and was surprised to see a plate of cookies and an envelope with my name on it. I picked up the envelope and slipped out the note.

 

It was from Robyn. I should have known. Who else would have the nerve to sneak in my office when I was out and leave Christmas cookies? Or Christmas anything for that matter. Geez! What was it going to take for her to get it? I didn’t like Christmas, why was that a crime? I didn’t really read the note; I just tossed it back down on the desk and picked up the plate of cookies. I was about to dump them in the wastebasket when the scent assaulted my senses again. I set the plate back down and sat myself down behind my desk. I suppose she wasn’t going to know the difference if I ate them or not, so tasting one wouldn’t be encouraging her behavior. Besides, although it was slightly annoying, it was a nice thought. I knew that she had something to do with the change in the way I’d been feeling about my life lately, I just wasn’t sure what.

 

I picked up one of the cookies and took a bite. I hated to admit it, but it was delicious. I ate the whole thing. Then, I poured myself a cup of coffee and went back for the other two. By the time I finished my coffee and all three cookies, I was feeling so much better. It was amazing what a little sugar and caffeine could do. I was still unwilling to admit that my feelings for Robyn had anything to do with my sudden change of attitude.

 

Curiosity overcame me and I reached for the note again. This time I actually read it:

 

 

Aaron,

 

Here’s hoping that a little sugar and a lot of Christmas cheer can chase your stress away. Happy Monday!

 

Robyn

 

P.S. I have a dinner party to attend on Thursday night with a group of my friends. We do it every year at the Lighthouse Inn and I would love it if you could join me. We’ll be there at eight. I’ll just expect you…whether you respond or not. I won’t take no for an answer.

 

 

Okay, she was right about the sugar. It didn’t matter to me that they were Christmas cookies though. It was the ingredients that had worked, not the decoration. I wasn’t going to believe she’d baked Christmas spirit into them.

 

She’d invited me out on a date, I would assume. That was nice of her, but the part about her assuming that I would just show up; that bothered me. What made her assume such a thing? Was it the kiss? Had I given her the idea that we were something we’re not? I leaned my elbows on the desk and put my head in my hands. What had I done? I didn’t normally do this. I never set a woman up to get her heart broken right before I left on my Christmas trip. I never set them up period. I always told them straight out what I was looking for. It was always temporary. Why was Robyn so different?

 

 

 

ROBYN

 

 

I went by the mall on my way home from work on Wednesday evening and bought a new dress. I wanted to look great for dinner Thursday night, especially since I hadn’t heard from Aaron. I hadn’t been convinced that he would agree to go, but since I hadn’t heard from him and it was already Wednesday night, I thought that was a good sign. I thought he was enough of a gentleman that he would have surely called if the answer was no. I couldn’t imagine him just not showing up. I walked around and listened to the Christmas music and looked at all the pretty decorations. I got some ideas for my own tree from the one in the center of the mall and while I was there, I bought some more Christmas decorations. I enjoyed seeing everyone out, looking happy and excited that the season was finally upon us. I went home with a warm, happy feeling in my heart.

 

I left work early on Thursday with Max’s blessing. I had a ton of vacation time saved up and he was more than willing to let me use it here and there before the holidays. I went straight home and started getting ready. I took a long, hot bubble bath first. It felt so good to soak in the warm, soft bubbles when the weather was so harsh and cold outside. I loved the snow, but I loved it even more from the warmth of my own home.

 

When I got out of the tub, I slipped on my robe and I put my hair in hot rollers. Afterwards, I applied my make-up carefully and then I slipped on my new dress. It was a light green pleated chiffon gown with beaded back bodice and it was sleeveless with beads that went across the shoulders. It had an A-line skirt that ended just below the knee. I had the perfect pair of silver shoes to wear with it. Once I was dressed, I took out the rollers and shook my hair out loose around my face and across my shoulders. I painted my fingernails and my toenails and when they dried, I put on a silver chain, earrings and shoes. I took a final look in the mirror before I put on my coat. I was satisfied with the result. I grabbed my bag and then crossed my fingers and made a wish on the star outside my window that Aaron would show up, and then I headed out.

 

On my way to the restaurant, I thought about how long it had been since I’d seen all of my dear friends. Melissa and her fiancé had a Halloween party and everyone was there. I’d dressed up like a cheetah in a costume that I’d made myself. It was a body suit with a little skirt and I’d made gloves and ears with the same material. The party had been a blast and I’d won best costume. The only regret I had that night was that all of my friends, even the unmarried ones, had partners. Some of them were just dating still, but they’d all been together for a while. I liked them all, and they all made me feel welcome… but I still felt a little bit like the odd man out. Melissa was always trying to set me up with one of Chris, her fiancé’s, friends. I appreciated that she worried about me and wanted to see me in a happy relationship, but I was of a mind that when it came to the man I was meant to be with, I would find him on my own, and I’d know when I found him.

 

I parked my car in the lot and got a little excited tickle when I saw a limousine driving in. The driver got out to open the door for their passenger. It wasn’t Aaron’s chauffer Jeffrey, who I counted as one of my newest friends. I felt disappointed when I saw the smartly dressed man and woman get out of the car while the chauffeur held the door. I shook it off quickly, however, telling myself it was early yet. There was still time for Aaron to show. I wasn’t going to let myself get down tonight. Tonight was about good times with good company.

 

I spotted Melissa and Chris at the bar when I walked in. I checked my coat and went over to see them.

 

“Robyn!” Melissa wrapped me in a hug. “I’m so happy to see you. Look at you, you’re gorgeous! How are you still single?”

 

Laughing, I thanked her and said, “I have no idea. And right back at you. I love that color on you!” Melissa was a petite little brunette with big blue eyes and a spray of freckles across her nose. She looked gorgeous, especially tonight in her strapless red holiday dress.

 

“What about me?” Chris pretended to pout. “This suit is the exact shade of my eyes.” I hugged him too.

 

“Of course it is… I was just going to say…” Chris was six foot five and looked like a linebacker. He was in a chocolate brown suit with a festive red tie. The suit did in fact match his eyes. He was kidding about picking it out though, I was sure. Chris was color blind and Melissa rarely let him pick out his own clothes. When she did, he was often seen wearing wildly mis-matched colors. It was something we all teased him about. He was a great sport though. I was so happy that Melissa found him. They were perfectly suited to each other. He was a really good guy.

 

“Where is your date?”

 

“He’ll be here soon,” I told her. “He’s meeting me here.”

 

“I can’t wait to meet him,” she said.

 

“Where is everyone else?” I asked them.

 

“Carol and Brett will be here soon. She just text me, and I think I see Nadine and Tom walking in now.” I turned to see our friend Nadine coming towards us. She was a tall, willowy African-American woman with light mocha skin that always had a glow to it. We met Nadine in college and she’d been a good friend since. Her fiancé Tom was an artist who was rapidly gaining a following in New York. He was always happy and a ton of fun to hang out with. We all gave hugs and kisses and said hello and by that time, Carol and Brett arrived. Brett was the one that went way back with us in that couple. He and Melissa dated in college. It didn’t work out, but we’d all been tight ever since anyways. Carol and Brett had been dating for about six months now. She seemed like she was going to fit into the group just fine.

 

“Are we ready to sit?” Chris asked. Melissa looked at me questioningly. I was sure she didn’t want to embarrass me by asking where my date was and I loved her for it.

 

“Sure, let’s sit. My date should be here soon,” I said.

 

We all sat down and the server took our drink and appetizer orders. I was starting to get nervous that Aaron wasn’t going to show up. I regretted telling Melissa that I had a date; the empty chair next to me looked ominous. I knew my friends wouldn’t judge me for it, but they’d feel badly for me and I didn’t want to be the cause of a damper on the evening. I kept looking towards the door and the bar, crossing my fingers that he was still going to make it, although I knew at this point I was fooling myself. It was already half past eight. I took one final look and turned back towards Melissa to tell her we could order… he wasn’t going to come. That was when I felt a tap on my shoulder. Excitedly I turned around… and there was Gary.

 

“Gary, hi!” I said, surprised to see him and hoping my disappointment wasn’t showing on my face. I was also a little concerned about why Gary was here. Was he stalking me now? That was kind of a mean thought. This was a popular, public place. I was just so disappointed that it hadn’t been Aaron tapping me.

 

“Hey Robyn,” he said. “I was having a drink at the bar and saw you. I just wanted to say hi and tell you that you look fantastic.” He had that look on his face again.

 

“Thanks,” I said. He was so nice and I felt really mean for being so disillusioned when I first saw him. I turned to Melissa who had been in conversation with Nadine. Carol and Brett were talking to Chris. I don’t think anyone had heard what Gary and I said to each other. “Have a seat,” I told him, quickly. He looked surprised, but happy. He sat down in Aaron’s empty chair and I leaned in and whispered, “I was wondering if you haven’t eaten yet, if you’d like to join us for dinner?”

 

Gary’s face lit up and he said, “Yes, I’d love to.”

 

“Okay, thank you,” I told him, smiling back. “I’m going to introduce you as my date, so play along, okay?” I’d done my best for so long to not encourage him and I was probably undoing all of that right now. He looked about to burst he was so happy. I didn’t think it could be all that wrong. It made me happy that he was happy. I was still disappointed in Aaron. The least he could have done was call…

CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

~

 

 

 

AARON

 

 

It was already half past eight when I got to the restaurant. I should have called Robyn and let her know I was running late. The reason that I didn’t was that I was running late because I hadn’t decided to go until the very last minute. Once I finally stopped waffling back and forth, I was already late and I thought it would be better if I just explained myself when I got there.

 

All week I had been going back and forth about it. I would tell myself I wasn’t going. Robyn was too fascinated by Christmas and since it was almost Christmas time, I would get roped into all of her “Christmassy” activities or I would break her heart when I left for Belize and refused to do Christmas with her. Either way, it was a bad situation. It was too close to Christmas to lead her on. The holiday obviously meant a lot to her.

 

I would pick up the phone to call her and tell her all that but before I dialed her number, I would put it back down and start the argument for going to the restaurant. I would tell myself that not dating her because she liked Christmas was ridiculous. It was true; it was probably the most ridiculous reason for not dating a person that I’d ever heard. If I knew it was ridiculous, imagine how it would sound to other people. I may as well just stop dating period. Everyone loves Christmas, except for me. I had my reasons of course, but that was also something I didn’t want to have to talk about. I liked Robyn. What would be wrong with dating her? She would eventually come to understand that we would just always differ on the subject of Christmas… right?

 

Finally after debating it to death in my head and getting very little work done all week, I decided to go. First and foremost because I hadn’t seen her since Saturday and I really missed her face. Second of all because I’d never called her to decline and just not showing up would be much too rude. Thirdly, I was hoping if I made contact with her and maybe got a few things settled, I’d be able to concentrate on something else for a while and actually get some work done. It was only a date after all.

 

I walked inside and was still standing near the front of the restaurant when I saw her. She looked so beautiful that even from a distance she took my breath away. She was seated at a table with three other couples and the seat next to her was empty. Presuming it was for me, I started over. That was when I saw Gary. He worked for me and I had seen him at the auction, bidding like mad for Robyn. I asked Max if there was anything between them and he had laughed. He told me that Robyn is too nice to tell him to get lost, and that Gary was infatuated with her. I could see the way he was looking at her now, with worship in his eyes. Before I made it as far as the bar, Gary was taking my seat. I cursed myself in my head and turned towards the bar. I didn’t think that she’d invited Gary in my place. What I thought was that she had to save face because like an idiot, I hadn’t shown up and I hadn’t called.

 

I glanced back over at them. Robyn had her back to me now and the light over the table shone off her silky, honey gold hair. I wanted to touch it… I wanted to kiss her again. I had a wild urge to go over and force Gary out of my chair. He was my employee after all. I could use my clout to get rid of him. I didn’t do any of those things. Thank God for impulse control and common sense. I knew that I was too late and if I went over now I would make her and everyone else at the table uncomfortable. I would never use my power over an employee like that either. I doubted that Robyn would be okay with it. She didn’t seem like the type who would be impressed by such nonsense. With a final glance at her lovely profile, I left. I felt like a fool. It wasn’t a feeling I was used to.

