"You sure you don't need me, Sir? I don't mind sticking around."
"No, Don. Go on, enjoy a few days off before we get swamped."
"All right, then. Thanks."
Don left his boss, who was in remarkably good spirits considering how close Christmas was and how busy they would get in a week. However, he decided, if the boss said take some time, Don wasn't one to argue. He knew he'd be working his ass off soon enough, so he'd get while the getting was good.
After speaking to the boss, he had a quick chat with Rudy, his supervisor, letting him know he'd be out but back in time for the big rush. Rudy nodded, immersed in schedules and rubbing his watery eyes and runny nose with a handkerchief. Don kept a distance; Rudy seemed to get colds on a regular basis this time of year and Don had no wish to catch one.
On his way back to his room, he saw Halley, one of his co-workers. "Hey, Don!" she chirped.
"Hey, yourself. You taking some time off, too?" he asked as she fell into step beside him.
She nodded and ran a hand through long brown hair. "You bet. Never look a gift horse in the mouth, that's my motto."
Don pulled a face and shook his own shorter, darker brown hair. "I never look at horses at all, thanks, gift or not." Halley laughed, a bright, tinkling sound.
"So, what are you going to do?" she asked.
"Oh, a bit of a busman's holiday, I guess. My cousin runs a limo service and he's short a couple of drivers. I told him I'd help out."
Halley frowned. "That doesn't sound like much fun."
"Actually, it is. You meet some really neat people, and at this time of year they're generally in a good mood." Don was looking forward to it. "We might even have time for a hockey game," he said.
Halley rolled her eyes. "Men. Is no season safe from sports?"
"Oh, come on." He poked her in the ribs. "We'll be watching the Wild. Their uniforms are very Christmas-y, lots of red."
"Well, that makes all the difference," she said dryly.
"Look, Halley, I've got to run." He gave her a quick peck on the cheek. "I'll be back on the twenty-fourth in plenty of time, I promise."
"I'm not covering for you if you're late," she warned.
He held up two fingers, then crossed his heart. "I swear."
"Good." She snorted. "If I have to look at someone's ass all night, I'd prefer yours to Val's. Idiot thinks he's God's gift to women."
"Hey, a number of women agree." They both turned to see Val walking towards them. His dark, curly hair hung loose around a nearly angelic face. Angelic, one might say, except for the devilish smile and glint in his eyes. He stepped up and threw an arm around Halley's shoulder. "Come on, gorgeous. Open a present early."
"Buzz off, lover boy," Halley said, removing his arm as though it might carry something contagious. "I've got stuff to do."
Val took her rejection in stride. "Your loss, pretty lady."
Halley shook her head. "Enjoy your time off, guys. Bye, Don." She waved as she headed off to her apartment.
"How long are you going to keep hitting on her?" Don asked. Val didn't answer for a minute, watching Halley climb the steps. He sighed.
"Such a nice tail on that one," he said wistfully. Don rolled his eyes and smacked him on the back of the head. Val glared and rubbed at the spot. "Hey, I was just appreciating the view."
"Workplace romances are trouble," Don reminded him. "Remember when Dash tried it with her? It was cold as ice around here for months after that broke up. The boss had to put them in different departments, for crying out loud."
"Vicki and I managed," Val pointed out. Don gaped.
"You and Vicki? When was that?"
Val grinned widely. "See, I told you we managed."
"Forget it," Don said. "I don't want to know any more. I'm going to get my stuff, take some time off and rest up before the big day. You should do the same."
"I will, but your definition of 'rest' is different than mine." Val wiggled his eyebrows.
"I'm sure it is." Don didn't rise to the bait. "I'll see you on the twenty-fourth."
"So when's the last time you met someone?" Val asked. Val had his reputation as a Lothario, but Don suspected he was a romantic at heart. Don shrugged, not in a terribly romantic frame of mind.
"I don't know. Doesn't matter. I'm not looking right now."
"Oh, please." Val rolled his eyes. "Everyone's always looking. That's the problem; it tends to happen when you're not looking."
"Great, thanks ... Now, to quote the inimitable Halley: buzz off."
