“SANTA’S A STRIPPER— I SAW HIS JINGLE BELLS!”


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Even with the Christmas rush fast approaching, the local post office where I’d recently started working was still running smoothly. The quantity of mail coming in, however, was growing daily. There was talk of needing to add additional delivery drivers and requiring the employees to work longer hours, just to make sure we got it all out on time.

I’d worked in the mailroom, learning the sorting process, for over a month, and then behind the counter for two weeks, when my supervisor, Jeremy Davison, came up to me one day.

“Kelly,” he said, “I’ve been watching you work. I think you’re ready for a move. I think your skills could be used better elsewhere.”

His words surprised me and I began to get a little worried. Was this his way of saying that he didn’t want me to work there at all? I thought I’d been doing well, and I sure needed the job. Since I was single and on my own, I didn’t have a husband or family to fall back on to help me out if money got too tight. I had only my paycheck to count on to pay for my apartment, car payment, and monthly expenses.

My expression must have shown my concern because he shook his head. “Don’t worry. You’re doing a great job,” he assured me. “You’re not being fired. Actually, it’s the exact opposite. I’ve been impressed with your work so far. I’m thinking of promoting you to the delivery department. That will increase your hourly rate. Interested?”

“You bet I am, Mr. Davison. That sounds great,” I told him.

“I thought you would be, so I checked your application and records. I discovered you used to drive a delivery truck for a florist. After seeing how quickly you’ve caught on to the system in the mailroom and the postal processing at the front counter, I’ve decided to have you trained for more advanced work. You’ll be responsible for temporarily taking charge of one of the downtown business delivery routes. You’ll help to keep the flow of mail from becoming backlogged.”

He glanced around the room for a moment and then looked back at me. “We have an experienced man named Bruce Hoerner who’s got a route now. He’s had it for nearly a year, but I need him back here to help manage the receiving department during the Christmas season. Bruce worked there for three years before switching to delivery, so he knows the route inside and out. Since the mail load will more than triple soon, I need his expertise here in the receiving department to keep things running smoothly. After the holiday rush is over, he’ll go back to his old route, and if you’ve done as well as I expect you to do, then I’ll assign you a permanent route of your own. You’ll ride with Bruce for two days to learn the routine, and then you’ll have it all to yourself.”

He nodded his head in the direction of a group of workers across the room. “Bruce’s over there. Come on, I’ll introduce you to him.”

I nodded and followed him across the crowded mailroom. Mr. Davison tapped a man on the shoulder and he turned around.

“Bruce, this is Kelly Kramer. Kelly, this is Bruce Hoerner.” He smiled. “Kelly is one of the people I was talking to you about. I’ve decided to give her your route while you manage receiving during the Christmas overload. She’s new here, so she hasn’t done any mail deliveries yet, but I think she can handle it, as long as you go over it with her. I told her she’d ride with you for two days to learn the ropes. After that, she’ll be responsible for the route so you can manage receiving.”

Mr. Davison looked at both of us. “Well, I’ll let Bruce tell you about his route.”

Bruce nodded as the supervisor walked away. I was already nervous about the promotion, and thinking of working closely with such a good-looking guy wasn’t helping any. I stood there, trying to look casual, all the while wondering why I hadn’t noticed him earlier. He was gorgeous, that was true. But then, there were over twenty people working at the post office, many of whom had shifts that were different than mine. Obviously, up until that point, I must not have been working whenever he was there. And, even if I had seen him, I probably wouldn’t have been able to think of anything to say other than to ask something trivial about work.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not stupid. It’s just that in a social situation, I’m not very experienced at talking to guys, especially the good-looking ones. One look from a handsome man and I got tongue-tied and clumsy.

Bruce gave me a friendly smile and held out his hand. “Hi, Kelly. Glad to meet you. My route can be a little overwhelming at times. You must be good if you’re being trusted with such a big responsibility.”

As we shook hands, I could feel the heat flood my face at his compliment. I quickly pulled my hand away from his friendly grasp. Not for the first time, I wished that I appeared to be cool and sophisticated like my friend, Krista Sommers. She always seemed to know just what to do and say to make a guy pay attention. And before you knew it, he’d asked her out.

Nervously, I smiled back. “Thanks. I haven’t been here very long, but I used to drive for a florist. I guess he figured if I could drive a delivery truck all over town and distribute perishable flowers on time, then I could do this.”

