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Vanessa took sick time from teaching for a week while her face slowly returned to normal. Zack's attentions continued, much to her suprise. Two or three times a day, he'd text her something comical or surprisingly tender. In the evenings, they would either visit his family or stay in to watch a movie and share a pizza or Chinese.
One night they'd watched "My Cousin Vinny," and she'd laughed at how Zack had most of the lines memorized. When he stood and mimiced Marisa Tomei, stomping her foot as she ranted about her biological clock ticking...ticking...ticking, Vanessa nearly rolled off the sofa in hysterical laughter. She--Vanessa, the sour woman she'd become--was slowly returning to her old self, someone who laughed and joked and saw only the good things in life.
To his credit, Zack kept things light. He’d hold her close during a movie or entwine his fingers with hers as they walked into his mother's or sisters' homes, yet nothing more. Well, except for those mind-numbing goodnight kisses, which she relived over and over. Even so, she was impressed with the respectful way he treated her and also with the little ways he surprised her. The other teachers were still talking about the red and white carnations in a penguin planter he'd had delivered to the school.
Slowly the darkness that had moved into her soul when David left lightened and morphed into a pale rainbow, its colors turning more brilliant every day. Was her next-door neighbor the reason? Or was time merely the healer it was touted as being?
Yesterday after she got home from work, Zack opened her car door, extending his hand to help her out. He planted a warm kiss on her lips. “Hey, Sugar, how was school today?” As usual, he'd jogged out of his half of the duplex when she eased her car to the curb.
“I swear the kids get more rude as time goes on.” One girl had called her a bitch today. A boy had thrown her trash can against the chalkboard.
He slung his arm over her shoulders and walked her to her door. “Thank goodness the kids have a teacher like you. I know you care about them. And I'm sure they can sense it too, deep down.”
“They take a toll on me. Right now I could go to bed and sleep till noon tomorrow.” They stepped onto her porch, and she removed her mail from her mailbox. Two catalogs, a bill and what appeared to be a Christmas card. She slipped a finger under the flap of a green oblong envelope to pull out the card. “I'm afraid I'm headed for teacher burn-ou…” Her stomach clenched and her vision field narrowed to a pinpoint on the picture of her ex-husband standing behind a woman, his hands splayed over her very pregnant belly.
A wounded cry clawed its way free from her clenched jaws.
“What is it?” Zack read over her shoulder. “Dave and Brittany Baker? Your ex? Your ex had the gall to send you a Christmas card with a picture of his pregnant wife on it?” Many expletives followed. All of which she agreed with and doubled in her livid mind.
Twin tears plopped onto the glossy picture.
He turned her around. “No, Nessa. No tears. Not for him.”
“I begged him to start a family.” She pounded a fist against Zack’s chest. “Begged him.”
“Just think, if he’d agreed, you’d be raising that child alone."
"Why? Why wasn't I enough for him?"
Zack glanced away for a beat before narrowed eyes focused back on her. "You have a choice here. You can let him control you. Cry and get all depressed again over his deliberate attempt to hurt you.” He placed his hands on her arms. “Or you can rip that thing up and not give it another thought. Is he worth controlling your life?”
More tears fell.
Zack's voice lowered. "Are you going to give him more importance than what's happening between us? Because I won't compete with another man." His forehead was wrinkled in question and his lips narrowed with annoyance.
Her stomach tensed. What if she lost him over this? She couldn't bear it. "No. No, I'm not."
“Then don’t let him hurt you or come between us." His hands cupped her face and pulled her to him. "We've got something special growing here. The power of it is getting stronger everyday. Tell me you feel it, too."
He was right. She'd been happier since the day she'd killed his penquin than she'd been for well over a year. "You make me happy, Zack." She kissed his jaw and rubbed her cheek against his. "You're very important to me."
A loud sigh rumbled from his chest. "Your best revenge is to lead a happy and healthy life and not give him a second thought.” His fingers sifted through her hair. "Your best bet is to be with me." His forehead touched hers. "I don't want to lose us. You mean too much."
She wrapped her arms around his neck. "You’re a good man, Zack Romano. It would take twenty of him to measure up to you.”
Joleen, one of the science teachers at the middle school, leaned across the table in the teachers’ lounge. “You seem happier these last couple weeks. Want to share the text?”
She glanced at her friend and smiled. "'Hey, Penguin Killer, I can't wait till I play Santa at the civic center tonight. Wanna come sit on my lap?’”