Jeanette stood on the sidewalk at the train station. It was freezing and she pushed her gloved hands further into her pockets. Where was he? Ben had said he'd be here to pick her up and she'd been waiting over half an hour. She was willing to cut him some slack for traffic and the weather, but he should have at least called her by now. She debated calling him, but it meant taking her gloves off and she decided she could wait a little longer.
Sighing, she moved to sit on the bench, dragging her suitcase with her. Sitting was cold, but so was standing and her legs were tired. She would stay on the bench until she couldn't take it, then she'd stand again, although she hoped by then Ben would have arrived.
She stared idly around. The station was decorated for Christmas with lots of sparkling angels and wreaths, and she could see a Christmas tree in the little square down and across from the station. Jeanette always enjoyed Christmas, although her spirits were a little down this year.
Ben had refused to visit her family, saying that his mother would simply come apart at the seams. That had sent up a warning flag, but since her parents had planned a few months ago to take a cruise over the holiday, Jeanette decided to visit him. She wasn't crazy over the idea of being on a boat on all that open water; she was sure she was overreacting, but couldn't help it. Visiting Ben seemed like a good idea. She'd have company over the holiday and get to meet some of his family, then a couple of days later she'd head to her sister's and finish the holiday week with them.
"I wish he'd show up so I could get this started," she said to herself. She pulled her hat down more tightly over her blonde hair and wished she'd brought earmuffs.
Just as she was about to give in and call, her phone rang. By the time she'd pulled her hands out of her pockets, her glove off and retrieved the phone, it had stopped ringing. Cursing under her breath, she clicked to see a text message from Ben. I wish he wouldn't text while he's driving, she thought. Then she read the message and wished he'd text himself into a tree.
Sorry. Cant do it. Met someone. Take care.
Jeanette stared at the words on the tiny screen. Met someone? Take care? My God, he'd broken up with her via text message and had barely used complete sentences. I've been dumped with a tweet, she thought numbly.
Then her situation caught up with her. She was alone in a strange place, four days before Christmas, with no hotel reservations and no car. She covered her face with her hands and took a deep breath.
Okay, I can deal with this. One thing at a time, she told herself. She could get a cab and find a hotel, that wasn't really a problem. It wasn't how she thought she'd be spending the night, but it could have been worse. She'd have to charge the room, which wasn't what she wanted after all the Christmas shopping she'd done, but as a friend of hers had once advised, she wouldn't worry if she could solve it with money. Sighing, she stood and reached over for her purse.
Her hand fell on the empty bench. She whirled around, staring at the bench and the sidewalk underneath it. It was blank—no sign of her purse. Her heart started to race and she forced herself to take deep breaths until she was calm again. When had she last seen her bag? She thought back, couldn't remember.
Don't panic. Don't panic. She had her debit card, her driver's license and her cell phone. She could work something out. She looked around for a cab but only saw a black Town Car. Grabbing her suitcase, she pulled it behind her as she walked towards the station entrance, hoping they had a phone book or brochure with some useful phone numbers.
Don watched the pretty blonde go through a startling range of emotions in a short period of time. First there was boredom, then a bit of anger and anxiety after she checked her phone, then he thought he saw a bit of panic. She recovered nicely, though, only covering her face once. It was a cute face, he thought.
Sitting in the car, he idly tapped his fingers on the steering wheel to whatever Christmas music was on the radio. He preferred the classics, but didn't mind hearing jazzed up versions of old favorites, either. Keeps the season fresh, he thought.
Since not much was going on, and his passenger was late, he amused himself by keeping an eye on the blonde woman. He thought about offering to let her sit in the warm car, but wasn't sure how that would be received. Val could have pulled that off with no problem, but Don didn't have the savoir faire of his friend. She'd probably call the cops on him.
He watched as she walked over to the station door and tugged, stumbling when the door didn't give as expected. She tried once more before studying a flyer taped on the glass and then she let her head fall back, exposing a pale, smooth neck that Don suddenly found himself itching to nuzzle. Surprised at himself, he shook the image from his mind but kept watching.
