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BOOK: A Fairytale Christmas
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Jack shared a table in the rec room with Sister Doyle. While kids played pool or chess or did homework, Jack and the director combed through the center’s finances, looking for a ray of hope.

They found none. Santiago Youth Center was deep in debt and had zero cash reserves.

“So we’ve got three, maybe four days before we’re flat broke,” Jack explained to Sister Doyle. “Unless Miz Butter-Wouldn’t-Melt-in-My-Mouth prints my story and we get a big surge in donations.”

“What makes you think she wouldn’t print the story, dear?” Sister Doyle asked.

“‘We’re a Manhattan newspaper.’” He mimicked Madeleine’s snooty East Coast accent.

“Did you explain why it needed to run?”

“Oh, sure. Tell her she needs to run a story about the greed of her own board of trustees? Cute.” Jack took a sip of the hot tea Sister Doyle was always making.

He couldn’t believe how much it hurt to learn what Madeleine was really like. She drove him crazy. He wanted to think of her as a fragile woman with sad eyes and an amazingly bold touch. But common sense told him she was too rich and spoiled to be amused by any one man for long. “How’s Maria, by the way?”

“Very well, under the circumstances.” Sister Doyle glanced at the girl, who sat with an afghan in her lap and paged through an illustrated child-care manual. “I just don’t understand José. I always considered him a responsible young man, one of our success stories. But he just up and left her.”

“Where’ll she and the kid go?” he asked in frustration.

“If the center closes and José never shows up, that’s anyone’s guess.”

Jack slammed the ledger shut, removed his glasses and wearily rubbed his eyes. “Hang in there, Sister. We’ll figure something out. It’ll probably involve me groveling on my knees to Madeleine Langston, but I’ll do what has to be done.”

He ambled over to join a pair of boys whose geometry study had degenerated into dueling practice with pencils. With good-humored ease, Jack settled down with them and got them back on track. He had always loved the moment when a kid’s interest was engaged. That “aha” look was beyond price.

And now his work here would soon be over.

Suddenly Marco, at the pool table, gave a low whistle.

“¡Ay, mujer!”
Raul said. Both boys stared at the door.

Looking like one of the snowflakes in
The Nutcracker
, Madeleine Langston drifted in. She wore a white faux fur and soft boots and white gloves. The cold wind had nipped a coral hue into her cheeks and lips. Her blue eyes scanned the room. Jack had never seen anything more beautiful. Why did she have to have such a cold heart? Beauty was wasted on her.

She looked a bit uncomfortable and a
out of place in the rec room of the center. Jack pushed up from the table and crossed the room to her.

“Hi,” he said.

Silence. She stared at him. His nerves rattled like sleigh bells. Had she seen through him at last? Did she know the truth about Friday night?

“Hello.” She seemed far less self-assured than she did at the paper. “Uh, I brought you something.” She handed
him a big box. “It’s from a friend of yours. Harry Fodgother.”

Jack sucked in his breath. Had Harry fessed up? No way. If he had, she wouldn’t be speaking to him.

“The Santa suit.” Jack took the box and set it down. “Thanks.”

“He—Harry said you needed it tonight.”

“He did?” Jack cracked a smile. The crafty little guy. Must be looking for a way to throw Madeleine at him. That damned photo. It was like magic. It convinced even the world’s biggest skeptics that they were two people in love.

“I guess he got mixed up. I don’t need it until Christmas Eve. But thanks for bringing it over.”

“You’re welcome. So you’re going to play Santa?”

“I talked Derek into it. He’ll be great.”

“Uh-huh.” Her gaze darted around the room. “So this is the Santiago Youth Center.”

“Yep. Want to take a look around?”

She hesitated, and that moment of hesitation seared Jack with anger. “I realize it’s a lot neater and cleaner to stay in your office and write the occasional check rather than actually work with these kids,” he muttered in her ear. “But for their sakes, act as if you

“You’re a bastard, Jack Riley,” she whispered through gritted teeth.

