Sara had always loved Christmas. Christmas was, in fact, the biggest Schroder family tradition. They’d always had to hold themselves back to keep from starting to decorate before Thanksgiving, but Mom, much as she loved mistletoe season, had been adamant that no lights went up until after the last bite of turkey had been eaten and the leftover cranberry sauce thrown away. Once, Sara’s dad had tried to hang them in the back of the house two days early, reasoning that Mom wouldn’t notice. Not only had she noticed, but she’d threatened to go up on the roof and pull them down herself, which had sent him scurrying to do the job before she could follow through. He hadn’t been quite so cheerful two days later when he was back up on the roof to restring the same bunch of lights. But it had never happened again after that.
The memory brought a smile to Sara’s lips, though it faded quickly when she remembered that neither of her parents would be celebrating with her this year. Really, she shouldn’t even be going back to the house at all—all her friends from college had tried to talk her out of it and both of her aunts had tried to convince her to spend the holiday at their houses instead. But she’d turned down the invitations, as well-meaning as they had been. She would be putting the house on the market soon and this would probably be her last Christmas to spend in the home she’d grown up in. She’d spent twenty-two Christmases in it thus far and she really wanted one more.
Brushing away the tears that had begun to form in her light blue eyes, Sara tightened her grip on the steering wheel and focused on the road ahead of her, more determined than ever. This was going to be a good Christmas—she could feel it. It wouldn’t be the same, but that didn’t mean that it couldn’t still be good, did it?
Reaching for the volume dial, she cranked up the radio station. Thanksgiving had come and gone nearly two weeks ago, but she’d stayed at campus over the holiday to study for her finals. There really had been no point in leaving without Mom’s famous stuffing and being able to laugh at the disaster of Dad’s popovers, which he managed to burn each and every year. Mom made perfect, golden-brown, fluffy popovers. Once, many years ago Sara had inquired why she continued to let him cook them when they all knew how it would turn out.
“It’s just enough work to make him feel like he’s contributing,” Mom had replied with a smile as she’d loaded the dishwasher after their big meal. “I used to give him simple things, like cooking the peas and slicing the cranberry sauce. But then he’d end up seasoning my dressing when I wasn’t looking.” She made a wry face that had Sara laughing. “The way I see it, better the popovers come out a little burnt than the turkey!”
She hadn’t been able to disagree with that. So Dad had continued the tradition, despite the fact that each and every year he swore he would take them out on time. Sara used to try to remind him, but he always forgot no matter how many times she told him the time, so she’d given that up. She had secretly begun to wonder if he liked ruefully shaking his head at the plate of blackened bread and making them laugh. Maybe it had become just as much a part of their tradition as Mom’s stuffing.
Christmas carols were playing. That was good—it would take her mind off things, because as much as she liked remembering, she’d come to find it was best done in small spurts. Think on the good times too long and before she knew it, she would be bawling her eyes out. Not that she had—yet. It had only been seven weeks since their joint funeral, courtesy of the drunk driver who had run a red light and t-boned their car. She’d expected the gut-wrenching sobs to come and tear her apart, but they hadn’t. Not when she got the news, not even when she’d seen their caskets go into the ground. She’d expected the tears to flow freely then, but all she had been able to do was stare, like she was in some sort of a trance. She was painfully aware of all the sniffling and tissue-wringing going on around her, which made her feel like an even bigger sideshow than she already was as a child who’d been suddenly orphaned.
“It’s just shock, dear,” she’d heard time after time from relatives who had patted her hand and had given her watery smiles, which she hadn’t returned. “It’ll wear off and then… well, you’ll need someone when it does.”
But that had been almost two months ago. She might be stuck in her grief, but the condolence cards had dried up along with the train of casseroles. Time marched on and people marched along to its relentless beat. Never mind that she couldn’t forget, that they were never far from her mind.
This wasn’t working. Sara changed the stations until she found one of her favorites: Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas.’ Now, this song would give her a few minutes of respite from the memories. It was one of the few she’d never sung with her mother, who said Mariah’s high-pitched soprano gave her a bit of a headache. But she’d done it at the top of her voice many, many times with her girlfriends in high school, and again, more recently, at a karaoke bar with her sorority sisters. She might have been slightly drunk at the time, which explained why she’d do karaoke in the first place.
