-1-

“What are you doing?” Harper Montgomery asked.

Brooke Quinn stood in front of a bakery window, fogging the glass with her deep sigh.  “It’s almost Christmas.”

“And?” Harper questioned.

And, I’m going to be alone.  I need something to cure my holiday blues.”  She pointed to the icing covered treats on display.  “A few dozen Christmas cookies, and a sugar coma should do the trick.”

“Quit being so dramatic,” Harper said.  “You can’t eat all those cookies and you aren’t going to be alone for Christmas.  You have your mom.”

The star on top of Brooke’s red and green knit hat bobbed with the motion of her shaking head.  “Not this year.  Mom’s on a cruise somewhere in the Pacific with her new husband.”

“I’m sorry.”  Harper struggled to be sympathetic but lost her battle.  She muffled her giggle with her mitten.  “Even though you look ridiculous, you’re welcome to spend Christmas with me.”

Brooke’s twitching smirk softened into a smile.  “Thanks for the offer, Harp, but you have your own family.  I’ll be fine.  I’m going to stock up on cookies and hide until Christmas is over.”

“If nothing else, you are persistent,” Harper said.

She pulled on Brooke’s arm and they joined the flow of the downtown pedestrian traffic.  A trail of sparkling lamp posts, draped with greenery, lit the way for the meandering crowd.  Brooke peeked in the passing store windows with their artfully arranged gift ideas, wishing she had a list to fill for someone special.

“Why can’t I find a nice guy to spend the holiday with?”

Harper wrinkled up her nose.  “Do you want me to be honest?”

“Aren’t you always?” Brooke asked.

“Your problem is, you believe every guy you meet is nice.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“They aren’t, and you always find out the hard way.”

“Wow, you’re cynical.”

“I’m a realist, and you’ve had your heart broken too many times.”

Brooke elbowed her.  “I hate it when you’re right, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to give up.”

They slowed to a shuffling stroll as a sizable crowd gathered on the sidewalk.  Familiar carols filled the frigid air and a wooden shed with a sign declaring it as the Elf Shack invited passersby to visit the Pediatric Hospital’s Christmas tree lot.  Random pine trees, showcased under a canopy of woven light strands twinkling like stars in the falling dusk, dotted a vacant space between stores.  Brooke and Harper dodged the people coming and going with their Christmas trees in tow.

“Hey,” Harper said.

Brooke glanced at her friend’s growing grin and stepped out of the milling crowd.  “I don’t like that look, Harper Montgomery, it always gets me in trouble.”

“I know how you can find a nice guy for Christmas.”  She pointed to a hand-painted sign beside them, announcing pictures with Santa.  “Sit on the big guy’s lap.”

Brooke rolled her eyes.  “Seriously?  What am I, ten?”

“You’d be helping out the local Pediatric Hospital.  C’mon, ask him for a boyfriend.  What do you have to lose?  Look there’s no line.”

Brooke stumbled from Harper’s shove, forcing her to push her hat back up above her eyes.  Santa chuckled when the attached star sagged down and off to the side of her head.

“Ho, ho, ho.  Who do we have here?”

“I, uh…”  She gave him a tight smile and a finger wave.  “Hi.”

“Tell him what you want,” Harper called out from her hiding spot behind a tree.

Brooke glared in her direction.

“What would you like for Christmas?” Santa asked.

Brooke turned back to the pink cheeks and twinkling eyes of the man sitting in the chair, hiding behind the beard, hat, and bushy brows.  She inched a bit closer.  He smiled and she eased herself onto his knee, doing her best to ignore the giggles of the kids now gathering in a large group behind her.  She would let Harper have it later, in private, so as not to traumatize the unsuspecting little sweethearts.

To end the nightmare, she squeezed her eyes shut and leaned in close to the man’s ear.  An enticing aroma of fresh soap and expensive cologne drifted around her in the cold air.  She cleared her throat and whispered her quick request.  “I’d like a nice man to spend the holiday with so I don’t have to be alone.”

Santa sat back and blinked several times.  Something about his blue eyes made her want to squirm.

“Interesting.  I’ll see what I can do,” he said.  She couldn’t help but return his warm, optimistic smile.  “Hold that beautiful expression.”  He pointed to a man with a camera who seemed to come out of nowhere. “My elf helper Rudy is going to take our picture.”

A flash went off and she hopped up from the man’s knee.

“Don’t forget your photo, and your donation for the Children’s hospital,” Santa said with a wiggle of his white-gloved finger.

She pulled a few dollars from her purse and shoved them into the collection bucket as the elf handed over the Polaroid snapshot.  She plucked it from his hand and yanked on Harper’s jacket, dragging her away from the watchful crowd before she asked, “Are you insane?”

Harper grinned.  “Hey, who knows, maybe a truly nice guy will show up on your doorstep.”

“You are crazy,” Brooke said.  She jammed the photo into her pocket.  “I’d never get that lucky.”

santa-hat-image

Doctor Burke Jamison pulled off his Santa hat and dropped down on the sofa in the hospital’s staff lounge.  He ruffled his hair and dragged his hand down his tired face.  Working back to back shifts earlier that day in the pediatric oncology ward exhausted him.  But he hadn’t given it a second thought when the call went out for a Santa volunteer to replace the usual man who came down with the flu.  The thought of doing something to make children smile gave him the lift he needed to put in the added hours out in the cold.

He sagged back into the sofa and closed his eyes.  Never in his wildest imagination had he expected an attractive woman to come along and ask for a boyfriend for Christmas.  What were the odds?

New to the place he now called home, he had made only a handful of friends so far, and none of them were single.  They all offered to take in his sad soul for the holiday, but he had no desire to impose.  He, too, like the beautiful stranger, would face Christmas alone.  It didn’t matter, he had plenty of options to occupy his empty time.  There were always extra shifts to sign up for and volunteer hours at the tree lot.  It was the hospital’s biggest fundraiser of the year and he would do whatever he could to help.

Despite all of the choices he had to fill his hours, he wished he had something or someone, to fill the small part of him which would remain empty.  His thoughts conjured up the woman who sat on his knee.  How hard could it be to find her?

Before Burke could even answer his question, he drifted off to sleep still dressed in his beard and suit, dreaming of possibilities and the woman he wanted to meet again.

