Teri was worried about Christie driving that old rattletrap. But she’d worry about it another day.
“My sister has something for you. A small token of appreciation for helping her with the car,” Teri said, studying his reaction.
“There’s no need.”
“You have a good heart, James.”
In the rearview mirror she saw his face redden at her praise.
“Thank you, Miss Teri.”
By the time they arrived at the house on Seaside Avenue, Bobby was outside pacing. “What took so long?” he demanded, thrusting his head into the car as soon as James had opened her door.
“Everything’s fine, Bobby,” Teri said calmly. “But I do have news.”
Bobby looked perplexed—and fearful. “News from the doctor? What kind of news?” He helped Teri out of the car, then took her hand as they walked into the house.
“You’d better sit down,” Teri suggested.
His face went, if possible, even paler. He chose the sofa and Teri sat on his lap, looping her arms around his neck.
“What would you say if I told you we’re having twins?” she asked, thinking she’d ease him into the idea of a multiple birth.
“Twins!” He nearly unseated her. “Twins,” he repeated, as a slow grin slid into place. “Twins,” he said again.
“Isn’t that exciting?”
Bobby nodded. “A boy and a girl?”
Teri cleared her throat, which immediately told Bobby there was something else. He looked at her warily.
“Sweetheart, what’s one more?”
He frowned as only Bobby could. “One more what?”
“You want another baby?” He seemed completely confused.
“No,” she said, “there already is another baby.”
It took him a moment to catch on. His eyes met hers. “Are…are you t-telling me we’re having t-triplets?” he stammered.
“Triplets,” he said again, and he started to laugh. Sober, serious Bobby Polgar laughed, a rich, joyous sound that seemed to come from deep inside him. Then he was hugging and kissing her, proving in every possible way how much he loved his wife.
And Teri loved Bobby right back.
Christie knocked politely at James’s apartment door. Drawing in a deep breath, she stepped back and squared her shoulders. As she waited she raised her hand to her hair. Teri had cut it shorter than it’d been in years. Christie had been wearing it shoulder-length, but this new style suited her and was easy to care for.
James answered her knock.
For a moment all they did was stare at each other.
Then, remembering the reason for her visit, Christie thrust out a small wrapped package. “This is for you.”
James glanced down at it, seemingly embarrassed.
“I…I wanted to thank you for fixing my car,” she said quickly.
“I was able to get the alternator working. But you’re going to need a new car. Soon.” With that he accepted the gift, still looking uncomfortable.
“I can’t afford a new car,” she said. “I can’t even afford to have this one fixed on what I make.” Living alone, it was difficult enough to cover rent and pay off her ex-husband’s debts, plus meet all her other expenses, so overtime during the Christmas shopping season was a real bonus.
“Thank you for the gift,” James murmured, “but it wasn’t necessary.”
“It’s nothing big.” She hoped he liked Almond Roca candy, which was made locally. Wal-Mart had it on sale, and she’d bought some pretty silver wrap.
“This was nice of you.”
She began to turn around and walk back down the stairs.
James stopped her. “You really shouldn’t be driving that car anymore,” he said.
She lifted her shoulders in a shrug. “I’m sure you’re right.” She was on borrowed time with this vehicle and she knew it. In the next little while, something else would go wrong. The car would die, and that would be that. Then she’d have to investigate public transportation, and in a town the size of Cedar Cove, there weren’t a lot of options. In the meantime, James had made it possible for her to drive to work, at least for this week, and for that she was grateful.
He continued to hold the box of candy in both hands, as if he didn’t know what to do with it.
“Could I ask you something?” Christie asked.
“You cut your hair,” he said, apparently just noticing.
“Teri did. Do you like it?” Her hand went to the back of her neck.
“You look different.”
His answer probably meant he didn’t approve of the change. Every man she’d ever dated had wanted her to keep her hair long. Not that she was exactly dating James, but that wasn’t the point. Christie didn’t understand men’s attitudes toward women’s hair, although Teri no doubt had some opinions on that subject.
He’d evaded her question, but she wasn’t going to let him sidetrack her. So she asked another one. “Why’d you kiss me Monday night?”
James’s mouth was a stern line. “Do you want me to apologize?”
“No,” she said. “I just want to know why.” Naturally she hoped he’d admit he was attracted to her, that she’d driven him mad with longing. That was a bit melodramatic—perhaps, but it was nice to dream.
“You don’t have to tell me if you’d rather not,” she said when it was obvious he didn’t plan to answer her question. Maybe he didn’t know how.
“I was relieved that you were willing to listen to reason that night,” he finally told her. “You seemed so angry at first.”
