VIEWS: 4 PAGES: 9 POSTED ON: 1/5/2012
A Christmas Crush by Helen Scott Taylor 1 A Christmas Crush By Helen Scott Taylor The entrance door of the London Deli dinged and the object of Penny’s fantasies walked in. A light dusting of grey now peppered the dark hair at Richard’s temples. Affluence and maturing taste had replaced the white Saturday Night Fever suite he’d worn the first time she saw him eighteen years ago with respectable charcoal grey. But his easy smile hadn’t changed. Neither had her reaction. An almost unbearable pressure filled her chest, a combination of acute longing and hope. A tall blonde woman wearing a knitted wool coat with faux-fur collar strutted in behind him on stilettos that pierced Penny’s heart as effectively as their namesake blade. During Richard’s two-month buying trip to Europe to find works for his galleries, he’d obviously acquired more than new paintings. When she first met him, Richard had been out of Penny’s reach because he was too old for her. Then he married her sister Izzy. To keep him in her life, she’d done the only thing she could—she’d made him her friend. Six months ago, when Izzy walked out on Richard, Penny decided to bide her time before admitting she loved him. She gave him the support he needed to recover from his marriage break-up without demanding anything in return. She’d obviously waited too long to tell him how she felt. “Pen.” He hugged her and kissed her cheek. “I’ve missed you.” He held her shoulder’s and looked into her eyes. Too late, she schooled her expression to hide her shock at how fast he’d replaced Izzy. “You okay? Something happen I should know about?” “No.” Penny turned away and rearranged the cheese samples on sticks intended to entice buyers to try something new for Christmas. “This is Madeline.” Richard put his arm around the blonde woman’s shoulders and led her forward. Penny wanted to dislike the tall beautiful thief who’d stolen her dreams. But the woman smiled and held out her hand. “Bonjour,” she said in an enticing French accent. “Richard, he talks A Christmas Crush by Helen Scott Taylor 2 of nothing else but you and this shop.” She waved an elegant, slim hand to indicate the shop as she glanced around. “It is good, I think.” Richard smiled at Madeline in the way he used to smile at Izzy: a way that hinted at private shared secrets. When a young man came in and bought ham, Richard talked softly to Madeline over the pickles in the corner of the shop. After the customer left, Richard looked up and raised his eyebrows in question. “What’re you doing tomorrow? I wondered if you’d like to join Madeline and myself in the country for Christmas day.” Penny started to empty the cash from her till. Her fingers counted coins. The numbers flitted through her mind randomly, making no sense. She shook her head until she trusted herself to speak. “You don’t want me around on your first Christmas together.” Richard glanced at Madeline and they exchanged a look dangerously like pity. “We are not like that. Of course it is fine for you to stay with us,” Madeline said. Penny bent her head, scraped the muddled heaps of coins into bags to count properly later. “I’d better stay in London.” “With your parents?” Richard asked. “No!” How could he think that? He knew she hadn’t spoken to her mother since Izzy walked out on him. It turned out her mother had known Izzy was cheating on Richard for months before the break-up. Now he was over Izzy, did he expect Penny to return to her hypocritical mother as if nothing had happened? “Come to stay with us for Christmas, then.” Richard pulled off his glove, leaned over the counter, and pressed his warm palm on the back of Penny’s hand. Over the years, she’d cherished each of his casual touches. This was the first time he’d touched her in pity. Poor old spinster Penny. Her family had teased her about her lack of boyfriends at first, but as the years passed, it stopped being funny. “What if we stayed in my London flat? Would you come over for Christmas day then?” New love must make Richard charitable. He’d not worked this hard to make her happy since the first Christmas Izzy brought him home to meet her parents. While her family teased her over her teenage crush on her sister’s boyfriend, Richard did his best to make her feel less awkward. The day after Christmas, he secretly bought her the David Bowie record her parents had told her was not suitable for a fourteen-year-old. A Christmas Crush by Helen Scott Taylor 3 “I don’t think so. I’ve got things to do.” With a frustrated sigh, Richard yanked on his glove and pushed his hands in his coat pockets. Madeline pulled on his arm. “Should we not leave if we’re driving to the country tonight?” Richard roused himself