 

***

 

 

 

I let another week go by without contacting Robyn. I owed her a huge apology for not showing up to dinner. Well, as far as she knew, I didn’t show up. I was ashamed of myself for not following through with calling her to at least apologize. I kept telling myself that if I let enough time pass between us the feelings would go away. I don’t know when I suddenly became a coward. It wasn’t like me at all. I’ve never been hesitant to ask a woman I found attractive out and I’d never met one that intimidated me in the least. When it was time to stop seeing her because it had become unpleasant for me for whatever reason, I just told her the truth. I’ve dated some of the richest women in the world as well as a lot of poor ones. I’d never met one that affected me the way that Robyn did, and it scared the hell out of me. I wasn’t used to being scared either and I didn’t like it. So what have I done about it? Absolutely nothing. I kissed her and she brought me cookies and invited me out, and I haven’t so much as called her. When or if I finally do, I doubt that she’ll believe I waited so long because I didn’t know what to say, but that was the honest to God truth. I’m the CEO of a multi-national company. I’m rich and I’m powerful and I’m confident. Why can’t I just pick up the phone and call her? I think deep down that it’s because I don’t understand what I’m feeling, so I have no idea how to explain it to her. If I tried, it was probably just going to come out sounding stupid. I hated to sound stupid. It was probably a moot point anyways. I’m sure she despises me by now.

 

“Mr. Winters?”

 

Janice had just stuck her head in the door. She’d been timid with me this week; I’m guessing that she sensed my mood. Janice knew me well enough to know when to keep her distance. My bite wasn’t so fierce, but sometimes my bark could get out of control. She was great at diverting me when that happened, but she often just tried to avoid it altogether.

 

“Yes, Janice?”

 

“I have your mail. Would you like me to open and go through it?”

 

“No, I have time to do it, Janice, thank you.” She brought in a bundle and laid it on my desk.

 

“If there’s anything you need me to do with it, I’ve finished the reports for the day and I have a free afternoon.”

 

“You know what, Janice? I’m sure there’s nothing here that can’t wait until Monday. Why don’t you go home early? I’m sure you have some Christmas shopping or something to do, right?” I wasn’t a complete ogre.

 

“Are you sure, sir?”

 

“I’m positive, Janice. Go home. Enjoy your weekend.”

 

“Thank you, sir.”

 

“You’re welcome.” I watched her leave and close the door. With a sigh I picked up the first piece of mail. I could tell what it was without opening it, a Christmas card. I slid the envelope open just to be sure. It was in fact a card from one of my clients. I threw it in the wastebasket. I shuffled through, picking out all of the ones that looked like cards. I opened them one by one and threw them away. This was why Janice offered to do my mail… the big reason, anyways. She knew that I always threw my cards away and never sent any out. I suspected that she kept them and sent cards out to those that had sent me one. She’d tried to tell me once that it was rude to just throw them away. That was one of the times she’d endured my bark. Since then, I think she tried to intercept as many as she could.

 

I finally slid open the last card in front of me. This one didn’t have a return address, so it must have been dropped off in the mail room, which I thought was odd. I pulled it out and on the front it said, “Believe” and there was a picture of an old fashioned Santa Claus sitting in a chair in front of a hearth. I started to dump it with the rest of them, but something about it reminded me of Robyn. I smiled when I thought about her Santa Claus obsession and the sweet story she’d told me. But she knew I didn’t do Christmas. I’d been clear on that. Surely she hadn’t… I opened it and it said, “Keep Christmas in your heart now and always.” At the bottom was Robyn’s signature. I tossed the card down on the desk in frustration. Why can’t she get that I don’t want anything to do with Christmas? Why can’t she understand that I don’t want to get close to her for that reason? My head was throbbing by the time I left to go home. I couldn’t have explained it if someone had put a gun to my head, but for some reason I put her card in my briefcase and took it with me. I thought it was best if I didn’t see her until I got back from my trip, but what could keeping the card really hurt?

 

 

 

ROBYN

 

 

I spent the week before the company Christmas party altering the dress that Aaron bought me the day he “bought” me. It wasn’t a Christmas color, but I thought I could make it look Christmassy with the right touches. I took the floor length and turned it into a maxi that ended just at my knees. I used a dark silver silk scarf that I rarely wore to make a sash around the waist, and I cut off the sleeves to make it sleeveless, adding silver sequins to the shoulder straps. It was perfect! I added a beautiful antique silver Santa Claus necklace Melissa bought me for Christmas a few years ago and topped it off with a pair of silver bell earrings. I wore my hair up in a loose bun and wore the silver pumps I’d worn with the dress the first time around. I thought it all came together beautifully.

 

I was excited about the party, mostly because I assumed Aaron would be there. It had been weeks since I’d laid eyes on him. The day at the park when he’d kissed me had been the last time I saw or spoke to him. I sent him emails, left him cookies, invited him to dinner and sent him a Christmas card. I hadn’t heard a single word from him in return, and a smarter woman would have given up by now, I told myself. I was plenty smart, but I was also stubborn. I believed strongly that sometimes there are things worth fighting for. I didn’t imagine our kiss, or the way Aaron looked at me. He was interested in me, but for some reason he was holding back. I wasn’t a desperate woman running after a man who didn’t want her. I was a woman who knew what she wanted, and he had sent me more than one signal that he wanted me too. I wasn’t ready to give up just yet… at least not until he told me to straight to my face.

 

I arrived at the party alone. It seemed to me when I walked in that everyone had someone and I was beginning to regret not taking a date. Even Gary brought a date. That was like an arrow to my heart. I took a deep breath then and walked in with my head and my spirits high. Whether or not I got to see Aaron, and whether or not he talked to me, I was going to have a great time tonight.

 

The room was decorated beautifully with red linen tablecloths and white poinsettias on each table. There was an eight foot Christmas tree decorated with lovely hand-tied bows and delicate looking glass ornaments. There was a dance floor with red and white striped posts around it and beautiful wreaths hanging on them. It looked and smelled like Christmas and the soft sounds of Christmas music piped out of the speakers.

 

I looked around and spotted the “marketing” table. Max and all the crew I worked with and supervised every day were there. Max had told me they would save me a seat. On my way over to it, I spotted Aaron. He was at the executives table, way in the front. He looked so handsome in a perfectly tailored black suit and red tie with a red swatch in the pocket and stylishly mussed dark hair. I couldn’t help but look at his lips and remember that kiss. The only problem with his look was that as usual, he looked so serious. If he only knew how beautiful his smile was, I think he’d use it more.

CHAPTER TWELVE

 

~

 

 

AARON

 

 

I was sitting at my table, talking with Hal and Doug about boring work issues when I looked up and saw an angel walk through the door. Robyn was wearing a dress that was the same color as the one I’d bought her that first day, the one she hadn’t worn to the restaurant. It was shorter and her legs were gorgeous. I loved that color on her though, it was the exact same blue as her eyes and the reason that I’d bought it for her in the first place. I never told her that I’d picked it out myself. I had the poor woman at the boutique show me ten or twelve dresses before the color of one was just right. I wanted to go over and say hello, but she hadn’t seen me yet. I could see her talking and laughing with some of the people from her department. She looked so happy and so festive; I didn’t want to interrupt. Happy and festive, I was not.

 

She took a seat at the table with the others from marketing. Part of me was happy to see that she hadn’t brought a date. The other part of me told myself that I had a lot of nerve. I’d basically shunned her at every turn. She’d reached out to me so many times. I had no right to expect her to remain single and mooning over me until this blasted holiday was over with no matter how much I hoped that would be the case.

 

Dinner was served and while I ate and tried to keep up with the conversation at my own table I couldn’t keep from looking over at her. She was surrounded by an aura, I think, that drew people to her. Every time I looked at her she seemed to be making someone else laugh. People were gathered around her and I understood why… I wanted to be there too. I knew if I was I’d be self-conscious and I would find myself believing that people were only being nice to me because they wanted something… everyone except Robyn. I’d never met anyone else like her. I stayed where I was; it was better this way, but my mood only got darker because of it.

 

Dinner seemed excruciatingly long as I forced myself to make pleasant conversation with those around me. Everyone was raving about how delicious the salmon was and going on about the cheesecake that was served for dessert. I ate along with everyone else, but I barely tasted any of it. My mind was too preoccupied to register something as insignificant as taste.

 

When dinner was finally over, it was time for me to give my annual speech. I took the stage, determined not to look at Robyn while I was there so that I’d be able to recall the words I’d written to address my employees and colleagues tonight.

 

“Good evening everyone. Thank you all for coming this evening. I’d like to start out by telling you all how nice you look tonight. This is usually the only time of year I get to see you all out in your formal wear. I have to say, you all wear it well. It’s great to get together like this and see you all with your significant others and having fun instead of working as hard as you normally are when I see you. I’d like to raise a toast to you all and that those smiles I see on your faces last through the upcoming year.”

 

Everyone raised their glasses and said their “Here here’s” and their “To you too boss’s!” I made the mistake of glancing at Robyn then. She was holding up her glass, smiling at me. I froze for several seconds. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I suddenly realized that an uncomfortable silence had fallen across the room. I snapped back to what I was doing and attempted to cover for myself.

 

“Forgive me, I was trying to think of the best way to say this next part. The Japanese say that business is war. I think that most days, they’re right. Nothing about establishing and building this business was easy. I do have to say though that it’s a war I couldn’t have fought alone. Every one of us in this room has fought one hell of a battle this past year. It was a battle that we won. It shows in our numbers and our customer satisfaction ratings. I’d love to thank you all individually, but since I’m likely to forget someone I’ll say this: Each and every one of us has done our part and it’s resulted in one of the best years that Winters Incorporated has ever had, so pat yourselves on the back, you deserve it.” Again, I looked at Robyn and she was doing as one may have guessed, patting herself on the back. I tried to keep a straight face, I’m not sure I was doing a very good job… I had to struggle to remember where I’d left off.

“In the past year we have gained three lucrative partnerships. One with Granite Projects in New Zealand, one with Kosovo Ltd. out of Russia, and most recently, Xiong Enterprises in China. I signed the papers and arranged the meetings, but the truth of the matter is that if I didn’t have good people behind me doing the work, there would have been no papers to sign. So again, thank you all.” I had to look and see if Robyn was patting herself again. She wasn’t. This time, she had stood up and taken a bow. This woman was killing me.

 

I had to refocus again to go on and tell everyone that their Christmas bonuses would be ready for them to pick up either over the weekend or on Monday morning. That got a rise out of them all and as the crowd cheered and applauded I saw Robyn put up her fingers and rub them together. She was making a money sign. I had to tear my eyes from her once again and get back on track. I highlighted the upcoming year and all of the positive things we had to look forward to. At last, I wrapped it up with, “That’s all I want to say for now, other than to tell you that there will be free champagne at the bar for the next hour to help the party go with a swing!” Then I held up my glass and said, “Cheers and happy holidays to you all.” They were clapping again and my eyes cut back to Robyn. She had picked up about five empty glasses and was pretending to jog over to the bar to fill them up. She had her friends laughing and me wishing I were one of them. It was strange that I had such good self-confidence, yet the thought of acting silly in public made me shudder. I thought it was cute when she did it though…

 

After I got off the stage, I headed over to the bar for some of that champagne myself. This was the part I hated the most about being the boss. As soon as I was spotted, I practically got accosted by every ass-kisser in the place. I understood working hard and being civil to get ahead in your job. I didn’t understand completely cowing down to someone. Rich or not, boss or not, I was only a man. I hated the way these people treated me like I was more than that… mostly for what they hoped would be their own personal gain. I heard things like, “You’re the greatest boss ever!” and “You look great boss, have you lost weight?” No one really saw me; they saw what I represented instead, everyone that was, except for Robyn. I truly believed that when she looked at me, she saw Aaron.

