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BOOK: A Fairytale Christmas
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The girl’s eyes flashed with anger. “I’m not going home again,” she said simply. “That’s not my home anymore.”

Jack didn’t pry. He knew Maria’s mother had remarried. “So when’s the last time you saw José?”

Her eyes teared at the mention of his name. “A few weeks ago.”

“Tell you what. You go to the kitchen and make yourself a cup of tea, and I’ll see about tracking down José for you.”

“Okay.” She sniffled, then levered herself up and lumbered toward the kitchen. “Thanks, Mr. Riley.”

“We’ll work things out, Maria.” He watched her go, feeling an odd yearning in his gut. Barely a woman herself, she was going to have a baby.
A baby
. Jack Riley’s secret vice was an unadulterated love of babies. “It’s going to be all right,” he said, even though Maria was already gone.

“We can always hope,” said a female voice behind him.

He turned to see Sister Doyle, the director, looking uncharacteristically grave as she stood in the doorway of
her office. Broad-shouldered and open-faced, she wore jeans and a denim work-shirt; a pair of reading glasses balanced precariously on her nose. Her red hair was cropped short. The only indication of her vocation was the large silver crucifix she always wore on a chain around her neck.

She held a letter in her hand. “Our funding’s been cut, Jack. We’re fifty grand in the hole. The Langston Trust cut off funds, effective immediately. We’re history, Jack. The center will have to close the day after Christmas.”

* * *

On Monday morning, Madeleine sat at her desk and surreptitiously put her right hand over her heart. Funny. It didn’t
any different. But it was. Broken, possibly beyond repair.

Her heart had ached when she had lost her father, but at least there had been a sense of closure about the loss. She missed him, but the grief had mellowed with the passing of time. She had loved him, he had loved her, and she had gathered the cherished memories into her heart, a treasure and a comfort.

John’s abandonment, on the other hand, had shattered the very foundations of her beliefs. In retrospect, she realized it had been stupid to pin all her hopes and dreams on one night with a man she had just met; stupid of her to give a man that sort of power over her.

For the ten-thousandth time since Saturday morning, she looked at the color photo of herself and John that had run in the society pages. Ah, but what a man. No one would blame her for falling head over heels for the guy.

“Mystery Cowboy Lassoes Publishing Heiress,” the caption read.

Yes, he had lassoed her, all right. Heart and soul. And
body. Even now, in spite of everything, she felt a hot twinge of desire. She had dared to touch him in ways she had never touched a man. With him, she had felt true passion for the first time, and it was like being reborn, like Dorothy walking out of her black-and-white existence into the Technicolor world of Oz.

Madeleine’s single foray into casual flings had left her vulnerable, shaken to the foundations of her well-ordered life. She wasn’t cut out for this, she decided.

She just cared too damned much.

Against her will, she closed her eyes and remembered the gallant way he’d cloaked her in his tux jacket. The delicious Irish coffee. The foot massage. Decorating the Christmas tree and being held while she wept. Making love until she wept for a totally different reason.

In that one night she’d lived and felt more deeply than she had in a whole lifetime.

Now she had nothing to show for it but a broken heart and a size-twelve Lucchese cowboy boot made, according to the inside label, of European goat.
. She shuddered.

She shook her head. It was too ironic. Not quite as dainty as a glass slipper but every bit as ridiculous, the boot had been the only clue he had left. The housekeeper had found it under the bed on Saturday and was still giggling about it when Madeleine had left for work this morning.

She glanced down at the photo again and in spite of herself couldn’t suppress a smile. It
funny, thinking of him dashing down to the parking garage wearing only one shoe in the middle of winter.

She hoped he froze to death.

She prayed he would come back to her.

“Working hard, Miz Langston?” asked a sarcastic voice.

That voice. In it, she heard an echo of— Then she looked up and the bubble burst. Agitated, she regarded Jack Riley in all his disreputable splendor. Battered Yankees cap. Five o’clock shadow at ten in the morning. Eyes piercing from behind thick lenses. A sweatshirt with the slogan I Put the FUN in DysFUNctional.

