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BOOK: A Fairytale Christmas
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“If it’s the funding you’re worried about,” she informed him, “you needn’t. I’ve taken care of that. The Santiago Center will stay open. Just because
a jerk doesn’t mean those kids should suffer.”

The acid in her voice stung him out of his state of shock and boosted him into a temper. “You are really something, Madeleine,” he said. “You know that? Okay, so it’s a deal. You write the checks but don’t get your hands dirty. It works out just peachy, doesn’t it?”

“Just peachy,” she agreed coldly.

He could only stare. “Wow, lady. You are one cool customer.”

“I suppose you’re used to having the women you dump grovel at your size-twelve feet and scream ‘You broke my heart!’ Is that it?”

“No.” Jack blew out a sigh of exasperation. “No, Maddy, I’m not.”

“Fine. I’m not about to start sounding like some bad country-and-western ballad. Now, if you don’t mind, I have work to do.” The soul of efficiency, she found a large rubber stamp and
it down on his personnel sheet.

“Oh, and Jack,” she said as he turned to go.

“What is it?”

“You’re fired. Effective immediately.”

* * *

Fax machines and E-mail worked overtime, and by ten in the morning, it seemed that all the world knew Jack Riley had been canned. Somehow, Madeleine managed to write an editorial for the next edition. The piece was a heartfelt commentary on the state of modern love, slamming home the truth that “happily ever after” was a myth. Reality was a girl like Maria—abandoned by her lover and homeless but for the kindness of strangers. Reality was the sterile emptiness of a one-night stand.

In order for her Christmas editorial not to sound too “bah, humbug,” she added a plea for generosity to places like the Santiago Youth Center.

The piece was strong and tight. She knew instinctively that it was good.

By lunchtime, the phone started to ring. Several advertisers, angered by the firing of the paper’s most popular writer, called to pull their ads in protest.

What had started out as a truly bad day quickly deteriorated into an unbearable one.

She muddled through the afternoon and let the entire staff leave early. It was Christmas Eve, after all. Just as the presses in the basement roared to life, Madeleine wandered out into the city room. Jack’s abandoned desk drew her like a magnet.

Oh, God, I fired a man on Christmas Eve. What have I become?

The desk looked like a skeleton, devoid of the mess and personality and exuberance that had been the hallmarks of Jack Riley. She found herself remembering things that had meant nothing before she had gotten to
know him. A lopsided coffee mug, which she now knew had been handcrafted by a child at the Santiago Center. An ink blotter with his name burned into the leather and the inscription To Mr. Riley, A Righteous Dude.

He had been a special man.

And she had run him out of her life—on Christmas Eve. She was beyond pathetic.

She released a shuddery sigh and told herself to forget him. As she turned to leave the room, she was surprised to discover she wasn’t alone.

“What are you doing here?” she asked sharply.

Harry Fodgother gave her a sunny smile. “Looking for Jack. I guess I missed him, after all.” Harry set a shopping bag on the empty desk. He took off his hat and subjected her to a long, nosy stare. “You look like your best friend up and died.”

She sniffed, annoyed by his prying. “Aren’t you working late on Christmas Eve?” she asked.

“It’s just another day to me,” he said. “I’m a Hanukkah type myself.”


“But I was thinking I might make a donation to a Christian charity. That Santiago Center I read about in your paper.”

“That would be wonderful, Mr. Fodgother. Jack will be pleased.” She hated the way her voice caught when she said his name.

“Good. I owe him a lot. My life, if the truth be known.”

She frowned. “I don’t know what you mean.”

Harry shrugged. “He’s not the sort to boast. He saved my life. Last Friday night, it was. Two junkies were mugging me. Jack came on like a locomotive. Decked them
both, and then they turned tail and ran. I’ll never forget that.”

“Last Friday night?” she repeated slowly.

“Precisely. He didn’t want to accept a thing for his troubles, but I insisted. When he showed me your invitation,
became the locomotive. Gave him a whole new look.” Harry winked. “Poof! He certainly did turn out different, didn’t he?”

“Like magic,” she conceded, fascinated.

He twirled his cane. “Miracles happen. I hope you had a good time that night. Jack had his doubts, but I swore he’d love every minute of it.”

loved every minute of it, she thought. Because it wasn’t real. It was a fairy-tale illusion.

“Well,” said Harry, cramming on his hat and moving toward the elevators. “I’d best be going. Give that to Jack when you see him.” He gestured at the shopping bag.

She picked it up. “But I won’t be seeing him.”

“You will. Trust me.”

Exasperated, she turned to give the parcel back to Harry. The little man was nowhere in sight.
He must be quicker than he looks
, she thought.

She was trying to decide what to do with the bag when her cellular phone rang. She dug it out of her handbag. “Hello?”

“Miss Langston?”

“Maria! Are you all right?”

“I just called for a taxi. The baby’s coming.”

Madeleine felt a thrill of pleasure and concern. “How do you feel, sweetie?”

“Like—” She gasped, breathing hard for a moment. “Like the baby’s coming. Miss Langston?”


“Do you think you could … you know, come to the hospital? Just for a while …”



“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Chapter Ten

is parka flapping open and his hat long gone, Jack rushed down the green tile corridor of the hospital. Maria Garza was a lot more grown-up than he had suspected. Not wanting to disrupt the Christmas Eve festivities at the center, she had quietly called a cab and gone alone to the hospital.

The second Jack had found out, he’d raced over. Sister Doyle was managing the center. Families from the neighborhood had all come. Derek was playing a dapper Santa Claus and Brad was serving punch. The preppies had surprised Jack with their willingness to help out. Maybe they felt sorry for him for getting fired on Christmas.

Hell, he’d had it coming.

He skidded to a stop at the nurses’ station of the maternity wing. “Maria Garza?” he asked.

