"Emma, what are you talking about?" Lila Hutchins stared at her sister, unable to comprehend what she'd just heard. They were at a Christmas party but Lila barely registered the lights, the decorations, or the songs. Emma's words had blocked everything else out.
"Just what I said, Lila. I don't think it will work with the two of us. It's just not..." Emma put her hands together, back to back. "Just not meshing." Her brown eyes were bright and she was fidgeting.
"Not meshing?" Anger bubbled up in Lila as she saw the signs of a high in Emma's behavior. "Since when?"
"Oh ... I don't know." Emma made an impatient gesture with her hand. "But come on. We've been here how many months, and nothing's happened. We're working crap jobs as waitresses. That's not what we wanted, is it?"
Lila narrowed her eyes as Emma shifted her weight from foot to foot. "We knew it would take time, Emma. We haven't been at it all that long. There are worse jobs than waitressing."
"Look, Lila. I didn't want to say anything, but Sam's got a line on something. Except it's just with me. He thought it would be easier with just one of us. Didn't you, baby?" She turned adoring eyes up to Sam Hollings and gave him a bright smile while Lila tried not to gag.
"I did." Sam nodded, handed Emma a cup full of eggnog, then turned to Lila. "It's nothing personal, Lila. Just, you know ... you have to start somewhere."
Lila hadn't trusted Sam Hollings from the moment they'd met him, but Emma had been entranced. He'd stepped into their lives after a performance at a small club. He had dark hair, green eyes, and a smile that had overwhelmed Emma. With some reluctance, Lila had let Emma take the lead, hoping that she could step in if things went wrong with Sam. It looked like they had and like it was way too late for Lila to stop anything.
"Anyway." Emma took a big gulp of her drink as Sam slipped an arm around her waist. Lila wondered what Sam had put in it and was on the verge of grabbing the glass when Emma tossed back the rest. "It's not like I'm going to forget about you, Li. Once I've got something in place, in ... um ... in writing, then I'll put in a good word for you." She nodded vigorously.
"A good word?" Lila glared at the two of them, fury rising with every passing minute. "Gee, thanks, sis."
"Lila, come on." Emma's temper started to flare. "At least I'm trying to get something done."
"I won't 'come on, '" Lila snapped. "And you." She tried to dislodge Sam's arm from Emma. "Leave her alone. Emma, we have to go."
"What? Hey, stop that!" Emma looked startled. "I want to stay with Sam."
"Emma, will you listen to yourself?" Lila was half-pleading, half-angry. "You want to go on your own? When we always planned to do it together?"
"Things are different. Things don't always go the way you plan."
"It's different because of him!" Lila jabbed a finger at Sam. "It's all changed because of him! What do you really know, Emma? What about this lead, huh? Have you seen anyone? Talked to anyone?"
"Shut up, Lila." Sam looked at her with a snarl.
"Back off, you son of a bitch!" Lila met his glare, her green eyes flashing. "You think I don't see through you? You don't have anybody lined up. You're a con man, you're slime, and I won't let you drag my sister down with you."
"Leave him alone!" Emma stepped between them. "He's right. I've been writing the music and the words and you don't do anything. You just wait for me to tell you what to do. Well, I'm tired of doing all the work and then both of us getting credit. If it weren't for me carrying you, maybe I'd already have a deal!"
"That's right." Sam broke in, his face red with anger. "You're no good and you know it. Emma's been carrying the both of you. She writes the words, and the music, isn't that right, sweetheart?" Emma nodded and he pushed on. "If it weren't for you, Emma would already be recording an album."
Lila felt tears sting at her eyes but fought them back. "That's not true. You're feeding her lies!"
"He is not!" Emma shouted. "You're trying to hold me back. You just can't stand the idea that I've got the talent and you don't. All you can do is hold on to my coattails. But not anymore, Lila. I want to go places and Sam's going to help me."
Lila grabbed her sister by the shoulders and shook her. "Emma, listen to me! He's just using you. He doesn't know anything about music, he's just stringing you along. We're a team, we always have been."
"Emma's the team here, Lila." Sam gave her an oily smile. "She's the star, and you know it."