 

I glanced back over towards the table where she sat. Like I said, she had this aura about her. She still had people flocked around her, men and women alike. Her admirer Gary had brought a date to the party, but it didn’t stop him from being right there where she was, looking at her adoringly. She wasn’t the kind of woman who didn’t have choices. I wondered if I waited until I came back from my trip to make any kind of move, if I would completely blow my only chance with her.

 

For one night I wished that I wasn’t the CEO of this company. I wished instead that I was one of them, just a regular guy who worked here, so I could go over there and laugh and joke and enjoy the party for a change. Sighing heavily again, I told myself that wishing was a pointless waste of time. I was Aaron Winters, CEO and I had to maintain my professionalism at all times when my company and my employees are involved. I had a reputation to uphold. I was this company and I always had to remember that.

 

I turned back to my drink, finished it and got up to leave. The party was over for me. I’d made my appearance and I’d done my duty. I was going to go home now where there were no red and green decorations and no Christmas music playing. I started to get up and felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and was looking into Robyn’s beautiful blue eyes.

 

“Why so serious?” she said, doing her best “Joker” impression. She’d probably be surprised to know I was a big “Dark Knight” fan. It was a movie I watched at home, alone. I’m not sure if powerful men were supposed to like comic book movies, so I kept it to myself.

 

I did have to smile though. Just looking at her made me want to do that. “This is just not really my kind of party,” I said.

 

“A party’s a party. Look around you. Everyone is having a great time and best of all, it’s because of you. You did this for them, for all of us. You should be happy that everyone is enjoying themselves so much.”

 

“I am happy people are having fun.”

 

“Then you should try and have some yourself. Ignore the Christmas atmosphere if you must and relax a little. Being so serious all the time isn’t good for your health, and besides, it will give you frown lines and you’ll have to spend money on Botox injections. Then, you’ll have no expression at all.”

I laughed, she was too much sometimes.

 

“Dance with me,” she suddenly blurted out.

 

I looked out on the dance floor where people who’d had too much free champagne were moving around with jerky and in some cases mildly obscene movements. It was all set to a “Rocking around the Christmas tree” soundtrack. They could get away with that, they were only employees of the company. If I did it, they would talk about it for years to come.

 

“I don’t think so, but thanks,” I told her.

 

“Aw, come on, party-pooper. I don’t have a date and everyone else does. You wouldn’t want to be responsible for me sitting in a corner all alone without anyone to dance with, would you?”

 

“Guilt, that’s dirty pool.”

 

“Yes, I admit that it is,” she said with a grin. “All that matters is whether or not it worked.”

A slow Christmas song started then. This was exactly why I hadn’t seen her in three weeks. When she looked at me with those eyes I couldn’t say no.

 

“Okay, one dance… a slow one.”

 

She giggled and clapped her hands together like a little girl. Before I knew it, she was towing me out to the dance floor. I took her into my arms and we started swaying to the slow music. I could feel everyone looking at us. I wondered what they were saying about me, the boss who hates Christmas… dancing with an employee.

 

“Relax,” she said.

 

“What?”

 

“You’re so tense. Don’t worry about what anyone else is thinking. Pretend that it’s just you and me, dancing alone in a deserted room.” I wished it were. I tried to relax my muscles, but the more I thought about them, the tenser they got.

 

Robyn started singing. She knew every word to the song and her voice was lovely. I could feel her warm breath on my neck and smell the fresh, clean fragrance of her hair. For a few seconds I closed my eyes and tried to breathe in her energy. It worked for a while. While the song went on I didn’t see or feel or hear anything but the sound of her beautiful voice and the feel of her warm body against mine. I wanted to kiss her so badly that at one point I had to bite my own lip to stop myself. The song ended… I’m not sure how long ago it had ended when suddenly I realized that I was still standing there, holding her in my arms, looking into her eyes and dying to kiss her.

 

When I glanced around the room I realized that absolutely everyone was looking at us. I could feel the hot color flooding my cheeks…

 

“Ouch! Oh my!” Suddenly I felt her go slack in my arms and she fell to the floor.

 

“Robyn! Are you okay? What’s wrong?” I bent and picked her up as people rushed over.

 

“I hurt my ankle,” she said. “I’m okay. Do you mind taking me over by the door? I think I just need some fresh air.”

 

“Of course,” I told her. I put my arm around her waist and the people cleared a path for us. She limped against me until we were outside. I sat her down on one of the ledges where the plants and flowers were planted in front of the convention hall. I knelt next to her and said, “Let me look at your ankle.”

 

She winked at me and said, “I’m really fine. I could see how uncomfortable you were getting in there. I pretended to be hurt so they didn’t question why we were standing in each other’s arms with no music playing.”

 

I had to smile at her again. She looked so proud of herself.

 

“Well, that was quite the save,” I said, getting up and sitting next to her. “Thank you.”

 

She grinned, “You’re welcome,” she said. “Any time.”

 

“I should be going,” I told her.

 

“Why? It’s early yet. You seemed to just be starting to have fun.”

 

“I was, with you. I have to admit that dancing with you was the best part of the evening. I’m just not comfortable with that much attention. I have a lot to do before my trip, so I really should go.”

She suddenly looked up and said, “Okay, but there’s one Christmas tradition that I haven’t had a chance to get you to take part in this year and I’d really appreciate it if you would join me in this one last thing…”

 

I raised an eyebrow. She wasn’t ever going to get it, Christmas and I just didn’t mix. I had to ask though, “What tradition is that?”

 

She pointed above our heads. There was a sprig of mistletoe hanging on a line between the two trees, tied up with a red bow. This was the one thing out of all the traditions that I really was interested in, at least tonight with Robyn. I wanted to kiss her so badly that my chest almost physically ached. I couldn’t do that though. If I kissed her now, feeling the way that I did, I’m not sure I’d be able to walk away without telling her how I felt. It wasn’t the right time though. I was getting on a plane in two days. When I got back….

 

She leaned in towards me and I could feel her warmth. I had to physically pull myself away to keep from meeting her lips. I wanted to kiss her worse than I’d wanted anything for a really long time. Instead I stood up and said, “I have to go.”

I walked away from her and when I got almost to the parking lot, I turned back and looked. Robyn looked like I’d just broken her heart. I almost went back, it was killing me. I didn’t though. If I went back and kissed her, things would just get more complicated. I turned back around and continued on to my car. All I could hope was that she didn’t hate me too much to talk to me when I got back.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

~

 

 

 

ROBYN

 

 

I sat on the little concrete ledge outside the room where the Christmas party was going on and watched Aaron walk away. As the snow drifted softly down onto my bare head and shoulders I didn’t even notice the cold. My heart felt like it had gotten trapped in a vice and someone was tightening it every few seconds. I wasn’t capable of feeling anything beyond that. I watched him get in his car and drive away and I knew that any other woman faced with the same situation that I was in, would be disheartened enough to give up. I pushed myself up off the little ledge and went back inside wondering why I wasn’t. Was there something wrong with me, or was this how you felt when you finally happened up on the other half of your whole? When I got inside the door, Max was the first person I saw.

 

“You’re all wet. You’re going to catch your death in cold.”

 

I smiled at him, weakly. “I’ll be fine. I have an awesome immune system.”

 

Max raised an eyebrow at me, but he let it go. “How’s the ankle?” he asked, instead.

 

“What?”

 

“Your ankle, didn’t you hurt it?”

 

“Oh… oh yeah, it’s fine, thanks. I mean, it’s better. I just needed to stay off of it for a bit.”

 

“Is Aaron still out there? I don’t think he’ll be in the office before he leaves for his trip and I had a question for him.”

 

“No… I guess you’ll have to call him. He’s gone,” I told him. “I think he had all the Christmas party he can stand.”

 

Max laughed, “Yep, just the fact that he keeps coming to these things every year surprises me.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Why what?”

 

“Why does it surprise you that he keeps coming? What is his problem with Christmas, Max?”

 

“I don’t know. I just know that when he hired me, it was right after Halloween; Janice took me aside after I got the job and told me not to mention the holidays any time after Thanksgiving in Aaron’s presence. She told me that he would take really good care of us and we’d get some really good benefits and bonuses around the holidays, but I wasn’t going to get far with him on a personal note at all unless I was willing to act like Christmas didn’t exist in his presence. Janice doesn’t even know the source of it all, and she knows more about him than any of us do.”

 

“Wow, I didn’t get the memo about not mentioning Christmas,” I told him. I started wondering if I had taken it too far. Had I not only jeopardized any possibility of a relationship with Aaron, but had I possibly jeopardized my job as well?

 

“Things are too politically correct these days,” he said. “The company has grown a lot since I was hired. Winters Inc. has absorbed over twenty companies in the past five years. I have no idea how many people work for Aaron now, but in our office alone we have over three hundred full-time employees. It’s not something we can really talk freely about around the office without putting Aaron at risk of some type of backlash, or lawsuit. You know, someone saying that he disrespected their customs or something silly like that. It’s all the rage these days. Instead, it’s just something that somehow we all come to know without talking about it. In truth, this is the fifth executive position I’ve had in my career with a major corporation, and I’ve never been taken care of so well around the holidays. I just don’t mention them around Aaron and I never send him a Christmas card.”

 

“Something terrible must have happened to him around Christmas time for him to feel so strongly about it. I wish I knew what it was. It’s so sad for someone to be all alone at Christmas, even if it is by his own choosing.” I said that more to myself than I did Max. I didn’t really notice I’d said it out loud.

 

“You have feelings for him…”

 

Panic constricted my chest. I could hear the rumors now. Trying to waylay it I said, “He’s a nice, interesting man, that’s all. I feel strongly about Christmas and I just have a hard time understanding others who don’t. I really, firmly believe that holding Christmas in your heart renews your spirit for the upcoming year.” He was looking at me strangely so I asked him, “Is that naïve, or silly, you think?”

 

“No Robyn, it’s not silly. It’s how you feel, but just because you feel so strongly about it, doesn’t mean that you can convince other people to feel that way too.”

 

I was nodding. He was making a valid point, but although I knew it wasn’t possible to make everyone believe, it had to be possible to convert a few. People convert religions all the time, maybe Christmas could be the same. Maybe Aaron was one of the ones I’d get lucky with if I tried.

 

“Are you okay, Robyn?”

 

“I’m great,” I told him. “It’s three days until Christmas. I’m never not okay at this time of year.” I smiled at him and went back to the party to continue my role as the life of it. I wasn’t really pretending either; my feelings for Aaron didn’t rule my life. I still loved Christmas and I still felt the magic of it all around me. My feelings about Aaron were always there though, at least in the back of my mind.

 

I woke up the next morning feeling restless, but unsure what to do with myself. I knew that Aaron planned on leaving on Christmas Eve for his trip, and I considered calling him, just to wish him a good trip. I didn’t, instead I got out my laptop and I typed his name into the search engine. I got over ten million hits. I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t imagine ever being known that well. I started thinking about what that must be like, for your life to be at someone’s fingertips.

 

I searched through the hits I got for a history. I found the history of him founding the company and I was able to follow him through to today, but before that it was like he didn’t exist. Where did he come from, and what happened to him to make him guard his loneliness like a shield? I closed the laptop in frustration. I was probably never going to find out what it was about Christmas that bothered him so badly, unless someday he chose to tell me himself.

 

I gave up looking for it and thinking about it for the moment and went out to the mall. I was hoping a lot of Christmas music and shopping and merriment would make me feel better. Just in case I also had a large cup of hot chocolate and a couple of chocolate chip cookies. If the Christmas merriment failed, the sugar was a sure fire cure.

 

 

AARON

 

 

December 22nd will go down in my own personal history as one of the worst nights of my life. I didn’t really have bad days, or nights. Besides work, I went out of my way to keep my stress level to a minimum, until I met Robyn and seemed to screw up over and over again. The night of the party wasn’t going so badly until I left Robyn sitting underneath the mistletoe in the snow. The look on her face made my heart feel like it was literally breaking. That in itself was a feat, since I’d built a solid wall of ice around it years before.