Bruce nodded. “Yeah, I guess so. Well, let’s go get you a mail pouch. Then we can sort my load between us and get started. I’ll drive today so you can get the idea, and you can drive tomorrow while I ride along.”

The two days of training seemed to speed by. Bruce was friendly but professional as he gave me a crash course in postal delivery and taught me the routine. Before I knew it, I was on my own.

Since this was the first day I had the route by myself, I’d been worried I might not be able to keep up, but it really wasn’t difficult. Bruce had said the hardest part of the job was being on your feet all day. I could handle that easily since I took long walks around my neighborhood or jogged in the nearby park almost every evening for my own pleasure.

By midafternoon, I was almost finished with my first day of solo deliveries. Remembering Bruce’s directions for my last stop, I parked the postal truck at the curb in front of Belle’s Beauty Supply. I gathered up the bundled mail for that business, left my empty mail pouch in the truck, and headed toward the front door.

So far, everything had gone smoothly, but I was glad that Belle’s Beauty Supply was my last stop. I had developed a bad case of sneezing the last time I had gone there with Bruce to deliver their mail. Even though it was the home office and not a retail store for the company, there were dozens of samples of the products, and the employees obviously used them.

The office reeked of strong perfumes, creams, and lotions. By the time I’d left, my eyes had started to water badly and I was sneezing my head off. Bruce had been forced to drive the truck back to the post office, even though it was my day to drive, so I could have time to get over the effects of my reaction to the products. I wondered if I was allergic to something there, but didn’t want to say anything. If Mr. Davison thought I couldn’t handle the job, he’d give the promotion to someone else.

I took a deep breath of outdoor air and opened the front door to Belle’s. A bell above the door tinkled as I walked inside. I looked up at it and noticed colorful Christmas decorations hung all around. The employees had obviously decorated the office since I’d been there yesterday. Christmas carols were playing softly in the background.

Although I enjoyed the music and normally would have wanted to stay a few minutes to listen, I didn’t want to linger. I wanted to avoid whatever was there that I was allergic to. I didn’t want it to affect me and cause me to start sneezing and weeping. So, I headed straight for the front desk, determined to make my last delivery for the day quickly and leave before I started sneezing.

A young receptionist looked up from her compact where she was putting on lipstick and smiled. “Hi. You must be new. Where’s Bruce? He usually delivers the mail here.”

“Actually, this is my third day to deliver here.”

“Oh, I’ve been off for a couple days. I guess I missed you. When’s Bruce coming back?”

I heard the hopeful note in her voice and tried to reassure her. “Bruce’s managing one of the sections at the post office until after Christmas. I’ll be bringing your mail for the month, but he’ll be back after that.”

The young woman looked slightly disappointed. “Oh. Well, I guess there’s no need for this perfume then, huh? Oh, what the heck. I might as well put it on, anyway.” She sprayed some on her neck and both wrists with a renewed grin. “You never know. Some other cute guy might come in today.”

I smiled back at her and nodded. “Yep, you never know.” I handed her the bundled stack of mail. When I did, I caught a deep whiff of her strong perfume. Suddenly, I sneezed, and my eyes began to water. I sneezed again. I reached in the pocket of my postal uniform for something to wipe my eyes, but I didn’t have anything. My eyes teared up even worse as I sneezed once more.

“I hate to say it, but I think I may be allergic to your perfume. Is there a ladies’ room near here where I can go wash my face?”

“Oh, I’m sorry about that. Yes, it’s down the hallway.”

I sniffed and dabbed at my eyes with my fingers. “Thanks.” Then I headed down the hallway. The sneezing didn’t get any better the further away I walked. I must have gotten some of her perfume on my hand when I gave her the mail, and I’d just rubbed my face, trying to wipe away the tears. Great, all that had done was to make things worse. Blinking the tears away so I could see, I thought I’d found the rest room and walked in. But, instead of the ladies’ room, I found myself in an employee’s lounge filled with giggling women.

A huge, brightly wrapped Christmas present stood on the floor in the center of the room. One of the women was leading another one toward the gift. I could hear her saying something about all the girls in the office chipping in to get their manager a great Christmas gift.

I looked around for some tissue, or a napkin, or something to wipe my eyes and blow my nose, but didn’t see anything. I sneezed again a couple more times before I saw the door marked across the room beyond the large, wrapped gift.

