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Authors: SUSAN WIGGS

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BOOK: A Fairytale Christmas
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And that, she realized, was why she was going to love this man. He couldn’t care less who she was, where she lived, what she owned. He seemed to anticipate her needs before she did, knowing just where she ached for him, just how she wanted to be touched.

He lingered over her stockings; he went down on one knee like a modern-day Prince Charming as he rolled the sheer silk down first one leg and then the other. Then he rose to kiss her, his mouth as tender and sweet as his hands were wicked. He eased her down on the bed, and there was a dreamlike quality to the moment. She had a strange sense of déjà vu, and she knew exactly why. She had experienced a moment like this in her dreams. She had never dared to imagine it could actually happen.

She sighed and arched toward him, winding her arms around his neck and kissing him boldly, using her tongue as he had used his. Her hands went wandering, seeking, even teasing; discovering the shape of him, the way he was made. His was not a physique sculpted by trainers
at a gym; he had a sleek, big-bodied healthiness that seemed to come naturally.

Of course, she didn’t know. There was so little she knew about him. That mysterious edge added to the deliciousness of loving him this way. He showed her kaleidoscope colors and shooting stars; he gave her the sensation of soaring, reaching. Their joining was a beautiful dance, its rhythms as frank and necessary as a heartbeat. She was stunned by the simple joy of it, of feeling his long body covering hers, of hearing her name on his lips, of crying out in abandon and then sinking into the warm bliss of the aftermath.

A quietness fell over them like settling snowflakes. They lay side by side, holding each other, listening to each other breathe and wondering at the suddenness and the intensity of what had just happened.

After a long time, Madeleine shifted, propping her chin on his chest and looking up at his night-shadowed face. “I want you to know something.”

He brushed a wisp of hair from her cheek. “What’s that, darlin’?”

“I don’t do this very often.” She was glad for the darkness; she had begun to blush furiously.

“Do what?” he asked, a smile in his voice.

“This … everything.” She felt awkward and tongue-tied, but also exhilarated, and for the first time in her life, able to laugh at herself. “I’ve never done this on a first date.”

“Sweetheart, I hate to burst your bubble, but we never even
had
a date. You picked me up at a party, remember?”

“Oh. Shameless of me.” She touched her tongue to his chest, just to see. His groan of pleasure made her smile. “What I mean is, I’ve never participated in a one-night
stand before. I want you to know I’m not that sort of person.”

“You’re not.” The smile still lingered in his voice. “Then what’s so different about tonight?”

“You,” she said without hesitating. “
You
make it different. You make me want …” Her voice trailed off as she slid her hand down the length of him.

“Want what?” Now his tone sounded strangled, with no trace of a smile.

“More than just one night,” she whispered. “Lots more.”

He muttered something that sounded like a curse and surged up. With one swift movement, he turned her on her back and plunged into her, and the rapid rise of his passion took her breath away.

He loved her into a dazed state of drowsiness, until she was replete with exhaustion, and when she finally pillowed her head against his shoulder and drifted happily toward sleep, she made a discovery she had never dared to contemplate before.

Sometimes dreams really did come true.

* * *

The electronic burble of a high-tech phone plowed through Jack’s consciousness, rousing him from the best sleep he’d had in months.

Between the first and second rings, he remembered exactly where he was.

In the bedroom of Madeleine Langston. With Miz Maddy herself, naked and tousled in his arms.

Holy shit.

Between the second and third rings, he managed to extract himself from the bed. She moaned and sighed, pulling a fluffy pillow over her head.

Perfect, he thought, plunging his legs into his trousers,
his arms into shirt and jacket sleeves.
Sleep on, babe
, he silently pleaded with her.
Give your dream lover a chance to go poof
.

By the fourth ring, he was dressed and on his hands and knees, groping for his second cowboy boot. Where the hell had it gone—?

“Hi, this is Madeleine….”

The sound of her voice nearly brought Jack out of his skin. Then he realized it was an answering machine.