and came around the back of the counter. Penny stiffened as he leaned closer. She willed her heart to steady as his masculine fragrance surrounded her and his lips brushed her cheek. “Don’t say I didn’t try,” he whispered beside her ear. “I’m fine,” she said in a breathy voice heat rushing to her cheeks. “Don’t be a stranger.” “Of course not,” she replied automatically. Richard smiled bleakly. His sad eyes and tight mouth made it clear he didn’t believe her. For a moment, he held her gaze, a cascade of questions in his hazel eyes. Then the bell above the door dinged. “Richard, come along.” Madeline held open the door. She flicked back her long blonde hair and smiled as Penny looked her way. “Merry Christmas, Penny. Maybe we see you in the New Year.” Penny stretched her lips in a forced smile as Richard backed away his eyes never leaving her face. He paused, tapped the edge of her counter thoughtfully, then turned and followed Madeline out the door. With mechanical strides, Penny reached the shop door. She bolted it and flipped the sign over to CLOSED. She turned, leaned her back to the cold glass, the chill from the frosty street outside seeping into her skin, freezing her in place. Like a film looping endlessly in her head, she analyzed every nuance of Richard’s visit. Every look. Every gesture. Then filed the memory with the others. The next time she looked up the evening traffic had calmed. When she checked her watch, she realized she’d been standing alone in the dark for so long Richard and Madeline were probably halfway to his country retreat. *** On Christmas day at ten-thirty, the doorbell rang. Penny set aside her oven gloves and went to check the peephole in the front door. A delivery driver stood outside tapping a pen impatiently against a clipboard. When she opened the door, he handed her a small flat square A Christmas Crush by Helen Scott Taylor 4 package and asked for a signature. “Merry Christmas,” she said as he turned to go. He gave her a perfunctory smile and ran back to the white van he’d left blocking the street. She turned the gift over, unable to find a sender’s name. It couldn’t be from her parents. They’d never pay for delivery. Despite falling out with her mother, for her father’s sake, she had sent her parents a gift basket of goodies from her store. They obviously had less trouble suppressing their holiday spirit because she’d received no gift in return. Frowning, she walked into the sitting room and stared at her small silver Christmas tree. Underneath lay a solitary present from the neighbor’s children. Penny placed the new package beneath the tree and stared at the brown paper, hope quivering through her insides. Her fingers twitched; her body hummed with anticipation. She bent, retrieved the present, and ripped off the brown paper and silver wrapping beneath. Heart racing, she plopped down on the squashy sofa and stared at the David Bowie CD. With trembling hands, she opened the plastic case. A small square of card decorated with a fat Santa fell onto her lap. Written on the back were three words: “Do you remember?” As if, she could forget. With a sense of unreality, she put the disc in the CD player and turned up the volume so she could hear the music in the kitchen. After she basted the turkey, her feet carried her back to the lounge as though they belonged to someone else. She found herself sitting on the sofa, knees tucked beneath her chin in the same position she’d sat eighteen years ago on the pine ottoman in her parents’ spare bedroom. Richard had played the record he bought her on his small portable record player. She pictured Richard sitting on the bed, arms braced behind him, hair flicked up John Travolta style, grinning at her as she swayed her head in time to the music. After so many years, why did he want to remind her of that Christmas? Maybe she was reading more into the present than he intended. But he must mean something by the words on the card. Do you remember? She went upstairs to her bedroom and dug in the tiny drawer in her dressing table to find the wallet she’d bought for Richard. She returned to the lounge, snuggled among the cushions on the sofa, and stroked the brown calfskin. After carefully choosing the present, she hadn’t had the guts to send it. She pulled out the Deli business card she’d pushed into the empty credit card slot. She’d not signed her name either, but the short message she’d written on the back of the card was A Christmas Crush by Helen Scott Taylor 5 less ambiguous than Richard’s sentence. I love you. Those three words had emotionally hamstrung her so she couldn’t summon the confidence to post the gift. Now she never would. Not with the beautiful Madeline in his life. Penny hugged