She stomped her foot in frustration and grabbed her bag, this time forgoing the wheels and just picking it up as she walked around the corner. Don guessed she was looking for either a phone or a phone number. Pity, he thought, that pay phones were rare and phone books even more so.
He should go to her, he decided. She looked lost, and maybe he could help. He hated to see anyone so upset this close to Christmas. Besides, his cousin Joel had just texted him to say that the job was canceled, as the passenger's flight had been delayed until the next day. Don turned off the car and stepped out into the cold, then started off after the woman.
Jeanette was furious because if she wasn't, she'd be hysterical. She hated, hated being in unfamiliar places all alone. It was almost a phobia and anger kept her panic at bay. There wasn't a phone book to be had, and the station had already closed for the night. There were no cabs and she had no idea who to call. Her sister was two states away, although Jeanette realized that might be her best option -- call Isabella and ask her to find Minnesota cab companies on the computer and give her the numbers. She kicked herself for blocking web access on her cell phone. You are so cheap, she berated herself.
"Excuse me." Her head snapped around and she saw someone walking towards her. "You look a little lost."
The man stepped into the light and despite the knot in her stomach, Jeanette couldn't help but notice the short, wavy dark hair and green eyes. "Can I help you?" His voice was low and sent chills through her. That's the weather, she corrected herself.
"I hope so," she said. "I ... I was supposed to meet someone but they couldn't make it. My purse is missing. I need to find a place to stay to get myself together. Do you have the number for a cab company?" She decided there was no reason to explain exactly what had happened; pathetic was not the impression she cared to make.
"Someone stood you up?" the man said in disbelief. Her bruised ego felt a little better for the tone of his comment, but she tried to brush past it.
"Something like that," she said. "Anyway, I just need a cab, if you could get me a number. Or is there a hotel nearby?"
He shook his head. "No, the nearest hotel's about five miles. I can give you a ride to one, though." He jerked his head back at the black car, then smiled. "It's warmer than it is out here."
I'll bet it is, thought Jeanette, who had become decidedly less cold while she stood there talking to him. Then common sense kicked in; she was not getting into a car with a complete stranger who just happened to show up when she needed help and offer a solution.
"No, thanks, a number would be fine," she said. A gust of wind blew threw and she shivered, shoving her hands in her pockets again.
"Please," the man said, holding out a hand. "There aren't many cabs around here, and I'm with a chauffeur service. My job for tonight just fell through." He brought his and back and held it out again with a business card. "I'm Don Nedierre; my cousin owns the business.
Warily, Jeanette took the card. Places to Go, it said and provided an address and phone number.
"Go on, call," he invited her. "My cousin's name is Joel Bristow."
"All right." She doubted anyone would go to the trouble of inventing a business and then staffing the phone line while they harassed women at train stations, but she decided to call. A few minutes later, having spoken to one Joel Bristow and confirmed that he had a fleet of five vehicles, one of which had gone to the train station to pick up a customer who had cancelled, she turned to Don.
"Okay, let's go."
Don took her bag and placed it in the trunk, then opened the front door for her. He thought she might be more comfortable up there, and the heater would be right at her feet, which he was sure must be freezing. She slid in, buckled the seat belt, then hugged herself while he turned up the heat.
"You ready to go?" he asked. She nodded and he pulled out away from the curb. "I'm sorry," he said, "but I didn't get your name."
"Jeanette," she said, and he liked the way it sounded. A little old fashioned, but it fit her. "Although right now I'll just call myself an idiot."
"Why's that?" he glanced over while they sat at a stoplight. She shook her head, then took off her hat and Don caught his breath at the blonde curls that fell to her shoulders.
"Never mind. I feel stupid even thinking about it." She sounded a bit angry and he wondered why.
"I'm sure you weren't stupid," he said. "Oh, would you like some hot chocolate? There's some in the thermos there." He gestured at the bag by her feet.
"Thanks, that would be great." She carefully took out the thermos and waited for another stoplight before taking the lid off and using it as a cup. Don's heart skipped a beat or two as she closed her eyes and sighed over the drink. "This is so much better than coffee." She looked over and smiled, and he missed another beat.