"He's right." Emma turned a warm smile on Sam and snuggled against him, then gave her sister a cold look. "Really, Lila, you should be happy for me. Like I said, I won't forget you. I can hire you on later, I'm sure I'll need an assistant or something." Emma gave a short, hard laugh. "It's my music, Lila, and I don't want to share it anymore. I don't need to. Now, go away. Sam and I have plans to make."
Lila left but Emma didn't notice; her attention was focused on Sam, and the promises he'd made.
Two years later
How did I let this happen?
Emma pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders, wishing the warm fleece would chase away the cold inside. She huddled into the corner of the couch, staring out the window.
She wished it was snowing, but there was only frozen rain. It pelted the window of her third-floor apartment with a flat, staccato dit dit dit. She stared out the window, trying to keep her mind blank. If she didn't, she'd think about what she'd done, who she'd hurt, and how she'd never make up for it in a million years.
A clip clop sound rose over the cold drizzle and she got up and went over to the window. Despite the weather, she slid the window up, breathed in the frigid air and listened to the horse's hooves slap against the street. She loved to watch them go by; it was about the only thing she did love about the city anymore. I've lost everything else, she thought.
She watched the horse go by, pulling its carriage behind. A couple sat on the bench seat, under their own blanket. Cuddling, she mused, not huddling like she was. No doubt they were warm; they probably chased each other's chills away with kisses and tender words. Her imagination filled in more details.
"They're in love," she said aloud, even though she was alone. "Engaged, maybe newlyweds. No. They'll be engaged by the end of the ride, that's why he suggested it. It's winter and cold, so they'll have to be close to stay warm, and the blanket makes it more romantic.
"While they were going around the park, he pulled the box out of his pocket and proposed. She was surprised and teared up." Emma paused. "She wasn't stunned, though. They'd talked about it; the only issue was the timing. She figured he'd wait until Christmas, and he knew it. So he decided to do it early. It was the only way he could think to surprise her."
She watched some more. "Even the driver's a romantic at heart. They should have gotten off a few blocks ago but he's letting them ride all the way back. He'll probably even call them a cab."
Emma sighed and turned from the window, feeling hollow despite her romantic flight of fancy. Two years ago, she could have written a song about that. She would have jumped at it, unable to stop herself. Now she couldn't if she tried, and she had tried.
It was no good anymore. The words came out wrong. Even if they were half-right, her voice was no good for it. She couldn't even sing along with the radio. It hurt too much. Everything she had loved about writing and singing was gone. Not just gone, she reminded herself. You threw it away.
Her eyes fell on the old piano in the living room. The former tenant had left it behind, and it was a constant reminder to Emma of just what she'd lost.
Tears gathered and Emma fought them back. She tried to make herself concentrate on the positive things, as she did when she was on the verge of self-pity. You have a job. You have a place to live. You have a whole city to walk around in, to lose yourself in.
That was the problem, Emma thought. She'd been living in the city for something like three years and still didn't feel she fit in. Perhaps that was why she liked the horses. They didn't seem to fit either. With their big leather harnesses, their blinders to keep them from being frightened as the cars whizzed by, and the carriages they hauled behind them, the horses looked like they'd been transported from another time.
I wish I could transport to another time. Anytime, anywhere would be better than this.
With a sigh, Emma dropped the blanket on the couch and grabbed her coat for the walk to work. She preferred the late shift; her apartment was less lonely during the day. Nights were harder to get through alone.
Luke Thornton waved as the cab containing the newly-engaged couple drove away. He enjoyed doing things like that. Plus, he'd won the bet on who would get the first wedding proposal among the carriage drivers.
He turned to see Sol Kantner waving to him as he began to unhitch the horses. "Hey, Sol."
"Lousy weather, eh, kid?" Sol shivered and shoved his hands deeper into his pockets. "Whaddaya say to a coffee at Millie's?"
"Sounds great." Luke nodded. "Just let me get the ladies all set here."
"Ladies." Sol snorted. "They're horses, kid. Mares."
"I know, Sol." Luke rolled his eyes. "I grew up on a farm."
"You don't look the type." Sol shook his head, pulled his wool cap down tighter over his grizzled gray head. "But if you say so."
