Thank you for taking a moment to stop by.
As I was prepping the turkey this morning, Lily and Nick from Sleeping with Santa popped in my head and I thought it would be fun to share their first Thanksgiving together with you today.
Lily was hungrier than a pilgrim on Thanksgiving. She hadn’t been to the grocery store lately for anything more than bread, milk and eggs, so when she tore through the kitchen it was no surprise to find the cupboards and refrigerator bare.
She could have celebrated with the Barbieris, who put out a feast for every holiday, but she hated feeling like a charity case around their perfectly happy extended family. She skirted the whole scene, blaming it on an imaginary stomach bug, topping off the lie with a fictional fever.
The truth was she felt too crummy to be socially polite, in no mood to put on the happy face and make annoying chitchat.
Thinking of annoying chitchat, luckily, she hadn’t run into Nick in weeks since the night at the farm.
Saying yes to his plentitude of offers had been tempting, and saying no was getting harder. She could have agreed to go out as friends, but with the way her heart rate soared in his presence, being buddies would be tougher than simply going off his radar.
“It’s for the best, right, Ma?” She rolled her eyes to heaven, ignoring the brown water-stained blotches on the ceiling, then glanced at her sickly expression in the bathroom mirror.
Even if Nick’s hazardous occupation weren’t an issue, no doubt, once he got past the basic getting-to-know-you boloney, he’d grow bored. A mature man like that wouldn’t stay interested for long with her quicksand of debt and lifetime of emotional baggage.
What good could come from a single date? Except for wanting another one. And another… Like he said, he wasn’t setting a wedding date.
Lily snorted at her reflection. “As if.” No way, no how, she refused to fall for a firefighter, no matter how much she wanted this one.
The empty pit of her lovesick stomach groaned, encouraging her to throw on some clothes before foraging for food in town. No velour ensembles today as all her good tracksuits were in the dirty laundry pile. Instead, she pulled on some mismatched oversized sweats that doubled as winter pajamas.
Being home alone on the holidays sucked. They were always the hardest days without her folks, and she wondered how many more she’d have to endure. Maybe it was time to revisit the therapist she’d seen after her mother’s accident. Instead of getting better each year, she felt worse.
To counter the grief, she walked. Long walks. Power walks. Meandering strolls. Whatever it takes to clear her mind. If she focused on other things, neutral things like the weather or nature, sometimes she could forget about being so lonely.
All bundled up, Lily headed outside.
It was like stepping into a time machine.
One whiff of pungent chimney smoke reeled her back to her early childhood before life took a nosedive. The familiar fragrance didn’t affect her any other day. Only certain holidays got her so choked up she couldn’t see straight. A fresh fire on Thanksgiving was more memorable than the smell of roasting turkey.
It was probably a good thing the memories with her dad were short and sweet, otherwise she’d have more to miss.
Next to the crooked For Sale sign at the end of the driveway, screaming squirrels scurried around the old maple tree where crows cawed from the canopy of branches. Withered leaves fell like rain, twirling in the breeze, swirling around her decrepit little house. Once a snappy shade of colonial blue with a sharp looking red door, it was now just a faded eyesore.
Her life started falling apart the day her father died. But when did the house start falling apart?
Shingles fell off in different places during Hurricane Floyd in 1999. The broken windows were the originals since the 1960s. The irreparable crack in the foundation had been there since God knows when. There wasn’t any way to fix the shack up without tearing it all down first.
Maybe if her father were alive he would’ve taken care of it before it got so bad.
Maybe if her mother hadn’t opened up and overextended the credit cards using Lily’s name they could’ve afforded the basic repairs.
None of that mattered now as she was too far behind on the mortgage to ever catch up. A buyer better show up soon before the bank foreclosed.
Even more reason to find a new job.
Although the Barbieris depended upon her, they couldn’t pay her any more than what they already were, and tips were slim when business was slow.
She swiped a tear and sucked back the sadness, shaking off the pains of her past.
Walking ought to release enough endorphins to improve her dreary disposition, as ominous as the opaque sky.
Almost everything was closed on Thanksgiving, so her choices were limited to grabbing a bag of beef jerky at the gas station’s mini-mart or daring to go into the dreaded diner. She didn’t like eating alone in public, which worked perfectly because she didn’t have enough cash for the bill, plus a tip.
Studying the Specials posted on the glass door, she debated on ordering something to go. She could eat it at a picnic table in the park.
A man’s thick voice behind her shook her deep contemplation. “Going in or coming out?”