 

I had so much fun dancing with her. Not only did she feel wonderful in my arms, she was singing in my ear and it was beautiful and she smelled good enough to eat. I got a little carried away with it until I realized I was having too much fun and we were the center of the entire room’s attention. I told myself that walking away before it went any further was the right thing to do. I was the CEO of the company, after all. I did have a reputation to uphold. Plus, there were the concerns I had about Robyn. I worried about getting too close to her at a time of year when I only craved solitude. I hadn’t wanted to complicate things, but the look on her face made me want to go back and take her into my arms, kiss her passionately, and apologize profusely for being the biggest ass on the face of the earth. Obviously, since it was already the 24th of December and I still hadn’t talked to her… I didn’t turn around and go back. I’d taken the coward’s way out.

 

I hadn’t slept in two days. The first night I went over and over it in my head. By the end of the night that pitiful look on her face and the sight of her sitting there in the snow with her cheeks flushed and her hair turning white was burned into my brain and my heart. The next day I didn’t even get out of bed. I was the CEO of one of the top ten most successful companies in the world. I hadn’t spent an entire day in bed since… ever. But on December 23rd, I lay in my bed from sunup until sundown, feeling like a zit on the underbelly of humanity. Jeffrey brought me lunch and asked about Robyn.

 

“How should I know how she’s doing?” I snapped at him. “She’s just an employee. I have no idea how she is.”

 

“Excuse me sir,” he said in a sarcastic tone. “I was under the impression you cared for the young lady.”

 

“Well I don’t, Jeffrey. Like I said, she’s an employee.” It sounded false to my own ears. It must have sounded false to his as well. He gave me a disapproving look, but no more disapproving than the one I was giving myself inwardly. I’d told myself over and over not to encourage her, but I’d done it anyways and then I walked away.

 

He finally left and I was glad. It was hard enough to have my own accusing eyes on me, but to also have his as well was too much. After he left, I’d gone back into hibernation mode.

 

I finally fell asleep sometime around three a.m. on Christmas Eve. I woke up about five hours later. I lay there for a minute, considering what I was going to do with my day. My plane wasn’t leaving until the late afternoon, but spending a second day in bed wasn’t an option. I got up and showered and finished packing. I ate a light breakfast and had my coffee, but then I was at a loss for what to do for the rest of the day until it was time to leave. It was another first for me. Usually, if I had a free hour or two I’d work. There was always work that I could do. I could always answer an email or ten, review a report or fifty and research new parts of the world that I wanted to break into. Today I was too preoccupied. I was afraid if I even tried, I would make a decision that I might later regret just because of the mood I was in. I still couldn’t get my mind off of Robyn, wondering if she would speak to me when I got back from my trip, wondering if we could possibly start over. I suddenly realized that I felt like I was choking on all of this indecision. I hated it. I needed some air. I had to get out of the apartment.

 

Jeffrey was supposed to pick me up to go to the airport later in the afternoon. I sent him a message that I’d decided to drive myself and would just park in long-term parking. I text him instead of calling, he was probably relieved. He had grown fond of Robyn and I’m sure that it was hard for him to keep his tongue in check about the way I’ve treated her. He was a complete professional, but the day before I could see on his face that it was eating away at him. He had known me for a long time. I’m sure he could easily read me and he knew I was lying about not having feelings for her.

 

I sat the luggage I’d packed just inside the door of the apartment so it would be easy to gather and load when I got back. I honestly had no idea where I was going or what I would do when I got there. All I knew was that I needed a change of scenery and some fresh air before I suffocated. I drove aimlessly around the city for almost an hour when I suddenly realized where I was. I was in the vicinity of the Christmas fair that Robyn and I had gone to the day she was the “boss.” Surprising myself, I found a parking spot and wandered through the parking lot and into the park where the fair was going on. It was like I was being led by some kind of invisible force.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

 

~

 

 

 

AARON

 

 

The Christmas Eve snow was falling lightly and Christmas music was being piped through speakers in the trees. I thought about what Robyn said about the first snow of the season being “magic” and I wondered what she would say about Christmas snow. I passed a few carolers and remembered how beautifully she’d sung both that day at the park and the night we danced together. It was like she didn’t do anything that wasn’t perfect or beautiful.

 

I found it funny that I’d come here alone. This was exactly the last place anyone who knew me would think of looking for me on this day or any other. I could truly disappear into the fair and no one on earth would find me. It was the last place I would have pictured myself as well, and here I was for the second time this season. I had to smile as I thought about what a good job Robyn had done, almost getting me into the holiday spirit… almost. I’d had a fantastic time that day with her. The games were fun and although it took me twenty dollars to win a two-dollar toy, I’d had a blast doing it. The food was great which surprised me and I loved snuggling with her on the carriage ride. Making snow angels was even a treat… although Robyn was the only person in the world that I could picture myself doing that with. It most definitely was not the least bit sophisticated.

 

I wandered around the market, going in and out of the same shops that Robyn and I shopped at and watching the festive crowd ride the rides and play the games and I realized that the spirit she’d instilled in me was gone and I started to believe that it hadn’t really been about Christmas at all. It had been about the fire she’d lit in the pit of my gut. She was no longer here to stoke it, so the fire had burnt out. I had to wonder what the rest of her life was like, outside of work. She was always so happy and upbeat that it was hard to be anything else around her. Surely she didn’t spend as much time alone as I did. When you were alone a lot you became introspective and it was difficult to reach outside of yourself far enough to touch others. Robyn was an expert at reaching out and touching other’s hearts.

 

I thought back over the times that Robyn and I had contact since the night of the auction. Most of it had been because for whatever reason, she refused to give up. By all rights, she should have run in the other direction by now. I hadn’t been warm, friendly or forthcoming about myself and my life, yet she’d still seemed to want to be around me. It was strange that I didn’t feel she was forcing herself on me. I believed that she just truly wanted me to enjoy Christmas the way that she did. She shared her story about her Christmas with her family with me and I didn’t share a thing with her. I had my own Christmas story, but mine was sad and depressing.

 

She took me ice-skating and she wasn’t the least bit embarrassed to be seen with me when I was sitting on the ice on my ass. She usually went down with me and we would get back up together and try again. It wasn’t at all what I had come to expect from people. People didn’t treat me the same as they did others. I was always either deferred to because of my status and money, or I was kissed up to. There didn’t seem to be any happy medium… no one treated me the same as they did their other friends and acquaintances – until I met Robyn. She didn’t treat me like her boss, she wasn’t intimidated by my status, and she didn’t seem to want anything from me, except to see that I was as happy as she was. On the other hand, I’d acted like Scrooge and I walked away at a time when most men would be jumping for joy. She wanted to kiss me under the mistletoe. The prettiest woman at the party had eyes for me, and I left her sitting there in the cold. I’d found a person who treated me like a human being at last. It was what I wanted, supposedly, yet I’d failed to act like I deserved it.

 

I continued to wander around the fair, turning down the offers of “fresh baked cookies” and “handmade trinkets.” Disgusted both with myself and the festive atmosphere, I headed back towards the parking lot and my car. I’d had as much “Merry Christmas” and happy families as I could take for one day, and I just had to accept that I’d messed things up with Robyn, likely to the point of no return.

 

I stepped around a pile of little boys, wrestling and getting wet and dirty in the snow. They were tattering their Christmas best their mothers had dressed them in for the occasion, but they looked like they were having a great time. I got back onto the sidewalk once I was around them and that was when I saw her. She looked beautiful, as usual. She had on blue jeans and a white parka. Her white beanie looked handmade and she had gloves to match. I stood mesmerized by the sight of her as she walked through the booths, taking long strides in her fur-lined white boots and with a smile on her gorgeous face. She looked like she was heading somewhere with a purpose in mind.

 

I thought about catching up to her and saying hello. Maybe trying to explain somehow why I’d left her sitting there the other night. I wasn’t sure how to do that without telling her my life story and I wasn’t ready to talk about that. I knew I should say something though. She deserved more respect than what I’d shown her so far. While I was trying to hide my feelings, I’d taken it too far the other way, I think. I hung back for a few minutes to see what she was doing, and when I saw her go up to the hot chocolate stand and buy three hot chocolates I was glad I hadn’t gone over. I assumed she was with friends and I wouldn’t want to dampen her holiday celebrations. I should have turned and gone back to my car then, but I continued to watch her instead. She took the drink carrier from the girl at the kiosk and again, smiled merrily at everyone she passed as she made her way back through the park in the other direction. I’m no stalker, but I was very curious about her life and what type of people she surrounded herself with that made her so happy, so I followed her.

 

She walked through the park away from the fair. I thought that was strange and she made her way down a little cobblestone path to the sidewalk. There were a lot of people out and about, doing their last minute shopping no doubt, so it was easy for me to follow her without her noticing for a while. Her white beanie helped, I could see it bobbing up and down in the midst of the crowd if I couldn’t see her. Eventually, she turned down another street. It was a little side street, not much bigger than an alleyway. There wasn’t much foot traffic and no way for me to hide in plain sight as I did when I was chasing her across the park. I hung back so she didn’t see me and when she got a few blocks away, I saw her turn again about a block ahead of me. That was when I advanced again, but when I got to that street, I couldn’t see her any longer. The street turned into a dead end and there was nothing there but a cobbled path that led to an old cemetery. It was a beautiful old graveyard that judging from the style of some of the mausoleums, looked like it had been around for decades. It was one that I wasn’t familiar with although I’d lived in the city my entire life. It was tucked away into its own little haven with statues of angels and intricately carved tombs towering above the simple gravestones. Big, sad looking weeping willow trees surrounded the grounds and gave it kind of a spooky appearance. I didn’t really do graveyards.

 

Frustrated with myself for letting Robyn get away and feeling creepy about being in a cemetery, I turned around and started to leave. That was when I got a glimpse of her out of the corner of my eye. She was sitting down. That’s how I had missed her. There were two graves marked with an attached headstone. The headstone had an angel carved on one side and a Santa Claus on the other, but I couldn’t read what was on them from where I sat. I watched Robyn sit a hot chocolate on either side and then she took out the last one and began sipping it. I couldn’t see her face from where I was, and since I was still curious about what she was doing, I decided to move around to the other side of the graves so that I could. Walking around in a wide path so that she wouldn’t catch me out of the corner of her own eye, I found a small mausoleum that I could stand behind and see her face. I wondered what she would think if she knew I was watching her. She’s so sweet; she would probably just invite me over and ask me to join in.

 

Robyn was talking, animatedly. She was making hand gestures and she would smile and frown and grimace, just as if she was having a conversation with a living person. What struck me most were the tears I could see rolling down her pretty face. She was always so happy that it tore at my heart to see her cry. I wanted to go over to her and take her in my arms and make whatever was distressing her go away. I didn’t want to interrupt her moment, however no matter how kind I knew she would be about it. Watching her, I could tell this was something she’d done before. Whoever was lying in those graves was hearing about her life… I wondered who she had lost that was so special to her that she’d communicate with them like this even after they were gone.

 

Robyn spent at least an hour there, maybe more. I’d lost track of time, so mesmerized was I by watching her. I was once again fascinated by her spirit. Her tears showed that she was obviously deeply affected by the loss of whoever lay there, but yet she smiled through them for the better part of the time she sat there and talked. At last, she picked up her cup and seemed to finish it, pulled herself up off the ground and blew a kiss at each of the grave markers. Then I watched as she left the way she had come.

 

 

 

ROBYN

 

 

Every year since my parents died I did what I’d always done on Christmas Eve… I shared a hot chocolate with them and told them what was going on in my life. This year I told them about my new job and the fact that I’d already been promoted to an executive position; I was really proud of that and I knew they would be too. Thinking about how proud of me they would be was what got me through college with a 4.0 GPA even after they’d passed away. I learned to work hard by watching them and by basking in the encouraging words they always had for me. My hard work was paying off for me now and I had my parents to thank for that and I liked to come to the cemetery and tell them so.