"And you owe me. I won the bet."
"The hell you say." Sol stared at him. "It's only December second!"
"I know." Luke grinned. "But I had a proposal; those two I got the cab for. So I win."
"What were the names?" Sol demanded.
"The woman was Tabitha and the guy was ... Jamie." Luke nodded, sure he was right. "They argued a little before he proposed, but he did and she accepted. Hence I win the pool."
"Christ, you're a lucky bastard."
"Language, Sol." Luke led the first horse to a stall. "What would Santa say?"
Sol scoffed. "I should care? I'm Jewish."
Luke laughed as he came back for the other horse. He patted her neck as he took the lead to take her back to join her friend. "Santa might be non-denominational." He was rewarded with a snort each from Sol and the horse.
After the horses were brushed and fed and settled in for the night, Luke and Sol headed up to Millie's.
"Oh, that feels good." Luke rubbed his hands together to warm them up as they slid into a booth. The temperature was above freezing, but the sleet made it feel much colder. "Wish I had a space heater on the carriage."
"You kids." Sol made a face and Luke bit back a laugh. "Lucky you have blankets. And what, thermal underwear isn't good enough?"
"It's fine," Luke assured him. "Still, a night like this is wet and cold; it gets into your bones." He rubbed his hands together again, then used them to try to put his blond hair in some semblance of order.
"I bet those kids were plenty warm." Sol grinned. "You can do lots of things under those blankets."
Before Luke could reply, the waitress came over. "Hi, Emma." Luke smiled at her.
"Hi, Luke. Hi, Sol." She nodded, making brief, obligatory eye contact before looking down and pulling out her notepad. "What can I get you?"
"Start with a couple of coffees," said Sol. "And keep 'em coming."
"Sure." Emma left to get the coffee.
Luke watched her until Sol nudged his arm. "Hmm? What?"
"Don't stare. It's not polite. What, were you raised in a barn?"
Luke feigned offense but the corners of his mouth twitched. "It was a big barn."
Sol rolled his eyes. "Smart ass."
Luke laughed, and Sol was about to say something more when Emma came back with the coffees.
"Anything to eat?" she asked as she put the cups on the table. She put an extra saucer of creamers on, knowing Luke took some coffee with his cream.
"I want one of Millie's big breakfasts," Sol said. "Tell her it's for Sol, and not to skimp."
"What would your wife say, Sol?" Luke winked at Emma as he said it, but she gave no reaction. She's never smiled back, he thought. How could she not smile in all this time? Sol's voice bulled into his head.
"Doesn't matter. My wife ain't here. Now, remember—no skimping."
"Right, no skimping." Emma turned to Luke. "Anything for you?"
"A bowl of soup, whatever's up today. And a grilled cheese sandwich, please." He watched as she nodded, wrote it down and left again, never looking at him.
"Grilled cheese?" Sol mocked him but grinned. "What are you, twelve?"
Luke ignored him. "I wonder what her story is."
"You and your stories." Sol shook his head. "Not everyone has a big story behind them, kid."
"Maybe." Luke tapped a finger on the table as he thought. Emma was polite, but not quite friendly. There had to be a story there, he thought, and Luke liked stories.
Stories were why he'd come to the city in the first place. He wanted to be a writer, and couldn't do it on his parents' farm. He needed—craved—the continuous hum of life he'd found in the city. His father had been furious, wanting Luke to keep the farm going, but Luke couldn't. As much as he loved the farm, it just wasn't in him to stay there. Never mind that his younger brother, Keith, was more than happy to run the place. As the oldest son, his father had considered it Luke's obligation to run the farm and they hadn't spoken since Luke had left.
No, Luke needed his stories. He heard plenty of them while driving the carriage—and his cab part-time—and he found himself often putting stories to people that he saw on the street. He'd tried to do that with Emma, but hadn't found the right one. No scenario he dreamed up seemed to fit her, and he wondered why she was so hard to pin down.
"Stop staring." Sol thwacked Luke's arm. "What's with you?"
"Nothing." Luke shifted in his seat. "Just thinking."
"Why don't you just ask her?"