“Oh, Maddy,” said William Wornich’s tattling voice, “I’m positively
chartreuse
with curiosity. Who
was
he, Maddy? John Wayne, for goodness’ sake?”

She muttered something from beneath the pillow.

Oh, shit. She was waking up.

Jack faced an agonizing choice. He could make a run for it and leave her with fond memories of her mystery man or he could do the honorable thing—confess what he had done and suffer the consequences.

It took him exactly half a second to agonize over his choice between hero and coward.

Leaving a size-twelve cowboy boot somewhere in the boudoir, John Patrick Riley raced out of Madeleine’s designer apartment—and out of her fairy-tale life.

Chapter Six

“Y
ou call that a Santa Claus?” Jack asked, looking Derek up and down. They were at the Santiago Youth Center in Brooklyn. Teenage boys loitered outside on the snow-bordered basketball court. From the room next door to Jack’s cramped and cluttered office came the low murmur of female voices speaking Spanish. A workshop for girls was in session.

Derek plucked at the moth-eaten red jacket. “I didn’t realize you were expecting a miracle on Thirty-fourth Street,” he grumbled. “I don’t know why I let you talk me into this, Riley.”

“Maybe,” said Jack, adjusting his thick glasses, “it’s your innate sense of human decency, Derek. Your firm conviction that helping underprivileged kids is the right thing to do.” Jack rolled up a stick of Juicy Fruit and stuffed it into his mouth. “Not to mention the Knicks tickets you extorted from me.”

“Or maybe it’s because you keep threatening to break my kneecaps. Why do you waste time in this dump, anyway?”

Because of Annie
. The thought awakened a six-year-old ache in Jack. He had loved her with all his heart, but
love wasn’t enough to save her. In a way, this center was a monument to his first love. Every kid who stayed out of trouble embodied the promise that had been wasted when Annie had died.

“Well?” Derek prompted.

Jack rubbed his hand along his jaw. “I once lost a good friend to drugs and gang wars.”

“Man, I’m sorry—”

“It was a long time ago.”

Derek picked up the Santa hat, and the pom-pom fell off. “I won’t fool anyone in this getup.”

“Sure, you will.” Jack felt a perverse shiver course over his skin. He took off his cap and ran a hand through his hair. “People see what they want to see.”

Derek propped one elbow on a file cabinet and fingered a macramé plant hanger. The macramé had been done by Maria, one of the center’s borderline cases. Jack wondered where Maria had gotten to lately.

“What’d you do to yourself, Riley?” Derek asked, pulling Jack from his thoughts. “Something’s different.”

Jack’s ears caught fire with a guilty flush. He put his cap back on and tugged down the brim. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. Something …” Derek peered closer. “Hey, you shaved for a change. Wonders never cease.”

Jack held his breath while trying to look casual. “A latent sense of decency.”

“Uh-huh. So how’d it go last night? How’d you make out?”

Jack felt the blood drain from his face.
Damn
. Derek
knew
.

“Well?” Derek prompted, unbuttoning the disreputable Santa suit. “Spill.”

“Spill?” Jack almost choked on his gum.

“What was she like? Wild and sweet? Cruel to be kind?”

“Jesus, Derek, quit with the third degree.”

“I always wanted to make it with an Urban Animal,” Derek said wistfully.

Jack barely managed to conceal his sigh of relief. “Yeah, well, it won’t happen if you don’t take a chance every now and then.”

“I guess.” Derek shrugged out of the bright red jacket. He held it up and peered at a hole that looked as if it had been made by a bullet. “This is hopeless. Looks like Santa’s been living in Tompkins Square Park instead of the North Pole.”

“Maybe it’s you,” Jack said. “Maybe you’re hungover.”

“Me?” Derek snorted. “You don’t get hungover after a Madeleine Langston party. No one drinks too much at those things. Too dangerous, what with all the society gossips sniffing around.” He paused and frowned. “Well, that’s almost right.”

