Holden stood in the hallway, arms laden with bags.
Olivia smiled widely. “What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be in Ohio.”
“Can I put this stuff down, then I’ll explain?”
“Oh, sure. Sorry.” She stepped back, lightheaded with happiness. She wouldn’t be alone after all. And there was no one she’d rather spend Christmas Eve with than Holden.
He dumped the bags in the center of her bar. He shed his snow-covered coat, dripping moisture onto the floor. She didn’t care. Not in the least.
“I was heading to the airport, and I couldn’t stand the thought of you here at Christmas, alone. I turned back, deciding we’d either both get a flight out, or neither of us would.” He crooked a grin.
Her joy was tempered with guilt. “You’re not going home for Christmas, because of me? It was my fault I stayed.”
“Oh, I’m not arguing with you there. Totally your fault.” He winked, then dug into one of the bags. “I couldn’t get your mom’s smoked turkey, so I bought turkey sandwiches from Carmichael’s. Of course, no one can make pumpkin bread like your mom, but my nurse, Jane, is an awesome cook, and I talked her out of one of her loaves.”
Her heart swelled more with each item he pulled from the bags. He’d been her champion since they were children, and he still was. How was she going to get along without him?
Impulsively, she rounded the bar and threw her arms around him. He laughed and caught her against him. She buried her face in his chest, the warmth of his skin penetrating her cheek through the soft fabric of his sweater.
“Hey,” His deep voice rumbled against her ear. “What’s the matter?”
She pulled back and looked into his face. “I’m just so happy you’re here.”
He kissed her forehead. “Me too. Let’s eat.”
They sat at the bar and devoured thick, smoked turkey sandwiches that were only slightly less delicious than her mother’s.
When they finished dinner, he stood. “I have a surprise for you.” He took her hand and guided her into the living room. Her laptop sat on the coffee table. He flipped it open and booted it up.
She frowned in confusion. “What are you doing?”
“Just wait.” He clicked a few buttons and the Skype window appeared. A call came in…her parents, sitting at the dining room table. He swept a hand toward the screen. “Since you can’t go to them, I brought them to you.”
At the sight of their sweet faces, a knot in her throat prevented her from speaking for a few moments. “Hi, Mom, Dad. Miss you.”
“We miss you too, sweetheart.” Her mom held her hands to her heart. “Wish you were here.”
Her dad leaned forward and shouted into the screen, “Can you hear me?”
Olivia laughed. “Yes, Dad, you can just talk in your normal voice.”
He nodded. “Oh yeah, right. Holden sent Colton over with his laptop and a doohickey that gave us internet.”
Holden’s nephew bent in front of the screen and waved. He flipped his head to toss his long hair out of his face. “I brought my remote wireless.”
Gratitude toward Colton and Holden overwhelmed her. “Thank you so much for doing that.”
Her mother said, “I hate that you had to work late and missed your flight. Maybe we can see you soon? When the weather clears up?”
Dread locked in her throat. She had to tell them about the promotion.
When she finished, they both said they were proud, but her mother cried and her dad awkwardly patted her back while something suspiciously like tears brimmed in his eyes.
Olivia chatted with them for an hour. Afterward, she smiled at Holden. “That was so incredibly thoughtful.”
He shrugged. “No big deal.”
“It’s a very big deal to me.”
“So, you up for watching M to the 3-4?”
She laughed at their silly nickname for Miracle on 34th Street. “You betcha. I’ll make hot chocolate and slice the pumpkin bread.”
They settled on the sofa to watch the movie. Icy snow pelted the windows, and the wind howled, but inside, it was cozy and warm.
When one of their favorite lines was about to be spoken—by Alfred, the janitor/replacement Santa—they looked at one another and said it with him, “Yeah, there's a lot of bad 'isms' floatin' around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism.”
Olivia grinned, but hollowness filled her chest. Would that be the last time they shared the corny tradition? By the time the movie ended, she was crying.
Holden put his arm around her. “Come on, the movie’s touching, but it’s not sad. You never cry.”
“It’s not the movie.” She sniffed back tears. “I’m sad I’m leaving you.”
He stroked a thumb along her cheek. “Then don’t.”
“I have to. I can’t turn down this promotion.”
His eyes searched hers. The air thickened with a sizzle of emotion, a sensual tingle that hadn’t been present before. He ran his gaze down to her mouth, then back to her eyes. “There’s something I’ve wanted to tell you for a while now.”
“Yes?” Her voice was a husky whisper.
“I’m crazy about you, Olivia, and not just as a friend. I’m in love with you.”
Her eyes widened. She froze in shock for a moment, then tugged away from him. “You…you’re in love with me?” She stood and planted her hands on her hips. “Since when?”
“I’ve been attracted to you for years, but do you remember that Christmas when you helped my grandmother with her baking?”