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Brooke stripped off her woolen mittens and shoved them into her coat pocket.  The corner of the Polaroid poked her finger, reminding her that she had forgotten it.  She studied the too bright, slightly blurred image and thought about the five dollars she had dropped into the can, telling herself that it wasn’t for the photo but for charity.

She let out a sigh and rummaged through a drawer of assorted junk, locating a roll of clear tape. Ripping off two pieces, she carried the photo into her bedroom and taped it in the corner of her make-up mirror.  She had not said a word to Harper, but she found the whole Santa experience unsettling.  Santa was supposed to be a jolly, old, gentleman.  This man was jolly, but definitely not old.  She saw signs of a vibrant face and sparkling eyes peeking out from the space between his beard and hat.

And what was with his expensive cologne?  She recognized the trendy scent when she sniffed him.  He smelled wonderful.  The admission made her cringe.  No worthwhile bachelor who smelled that good, would dress up as Santa for a bunch of kids.  She stood back and studied the picture, tapping her finger against her bottom lip.  Or would he?

She needed to find out.

“Dear Santa, if you do exist, I could use a little Christmas magic.”

Brooke smiled to herself.  Tomorrow after work she would visit the tree lot and with a little luck, find out something about the jolly, young, Saint Nicholas.

 

-2-

Burke pulled the Santa suit from his locker and replaced it with his lab coat, wondering with a smile what crazy thing the night might bring him.  He slipped the red jacket over his t-shirt but stopped when the door swung open and he heard his name.

“Burke?  There you are, I need that suit.”

“Why?” He adjusted the fluffy jacket collar around his neck, waiting for an explanation.

“I have a replacement for Santa.”

“Yeah, me,” Burke said, working on the buttons.

“Not you.  I’ve found an elderly gentleman.  You’re needed elsewhere,” the man said.

“Elderly? Why does Santa have to be old? And what do you mean, elsewhere?”  Burke crossed his arms and raised a brow at the man.

“We need more strong hands and backs to tie the trees to the cars.  You will be working the lot tonight,” the man said.  He added a smile.  “I hope.”

Burke removed the coat.

“Whatever you need,” he said, handing over the suit.

The man disappeared with his armload of red fluff, and Burked dropped down onto the bench wondering why it annoyed him.  He wasn’t easily ruffled, except when it came to the holiday.

“Burke, you’re still here?”  A fellow doctor came in tossed his white coat on the bench.  “Aren’t the kids waiting for you?”

“Not me,” he answered, slipping into a sweatshirt.

The man grinned.  “Don’t tell me you managed to get fired from being Santa?”

Burke shot him a wicked glance and slumped back down on the bench.  “Mason gave the job to someone else so I can help with the trees.”

“Sorry, buddy.  I know how much you like helping out.”

“But?” Burke asked, meeting his stare.

“You work harder than you have to, and we’re all a bit worried about you.  Why don’t you come by the house and have dinner with Stef and I.  You don’t have to spend the holidays alone.”

“Thanks, I appreciate the offer, Jack, but I like keeping busy.”

Jack joined him on the bench.  “At least I can tell Stef I tried and not be in the dog house.”  He smiled and studied the locker in front of him.  “Is this because of a woman?”

“Excuse me?” Burke asked.

“You burying yourself in work during the holidays.  Don’t think it’s gone unnoticed that you’ve been working extra shifts to cover for others and spending the little of your free time at the tree lot.  You’re a nice guy, but no one is that nice.  Only a woman would drive you to that level of self-distraction.”

“Well, aren’t you Sherlock Holmes?” Burke slipped on the boots he pulled out of his locker.  “It doesn’t matter.  Maybe you’re right.  Either way, she’s happy and I’m…”

“Unhappy?”

“Busy,” Burke said, cutting him off.  “I’m not unhappy.  I just haven’t found someone else yet.”

Jack shook his head.  “There’s plenty of women right here, in the hospital.”

“Nah.  I’m not getting any younger and I’m past playing the field.  I’m ready for something more.  I’ll know her when I find her.”

If only he could find the woman who shared her wish with him.

santa-hat-image

Brooke peeked around the corner of the Elf Shack.  Unlike last night, the line for Santa stretched down the block.  She studied her options to get closer to Santa without being noticed.  In a slow stroll, she headed for a gigantic Blue Spruce.  Checking left, then right, then behind her, hopeful that no one would notice what she planned to do, she hid behind the prickly boughs.  Crouched in a squat position, which made her legs burn, she did her best to separate the branches, wishing she had thicker gloves and a pair of binoculars.  Her stomach growled and she added “snack” to her wish list.  She should have prepared better for her stake-out.

The pocket of her jacket vibrated, distracting her for a second.  She ignored her phone and the incoming call until it buzzed again.

“Hello,” she whispered.

“Brooke?  I can’t hear you.  Where are you?” Harper asked.

“Christmas shopping.  I’ll call you later.”

She shoved her phone back into her pocket with only a little guilt for lying to her best friend.  It didn’t matter, she was on a mission to find Santa.

 

-3-

Burke peeled off his gloves and poured himself a cup of coffee.  He stepped out the back door of the Elf Shack and leaned against the corner of the small building, letting the scalding caffeine warm him while giving his shoulders a break.  The crowd tonight exceeded all the previous nights, and the trees left sprinkled around the lot were going fast.

He massaged the back of his neck and studied the line for Santa over the rim of his steaming, Styrofoam cup.  Until this point, he hadn’t had a moment to himself or time to check out the crowd.  The dozens of pink-cheeked children hopping up and down next to their parents, squealing and pointing when they had found “the one,” kept him too busy to notice if the woman he hoped to see had been there.

Burke finished off his coffee and glanced at his watch.  There were only two hours left until the lot closed for the night.  As he stepped around the wooden shed to toss away his cup, a flash of yellow bobbed behind the branches of a large Blue Spruce.  He recognized the red and green hat the yellow star was attached to, and the woman wearing it.  He peeked around the tree closest to him and found her crouched down staring through the branches.  He wondered from whom or what she was hiding.  He followed her gaze fixated in the direction of Santa.

A tug on his flannel-covered arm interrupted his moment of exhilaration.  He wanted to ignore the person begging his attention, but when a little old lady peered around his side and looked up at him, he smiled.