Either way, it was as good a way as any to forget, and that was her goal. So, cranking the volume at full blast, she began to belt out the lyrics. “All I want for Ch-ristmas… is you… ba-by…”
She was tapping the steering wheel in time to the beat and bopping her head along as she crooned it out, so into what she was doing that she was only half paying attention. She didn’t know how long she’d been driving before she noticed the flashing red and blue lights in her rearview mirror.
A frisson of panic zapped her heart at the sight and traveled all the way down the rest of her body. Quickly, she pulled over to the side of the road and braked, her heart pounding wildly.
Maybe he wasn’t pulling her over… except that the dark roads were empty, save her. Damn it.
She reached over and turned the dial down, casting a baleful eye at the radio, as though this was all Mariah’s fault.
Sara put the car in park and reached for the glove compartment, sifting through papers before pulling the registration out with shaky fingers. She tried to calm her racing heart, she really did, but despite her best efforts to think good thoughts she couldn’t help but keep looking to see if anyone was approaching. The police car had pulled in right behind hers but the door stayed stubbornly shut.
This is bad, she groaned inwardly. Really, really bad. What did I do? The truth was, she’d been so busy trying to forget that she’d stopped paying attention, and she honestly couldn’t say.
Finally, mercifully—sort of—she saw the door to the squad car open and a man got out. But rather than doing anything to lessen her nerves, her heart began to pound in her chest all the harder. Her breath was coming faster, too. Oh, well. There was nothing she could do but get this over with. That in mind, she rolled the window down as the officer came to the door.
“Evening, ma’am. Do you know why I pulled you over?”
“N-no, Sir,” she answered honestly, trying hard not to start crying then and there. Funny how her tears were at the quick and ready over something like this.
“I stopped you because you ran a stop sign half a mile back.”
“I… I did?” she squeaked. That wasn’t good. She knew just the stop sign he was talking about, too. She’d driven these roads a thousand times. But when she searched her memory, she couldn’t recall stopping at it this time.
“Yes, you did. And when I tried to flag you down, I had to follow you for several yards before you stopped,” he continued, his voice turning even sterner.
Oh. This really, really wasn’t good. What was she going to do?
“I don’t typically enjoy games of chase,” he informed her, his deep voice going deeper still.
He had Sara literally shaking in her seat and feeling like her heart was about to jump right out of her chest. Oh, man. She’d really messed up this time.
“I… I’m sorry, Officer. I swear, I didn’t see you.”
“You didn’t see me?” he repeated dubiously.
“Well, what I mean is, to be honest, Sir, I didn’t really look.”
“You didn’t check your rearview mirror? That’s what you’re saying?”
“Yes, tha-that’s what I’m saying… Sir. I… I didn’t look, and then when I did, and w-when I saw you, I—”
“All right, I hear what you’re saying. Take a moment to calm down.”
Ha! Easy for him to say! He wasn’t a struggling college student!
“I’m going to need your license and registration, please.”
Sara reached for her wallet, cursing herself for not having taken her license out earlier. It embarrassed her to see how her hands shook as she tried to remove it, especially knowing that he was seeing it, too. She handed the information over and risked a glance up at him. She’d kept her eyes averted until now, but maybe he was feeling kindly toward her, particularly given how obvious it was that she hadn’t meant to mess up.
Sadly, he was wearing a hat that cast a shadow over his face, giving her zero indication of what he was thinking. The only thing that she had to go by was his voice, which, even when he had thanked her, had sounded full of dire warning.
Damn it! The moment he walked back to his squad car, Sara leaned back against her seat and closed her eyes, trying to rein in her emotions. It was just a ticket. Just a ticket. Life would go on. It always did, no matter what happened—hadn’t she seen ample proof of that already?
It was just a ticket. Or… maybe two. She groaned aloud when the reality of that hit her. Crap. He’d said that she’d run a stop sign and failed to stop when he’d tried to pull her over, which probably meant he’d write her up for both.