"Ask who what?"
Sol mumbled something under his breath. "The girl. Emma. Ask her what her story is. You keep staring at her like that, she'll call the cops or something. And I want my food. You want to know something, then ask."
"It's an idea." Luke gave a slow nod. "I'm just not sure she's the type to tell her story too easily."
"You make things so complicated," Sol complained. "I come here for food, I get philosophy." He looked up as Emma came over with their plates, one in each hand. "If I wanted philosophy, I'd have ordered it, wouldn't I?"
"Don't think it's on the menu." Emma gave a quick, tight smile and made brief eye contact as she slid the plates in front of them.
Luke raised an eyebrow; he didn't think he'd ever heard her crack a joke before.
"Anything else?" Emma's eyes darted between them. "I'll get the carafe for the coffee in a minute. Had to make a new pot."
"Sounds good." Sol turned to his food and reached for the salt. Luke snatched it away; Sol glared at him.
"You don't need any more salt," Luke informed him. "You know you're supposed to be watching it, and Millie puts in more than she needs to anyway."
Once more, Sol appealed to Emma. "How is a man supposed to enjoy his hash browns without a little dash of salt? I ask you!"
Another smile tugged at Emma's lips, and Luke chuckled himself. When Sol put on his pitiful face, it was hard not to laugh. He wished Emma would let the smile happen. He didn't think he'd ever seen her smile. Between that and the joke she'd made, it was enough to make him wonder where the pods were.
"Millie put in extra for you, Sol," Emma told him.
"Well, then." Sol brightened. "I always did like Millie."
"What'd you tell him?" Millie jerked her head in Sol's direction. "Looked like he might jump over the table for that salt."
Emma reached for the coffee carafe. "I told him you put extra salt in the hash browns."
"Good one!" Millie laughed, almost a cackle, and patted Emma's arm. "And he believed you!"
Emma shrugged. "This time, anyway."
"And did I see you smile over there?" Millie raised an eyebrow. "That's good if you did. You should smile more."
"Sol ... well, I couldn't help it when he tried to give me those puppy dog eyes." Emma gave Millie a side glance and did smile.
Millie scoffed. "Puppy? Sol's an old basset hound." She fiddled with the net that held her salt-and-pepper hair back. "Now, how about the young man there? Luke?"
"What about him?" Emma kept her expression neutral. She liked Luke, as much as she let herself like anyone. He'd always been nice to her, and she tried to loosen up a little when he and Sol were there. Old habits died hard, though.
"He's been looking at you." Millie cocked her head as Emma flushed. "What? You're a pretty girl, Emma."
"Thanks." Emma poured hot coffee into the thermal carafe and twisted on the lid. "It's just ... never mind." She shook her head. "It's nothing."
"You don't like him?"
"I don't know him."
Millie peered over at the men. Sol was going on about something, and Luke was nodding but his eyes were on Emma. He looked away when he noticed Millie staring at him, but didn't seem embarrassed.
"Well, I think he'd like to know you." Millie went over and began wiping down the counter even though no one had sat there for over an hour. "He can't take his eyes off you."
"That's silly." Emma picked up the coffee, hoping the weight of it would keep her hands steady. "I can't imagine why he would want to stare at me. You're imagining things."
"Listen, missy," Millie informed her. "I've been around a long time and I know when people are interested and when they're not. He's interested."
Emma started to go, then sat the carafe down and sighed. "Maybe, Millie, but ... I don't know. I'm not ready to be interested, or have someone interested."
Emma had to bite her lip when Millie said that. One would expect her to curse like a sailor, but no.
"You're too alone, Emma." Millie was firm. "You come here, you go home and you hardly ever go out. You've told me so yourself," she said as Emma made to protest. "So, now you have a nice young man looking at you, and you want to ignore it?"
"Not ignore it, exactly. Just..." Emma picked up the coffee. "This is a tough time of year for me. I'm not sure I could deal with ... with something like that."
"This is the perfect time," Millie countered. "This is when things change, that's what my mother always told me. Christmas is for changes and new beginnings."
"I thought that was spring." Emma tried to change the subject as she took a step towards Sol and Luke's table. "You know, everything gets reborn in spring."