“Yes, ma’am?”

“I want a tree,” she said, adjusting her owlish glasses.  “Can you help me?”

“I sure can.  Which one would you like?”

She pointed to the tree shielding the lurking woman.

“Uh,” his eyes bounced from the tree, and the woman’s backside, to the lady waiting for his response.  “I think that tree is taken.”

“It doesn’t have a tag, I checked before I came over here,” the gray-haired woman insisted.

“Oh.”  Burke rubbed the top of his head, scrambling for a way to avoid embarrassing the hiding woman and himself.  He wanted to meet her, but not that way.  “That’s quite a large tree, how about something a bit smaller.”

The woman pushed up her glasses.  “I know what I want young man.”

Burke gave a defeated nod and strolled in the direction of what he feared might be a disaster, with the little old lady following behind.

Stopped beside the tree, he glanced at the woman with the crazy hat, hunched down, peeking between the tree branches.  He cleared his throat and she lost her balance, falling backward into the gravel.  She squealed and jumped up, brushing at her pants.

“I’m sorry,” he said, trying to hide his awkward smile.  “We’d like to look at this tree.”

“Oh, yes, sure.” She waved a hand at it.  “It’s a lovely tree.”

Burke watched her back up a few steps then hurry off between several other pines.  He tried to ignore the sinking in his gut.  His one in a million chance was disappearing before he could even meet her.

santa-hat-image

Brooke sniffed at the air.  The familiar mixture of fresh soap and expensive cologne lingered in the cold.  She glanced around at several men in her vicinity.  Any one of them could have been Santa.  She sniffed the air again, turning in a circle.

“There you are.  What are you doing?” Harper asked.

Brooke did a startled stutter step.  “Where did you come from?”

“Home,” Harper answered with a smart smile.

“How did you find me?”

“I recognized the Christmas music in the background when I called you and I became curious.  Once I got here, I couldn’t miss the hat,” she said, tugging on the star.  “So, what are you doing?”

“I’m, uh, trying to decide which tree I want.”

“By smelling it?” Harper asked.

Brooke grabbed the branch of the tree next to her and held it to her nose.  “Yes.  Haven’t you ever smelled a Christmas tree before buying it?”

“No.”

“Well, if I have to live with it, I want the one that smells the best,” Brooke said, tilting her chin upward.  She shuffled nonchalantly as possible toward the man closest to her and drew in a deep breath.

“Not that one,” she muttered.

“You’re weird,” Harper said.

Brooke glanced in the direction of the man with the little old lady, who had chased her away from her hiding spot.  She grabbed Harper’s arm and yanked her behind a tree, peeking around at the tall, well-built stranger.  “He’s the one.”

“Who’s the one?” Harper asked, leaning over Brooke’s shoulder to see around the tree.  “What is going on?  Please tell me we are talking about a person and not a tree.  Otherwise, you have completely lost your marbles.”

“It’s him,” Brooke answered.

“Well, that clears it all up.  Him who?”

“I sat on that man’s lap yesterday.  He was Santa.  I knew by his eyes that he wasn’t an old man.  I had to find out.  That’s him, I know it.”

Harper stared at her for a long moment, her brow raising slowly.  “How could you possibly know?”

“I recognize his cologne.”

“Ah.  So not only do you sniff trees but Santa, too?”

Brooke shrugged.

“You should go talk to him.”

“No way.  That same suggestion is what got me into this mess in the first place.  I’m not going to talk to him,” she said.

“Why not?” Harper asked.  She leaned a little farther out from behind the tree.  “He’s hot.  And he must be sweet, too, he’s with his Grandma.  Oops, he’s looking this way.”

Harper squealed as Brooke yanked her back behind the safety of the tree before a clearing harrumph startled them.  They whipped around and looked up into the disapproving glare of a man with his arms crossed over his chest.  “Excuse me, ladies, are you interested in buying this tree?”

Brooke glanced between his grim expression and the Douglas Fir.

“It’s for sick children, have some holiday spirit,” he said.

Brooke forced a smile from her crouched position.  “Sure.  I would love to, but you see, there’s a problem.  I walked here.  I live a few blocks away.  I can’t get it home right now.”

“That’s not a problem, we’ll deliver it.  All you have to do is let them know when you pay for it.  We’ll take care of the rest.”

Brooke glanced at Harper and nodded toward the wooden shed before they scurried away.

“Great,” she said as they joined the waiting line.

Harper rubbed her hands together.  “At least it’s warm in here.”

“I don’t want a tree, but now I have to buy one.  What am I going to do with it?” Brooke asked.

“Have it delivered and decorate it,” Harper answered.

“Great, one more thing for me to do alone.”

santa-hat-image

Burke couldn’t believe his luck when he hefted the bailed Blue Spruce up onto his shoulder and followed the little old lady toward her car.  He had glimpsed the woman who hadn’t disappeared, after all, checking out a nice Douglas Fir with her friend as if they planned to buy it.  If she needed help, he hoped to be the one to assist her, and maybe ask her out to dinner in the process.  But he needed his cold fingers to cooperate and tie knots fast enough to get him back before she was gone for good this time.

After struggling with the rope, and gently escaping a story about grandchildren, Burke hurried back to the lot.  The Douglas Fir still stood in its spot but neither the woman nor her friend was anywhere in sight.  He blew out a deep sigh then paused and reached into the tree pulling a ‘SOLD’ tag out from between the branches.  He flipped the tag marked ‘delivery’, dated for the next day.

“Mary,” he called out, as he barged into the Elf Shack.  “Who sold the Douglas Fir?  It’s the last Fir on the lot and marked ‘delivery’ for tomorrow.”

Mary nodded in the direction of a man unloading a box of stockings.

“I sold it to two ladies,” he answered.

“Which one of them bought it?” Burke asked.

“She had dark hair and was wearing a crazy hat, why?”

“I thought I recognized her, but she disappeared before I got the chance to find out.”

“Well, I sold her the tree but I have no one to deliver it,” the man said, with a hint of insinuation.

“I don’t mind.  I’ll do it after my shift,” Burke offered.  This was one house call he couldn’t wait to make.