And then, miraculously, she was all smiles as she greeted Sister Doyle and the kids. At first she was a little stiff with them, but she insisted on having Marco teach her to shoot pool and before long was laughing and failing miserably to sink a single ball. Her skill at chess was undisputed, though, and she finished off André, their best player, in record time.

Amazing. The woman was amazing. The kids were
nuts for her. Jack watched her as she spoke in an animated way across the chessboard. The fuzzy white sweater she wore, decked with a single strand of pearls, made her look as soft and sweet as an angel. He couldn’t figure her out. Her personae ranged from Marilyn Monroe to Joan Crawford to Doris Day. He expected her to start singing
“Que sera sera”
any minute now.

After a while, she excused herself and went to sit with Maria. Jack pretended not to listen in, but he craned his neck to hear their conversation. What could Madeleine find to talk about with a girl from the barrio?

“I guess
getting ready for a big event,” Madeleine said.

Maria gestured at the book in her lap. “Guess so. There’s so much to do. I don’t know how I’ll ever do it all. You got kids?”

“No. But I want babies one day.” Madeleine laughed at herself. “I need to work on getting a date first. I’m not too swift in that department.”

Maria smoothed the afghan over her stomach. “I’m
too swift. At least, I was.
Madre de Dios
.” Her voice shook.

Madeleine took her hand. “Honey, there’s not a mother in the world who doesn’t have those thoughts, believe me. I won’t kid you—this is going to be the hardest challenge of your life. But if you hang in there and work at it and love your child with all your heart, you’ll make it.”

“That’s what Sister Doyle keeps telling me.”

“Sister Doyle is right. Are you—” Madeleine broke off, clearly groping for words. “Are you by yourself?”

“Yeah.” Maria sniffed. “I really love José, and I thought he loved me and the baby, but he’s gone now. Jack said he’d look for him, but I’m not holding my
breath.” She flipped through the pages of her book. “So it’s just me and my giant stomach. I’ve been staying here, but that’ll change day after Christmas.”

Madeleine nodded. “I heard about that.”

Jack felt a bitter surge of satisfaction. So, she had read his piece, at least.

“After that, I don’t know,” Maria said glumly. “Guess I need a miracle.”

Madeleine laughed softly. “Miracles happen. Here.” She handed the girl a business card. “That’s the number of my cellular phone. You can call me anytime, day or night. Okay?”

“Thanks,” Maria said, tucking the card into her book.

Madeleine grew serious as Jack held her coat for her later and helped her put it on. “I can’t believe you’d let this place close,” she said. They were out in the dim hallway.

His acid laugh echoed off the tile walls. “Lady, it’s not up to me.
the one who cut off the funding.” He stalked down the narrow stairs in front of her and yanked open the door to the street. A blast of winter air and snow flurries slapped him in the face.

Madeleine stood unmoving. She seemed heedless of the cold air and blowing snow. “
did you say?” she demanded.

“The funding,” he repeated, speaking slowly. “Hey, call me small-minded, but I just had a little-bitty problem with the decision of your board of trustees.”

Madeleine Langston did a most unexpected thing. She plopped down on the second-to-last step. “Wait a minute, Riley,” she said. “You’re losing me, here. What does
board of trustees have to do with
youth center?”

He thought for a long time. Was it possible she didn’t
know? “They yanked the funding. I figured you were in on the decision. Didn’t you read the article?”

“Harry interrupted me before I finished. I’d already decided to run it, though.” She looked more confused—and more beautiful—than ever. “Riley, let’s go,” she said, rising and stepping outside.

He followed her to the most amazing car he had ever seen. Low-slung, bright red and aggressively Italian, it had already attracted a small flock of neighborhood kids.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

She hit a remote button on her key chain, unlocking the doors, and tossed him the set of keys. “Your place,” she said. “You’ve got some explaining to do.”

“Just my luck,” he muttered, feeling the engine purr to life. His pleasure was almost sexual. “My one chance to drive a Maserati and we only get to go twelve blocks.”

