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A Really Special Holiday by Barbara Edwards
Annabelle Wilson had only one wish for the holidays. She wanted to spend the day alone. Shifting her weight, she slipped her aching foot from her shoe and wiggled her toes. After wiping her hands on her apron, she finished filling the last box of chocolates. Her exhausted fingers trembled. After the overwhelming pressure of the past few months she needed a break.
The gilded sign announcing Belle’s Best Candy gleamed in the light from the street. Matt Stone’s grin warmed her more than warranted by his casual greeting. He stopped everyday on the way to the nearby fire station for his work shift and she looked forward to his version of eye candy.
“Taking tomorrow off? I’ll miss my daily dose of sweetness,” Matt said. His clear blue eyes gleamed with humor. Belle looked at the way his lips curved and wondered if they would taste like his favorite chocolate. Her heart skipped like an excited child. She taped shut the full box of hand-made chocolates and handed them to her most frequent customer with a wry smile.
“First time since I opened in October,” she replied and shrugged, “My entire family is getting together for Christmas dinner.”
The glass shelves rattled as another Southern California tremor occurred. A shiver raced up her spine. She flattened her hands on the counter and his warm fingers covered hers.
“Don’t be afraid.” His voice was bed-room husky and a fleeting picture of him whispering against her skin sent a different kind of shiver over her skin.
“You’d think I’d be used to them after all these years.” Belle sighed as her gaze wandered over his tall frame. He was a little over six foot tall and her head would fit under that square chin when they danced. She stifled a longing sigh. Although lean he had a muscular strength her female imagination wanted to test in a playful wrestling contest. Not for the first time she regretted the lack of time for more than a light flirtation.
“I never have,” he soothed.
Her cell phone burbled and she answered with a cheerful, “Belle’s Best, Mom. Are you ready for tomorrow?” Matt’s smile broadened when she identified her caller and she swallowed before slipping her hand free. “I’m closing the shop in a few minutes. I won’t be late for church service. And I’m bringing a box of your favorites. Bye.” She disconnected.
Matt held his candy box like a treasure. “I’m running behind. Will you be okay?” Usually her last customer of the day, he’d made it a habit to walk her to her car.
“I’m fine. I waited to close until you came,” she said and felt her cheeks heat. Her gaze met his and her lips parted. He seemed to read her mind.
“Maybe we’ll see each other, do dinner, and make it a really special holiday.” His bright blue eyes twinkled as he bent to press a gentle kiss to her mouth.
“Why did you do that?” she whispered. He did taste of chocolate.
“An early Christmas gift? It was time.” He traced a finger over her heated cheek and smiled.
“Call me,” she whispered as she scribbled her phone number on the box top. Her lips felt swollen and tender. “Have a Merry Christmas.”
Closing took a few minutes. Another tremor rattled the glass shelves and she prayed the repeated quakes didn’t damage anything. Belle’s Best Candy was her pride and joy in the same way as new baby.
Opening her candy shop before the Holidays had been an inspiration. First Halloween, then Thanksgiving had been busy. Her business grew by leaps and bounds, but the eighteen hour days had left her exhausted. After she waved good-bye to Matt, she flipped over the closed sign on the front door and checked her watch.
She’d promised to attend midnight services with her family and she had exactly ten minutes to reach the church. After slipping her leather handbag straps over her shoulder, she ran her hand through her tousled hair. The glass in the door shivered as another tremor tickled the California landscape.
This time she barely noticed. She looked forward to a quiet hour with her family. Her parents thought she’d been working too many hours making candy and not enough with them. Thankfully the sidewalk was empty and the passing traffic was light. Nearer the Mall last minute sales had drawn crowds.
Next to her building, a four-story parking garage encouraged shoppers to visit the area. When Matt walked with her to a rear section designated for business owners they often chatted for a few minutes. Memories of his kiss lightened her tired spirits. Maybe she could heat up their flirtation with a date. Her heels clipped on the concrete floor.
Another, stronger quake shook her car and the alarm went off. Luckily she had the keys in her hand and quickly silenced the loud blare.
The thick concrete floor buckled upward. Dust filled the air as noise rumbled.
A scream ripped from her throat as she was flung into the air.
Impressions strobed before her frightened gaze: the cracking ceiling bulging like a balloon; dirt fell in a hideous blinding blizzard; her car leaped like a goosed rabbit.
Deafening noise roared like an attacking beast.
She fell. Time slowed. Incredibly her mind raced. This couldn’t be happening! I’m not ready! Death reached out its cold hand and she shrieked. No! No! No!
The hard cement smacked the air from her lungs. Her shoulder twisted to the side. Concrete ceiling chunks cascaded down. Pain exploded in her head and everything went black.