 

-4-

Burke stood on the sidewalk outside the brownstone several blocks from the tree lot, checking the address on the delivery tag for the third time.  He was in the right place he just didn’t know what was keeping him from ringing the doorbell and making the delivery.

He now had a full name to go with the face.  Brooke Quinn.  Somehow that made him uneasy, but she didn’t seem like someone who should make him nervous.  Her eyes sparkled with a friendliness he wanted to get to know better.  All he had to do was push the doorbell.

He shifted his weight and the weight of the tree resting on the sidewalk. There was no time like the present to do his job.

santa-hat-image

Brooke stood back and studied her sitting room with all of its furniture pushed against the walls.  It was the best arrangement she could find to make the most of her small space, and fit the tree on its way to her house.  When she had agreed to buy it the night before, totally humiliated by the situation, the tree’s size hadn’t crossed her mind.  Now as the doorbell rang, she wondered what she would say to the man delivering it if it didn’t fit.

She opened the door and a sea of green needles greeted her.  “Um, hello?”

The branches rustled and the tree tilted to the side revealing a face Brooke wasn’t prepared to see.

“You’re,” she clamped her mouth shut to stifle the word Santa.  “Here,” she said, instead.  She paused.  “With my tree.”

She stared at him and his smile grew wider.

“Can I bring it inside?”

She nodded. “Oh yes, of course.”

“Would you like me to set it up?”

“Yes, please, in front of the window.”

Burke looked around the space.  “Do you have a stand?”

She looked around the room, too, unsure why, before she stared at him and blinked several times.  “A stand?  No.”

“Not a problem, I have one in my truck.”  His gaze flickered between her face and the tree.  “I, uh…you’ll need to hold this.”

She held up her bare hands.

“One second,” he said.  He bit down on the tip of the glove covering his other hand and yanked it free.  “Sorry.”  He flashed her an awkward smile.  “Put this on and stick your hand in the spot where I’m holding the tree.”

She put on the glove and hesitated a moment before moving in to stand beside him.

He leaned in over her shoulder.  “Are you okay?  Do you have it if I let go?”

She turned her face and Burke watched her pink lips turn up in a smile, spreading a faint color to her lightly freckled cheeks.  When she nodded, he let go and backed up.

“I’ll only be a second,” he said, almost backing into the stair rail before turning toward the door.

He jogged down the sidewalk dragging in deep breaths of cold air as he reached into the bed of his pickup and pulled out the stand he was grateful he thought of at the last moment.  He hurried back inside hoping she and the tree were still standing.

“I’ve got it now,” he said.

Brooke slid out of the way and watched him move.  “How did you come to own a tree lot?”

“What?” he asked, from under the branches.

“You handled this like a pro.”

He slid out from under the tree and brushed off his shirt, laughing.  “Well, thanks for the compliment.  I’m actually a doctor, but hey, everyone should have a job to fall back on.”

Brooke’s eyes widened.  “A doctor?”

He held out his hand.  “Dr. Burke Jamison at your service.  I work at the Pediatric Hospital which benefitted from your generous purchase.  I volunteer at the lot.”

“Oh.  That’s impressive,” she said, shaking his hand.  “I’m Brooke Quinn.”

“I know.”

“You do?”  The vision of him dressed as Santa crossed her mind, along with the obvious question.

He pulled something white from his shirt pocket.  “The delivery tag from the tree.”

“Oh, of course.”  She let out a soft giggle of relief and gave her hand a tug, which Burke didn’t realize he still held.

Brooke’s gaze left his face and landed on the bare tree standing in front of the window.

“Is there a problem?” he asked.  He stepped back and stood beside her, studying the tree.  “It seems to be straight.”  He flashed her a smile that made her cheeks color again.  He liked that he could make her blush.  “I’ve set up a few crooked ones,” he added, to distract himself.

Brooke laughed.  “It’s perfect.  Except…”

“Except?”

“I don’t have any decorations for it.”  The color of her cheeks this time had nothing to do with him.

“Ah, I think I’m beginning to understand.  Bill sold you this tree,” Burke said.  “He is known for talking people into buying trees whether they want one or not.  He is a good guy and means well.  He’s in charge of the hospital’s finances and thanks to him, and people like you, our fundraisers provide state of the art equipment.  Of course, we could always use more, and he does tend to get a little, overzealous, when he thinks he can get a few dollars for our cause.”  Burke rubbed the back of his neck.  “To make up for it, there are donated ornaments at the Elf Shack.  We won’t sell them all, so maybe I can talk Bill into letting you have a few.”

“No,” Brooke said.

Burke’s confident smile faded.

“I’ll gladly pay for them.”  She grabbed her jacket and pulled on her crazy hat.

“Oh, sure, okay.  I guess there’s no time like the present,” he said.

“Nope, Christmas is only a few days away,” she reminded him.

When they reached the sidewalk, Burke motioned to his truck.

“Do you mind if I walk?” she asked.  “I like the holiday feel of the downtown.”

He gave his shoulders a slight lift.  “Do you mind if I join you?”

They walked together in comfortable silence.  Brooke smiled when they passed the bakery window.

“What?” Burke asked, his breath turning into sparkling crystals in the air of the looming dusk.

“Nothing,” she said, turning her smile on him.

He opened the door to the Elf Shack and motioned her to step inside.

“Mary,” he called out.  He rounded the counter and poked around a pile of ornament boxes.  “Is Bill around?”

“No,” the woman answered, watching him over her Styrofoam coffee cup.  “He went home for the night.  Why?”

Burke picked up several boxes.  “This beautiful woman needs ornaments for her tree.  Are you feeling some holiday spirit?”  He flashed Mary a wink.

“For you Burke, anything.”

“Uh,” Brooke said, holding her finger in the air.  “I’d like to buy them.  How much?”

“Five dollars a box,” Mary answered.  “But truly, we can spare them, it’s not a problem.”

Brooke pulled several bills from her pocket.  “No, I want to pay for them.  I’ll take…” she glanced at Burke.

“For a tree that size, you’ll need at least four boxes.”

“Four it is,” Brooke said.  “Thank you, Mary.”  She headed for the door of the shack with her bag and glanced back at Burke still standing near the counter.

“I have a few things to do here, and then I’ll stop back for my truck,” he said.

“You aren’t going to help?”  She flashed a shy grin that made him want to follow her home like a lost puppy looking to be taken in.