“Sorry.” As Lily jumped aside to free up the doorway, she recognized Nick’s superlative smile beaming like the sun, warming every cell in her body. His nose was rosy, and his quizzical eyes shimmered with moisture as if he’d been in the frigid wind for too long. She bit her tongue to prevent any wild thoughts from rushing past her shivering lips.
“Hey, are you following me?” He winked.
“I, um…” His distinctive musk and cinnamon scent derailed her train of thought. She hid her smile while brushing away an escaped curl tickling her chin. Did her best to contain the butterflies fluttering in her belly.
“Well?” Nick cocked his head. “I’m cold and hungry. How about you?” He grimaced, underdressed for the blustery weather in a black leather jacket with a red scarf tucked into the collar. “Care to join me?”
Of course, she wanted to join him but the rapid fire of her treacherous heart made it difficult to breathe, let alone talk, and her feet were too stunned to move.
“You don’t have to if you don’t wanna. But why eat alone when we could eat together? Unless, of
course, you’re not here alone.”
“I…I’m not here with anyone.”
“So, how ’bout it?”
Giving her conscience a swift kick into the corner of her crowded mind, Lily hoped her mother wouldn’t be too disappointed. It’s only one meal. Surely Mom wouldn’t want her to eat alone on Thanksgiving.
She fought the urge squeal in delight and released a half-hearted sigh instead. “Yeah. Sure. Why not?”
“Really? I don’t wanna twist your arm or anything.”
Guilt tweaked her heart as his wounded eyes touched her soul. “You’re not. It’s just…” She shook her head, debating if this was a bad idea or not. She hated how easily he ruined her confidence with his heartbreaking smile. “Nothing. Never mind.”
“It’s not like a date or anything, if that’s what you’re worried about.” He sounded cautious. Oddly, the more insecure he seemed, the less self-conscious she felt. “You can write it off as two friends bumping into each other at the diner, okay?”
Although she should be glad he was still working the friends-angle, Lily’s heart plummeted.
“Yes, of course…friends. I’m just surprised to see you, that’s all.”
“Well, I hope it’s a good surprise.”
Every fiber of her being screamed, Great surprise! But she refrained from admitting it. Instead, she continued to stumble over her mixed emotions, hoping nothing idiotic poured from her mouth.
He held the door wide for her. “After you.”
Sorry, Mom. Lily prayed to the darkening sky before stepping over the threshold.
Once inside, her stomach clenched from hunger as an aromatic wave of everything delicious hit her; she could almost taste the fragrant feast in the air.
Overheating under the bulky clothes, she pulled off her gloves and shoved them in her pockets. She kept her hat on and head down, hoping to go unnoticed, especially when Britney beelined in their direction.
“Well, well, well. Looky here. If it isn’t Captain Knight. Remember me, from CPR class. I haven’t seen you in here once, the whole time you’ve been in town.”
Nick shrugged. “I usually call for delivery.”
“Would you like to see the Thanksgiving Specials?” Britney cocked her hip. “I can have ’em wrap it to go.”
“We’ll just take a booth in the back.”
“We?” Britney’s eyes bounced from Nick, down to Lily hiding in his shadow. “Oh. My. Gawd. Don’t tell me you two are together? Follow me.” She sauntered in tight orange pants that made her big ass look like a pumpkin. “Your waitress will be right over.” She handed Nick a menu with a whisper, “Let me know when you’re tired of playing with children, I have a fire you can put out.” Then she tossed a paper menu wrapped around a pack of crayons and sneered at Lily. “What’s the matter—can’t find any brats your own age to play with?”
Lily refused to respond. It wasn’t worth losing her cool over Britney. At least not in front of Nick. She held her breath, waiting for her rival’s heels to fade away.
“Didja steal her boyfriend or something?”
“Seriously—you think I could steal a guy away from her?” Lily hitched a thumb over her shoulder.
“Sure, why not? She’s hot, but…I like my girls sweet. What’s her problem with you anyway?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Come on…You can tell me.”
“No. I can’t. Just forget it. Okay?”
“Oo-kay. But if you change your mind, just let me know. I’m all ears.” He flipped open the menu. “So, what’ll it be?”
“You know what? I’m not so hungry.” Confronting Britney was an instant appetite suppressant.
“Seriously?” He blinked and closed the book. “What’s wrong? Maybe I can help.”
“Nothing’s wrong. It’s ancient history and doesn’t stop repeating itself. I’ll tell you some other
time—like in a hundred years.”