“Well, you’ll cover it in record time,” she said simply.

And he did, falling in love with the car like a teenager, worshiping the way the Maserati handled, reluctantly angling it into a parking space in front of his walk-up.

“It’ll be safe here,” he said. In just the few minutes it had taken them to drive here, the snow had come down thicker. “Mr. Costello doesn’t miss a thing.”

He waved at a portly older man who sat in the window of the ground-floor apartment. Mr. Costello pointed his TV remote control at the car and nodded approvingly.

“And now, Miz Langston,” Jack said, holding open the door, “I guess we’ll get down to business.”

Chapter Eight

adeleine had been trying all evening to cling to her anger at Jack Riley, but the more time she spent with him, the harder it was.

Oh, he was the same exasperating smart-aleck she had always known him to be. But tonight she’d learned something important about him.

Jack Riley had a heart as big as Manhattan.

She would never forget her first glimpse of him at the youth center. He’d been working with two boys on their math, gently encouraging, keeping them on task when too many adults would have given up in despair.

“Here we are,” he said, pushing open the door to a second-story apartment. “Home, sweet home. Come see how the other half lives.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked, annoyed.

He flipped on a light. “Oh, I don’t know. Something just tells me you live in nicer digs than I do.”

She shrugged out of her coat and looked around. The place was small and old, cluttered and unaccountably homey feeling. One wall had floor-to-ceiling shelves crammed with books. A workspace, even more disgraceful than his desk at the paper, held a computer, a stereo
and mountains of files. The screen saver floating across the computer monitor was X-rated.

“Charming,” she remarked.

“I never said I wasn’t a sexist pig.” He walked over to the tiny kitchen, separated from the living area by a counter with two stools. “What can I get you? Tea? Coffee? I make great—” He broke off. “How about tea?”

“Fine,” she said.

He banged around in the kitchen, hollering as he put on water. “Make yourself at home.”

“Thanks.” She wandered slowly around the room. The personal items intrigued her. There was a picture of Jack as a young boy sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck. He had one arm around a laughing mongrel dog and his long, bare legs dangled almost to the ground.

Good Lord, she thought. Jack Riley had been a beautiful boy.

There was a picture of his parents, looking very loving and salt-of-the-earth against a backdrop of rolling hills. And a photo of a dark-haired girl; it was a cheap studio portrait, but she exuded a fresh-faced beauty that even the yellowing photo paper couldn’t dim.

Feeling an unaccountable stab of discomfort, Madeleine moved on to the next framed item—a diploma from the University of Texas. He had graduated magna cum laude.

“You never said you were from Texas,” she called out.

“Never said I wasn’t,” he called back.

“And who’s the girl?”

There was a second of dead silence. Then he said, “Her name was Annie.”

Madeleine felt a sudden chill. “‘Was’?”

“Yeah. She, uh, died young. It’s been six years.”

Madeleine closed her eyes and inhaled slowly, shakily. “Tell me it gets easier.”

He poked his head around the corner of the kitchenette. “It gets easier.”

She smiled. “Thanks.” She looked at a few badly hung certificates of appreciation. Apparently Jack Riley was a professional do-gooder. He had made a second career out of working with underprivileged youths.

He set a mug on the counter and filled it with tea. Without asking, he added a spoonful of sugar and handed her the mug.

“How did you know I take my tea with sugar?” she asked.

“Must be because you’re so sweet,” he said.

“Right. No, really—”

“‘One sugar, no milk, Benny,’” he said, doing a wicked imitation of her order from the snack cart that came through the offices of the paper.

She laughed and sat down on a soft plaid sofa. “All right, Riley. You obviously think you have my number. How about starting at the beginning?”

He sat down next to her on the sofa. In the low light of a table lamp, he looked slightly less disreputable than usual. Discounting the slobbish attire and cocky attitude, he might almost be handsome.

BOOK: A Fairytale Christmas
13.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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