"Yeah," he said when his brain worked again. "I'm not a big coffee fan. I do have a big sweet tooth, though." He stopped himself before he could add something awful like, and I'd like to taste a bit of you. Val would have had a smooth line—he had a line for any situation—but Don decided silence was the better part of valor.
"Do you think there'll be any vacancies?" she asked, taking another sip. "I thought I'd be staying with a friend so I didn't make any reservations."
"I'm sure we'll find something," he assured her, and wondered where the 'we' had come from.
"I hope so." She lifted a hand to her mouth and nibbled a fingernail. Don resisted the urge to cover her hand with his and gently push it away. "I can't believe I lost my purse. Someone's probably buying out Macy's as we speak."
"That stuff is usually covered," Don said. "They may not have time to do much, and maybe they just wanted the cash."
"Maybe." She sounded doubtful. "This is the second time this has happened to me." She sighed. "It took days to clear it up. I almost cut up all my cards after that. I guess I should have."
They said little else as Don drove out to a small strip of hotels. He could see Jeanette's face fall a little bit as each one they passed said No Vacancy. He felt badly for her and tried to think of a solution.
Jeanette tried to keep herself together, but every red sign they passed chipped away at her resolve. The lump that had been sitting in her stomach since receiving Ben's text had gradually risen until it was in her throat.
She'd been such an idiot, she thought. How could she have made these plans? The red flags that had started waving when Ben had described his mother's separation anxiety should have been enough of a warning. At that point, she probably could have arranged to stay with her sister, or hell, made plans to stay home. Christmas on her own wouldn't have been so bad; she could have had a nice meal out, a movie, a long bath, anything.
As it stood, she was in a strange place, cold, with only a few changes of clothes and very limited funds. Not to mention a distinct lack of hotel rooms.
"Hey, would you like to get something to eat?" She turned, a little startled, to see Don looking at her with concern.
"Um, yeah." She tried to clear the lump in her throat with a cough. "That would be nice, thank you. I didn't get dinner." The bravado borne of anger had long since fled; panic at the idea of being alone in a strange place was rising. She tried to ignore it.
"Don't worry," Don said. He reached over to pat her hand in reassurance. "We'll figure something out."
We? Jeanette wondered. She said nothing, though, as Don turned around and drove a few miles back to a friendly-looking diner. There were kitschy Christmas decorations in the windows and lights strung around the windows and doors. It made her smile despite everything.
Don held the door for her and she thanked him, wondering when the last time someone had made such a small but nice gesture for her. He winked at her thanks and she bit her lip when her stomach flipped just a little.
They sat in a booth and she was glad to shrug out of her coat, which she felt like she'd been wearing for days. She ran a hand through her hair and realized she must look a mess, and excused herself to the rest room after they ordered. Once inside, she realized she couldn't even fix her hair—her hairbrush was in her missing purse. That insignificant item threatened to break her control, and she laughed roughly at herself. You've lost your purse, your credit cards and your boyfriend, but a hairbrush brings you down. Get a grip.
Resolutely, she splashed some water on her face, dried it with paper towels, and did the best she could with her hair by combing her fingers through it. Resigned to the fact that nothing helped, she went back to the table and Don.
There was hot tea and soup at her place and she sat down, gratefully wrapping her hands around the cup. It almost burned but she refused to move her hands away.
"So, Jeanette," said Don, sipping at his own mug of tea, "how did you get here?"
"I..." She dropped her head, staring intently at the tea. "I told you. I was an idiot." The temptation to tell him everything was strong, but surely he didn't want to hear it.
"No, you weren't." He put his cup down, reached over and put his hands around hers. She drew in a breath; his hands felt warmer than the tea. "Come on, tell me."
"That's sweet," she said, not moving her hands. She managed to meet his eyes and the warmth in them almost made her tell him. "Really, it is. But you don't need a stranger dumping her troubles on you before Christmas. You've done more than enough."
"If you can't help someone at Christmas, then when can you?" he asked. "Please."