“Excuse me,” I murmured between my sneezes and moved through the throng of grinning women.

Just as I got near the immense gift, I sneezed again and my eyes watered. My foot struck something, throwing me off balance. I reached out to steady myself and grabbed the corner of the box. However, for all its size, it wasn’t sturdy and my fingers went right through the bright wrapping paper. Just then, I noticed something large move inside the box.

Startled, I jumped back and floundered for a moment, trying to jerk my hand way, but in doing so, I lost my footing altogether.

I toppled backward and fell into the big box just as the rest of the wrapping paper ripped away and a man jumped up from inside it. I wiped the tears from my eyes with one hand as I reached out with the other to steady myself.

With nothing else to latch onto, I grabbed his shoulder. But all I felt was bare skin. My God, the man was naked!

I started to step back but he grinned and hugged me to his nude chest. “Santa told me you’ve been a very good girl this year, and now you deserve to be naughty,” he said.

Shouts of “No!” echoed my own as I struggled free of his muscular bare arms. I stumbled back, and wiping the tears from my eyes, I took a quick look at him.

The man was glorious. He had the firm, muscular physique of a body builder and the face and hair of a cover model. And, even though I’d never admit to being slightly disappointed with the fact, he wasn’t altogether naked. He wore a small green pair of spandex shorts like a biker would wear, except his had a big red bow attached to one hip.

Amid exasperated cries of, “Look what you’ve done,” and “She’s not the one,” I quickly said I was sorry, then wiped the tears from my eyes and fled from the room. Without stopping to say anything to the receptionist, I hurried out the front door to the postal truck. Luckily, I’d thought to put a box of tissues in the truck earlier. I grabbed several, then wiped my face and blew my nose. As soon as I could see clearly, I started up the truck and took it back to the post office.

By the time I got back, my sneezing had subsided and I parked the postal truck in the lot. Then I gladly punched out on the time clock and headed back to my apartment.

As I drove, I turned on the radio to soothe my nerves but the station was playing Christmas music. Hearing the cheery sounds of holiday carols only made me think of what a fool I’d just made of myself, so I turned off the radio. Thank goodness, it was Saturday. I didn’t have to make another delivery to Belle’s Beauty until Monday. By then, the male stripper, or whoever he was, would be gone. I’d just hand my delivery to the receptionist and get the heck out of there, whether or not I started sneezing.

On the way, I stopped at the grocery store for a few things I needed and then continued on my way home. After another ten minutes, I pulled into the parking lot of my apartment complex, grateful that there was an empty space in front. Since many students from the nearby college lived there as well, there often was no available parking spot nearby.

As I got out of the car, I looked over at the park across the street. The sun was shining through the bare winter branches of the trees and a brisk breeze fluttered against my face. It felt too good to be cooped up inside, so I decided to go for a nice long jog to clear my head. After that, I’d reward myself with a trip to the video store a few blocks away and rent a movie. I’d pop some popcorn, watch a movie, and do my best to forget the incident ever happened.

I changed into a comfortable old sweatsuit and my running shoes. I drove to the park since I was going to go to the video store right after my jog. There were a few people walking and jogging there already. I stretched to limber up and then started out at an easy pace. The crisp, clean air helped clear my head of whatever had caused my sneezing, and it also relaxed me. The longer I ran, the better I felt, so I decided to jog the long lap around the park before I quit.

Halfway around, I saw another jogger ahead of me. The man slowed down to a walk as if he’d just finished his run and was taking a cool-down lap.

He stopped and took off a shoe then shook it as if he had gotten something in it. As I got closer, his face and build seemed somewhat familiar. “Coming past,” I called out, just as other joggers often did when passing another from behind so that they wouldn’t run into one another.

The man glanced over at me just as I passed him and recognition hit us both at the same time. It was the male stripper from the Belle’s Beauty fiasco!

“You!” he called out.

There was no way I was going to slow down and talk to him about the most embarrassing moment I’d ever had, much less give him a chance to gripe at me for messing up his tips for a botched appearance. I sped up and dashed away from him as fast as I could.

“Hey, wait! I want to talk to you!” he shouted behind me. I glanced over my shoulder and saw him start to put his shoe back on. With his long legs and obvious great shape, he’d catch up to me in no time. I didn’t wait for him to start after me. Turning off the jogging path, I ran through the trees to the parking lot. When I got to my car, I jumped in and nearly laid rubber leaving there.