“Penguin killer?” Joleen’s eyes widened. "Was there a special meaning behind those flowers he sent you?"
“Long story, but I fell on one of his inflatable penguins two weeks ago and broke it. The man loves to tease.” Although he hadn’t been teasing last night. A warmth spread through her body. No, last night he’d made love to her with slow deliberate moves and sweet words of praise. She’d never experienced anything like it.
This morning she woke to a text on her phone. “Look outside.” She hurried to her bedroom window, and her heart stuttered before flipping over and sighing. Zack's bear, holding the inflatable heart, had been moved to her side of the yard and faced her house rather than the street—an obvious private message.
“Vanessa. Vanessa!” Joleen snapped her fingers in front of her face. “Where were you? I have to say, I’m glad to see you act like yourself again. You’re smiling more. Laughing often. Are you and Santa getting serious?”
Were they? They’d taken their budding relationship to the next level last night. The man was very important to her—his larger than life persona, rough edges and all. He was like a big teddy bear under his boisterous exterior. Tender, caring, affectionate. She smiled. Very affectionate. He was so different from any man she’d ever known.
“I think we are. Zack knows I’m gradually coming out of a depression. We’re moving cautiously, getting to know each other.”
Joleen dipped her head toward Vanessa’s cell. “So, how are you going to answer him?”
“Now you don’t think I’m sharing everything with you, do you?” She winked and keyed in, “Will Santa have a special present for me?” She pressed “send” and smiled. Having someone in her life again felt good. Although everything about this man felt like more…more exciting, more fulfilling, more comforting.
Her cell chimed to indicate an incoming message. “Oh, Sugar, you have NO idea.” She laughed out loud. After last night, she did have an idea, and the idea appealed to her very much.
A few hours later, she stood behind the refreshment table at the civic center, poring punch for the senior citizens and watching Zack handle the long line of rambunctious kids. He laughed and teased in typical Zack style. Hugs were plentiful as he handed out gifts. He really did have a caring heart. Hadn’t he helped her through some rough times?
“Oh, young lady.” Zack’s dark eyes were riveted on her. He made a beckoning motion with his finger. “You want to come tell Santa what you want for Christmas?”
Adults in the large room clapped and hooted.
The heat of a blush sauntered up her face as if to announce to the whole center she was embarrassed. She shook her head.
He tilted his and motioned to his lap, his slow, sexy smile causing delightful sensations.
Oh no, not in front of everyone.
“Oh, is Santa taking older kids now?" One senior lady patted her silver hair. "I sure wouldn't mind sitting on his lap. Have I got a list of wishes for him." She winked at Vanessa. "Did you knit a scarf for him like you did all the senior citizens here?”
"No. No...I...ah..." Her gaze swept around the now quiet center. Everyone was watching her, waiting for her to go to Santa.
“Go on, now. Go give that cute-looking Santa a Christmas thrill.” The older woman jerked her head in his direction.
Vanessa walked toward the sexiest Santa she’d ever seen. His grin widened as she got closer. Feeling all eyes in the center were on her, she sat on his lap. “I’ll kill you for this.”
He leaned in and whispered in her ear. “You nearly killed me last night, Sugar. Now, tell me, what do you want from Santa this year?”
Warmth seeped from his body into hers. His hand made slow, circular movements on her lower back. Brown eyes, like melted chocolate, studied her.
A long sigh escaped. “A promise.”
He tilted his head as if to examine her remark. “And what would that promise be?”
“That I can sit on Santa’s lap again next year.”
A large hand cupped her neck and brought face near his. “Bet on it.” Warm lips touched hers for a heart-stopping moment as the party attendees cheered and hooted. He pulled back and removed a wrapped gift between his leg and the side of the chair. “Santa has something special for you.” He extended a gold foil-wrapped box to her.
She fiddled with the red ribbon. “Am I to open it now?”
Her heart pounded in her ears as she unwrapped the gift. Inside the box was an ornament with two penguins standing next to a Christmas tree. Across one penguin was painted “Sugar.” “Zack” was on the other one. At the base of the ornament were the words, “Our First Christmas Together.”
“I love it.”
“And I love you, Sugar. I have since the moment you killed my penguin and for darn sure since the moment you smiled at me." He twisted a strand of her hair around his index finger, a shy expression tensing his face. "I know you need to take things slow. I'm good with that.”
Vanessa placed her palm to his fake beard. "I'm good with that, too." She leaned in and kissed her dream Santa, the man who helped carry the old Vanessa back to the land of the living.
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