Don listened as Jeanette told him her story in a quiet voice. How the boyfriend who was supposed to meet her not only stood her up, but done it in less than ten words. The missing purse and full hotels were just the icing on the cake.
"So," she said, wiping at her eyes, "there you have it. I'm stuck here with no place to stay and no way to get home. I don't have a credit card to charge a plane ticket to, even if I could get a flight. The prices are probably astronomical and the flights are probably booked anyway. I was going to rent a car to drive to my sister's, and now I can't even do that."
Don couldn't help but think that the tears made her blue eyes shine in the light. He was going to help her, that much was certain. He didn't know quite how yet, but there was no way he was leaving her on her own. He'd drive her to her sister's if he had to. Spending more time with her, and only her, was the most appealing idea he'd had in a while.
"Come back with me," he said. "My cousin has a spare room." He didn't mention that he'd been using it until now. "They won't mind."
"I couldn't," she said, shaking her head. "They must be busy, and I'm a complete stranger..."
"They won't care," he said. "Please, Jeanette. I just can't leave you here." She was silent as she considered it. "Just for tonight," he continued. "Tomorrow we'll try again for a hotel, and you'll need to contact people about your credit cards. It'd be so much easier to do that from a house than ... wherever you would be."
"Okay," she said.
"Good." He smiled and was glad when she smiled back. He nudged her soup bowl towards her. "Go on, eat up. Then we'll head back to my cousin's. You'll like him, and his wife." He drank some more coffee. "Do you like dogs?"
Jeanette couldn't believe how much better she felt. Don had driven back to town, and she'd met his cousin, Joel, and Joel's wife, Gloria. They—and their dog—had welcomed her like a old friend and her worries had dissipated almost immediately. In what seemed like a matter of minutes, they had her settled in a guest room, then invited her down to chat while they sat in front of the fire before bed.
She'd almost forgotten how she'd come to be there until Joel and Gloria had said good night and left her alone in the cozy room. Everything came rushing back. She tried to force it away again, reminding herself that she was safe for the night, that she could deal with everything else in the morning, and that when she was tired every problem seemed ten times more difficult than it really was.
"Hey, there." She looked up at Don's voice, not realizing he'd come back. "You okay?" He sat on the floor next to her, leaning back against the couch and stretching his legs out in front of him. While she debated her answer, she noted that his legs were long and muscular; she wondered if he was a runner. In fact, she realized, his whole body looked quite strong and fit. She let herself imagine how it would feel if he pulled her back against him, then blushed and looked away.
"I'm all right," she said. "I'm just very tired."
She heard him shift and then jerked up when his legs slid around either side of her and she felt his hands on her shoulders. "It's okay," he murmured. "Just relax." He began to massage the tired muscles in her arms and back, and she did.
"Where do you live?" she asked, her eyes drooping.
"Farther north," he said. "I'm staying here for a bit to help Joel out while he's short-staffed." His body, she noted, was warm, like his hands had been. So was hers, and not from the fire. It was tempting to lean back against him, but for now she liked the feel of his hands on her shoulders so she stayed where she was.
"Where's your room?" She'd only seen the one spare.
"I'm giving it up to the stranger who came in from the cold," he teased. "I'll stay down here tonight."
"Oh." She turned to face him, biting her lip again. It was all Don could do not to kiss her and nibble that lip himself. "I didn't mean to put you out. I can stay here."
He shook his head. "It's fine. It's no problem. I've stayed on it before. It's pretty comfortable as couches go." She started to protest again, but he put a finger over her lips. Her eyes widened as a shock went through her at the touch. "Honestly, Jeanette. I don't mind."
She turned away and tried to think of something to say. "You're all being so kind. I can't tell you how much I appreciate it."
"You're welcome," he said. He brushed her hair to one side and grinned to himself when he saw her shiver. Unable to resist, he leaned forward and pressed his lips to the crook of her neck. Jeanette gasped but didn't move. "Sorry," he said softly, lips brushing her skin. "I've wanted to do that ever since I saw you at the train station."