She couldn’t help it. The tears began to flow despite her best efforts to keep them at bay. She couldn’t afford one ticket, much less two. Her parents normally would have helped her out in a situation like this, after a stern lecture. But they weren’t here anymore. And though they’d both had sizeable life insurance policies, those funds were being held in a trust until she turned twenty-nine. So while she would enter her thirties pretty well off, that didn’t help her much now. The only money in the accounts was for college, and she wasn’t allowed to touch that. It was automatically taken from the account before each semester began. Her parents had both worked through college, and while they’d wanted to ensure that she had her education paid for, they believed that having to work for her clothing, books, and any extras she wanted would make her a more responsible adult.
It wasn’t that she wasn’t grateful—it was only that her job at the library had ended weeks ago and wouldn’t start up again until the next semester began, well after exams were taken. Could she wait almost two months to pay her tickets? Somehow, she doubted it.
There had to be a way out of this. There just had to be. Think, Sara, think! Maybe she was looking at this all wrong. Maybe instead of assuming she was getting a ticket—maybe two—she should assume she wasn’t getting a ticket. That would calm her nerves, she’d be polite and sociable… she was a pretty young girl after all… well, if not pretty, then she was cute. She was hella cute.
Suddenly, a story her best friend, Maddie had been telling last week at the sorority house came back to her. She’d claimed she’d gotten herself out of a speeding ticket by showing off her… upper assets. Now, Sara had laughed plenty at the story with the rest of her sorority sisters, but she hadn’t been entirely sure that she believed Maddie’s story. Wasn’t that something that mainly happened in movies—a scene that had been overdone a few too many times at that?
But she had to try. It was her only option, really. Just… she wasn’t sure how to go about it, exactly. She should have asked Maddie when she had a chance! Maybe she had time to call her now and get the quick, beginner version? But as she glanced at her rearview mirror she saw the patrol car door open once more. No, it didn’t look like she had time to phone a friend after all. This one she’d have to do all on her own.
Sara quickly unbuttoned the top two buttons of her shirt and studied the effect in the mirror. Hmm. The thing was, she didn’t really have big boobs—she wore a C cup, which she’d always thought was more than adequate, but nothing in the face of Maddie’s double-Ds. Maybe she could undo the third button, just to be on the safe side? Except… well… that made her feel a little embarrassed. Maybe she shouldn’t. But maybe two was one too few? She really, really needed to get out of these tickets.
Unfortunately, she was still mulling it over when the officer walked up, so she had no choice but to stick with the two she’d undone, even though by then she’d decided it looked silly rather than sexy.
“Ms. Schroder, I think that—”
“Please, Officer, I can’t afford a ticket—much less two—and it’ll never happen again, I promise!” Okay, so that hadn’t gone exactly as planned. It didn’t sound much like a come-hither flirtation, did it? More like a desperate plea. Yikes. She was really, really bad at this. When the holidays were over, she was going to have to ask Maddie for some tips so she wouldn’t embarrass herself like this again. Of course, she could always just stop at red lights, which would solve the problem altogether, and which she totally intended to do, anyway.
“As I was saying, Ms. Schroder, I think that this once I can let you off with a warning, assuming that you promise to pay more careful attention in the future.”
Her eyes widened in surprise and she gaped at him in disbelief. “Oh, my God, really?”
A soft, affirming chuckle met her ears. “Yes, really.”
“Wow. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I mean it, really. You’ve made my day. Thank you, Officer…” She searched his shirt until she found his last name sewn into the fabric. “Officer Maxwell.”
“You don’t remember me, do you, Sara?”
Her brow furrowed as she slowly shook her head.
Then he stepped into the pale beam of light coming from the streetlamp and removed his cap. The moment she saw his jet-black hair that curled on top, not to mention the familiar strong jaw, she couldn’t help but gasp. It couldn’t be!
His grin widened. “Yeah. Well, I don’t think you ever actually called me that, but yes. It’s me.”
The flush that had slowly begun to creep over her cheeks the moment recognition hit grew hotter. “I mean, Mr. Maxwell. Sorry.” She might have called him Mr. Maxwell to his face, but in her dreams, he’d always been Alex. And in her fantasies…
“No, no, Alex is fine. By all means, you’re certainly old enough now to call me by my first name.”
Oh, God. He did not just say that. “What, are you calling me old?” she quipped, accompanied by a laugh that she’d hoped sounded flirtatious, but sounded more embarrassed to her own ears.
