Christmas on 4th Street (Fool's Gold Romance) (6 page)

BOOK: Christmas on 4th Street (Fool's Gold Romance)
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“Not a dead one, either.”

“Why can’t I apply for the job?”

“Because you’re grossly overqualified.” She touched his arm. “What is this about?” she asked again.

He drew in a breath and stared into her eyes. “I need to be doing something with my day. I’m stuck here for over a month and I have nothing to do. I can’t work in a hospital right now.” He opened his mouth, then closed it. “I can’t.”

Noelle hated to admit she didn’t know all that much about the wars her country had been fighting for over a decade. She saw what was on the news and those special reports on the magazine shows, but that was it. Her only firsthand knowledge came from what she’d learned from the men her friends had gotten involved with.

This past year a bodyguard school had opened in town. The principals were all highly trained former military people who had risked their lives to protect those at home. Isabel’s fiancé, Ford, had been a SEAL. Consuelo had served and done secret stuff, Gideon had been in the army, and so on.

She’d heard bits and pieces, knew there were ghosts and nightmares and the kind of damage that couldn’t always be seen. It made sense those helping the injured would suffer in their own way.

“I’m going to make a series of statements,” she said slowly. “I’d like you to respond to them.”

“Now you sound like Felicia.”

“I should be so lucky.” She drew in a breath. “You’re in town because of your hand and maybe what you do for a living. It’s something you need a break from.”

He nodded cautiously.

She hesitated, feeling her way through an emotional minefield. “You don’t see your family very much.”

Another nod.

“So being around them is intense. And parents are inherently complicated. Plus there’s the whole they don’t know Carter and what do they want from you.”

Nod.

“My amazingly charming store has a good emotional vibration and you feel comfortable here. Plus, you’re really excited about the gourd nativity. Did you know they’re made by a guy named Lars, a local farrier, who also trims Heidi’s goat’s hooves.”

His mouth curved up. “Now you’re making stuff up.”

“I’m not.” She paused. “You really want to stock my shelves and ring up my purchases?” Noelle had to press her lips together as she wondered why a perfectly normal question suddenly sounded incredibly dirty.

“It would be the highlight of my holiday season.”

“I can’t pay much more than minimum wage.”

“Not a problem.”

“Even though you don’t need this job, I have to be able to depend on you.”

“I promise not to go snowboarding without clearing it with you first. But the day after Christmas, I’m gone.”

“My busy season ends the day before Christmas, so we don’t seem to have a timing issue.” She hesitated, sure there was something she was missing. Only she couldn’t figure out what it was. The bottom line was she needed help and a responsible, attractive man was offering. She couldn’t think of a single reason to say no.

“Okay then. I guess you’re hired.”

Chapter 4

 

Noelle opened the store the next morning with an expected burst of anticipation and enthusiasm. Sadly, she knew the cause. In a perfect world, she would be able to fool herself for at least a few days. But she’d never been very good at convincing herself of anything that wasn’t true. She had always had a streak of realism that now reared its ugly head.

She had a thing for Gabriel. The handsome, wounded doctor pushed all her buttons. He was funny, nice, kind and elusive. Or in the feline vernacular—catnip.

She didn’t know why it had to be like that. Why couldn’t she be wildly attracted to some normal, local guy who’d been living here for fifteen generations and wanted to get married and have five kids? She supposed one of the reasons was that she hadn’t met anyone like that.

“Well, if I do, I’m all over him,” she murmured as she went through her pre-opening ritual. She turned up the heat, made sure the trains were running, checked the selection of Christmas music on her iPod and then moved toward the cash register. She had just finished counting ones, fives and tens when someone knocked on the still-locked front door.

Her stomach gave her a name before she even looked up. Sure enough, Gabriel stood there, right on time, still tall and, worse, smiling.

“Hi,” she said, unfastening the lock and letting him in. “You’re here.”

“As promised.”

“That’s nice. Where did you park? I like to save the spaces out front for customers.”

He shrugged out of his coat. There was a light dusting of snow on his hair and he wore a navy sweater that brought out the deeper blue tones of his eyes. He could have stepped out of one of those funny “woman to woman” Christmas cards.

“I walked.”

She stared at him. “Down the mountain? It’s, like, five miles or more. Are you insane? It’s freezing cold and snowing. You can’t walk that far in this weather. Oh, my God, I’ve hired a crazy person.”

He dropped his coat onto the counter and put his hands on her shoulders. “Breathe.”

“I’m not going to faint.”

“No, you’re going to pop a blood vessel. Breathe.”

She was less interested in breathing than the feel of his
large
hands holding her. If only he would pull her closer or maybe cop a feel, she thought wistfully.