"You ... you did?" Her voice was slightly shaky. Unexpected things just seemed to keep happening to her today.
"Mm-hmm." He sat up and nudged her until she was turned enough to face him. "Then I wanted to do this."
Her neck hadn't been enough. Once he kissed her there, he knew how soft her skin was and how she smelled like apples and cinnamon. He had to kiss her lips, to taste her for himself, and so he did.
Jeanette didn't resist the kiss but was too startled to respond at first. Don didn't demand anything; he let his lips rest against hers, waiting for her reaction. For a moment, she just floated in the feelings raised by being in his arms and having him so close. Then he rubbed his lips against hers and her body woke up.
Her hands slid up his arms and wound around his neck as she kissed him back. He made a pleased sound when she did and moved one of his hands to run down her side. She gasped when he brushed a ticklish spot on her hip and he took advantage to slip his tongue between her lips. She let him, giving a small sigh of both surprise and pleasure. He tasted so good, she thought. Her hands instinctively went to his hair and he growled softly when she pulled her fingers through the dark curls.
"You feel good," he said, stopping for a moment to catch his breath. He held her tightly to him, loving the feel of her body against his. He knew he should stop; he hadn't even meant for things to go this far, but every thing she did made him desire her a little more.
"You ... you feel good, too," Jeanette said. Her head was spinning. If it spun any more, she'd be offering him the spare room again, with her in it. She'd never been kissed like that before, never felt like that. She wanted to do it again.
We shouldn't, she thought, but made no move to leave. It felt too good, too right, to be in his arms. But she didn't know him, and he didn't know her. So much had happened and she knew she wasn't thinking clearly, no matter how loudly her body demanded more contact. It was hard to ignore that, though.
"Can I kiss you again?" Don asked.
"Yes." Did I mean to say that? she wondered, and then didn't care as his lips captured hers again.
I should stop. I can't stop. Don didn't realize he'd shifted to lean back on the floor until Jeanette gave a surprised gasp as she moved to keep her balance. She didn't try to push away, though, so he just wrapped an arm around her shoulder to keep her steady. He turned on his side and pulled her against him, cupping her face with his hand.
She felt so good. He stroked her face, then her hair, then raised himself up slightly on his arm so that he could kiss his way down her neck again. She shivered once more when he reached the curve of her shoulder and he flicked his tongue over it, smiling to himself when she jumped. As he ran a hand down he side, exploring the curves of her breast, her waist, her hips, he found himself wishing desperately they were in a room. He wanted so much more, but she deserved better than a stranger's hard floor.
With an effort, he pulled himself away reluctantly, groaning when her hand gripped his waist and tried to pull him back.
"Jeanette," he said, panting, "we need to stop. I want to do this, but not here."
"What?" She was breathing hard, too, and her eyes were glassy. His words penetrated and she blushed. "Oh. Oh, my God. I didn't..."
"Shhh." Don held her to him and hugged her tightly. "You didn't do anything wrong." He moved to look at her. "I hope I didn't, either."
"No." She shook her head. "You did everything right."
He couldn't help but smile. "That's good to know."
"I guess I'd better get to bed." She looked down, suddenly shy.
"Yes, you'd better." He pressed his lips to her forehead. "I wish I could come with you."
She raised her eyes to his again, shyness gone. "I wish you could, too."
Don traced a finger over her cheek. "Good night, Jeanette."
Jeanette woke gradually, taking a few minutes to orient herself when she saw the unfamiliar room. She sighed when everything came back—the missing purse, the freezing wait for Ben who wasn't going to show, Don coming up to her. She smiled as more memories followed. The futile search for a hotel, the return to Joel's house, the unexpected but extremely welcome kisses in front of the fire...
She stretched as she remembered. Don had said he wanted more, but she would have been quite content to make love right there on the rug, warmed by the fire. Get a grip, she scolded herself and her cheeks flushed. What's wrong with you? When did you start day dreaming about sleeping with strange men on the floor?