 

My mother was a housewife and mother, but she excelled at it. So much so that it made me really upset when I’d hear anyone say, “I’m just a housewife “or “She doesn’t work.” My mother worked from sun-up to sundown making our home warm and happy. I rarely saw her sit down unless we were having family time. I had an amazing childhood and her efforts were a huge part of that. I also learned from her that hard work didn’t always produce immediate results, but it was the long term payoff that really counted. The other part of my amazing childhood was my Daddy. He wasn’t home a lot during the week because he worked so hard to provide for us. But when he was home, he was there a hundred percent. He sat down every evening and talked to me about my day. Sometimes, if he thought I might find it interesting, he would tell me about his. Then at night after I went to bed I would hear him talk to my mother about hers. On the weekends we all shared our meals and did something as a family usually on Saturday and then on Sunday we went to church together and we’d all cook dinner as a family. It was picture perfect and the only truly bad thing that ever happened to me was a plane crash when I was nineteen years old that took my parents from me. It took me a year of grieving before I realized something: The crash had only taken their bodies from me. I still had their spirits. Although I missed seeing them, I could feel them in my own heart… in my very soul most of the time.

 

After I told them about my job this Christmas Eve, I told them about Aaron. I suppose that he’s not mine to tell about, but somehow he’d made his way into my heart and I can’t seem to let him go. I told them how handsome he was, and how smart and when he wasn’t trying so hard to be serious, how much fun he can be. He hurt me, the night of the party when he walked away, but I still can’t let my hopes for him go. I told them that too. I had a feeling they would be proud of that. They trusted my judgment when they were here, I’m sure that they still do.

 

Aaron may not have kissed me that night, but I can feel how he feels about me. I might be thought crazy by some to tolerate that behavior and still have feelings for him and hope to cultivate more. But like I told Max, I think something happened to him around Christmas time and now he’s just afraid. I think all he needs is a little help to get past that. He needs someone that he can trust and depend on to teach him that there is so much more to life than a boardroom.

 

When I left the cemetery that day, I dropped off one of my Santa gifts. I still did the Santa thing, in memory of my Dad. This one was the last one on my list. I hoped he liked it.

 

I went home then and finished wrapping a few more gifts that I would give to my friends on Boxing Day. After I finished wrapping up my gifts, my cat, Mr. Pibbs and I had our dinner and then I put on pajamas and sat down to watch television for a while. I was knitting some hats and scarves for my friends to go with the gifts I’d bought them. I was also making a little hat and booties for John’s babies. They were so cute I couldn’t wait to see them in them. I worked on them while I watched Christmas movies. I was thinking about going to bed around nine when I saw that “It’s a Wonderful Life” was coming on. It was a movie that my parents and I watched together on Christmas Eve every year when I was growing up. I think I was the only little girl in my second grade class who had a clue who James Stewart and Donna Reed were.

 

Instead of going to bed, I made cookies while I waited for the movie to come on. I used the same recipe that my mother used to use. Like I’d told Aaron that day, they were the best cookies in the world. When they were done, Mr. Pibbs had his special treat and I had my warm, gooey cookies and we watched the movie together. I was glued to it as if this wasn’t the twenty-sixth year in a row I’d watched it and I cried at the end like I always do. No matter how many times I’d seen it, Clarence getting his wings was a beautiful thing.

 

When it was over and I could stop crying I cleaned up after myself and headed into my room for bed. Once I was tucked in, I thought about my parents and I cried again, finally crying myself to sleep at last.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

 

~

 

 

 

AARON

 

 

I waited for Robyn to leave the cemetery that morning and then I went over and looked at the grave stones. One said, “John Hurst” loving father. The other said, “Samantha Hurst” loving mother. The caption underneath it said, “The real Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus.” Underneath that it said, “Alas! How dreary would be the world if there was no Santa Claus! There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, and no romance to make tolerable this existence.

 

FRANCIS P. CHURCH, New York Sun, Sep. 21, 1897”

 

I couldn’t help but smile at that. These must be her parents, the ones that had taught her to have such an amazing heart and spirit of the season. The sight of their graves made me sad for her. They also made me wonder even more how she could have such a positive outlook on life. How could she be such a happy person when the two people she loved most in the world weren’t here any longer? I wondered about what she told me when I asked her how she was spending her holiday. She had simply said, “With my family.” Was this what she meant, or did she have extended family that she holidayed with?

 

I finally left. I felt like it wasn’t alright for me to be there without Robyn. I got back into my car and headed home. Although it no longer sounded so appealing, I still had a plane to catch. When I got home, I found a gift on my doorstep. I wasn’t really surprised when I read the note and saw that it was from Robyn.

 

“Do not open until Christmas day. If your plans change, I’d love to have you join me for Christmas dinner tomorrow. Come over any time.” There was an address there as well.

 

As usual, she left me smiling and shaking my head. She never gave up. Obviously, if she was inviting me to spend Christmas with her, she was alone just like I was. I’d been alone for a long time though… so long that I’d forgotten what a warm, happy Christmas was really like. I purposely tamped it all down, thinking there was no reason to think about it since I would never get it back. After a while, I’d stopped wanting to get it back. Then, I’d met Robyn. As I was lost in these thoughts, my eyes fell on the clock. I hadn’t realized that it had gotten late so fast. I grabbed my keys and raced out the door.

 

 

 

ROBYN

 

 

Once Mr. Pibbs and I finally went to bed and fell asleep, I slept like a log for about seven hours. The hot cocoa had done its job and cancelled out the sugar rush of the cookies and lured me to sleep. I’d just opened my eyes and rolled over to see if Mr. Pibbs was still in his bed or not when there was a rap on my front door. I wasn’t expecting company. I was hoping that Aaron would come for dinner, but that was just a fantasy. Besides if he did show up, he certainly wouldn’t come first thing in the morning, would he? No, it wasn’t Aaron. I wasn’t going to let myself get my hopes up.

 

I couldn’t imagine who else would be at my door so early on Christmas morning. I looked at Mr. Pibbs who looked as confused as I was. I shrugged and he went to his corner. He was a bit of an introvert, company wasn’t really his thing. I got up and donned my fuzzy robe and slippers and went out to get the door.

 

“I’m coming,” I yelled out as there was a second rap. When I reached the door I stood on my tip toes and looked out the peephole. Aaron was standing there in the ugliest Christmas sweater in the world, the one I had bought for him as a joke and left on his front doorstep. I told myself that the world must be coming to an end. Why else would he be standing on my doorstep wearing that thing instead of soaking up the sun in Belize? I honestly thought it might make him smile but never in a million years did I expect him to put it on.

 

“Good morning! Merry Christmas,” I said as I pulled open the door. I was trying not to laugh at his sweater. I wasn’t sure yet if he’d understood that it was a joke.

 

“Good morning. I’m sorry, did I wake you?” He was staring at me with a funny look and I suddenly realized what I must look like. I’d gone to bed with the tear stains from my movie and now that I thought about it, I could feel my hair sticking up every which way. My robe was a little ratty… not because I couldn’t afford a new one, but because this one was my favorite. I hadn’t expected Aaron to ever see it, that’s for sure.

 

“Yes, but I was getting up soon anyways,” I told him. “Come in, please. You look… festive this morning. Please excuse how I look.”

 

With a serious look he said, “You look amazing.” It sounded like he really meant it. Then, he laughed a little about the sweater and said, “I thought it would be rude to show up for Christmas dinner in anything other than the sweater you so painstakingly picked out for me.”

 

I couldn’t hold it back any longer. I had to laugh. He was killing me in that sweater. It had a knit Santa and two reindeer sitting at a table playing cards on the front of it. It was tacky, to say the least.

 

“Are you laughing at my sweater?” he said, with mock offense. “My good friend, Robyn got this sweater for me.”

 

“Well, I hate to tell you this but with friends like that…”

 

“I know, right? I was hoping it was a joke.” Aaron finally stepped inside and looked around. The apartment was small, but decorated in good taste and very festive with a Christmas tree and a table set with an entire tiny Christmas village. It was warm and welcoming and it smelled like cinnamon and spice. It reminded him of his home when he was a little boy. “Your home is very nice,” he said. “But I thought you were spending Christmas with your family.”

 

“I am,” I told him. I made my kiss kiss noise and Mr. Pibbs came out of hiding. He’s a twenty pound Siberian cat that had been with me since my first week in New York. I’d found him in an alleyway and begged Melissa to let him stay with us. When I moved out, she begged me to take him. She always accused him of having an attitude. Personally, I think he’s just misunderstood.

 

“Mr. Pibbs, Aaron. Aaron, Mr. Pibbs.”

 

He smiled and gave the cat a nod. Mr. Pibbs chose to remain silent. “Have a seat,” I told him. “Do you mind if I go and at least brush my teeth?”

 

He grinned again and said, “I was hoping…” Silly sarcasm… It was a side of him I had glimpsed that day at the Christmas fair. I’d liked it then, and I liked it even more now.

 

I went in and got dressed and cleaned myself up. When I came back out, I found Aaron on the couch with Mr. Pibbs curled up in his lap.

 

“You’ve made the cut,” I told him. “Mr. Pibbs doesn’t usually like anyone but me.”

 

“He didn’t bother to ask me if I liked him before he climbed up here either,” Aaron said with a smile.

 

“I’m going to make some coffee, would you like some?”

 

“I’d love some,” he said.

 

“How about breakfast? Are you hungry?”

 

“The invitation only said “dinner.” I’d hate to impose…”

 

“Well, I’m starving. So, I think I’ll make some Belgium waffles and fruit. If I make more than was intended for only myself, maybe you’ll join me?”

 

“If it will help,” he said.

 

“Oh it would, very much. I hate to waste food.” I went into the kitchen and started making the coffee. I couldn’t stop smiling. I couldn’t believe he’d shown up. I was so happy. I had bought two steaks and two lobster tails… just in case, but I’d planned on keeping the other one frozen for New Years. I thought I was kidding myself that he would ever show up. Now, I was very glad that I’d been persistent.

 

“Cute kitchen,” I heard him say. I turned around and he was standing in the doorway. He had taken off his ugly sweater and was in a white button down shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows.

 

“Thanks,” I told him. “I like my cozy little apartment.”

 

“I like it too. And, it looks and smells very festive,” he said. It was funny, because he almost sounded like he approved of the festivity of it all. I finally had to ask.

 

“So what made you decide to show up? Didn’t you have an Island vacation planned somewhere?”

 

“I did. I should be basking in the sun in Belize by now. Instead, I’ve re-scheduled it. I have forsaken it for the snow and sleet and numb fingers and toes. But Robyn, this is your entire fault.”

 

“My fault?” I asked him, as innocently as I could.

 

He grinned and said, “You got under my thick skin somehow and I couldn’t resist. I had to find out what this Christmas stuff was all about for someone like you who loved it so much. If it’s still okay, I’d love to spend it with you.”

 

My mouth was stretched out into a permanent smile like I’d slept with a coat hanger in it. “It is absolutely okay,” I told him, excitedly. “Wait until you taste my waffles!”

 

We ate the waffles and fruit, making casual conversation about work and some of the projects Max had let me take on since I became his assistant supervisor. Aaron seemed impressed by the work I was doing and my knowledge of the company.

 

“So what did you do yesterday on Christmas Eve?” he asked.

 

“I went back to the fair and finished my shopping, I passed out the rest of my gifts and I visited my parents. Then Mr. Pibbs and I watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” and ate chocolate chip cookies until I passed out crying.”

 

He raised an eyebrow and said, “A movie called “It’s a Wonderful Life” made you cry?”

 

“Oh my goodness, you’ve never seen it, have you?”

 

“I’m afraid not.”

 

“Well, then it’s on the agenda for today. It’s part of Christmas you can’t have Christmas without it.”

 

He laughed, “Okay, just keep me posted on the agenda as the day goes by. Can I ask you a personal question?”

 

“Sure…”

 

“I was just wondering about your parents.”

 

It had been seven years since I lost them, but it still hurt to talk about it. I poured myself another cup of coffee and said, “They both passed away when I was nineteen.”