a cushion and closed her eyes. Thank goodness, she hadn’t sent the note. Fear shivered in her belly. Once she said those words, even in print, he might be too embarrassed to see her again. Or maybe he wouldn’t care. Then the next time they saw each other he’d thank her for the gift and not mention her words. She didn’t know what would be worse—her love being rejected or ignored. David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs filled the room and she recalled Richard dancing around imitating Bowie as clearly as if she were still fourteen and he twenty-one. He’d sent her the gift of a memory from a time when she still had hopes and dreams. The least she could do was thank him. Ignoring her trembling fingers, she dialed the phone number of his country house. When he answered, the sound of music and voices in the background drowned out his voice. “It’s Penny,” she said raising her voice. “I just wanted to thank you for the CD.” He laughed. “Give me a moment to find somewhere quieter.” She waited as the background noise faded. “That’s better. I’ve moved to the phone in my office.” “Thanks for the CD.” “Do you remember?” “You mean the last time you gave me that album?” “That was our first Christmas together.” Penny stared at the fake flames of her electric fire. He made it sound as though they’d been together. “That was the first time Izzy brought you home to meet the family.” “Yep.” She waited for him to say more but he didn’t. Although some men were reticent on the phone, she usually found it easy to talk to Richard. She sucked in a catchy breath, held it, prayed for a steady voice. “I hope you’re enjoying your day, anyway. I just wanted to thank you for the gift. It meant a lot.” She looked down at the calfskin wallet, at the small cream-colored card angled against the brown leather. Her endearment A Christmas Crush by Helen Scott Taylor 6 taunted her. I love you, Richard. She’d repeated those words in her head so many times they had become her mantra. “Happy Christmas, Richard.” Blood beat in her ears as the familiar words formed in her head, filled her mouth. “I love you.” In the silence that followed, she carefully replaced the phone on its base. For a long time she stared at the handset her heart thumping as though she’d run a marathon. Willing him to call back and ask her what she meant; hoping he wouldn’t. He’d think she meant she loved him as a friend. Why would he think otherwise after so many years as good friends when she’d been careful to keep her true feelings hidden? Although she had no appetite, she ate her solitary Christmas meal and listened to carols. She wondered what her parents were doing, yet had no inclination to speak to them. Izzy would have taken her new man to Mom and Dad’s. Ian Pope sold Ferraris to obscenely rich people at a dealership in Richmond. For some reason, her mother thought that made him a good catch. The fact Richard had made his own fortune by discovering artists and selling their work seemed to have eluded her mother. Penny drank two glasses of a Rose wine one of her customers gave her, then stared at the half-full bottle with a lump in her throat. She was pitiful. A grown woman who’d never progressed past her teenage crush. Reduced to eating Christmas dinner alone and drinking half the wine with nobody to help finish the bottle. At nine forty-five, she finished the bottle herself. A little tipsy, she stumbled upstairs, clinging to the handrail. Then she changed into her Christmas pajamas covered with snowmen and went to bed with a book. Under the warmth of the duvet, her eyelids drooped. A memory floated into her mind of dancing with Richard three years ago on New Year’s Eve: the fragrance of his skin when she pressed her face against his neck; the shivery pleasure as his fingers lightly caressed circles on her back; the chocking disappointment as he turned away from her to kiss Izzy when the clock struck twelve. Penny opened her eyes and stared at the empty pillow beside her, at the lace-trimmed pillowcase she always changed even though it was rarely used. The muted ding-dong of the front doorbell intruded like a memory from another life. She checked her clock and sat up. Who would visit at ten-thirty on Christmas day? Unless her parents had decided thirty-two years of making her miserable on Christmas day was a habit they couldn’t break. A Christmas Crush by Helen Scott Taylor 7 After donning dressing gown and slippers, she hurried downstairs. When she peered through the peephole, Richard stood on the step, biting his lip. Her head seemed to float, weightless, her vision swimming, her body heavy, clumsy. She pulled the fluffy, pink dressing gown closed to hide her pajamas, flexed her fingers to remember