“With what?” he asked, shaking off his thoughts.

“Decorating my tree.  You’ve helped me this far.”

“True.”  He chuckled.  “Why not.”

They strolled back in the direction of her Brownstone, passing the window of a diner with its neon open sign casting a pinkish hue on the sidewalk.  A muffled growl filled the temporary silence that had fallen between them.

Brooke laughed.  “Is that you?”

Burke grinned.  “I haven’t eaten since this morning, I’m starving.”

She grabbed the silver door handle.  “You’re a doctor, you of all people should know how important it is to eat.”

“You have no idea how many times a day the nurses tell me the same thing.”

Brooke stiffened at the thought of pretty nurses working side by side with Burke, and the realization that she knew nothing about the stranger with whom she was about to eat.  Did he have a girlfriend?  She might be infringing where she had no business.  She gripped her bag of ornaments tighter wondering if she should back out of the situation.

“What about this booth?” Burke asked.

She looked up into his guileless blue eyes and her indecision evaporated.  “Sure.”

“I don’t even need to look at the menu.  I want a burger and fries,” he said.

Brooke nodded.  She wasn’t about to admit, after her comment, that she too was hungry and had forgotten to eat.  “That sounds delicious.  I think I’ll have the same.”

Burke motioned to the waitress who jotted down their order and hustled off, leaving an awkward moment in her wake.

“So,” he said after a lengthy pause.

“So,” Brooke repeated.  She studied the discolored cup rings staining the Formica table.  “This diner reminds me of a place in my hometown where my mom and I would go to eat.  My mom wasn’t big into cooking, especially on the holidays.  It was only the two of us.  She preferred to enjoy life and leave the work to everyone else.  Anyone else, actually.  She still does.”  She flashed him a smile and shrugged.  “Sorry.”

He leaned back in his seat.  “For what?”

“Rambling.”

“Who said you’re rambling.  I think it’s fascinating.  I’d like to know more about you.”

Brooke reached for a napkin and squeezed it to still her shaking fingers.  She feared her fluttering stomach might protest the food she had ordered if she didn’t find a distraction.  As if the waitress had read her mind, the woman appeared with their drinks.

“You’re an only child?” Burke asked.

Brooke sipped her water.  “I am.”

“And you come from a small town?”

“I do.”

She hid her smile behind her glass and Burke chuckled.  “It’ my turn to say sorry.”

“For what?” she teased.

He studied her, holding her in his aquatic colored stare.  “I’m not usually at a loss for words.”

Their plates appeared at the perfect moment, saving Brooke from Burke’s focused attention.  She stared at the enormous serving of food.  Without lifting her face, she reached for the ketchup.  Their fingers met as they tangled around the glass neck of the bottle.  Her eyes rose from her plate the same time as his.

He cleared his throat and let go.  “You first.”

He devoured his burger in only a few bites, then pushed his plate toward the edge of the table.

“Wow,” Brooke said, dabbing at her mouth with her half-shredded napkin.  “You must have been hungry.”

“The pitfalls of being a guy, and a doctor.  I don’t cook for myself and if I tried, I wouldn’t have time to eat it anyway.”

“You work a lot?”

“Not so much that I work a lot, but I keep crazy hours.  Especially now, during the holidays.  I try to cover other doctor’s shifts so they can spend time with their families.”

“That’s so kind of you.  And you find time to volunteer.”  She pushed her plate into the center of the table and nodded at the pile of French fries.  “No wonder you’re starving.”

“I wouldn’t say I’m starving.”  He took a fry from her plate and chuckled.  “Well, not most of the time.”

“You definitely have more holiday spirit than most people I know,” she said.

“I wouldn’t say that either.  I just like to keep busy.  Enough about me, I want to know more about you.”

She poked at the pile of fries and popped one in her mouth.  “Well you already know I am an only child, and I come from a small town,” she waved a hand around herself, “part of the reason why I love living here.  I’m sentimental and a sucker for nostalgia, especially old movies.  I love all holidays, but Christmas is my favorite.  Oh, and I love snow.”

“Huh,” Burke said.

She clamped her mouth shut.  Something about him made her want to say everything that popped into her head, like an idiot.

“You must be magic,” he said.

She looked up and Burke pointed to the window where snowflakes fell in the light of the street lamp.

Brooke pressed her nose to the glass her discomfort forgotten.  “This is fantastic.”

“Let me take care of the check, then we’ll go for a walk in the winter wonderland,” he said.

She flashed him a smile as the song he quoted, played in the background.  When he returned, he held two Styrofoam cups.

“Hot Chocolate for the walk home.”

She grabbed her belongings and slid out of the booth seat, taking the cup he handed her.

“Thank you,” she said tipping the cup to his.

Out on the sidewalk, she turned her face skyward and stuck out her tongue.

“What are you doing?” Burke asked.

She lowered her head and blinked at him with crystal covered lashes.  “You never caught snowflakes on your tongue?”

“No.  It must be a girl thing.”

She nudged him with her shoulder.  “Try it.”

He grimaced.

“Come on,” she said.

He stuck out his tongue and waited.

“You can stop now,” she said, laughing.

“Oh, good.” He looked down at her.  “You’re a lot of fun.”

She pushed her snow-covered hair from her face.  “You’re teasing me.”

She started walking and he caught up with her in two long strides.  “No, I’m not, I’m serious.  You have a fun vibe about you.  I bet you have a lot of friends.”

“Acquaintances, yes, friends, only one bestie.  Her name is Harper.  If you think I’m fun, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve met her.”

“Hmm.  She sounds interesting, but I think I’d like a chance to get to know your kind of fun.”

“You don’t even know Harper,” Brooke paused, “or me, for that matter.”

“Well, I’m beginning to,” he said.  He motioned her to go ahead of him up the walk to her front door and they stepped into the warmth, shaking the snow from themselves as they stepped out of their shoes and shed their jackets.

Burke took the bag of ornaments into the sitting room and had the string of lights unraveled in seconds, with an efficiency Brooke assumed served him well in medical emergencies.  She stood in the doorway watching his movements, slowing her breathing to fend off the sudden rush of butterflies.  Burke wanted to get to know her better, or so he said.  She hoped he did because the perfect moment made her want to find out more about him, too.