 

“I’m sorry for your loss and for bringing it up. I was curious because you speak so highly of them, but you never mentioned they were deceased. I was certain you’d be with them on Christmas if you could.”

 

“Definitely, my parents were the best. I told you about me and my dad at Christmas. It was our favorite time of year. I don’t talk about them like they’re deceased because I still feel them so strongly in my soul that sometimes I honestly let myself forget. I guess it’s just my way of coping.”

 

He nodded and said, “We all cope in different ways. Do you still do the Santa Claus thing or was my sweater an impulse buy?”

 

I laughed at that and said, “Definitely not an impulse buy. I put a lot of thought into it. I went to three different stores to get it just right.” He laughed again. I loved the sound of it. “I do still do the Santa thing,” I told him. “It wouldn’t be like Christmas without it.”

 

“So how do you do it? I mean decide how many to buy for and who and what and all of that?”

 

He sounded so sincerely interested. It was like he was from another planet and he wanted to know about our customs here. I was so happy to be the one that got to help him learn.

 

“First, since I’m now the financier, I decide how much is in my budget to spend. I have a special Christmas fund that I give to every month all year. I give to a few charities first and then use what’s left for my Santa project. Once I know how much funds I have available, I do just as my father taught me. I try to think of something that people I knew or saw daily needed dearly.”

 

“And you clearly saw that I needed an ugly sweater dearly…?”

 

“It was something that I’m sure you didn’t have and would never buy for yourself, right?”

 

“That’s for sure,” he said with a grin.

 

Then seriously I told him, “I saw that you needed a smile dearly. I was hoping to give it to you.”

 

“It worked,” he said. “I’ve been smiling since I opened it this morning.”

 

He was looking at me with that intense look that he got that made me just know he had feelings for me. I wanted to kiss him so badly. I wasn’t going to make the first move again though. The ball was in his court. I took a deep breath.

 

“Anyways, that’s how I do it.”

 

“It’s an amazing thing you do,” he said.

 

“You do the same. I passed out all of the gifts you bought, remember?”

 

“It’s not the same at all,” he said. “I don’t shop for the gifts or wrap them or hand them out. I suppose I only do it to assuage some of the guilt I have for ignoring Christmas the way that I do… So! What about this movie?” he said, changing the subject. I was hoping since he brought up his lack of knowledge about Christmas that he’d go on to tell me why he disliked it so much, but he was obviously not ready for that.

 

“Let’s go in the living room and I’ll put it on,” I told him. “Mr. Pibbs will probably refuse to watch it again. He’s a little snobby about it because it’s in black and white.”

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

 

~

 

 

 

AARON

 

 

I’d left my apartment the day before with the knowledge that I wasn’t going out of town for Christmas this year. I would have been sitting on the beach but my mind would have been here in New York. Rather than put myself through that, I’d just stay here. I made the phone calls to cancel all of the arrangements and when I called Jeffrey to let him know the plans had changed, I could hear the smile in his voice. I had to call Janice as well. If something came up when I was in Belize, she’d be looking for me at the hotel. I needed her to know that I’d be in town. She literally squealed when I told her.

 

“Oh Mr. Winters! You’re staying home for Christmas this year? I’m so happy. It’s really the best time in the world to be in this city. You won’t regret it. You can have dinner with us…”

 

When I was able to find a way in I said, “Thank you, Janice but I think I already have plans.” Like Jeffrey, I didn’t have to see her to know she was gushing with delight. I never really thought about how many people were affected even just a little bit by my aversion to Christmas. It was all about me for so long. I’d caused people to worry about me.

 

After I’d taken care of all of that, I had shopping to do. I spent hours trying to decide what to get for Robyn and I got a whopping big dose of what it was like to last minute shop on Christmas Eve. The thing that struck me the most about it was that people were basically nice although everyone was fighting for a parking spot and grabbing for the same things off the shelf. It seemed like a “Merry Christmas” was readily on everyone’s lips and people were quicker to smile at a stranger than usual. I suppose that’s the “Christmas spirit” people go on about. At the last store I went to I found it. It was as if it had been made for her. I handed the man my credit card and pointed at it under the glass.

 

“I want that one,” I’d told him.

 

“Of course, sir. Wouldn’t you like to look more closely at it, or know how much it costs?”

 

“No, I’ve seen enough and I don’t care how much it is. That’s the one.”

 

He wrapped it in a beautiful silver box and for the first time in my life I was thrilled to buy a Christmas gift.

 

It was late evening when I got home. I was sorely tempted to open the present Robyn left for me, but I didn’t. Instead I went through the mail on my hall table from the week and I actually opened the Christmas cards, read them, and put them out on the mantle. I felt like Scrooge waking up after the visits from the three ghosts. It had only taken one spirit to open my eyes and that was Robyn’s.

 

After a light dinner I went to bed hoping the night would pass quickly. I woke up at five a.m. like a boy anxious to see what Santa brought me and couldn’t go back to sleep. I remembered that I did have a present to open this morning. Once I saw what was in the package, I was glad I waited. I wouldn’t have time to think about changing my mind now. I pulled out the sweater and I laughed out loud. I rarely laughed and even more rarely when I was alone. Robyn had touched me in so many ways in the short time that I’d known her. I pulled on the sweater and wore it proudly through the lobby of my building and out the door. I could tell the doorman wanted to laugh. I found myself wishing that he would. The difference between Robyn and everyone else was that she would laugh at me just like I was a normal person.

 

When I got to her place and she opened the door, I literally felt my heart jump up into my throat. She was standing there in a tattered old robe and slippers with long, curly tendrils of hair sticking to her face and looking at me with those sexy blue eyes. All I wanted to do was take her into my arms and kiss her senseless. She had no idea how beautiful she was.

 

After eating a delicious breakfast we went in to watch this movie that she loved so much. Mr. Pibbs didn’t snub it as she thought he might. Instead, he climbed up into my lap and made himself comfortable. I was growing fond of the cat, but had I a choice; I would have had his beautiful friend in that spot instead. For the time being, I pet him and settled down into the couch to watch the movie. I wasn’t a snob like Mr. Pibbs, but it had been a long time since I’d seen a black and white film. It was strange and hard for me to get used to at first.

 

In the beginning of the movie when the stars were talking to each other about the little boy who fell through the ice I thought, “Oh great, a silly movie that I’ll have to pretend to like.” It hurts my manhood a little bit to admit this, but by the time it ended, Robyn wasn’t the only one with tears in her eyes. I remembered bits and pieces of it. This was the one Robyn had quoted in the emails she sent me and the one my mother always watched on Christmas Eve when I was a boy. She had been right again; it was a very touching movie, and it touched me deeper than ever because I was again reminded of my mother and happier times. Christmas had been a small part of the movie, but the message had been clear: Be kind to others and your rewards will be reaped ten-fold.

 

“So, did you like it?” she asked me.

 

I shrugged, trying to play it cool as I said, “It was okay.”

 

She laughed and said, “Okay… yeah right. You loved it. I see the tears in your eyes.”

 

“I’m allergic to cats,” I told her. “That’s allergy you see in my eyes.” She giggled and looked at the clock.

 

“I should start dinner.”

 

“Are we having it for lunch?” I asked her.

 

“I thought mid-day would be good. Is that okay with you?” she asked.

 

“Perfect,” I told her. “Can I help you do something?”

 

“Sure, follow me and I’ll put you to work,” she told me with a smile.

 

I did as I was told, and she did as promised. She laid out the ingredients I would need to make a salad and handed me a knife. I cut and sliced and chopped as she split open the lobsters and seasoned them and then seasoned and tenderized the steaks. I hadn’t ever cooked dinner with a woman. It was an intimate experience, reaching across each other for things and sliding past her to get to the sink. I was breathing heavily and my palms were sweaty fifteen minutes into it.

 

“Can you hand me that pepper grinder?” she asked.

 

I picked it up and held it out to her. When she took it from me out fingers brushed against each other and I felt the shock waves all the way into my toes. Our eyes met and for about a second I considered kissing her again. Instead, I decided to give her something that I thought she might appreciate more… I told her about my life and why I hated Christmas.

 

 

 

ROBYN

 

 

I stood there in the kitchen with my hand on the pepper grinder and our fingers touching… and I didn’t want to let go. His touch was electric, even fingertips. Finally, he took a step back. I wasn’t surprised; it was what I was used to. There was something holding him back, keeping him from taking that next step. He didn’t take his eyes from my face though as he said, “I guess, since you’ve shared so much with me that it’s about time I share something with you.”

 

I didn’t want to break the spell that made him suddenly want to talk to me, so I didn’t say anything. Instead, I just pulled out a chair and quietly took a seat. He took the other one and said, “I’m sorry that I’ve acted like it was a big mystery. The truth is that it’s just really hard for me to even think about, much less talk about.” He looked so distressed and I could see on his face how hard this was for him. I reached across the table and covered his hand with mine.

 

“I would like to know as much about you as you want to tell me. But if this is too hard, it’s okay.”

 

He covered my hand with his other one. His hands were so warm and my whole body felt tingly again.

 

“I want you to know me,” he said. “I was born to a couple of amazing people. My dad was an iron worker and my mother was a stay at home mom like yours. Christmas in our house was the best… well, compared to yours, maybe not the absolute best, but close,” he said with a grin. “My mother started baking in November. The house always smelled like apples and cinnamon and pumpkin pie. Even today when I smell those things, I get a warm feeling in my chest, like when I walked in here this morning. It reminded me of home.”

 

That made me feel better than anything he’d said so far. “I’m glad,” I said.

 

“My father worked hard and I learned later on in my life that although he didn’t make much money, they had stocked away a good sum to leave for me in case anything happened to them. I’m always grateful for that, but sometimes I wonder if planning for the worst encourages the worst to happen.”

 

“I had those thoughts myself after my parents passed away, but honestly I think that I’ve decided to believe that there is a cosmic plan for us all, no matter how difficult it is for us to understand.”

 

He nodded and then said, “When I was eight years old, my parents went out on December twenty-third to finish their Christmas shopping. We had a tree filled with gifts already, so I couldn’t imagine what they had left to buy. I had a babysitter who sat for me often since I was a baby. She tucked me in that night and we both talked about how strange it was that my parents weren’t home yet. They’d been gone a really long time by then and I’d started to worry. She kissed my forehead and told me not to worry, they would be home soon. I think I had just started to drift off when I heard the phone ringing. Then minutes later, I heard the babysitter, Shirley begin to cry. I knew that something bad had happened. I’d felt it in my bones before I went to bed. I stayed in my bed and covered up my head. When Shirley stopped crying and she came in to tell me I pretended like I was asleep. I was hoping that she would go away and not say it out loud. If she said it out loud, that would make it too real.”

 

I squeezed his hand. I could see the tears forming in the corners of his eyes. I wanted to tell him to stop talking because I could tell how much it was hurting him, but he seemed like he needed to get this out. He’d probably needed to for a long time. He took a minute to compose himself before going on.

 

“They were in an accident and Shirley told me they didn’t suffer. I was only eight, but I knew she said that for my benefit as well. The next day I was still refusing to come out of my room. A police officer came by the house to bring my parents things by. Shirley was still there with me, she was trying to reach my aunt and uncle in Newark who were my only living relatives at that point. The police man came up to see me. When he walked into my room, he was carrying a bow and arrow set. It was Christmas Eve and that was what I had asked Santa Claus for. For a second, my eight year old heart wanted to believe that Santa had left it. My eight year old brain knew that wasn’t the case before he told me. He said the bow and arrow were found in their car the night of the accident. He had no way of knowing that what he was telling me was taking away my belief in Santa Claus forever, but it did. I found out later that the car was completely totaled, but the bow and arrow didn’t have a scratch. They’d rushed out that night to get me that stupid bow and arrow set and that was why they died.”

 

“Oh Aaron! You blamed yourself. You were just a little boy!”

