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BOOK: A Fairytale Christmas
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“Either you’re real good at pretending, lady, or you really are in the dark about all this.”

“Have you ever known me to lie?”

“Only to spare my feelings.” His admission was swift. “That’s why I’m going to play along with you. It all started years ago when your father was still running the paper. I submitted a free-lance article. He liked it and he wanted to meet me. We hit it off, and I came to work for the paper.”

Her father had always had a knack for finding talent. “I didn’t even know my father knew you.” She frowned. That was her one regret. She had never bothered with the paper until after her father was gone.

“We had an unusual arrangement, your old man and I.”

“What sort of arrangement?”

“I was never too demanding in the salary department.”

“I noticed. Is there a reason for that?”

“I took a small salary and the Santiago Youth Center got a huge grant.”

She glanced at the faded beauty that had been Annie. “Does this have something to do with her, Jack?”

“In a way, yeah.” He pushed his glasses up his nose. “You’re a hell of a perceptive woman, Madeleine.”

“What happened?”

He gazed at the photo, a faraway hurt in his eyes. “She couldn’t stay off drugs, no matter how many times she said she’d quit. After a while, she stopped trying.”

“But you never stop trying, do you?” Madeleine asked softly.

“I guess not. Anyway, your father pretty much funded the operation. He never made a big deal of it—just quietly contributed half the operating budget every year.”

Warmth flared in her heart. “Ah, Daddy,” she said with a sigh. She looked at Jack. “I might cry.”


She couldn’t believe what she’d just said to him, but she said it again. “I might cry. It just sounds so much like something Daddy would have done—I—might—”

The tears came then, like a silent flood, and the next thing she knew, Jack Riley’s arms were around her. She forgot that he was a slob who said hateful things about
her and who held her entire life-style in disdain. He was simply a warm shoulder to cry on, and for a moment, that was all she needed. He smelled of clean laundry and something she could only call maleness. His arms were firm and solid, his hands soothing—and somehow, achingly familiar.

This was crazy. Was she really attracted to him or did she simply need comforting on the rebound? Yet it seemed to be more than that. Despite her hurt over John Patrick, Jack was filling her life up.

After a few moments, he riffled around under the end table and produced a box of Kleenex. She was surprised to see that he looked completely flustered. “You okay, Madeleine?”

She nodded and helped herself to a tissue.

“Just when I think I’ve got you figured out, you surprise me.”

She smiled wanly. “I could say the same about you. Now. The funding.”

“Your dad was a great guy,” Jack said. “But it looks like the board of trustees of the paper was only too eager to put a lid on the charity.”

She dabbed at her eyes. “I attended the last meeting, and nothing was said about—” She snapped her fingers. “Wait a minute. I had a memo just the other day. Something about a decision of the executive committee. I haven’t had time to look it over.”

“Somebody put it through without your signature, doll,” Jack said. “Because starting the day after Christmas, the center’s history.”

“Sorry to douse your righteous rage, Jack,” she countered, “but you’re wrong. I’ll make sure the center gets all the funding it needs to stay open. Same deal my father made you. In perpetuity.”

He stared at her. Then, like the rising sun, a grin spread across his face. “Damn, Miz Langston,” he said, the teasing note in his voice oddly welcome. “Financial prowess is so … so
. Especially to the financially challenged like myself.”

She burst out laughing and flung a throw pillow at him. “You’re shameless, Jack Riley. Shameless!”

“But I get what I want.” He threw the pillow back at her.

Still laughing, she asked, “And what
you want, Riley?”

“Besides your money? Well—” He leaned forward and whispered something else, something that made her feel like he had lit a match to every nerve ending in her body.

She gasped. “I think you just singed my ear.”

“I’ll make it better.” He kissed her ear, and before she knew it, his commanding mouth had captured hers in a long, deep kiss that was as demanding and earthy as Jack Riley himself.

She was shocked to find herself responding, arching toward him, opening her mouth. The taste of him, the searing intimacy, took command of all her faculties, and she stopped even trying to think or resist. He pressed her back on the sofa until they were half reclining, his hands moving over her soft angora sweater with a compelling mastery that left her breathless.

It took all her willpower to make a single sound of protest, to turn her head away. Her hands shook as she pressed against his chest, pushing at him.

Her cheeks flaming, she said, “Riley, don’t.”

He ran one finger down the side of her throat. “Aw, come on, Madeleine. We both want this. It’s fun.”

“I—I can’t.”

“Can’t have fun?”

“Can’t do this.” She felt dizzy with confusion. Her heart was broken—wasn’t it? Then how could she want
man? Was she turning into a slut in her old age? First the one-night stand, and now
Jack Riley?
Oh, that would make a cute picture for the society pages: Publishing Heiress Goes to Press with City Room Stud.

“What do you mean, you can’t?” He kept doing this maddening thing with his finger, tracing her throat, her collarbones, through her sweater.

“I’m just not into casual affairs.” She braced her hands on the sofa behind her and sat up. “I—they don’t work for me.”

“Whoever said anything about casual?” he asked. “Or affair, for that matter?”

“What else can it be?”

He chuckled and leaned forward. “It can be—” He whispered another suggestion in her ear.

She jumped up and stumbled back. “You are too much, Jack Riley. I need— Where’s the bathroom?”

“Did I make you sick?”

“Just nervous.”

With a lazy smile that caused an odd twist in her stomach, he pointed. She fled down a hall, closing the door behind her and leaning against it, her body shaking and her eyes squeezed shut.

Oh, God. What was she doing? Here she was, almost making it with Jack Riley, of all people. Was she crazy?

The worst of it was, she
him, in all his crudeness, his messiness, his insolence. There was something in him that she needed. It was purely ridiculous, she told herself, not to mention wanton and immoral, to crave intimacy with a man she barely knew. A man she was supposed to dislike.