Millie scoffed. "You calling my momma a liar?"
"No. No, ma'am." Emma hurried over to the men, stifling a small smile. Millie had done a lot for Emma, and far be it from her to say that Millie's mother had been wrong about anything.
Sol got up from the table and headed to the rest room as Emma brought over the coffee. Her stomach churned as she realized she was alone with Luke, then she chided herself. She dealt with customers all the time, alone and in groups, and Luke was one of the nicest. Being nervous around him made no sense.
"Here you go." She placed the pitcher on the table. "Sorry for the wait."
"Not a problem." Luke paused. "Hey, Emma, can I ask you something?"
Another stomach flip; Emma swallowed. "Sure."
"I'd like to see you sometime, outside work. Could I?"
Before she could stop herself, she blurted, "Why?"
Luke smiled, which did nothing to alleviate her embarrassment. "Because I'd like to. I think it'd be fun to talk to you about something besides the daily specials." He frowned. "Are you seeing someone? Sorry, I should have asked that first."
Luke gave her a puzzled look and Emma realized her answer was blurry, at best.
"I mean." She took a deep breath. "No, I'm not seeing anyone and..." She could feel Millie's eyes burning into her back. "Sure. That'd be nice. To see you outside work, I mean." Emma stifled a groan at how ridiculous she must sound.
"Great." He smiled and Emma couldn't remember the last time someone had smiled at her like that. "How about tomorrow?"
"I ... sure." Not like I have anything planned, Emma thought. Millie was right; aside from work and necessary errands, Emma hardly left her apartment.
"Can we meet here, at the corner?" Luke suggested. "Maybe at one?"
"Okay." Emma nodded, wondering if this conversation was happening only in her mind. She hadn't had a date since she'd left Sam; she hadn't wanted one.
"Great." Luke poured himself a fresh cup of coffee. "Anything you'd like to do?"
Emma stared, lost for words. "Um, no, not really." She was still stuck on the fact that he'd asked her out and she'd accepted. There was no way she could have come up with something to do.
"No problem." Luke added one, then two, then three creamers to his coffee. "I'll think of something. If it's nice, maybe we can just take a walk."
"Sure." The bells Millie had placed on the door jingled as a new customer came in. "Excuse me, I have to go."
"All right. See you tomorrow."
Emma nodded and went over to grab menus, her mind in a fog. Maybe Millie's mother was right, she thought. Maybe it was time to try something new.
"What are you smiling about?" Sol sat down. "You weren't smiling like that when I left." He made a face as Luke added yet more cream to his coffee. "Why do you even bother? It's not coffee by the time you finish with it."
Luke shrugged. "It's how I like it. I'll work my way up to espresso later."
"Espresso." Sol waved his hand. "Please. What's wrong with a straight cup of coffee, I ask you."
"All right. Actually, Sol, I'm smiling because of you."
Sol narrowed his eyes. "What? I have something stuck in my teeth?"
Luke laughed. "No, I just took your advice is all. I'm going to see Emma tomorrow."
"Oh, did you now?" Sol nodded and reached for his own coffee, topping it off with the fresh brew Emma had brought. "Going to find out her story, eh?"
"I'll try." Luke shrugged. "Can't hurt to ask."
Emma fidgeted with her gloves as she walked to the corner to meet Luke. Doubts had assailed her from the moment she'd gotten home. She'd told Millie, of course; the older woman was sure something had happened and wouldn't let her leave without finding out what it was. Millie was as pleased as if she had set them up herself.
"Millie, it's ... nothing. I don't even know if it's a date. I just..."
"No buts." Millie had wagged an intimidating finger at her. "Luke's a nice boy, you're a nice girl. No reason you shouldn't go on a date. You've been shut up too much; you hide."
"I know." Emma had looked down and pretended to organize the salt and pepper shakers. "I can't help it."
"Can't hide forever."
She's right; I can't hide forever, Emma thought, but maybe I should have for just a little longer. She tried to force the thoughts out of her head by concentrating on the Christmas decorations. Most had been up since before Thanksgiving, which always made her shake her head. There were shiny white candles with yellow flames in red wreaths, big silver snowflakes in green ones, and every so often there was a snowman smiling out from inside a blue circle.