 

“I did blame myself for a long time, but then I took that anger at myself and I turned it on Christmas. I blamed Christmas for everything that was wrong in my life and my resentment for it never faded, it grew and made a wall around my heart. A wall that was un-penetrable, until you came along.”

 

“I knew something terrible must have happened to you in order for you to dislike Christmas so much. Did your aunt and uncle raise you?”

 

“No, they weren’t able to take me. They had four children of their own. I was sent to a foster home and I bounced from one to the next. No one wanted to adopt an angry eight year old.”

 

My heart was literally breaking. It hurt in my chest. “I’m so sorry, Aaron.”

 

He smiled at me and said, “You shouldn’t be. You were the only one who got through to me. Do you know what the difference is between you and others that have set out to chip away at that wall?”

 

“No, what’s that?” I asked.

 

“You’ve treated me like a human being since that first day.”

 

“Other people look at me and see a CEO or a rich man and they treat me differently than they treat each other, even Janice who knows me better than anyone. She still calls me “Mr. Winters.” You look at me the same as you would any other man.”

 

“Not exactly,” I told him.

 

“How’s that?” he said.

 

“I see someone much more special than any other man I’ve ever known when I look at you,” I finally told him. He smiled and just as he seemed to be leaning in to kiss me, the timer went off for the steaks.

 

He laughed and said, “I’m going to hang on to that thought.”

 

“You better,” I said, as I got up to get our dinner out of the oven.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

 

~

 

 

AARON

 

 

I unburdened myself at last. I didn’t realize how cathartic it was going to be. It felt like a fifty pound weight had been lifted off my chest finally. I was sorry I’d carried it around and dwelled on it for so long, but I was glad that I’d waited until I met Robyn to do it at the same time. Everything about her radiated warmth and acceptance and made me feel safe. She wasn’t looking at me like I was an idiot for wasting the last twenty Christmases being angry and feeling sorry for myself. She was looking at me with empathy and compassion and it made me drawn to her that much more.

 

While she put the steaks and the lobster on the table, I tossed the salad I made with some vinegar and oil and put that on the table. She reached into the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of wine. Sitting it down on the table she said, “My best friend gave this to me for Christmas last year. I was saving it for a special occasion. I think this is it.” It was a 2011 V. Sattui Gamay Rouge, a very good dry Rose wine that I’d had before and enjoyed very much.

 

She sat and then I did too and we began to eat. The steak was delicious, juicy and flavorful. The lobster was tender and she’d served it with a seasoned butter sauce that she made herself.

 

“This is amazing,” I told her.

 

She smiled, “It is really yummy, isn’t it?”

 

“Yes, and that salad… I don’t even have words for how fabulous it is.”

 

She giggled, “I was just about to say that it was the best part of the meal.”

 

When we finished our dinner, I helped her do the dishes and clean up the kitchen. It was nice and once again, an intimate experience. It was almost two when we finished.

 

“Okay, what’s next in Robyn and Aaron’s Christmas day of fun?” he asked.

 

“Is it too soon for dessert?” she asked me. I couldn’t resist. I made an up and down motion with my eyebrows and then I looked her over like she was on the menu. She got it and laughed, saying, “It’s definitely too soon for all that. I meant cheesecake. I made one yesterday and it’s chilling in the fridge.”

 

“Mm, cheesecake sounds great, but I’m afraid we’ll have to wait just a bit if I don’t want to pop right out of my jeans.” Her dinner had literally stuffed me.

 

“Yeah, me too,” she said, patting her belly. “Then on to the board games.”

 

“Board games?”

 

“Yep, board games, snowman, caroling…”

 

“Excuse me? Caroling?”

 

“Yes, of course. You don’t sing?”

 

“I never have,” I told her.

 

“Never? Like never, ever? Not even in the shower?”

 

“Well of course I sing in the shower, doesn’t everyone?”

 

“You sang at the park that day with me too…”

 

“It was lip syncing,” I told her.

 

She laughed and said, “Okay, well I think it’s still snowing out there. You can just pretend it’s the shower raining down on you.”

 

“I’m sure it will be exactly the same,” I said, slightly sarcastically. She laughed at me and went to set up the board game. I hadn’t played a board game since I was maybe ten or eleven years old. I wasn’t going to tell her that though. I was extremely competitive. Admitting fear led to defeat, so as far as she was concerned I played scrabble and battleship twice a day. “So which game are we playing?” I asked.

 

“Monopoly,” she said.

 

I laughed my evil, take over the world laugh. She was going to dare play monopoly with a world famous business mogul?

 

“Don’t look so confident Mr. Winters Inc. It’s not as easy as running a business.”

 

I laughed again, “You think?”

 

“Yep, running a business is mostly skill. Rolling the dice is about getting lucky and I’ve got all the skills in that department.” She handed me one die and said, “Let’s roll to see who goes first.” We rolled. She got a six and I got a two and that was the way the rest of the game went. By the time I finally gave up and surrendered over an hour later to her mighty monopoly skills, she owned most of the board and I was broke. It was a humiliating thing for a business mogul. It was also one more thing about her that made me feel like a normal person. She wasn’t afraid to be competitive with me.

 

“If you ever go into business, promise me something?” I asked her.

 

“Sure, what’s that?”

 

“Promise that you won’t start your company in any market that will compete with mine.”

 

She laughed and said, “I promise, but you better start saving me a country or two now, because I’m on my way.”

 

I didn’t doubt that she was.

 

 

 

ROBYN

 

 

Aaron and I had cheesecake and coffee after our monopoly game. I didn’t want to embarrass him, so I didn’t ask, but I got the feeling he’d never played. I was beginning to discover that there were a lot of “normal” things he’d never done. I looked outside and saw that the snow had slowed.

 

“Okay, it’s snowman time!”

 

“Excuse me?” he said as if he was surprised. I was sure I had mentioned it.

 

“Didn’t I say that earlier? It was on the agenda.”

 

“I thought you were kidding,” he said.

 

“I would never kid about making a snowman,” I told him. “You brought gloves, right?”

 

“Oh no! I don’t think I did.” He was fibbing.

 

“Yep! Here they are,” I told him. He’d taken them off when he was petting Mr. Pibbs earlier and put them on the table.

 

“Oh… goody,” he said, sarcastically.

 

We bundled up and went outside. I led him to a little courtyard on the side of my apartment complex. The snow was barely falling now, but enough had fallen during the night and morning that making a snowman was going to be easy. I started packing the snow so that I could roll a big bottom when I noticed that Aaron was making little piles of snow and then tamping them down with his gloves.

 

“What are you doing?” I asked him.

 

“Making a snowman.”

 

“That’s not how you do it.”

 

“You make your snowman and I’ll make mine,” he said. I rolled my eyes and got back to work rolling my snow bottom. I guess it would be his fault if his snowman wasn’t as brilliant as mine, I’d offered to help.

 

I had my back to him, but what could have only been ten minutes later he said, “Done!”

 

“You are not… Oh my goodness!” In ten minutes, the man who hated cold weather and Christmas only two days ago had built the most beautiful snowman I had ever seen. “He’s beautiful!” I said. His face lit up like a child. He was so proud of his work. “You’ve definitely done this before.”

 

“Thank you,” he said, “But no, this is my first snowman. It’s all about mechanics though. I’m good at building and designing things.” Looking over at my half-rolled snow bottom with his lips quirking like he was trying to hold back a smile he said, “Yours is…”

 

“Not finished,” I told him, turning my back on him again, I got back to work. I was rarely outdone in the snowman department and by a first timer to boot. Another five minutes or so passed when I felt the whiz of a snowball next to my head. I looked around and Aaron was still the only one out here with me. He was trying hard to look innocent.

 

“Did you just throw a snowball at me?” I asked him, incredulously.

 

“Of course not. I would never indulge in such an immature…” I’d already been packing one in my hand. While he talked, I threw it and hit him in the side of the face. SMACK! “Oh that’s it!” he said, “It’s on now.” He was rubbing his cheek with his wet glove and I was feeling a little bit bad until…

 

SMACK! A tightly packed snowball hit me, right in the forehead. I stood still staring at him in disbelief as ice cold water dripped down over my eyes and slid down my cheeks.

 

He suddenly looked worried. “I’m sorry, Robyn! Are you okay?”

 

Not answering him still, I dropped to my knees and began digging deep into the snow, losing the glove off my left hand. He’d taken a step towards me, thinking I was hurt at first, but then he realized what I was doing. He dropped down to do the same but before he got his hole dug I had packed it together into a ball and stood up and threw it at him. I heard the SMACK and bent down to get my glove, smiling with satisfaction.

 

“Ha ha! You missed!” he said. He sounded like an insolent twelve year old and even though I’d missed him with my snowball that made me happy. He was having fun. I was wondering how I could possibly have missed him. I turned around to see and SMACK! He got me right upside the head with that one.

 

I narrowed my eyes and pulled my eyebrows together as I dropped down to make another. He was facing away from me, I think doing the same thing I was. I threw my snowball first and this time I watched it connect with the back of his head.

 

He was laughing and still rubbing the back of his head when I felt, SMACK to the back of my own head. How the heck did he do that? I turned to see who was behind me and SMACK! I got hit dead on in the face. It was my neighbor’s kids, Sue and Conner. They were eight and ten years old and I’d tangled with them before. They were vicious little snow ball making machines.

 

“Oh, so that’s how it’s going to be?” I said, “Aaron, I think you and I should…” SMACK! A snowball came from Aaron’s direction and struck me. The kids were laughing hard now. I turned to look at him and said, “Hey! I thought you’d be on my side.”

 

“It’s a dog eat dog world,” he said. “Every man, woman and child for themselves.” While we talked, the little ones made more snowballs. Suddenly it was SMACK! SMACK! SMACK! Aaron and I both had a barrage of snowballs raining down on us. I couldn’t make my own ammunition fast enough and when I finally had one made, I’d throw it recklessly, missing my targets. Aaron hit them a few times, but they were still way ahead of him. When he got too frustrated with them, he would turn back on me. Traitor!

 

Snowballs were zooming across the courtyard. They flew away from me and then they flew towards me. I had no idea anymore if any of mine were hitting any of my targets. I was scooping, packing and blindly throwing. There was snow and ice in my face and in my eyes. I squealed occasionally, and I heard Aaron do the same, only in a more manly way.

 

Finally, as I sat, wet and thoroughly exhausted in the snow I felt him sidle up next to me. “I think we should finish this,” he said in a conspiratorial voice.

 

“I thought it was every man, woman and child for themselves?”

 

“Okay, we can keep getting bombarded then…”

 

“Okay, let’s do this together,” I finally agreed. “What’s the plan?”

 

“You make ‘em faster than me. Start making them, stay low behind me and keep me loaded with ammo.”

 

If I’d stopped and thought right then about the fact that this was the CEO of my company, I probably would have died laughing. I didn’t though. To me, he was just Aaron and I was having a great time.

 

I started making snowballs and he started throwing them. I could hear the kids squealing and getting further and further away. By the time I made about fifty snowballs Aaron turned and held his hand out to help me up.

 

“They’re behind the building… let’s go!” With that, we ran back inside, leaving the children out in the snow looking for us. It was awesome. Aaron slammed the door behind us and it took us a good ten minutes to stop laughing.

 

“Wow,” he said when he finally stopped laughing. “That was great.”

 

“It was, and I can only imagine what I look like. I’m going to go dry off. I’ll bring you a towel.”

 

I started to walk away and felt his hand on my arm. “Wait, look up,” he said.

 

I looked up and didn’t see anything. “What am I looking at?” I asked.