A man diametrically opposed to her mystery date Friday night.

Her sanity was hanging by a thread. She had expected her first Christmas without her father to be rough, but she was going off the deep end. Jack Riley, of all people.

She turned on the water and let it run over her hands for a while, then washed her face. Jack Riley’s bathroom was as cheerfully and unapologetically cluttered as the rest of the apartment. Turning to grab a clean towel from the rack behind her, she knocked over a plastic tumbler and bent to retrieve it from where it had fallen, right next to the cowboy boot.

Slowly drying her hands and face, Madeleine stared down at the boot. She shouldn’t be surprised to see it, since she had just discovered Jack came from Texas, but she was amazed.

She bent and picked up the boot. Black leather. European goat. Made by Lucchese of San Antonio. Size twelve.

Her mind tried to grasp the significance of this, but for a few moments, she was numb, empty. She was like a trauma victim taking refuge in shock.

“Hey, Madeleine,” Jack called. “You okay in there?”

“Uh, yes.” Her voice sounded thin. Very carefully, she set down the boot.

You okay?

Sure, Jack, she thought. She forced herself to think things through. She wanted so desperately to be wrong.

“What can I expect from a woman who turns to mush over a guy in a tux and cowboy boots?”

She heard his taunting words echoing in her mind. The thing was, the photo had only showed the happy couple from the waist up. Jack couldn’t have known about the boots.

Unless he’d been the one wearing them.

A sob built in Madeleine’s throat, but she swallowed it. She wouldn’t cry over this man. At least, not while he was watching. Crying meant she cared, and she refused to do that.

She stepped out of the bathroom, closing the door quietly behind her. Jack stood in the living room, regarding her quizzically.

She saw it all, then, the resemblance she should have noticed right from the first. The strong jaw, the beautiful hands. The drown-in-chocolate eyes. The long, lean-hipped body.

Her eyes had been as blind as her heart.

“I have to go,” she said, enunciating each word. “I can’t stay here.”

“Madeleine, are you ill? Talk to me. What’s wrong?”

Besides the hideous joke you played on me?
her mind screamed.
Why, everything’s just peachy

“It’s late,” she said, sounding the very soul of sane rationality. “I have to go.”


She snatched her coat. “Coming here with you was a mistake. It should never have happened. Goodbye, Jack.”

Shoving her arms into her coat, she fled down the stairs and out the door. He came after her, calling her name, but she ignored him. She bolted into her car, stabbed the key into the ignition and roared off, the rear end fishtailing on the snow-covered pavement.

Just once, she allowed herself to glance into the rearview mirror. He was standing on the sidewalk, a tall, lanky silhouette backlit by the snow-hazed streetlight and a string of colored lights in Mr. Costello’s window. For some reason, the image made the tears flow again. She promised herself it would be the last time she would ever weep for Jack Riley.

Chapter Nine

he next day, Jack took the subway in to the paper. The mindless clack and sway of the train, the blank looks on the commuters’ faces and the bovine flow of foot traffic in the underground passageways suited his mood.

Now and then he encountered the annoyance of carolers and shoppers reminding him it was Christmas Eve, but he managed to ignore them.

On the way in to the city, he tried to prepare for his encounter with Madeleine. All his life he had worked with words, composing and shaping them into units of meaning. But today, the skill eluded him.

There were simply no words to explain to Madeleine why he’d done what he had. There was no way for him to explain to
what had happened in that moment last night, when she had looked up at him and said, “I might cry.”

That was the moment when he knew, finally and irrevocably, that he had fallen in love with her.

“Nice timing, Riley,” he muttered under his breath as he scaled a small mountain of freshly plowed snow. “Just perfect.”

He entered the building and jabbed his finger at the
elevator button. When he reached the city room, he didn’t even pause at his desk, but went straight to Madeleine’s office.

She looked up, serene as a Zen icon, when he stepped into the room. Damn, she was beautiful. Unruffled.

Jack felt encouraged. Perhaps she was, after all, unhurt. Maybe she viewed it as a game, a lark, a joke. Slumming with the hired help. Maybe she would see the humor in the situation.

Maybe the moon would fall out of the sky.

“Er, Madeleine …” His voice trailed off. His vocabulary had dwindled to a series of Cro-Magnon grunts. Until now, he hadn’t realized that true love caused brain damage.

She indicated an open folder on her desk. “Your personnel file,” she explained. “To your credit, you did stick as close as you could to the truth. Your real name is John—John Patrick Riley. You didn’t lie about being from Texas….” She looked up at him, her blue eyes wide and devoid of accusation. “Tell me, did you plan it all out weeks in advance, or was it sort of a spur-of-the-moment practical joke?”

“Aw, come on, Madeleine, you’re acting like I set out to hurt—”

“Or maybe there’s another motive,” she went on calmly, as if she hadn’t heard him. “You know, maybe the guys in the city room had some sort of standing bet. Free Knicks tickets to the first one who can get the boss in the sack—”

“Jesus, Madeleine,” he said sharply, closing the office door behind him with a

She blinked at the noise but didn’t flinch. She was scary this way; cool and soulless and eerily calm. A stranger.

Then he noticed two things that betrayed her perfect facade. The fingernails on one hand had all been bitten off. And if he wasn’t mistaken, her blouse was buttoned wrong.

Oh, God, Madeleine. I’m so sorry

“Look,” he said, “I never meant for it to go so far.”

I never meant to fall in love with you

She gave him a tight, controlled smile. “Who said I minded? Maybe it was what

That stunned him. Had she known all along? Gone along with his deception simply because she wanted an excuse to have a man but not a commitment?

BOOK: A Fairytale Christmas
6.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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