Jack looked at him sharply. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Funniest thing.” Derek shed the rest of the Santa suit and put it in a battered Macy’s bag. “One person overdid it last night. Last person you’d expect.”

“Yeah?” Jack pretended benign interest.

“Madeleine Langston. Not too many people noticed, but Brad and I did. You didn’t see the paper this morning? Wornich’s column?”

“I never read Wornich. What’s to read?” Jack suppressed a shudder at the memory of the knowing, teasing voice on Madeleine’s answering machine.

Derek grabbed the folded newspaper from a table where a battered coffee urn stood. He shook it open to
the society pages. “Check it out,” he said, shoving the paper under Jack’s nose.

Jack stared. He felt a slow red burn creep up his face. There they were, Madeleine Langston and her Prince Charming, spit-polished and posed as if for the cover of a romance novel. She gazed up at him, her Grace Kelly profile limned by candlelight. The man, his face in shadow, bent slightly to whisper in her ear. His
GQ
-style tux and valet grooming screamed wealth and breeding.

Yet despite the posed look of the picture, he sensed a strange warmth in the shot. The way her slim hand rested in the crook of his arm, the way his entire attention was riveted on her … The overall impression was that the man and woman were fascinated by each other. Somehow it was all there—the yearning, the hesitation, the part-bashful, part-eager sense of inevitability that these people were going to fall in love.

“A picture’s worth a thousand words, eh?” Derek asked.

“Yeah, right.” Jack dropped the paper negligently on the desk and picked up the Macy’s bag. “I know just the guy to fix this.” He left the room with Derek in tow. “Best tailor in Manhattan. A gentleman’s clothier, as a matter of fact. He’ll make you look like a million bucks.”

“Sure, Riley.”

“I mean it.” Jack thought ruefully of the photo in the
Courier
. “The guy makes magic.”

Before going into the city, Jack showed Derek around the youth center. It wasn’t much to look at, but it had a heart as big as the Dakota. A rambling converted tenement, it had housed the Santiago Center for the past five years.

Five years of triumph and failure. Jack supposed it would always be that way. For every kid they kept out
of trouble and in school, another slipped through the cracks.

“I just don’t get enough time to spend with them,” he said to Derek, opening the metal door to the courtyard.

“I can’t figure you out, Riley,” Derek declared, trotting out onto the basketball court.

Jack went out, too, smoothly stealing the ball from a lanky boy called André, then passing it to Derek, who made a decent layup and scored. They fooled around for another few minutes, their laughter chasing away the cold.

“You’re with the pros now, me lads,” Derek declared only seconds before a boy knocked him on his butt and stole a rebound. Laughing, Jack left them playing and squabbling. He sobered instantly when he crossed the yard and entered the director’s office.

A girl sat alone there on a metal chair, a crumpled handkerchief crushed in her hand and her unseeing gaze fixed on a wall map of the boroughs. A livid bruise stood out on her right cheekbone, and her lower lip was swollen.

She was so pregnant she looked as if she would give birth any minute.

“Uh,” Jack said, clearing his throat, “is someone helping you?”

The girl turned her gaze up to him and blinked slowly, twice. “Hi, Mr. Riley.”

His heart flopped over in his chest. They were the biggest, brownest eyes he had ever seen—and he hadn’t seen them in months. “Maria,” he said. He knelt beside her and took her hands in his. “Where’ve you been, girl?”

“I never should have stopped coming here.” Her swollen lip trembled. “I’m in trouble, Mr. Riley.”

“Ah, Maria.” He squeezed her hand. “It’ll be okay.
Promise. Everything will be fine. Tell me what happened.”

“Nothing will ever be fine again,” she said softly, with the sense of drama Jack had noticed about her right from the start. “But I thought it would be. José said he’d get a steady job and a place to live, but he went off and never came back.”

Jack knew the boy; liked him, even. José had been a decent student, a hard worker, more down-to-earth than most. He’d finished school the summer before. Jack touched Maria’s bruised cheek, very lightly. “What about your family?”

BOOK: A Fairytale Christmas
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