Raleigh’s Department Store – The Girl Next Store
Chapter 1 Sleigh Bells Ring
Afghan war vet, Dirk Simpson stood outside the main entrance to Raleigh’s Department Store, his hands stuffed into the side pockets of his battered army-green field jacket. Every time the doors opened, a blast of warm, chocolate-and-peanut-scented air would shoot out and try to entice him inside.
But that was the problem. He wanted to go inside. He was here to go inside. He even had a foolproof plan. Pretend to be at Raleigh’s to buy a gift for his sister. No matter what department ‘she’ was working in today, Dirk figured he could stroll up to her and say, “Hey! Hi! Wow! How lucky for me you’re working in [fill in the department name]. You can help me pick out a gift for my sister.”
So why did he feel like hyperventilating?
He didn’t know – Oh, heck, who was he kidding? He knew. He’d liked Genevieve Olsen since she was in ninth grade and he was a senior. For a while the age difference had mattered too much for him to pursue the attraction, and by the time he’d returned from the military, well, she’d married somebody else.
Now, she’d finally divorced that guy — not that he’d wished her bad luck in her marriage—
He scrubbed his hand along the back of his neck. Okay. Maybe it was selfish, but he finally had a chance with her again. And he’d made the stakes so high in his head that he kept turning into a babbling idiot every time he was around her.
A blob of snow fell from the bright red-and-white, candy-cane-themed awning in front of the door and landed at his feet. Well, if that wasn’t fate telling him to get the heck inside already, he didn’t know what was.
He pushed on the revolving door and suddenly found himself in Elf Heaven. Oversize Christmas ornaments hung from the ceiling. The delicious aroma of chocolate wafted around him. Every conceivable gift known to mankind was laid out before him like a banquet of potential presents.
Would Gen think him an idiot for not being able to find a gift for his sister in a well-stocked store?
No. No. She would not. He was a guy and guys were notorious for not being able to find gifts. A stereotype for sure. But one he could happily play into if it gave him a chance to talk to Gen.
With a deep breath for courage, he looked around. She wasn’t working in the candy department. Wasn’t in shoes. He peered to the left, over the shoulder of a harried mom, but didn’t see her in gloves or handbags.
Okay. He’d just head upstairs.
Choosing the elevator over the stairway, he decided he’d work his way down, not up. He’d ride up to housewares on four and go to three, then two and back down here in case she really was working on the first floor, but he’d caught her on a break or something.
The elevator bell pinged. He exited into housewares. His sister would kill him if he got her an iron. But so what? He was doing this for love. Or lust. Or maybe hoping to manipulate lust into love?
Oh, God. There he went again. Over-thinking. Hyperventilating.
“Can I help you?”
He spun around. It was old Mrs. Jenkins from his neighborhood. He blew out his breath in relief. “Yeah. I’m looking for Gen Olsen. Is she working today?”
“Gen Olsen. Gen Olsen…” Her eyes lit with recognition. “Oh, you mean Gen Johnston.”
“Yeah. Well.” He scrubbed his hand across the back of his neck again. How had he thought talking to Gen at Raleigh’s would be less embarrassing than pretending to run into her in the driveway between their parents’ homes? “Yeah.”
Her eyes lit again. “Well, she’s downstairs. On two.”
He nodded and walked backward, away from her. “Okay. Great.”
His luck significantly improved when the elevator bell dinged just as he arrived at the little car. The doors opened.
With a relieved sigh, he stepped inside. Other shoppers bunched in around him. He tapped his toe as the car descended two floors and perked up when the bell pinged and the doors opened –
On four rows of bras and slips, two tables filled with silken panties and four rows of ladies pajamas.
The crowd behind him pushed him along as they exited the elevator. Did this many people really want to buy the woman in their lives undies for Christmas?
Wow. Wacky world.
