Christmas Eve, 6:30 p.m.
It feels like a mistletoe moment.
Nick’s lips are just inches away, and I can feel the heat coming off of him, warming my face. I want to close my eyes and give into it…give into him. Everything about this day has been unexpected. It’s been years since I believed in Santa Claus, yet he’s managed to surprise me all the same.
But I’ve clearly misread the moment, because as soon as I rise up on tiptoe and begin to wind my arms around Nick’s neck, he backs away.
“I should probably go,” he says.
I stare blankly at him. Charm’s tiny, precious head swivels from me to Nick and back again.
Say something. “Right, of course. It’s Christmas Eve. I’m sure you have somewhere you need to be.”
He doesn’t. It’s written all over his face, and he says nothing whatsoever.
“I’ve got to get to the animal shelter, anyway,” I say, babbling just to fill the awkward silence. “I always drop off the Santa money on Christmas Eve, like a present.”
Nick nods, and the corner of his mouth tugs into a smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes.
“All right, then,” he says. “Stay warm out there. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” I manage to say.
And then he’s gone, and I’m left standing in the middle of my bakery, clutching Charm to my chest. Her tiny heart beats against mine, and I remind myself that I’m not alone…
Even if it sort of feels like I am.
“It was nothing,” I say. Charm’s ears swivel to and fro. “I thought he was going to kiss me, and I was wrong. It’s better this way, actually. You and I will spend Christmas Eve at the shelter, like we always do.”
Charm blinks, and her big brown eyes are so soulful that I have to look away.
Half an hour later, we’re approaching the door to the animal shelter. The snow is really coming down, and Charm’s tiny paw prints get swallowed up almost as quickly as they appear. We walk inside the shelter’s colorful lobby in swirl of snow flurries and frosty winter air.
“Can you believe this?” Lisa, the shelter manager says. “A white Christmas. Have you ever seen anything so magical?”
The memory of Nick dressed as Santa, going all misty-eyed over a three-legged dog tugs at my heartstrings.
I have got to stop thinking about him. He’s a total stranger. I’ll never see him again in my life.
“It’s beautiful,” I say, and then I pull the envelope of Santa money from my coat pocket. “Here you go. We had quite a busy day today. Our best Christmas Eve yet.”
“Thank you so much.” Lisa takes the envelope and presses it to her heart. “We’ve had quite a day too. Just a few minutes ago, someone came in and made a big donation.”
“Really?” My heart starts beating hard in my chest. “On Christmas Eve?”
“Yes. The donor is still here, actually.” Lisa’s eyebrows raise. “He wanted to wait for you.”
No. It can’t be.
Charm barks. Before I can press Lisa for more information, my little dog takes off, jerking her leash out of my hand. She disappears toward the kennel area in a flash of white and copper fur with her red leash trailing behind her.
“Charm!” I run after her.
Charm never behaves this way. She rarely leaves my side, but tonight she’s on a mission. And she doesn’t stop until she finds who she’s looking for.
All my breath bottles up tight in my chest when I spot him. He’s crouching in front of a kennel, trying to pet a large dog through the kennel’s metal bars. Charm throws herself at him with so much enthusiasm that she nearly knocks him over.
“Hey there, little one,” he says. Then he scoops Charm into his arms and stands to face me. He gives me the saddest smile I’ve ever seen. “I’m sorry, Holly.”
I take a shuddering inhale. “For what, exactly?”
“For leaving.” Nick takes a deep breath. “I don’t actually have anywhere to be tonight.”
I shrug. “I don’t either, actually.”
He gives me a crooked smile. “Well, we’re a fine pair, aren’t we?”
“Are we?” I tilt my head. “A pair, I mean?”
Nick’s gaze bores into mine, and butterflies take flight in the pit of my stomach. “I don’t want to be Scroogey anymore.”
“Then don’t be,” I say, and then I take his face in my hands and I kiss him with every ounce of Christmas cheer I possess.
Nick groans, low and deep. One of his hands makes its way into my hair. His mouth is warm against my frosty lips, and he smells like pine and fresh snow. Like Christmas. I want to kiss the sadness right out of him and make this the best Christmas Eve either of us has ever had.
I’m not sure how long we stand there, but our lips don’t part until Charm begins to squirm between us. Nick backs away slightly to give her some space, but his fingertips still toy with my hair as his forehead comes to rest against mine.
And then my heart cracks open wide as he whispers three little words.
“Ho ho ho.”
About the Author:
USA Today Bestselling Author Teri Wilson writes heartwarming contemporary romance with a touch of whimsy. Three of Teri’s books have been adapted into Hallmark Channel Original Movies by Crown Media, including UNLEASHING MR. DARCY (plus its sequel MARRYING MR. DARCY), THE ART OF US and NORTHERN LIGHTS OF CHRISTMAS, based on her book SLEIGH BELL SWEETHEARTS. She is also a recipient of the prestigious RITA Award for excellence in romantic fiction for her novel THE BACHELOR’S BABY SURPRISE. Teri has a major weakness for cute animals, pretty dresses and Audrey Hepburn films, and she loves following the British royal family. Visit her at www.teriwilson.net or on Instagram @TeriWilsonauthor