“Do you think it was a mistake to let him go?” Annie asked.

“The time will fly by,” Pam said. “It’s nice to see you like this. You love him.”

“I love him,” she admitted. Because he was sensitive but also very confident and strong, she thought. He was a sucker for a bunch of puppies even though they were such a pain to take care of. He didn’t even have to think twice about whether to be out till two in the morning because someone had a problem with an animal. The way Annie had been raised, she’d come to accept that people who cared for animals had a special kind of soul, a precious gift. You weren’t likely to get much back from animals except a lick on the hand or maybe a good performance in a competition. And in her family’s case—the animals provided milk and meat, their roof, their very beds and clothes, their land and legacy. She had been raised with deep respect for animals and the physicians who cared for them. Those gifted doctors were men and women who knew the meaning of unconditional love.

“I love him because he’s tender and strong and smart,” Annie said. She smiled sentimentally. “And he’s so cute he makes my knees wobble. But, Pam, I didn’t tell him. I tried to show him, but I didn’t tell him.”

Pam chuckled. “You’ll have your chance very soon.” Pam stepped really close to Annie and made her voice a whisper. “Sweetheart, you’re beautiful and smart. And I bet you make his knees wobble, too.”

She smiled at her friend. “Thank you, Pam. That’s sweet. The sweetest part is it wasn’t just a compliment—I know you meant it. Did I tell you he asked me to go with him?”

“Ah, no. You might’ve failed to mention that. And you weren’t tempted?”

“Sure I was tempted. But it’s his trip and I have family things going on. But after this, if he feels for me what I feel for him, it’s the last time I’m letting him get that far away from me without him knowing how I feel.”

Pam gave her a fake punch in the arm. “Good plan. I’ve worked with you for five years, Annie, since before you bought the franchise on this little shop. Have you ever been in love before?”

Annie let go a huff of laughter. “Don’t be ridiculous—I’m twenty-eight. I’ve been in love plenty of times, starting with Dickie Saunders in the second grade.”

But never like this, she thought. Nothing even close to this. She wanted to massage his temples when he was stressed or worried, wanted to curl into him and bring him comfort, wanted to trust him with every emotion she had. She’d go into battle for him if he needed that from her, or better still, laugh with him until they both cried. It would feel so good to stand at his side and help him with his work. Or argue with him for a while before making up—she would have to promise never to have PMS again and he would have to pledge not to be such a know-it-all. Green as a bullfrog, he’d called her. She’d never had a man in her life who could see right through her so fast, who could read her mind, feel her feelings.

Realizing she’d been off in kind of a daze, she refocused and looked at her friend. She shrugged.

“That’s what I thought,” Pam said with a smile.

Nathaniel was pressed up against the cold window of a packed 747 all the way from San Francisco to Miami. Over five hours of nighttime flying. Three or four times he got up and walked around the dimmed cabin. Normally he could sleep on long flights, but not on this one. When he arrived at his destination at 7:00 a.m. on the morning of Christmas Eve, he had almost an hour before meeting his friends for breakfast in a preselected restaurant in the international terminal.

By the time he got to the restaurant, Jerry, Ron, Cindy and Tina were there, surrounded by enough luggage to sink a cruise ship. Missing were Bob and Tom and their wives. Jerry spotted Nate first and called, “Hey, look who just dragged himself off the red-eye. You look like hell, man,” he said, grinning, sticking out a hand. “Get this man a Bloody Mary!”

Nate shook hands, hugged, accepted the drink, complete with lemon wedge and celery stalk, and raised his glass. “Great to see you guys,” he said. “We can’t keep meeting like this.”

“Beats not meeting at all.” Jerry looked at his watch. “We have an hour and a half.” He looked around and frowned. “Nathaniel, did you manage to get your luggage checked through?”

“Nah, I left it with a skycap.”

There was some head shaking. “Always has been one jump ahead of us,” Tina said.

“Thing is—I can’t make it. Sorry, guys.”

Confused stares answered him. “Um, don’t look now, buddy—but you’re in Miami. Almost at Bahama Mama heaven.”

Nate chuckled and took a sip of his Bloody Mary. “This was a good idea,” he said of the drink. “I left my luggage at the airline counter with the skycap. They’re working on a flight for me, but it looks bleak. Who would travel on Christmas Eve on purpose? Why are they booked solid? I’d never travel on Christmas Eve if I didn’t have to, but I told them I’d take anything. I might end up eating my turkey dinner right here.”

“What the hell…..?”

“It’s a woman,” Nate said. He was shaking his head and laughing at himself. “I gotta get back to a woman.”

Jerry clamped a hand on his shoulder. “Okay, let me guess, you got drunk on the plane…..”

“Why didn’t you just bring her?” Cindy asked.

“She couldn’t come,” Nate said. “She had all kinds of family stuff going on and she couldn’t miss it. She’s real close to her family—great family, too. So I said I’d stay home, but she said no to that. She said I should have my vacation. She insisted. And I let her.”