The elevator door closed before he could get back inside. Refusing to panic – just because he didn’t want to approach her in ladies lingerie today, that didn’t mean he couldn’t come back tomorrow – he turned to wait for the next car, but he heard an unmistakably feminine voice say, “Dirk? Is that you?”
He spun to face Gen and his mouth went dry. Standing by a mannequin dressed in a pretty purple see-through nightie, she looked like an angel in her white sweater and white wool skirt. Soft blond hair spilled around her. Her blue eyes sparkled.
He stifled the urge to pull his collar away from his throat.
“Yeah. It’s me.” He took a few steps toward her but tripped over an empty stroller a busy mom had left behind. He quickly righted himself. Gorgeous Gen giggled.
She pulled the stroller back and nudged it against a table of panties where it would be out of the way.
“So what are you doing here?”
“Looking for a Christmas gift for my sister.” He swallowed, glanced around and saw all the panties, the lacy bras, the nighties, and wished with all his might that the earth would open and snatch him from this misery.
“Oh, you must be looking for the new Snuggle Bunny pajamas we just got in.”
He had no idea what Snuggle Bunny pajamas were, but clearly Gen thought there were a good gift for a sister. “Yes. That’s exactly what I’m looking for.”
“They’re selling out fast,” she said, motioning with her hand that he should follow her.
They walked down the embarrassingly feminine rows, past sequins and lace, satin and tulle, almost to the cash register, to a display of pajamas he could only describe as cute.
Gen pulled a pair from the stacks below the display. Holding the pretty red pj’s out for him to see, she said, “They’re a soft flannel that looks like silk.” She nudged them toward him for him to feel.
He did so, reluctantly, but was impressed when his hand met the soft material. “She’ll love these.”
“And red will look great with her complexion and hair.”
He had absolutely no idea what she meant, so he simply nodded.
“Plus,” she said, flipping the pajama top inside out. “There are little Velcro snap-like connectors that will keep the top and bottom of the pj’s connected so they won’t ride up while she’s sleeping, leaving her back bare…and cold.”
She finished with an angelic smile, and Dirk wanted to melt like snow in sunshine into a puddle of happiness on the floor.
Instead, he returned her smile. “I like them.”
“And Annie will too.”
“I’ll take them.”
She guided him to the cash register and rang up the sale. He paid what he considered to be a very small price not just for the perfect gift but also for time enough with Gen that he was getting his bearings back around her.
He took his change and the bag containing the perfect gift and turned away. He’d accomplished enough for one day. “Thanks, Gen.”
She scooted around the counter. “You’re welcome.”
Walking with him toward the elevator, she said, “I’m sure she’ll love your gift.”
“I’m sure she will too.”
“All woman love pj’s that are both feminine and comfy.”
He filed that away for future reference, and the next thing he knew they were standing together by the elevator. The bell pinged and the door opened.
He stepped inside. She stayed outside, looking at him hopefully.
Okay. He knew he’d been out of the game for a while. He also knew he was hopelessly attracted to this woman. Maybe so attracted that he was misreading things — but — he could swear she was giving him the “please-ask-me-out” signal.
He caught the door just as it was about to close. “So…um…we should have dinner sometime.”
His heart stuttered. She hadn’t hesitated and she was pinning him down to a date. She wanted to go out with him.
“How about tonight?”
He glanced around uncertainly, not sure how late she worked or where she’d want to go.
Gen filled the silence. “I get off at five. If you meet me outside the main entrance at five-fifteen or so, we could go to Salvatore’s, have some pizza and then window shop.”
“I do still have a few more presents to buy.”
She smiled. “I’d love to help.”
The elevator door closed. The last thing he saw was her happy, smiling face.
Then his stomach plummeted. He had five hours to wait before he met her at the door. In those five hours his insecurities could kill him.
Chapter Two: Walking in a Winter Wonderland
At exactly five o’clock, Gen raced upstairs to the employee lounge to comb her hair and fix her makeup. She didn’t know what had possessed her to tell Dirk she’d meet him after work! She should have given herself time for a soothing bath and to put on clean, comfortable clothes. Instead, she’d be on a date in work clothes.