She had to agree. But she’d been desperate. He would’ve felt the same way if it’d been his car and he didn’t have the money to fix it, especially if he needed to get to work at six the next morning.
“Okay, the first kiss was about you feeling relieved,” she said. That had been gentle, almost a brushing against her lips. “What about the second kiss?” She’d felt his longing and his need, and it’d matched her own.
He blinked hard. “That was pure selfishness.”
“Oh.” Her hand reached for the stair railing.
“Did it shock you?” he asked.
“No.” James apparently didn’t know much about her past. One hungry kiss wasn’t likely to offend her. There’d been a sweetness in it, an appreciation. She would hardly have called it “selfish.”
When he didn’t stop her, she started reluctantly down the stairs. With each step she prayed James would say something to delay her departure. There was nothing else she could come up with; as it was, she’d already asked every question she could think of. It was dark now, time to head home. The December sky was clear and bright with stars.
At the sound of his voice, she whirled around with such speed she nearly slid off the step. “Yes?” she asked anxiously.
“Be careful driving, understand?”
Her disappointment was like a weight that made her shoulders droop and her feet drag. But she didn’t know why she should care if James invited her into his apartment. Why did it matter whether or not he wanted to see her again? There were plenty of men who’d welcome her company. So what if he wasn’t one of them.
“Your tires are nearly bald.”
She pretended not to hear him. Her ego had endured as much of a battering as it could take. What did it matter, anyway? Besides, she didn’t even like him with his fussy manners and his formal speech. Fine. She wouldn’t go out of her way for him again.
Driving home, she went past The Pink Poodle and was tempted to stop in. Beer cost money, though; she might be in the mood to drown her sorrows, but there were more productive ways to while away an evening. Instead, she drove down to the waterfront park, which was gaily decorated for Christmas. There’d been a notice in the Wal-Mart employee lounge indicating that the high school band was giving a Christmas concert that evening. She could use a bit of holiday cheer.
She was fortunate to find a parking space. As she walked toward the gazebo and the public seating, she recognized several customers—people she’d seen in her cash register line. Sheriff Davis was there with a young couple, obviously his daughter, judging by the family resemblance, and his son-in-law.
Charlotte and Ben Rhodes were seated in the front row. Everyone in town knew them. Charlotte had gone shopping that afternoon, picking up supplies for her cruise. She’d been high-spirited, excited about the trip, and they’d chatted away as if they were old friends.
Next she saw Grace Harding from the library. She and her husband stood on the outskirts of the crowd. He’d slipped his arm around her waist, and her head rested against his shoulder. There was something touching about the pose, something that bespoke tenderness and trust. Beside Grace were two young women and their husbands and families. Each held a baby in her arms. Christie knew they were Grace’s daughters, but she couldn’t remember their names.
The high school band began to play Christmas music, starting with a lively “Jingle Bells,” accompanied by actual sleigh bells. By the time they got to “O, Little Town of Bethlehem,” Christie felt the overwhelming urge to cry. All these people around her had someone who cared about them. Someone to whom they were special. Everyone except her. She could vanish off the face of the earth and no one would notice. Well, Teri and maybe their brother, Johnny, but not for days or even weeks.
Tears stung her eyes and she dashed them away with her bare hand. Being alone at Christmas was the worst. Teri had invited her for Christmas dinner, but it was a pity invite. Johnny already had plans to spend the day with his new girlfriend’s family, so there’d only be Christie. She hadn’t given Teri an answer yet. She figured she’d just be in the way. Bobby and Teri didn’t need her intruding on their home and their lives, especially now that Teri was pregnant with triplets. She didn’t need the extra bother of guests at her Christmas celebration.
Feeling morose and sorry for herself, Christie left the park and strolled along the waterfront. She could still hear the music as she paused in front of the marina and watched the sailboats. Many of them had Christmas lights strung on their masts, and a few had Christmas trees on their decks.
As she turned away, ready to go back to her car, she saw that the library had set up a huge barrel to collect new toys for disadvantaged children. Growing up, she’d been one of those children.
That was when she knew exactly how she wanted to spend Christmas. She’d volunteer to deliver food baskets and gifts. Instead of moping around, filled with self-pity, she’d do something positive. More than one person had generously reached out to her when she was a hurting little girl, and now it was her turn to help others.
Yes, that was what she’d do. And if she couldn’t deliver gifts, perhaps she could serve dinner at a nursing home Christmas Day.
Feeling better, Christie hurried back to her car and drove home. When she got there, she was astonished to see James parked outside her apartment.