A half hour later, Sarah was overdosing on chocolate cake at Cassidy’s house, and C.J. was pulling up in front of Jessica’s house, after driving her back home. In the end, they’d opted to take his truck, a good thing because a mild winter storm started up as soon as they left the house.
Already, he was wishing the night didn’t have to end, that he could find a way to extend the moment between them. Because he’d found himself enjoying it more than he’d expected. “Thanks,” he said.
Yeah, there was a real time waster, C.J.
“You’re welcome.” A light snow had started up, dusting the windshield with white powder, coating the streets with a fine sheen of pale. The moonlight hazed through the storm, dropping a veil over the sky. Several houses had their Christmas lights burning, providing a twinkling accent to the snow.
Coupled with the Christmas carols playing softly on the truck’s stereo, it all had that special holiday glitter, whispering that something wonderful was on its way.
For a second, C.J. watched the snow fall, transfixed, wrapped in the spell. Believing in that something wonderful, too.
Until the click of the door handle jerked him back to reality. “Wait,” C.J. said to Jessica. “Don’t go, not yet.”
“I have…” She glanced at the house, then back at him. “I have a minute.”
Where to begin to tell her how grateful he was for her help? She’d smoothed things over with Sarah, so well his daughter had run out of the truck with a wave and a smile, no longer the sullen child who’d refused to look at him. Jessica had done so much more than just give him tips on “girl hair” as she’d worked the ponytails into Sarah’s hair, she’d given him hope.
Hope that if he could figure out ponytails, maybe he could get the harder parts under control, too.
“Thank you,” C.J. said. “You’ve helped me tonight, more than you know.”
“It was nothing.”
“No, it helped Sarah and I turn a corner.” He knew, though, that all of this was probably a temporary reprieve. Soon he’d be on his own. Which meant he still needed that miracle. “If I can prove to you there is Christmas spirit left in this town, will you stay and help me make this a holiday that Sarah will never forget?”
She shifted in her seat to face him, her features delicately lit by the streetlight above, giving her an almost ethereal presence. “You’re going to do that in less than two days? The same man who couldn’t get two ponytails into his daughter’s hair?”
“Hey, those things are tougher than they look.”
“I appreciate your earnestness, Mr. Hamilton, but my plane ticket is bought.”
“Change it. What’ll it cost you, seventy-five bucks to change the date? Leave on December twenty-sixth, or New Year’s Eve, I don’t care. Just don’t leave before Sarah has a perfect Christmas.”
“Why is this so important to you?”
“Because I’m her father.” There were more reasons than that, but he didn’t share them. There were simply things he didn’t tell other people, doors he didn’t open. Even for himself.
Yet he could see the lingering doubts in Jessica’s face, and knew he had to offer at least a partial explanation. “I lived my life being constantly reminded that I was the result of someone else’s one-night in a back seat mistake. I refuse to let Sarah feel that she’s the same just because things didn’t work out between Kiki and I, and because she didn’t tell me I was Sarah’s real father. Kiki was…” He paused, searching for the right word.
“Exactly. And I may not have any idea how to tie a bow or do a braid, but I do know that I won’t let my child grow up feeling the same way I did. That’s why it’s so important for me to let her know that I care, that she’s important. And the best way I can see to do that is by giving her a holiday she’ll never forget.”
“And in order to do that you have to have me? Why?”
He grinned. “What’s Christmas without Santa and Mrs. Claus?”
But Jessica didn’t reflect his smile. “There is no more Santa. He died two years ago.”
“I’m sorry,” C.J. said, and he was, genuinely sorry for her. It explained a lot, he realized.
Especially why she wanted to avoid the holiday.
She sighed. “Ever since my husband died, Christmas hasn’t been the same. As much as I’d like to help you, I can’t. I just don’t believe in the holiday like I used to.” Before he could stop her, she turned and got out of the truck.
C.J. hurried after her, catching up to her on the brick walkway. “Jessica, wait, please.” He caught her arm and she slid a bit on the snow, losing her balance on the slippery stuff, falling into his arms.
She landed against his chest, her face upturned, all green eyes and blond hair and something more. Something he hadn’t seen or had in his life in a very long time.
Something he’d given up hope on thinking he could ever find—or have.
She was warm against him, her body curving perfectly to his. “Sorry,” C.J. said, his voice gruff and rough against his throat. “I made you lose your footing.”
“Yeah.” Her gaze lingered on his a moment longer, before she righted herself. “Well, good night. I hope Sarah has a nice time at the party.”
“What about you?” Curiosity to know more, to find out what made this woman tick, grew inside him. “What will you be doing tonight, Jessica?” He loved the way her name slid off his tongue, almost like candy.
A bittersweet smile crossed her lips and it was all C.J. could do to keep from hauling her to him again, just to erase that melancholy. “Same thing I always do. Same thing I’ve done for the past two years. A cup of tea, a little reading, in bed by ten.”
“And what would you do if someone changed your routine?” He took a step closer, mesmerized by her eyes, the falling snow, the season that seemed to wrap around them, magical in its difference from the California sun that normally greeted his days.
“I don’t…” She paused, tried again. “I like to know what’s coming at the end of the day. It makes it easier.”
Easier for what, he wanted to ask, but didn’t. Instead, he found himself watching her lips, the tendrils of air that escaped her mouth, frosted by the cold. “And then here I came along and made things harder?”
She nodded, her gaze on his, the only sound around them the soft rustling of leaves being weighed down by the snow, coming heavier now, thicker. Maybe it was the snow. Maybe it was the connection he’d felt when they’d touched. Maybe it was just him being incredibly selfish.
C.J. didn’t know and didn’t care. “I’m sorry,” he said again.
“I’m about to make things twice as difficult.” Before he could think twice, C.J. leaned forward and kissed her holly-red lips, bringing Jessica against him.
She tasted of coffee and snow, of long nights by the fire, tucked beneath a blanket. She was sweet in his arms, soft wherever he was hard, and easy against him. Her arms went around him, and for one sweet moment, C.J. Hamilton felt as if he’d come home.
Their kiss was too short, too brief, nearly chaste. And yet, it touched something in him that lay deep inside, as quiet as this town. It was a kiss that held the same whispered promise as the snow.
That something wonderful was on its way—if only the right flakes could fall the right time.
“That probably wasn’t the wisest thing to do.” Jessica’s voice shook a little on the last syllable, the only betrayal that she had been as moved by the moment as he.
“No, it wasn’t,” C.J. agreed, reminding himself that his priority right now was his daughter. Kisses—and what they might hold down the roadwould have to wait. “But it did prove on one thing.”
“That a little something unexpected can sometimes be very, very nice.”
She shook her head. “Or just one more reason to leave town. Before something like that happens again.”
C.J. watched Jessica Patterson turn away, climb her walkway and go into her house. The light in the hallway stayed on for a moment, then went off, effectively shutting him out.
She needed a Christmas miracle. And he intended to give her one.
Even if he had to manufacture it himself.