Since I met him, she decided as she pushed the covers back and got out of bed. She heard voices and shuffling noises from elsewhere in the house and smiled. It was good to hear the sounds of family; she'd always loved to lay in bed on weekends and holidays when she was younger and listen to her parents chatting, her brother and sister arguing over the television, even the dog pleading for breakfast. Don was lucky to have family like this, she thought.
The guest room had its own bath, and she gratefully stepped into a shower. Her spirits were remarkably good, she thought, for someone who had to start calling credit card companies and pray that no one had used her cards. She wondered if she could have the cards sent somewhere so that she could pick them up, or at least get a number that she could use to secure plane tickets or a rental car.
That plan didn't have the same appeal as it had the previous day, and it was because of Don. She sighed as she dressed and towel-dried her hair. How could everything be so mixed up? Okay, just her—she was mixed up. No wonder, she supposed, after being dumped via text and left to her own devices in a strange place. Still, though ... things didn't seem mixed up at all when she thought about Don.
Laughter and the smell of bacon drifted upstairs, making her stomach growl in response. Jeanette shook her head; one thing at a time, and the first thing was breakfast.
"Good morning," said Gloria with a smile. Their dog, Shep, barked a greeting and wagged his tail.
"Good morning," Jeanette returned the smile with of her own. "This smells great."
Gloria gestured at a stack of plates on the counter. "Help yourself. I cook but I don't serve."
Jeanette laughed. "Fair enough." She took two pancakes, an egg and two strips of bacon. Normally she ate a light breakfast, but today she was ravenous. Gloria set a cup of coffee in front of her and sat across the small table with her own plate.
"How did you sleep?" she asked.
"Wonderfully." Jeanette said with feeling. "Before Don suggested coming here, I was afraid I'd end up sleeping on a park bench. I really can't thank you enough."
Gloria waved a hand dismissively. "Don't worry about it. Don's a sweetheart. I wouldn't have expected anything less from him."
"Is he gone already?" Jeanette asked, hoping she didn't sound as anxious as she felt.
"He'll be back soon. He said he wanted to check something before it got too late."
The women chatted about family and Christmas, and after they cleared their plates, Gloria led her to the den. "Use the phone in here," she said, "it's quieter." She gave Jeanette's arm a friendly squeeze. "I'm so sorry about all that. If you need anything, you let me know."
A shout and some happy barks from the other room brought them both back out to the kitchen. Don was there, brushing snow out of his hair. He looked up and Jeanette couldn't help the warm feeling in her stomach when he smiled at her.
"You haven't called anyone yet, have you?" he asked.
She shook her head. "I was about to."
"Good. Here." He held out a bag. Jeanette gaped when she realized it was her pocketbook.
"What? How... ?" She took it, handling it as though it might break. "Where did you find it?"
He shrugged. "I went back to the train station this morning, thought maybe you'd left it there. I was right; it was sitting under the bench."
"Under the bench?" She blinked. "But I looked ... I thought I looked everywhere..."
"Well, I can go put it back, if you want," he joked.
"Don't you dare," Gloria admonished. Then she smiled and kissed him on the cheek. "You're a sweetheart, Don." She went upstairs.
Jeanette stood there, hugging the purse to her as though afraid it would disappear. "You're amazing."
He shrugged, his cheeks a little pink. "Not really. Just had a hunch this morning and thought I'd follow up on it."
"I can't tell you how much I appreciate it," she said, wondering why she felt like crying. "You've just saved ... my life."
Don laughed and came over, pulled her into a hug. "I doubt that. Saved you some inconvenience, I hope."
"Definitely." She let him pull her back to the kitchen where he got himself some juice.
She knew she had to check her purse to make sure nothing was missing, but she didn't want to. If she found everything, she'd be able to make arrangements to leave. Although that had been all she wanted twenty-four hours ago, now it was the last thing that appealed to her.
"Oh, I also listened to some news this morning," Don said, studying her face. "Looks like the weather isn't improving, so I wouldn't get your hopes up about catching a plane in the next day or so. I'd imagine the hotels will stay full, too, since it won't be easy to get out."
"Okay." Jeanette sat down and tried to process everything. Don's bad news was about the best thing she could have heard.