“Do you have an outlet nearby?”

She pulled herself from her thoughts and noticed him on the floor peeking under the tree.  She pointed toward the corner baseboard.  “Yeah, to your left.”

“Got it,” he said letting out a grunt as he stretched.

The string of lights came to life, glowing like a rainbow.  While he wove the strand through the branches, she clicked on the television.  A yule log blazed on the screen and the room filled with music.  Burke stopped with the lights dangling from his hand.  She gave him a subtle shrug.

“I don’t have a real fireplace, so this is the next best thing.”

He nodded and continued to light the tree.  When he finished, he stepped back and studied his handiwork.

“It’s beautiful,” she said.  She picked up a box of ornaments.  “Now for the finishing touch.”

When they had emptied the boxes and Brooke held the last ornament, Burke pointed to a spot on the tree.  “It needs one up there.”

Brooke slid around to the place Burke indicated and reached up.

“To the left a little,” he said.  “Not there, up a bit.  A bit more.  To the left an inch…”

She glanced at him over her shoulder, stretched as far as she could reach.  “In case it somehow escaped you, I’m short.  I can’t reach that high.”

She turned back and wobbled on her toes.  Burke’s quiet laugh echoed in the room.

“I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t be teasing you, but there is an empty spot.”  He stepped up behind her, filling the air with his cologne and warmth.  “Here, let me.”  He slipped the ornament from her hand and dropped it on the branch.

Brooke remained still with Burke surrounding her.

“Thanks,” she whispered.  When he didn’t immediately react, she waited and wondered if she should say something more.

“You’re welcome,” he said, finally putting space between them.

Brooke drew in a deep breath and moved from her spot to admire the finished scene.  Every sparkling light was in place and all the ornaments were hung.  There was nothing left for them to do.

“This is the best day I’ve had in a long time.  I’m sorry it’s over,” she said.

She wanted to run from the room after admitting her thoughts out loud, but Burke eased her humiliation.  “Have dinner with me tomorrow night?”

She stared at him.  “Really?”

He cleared his throat.  “You seem surprised I asked.  I must be a bit rusty.  If it wasn’t obvious, I enjoyed your company, too.”

Her mouth opened and closed as she fidgeted with a dangling ornament.  “Well, I just assumed…”

“You assumed what?”

“That a doctor as handsome as you would have a girlfriend, and that you only helped me out to be nice.”  She glanced up in time to see his smile disappear.  Her shoulders slumped.  “Of course, I should have known.”  She let out a sigh.  “Listen, I’m not that kind of wom–”

He held up a hand.  “I’m not that kind of guy.”

“Oh.”

“No girlfriend.  Not anymore.  It’s a long story.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Me, too, but life goes on and sometimes better things come out of our misfortune.”

She wanted to stay lost in his twinkling eyes.  “In that case, yes, I’ll go to dinner with you.”

“Great.  Does six o’clock work?”  he asked.

She nodded and he slipped on his coat.  He paused in the doorway.  “I’m glad I could help you out with the tree.”

He held her gaze, weighed down by the debate in his head.  With a subtle step, Brooke moved toward him, answering his unasked question.  She raised up on her tiptoes, hesitated, then moved in slow.  He savored the feel of her soft lips and shoved his hands into his pockets to stop himself from touching her.  He didn’t want to jinx his luck or scare her away.  Despite her charismatic charm, she seemed shy and self-conscious underneath it all.

“Thanks,” she whispered.  “For the fun night and the tree.”

He nodded and watched her close the door.  Inside the cab of his truck, he studied the warm glow of the tree lights in the Brownstone window.  Brooke Quinn might just be the holiday miracle he needed.

 

-4-

“I’m going to dinner with Santa,” Brooke said into the phone balanced between her ear and shoulder.  She logged into her computer and scrolled through her early morning work schedule.

“Who?” Harper asked.

“Santa,” Brooke repeated.  “From the tree lot,” she added absently as she answered an email.

“You mean the hot guy with his Grandma?” Harper questioned.

Brooke paused in her typing.  “It wasn’t his Grandma.  He was helping her choose a tree.  Burke is a volunteer.”

“Burke?”

“Yeah.  Doctor, Burke Jamison.”

Harper’s high pitched squeal filled the line and Brooke winced.

“A doctor?” Harper asked as if she needed confirmation.

“Yep.  And he’s taking me out to dinner.”

“You mentioned that already, don’t rub it in.”

Brooke couldn’t ignore her opportunity.  “Oh, and by the way, he is nice.  Nice, and funny–”

“And hot.  Don’t forget hot,” Harper added.

Brooke giggled.  “I think I might not be lonely over the holiday, after all.”

“Be careful okay?” Harper sighed.

“I will.”

A loud knock interrupted the conversation and Brooke looked up, right into the narrowed, pinched gaze of her boss looming in the doorway.

“Um, can you please hold, Miss Montgomery?” She dropped the handset into the cradle and acknowledged the irate woman with a nod and a smile.

“The Petrich firm wants all the stats related to their marketing campaign going back to January.  ASAP.  I hope you don’t have any plans for tonight because this is your top priority.”  The woman held out her hands and a mammoth pile of papers dropped onto the desktop with a resonating thud.

“Oh, uh…”

“Oh, uh, what?”

“Nothing.  No, nothing, I’ll get started right away,” Brooke answered.

“Make sure you do.”  With a dismissive turn, the woman disappeared from the office.

Brooke’s image of the paper mountain blurred with stinging tears.  She picked up the phone and whispered, “I don’t believe it.”

“What happened?  Where’d you go?” Harper asked.

“My boss handed me an enormous project.  She wants it completed by tomorrow morning.  There’s no way I can go to dinner with Burke and get it done in time.”  She blinked away the tears.  “I’ll have to reschedule.  I hope he doesn’t mind.”

“If he is as nice as you say, I’m sure it won’t be a problem,” Harper soothed.

“Well, I suppose I’ll find out.  Listen, I have to go.  I can’t afford to get fired.”

Brooke dug into the papers, getting lost in the endless maze of numbers.  When her stomach growled, she glanced from her spreadsheet to the time in the corner of her computer screen.  The morning had flown by and at this rate, she would have to eat while she worked.