She glanced down at herself. In spite of a day’s labor, her fuzzy white sweater and white pencil skirt were still clean. And she did like them. So maybe she was obsessing over nothing?
Black tammy secured on her head and simple black wool coat over her arm, she ran down the stairs and to the front entrance. She stopped, slid into her coat and forced herself to be calm before she stepped out into the wonderland that was Green Hill, Pennsylvania. Leafy and green in the summer; covered in snow in the winter.
Dirk came up beside her, startling her.
She pulled in a breath and faced him, then had to suck in another draught of air when she saw him. Tall and broad-shouldered, with hair so short it looked more like a shadow on his head than hair, wearing a green field jacket, he was the picture of a returning vet. Strong. Serious. Capable.
“What would you like to do? It’s sort of early for supper.”
“Maybe we could walk around? There are all kinds of great gift ideas in the toy and candy stores.”
His eyes green crinkled at the corners when he smiled. “You’d take a perfectly good shopper to the competition?”
She linked her arm with his, so thrilled to be in his company her heart broke into a chorus of Joy to the World. “Raleigh’s doesn’t look at the specialty shops as competition. We look at them as the treat that draws shoppers downtown. Once they’ve bought their one or two specialty gifts, they come to us for the basics.”
He smiled again. “Like PJ’s.”
They walked through the park. Light snow fell. Not enough to be a nuisance, just enough for ambiance. She felt wonderful, glorious. The man she’d had a crush on since ninth grade had finally asked her out. What could possibly be better?
They reached Elmer’s Toy Store. He opened the door. She ducked inside. Round, double-tiered tables were loaded with toys of every kind from old-fashioned wooden trains and yarn-haired dolls to computers and hand-held games.
She took off her tam and shook out her hair, settling in to take a good look at the toys for babies and toddlers so she could buy gifts for her sister’s kids.
“Oh, look at this,” she said, picking up a stuffed bunny holding a bright orange carrot. “My nephew Jack would just love this.”
Dirk frowned. “How old is he?”
He shook his head. “Get him a truck.”
He chuckled. “Come on. The kid’s three. Even if he likes bunnies now, he won’t in a few months…or if he does,” he smiled devilishly. “He won’t want his friends to know.”
Gen just stared at him. The five o’clock shadow on his chin and cheeks made him look disreputably sexy. His green emerald eyes sparkled. Why hadn’t some other woman scarfed him up?
And what did he want with a wounded divorcee, someone still getting over the pain of a bad marriage?
She cleared her throat. “Okay. Truck it is.”
They wandered over to the toys for boys section and Dirk chose a small, brightly colored truck. Something plastic, so it wasn’t dangerous for a three-year-old.
She smiled. “That’s really cute.” She caught his gaze. “And good for a three-year-old. You’re very good at this.”
“I have nephews too.”
“My oldest sister Janie in Maryland has three kids.”
“Nice. You get to buy toys too.”
He picked up another truck and nonchalantly examined it. “And I also get to play with them.” His gaze slowly strolled over to hers. “I’d like to have some of my own someday. A boy and a girl.”
So would she. But the words lodged in her throat. He was not so subtly feeling her out. Seeing if she wanted the same things he did. Because already he felt serious about her. The way she felt about him. They’d known each other forever. Only drifted apart when he went into the service. And now he was back and she was free and everything was perfect.
The old feeling that everything with just a little too good to be true stabbed her tummy. Her first marriage had looked so good on paper, but in reality it had been a nightmare. Familiar fear rattled through her, but she told herself to settle down. She would go slowly, really get to know Dirk. She wouldn’t rush into anything. She would not make another mistake.
They spent an hour in the toy store, shopping for both his nieces and nephews and hers. Then they ate at Salvatore’s, the little Italian restaurant on the fringes of the park. They both liked spaghetti and blue cheese dressing on their salads and neither one had dessert.