For no apparent reason, she felt her face flush scarlet. “I didn’t hear you knock, Mr. Riley.”

“I didn’t knock.” One side of his mouth lifted in a taunting smile as his attention wandered to the desk. “Didn’t know there was anything to interrupt.”

Mortified, she moved to snatch the society-page photo from her desk. He slapped his hand down on the paper.

He stood close to the desk, his weather-beaten blue jeans snaring her unwilling attention for a moment before she forced herself to glare up at him. Against her will, she felt a primal pulse of excitement. He did, she conceded, exude a certain caveman charm.

“Madeleine,” he said in a voice as rich and suggestive as a proposition.

“Yes?” She was flustered. He had teased her on Friday, but this felt more like a come-on. He had never called her Madeleine before.

He leaned forward, his posture aggressive and suggestive all at once. She braced herself. “What is it, Mr. Riley?”

“I want you—” he moistened his lips, and she gasped “—to take me off the sewage bribery story and give it to Derek or Brad.”

“No,” she said, plummeting to earth, hating him for his manner. “You’re the best reporter for that story.”
You’re the best I have, damn you

“I’m sorry,” he said, putting his other hand on the surface of the desk and leaning closer still. “I guess I didn’t make myself clear. I’m not doing the sewage story.”

“And perhaps I didn’t make myself clear, either,” she snapped. “You’re doing the story. It’s not optional.”

“Wanna bet?”

“You’d lose.”

“Oh, I’m shaking,” he said. “What, you’re going to fire me?”

She hesitated. She knew the
or the
would snap him up in a minute. She wondered why he hadn’t defected to a larger paper long before.

Hating herself for playing his game, she said, “Suppose you tell me exactly why you’re refusing that story.”

“I don’t have time. I’ve got another story to write.” He straightened, folding his arms across his chest. His eyes seemed to grow harder and colder behind the lenses. “It’s about the Santiago Youth Center in Brooklyn. The place is being closed down because its funding got yanked.”

He watched her so closely that she wondered if the revelation was supposed to mean something to her. “We’re a Manhattan paper,” she said simply. Idiotically.

“You,” he said with quiet conviction, “are one hell of a piece of work, Miz Langston.” He glanced down at the paper on the desk. “But what can I expect from a woman who turns to mush over a guy in a tux and cowboy boots?”

She shot to her feet. “Maybe you could learn a few things about personal grooming and manners, Mr. Riley.”

He threw back his head and guffawed so loudly that people in the outer offices craned their necks to stare. And then he simply left.

Chapter Seven

t was nearing quitting time when Madeleine finally screwed up enough courage to go down to the city room. She ducked into the ladies’ room and stood there alone for a long time, staring at herself in the mirror.

She looked the same as she always had. Every hair in place. Subtle makeup, a faint sheen of gloss on her lips. Small, trim figure. Suit by Armani, soft angora sweater, understated pearls.

And, as always, something was missing.

That was why she loved the photo of her and John. She had been
when she was with him, and it was plain on her face. She’d had “soul,” or “fire,” or whatever it could be termed.

The only thing that heated her now was her temper as she moved through the city room. Many of the staff had already left for the day. Derek and Brad and Jack sat around drinking sodas and chatting.

As she approached them, her gaze wandered to their feet. Their
, God help her. She was obsessed. She was losing it, checking to see if any of them had size-twelve feet.

And one of them did.

“Is this something new?” Jack Riley asked, following her gaze. “A foot fetish?”

She glared at him. Yes, he had big feet. But the man never wore anything but the disreputable high-tops that were probably Salvation Army rejects.

“All finished?” she asked, pointedly ignoring his comment.

A phone rang. Derek dived for it, clutching it like a lifeline. Brad seized the moment to slink out.