Alex’s grin was wide and tummy-flip worthy as he replied, “Oh, absolutely. You’re—what? A sophomore in college now?”
“Well, see. Look at that. And top of your class, I bet?”
Sara’s own smile was chagrined. “Not exactly.”
“Really, and why is that?”
“I… I don’t know. I’m a bit lazy when it comes to studying, I suppose.”
“Hmm.” There he went, using the stern tone again. She wondered if he was even aware of it. “Tell you what, as much as I’m enjoying talking to you, maybe we should do it somewhere with better lighting.”
Her heart had begun to sink but now it paused, waiting, hoping. Was he suggesting what she thought he was? “I… I know a little coffee shop just around the corner. Café Biscotti,” she ventured.
“Yeah, I know the one. That would be perfect. I’m off duty in half an hour. What do you say that you meet me there?”
“Y-yes, Sir!” she burst out eagerly—too eagerly. “I mean, yes. That would be great, Alex.” It still felt weird to call him that aloud, to his face. She better get this whole blushing thing under control, and fast. If they were going to talk in the café, she wouldn’t be able to hide it from him.
“Sounds great. See you soon. And Sara?”
“Watch out for stop signs,” he said with a wink.
“Yes, Sir! Absolutely, Sir! I sure will.” Okay, she really had to get this diarrhea of the mouth thing under control. Far from appearing cool and sophisticated, she was probably reminding him more of the little kid next door. Damn it. She needed to work on the blushing, and stop calling him Sir so much and then, if there was still time, maybe she could get her racing pulse under control, too. But if not, as they say, two out of three ain’t bad.
Sara had only been ten minutes from her house when Alex had pulled her over. It was a drive that could be done in six minutes, taken pedal-to-the-metal all the way, but knowing he’d be watching until he couldn’t see her anymore, and not wanting to risk it, she was super careful to pause longer at every stop sign and red light and drive exactly the speed limit. While she did, she coached herself aloud.
“You can do this, Sara. Calm down. This is not a date. Alex is just being nice, trying to catch up. So there’s no need to freak out.”
But it certainly felt like a date, which meant there were plenty of reasons to freak out. And freak out she did, about everything from her hair to the shoes she wore. Which was ridiculous. She was a smart girl; intellectually she knew that worrying about her shoes when she was just going out to meet a friend—well, really and truly an acquaintance—was a little much. But she just couldn’t seem to help herself. This was Alex. Whether he knew it or not, he had been the fodder for nearly every single one of her dorm room fantasies.
She didn’t know when she’d started to think of him as Alex. For as long as she could remember, he’d been the nice, easy-going neighbor next door. But sometime after entering high school she’d started to take more notice of his lean, toned body—particularly on Saturday afternoon, which was the day he always washed his car. She somehow always managed to find an excuse to be outside about the time he got started. If her parents wondered why she started volunteering to do yardwork on the weekends, they never asked. And it was perfect, because between pruning the hedges she could slip glances at her sexy older neighbor.
She’d known that he was too old for her, and he’d never been anything more than solicitously polite toward her. Heck, she’d hardly ever said anything more than hello to him in all the time she’d known him! But when the lights were off in her college dorm room and she had an itch she just had to scratch, it was always Alex’s face that came to mind.
That tan, ruggedly handsome face. When she imagined him smiling, his dimple in his left cheek flashing, those baby blues twinkling at her… it was enough to make her orgasm just thinking about it.
Which was why, date or not, she wanted to look her best. Even if he would never think of her as anything more than a little kid, even if he’d always be close enough to watch but never close enough to touch. It didn’t matter to her. All that mattered was that she put her best foot forward now, when she had the chance, even if it was hopeless. Giving herself one last glance in her full-length mirror, Sara decided the skirt and spaghetti-strap top she’d chosen would have to do. She felt sexy, even if Alex would never see her that way.
They were just going to talk. Or, rather, he was going to talk and she was going to stare at him, drinking him in for as long as she could. She needed new material for her lonely nights, after all.
Alex stood to his feet as she walked in, and Sara blushed in pleasure. That is, until he spoke in the same stern, no-nonsense voice he’d used when he’d pulled her over.
“You’re late,” he scolded.