When they exited the restaurant, the moon was a big yellow ball in the sky that sent light glittering across the snow on the sidewalk. Snowflakes winked in the glow of colored Christmas lights around the shop doors and windows. Happy customers bustled from the stores through the park to Raleigh’s Department Store, where Dirk stopped.
She glanced at the snow beneath her black suede boots. “I had a great time.”
He shuffled his feet. “I did too.”
She hesitated, wanting him to kiss her. She prayed he wasn’t so much of a gentleman that he wouldn’t end this perfect date the perfect way it deserved to be ended…with a kiss.
As if reading her mind, he leaned forward and brushed his lips across hers.
All the air had backed up in her lungs. “Good night.”
Then he turned and walked away, into the big white fluffy flakes of snow that was falling steadily now, until he was swallowed up in the crowd in the park.
Gen just stared, her heart light, her whole body tingling.
Then she remembered this was exactly how she’d felt her first date with Rick. Happy. Tingly. Light as a feather. And he’d ended up being the absolute worst husband in the world.
Chapter Three Are You Listening?
Dirk called her the next day. He hadn’t ever had a first date go so well. So he didn’t wait the customary two days before he called her again; he just called.
He took her to lunch and as they had the day before, they’d chatted non-stop. Both of them were family oriented. Both of them were obviously interested in having kids. And both of them were clearly attracted.
With her pretty yellow hair, Gen looked good in any color. But the soft blue sweater she wore that day made her eyes look even bluer and sent a swell of arousal through him. He liked the happy, uncomplicated in-the-city dates, but he also liked her. A lot. And with things going so well between them, he couldn’t see why they couldn’t go forward in their relationship.
So that Saturday, when he picked her up at her parents’ house, he said, “Bundle up.”
Shrugging out of the thin red leather jacket she’d planned to wear over her bulky white sweater and jeans, and into a heavy navy blue ski jacket, she said, “Why?”
“Because I have a surprise. Remember my friend David?”
“Well, he bought his family’s farm and he got a sleigh and two horses in the deal. He’s letting us borrow them.”
Her eyes lit. “Really?”
“Yes. We can make a night of it. I have some cocoa in a thermos and a couple of Christmas cookies I stole from my mom’s table when she wasn’t looking.”
She laughed. “I’m not sure I want to be a party to stolen cookies.”
“Then pretend I bought them.”
He opened the door. She called to her parents that she was leaving and they headed out.
David helped them with the horses and the sleigh and before Gen knew it, she was under a blanket, snuggled next to him, with horses clip-clopping down the deserted, snow-covered road in farm country on the outskirts of town.
“Wow. This is beautiful.”
He glanced around. “I know. I missed this while I was gone.”
“No. The real peace that envelopes you when you don’t have to be on red alert all the time.”
“Ah.” She snuggled in a little closer, proud of him. And also proud of the man that service to his country had made him. “So how’s the house coming?”
“Mine? Or the one I’m renovating to sell?”
She snuggled in a little closer. “Either.”
“Well, mine always takes a backseat to the renno, which is almost done. Once I finish it, I have to make a decision. Do I want to turn my little one-man construction company into a real business? Or do I want to get a job?”
“Which would you prefer?”
He grinned at her. “After all my years in the military, I sort of like being my own boss.”
She laughed. Frosty air floated around them, but nestled against him, under a blanket, she didn’t feel the cold. He stole a kiss or two when they stopped to drink their cocoa and eat their cookies. And though Gen had the sense of perfect peace and rightness about the night, the kisses and even about him, those old feelings crept up in her.
When he dropped her off at her door, he slid his hands around her waist and pulled her to him. After a night of stolen kisses and snuggling together, having him catch her waist, pull her close and press his lips to hers was as natural as breathing. But when he used his tongue to part her lips and slid it inside, her breath took a quick hitch. She liked him. His kisses sent a stream of warm heaven through her. Part of her wanted to relax and enjoy what was happening between them. But the other part was suddenly terrified and she froze.