“All right, bud, keep your head here. Give her a call, tell her you’re miserable without her and you’ll be home soon. Hell, get a flight out in two or three days if you still feel the same way.”

“I have to go,” Nate said. “I don’t want to be sitting in a bar with you losers if they find a flight for me.” He took another swallow of his drink. He stared at it. “Really, this was a good idea. So was the trip. Anyone game to try this next year? I shouldn’t have any complications next year—that I can think of.”

“Nathaniel, if she’s the right one, she’s not going anyplace,” Jerry attempted.

He grinned. “That’s the best part. She’s not going anyplace. But you have no idea how much Christmas means to Annie. She’s like the Christmas fairy.” He chuckled. “Listen, I don’t expect you to get this, but as much as I was looking forward to spending a few days with you guys, it hit me on the plane—I’m going to feel alone without her. I’m going to be with the best friends I’ve ever had, and I’m not going to have much fun, because she’s not with me.” He shook his head. “I know where I’m supposed to be right now, and I better get there.”

“Nathaniel, this will pass,” Ron said. “How long have you known this woman?”

“Oh, jeez—about three weeks. About three of the best weeks of my life. When you find the right one, you don’t fly away and leave her wondering how you feel. See, Jerry, in case you ever find some brain-damaged female willing to throw her lot in with you, you’ll want to remember this—you better not let her out of your sight and you better not leave her without telling her you love her. Got that?”

Jerry looked confused. “Isn’t that why they invented florists? Don’t you just dial up a big, expensive batch of flowers and—”

“Nathaniel, that is so sweet,” Tina said. “I had no idea you were so sweet. Didn’t we date once? Were you ever that sweet to me?”

With a laugh, Nate put down his drink, grabbed her, hugged her and gave her a kiss on the cheek. He gave his old pal Cindy a hug. He punched Jerry in the arm and gave Ron’s hand a quick shake. “I’ll be in touch. Have a good time on the beach. Thanks for the drink. Tell Bob and Tom I’m sorry I missed them. Merry Christmas.” And he turned and strode away.

After closing the shop on the twenty-third, Annie had gotten right out to Nate’s house to take care of the puppies. She’d gone back after dinner at the farm to make sure they were fixed for the night and then she’d stayed a while, enjoying her stab at Christmas decorations. Virginia had been good enough to check on the puppies on the morning of the twenty-fourth, as she had to look after the horses anyway.

Annie had purchased five decorated hat boxes at the craft store, and on Christmas Eve she took one little pup—a female, Vixen—to work with her for Pam. Pam’s mom would keep the puppy safe and warm until Christmas morning. They closed the shop at noon and Annie headed back to Nate’s before going to the farm.

There was a long-standing tradition on Christmas Eve at the farm—Hank covered a hay wagon with fresh hay, hooked up Annie’s horses and took the kids for a hayride while the women finished dinner. The winter sun was setting early, so they would have their hayride before dinner. The snow had begun to fall, so the wagon would have to stick to the farm roads. Seven kids, their dads and grandpa set out, singing and laughing.

And in the kitchen, the traditional prime rib was being prepared. In years past, it was their own beef, but now they had to buy it. From the kitchen window, Annie watched the hay wagon pull away from the house. Telling herself not to be moody, she briefly fantasized about sending Nate out with the kids and her dad and brothers. Well, there were years ahead for that.

Rose came up behind her and slipped her arms around Annie’s waist. “You can go with them if you want to,” she murmured. “There is more than enough help in the kitchen. Too much, if you ask me!”

Annie laughed at her mom. “I’m staying in,” she said. “After dinner I have puppies to deliver on behalf of Santa. We’re down to three boys. I think after Christmas, when things are quieter at work, I’ll advertise. And I’ll call the shelters to see if anyone they consider good potential parents are looking for a puppy.”

Rose used a finger to run Annie’s hair behind her ear. “Are you a little down this year?” she asked quietly.

“I’m fine,” she said, shaking her head.

“It’s okay to miss him, especially over the holidays,” Rose said. “I like Nathaniel. He seems like a good boy.”

Boy, Annie thought, amused. She couldn’t tell her mother that he was all man. More man than she’d experienced in her adult life. And she hoped he pestered her as much when he came home as before he left. “Let’s get everything on the table, Mom. They’ll be back and freezing before we know it.”

Of course the kids didn’t want the hayride to end until they were blue with cold. Hank pulled right up to the back of the house to let the kids off so their mothers could fuss over them, warming them. Then with the help of his sons they unhooked the horses, took them to the barn and brushed and fed them. By the time everyone was inside, the house was bursting with noise and the smells of food, along with the scent of hay and horses. Stories from the ride, punctuated by laughter, filled the house while the meat was carved and dish after dish of delicious food was carried to the tables, then passed around.