She arrived at the corner but didn't see Luke. More doubts surfaced -- what if he hadn't meant this corner, but one of the others at the intersection? What if she'd gotten the time wrong? What if he'd stood her up? Then she told herself to calm down; there was no reason to think Luke would do anything like that, they'd been clear on the time, and even if he'd meant a different corner, she could see them all from where she was.
Despite all that, Emma felt herself getting anxious. What was she doing? Even if Luke did show up, and they had a nice time, once he found out what had happened before, he wouldn't want anything to do with her. Not that she could blame him.
Stop that. Millie would have your head for thinking like that. Emma dropped her head and took a deep breath.
She jerked up at the sound of her name and turned until she saw Luke waving at her. She made a small wave in return, almost not conscious of doing it.
"Hi." He jogged to a stop. "Sorry, didn't mean to be late. Had an idea and had to get it out of my head."
"It's okay. I've only been here a few minutes." Emma looked up at him, curious. "An idea?"
"Yep." Luke nodded. "Come on, I'll tell you while we walk." He placed a hand on her back and gestured with the other across the street. "They're doing a special Christmas concert at one of the churches a few blocks up. That okay? If you don't like that, no problem; there's plenty of places to go. I figure it's December, so it's safe to do Christmas things."
"Um, sure. That'd be fine." Emma felt like she was floating along on a wave, not under her own power. "I hate how early they put decorations up." It was all she could think of to say.
"Oh, me too." Luke stepped off the curb as the light changed. "Drives me nuts. Still, now that Thanksgiving is over, we can appreciate it all. I don't mean to sound like too much of a sap, but I do like Christmas." He grinned and his hazel eyes lit up. "I was one of those kids who tried to wait up to see Santa Claus every year. Never made it."
Emma had to smile back as pleasant memories came to the fore. "My sister tried that, too. We'd both stay up but we'd fall asleep."
"I think my mom put Benadryl in my hot chocolate," Luke said in a conspiratorial tone, then wiggled his eyebrows.
Emma couldn't help but giggle. "That would have been ... creative on your mom's part." She looked around as they walked down the street. There were a lot of people but she didn't feel crowded. Stores had all kinds of Christmas decorations on their doors and in their windows. For the first time in a long time, she wondered if she should get a tree.
It took a minute to realize Luke was talking to her. "A friend of mine is in this choral group, so I did want to see it. I've heard them rehearse and told him I'd make it to the performance. You sure this is okay? I can go another time."
"What?" Emma blinked as she processed his words. "No, no, this is fine. I ... I haven't been to any kind of concert in a long time."
"Well, this will be a good one to start with." They walked a little more, neither speaking. Luke was checking to make sure he hadn't missed the building, and Emma was lost in a mix of thoughts and memories.
"Ah, here we go." Luke put an absent hand on her arm to stop her, and Emma was surprised at how warm it felt. "Doesn't look like much out here, but it's nice on the inside."
Emma took a minute to look at the front as they walked up to the door. It was a plain red brick front building, perhaps three stories tall all together, sandwiched between two taller buildings. A set of eight or ten steps led up to doors that were wooden and worn, with crosses etched into the panels. It looked, Emma thought, serviceable.
She let out a long breath when they stepped inside, and heard Luke laugh.
"Yep, that's what I thought when I came in." He took her hand. "Come on, let's find a seat." She let him lead the way to an usher, who handed them a program and led them to seats in a pew a few rows back from the altar.
"This is so pretty." Emma's eyes were wide as she looked around. The pews were plain, dark wood, and the walls were decorated with drapes of pine needles worked through with gold ribbon. Red and white flowers stood in small vases at intervals along the walls, and green candles blazed in sconces below paintings of biblical scenes, hung in lieu of stained-glass windows.
"I think so." Luke shifted down the row and Emma followed. He gave her one of the programs. "I'm not much of a church person, I admit, but they are pretty this time of year."