Without even glancing at the toxic-waste zone of his desk, Jack snatched up a pair of files. He shoved the first one at her. “Here’s your goddamned sewage scandal. Art and all.”

Derek hung up the phone and escaped.

“And this—” Jack slapped another file onto the first “—is the Santiago story. With art and a sidebar.”

“But I didn’t authorize—”

“Believe me, I know that, sweetheart.” His voice was harsh with venom. “Listen to me, and listen good. The story runs, every word of it. Page one of the city section. Pictures and all.”

“And if I kill the story?” she demanded.

He bent and grabbed a gym bag from under the desk. “Then I quit, Princess.”

Whistling, he strode to the elevator bank.

* * *

Madeleine didn’t know how long she stood there. She felt stung raw by his attack. He seemed to enjoy needling her. Today his scorn had a sharp edge. Keen as the bite of arctic air.

Shaken, she glanced over the sewage story. The man was good—she gave him that. He got people to say things they shouldn’t. To reveal things better kept secret. And he managed to make sewage sound fascinating.

Then, reluctantly, she looked at the youth-center story. From the very first word, she was caught. For five years, the privately funded center had been a haven for troubled or runaway teens.

Now, suddenly, it had lost its funding. Well, why hadn’t Riley explained all this? Of course, she would run the story. Who did he think she was, Ebenezer Scrooge? She started to scan for details.

“Miss?” A voice interrupted her before she had read three more words.

Now what?
She looked up to see a compact, dapper man coming toward her.

“Yes?” she asked, smiling vaguely.

Lifting his hat, he gave the slightest of bows, evoking images of bygone courtliness. The tip of his cane lightly thumped the floor. “You’re Madeleine Langston, aren’t you?”


“Harry Fodgother.” He set down his hat and a large parcel. He held out his hand. “Gentlemen’s clothier.”

Madeleine shook his hand. “How do you do? Have we met before?”

“Not in person.” He flashed her a charming smile, looking like a cherub with a bald spot. “I’ve seen your picture, though. That was a nice one in Saturday’s paper.”

Lord. Had the whole world seen it?

“Did you like the tux?” he asked, sparing nothing for false modesty. “I did the tux.”

“It was very ni—” Her grip tightened on the folders she held. “You did the tux.”

“I did indeed. Quite a piece of work if I do say so myself.”

“Who is he?” she demanded.

He cocked his head to one side. “Who’s who?”

“John the Tux.” She blushed. “I—I’m just so curious about him.”

“Then you should ask him.”

“He sort of … disappeared before I could ask him much about himself.” Like his address, his line of work, she thought in self-disgust. Like his phone number.

“He was just passing through town,” Harry said, not unsympathetically. “The tux was ready-to-wear. I made a few alterations.”

Clearly he was not going to divulge anything more. Tailor-client privilege, she supposed.

“Say,” Harry said, veering off the subject, showing no further sympathy for her lovesick yearning, “I’m delivering something for Jack Riley.” He gestured at the big parcel. “He around?”

Her eyes widened. What business would Jack Riley have with a “gentlemen’s clothier”? She smiled apologetically. “I’m afraid he just left.”

Harry frowned. “Drat it! He needs these items right away.”

She studied his parcel. “Could it be some sort of emergency?”

“That depends.” Fodgother lifted the lid of the big oblong box. “He needs this for a Christmas party.”

Madeleine found herself looking at the most beautiful, luxuriant Santa Claus suit she had ever seen. “Perhaps, I could help,” she said without thinking.

Harry raised an eyebrow. “You’re a lovely lady, miss, but I don’t think you’d ever pass for the Fat Man.”

“I meant, maybe I could take it to Ja—Mr. Riley.”

“You’re just the person to do it,” Harry declared. He put the lid back on the box and scribbled a Brooklyn
address on the parcel. “That’s awfully nice of you, Miss Langston. You won’t be sorry. Trust me.”

BOOK: A Fairytale Christmas
7.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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