She pulled her lunch bag from her desk drawer and laid out her sandwich.  Her empty stomach rolled with guilt for letting Burke down.  She had to do something.  She couldn’t stand him up.  If only she had thought about asking for his phone number.

Her fingers hit the computer keys ready to look up the number of the hospital when her boss’ voice stopped her.  The announcement to her secretary that she would be out of the office for an hour, had Brooke grabbing her jacket and purse.  She waited until the coast was clear then took off down the stairwell, hurrying to her car.  If she had to back out on Burke she owed it to him to do it in person.

The sterile white of the hospital entrance and somber faces of the people wandering in and out of the hospital lobby, made Brooke second guess her decision.  Hospitals made her squeamish.  Not the medical part, but the human aspect.  The sadness in the faces of those wishing and waiting for their loved ones to recover.  She ignored the sinking of her heart and headed for the front counter.

“Can I help you?” a smiling woman asked.

“Yes.  I’m looking for Dr. Burke Jamison.”

“Dr. Jamison,” the woman repeated, flipping through a clipboard of papers.  “Yes, he’s on the fourth floor right now.  Would you like me to page him?”

“Oh, no, no,” Brooke said, waving her hands.  “I’m sure I’ll be able to find him.”

santa-hat-image

Brooke wandered off the elevator on the fourth floor.  The hallways extended to the left, the right and straight ahead.  She opted to go forward.  Her heart squeezed tighter as she passed room after room of sick children and their parents stationed by their bedsides.  There was no sign of Burke.  She considered taking her chances and leaving a message at the desk to avoid having to see any more.  Burke Jamison was a hero for doing what he did every day.

“Oh, my, excuse me,” she said when she bumped into a passing doctor, almost jostling him off his feet.  “I am so sorry.  I wasn’t watching where I was going.”

“No harm was done,” the doctor said, with a smile.  “Are you okay?  Are you here to see someone?”  He motioned to the rooms.

“Yes, but not a patient.  I’m here to find Dr. Jamison.  Do you know him?”

“Burke?  I do,” the doctor answered, studying her with a grin.  “He’s a bit busy right now.”

“Oh. Okay.” Brooke adjusted the shoulder strap of her purse.

The doctor’s grin grew wider.  “He’s in the multi-purpose room putting on a magic show for the kids.”

She blinked at him.  “Magic?”

“Yep.  Not only is Burke a fantastic doctor, but a great magician and the children love him.  He’ll probably never tell you that, though.  He’s way too humble.”

Brooke’s smile of curiosity faded.  “Can you give him a message for me?”

“Sure, no problem.”

“Can you tell him I need a raincheck for our dinner tonight.  I’ll be at work.  I have a last-minute project I have to finish.”  She rummaged in her handbag.  “Here is my card.  Would you be able to pass it on to him?  It has my office number so we can reschedule.  If he wants to.”

The doctor slipped the card into his pocket.  “Consider it delivered.”

Brooke nodded and turned to leave.

“Don’t worry, he’ll call,” the doctor said.

Brooke crossed her gloved fingers.  All she could do was hope.  Hope to hear from Burke and hope to make it back before her boss realized she was gone.  With a slight lift in her step, she hurried out of the hospital.  She had plenty to keep her busy for the afternoon while she waited on pins and needles for the phone to ring.

santa-hat-image

Brooke pressed her fingers into her temples.  Her fractured focus made the tedious project a struggle, and her a prime target for a headache.  She rolled her head from side to side and clicked on the desk lamp to light up the room growing dim with the setting sun.  The staff slowly began to funnel out of the building, and her boss, of course, had left her office hours before.

Letting out a deep sigh, Brooke slumped back into her seat, closing her eyes.  She wished she could avoid thinking of Burke and their dinner.  She wondered where he was and why she hadn’t heard from him, but she shouldn’t have expected him to call.  They barely knew each other.

A knock at the door brought her bolting upright.

“Excuse me, miss, but you look like a woman in need of a fabulous meal.  Since you couldn’t come to the restaurant, the restaurant has come to you.  Sort of.”  Burke held up the bags in his hands.

He smiled, waiting for her response.  When she said nothing, he continued.  “Someone once gave me some wise advice.  She said, I of all people, being a doctor, should know how important it is to eat.  So,” he entered the room and took a seat across from her. “Doctor’s orders.”  He placed a white bag in front of her and opened his own, taking a deep inhale.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“For what?”  He laughed.  “I feel like we’ve had this conversation before.”

Her own laughter drifted off into silence.  “I didn’t mean to cancel out on our dinner, but,” she waved her hand over the cluttered desktop.

“Believe me, I understand better than anyone.  There’s been many a dinner I’ve backed out on.  No worries.” He pulled his sandwich from his bag and motioned to hers.  “Now eat, before it gets cold.”

The scent of warm, fresh bread filled the office.

“What is this?” she asked, unwrapping the wax paper.

“A Rueben.”  Burke glanced over his raised half-sandwich. “I hope you like it.”

“I do.”

He watched her take a bite, then reached out and swiped her bottom lip with his thumb.  She stopped chewing.

“You had a big drop of dressing on your lip,” he said.

She struggled to swallow.  “Thanks.”  After wiping her mouth, she steered the conversation in a safe direction.  “So, Christmas Eve is the day after tomorrow.  Do you have any plans?”

“I’m going to hang out in my apartment I suppose.  My parents will be visiting my sister and she has a house full of kids.  I love kids, obviously, especially my nieces and nephews, but I’m looking forward to a little peace for the holiday.  I’m going to meet up with them for the New Year.”

“Ah,” she said.

“You?” he asked.

She shrugged and pulled a piece of sauerkraut from her sandwich, dropping it on the wax paper.  “My mom and stepdad are on a cruise somewhere in the Pacific.”

The light in her eyes dimmed and her smile faded.  Burke wanted to get it back.  “How about your friend, Harper?”

The question did nothing to lighten her mood.

“Harper is going home for a few days.  She offered to take me, but I wasn’t comfortable with it.”

“Hmmm,” he said.

She looked up.  “What?”

“Well, I’ll be alone in my apartment, you’ll be alone in yours, and it seems a waste of a perfectly wonderful holiday.  Would you like to spend Christmas Eve with me?  We can get more take-out and watch a holiday movie.  What’s your favorite?”