“Yes.” His grandmother had been ill and wasn’t able to stand on her feet like she had in previous years, but she was determined to bake for her family, so Olivia had helped. It was the last Christmas they had with her. She passed away the following spring.
“After Christmas, we were talking about you, and she said, ‘That one’s a keeper, Holden.’ She never liked any of the girls I dated. It occurred to me…you’re definitely a keeper, and I realized, I felt more than friendship for you.”
“That was three years ago. And you’re just now telling me?”
He came to his feet as well. “The timing was never right. You were with Brendan all these years. And then, there was Marci.”
Marci was his on again/off again girlfriend. As far as Olivia knew, right now, they were off. She crossed her arms over her chest. “Well, the timing right now royally sucks.”
“Maybe. But what’s important is how you feel about me.” He waited, his expression questioning, hopeful.
She hesitated briefly. “I’ve loved you since the sixth grade when you made Jerry Vanderpool give me his lunch after he stomped my ham and cheese sandwich into the ground.”
He laughed. “Friggin’ bully.” The amusement faded, and he stepped closer and crooked a finger beneath her chin to raise her gaze to his. “So, you do love me.”
She closed her eyes. “Damn you, yes, I do.” Before she could say more, his mouth found hers. His lips were firm, warm. She kissed him back. Chills swept through her body, and her legs turned to rubber.
Summoning the little shred of will power she had left, she broke the kiss and stepped away. “As I said, your timing sucks. I’m leaving for Rome in a week.”
“Don’t go.” His voice was just this side of pleading. His eyes beseeched her. “Stay here. With me.”
“You’re asking me to give up my dream? Just when my career is taking off?”
He huffed out an exasperated breath and ran a hand over the back of his head. “I know it’s not fair.” He shook his head. “I just…I panicked when you said you were leaving. I knew I was running out of time, and I can’t stand the thought of losing you.”
When his words sank in, her anger rose. “You…you panicked? You only told me tonight because I’m leaving?” She grunted. “How long were you going to keep this secret if I hadn’t taken that job in Rome?”
“I don’t know, I just—”
She brought up her hand in a halting gesture. “No, don’t tell me. Whatever the plan was, it’s too late. I’ve loved you for years, and now…” Tears threatened, but she choked them back. “…now that I finally accepted we can be nothing more than friends, and I have the chance of a lifetime, you drop a bombshell like this.”
“I think we should give us a chance. Please, at least think about it.”
She did. For half a second. As much as she loved Holden, she couldn’t pass up this chance. It might be her only opportunity at the career she’d always wanted.
What about your only opportunity for love?
She gave herself a mental shake. She’d seen too many damaged relationships to think hers with Holden was a guaranteed success.
She lifted her chin and met his gaze. His hopeful, hazel-eyed gaze…
She gritted her teeth and clenched her fists so hard her nails dug into her palms. “I’m sorry, Holden. I can’t give up this job. Not right now.”
He gave a quick, jerky nod. “I understand. I really do. I want what’s best for you. Want you to be happy. But you know what? I’m not giving up hope. Like they say in the movie, faith is believing in something when common sense tells you not to.” He touched her face again, then grabbed his coat. “I'd better go. Maybe I’ll see you next week before you leave?”
By now, the snow and sleet were coming down in a torrent. The roads had been hazardous when he arrived, now they were extremely treacherous.
He paused at the door and narrowed his eyes. “Stay here?”
She realized what her offer must have sounded like—a goodbye bang for the road. As much as she wanted Holden, she wasn’t asking him to make love to her. One night of sex would only taint their friendship. “It’s a blizzard out there. I doubt if many taxis are even running. You could sleep on the sofa.”
“Yeah, sure. You’re right. Thanks.”
Olivia scowled at Clarissa. “So, you’re showing this to prove I was wrong? Well, I wasn’t. I made the right choice.”
"You think so?”
“I know so. He impulsively tells me he loves me to keep me from going to Rome and I was supposed to drop everything and stay?”
Olivia turned back to the window.
Her Chicago apartment was in darkness, except for the glow from the Christmas tree lights. Holden sat on the sofa atop the blankets. He held a small open box. A solitary diamond winked in the darkness. He drew in a long breath and shut the box, pressing it tightly to his forehead, his eyes screwed shut.
“Oh my God,” Olivia breathed. “It wasn’t an impulse. He was going to propose? Why didn’t he?”
Clarissa harrumphed. “Shall I replay your reaction to his declaration?”
Olivia’s cheeks heated. “No, that won’t be necessary.” Grief and regret weighted her heart. Still, who’s to say marrying Holden would have been the right choice? She was happy here in Rome, and he’d probably moved on, found someone new.
“Ready to see more?”
Olivia didn’t know if she was, but she nodded and faced the window.
Please tune in tomorrow for Part Three, the conclusion.
~ * ~~ * ~~ * ~~ * ~~ * ~~ * ~~ * ~~ * ~
Please tune in tomorrow for Part Three, the conclusion.