 

Aaron was trying to get his hand out of his pocket and he laughed and said, “I was hoping it would go smoother. Now look up.” He had his arm stretched out above our heads and dangling from his fingers was a piece of mistletoe with a red ribbon tied around it. I looked back at him and his face looked so focused and intense. He put his hands on the sides of my face and wound his fingers in the hair that had fallen loose from my hat. It was so sweet, the way he set the whole thing up, like he’d been thinking about how he wanted to do it for a while. Something about the way he touched me made my eyes close and as he leaned down towards me, my lips parted. My breaths were coming so fast that I was almost dizzy. I felt the edges of my body melt into him and it felt like we’d become a part of each other as soon as his lips brushed against mine. It was a sweet, tentative brush at first, and then it got more urgent as he pulled me up and held me into his chest and crushed his against mine, letting his tongue slip in and explore the dark caverns of my mouth. His tongue tasted sweet and his touch was firm and gentle at the same time. We kissed like that for a long time and when he broke it and pulled back, I think it took me several more minutes to open my eyes. I wanted to savor it, it was perfect.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

 

~

 

 

 

ROBYN

 

 

“Wow! That was more worth waiting for than anything I’ve ever waited for,” I told him. He grinned and ran his fingers down the side of my face making me shudder.

 

“It definitely was,” he said. “Now, go get changed before you catch your death of cold.”

 

I didn’t want to leave. I wasn’t cold as long as he was holding me. As soon as he let go I began to shiver. “I’ll throw you out a towel,” I told him in a shaky voice. He was still looking at me with that deep, intense look.

 

“Okay,” he said.

 

I got the towel and brought it back out to him. He was still standing in the same spot by the door. I realized that he wasn’t just wet, he was soaked. “You poor thing. You’re going to have to go home and change.”

 

He took the towel and dried his face and hair and then he said, “I think I have a change in the car. You go change before you get pneumonia.” The voice he’d said that in sounded commanding and strong.

 

“Yes sir,” I said with a mock salute. He grinned.

 

“Yeah, you better remember who you’re talking to.”

 

I went in and changed. I couldn’t ever remember being so happy. My face actually hurt from smiling so much. I knew from the moment I heard his voice on the phone that first day that he was something special. I put on a comfortable velour jogging suit and dried my wet hair a little with the blow dryer. When I came back out, he was standing there, clothes in hand.

 

“I’m sorry I took so long,” I told him. “It’s all yours.”

 

“Thank you,” he said. He started past me and then he stopped. Pulling me into his chest once more, he kissed me again. This time it was even deeper and more passionate. When we finally had to pull apart in order to breathe he said, “Oh my goodness, I got you wet again. I’m sorry.”

 

My face was flushed from the kiss. The front of me was slightly damp from pressing up against him. I smiled and said, “I don’t care. You could kiss me like that covered with mud from head to toe, and I wouldn’t care.” He grinned and went into the bedroom, closing the door behind him.

 

 

 

AARON

 

 

I laid my dry clothes down on Robyn’s bed and looked around. Her room was decorated in soft earth tones and everything looked so sweet and feminine. It had been a long time since I’d been in a woman’s bedroom. All of the women I’d been with over the years had either been at my apartment or a hotel. I liked being in her room. It even smelled like her, fresh and sweet, almost edible.

 

I stepped into the little bathroom to take off my wet clothes. I didn’t want to drip all over her bedroom. The bathroom was as neat as the rest of the place with her lotions and body sprays and female things arranged neatly on a shelf above the counter. I stripped down, taking the little box that I’d gotten at the jewelry store the day before out of my pocket and set it on the counter. Then, I laid my wet clothes in a pile. Then I dried off and put on my dry ones. I used the blow dryer she’d left out on my hair. I hadn’t realized until I turned on that warm air just how cold I’d been.

 

When I finished, I slipped the box into my dry pocket and went back out into the living room. Robyn was waiting with a plastic bag for my clothes and two steaming cups of hot chocolate. I put my wet clothes in the bag and set it by the door. Then I went back and sat down next to her. I took a sip of the chocolate she handed me. It tasted like she’d put cinnamon and nutmeg in it. It was honestly the best cup of hot cocoa I’d ever had.

 

“I have a present for you,” I told her at last.

 

“Really? I have one for you too,” she said.

 

I laughed, “You already bought me one, remember?”

 

“That was a silly joke,” she said. “This one is the real thing.” She went over to her tree and took out a square box and handed it to me. I handed her the one from my pocket. “You go first,” she said.

 

I started un-wrapping it. I was going slowly, distracted by her watching me. Now that I’d gotten a real taste of her lips, all I wanted to do was kiss her again.

 

“Do you need some help?” she asked.

 

I laughed, “No, Miss Impatient, I’ve got it.” I finished taking the paper off and found a white box. I lifted the lid off of it and inside I found a beautifully framed photograph. I lifted out the silver frame and looked at it, in shock. “How… Where…?” She laughed.

 

“They take them all along your ride. When you’re finished you can pick out the best one and buy it. I went back that day after you left and bought this one.”

 

“You are… incredible,” I told her, honestly as I looked at it. It was a photograph of her and me, cuddled underneath a blanket in the snow riding in the carriage in the park. “This is the most thoughtful gift I’ve ever gotten,” he said. “I love it.”

 

She looked so happy that I was pleased. I really was. I’d never gotten a gift that I would cherish so much.

 

“I was planning on leaving it for you on your desk when you were gone,” she told me.

 

“You didn’t think I would show up today, did you?” I asked her. I felt bad about that.

 

“I was hoping you would,” she said.

 

I leaned in and kissed her again. I couldn’t seem to stop myself. “Okay, your turn,” I told her.

 

She looked like a child as she began taking off the wrapping. She had her tongue hanging out to one side in concentration. She was so damned beautiful that sometimes I could hardly contain myself around her. She finally got it opened and pulled the little lid off the box. She pulled out the bracelet and tears instantly sprang into her eyes.

 

“Santa Claus!” she said. “Oh my God, I can’t believe you did this.”

 

The bracelet was made of delicate silver and held four antique silver Santa Claus charms. One of them had a diamond sack across his back. When I saw the bracelet, I knew she had to have it.

 

“It reminded me of you,” I told her.

 

She had tears running down her cheeks now and she threw her arms around my neck and hugged me tight. “I love it, Aaron! I love it so much! Thank you!”

 

I laughed, “You’re welcome.”

 

She held out her arm and said, “Will you do the honors?” I took the bracelet and slipped it around her delicate wrist. Fastening it was a little tricky with my big fingers, but I got it.

 

“There,” I told her. “It looks beautiful on you.”

 

She threw her arms around me again. I couldn’t help myself, this time I had to hold her there and kiss her. I felt like my life was starting over and everything else in between had been only to lead me to this moment.

 

After we kissed for a really long time, she said, “Okay, it’s about time.”

 

“Time for?”

 

“Caroling, remember? For a big wig CEO, you don’t have a very good memory,” she said with a grin.

 

“It’s selective,” I told her. “I really am an awful singer.”

 

“It’s not about the singing, it’s about the song,” she said. I wasn’t sure what she meant by that, but I didn’t argue. I was finding that with Robyn, it was pointless most times anyways.

 

We bundled back up and she handed me a little book as we started out the door. It had the lyrics to all of the most famous Christmas songs inside. I followed her along the sidewalk and down the street. We came to a large, beautiful church and she stopped and said, “This is where we start.”

We stood in the archway where it was warm and within fifteen minutes, people began arriving. They were a wide array of characters, from a woman who would later tell me that she was ninety years old, to a man in a wheelchair and a little boy of about eight. Everyone seemed to be excited. The pastor of the church invited us all in before we left and offered us hot drinks and cookies. Robyn introduced me to everyone as her “friend” and for the first time in a long time, I was in a crowd of people who had no idea who I was. I got the feeling after I’d spent some time with them that even if they had, they wouldn’t have cared. They were all like Robyn, genuinely nice and genuinely enthusiastic about Christmas. I was beginning to feel it myself.

 

We climbed into the back of a flatbed truck with wooden railings built on. I couldn’t help but think if my business associates could see me now, as we were hauled down the streets of New York like happy, chatty cattle. The truck took us to a residential area that didn’t look very festive. It was one of those areas that looked like it had been hit hard by the recession, track houses that were sorely in need of repairs.

 

“Why do you carol here?” I asked Robyn as we stepped off the truck.

 

“The pastor does a survey of the city every year. He finds a neighborhood that seems to be in need of some cheer and that’s where we go.”

 

I nodded, it was the same premise as Robyn’s Santa Claus efforts and I liked it. We started walking, stopping at the first house at the end of the cul de sac. The pastor began singing “Silent Night” and we all joined in. I realized that with all the beautiful voices around me, I didn’t sound as bad as I thought I did. At that house and the second one, no one came out to see us. I think I did see the curtain move in the second one, but only briefly.

 

At the third house we sang, “Deck the Halls” and a little family came out to see us. It was a mom and three kids. The pastor slipped an envelope in her hands when we were finished and said, “Merry Christmas and God Bless.” After we left to go to the next house, I asked Robyn what it was.

 

“They’re gift cards for the grocery store. This neighborhood was hit hard by the closing of the furniture plant last year. A lot of these people have been out of work and on unemployment since then. This is how his church gives back to the community.”

 

Once again, I was touched and warmed to the bone by the generosity of the human spirit. I had no idea that people who seemed to have so little were so willing to donate to those who seemed to have left. I knew the furniture plant that she was talking about. I’d read about it in the financial pages when it closed down. They had employed over five hundred people, but had been unable to compete with large conglomerates like the one I owned myself. I made a mental note to look into it. Maybe it wasn’t too late to breathe some new life into an old business.

 

We stayed out caroling until well after nine o’clock. Each time I saw the light in a family’s eyes as we sang, or as the pastor slipped them an envelope the magic of the season rooted inside of me a little deeper. I promised myself that now that I had it back, I’d never lose it again. I was also going to do my best to keep it in my heart all year long, the way that Robyn did.

 

When we got back to her apartment and stripped out of our coats and hats, I took her hands in mine and said, “This Christmas will go down in my mind and my heart as the best ever. Thank you for showing me what it is really all about.”

 

She smiled and said, “I knew that you still had it inside of you. You just needed to be reminded.” We kissed and I held her in my arms for a long time. After a while, Mr. Pibbs joined us on the couch and the three of us sat there and reflected on the day.

When it was time that I felt like I really needed to go so she could get to bed I said, “Robyn, could we start over? Can I ask you out on a date and we can start from scratch getting to know each other?”

 

She smiled and said, “I’d love nothing more than to date you, but you can’t ever start over. You have to take what you have and start from where you come from and move forward. The key is to never stop moving and when you look back, to remember what every moment of your life taught you… even if that moment wasn’t pleasant.”

 

“How did you get so smart?” I asked her.

 

“I’m a descendent of Mr. and Mrs. Claus she said with a grin…

 

 

Holly Rayner – Like me on Facebook here.

 

 

The sequel to this story is available now!

 

 

The Billionaire’s Romance

 

Having cracked Aaron Winters’ icy shell, and gotten to know the man behind the suit and gorgeously handsome face, Robyn is delighted to have finally begun dating her perfect man.

 

However, after a harrowing experience at the hands of a mugger, Robyn soon begins to doubt whether Aaron is as fond of her as she’d like, and with a grim spectre from her past coming back to haunt her, the fledgling romance may already hit the rocks…

 

 


The Billionaire's First Christmas - A Sweet Christmas Romance

Aaron Winters, the gorgeously handsome billionaire CEO and philanthropist has always hated Christmas; for him, the festive season holds too many tormenting memories... Robyn Hurst is one of his many dutiful employees, but won't let anything - or anyone - cancel Christmas for her. A couple of weeks before Christmas, the traditional charity auctions take place; Robyn finds herself one of the unlucky ones, auctioned away for a date with the highest bidder. Just when she fears falling into the wrong hands, she's relieved to find that a mysterious bidder has saved her. She's even more surprised to discover that it's none other than Aaron Winters himself! Soon they find themselves in a most unexpected romance, as Aaron finds a woman truly in love with life, and Robyn finds her billionaire suitor to be more than just a wealthy curmudgeon; can Robyn bring him out of his shell, and teach Aaron the true joy of Christmas?

  • Author: Forbidden Fruit Press
  • Published: 2016-06-20 17:35:16
  • Words: 48112
The Billionaire's First Christmas - A Sweet Christmas Romance The Billionaire's First Christmas - A Sweet Christmas Romance