how they worked, counted her breaths, one...two...three. She pulled open the door, not a coherent word in her mind. His breath misted between them as he hunched into his overcoat. “Did you say you love me?” Penny nodded, eyes stinging with cold, unable to make them blink for staring at him. “You love me?” She nodded again, swallowed, mouth dry, tongue suddenly too big. “In what way?” As she stared at him, his hands thrust into his coat pockets, his collar turned up against the cold, flakes of snow started to fall, forming a sparkling aura around him. The breath froze in her lungs. “Is it possible to go back in time?” she finally managed to ask, her voice a breathy wisp of steam. He touched warm fingertips to her cheek. “Memories don’t age. If I close my eyes, you’re still fourteen sitting on that chest in your parents’ spare room with your chin on your knees staring at me through your fringe.” Eighteen years of agonized yearning crystallized into a point of desperation that pierced her heart. “Richard, why do you remember?” He took her hand, stepped past her into the small entrance hallway of her home, and pushed the front door closed. She expected him to lead her into the lounge, instead he backed her against the wall beside the coat hooks, placed his hands on the wall either side of her head and corralled her within his arms. “Tell me what you remember.” “You fancied yourself as John Travolta.” He laughed, a low familiar chuckle that resonated through her body sparking nerves in tender places. “I wanted to look like Bowie when you said you liked him.” “Izzy liked John Travolta. She went mad for Saturday Night Fever.” “Didn’t you notice? I never wore that white suit again after we arrived?” He leaned closer, touched his nose to her hair, and inhaled. “You still smell the same.” A Christmas Crush by Helen Scott Taylor 8 “Like a fourteen-year-old girl?” “Like an erotic fantasy.” Penny’s skin tingled all over as though it had suddenly grown tight. “You don’t mean that.” He pressed closer, his coat brushing her legs. He took her hands, his fingers slipping up her sleeves to caress her wrists. “I used to fantasize about us together.” His lips brushed the top of her ear. “Then beat myself up because you were only a kid.” “When we first met?” she asked incredulously. He sighed and withdrew a few inches so he could look into her eyes. “It really started when you were sixteen. You looked so grown up in your bridesmaid’s dress. Suddenly it hit me how I felt about you.” “You married Izzy—” “I realized too late.” His breath caught and he released it slowly, lowering his forehead to hers. “I’d close my eyes when I made love with Izzy and imagine I was with you.” A languid heat spread through her body at the thought of Richard naked, aroused, and thinking of her. “I never guessed how you felt.” “I’d made a commitment to Izzy. I thought she loved me. I couldn’t...” He squeezed his eyes closed. After a moment he pulled back, looked at her again. “Why didn’t you tell me you loved me when Izzy walked out?” Penny closed her eyes on a whimper and pushed him away. All the years of hurting rose up and nearly swallowed her whole. How could she believe he had feelings for her when he’d never given her a clue…. “You were distraught the night Izzy left you.” “I hadn’t slept with her for three years.” “But you were upset—” “You played the friend so well; I thought I’d been wrong about your feelings.” “Madeline?” “An artist I found in Paris. She’s having an exhibition in London in the New Year.” Penny opened her eyes, made herself look at his face to watch his reaction. “You made me think she was more.” Richard gave a wry smile and lifted her hands to his mouth. His breath tickled warmth A Christmas Crush by Helen Scott Taylor 9 across her skin as he kissed her palms. “I never told you we were a couple. You assumed, Pen.” “Oh, God.” Penny wrapped her arms tightly around him and laid her cheek against the lapel of his coat. Cold spots of melted snow prickled her skin. In case she was dreaming, she memorized the feel of him in her arms, the press of his hips to hers, the promise of his body tantalizingly hard and masculine. “Inside I’m still that girl everyone teased for being in love with you.” Richard tilted up her chin with a finger, rubbed a thumb across her mouth. His lips parted, so close his breath stirred against her face. “Except now you’re old enough for me to love you back,” he whispered. Then he kissed her. Copyright 2008, Helen Scott Taylor. If you enjoyed this short story, please visit my website www.helenscotttaylor.com to read the first two chapters of my January 27th release from Dorchester Love Spell: THE MAGIC KNOT.
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