When he quickly pulled away, disappointment and relief simultaneously shimmied through her.
Catching her hand, he stepped back. “Bye.”
She smiled. “Bye.”
He let go of her hand inch by inch.
Walking into her parents’ foyer, she cursed herself in her head. She was old enough to have her own place. Strong enough to want another relationship. So why was she living with her mom and dad? And why was she so afraid of something she wanted with all her heart?
Sunday afternoon, Dirk surprised her by driving to his house, only a few blocks down from their parents’.
Looking at the pretty red-brick, one-story house that he’d bought to remodel, she said, “Wow. It’s beautiful.”
“It’s actually about fifty years old. I bought it knowing I’d have to practically gut it.” He shoved on his car door. “Let me show you the inside.”
Her tummy tweaked at that, but she chided herself. First, he was proud of his carpentry skills and she was proud of him. Second, she liked him. If he was nudging her toward a commitment, she wanted it. She’d always loved him. They’d made a mistake in not pursuing their attraction before he left for boot camp, but they were working to fix that mistake. She shouldn’t be afraid. She should be grateful.
She smiled and walked arm-in-arm with him to the brand new stained glass front door. He’d already finished the living room and dining room. Shiny hardwood floors sat beneath a leather sofa and chair. A pretty marble fireplace gave the room a homey, warm look.
“I haven’t started the kitchen,” he said, guiding her into a room with outdated cabinets and tile. He caught her gaze. “I’d like it to have a woman’s touch.”
Her stomach tingled. She’d love for it to have a woman’s touch too. She’d choose warm oak cabinets and brown travertine tile for the floors, and a yellow and brown cut-glass backsplash. She’d feed her kids breakfast at a breakfast bar with granite countertops. Make pancakes on an island stove.
She turned and found him leaning against the doorway studying her. She’d love to feed their kids at a pretty granite counter. Love to make pancakes for him. Love to have the normal life he seemed to be offering her on a silver platter.
“It’s very nice.”
He shoved away from the doorway, held out his hand. “Want to see the bedroom?”
She did. With all her heart and soul she did. But the second he wrapped his big hand around her smaller one, her chest tightened to the point that she couldn’t breathe.
She’d known this man her whole life, but technically they’d only been romantically involved for two weeks. What was she doing? Did she want to get hurt again?
Fear filled her like icy shards. At the same time, heat suffused her. She tugged her hand away, and wiped her sweaty palms down the thighs of her jeans.
“Um. You know what? I have to get going.”
She raced out of the kitchen before she could change her mind…before he could change her mind for her.
As she ran through the yards, the few blocks to their parents’ side-by-side houses she knew why she still lived with them.
She was afraid. Not just of commitment, but her own judgment.
She’d married the wrong guy the first time, so smitten she didn’t notice all the signs that at his core he was a mean, spiteful man.
Now, she was about to jump into a relationship with a man she’d known a decade ago, but who’d gone through a war. How could she think she knew him well enough to commit?
Chapter Four A Beautiful Sight
The next day she wouldn’t take Dirk’s calls, and he knew what the prince felt like when Cinderella raced from the ball. Everything had been going so perfectly for them that he couldn’t believe they weren’t on the same page, but obviously they weren’t. And he felt like an idiot.
He hung out in the park, able to take time away from his work since his latest pick-up construction project and his renovation of the flip house were both ahead of schedule. Every day he watched Gen come out of Raleigh’s with her friends, heading for lunch, her face lit with enthusiasm.
By the end of the week, his heart had totally broken. She didn’t want to talk to him and wasn’t unhappy about the loss of their developing relationship. He’d finally figured out that he must have missed her real reactions to things. He was so thrilled to be with her that he hadn’t been paying close enough attention. And he’d gotten everything wrong. She didn’t like him. Two days before Christmas, with his heart in shambles, it was time to admit defeat.