"You don't look too upset," he noted as he sat down. Dare he hope, he wondered, that she would agree to stay around for the next couple of days? Not that she had much choice, but he worried she'd need or want to leave. He'd be able to get back to work; that was never a problem, no matter the weather. He still had today and tomorrow and part of Christmas Eve before he needed to leave, though, and he wanted to spend that time with Jeanette.
"I'm not," she admitted, then laughed as the tension left her with the admission. "I was just thinking that as much as I wanted to go yesterday, I want to stay now."
"You do?" He grinned. "So I didn't scare you off?"
She shook her head. "No, you certainly didn't scare me off." She looked him in the eye. "You did quite the opposite." Jeanette lowered her head and made a pretense of searching through her purse as she tried to think of what to say next. She sighed with relief when Joel came in and saved her the trouble.
"Morning, Jeanette. Morning, Don." Joel stomped the snow off his boots and shook out his scarf.
"Good morning," said Jeanette. "How bad is it out there?"
"Oh, not really so bad," said Joel as he dove for the coffee. "They've got the streets reasonably clear, but flights are delayed left and right." He gestured at Don with his cup. "I can probably handle everything myself, today. Most jobs have been canceled since people either can't leave or won't get here."
Don smiled to himself; although he felt badly for the stresses on holiday travelers, he was glad to have his day suddenly free.
Joel downed his coffee and got another cup. "Excuse me, I need to go straighten out the logs and schedule. Jeanette, you're welcome to stay as long as you need to."
"Thanks, Joel." He waved a hand as he went to the den and through to a smaller room behind it that he used as an office.
"Well, since I don't have to work and you don't have to cancel credit cards, what do you say to going out and getting some Christmas cheer?" Don asked. "Need to buy any presents?"
Jeanette shook her head. "No, I bought everything early and shipped it to my sister so I wouldn't have to take things on the plane or drag them with me in the car. I'd like to go out, though."
Don stood up and put his cup in the sink, then held a hand out for her. She took it and squeaked a laugh when he pulled her into a hug. "Bundle up," he said with a kiss.
Jeanette snuggled against him as they walked along the sidewalk, enjoying his warmth and the kisses he dropped every so often on the top of her head. She wondered how it was possible to feel so good with someone she hardly knew, then decided to put it up to Christmas and forget about it. Whatever they had wouldn't last long—she knew she'd have to arrange to leave at some point—so she would enjoy it while she could.
They debated restaurants as they walked along, not sure what they were in the mood for. As they stopped outside one and studied the menu, she felt Don tense.
"What's wrong?" She turned and looked at him curiously.
"Ah, nothing. Just ... just don't like the menu." His face looked green.
Puzzled, Jeanette turned back and studied the offerings, not seeing anything too out of the ordinary. There was a venison stew, which one didn't often see, but that was hardly very exotic, especially in a hunting state like Minnesota. She shrugged.
"That's fine, they look crowded anyway." She put a hand on his arm. "Don, you okay?"
"What? Yeah." He shook his head and took her hand as they resumed their walk. "Sorry. The venison caught me off guard." He shuddered and hoped she didn't notice.
Jeanette nodded in agreement and scrunched up her nose. He couldn't help but laugh. "I couldn't eat that, either," she said. "It would be like having Bambi for dinner." Don was glad when she spied a Japanese restaurant.
"Perfect," he said as he opened the door. "It wouldn't be Christmas without sushi."
They settled in and warmed up over tea and sake, making idle small talk for a bit, then going comfortably silent as they waited for the food. Don studied her, wondering what she was thinking, and wishing for the first time in a long time that he didn't have to work this year. Curiosity got the better of him.
"What are you thinking over there, blue eyes?"
She dropped her eyes and smiled shyly. "I was wondering if I could impose on you all and stay for Christmas." She sighed and looked up; the lights caught her eyes, made them sparkle, and Don knew he was in love. "I shouldn't, I know, but despite how it all started, this is the nicest time I've had in ages."
"I'm sure they wouldn't mind." His stomach twisted with what he had to say next. "I won't be here for the day, though. I need to work."