“Do you wanna get outta here?” Nick poised to slide out of the booth.
It would be worse to leave and let Britney think she won, than to stay and just suck it up. Lily didn’t want anyone accusing her of being a spoiled high-maintenance baby. “Do you mean outta town? Or the diner?” She joked with a small smile, but they both fell flat.
“I meant the diner—but I can see why you might wanna skip town.”
“Forget it. I’m fine. I’m used to her. She’s no big deal. I’ll just have, um…a hot chocolate.”
“Really?” Nick gave her slanted look. “That’s it? Hot chocolate.”
“Yeah.” She waved it off and finally shrugged out of her coat after a bead of sweat trickled between her shoulder blades.
“Fine.” He nodded, peeling off his jacket and scarf.
Lily winced at her reflection in the polished silver accent décor. Lost inside the oversized marble-gray sweatshirt, her figure looked similar to Jabba the Hutt, while his fitted charcoal-colored sweater accentuated the biceps budging beneath. What a mismatched combination they were.
“Hot in here, huh?” Nick dug his fingertips into his collar, stretching the neck hole.
Not as hot as you.
“So, is this how you usually spend Thanksgiving—in the diner?”
Escaping for a long walk sounded too weird and would probably generate more questions she wasn’t in the mood to answer. “Not really. This is a first. I usually spend it at home. Alone.”
“Yeah. Me, too. I can live without the family drama.”
When the waitress appeared with two glasses of water, Nick ordered for them both.
“Two hot chocolates, please…” Heat flared in his eyes as he asked Lily, “You sure that’s all you want?”
She thought of a dozen things she wanted—all of them required scrubbing her brain with soap. “I’m sure.”
“That’s all.” He dismissed the waitress, and at the same time his cell phone rang a sick song from inside his pocket, but he didn’t answer it.
“You just said you were hungry.” Lily halted the server. “Wait a minute please.”
“I can’t eat in front of you while you just sit there watching.”
“Give me a break. You can eat whatever you want.”
“Whatever I want?” His devilish smile spread slowly, making Lily’s skin tingle. “Well, then, can we add a few big cookies?”
“Cookies and cocoa,” the waitress confirmed before walking away.
“Sounds like the Santa Claus diet.”
“We’re grownups. Whose gonna stop us from eating cookies for dinner? I’m sure we can find a bite to eat later. Maybe hit the mall, too.”
“You gotta be kidding.” Lily giggled. “It’s Thanksgiving. The stores are closed.”
“The radio said they’re opening at midnight for early Black Friday shopping.”
“I don’t go near there on a regular day, never mind Black Friday. Shopping’s not my thing.”
“I thought it was programmed into the female chromosomes—the shopping gene.”
“Nope. Not this female.” It was much better excuse than venting about being broke.
“Do you wanna come with me?” His voice dropped an octave, making a trip to the mall sound so seductive she couldn’t say no. Made her wish he’d ask the same question in her bed.
“Aww, come on. I’d like to get Chief Maresca something more than a bottle of scotch for giving me the job.”
She sighed, tapping her nervous fingers on the tabletop, getting the feeling he didn’t take No very easily. “Okay, fine. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. I guarantee the mall will be a zoo, and you’ll wish you listened to me.”
The waitress delivered steaming mugs of cocoa overflowing with whipped cream and marshmallows alongside a mountain of cookies—a bunch of rainbow squares, an oversized black-and-white, and a few Linzer tortes. She left the check, which Nick paid in cash on the spot.
“Hey.” She reached into her bag and took out some crumpled singles. “I owe half.”
“Put your money away.” He gave her the same look as he did when he told her not to walk home from Brawny’s farm, so she put the money back.
After they gobbled the cookies, he pointed to her cheek. “You have some crumbs…right…there.”
She swiped her chin with the back of her hand.
“Almost…over more. It’s still there. Here, let me help you.” He reached across the table and wiped them away with his thumb, leaving a sizzling trail where skin touched skin.
It wasn’t the first time he put his hands on her, but it was the first time she saw stars in his eyes, staring musingly at her lips, making her lick them on impulse.
“Um, thanks.” She dropped her chin to hide the secret crush blooming in her soul. Could he sense the puppy love? Could he see it in her eyes? She needed to change the subject before she said something outrageous regarding her unraveling emotions. “So, tell me…how’d you get stuck playing Santa Claus this year?”
Nick chuckled. “Well, let’s just say the chief’s a pretty persuasive man.”
The chief’s not the only one.