He was just about to hoist himself off the cold park bench and go back to work, when Shannon Raleigh walked by. Holding the hand of a cute little girl, she dropped her shopping bag and Dirk quickly picked it up for her.
She reached out and hugged him, then stepped back. “Finley, this is a friend of mine from Green Hills High. Dirk Simpson.”
The little girl gave him a narrow-eyed look as if inspecting him. Finally, she reluctantly said, “It’s nice to meet you.”
He laughed. “It’s nice to meet you too.”
Finley tugged on Shannon’s hand. “I want some popcorn.”
Shannon fished a few dollars out of her purse and pointed at a little popcorn cart only a few feet away. The vendor was dressed from head to toe in black wool, but Dirk could see why he didn’t hibernate in the winter. There was a line at least ten deep, waiting for his popcorn. “Stand where I can see you.”
Finley nodded and raced off.
“So, you have a daughter?”
Shannon’s gaze dipped. Dirk watched a shadow fall over her expression before she forced herself to smile. “No. My husband and I were childless when we split up. I’m divorced now and don’t have any kids. Finley belongs to a friend.”
He waggled his eyebrows. “A friend?”
She glanced at Finley then back at him. “A friend. Just a friend.” Before he could reply, she said, “So what’s up with you? Why are you sitting in the park every day at lunch time?”
Oh, Lord. If Shannon Raleigh, daughter of the owners of Raleigh’s department store and very busy this time of year, had noticed him…Undoubtedly, Gen at too.
He rubbed his hand down his face. “I’m was trying to figure something out and I think I have. So you won’t be seeing me here anymore.”
Shannon bumped shoulders with him. A year or so older than he was, and every bit as pretty as Gen except with long, curly black hair, Shannon had always been like a big sister to him. “Hey, we don’t mind seeing you. This is just the first time I’ve had enough time to stop and chat. What’s up?”
“Gen Olsen and I had been going out for about two weeks. But Sunday, she bolted from my house like her feet were on fire. At first, I thought I’d done something wrong.” He sighed. “Now, I know I misread things and she really doesn’t like me.”
Shannon’s head tilted to the side. “You know about her divorce, right?”
He clicked his tongue. “I wouldn’t date a married woman.”
“No. I mean the details of her divorce.”
“Her husband hated her family, hounded her about her weight, controlled their finances so she barely had lunch money. She fell head-over-heels in love so quickly that she didn’t take the time to really get to know him…and one day they were married and she felt like she was in prison.”
Her mouth fell open. “Oh.” He thought for a few seconds then said, “Ohhhh…”
“You’re the first guy I’ve heard of that she’s accepted a date with.”
“And she likes me,” he said, without a hint of vanity, simply stating the truth because he knew he couldn’t have misinterpreted that much. “But I scared her by going too fast, showing her the house I wanted us to live in, talking about having kids.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.”
Shannon looked wistfully at Finley again, and his heart bumped against his ribs. Something was truly troubling her. “Enough about me. What about you? I know you got divorced. I know that your parents asked you to sell the store. Are you okay?”
She smiled softly. “No, but there’s nothing anybody can do to help me.”
Bag of popcorn in her arms, Finley ambled over. Shannon took her hand as naturally as a mother, and Dirk got an odd feeling in his stomach. He knew as surely as he knew his own first and last name that something about Finley played into Shannon’s sadness today.
“You just get back to Gen. She’d been so lost and lonely until about two weeks ago. Now I know the change was because of you. You can’t desert her. Don’t take no for an answer. But don’t push her either.”
Even as she said the words, a plan formed in Dirk’s head. He rose. “I think I know what to do.”
Christmas Eve morning, Dirk called Gen and asked her to go out with him that night. She swallowed hard. She really wanted to see him. But that was the problem. The last time she’d fallen this hard, this fast, she’d made the biggest mistake of her life.
When she didn’t answer, his voice turned soft, seductive. “I’ve planned something special.”