Emma nodded as she skimmed the program, trying to ignore the tight sensation in her chest. It was a traditional Christmas program, with religious and secular songs, and ending with "Ode to Joy" by Beethoven. She stared at the listing: "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "Silent Night," and then one that almost made her cry—"Do You Hear What I Hear?" That had been her and Lila's favorite song to sing together.
"Emma, are you okay?" Luke touched her arm, and she looked up to see concern on his face.
"Yes, I'm fine. I..." She took a deep breath. "I'm sorry. It's just ... this brings up a lot of memories for me."
"Bad ones?" Luke studied her. "We can go if you'd like."
"No." She shook her head. "I can't keep running away from memories."
Luke was quiet for a moment, then nodded in agreement. "No, you can't." Emma realized with a start that she'd never considered that Luke might have his own problems. He always seemed so relaxed at the diner, joking around with Sol, and even her. And you were too wrapped up in yourself to even laugh half the time, she scolded herself.
She wanted to say something, to apologize, but the lights went down and the music began, softly at first. For the first time since she'd realized what she'd done to Lila, Emma opened herself to the music and let the sounds wash over and through her. Christmas songs were comforting, she thought. Her hands worried at the program she held while she made herself pay attention to everything. It was like going back to school for a subject one hadn't studied for years; even familiar things surprised her.
Luke leaned over to point out his friend in the chorus, a man about Luke's age and height, and she nodded. The lights went down and the man stepped out of line to sing "O! Holy Night." Emma bit her lip, recalling the time in school that Lila had performed the same song, with Emma playing the piano accompaniment. Lila had had the better voice, Emma thought, although her own wasn't bad.
As the strains of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony faded, Emma applauded along with everyone else but was still lost in the music.
"That was ... that was wonderful," Emma said as they made their way out. "I haven't done anything like that in so long. Thank you."
"I'm glad you liked it." Luke took her hand and guided her away from the crowd at the doors. "I was a little worried for a while. You looked kind of upset."
"It's a long story." Emma couldn't meet his eyes. "I didn't mean to worry you. I just didn't expect to be hit with all those feelings."
"I know what that's like."
They were quiet for a while as they walked when Emma remembered something. "You told me you had to get an idea out of your head earlier, but you never explained. What did you mean?"
"Oh." Luke looked a bit sheepish. "I'm a writer. Or, well, I'm trying to be. So I had this idea for a story, and of course it hits me about ten minutes before I was going to leave. But I just had to write it down or I would have forgotten, and I hate when I forget things like that."
"What kind of things do you write?" Emma wanted to say she knew what that was like, but wasn't ready to answer the questions that would follow.
"Hmmm. Realistic fiction, I guess you could say. I like to read a lot of genres but just writing about people like you and me, in the current day; that's what I seem best at. It's what I'm most comfortable doing."
"That's great. Have you been published anywhere?" Emma was conscious of his hand still holding hers and hoped he wouldn't let go any time soon.
"I've had a few short stories published here and there. I had an agent but things went south with him. Turned out he was embezzling from his clients." Luke shook his head as Emma gasped. "Not me, I mean. I didn't have enough worth taking, but he had some other ones. So I'm looking for a new agent but also trying to do some things on my own."
"Oh." Emma cleared her throat. "That's too bad. I hope you find someone else and have better luck." Memories of Sam came roaring into her head and she tried to ignore them.
"I will." Luke sounded confident. "That's what I like about the city. There's a lot of other things to try when one doesn't work out."
"So, why do you drive the carriages?" Emma was curious. "Doesn't it take time away from your writing?"
"Actually, it's a big help." Luke guided her onto a path in the park. "I listen to people talk and get lots of ideas. Not just for plots, but for how people talk, how they act and interact. And Christmas is best."
Luke considered. "I guess to put it simply, people are happier. Not everyone is, I realize, but the people who take rides with me usually have something special going on. Just last night this guy proposed to his girlfriend."
"How sweet." Emma blinked back tears. She'd given up on such nice things happening to her.
"So I listened," Luke continued, "and you know, even then it isn't all easy. They argued a bit—she doesn't take any crap from him, let me tell you—but she was bowled over when he asked. Before, though, they were talking about how hard it is when he travels, and he does that a lot. I think he was an athlete. When it was all said and done, she accepted, so I guess they can deal with it."