“Am I?” she queried, feeling a bit flustered at both the admonishment and being this close to him.
“By half an hour. I’ve already had two cups of coffee.”
Maybe he was worried he’d have trouble getting to sleep. If she was bolder, she might suggest a few things he could do to help. Or, rather, that she could do… but she was not that bold.
“I… I’m sorry… Sir,” she added, because it seemed appropriate. Was it her imagination, or had something flickered across his face when she’d said that? She couldn’t be sure. It might have just been the light.
“That’s all right, I think I’ll let it slide—this once.” His eyes twinkled at her, looking so like she’d imagined that she blushed again. Or maybe it was the innuendo, the one that she wasn’t even sure she understood. All she knew was that it made her squirm in her seat, even if she had no idea why. “Are you hungry? Or did you just want coffee?” There was a teasing lilt to his voice as he signaled for the waitress.
“Um, I could go for some fries.”
“Good. We can share.” He winked.
Sara cleared her throat and looked out the window, trying to find something to distract her from the way he made her feel. Could he tell? Surely he didn’t suspect that the warmth that flooded her cheeks had anything to do with his innocent flirting. He probably wasn’t even flirting—she probably only wanted to think that he was. God, this was embarrassing. She never should have come.
Fortunately, the waitress came over and Alex ordered their fries and water for himself.
“And to drink for you, ma’am?”
“I’ll have milk, thanks.”
“One milk, got it.”
“And, actually, if you could make it chocolate, that would be great.”
“Chocolate milk. Can do.”
It wasn’t until she shifted her gaze to Alex and saw him grinning that it occurred to her that ordering chocolate milk on what may or may not have been a date made her seem a bit childish. But the moment the thought crossed her mind, she tossed her hair over his shoulder and looked back at him with her most determined stare. She was tired of feeling like an uncertain little girl around him. She was a woman, damn it, and it was time that he recognized her as one!
“So, what have you been up to for the past year?” he asked, his voice neutral as though she’d just voiced her thoughts aloud.
“School,” she answered simply. “I stay pretty busy. Junior year and all.”
“Junior year,” he whistled. “Wow. It seems like just yesterday that you were jumping through the sprinkler in the front yard.”
Sara cleared her throat, trying to appear as adult as possible as she informed him, “Actually, that was over spring break.”
Alex’s grin widened and his eyes focused on her with such smoldering intensity that the squirming resumed. “I know. I have a pretty good memory. You kind of have to, with my job.”
“Yeah, I guess so. And, um, speaking of that… thanks for earlier. You know.”
“No problem. Everyone deserves a break now and again. But make sure you remember that it was a one-time-only deal.”
“Yes, of course,” she murmured, ducking her head to hide her hot cheeks. What was wrong with her? Why did that low, gravelly voice of his bring out this stammering schoolgirl? Which, technically she was… but she wasn’t normally this embarrassed and flustered! Not even with the toughest professors at school. She had to focus on that—she’d had a debate with the dean once. The dean! Sure, Alex was her oldest crush, and yes, he had a blush-worthy smile, not to mention the dimple, but she was a grown woman! She was a strong, capable grown woman! Now she just had to keep reminding herself of that.
“And Sara… I just wanted to say… I mean, I should have sent a card, or something, but I didn’t know what to say then, either.”
She tensed up, knowing what he was getting ready to say, but then his hand was reaching across to grab hers and she couldn’t help but relax from the contact.
“I am so sorry about your parents. They were really good people.”
And then, just like that, her eyes were filling with tears. It was such an unexpected surprise that she almost started to laugh. But Alex looking across the table at her, his features suddenly soft and sympathetic, his hand clasping hers, made her laughter die before it started. She wasn’t sure what she felt, except grateful to him—grateful, and still shy.
“Yeah, they were,” she answered at last. “Thanks.”
He looked like he wanted to say something else, but right then the waitress reappeared with their drinks in hand and no sooner had she put them in front of them than another waiter was behind her with their fries.
As curious as she was about what he had to say, Sara couldn’t help but also feel relieved. She wasn’t ready to cry—not yet. And certainly not in public! If she had to choose tears in front of her crush or blushing and stammering, she’d gladly choose the latter. Especially when he made it feel so good.