Special. Just the way he said the word made her heart skip a beat.
“I’ve actually invited both of our families for a Christmas Eve celebration. We’re going to decorate my tree. My first tree. In my first house. I’d love for you to be there.”
Her heart skipped another beat. “We wouldn’t be alone?”
“Nope. Unless you don’t like family things. Then I’d have to uninvited about fourteen people. And I think we’d have some really disappointed nieces and nephews.”
“So what do you say? Can I pick you up?”
“How about if I drive over myself.” She paused. “Early. I can help you get ready.”
She heard the smile in his voice when he said, “That would be great.”
She showed up at six. The second he opened the door to her the delicious odors of fresh pine and baking ham met her. “Oh, yum!”
He opened the door wider. “Is that yum for the pine or the ham?”
“Both.” She shrugged out of her coat. “I love a real tree.”
As he took her coat, he kissed her cheek. “I missed you.”
She looked down at the floor. “I missed you too. I--”
He put one finger over her lips to stop her. “Hey. No need for explanations. Although, I would like to apologize for moving too fast.”
She laughed. “You were being normal.”
“Nope. I’m crazy about you. Always have been. And I forgot a few important things. Like, we were apart for years. You were married. I was in a war.”
He smiled. “I think we have to get to know each other all over again.”
She returned his smile. “We do.”
“And what better way than with family.”
Her smiled grew. “My thought exactly.” She turned to go into the kitchen and spotted the fire in the pretty fireplace in the living room. “Oh, it’s gorgeous!”
He laughed. “Isn’t it? I hate to toot my own horn, but I have a real knack for this construction thing.”
He took her hand and led her into the kitchen, which still had the old appliances and countertops, cupboards and vinyl tile. It was like a silent promise to her that someday they’d have more. Be more.
He held up a Christmas-themed apron for her. “You get to clean the carrots.”
She walked to the sink, took the apron from his hands. “I love to clear carrots.”
He laughed. She smiled. A sense of peace settled over her and she suddenly knew that this would be the first of many, many happy Christmas Eves they’d spend in this house.
When most of the food was arranged on the buffet table, the doorbell rang, then his parents let themselves in.
“Hello, we’re here!”
She peered into the foyer from around the dining room wall. “Hey, Mr. and Mrs. Simpson.”
“Hey, Gen.” They handed her something in a baking dish. ‘
“Beans,” his mom said.
The doorbell rang again. She opened the door and saw her sister, her brother-in-law and their three kids. “Hey guys.”
Olivia handed her a dish of sweet potatoes. “Dirk said I could bring a dish if I wanted. And you know how I love to show off my sweet potatoes.”
In the next twenty minutes, everyone in both of their families arrived. The house hummed with laughter and Christmas carols as the kids began to decorate Dirk’s tree.
And the following year, with his family and her family gathered to decorate his tree after eating from the bountiful buffet of favorite dishes, he asked her to marry him.
Her eyes filled with tears. On one knee, he presented her with an emerald cut diamond. She barely looked at it, mesmerized by the look of love in his emerald eyes.
She threw her arms around him and said, “Yes!”
Her dad rolled his eyes. “About time!”
Six months pregnant, his sister Annie seconded that.
One by one everyone gathered around the buffet table and the noise began.
Kids nudged parents for more pie and fewer green beans. Husbands and wives bantered over who should do the dishes. Proud grandparents helped little ones to chairs.
And Dirk took it all in. There had been days when he’d wondered if he’d get home from the war and then days after his return when he’d wondered if he’d ever have a home. His own home. Now he did.
Gen saw the direction of his gaze and smiled. “You know we’re about to become the official party house.”
He squeezed her shoulders. “We’ll love it.”
She smiled. “Yes. We will.”
Look for Shannon Raleigh’s story in KISSES ON HER CHRISTMAS LIST, a December 2011 release from Harlequin Romance.
Copyright 2011, Susan Meier