"I guess so." Emma nodded, lost in her own thoughts.
"And what I take away from something like that is wondering how people deal with separations. I might work that into a story sometime."
"It would be interesting."
"You know, you're pretty slick." Luke looked down at her and grinned.
"Me?" Emma was taken aback.
"Absolutely. Here I am, all ready to ask you questions and get your story, and you get me talking without even trying."
"Oh ... I didn't mean to be rude, or anything like that."
"No, no." Luke smiled. "It's just funny to be on the talking side for once."
"It's just as well. My story ... well it's nothing very original." Even so, Emma was seized with the desire to tell him. Then, just as strongly, the fear of how he'd react grabbed her and she fell silent.
"I think everyone's story is a little original," Luke said. "After all, it happened to them, and each person is unique, right?"
"I guess so."
Luke sensed that Emma wasn't ready to give him her story yet, but he didn't mind. He was having a nice time, more relaxed than he'd anticipated it might be. Given how shy and reserved Emma was at the diner, he'd been a bit afraid that she wouldn't say anything the whole time. Still, he'd seen that look on her face a couple of times at the concert, an expression that he was sure meant music was special to her. He'd like to see it again.
"So, are you from here?" Luke asked, then was surprised when Emma tensed.
"Um. No. I moved here a few years ago."
She said nothing else, so Luke filled in. "I came about five years ago, myself. I was raised on a farm." He grinned. "I guess that's why I drive the carriage. You know, can't take the horse out of the boy..."
Emma gave a small smile. "I always think the carriages look so ... different. From another time. I see you drive by, you know, from my apartment. At Christmas, especially, when you all have the top hats and old-fashioned coats, I can almost believe we're in Dickens' London or something."
"That's a nice image." Luke winked. "But I can't do a cockney accent, and I think that's required."
Emma laughed. "I bet you could do it."
""Ere, guv'ner, 'ow about a royde?" Luke attempted to sound like a cockney driver, failed miserably, and Emma laughed harder.
"I think that might work in Australia," she told him.
Luke was pleased he'd managed to get her to laugh. "Told you so."
Emma sighed as they took a break, got some hot chocolate, and sat at a tall table in the little coffee shop. Her legs were tired, she wasn't sure how she'd make it through her shift, but she'd had the most wonderful time. Luke had asked the occasional question about her, taken her short and evasive answers, and not pressed. Instead he'd point to people on the street and make up funny little stories about them, with his terrible accents, and she'd laughed more than she had in years.
"See that woman?" he'd said, pointing to a tall woman in a fur coat. "She's the wife of some CEO, but she really runs the company. Has the minks specially raised on diets of caviar so that their fur is shiny, so that she has the softest, shiniest coat. Her husband's afraid to tick her off, because she'd get half the money in a divorce, and so he has the minks imported from Russia."
Emma had grinned and laughed despite how silly it sounded. "Do they have minks in Russia?"
"You bet." Luke had nodded. "But the important part is, underneath it all, with her opera tickets and ballet performances..."
Emma had waited, biting her cheek to keep from laughing, for the rest. "She listens to Barry Manilow and wears flannel pajamas."
And so it had gone all day. Emma had loved his ridiculous stories, and walking around with him under the Christmas decorations, hearing carols as they walked by stores. It was frightening, in a way, to find herself enjoying the season. Then she remembered Millie's mother and the idea that Christmas was a time for new beginnings. Perhaps it was time she made one.
"Hey, would you like a carriage ride?" Luke asked.
"Oh ... I don't know. I guess. How much are they?"
Luke shook his head. "No, my treat."
"You don't have to do that, Luke. I don't mind the fare, I..."
"No, like I said, my treat." He paused. "Think of it as an early Christmas present."
"Oh." Her throat tightened. "That would be nice."
"It would. Look, Emma, I'm having a good time today and I'm trying to stretch it out. Christmas is ... not an easy time of year for me in a lot of ways."
"Me, neither," she admitted. "I'm pretty alone."
"Well, then." He squeezed her hand. "Let's go take that ride and neither of us will have to be alone for a while longer."