Her eyes twinkled.  “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

“Something told me you’d say that.  You can’t get more sentimental.”

She gave him a light tap on his arm and continued to eat her sandwich.

“So?” he asked.

“What?”

“Dinner and a movie with me?  Yes, no, maybe?”

“Oh.” She giggled.  “Yes, of course.”

Burke sat back and crossed his arms.

“Is there a problem?” she asked.

“A little bit,” he answered.  “I’ve spent the last few weeks working extra shifts, and helping out at the tree lot.  I don’t have a single Christmas item in my apartment.  How can I impress you without decorations?”

“I have a beautiful tree I don’t mind sharing.  Why don’t you come to my place?”

 

-5-

Brooke put the last piece of tape on her wrapped package just in the nick of time.  A knock on her door sent her scrambling to hide her mess.  She shoved the paper, tape, and gift under the sofa.  Fluffing her hair in front of the hall mirror as she passed, she opened the door for Burke.

“Hi, come in.”

“I brought pizza,” he said.  She took the box and placed it on the coffee table as he slid out of his jacket and hung it near the door.

“I’ll go get us some plates and drinks,” she said.

She disappeared into the kitchen and Burke wandered the room, decorated with Christmas tchotchkes.  A faux snow covered frame holding a photo of Brooke and a woman he assumed to be her mom, sat on the shelf beside the TV.

Brooke entered the room, talking as if he hadn’t missed half of her conversation.  He laughed to himself as she handed him a glass of wine.

“Have a seat,” she said, motioning to the sofa.  She sat cross-legged at the other end and handed him a plate with a pizza slice.

“I noticed the picture of you and your mom,” he said, tilting his head in the direction of the shelf.  “You look like her.”

“Thanks.  Everyone seems to think so.”  She sipped her wine.  “I miss her.  She was never big on the holidays, but she’s my mom and I miss having her here.  Since she remarried, I don’t see her often. Anyway, I don’t mean to be a downer.  Enough about her.  I’m glad you’re here.”

“I have the opposite problem,” Burke said.  “My mother wishes she saw more of me.  I don’t go home very often.”

Brooke sat her wine glass aside.  “Why?  If you don’t mind my asking.”

“No, I don’t mind.  Honestly, it has nothing to do with my family, or my nieces and nephews.  I love them all.  I have my own personal reasons for not wanting to go home.” He turned his gaze toward the tree. “It comes with too many reminders.”

Brooke leaned forward.  “Of what?”

He turned his gaze back to hers.  She made him want to smile, despite the gnawing in his gut.  Her brown, trusting eyes made him want to talk, to get it all out and finally move on.  “I had a serious girlfriend.  We dated for several years.  I planned to propose to her on Christmas Day.  I had it all worked out.  The ring was in my pocket when,” he exhaled and sank back into the sofa, “she told me she was leaving me for a close friend of mine.”

“Oh,” Brooke whispered.  “I’m so sorry.  No wonder you stay so busy for Christmas.”

He studied her for a long moment, flexing his fingers, wishing he could reach out and touch her face.  “Brooke Quinn you’re the only person to ever hear my story.  No one knew my intention that Christmas Day.  To surprise everyone, I had kept it to myself.  I am so glad I did.”  He ran his hand through his hair.  “I suppose the real surprise was on me.  I know I’ve been feeling sorry for myself all this time, but I had no reason to move on.  Until now,” he said softly.

Brooke leaned back an inch and he let out a quiet exhale.

“So why are you not taken?” he asked.

“Hmm, where do I start?  Let’s just say I have a knack for always picking the one guy who is not right for me.  Harper says I’m too nice and guys like to take advantage of me.  Can I help it if I try to find the redeeming qualities in people?”

“No one can fault you for that,” Burke answered.

“Yet everybody does, and sadly, they’re right.  Each time I think I’ve met a nice guy, he just uses me.”

“You don’t seem to be jaded by it.”

“What good would that do me?  Besides being sentimental, and a square for all things nostalgic, I’m a romantic.  I believe in true love.  I want to find it.”

Her eyes registered something Burke couldn’t read, but could definitely feel.  He leaned forward meeting her halfway.  Her breath hitched as he guided her lips into his.  The sweet kiss was too short.  She pulled back, wide-eyed and flushed.

“Coffee?  How about a snack?  I have some cookies from the bakery downtown.  Be right back.”   She scrambled from her spot on the sofa and disappeared from the room.

Burke dragged his hand down his face and waited a few seconds to make sure she was out of sight before getting up to retrieve his jacket.  He reached into the pocket and pulled out a wrapped box, placing it under the tree, and returning to his spot just as Brooke stepped into the room with the promised tray of coffee and cookies.

“What is that?”  She glanced sideways at Burke and squinted at his growing smile.  “What did you do?”

“Why don’t you find out?”

She settled on the edge of the sofa with the package.  Her gaze bounced between the gift and Burke’s sparkling eyes.  “Can I open it?”

“I’d be offended if you didn’t.”

Her heart hammered as she ripped off the paper.  She lifted out a charm bracelet and ran her fingers over the sparkling Christmas tree, Santa hat, and tree ornament dangling from the silver circle.

“Oh Burke, it’s so pretty.”  She slipped it onto her wrist and looked up at him.  “And thoughtful, too.”

“Would you say I have redeeming qualities?” he asked.

“Too many to list.” She kissed his cheek then reached down and slid her wrapped box out from beneath the sofa.  “For you.”

“Wow.  This is a surprise.”

He opened the box and held up the red hat with Santa embroidered across the fluffy white trim.  He grinned and put it on.

“You knew,” he said.  “How?”

“Woman’s intuition.”  She handed him a cup of coffee and a plate of cookies.  “So, I hear you are a magician.  You seem to be a jack of all trades, Burke Jamison.”

“I always like to keep a secret or two up my sleeve.  It makes for great conversation.”  He put his cup and plate on the table and slid toward her, tilting his head to the side.  “Speaking of which.”  He tapped his shirt sleeve and reached behind her ear.  A sprig of mistletoe lay in his open palm.  “Look at that.”

“I’d rather not,” she said, dangling it over his head.  “I’d rather do this.”

She pulled his mouth to hers.

“I love Christmas magic,” she whispered.