“I’m staying in town,” he said. “My parents rented a little apartment for the holidays. It’s not much more than a studio. They decided to stay at Gideon’s when they saw how much room he had, so I took the rental instead.” He dropped his arms to his sides and shrugged. “It’s plenty big enough for me and they get more time with Carter.”

She decided not to comment on the sudden lack of hands on her arm and instead focused on the conversation. “It was getting too intense?” she asked.

He grimaced. “My mother carted photo albums with her. Last night we relived our childhood, year by year.”

“There had to be happy times.”

“There were. When we were younger, we moved around a lot. Once my dad became a drill sergeant, we settled.”

Which didn’t exactly say when the happy times were. “Camp Pendleton?”

He smiled. “Don’t let my dad hear you say that. That’s in San Diego and it’s the marines. We’re army. We were at Fort Knox, Kentucky.”

Somewhere she had never been. “I’m sure it was lovely.”

“That’s one way to describe it.” The smile faded. “My dad and I were never close. He was a tough guy and I wasn’t a tough kid.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I got through it then and I’ll get through it now. It’s only for a few weeks, right?”

She nodded, thinking how much she wanted to tell him to be grateful he had family at all. She’d never known her dad—he’d run off before she’d been born. But that had been okay because she’d been raised by her grandmother and her mother. The two women had been warm and loving and she’d had a blessed and happy childhood.

Even after she’d moved to Los Angeles for law school, they’d stayed close. The two women had driven out to spend every summer with her. They’d been there to celebrate with her when she’d landed her first real job at a prestigious law firm in Century City and had screamed and celebrated with her when she’d passed the bar.

Only they’d been killed during a twenty-five-car pileup on I-10 while driving back to Florida. Noelle missed them every day of her life and would give anything to have them back.

But she’d also learned that telling people that only made them feel guilty. That Gabriel would have to figure out for himself the need to appreciate what he had, while he had it.

“All right,” she said. “Let’s get you settled. I’ll show you where to put your stuff. I need you to fill out a W-4 for my accountant and then I’ll give you a tour of the store.”

Fifteen minutes later, it was official. Gabriel Boylan was an employee of The Christmas Attic.

She walked him through the basic layout. “I keep baskets up front,” she said, showing him the stack of lightweight oval baskets. “Most of what we carry is small. Encourage the baskets. Otherwise, when a customer gets her hands full, she tends to head for the register.”

“Makes sense.”

“You can see we have sections. Ornaments and home decorating over there, the nativities on that wall.”

“Including gourds?”

“You think I’m kidding. You need to go check it out.”

“I will.”

“The bears are over there, with all the kid stuff close by. We have some books, but mostly send people looking for Christmas books over to Morgan’s.”

“Don’t you want to have Christmas books here?” he asked.

“No. Not with a perfectly good bookstore less than a block away. I’m not stepping on any toes. What if every other store started carrying ornaments and teddy bears?”

“Or this,” Gabriel said, picking up a Santa pin from a display.

She leaned close and moved the hidden switch on the back. Santa’s nose lit up.

Gabriel stared at the bright nose and slowly shook his head. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Something along the lines of, ‘Why Mrs. Smith, your mother, aunt, granddaughter will love that pin, I’m sure.’”

He nodded and turned off the switch, then returned the pin to the display. “Point taken.”

She was pleased with his response and even more excited to see there wasn’t any blood on the bandage.

“Then there’s the bear section.”

He followed her around the corner and came to a stop. “I saw this before, but it seems bigger.”

“I’ve put out a few more. Bears sell.”

Three large sets of shelves rose to the faux rafters. Each shelf was crowded with different stuffed animals, mostly bears. Brown bears and white bears, bears that were fuzzy and plaid. Some played music and some you just wanted to squeeze.

“I have a layout in the stockroom,” she said, leading the way. “That will help you when you have to put things out. And now I’ll teach you the mysteries of the cash register.”

Gabriel learned the system quickly. Noelle had chosen a credit card service that didn’t give as many reports, but was a whole lot easier to deal with on a daily basis. Right at ten, she unlocked the front door and let in a couple of waiting customers.

The next few hours passed quickly. There was a steady stream of business. Just before noon, a pretty woman came into the store. She had short brown hair and looked to be in her late fifties. Noelle was about to greet her when she saw Gabriel staring at the woman. Something in his expression told her this wasn’t just any customer.

Noelle walked over. “Hi. Welcome to The Christmas Attic.”

Gabriel glanced between them. “Noelle, this is my mother, Karen Boylan. Mom, this is Noelle Perkins. She owns the store.”

“It’s lovely,” Karen said, unbuttoning her coat. Underneath she wore a bright purple sweatshirt with a shell logo and the words Blackberry Island. In smaller print, the sweatshirt proclaimed Stay for the Wine.