The nurse peered at him over her reading glasses, then poked at her keyboard. “In labor. Looks like they’re going to take her into Delivery pretty soon. You the father?”

“No, but—”

the father,” said a worried voice.

Jack turned to see a young man in a construction-company
parka, his hair mussed by the wind and his ears chapped, his feet dancing nervously on the tile floor. “What, you figure better late than never, José?”

José’s eyes flashed, but only for an instant. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s what I figure. Look, Jack, I’m going to stay with her now. It’ll be good. I got a steady job and a nice apartment in Queens. I just, I don’t know. Quit calling her. It was stupid of me. I got scared.”

“So how do you think Maria felt?”

He hung his head. “It won’t happen again, man. I got a nice place, really. Just for the three of us.” He lifted his chin. His face bore a maturity that had been lacking before. “If she’ll have me.”

Jack felt pride and cautious relief. “That’s always the big question, isn’t it, buddy? Whether or not she’ll have you.”

The nurse cleared her throat. “They’re about to take her into Delivery. You’d better scrub up if you think you’re going to be part of this.”

The look of sheer wonder and excitement that lit José’s face banished the last of Jack’s doubts. “Go for it, man,” he said. “Tell Maria I’m waiting out here.”

To pass the time, he bought a pack of gum and wandered to the broad glass display window with a view of the nursery. There were just three babies there, sound asleep and incredibly tiny in their clear bassinets.

Like a kid looking in a candy-store window, Jack leaned against the glass and stared and stared. And stared. Man, he loved babies. Loved kids. He’d always wanted kids of his own, but in order to have that, he needed a certain component in his life. Namely, a wife.

And in all the years since Annie, he had found only one woman in the world he wanted to marry.

The problem was, she hated his guts.

“You know, it’s funny how some things work out,” said a soft, feminine voice from behind him.

Jack went rigid. He almost didn’t dare turn around. He forced himself.

There stood Madeleine, her white coat draped over her arm and the faintest of smiles on her face.

“Maddy?” he asked, resisting the urge to grab her. “What are you doing here?”

“I’ve been here for a while. With Maria.” She glanced down the corridor. “Not in my nice clean ivory tower writing checks.”

His face flushed. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

“If not for you, Jack Riley, that’s where I’d still be.”

He spread his arms. “Welcome to real life.”

She looked down the hall again. “That boy—José—he seemed awfully young.”

“They both are,” said Jack. “But we have to believe they’ll work hard to make it—”

“Hey, Riley!” A metal door swung open down the hall. Swathed in green surgical scrubs, José yelled, “It’s a boy! A boy! Merry Christmas!” José disappeared back inside.

Jack felt the most ridiculous grin spread over his face. He saw the same look of pure happiness on Madeleine’s face. Now she wasn’t Grace Kelly or Doris Day or anyone but herself, with a special magic unique to her. The woman he loved.

“Wow,” he said, holding out his pack of Juicy Fruit. “Let’s celebrate.”

She laughed and took a stick of gum.

“Almost midnight,” he said. “Come here.” He drew her out a rooftop door marked Patio. It was the outdoor smoking lounge for the maternity ward, but no smokers were out braving the cold night.

“I thought we’d see Santa Claus,” he said, scanning the sky. “No such luck.”

“It’s beautiful.” Her eyes shining with wonder, Madeleine looked down at the gleaming river, the profile of the Brooklyn Bridge, the winking Manhattan skyline looking its finest for Christmas Eve. She glanced back over her shoulder. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

“Yeah,” he said, his gaze never straying from her face.

Her smile fled. “Let’s not talk about—”

“We have to talk about it.” He took a step toward her. “I saw your editorial. Peeked at the mechanicals. Are things really that bleak? That hopeless?”

“Look at the facts, Jack,” she said fiercely. “Look at what a game you made of fooling me.”

“Look how easily you fell for a good suit and a smooth line,” he countered.

“You set me up, Jack! Like I didn’t have feelings, didn’t mind being manipulated because you and some tailor were feeling playful one night.” She stared off at the glittering skyline. “I admit, I was a sitting duck. Pathetic. Just ripe for Prince Charming.”

He grasped her by the shoulders. As delicate as she looked, she felt surprisingly solid. “Look, this is real life now, not some goddamned fairy tale. It’s messy and painful and
. If you can’t deal with—”

“Jack?” she said, interrupting him.


“Shut up.”

He did, and gladly, for she stood on tiptoe and wound her arms around his neck. He kissed her with all the frenzied passion that had been clamoring in his heart. He was half afraid she would shrink from the intensity of it, but instead she welcomed him, opening her mouth to his,
pressing her warmth against him, her passion matching his.

Distant church bells started to ring, heralding Christmas. Slowly, like a dreamer awakening, he lifted his mouth from hers and stared down into her face. “So now what?” he whispered.

“So we live happily ever after?”

“Sorry, Princess.” He grinned apologetically. “No can do. I have too many character flaws. This frog won’t change into a prince.”

Her hand skimmed along his jawline, where the stubble grew. “I adore your flaws.”

“Tell you what, Maddy. I’ll give you something more interesting than ‘happily ever after.’” Jack took a deep breath. It was the coldest night of the year, and he was sweating. This was it. The big plunge. And nothing had ever felt so right.

“What will you give me?” she asked softly.

“I’ll give you the real thing. True love. Forever. All day. All night. For the rest of your life. How’s that sound?”

“Like a dream come true. God. Listen to me.” Tears glistened in her eyes. “I might cry.”

“I can handle it.”

“You make me crazy.”

“You’re pretty sexy for a crazy lady.”

“Shut up and kiss me again. Merry Christmas, Jack Riley.”

“Merry Christmas, my love.”

* * * * *

BOOK: A Fairytale Christmas
13.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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