“Great color,” Noelle said. “Where is Blackberry Island?”

“Washington State. Just north and west of Seattle. Norm and I went there a couple of years ago. We did the whole west coast, heading north through the summer. Then we drove home. It was a very nice trip.”

“It sounds like it.”

Karen turned to her son. “Your dad and I sent you a few postcards.”

Gabriel nodded. “Right. They were great.” He looked at Noelle. “I should run those errands now. Before it gets too busy. I’ll be back.”

He was gone before she could ask what on earth he was talking about. Seconds later he was in his jacket and heading out the front door.

She opened her mouth, then closed it when she saw Karen’s face had settled into lines of deep sadness.

“That was my fault,” his mother said. “He’s running away from me. I don’t want you to think badly of him.”

“I won’t,” Noelle said, then glanced around the store. It was quiet, at least for the moment. “Why don’t I fix us both some tea?”

She led Karen into the back room and filled two mugs with water. After putting them in the microwave, she turned to Gabriel’s mother and offered a slight smile.

“How are you settling in for your stay?”

Karen blinked several times and drew a breath. “Fine. It’s beautiful here. What a sweet little town. Norm and I have traveled a lot and we’ve never been anywhere like this. I’m excited about all the festivals.”

“Me, too,” Noelle told her. “I moved here in the spring, so this will be my first Christmas. I hear it’s crazy busy. There’s a parade on Thanksgiving and the day of giving. I plan to throw myself in the center of all of it.”

“That’s a good attitude.”

“Thanks.” Noelle noticed the other woman’s earrings. “Are those garnets?”

“Yes.” Karen touched the earrings. “They’re part of a set that’s been handed down in Norm’s family. There were only boys in his generation so I was fortunate enough to inherit them. There are several other pieces—a necklace, bracelet and ring. I love them.” She twisted her hands together. “Have you known my son long?”

“Not at all. I met him shortly after he arrived.” She thought of the umbrella incident and grinned. “He’s a good guy, though.”

“I think so. His father... Growing up, the boys weren’t as close to Norm as I would have liked. There were a lot of rules. I suppose I should have stepped in more. Been a buffer. Norm tended to run the house the way he ran his recruits.”

The conversation was that awkward combination of vague and intimate, Noelle thought, grateful when the microwave beeped and she could busy herself making tea.

“He’s mellowed,” Karen continued. “But I’m afraid it might be too little, too late. I was hoping this trip would help us reconnect as a family. Gabriel said he wasn’t coming but then he hurt his hand and changed his mind. I took that as a sign.”

She paused. “Sorry. I’m going on and on.”

“It’s fine,” Noelle told her, handing over a mug of tea. “Have you talked to Felicia? She’s great and may know more about where your sons are coming from.”

Karen’s expression relaxed. “I know. She’s wonderful. So intelligent, but still very warm. Being with Gideon can’t be easy—not after all he’s been through. And then dealing with Carter. Not many women would be so accepting of having a thirteen-year-old boy suddenly show up, but she’s embracing it.”

“What do you think of Carter?” Noelle asked.

“I can’t get enough of him. I wish I’d had the chance to meet his mother. Norm is in heaven with Carter. And he’s bonding with Webster, which surprises me. My husband is not a pet person.”

Karen sipped her tea. “So my son is working here?”

“I know, strange, right? It’s just while he’s in town. I think he wants to be distracted.”

“And avoid us,” Karen said, before holding up her hand. “You don’t have to disagree with me. We both know he moved into town to have a little less family time. I accept my part in what happened. Now I have to change it.”

Noelle found herself liking Gabriel’s mother. She’d obviously made some difficult choices and was now accepting the consequences.

“You know,” Karen said slowly, “Gabriel isn’t seeing anyone. At least as far as I know. He’s never married.” She paused. “Oh, dear. I’m turning into a meddling mother. That can’t be good.”

Noelle laughed. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell. And while I appreciate the sales job, I’m not sure Gabriel is my type.”

“You worry he has commitment issues? He’s reached that age where I’m starting to wonder why he’s not married.”

Noelle hadn’t thought of that. “I’m more worried that he’s leaving. I want something more traditional. A husband who plans to stick around.”

Karen nodded. “I understand. Speaking as a woman who’s been married for thirty-five years, when it works, there’s nothing better.”

“And when it doesn’t?”

Karen chuckled. “It helps to have girlfriends who are willing to listen. Are you free for Thanksgiving?”

The change of subject startled Noelle. “What? Yes.” Each of her friends had invited her over, but she’d declined. They were all newly in love and forming family traditions. She wasn’t comfortable being a part of that.

BOOK: Christmas on 4th Street (Fool's Gold Romance)
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