Since my apartment complex was right across the street, I started to just go home. But then I realized he might have run close enough to see me get in my car and therefore, could watch me go straight there. Realizing there was no way I wanted him to know where I lived, I went ahead and drove to the video store. Although I walked up and down all the aisles in the store, I didn’t see anything that interested me.

Finally, I gave up and looked down at my wrist to see what time it was. I realized I wasn’t wearing my watch. Funny, I didn’t remember taking it off when I’d changed into my jogging clothes. The watch clasp must have come loose when I had pulled off my long-sleeved uniform shirt. The clasp was bad about coming loose if I wasn’t careful. I knew I shouldn’t even wear the watch when it needed to be repaired. But had been a gift from my dad when I graduated from high school three years ago and was too special to me to just leave in my jewelry box.

Glancing up at the wall clock in the store, I decided I’d been there long enough that the man was bound to have left the park. Finally, I went home. Letting myself into my apartment, I decided that as soon as I could, I’d get the clasp fixed on my watch. I also vowed to ask Mr. Davison if I could have a different delivery route. If he wanted to know why, I’d just tell him about my obvious allergy to something in Belle’s Beauty. I wouldn’t mention the nearly naked man wrapped up like a Christmas present, claiming to be a gift from Santa. It was just too embarrassing to think of, much less talk about.

The next morning when I got dressed, I looked for my watch, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. After searching my apartment and my car without any luck, I thought back to the last time I recalled seeing it. I remembered that I had glanced at it when I pulled up at Belle’s Beauty yesterday to see if I was on schedule. But when I had punched out at the post office, it hadn’t been on my arm because I’d had to check the time clock to see what time it was. I’d been so flustered over falling all over the male stripper that I hadn’t even thought about where my watch was.

A horrible thought hit me: What if I had lost it in struggling with him? After blowing his act and spoiling the women’s surprise for their manager, I doubted that any of them would care if I ever got it back or not. The thought depressed me and I decided to go to the post office and check the truck I’d driven first thing on Monday morning.

By the time I’d nearly finished my route on Monday, I was in a rotten mood. Not only had I not found my watch in the truck as I’d hoped, but there had been a lot more mail to deliver than last week, and two people had complained that their packages were late.

I pulled up in front of Belle’s Beauty and gathered their mail from my pouch. I walked in and gave it to the receptionist. Then, I asked if anyone had turned in my watch. The girl informed me rather coldly that no one had turned it in. From her expression, I figured she had heard about what happened and was unhappy with me, too. When I started sneezing, I left feeling even more upset than when I’d gone in.

As I clocked out that afternoon, Mr. Davison asked me how my new job was going.

“Fine,” I murmured as I pasted on a smile. It was too soon to ask for another route.

He nodded and walked off, but then stopped and looked back. “Oh, by the way, Kelly, a man was here looking for you today. He wanted your phone number, but I told him we wouldn’t give it to him. If you want him to have it, you’ll have to give it to him yourself.”

I swallowed nervously. Surely, it wasn’t the male stripper. “Uh, did he happen to say why he wanted to get in touch with me?”

“No, but he did say he’d be back another day to speak with you.”

Yikes! I didn’t know what to do. If the man were trying to track me down because he was still angry over my messing up his act, I didn’t want to see him. If by chance, though, he had found my watch and was trying to return it, that was a different story.

After several days went by and he didn’t return, I decided he’d been angry but must have cooled off. He had no reason to speak to me again.

Since the weather had been wet and nasty the last few days and the sun had finally come out, I went to the park for a jog after work. Halfway around the first lap, I heard someone shout. I looked up and stumbled in surprise. It was him. The male stripper. He had on more clothes than he’d had on at Belle’s Beauty, but by now, I knew his face. I hadn’t been able to forget it. Or the rest of him. Even though I’d been totally embarrassed floundering around in his nearly naked embrace, I had to admit to myself that he was the most handsome and sexy guy I’d ever seen.

I nervously watched him run toward me. It seemed like too much of a coincidence that he was there the first time I had come to jog in days. Glancing around quickly, I also noticed he and I were the only two people out there. I prayed he was not going to be angry because I doubted that I could outrun him without a head start, and he was too close for that now.

He was breathing a little hard as he stopped beside me. “I’ve been looking for you.”

“Listen, if it’s about what happened the other day, I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to ruin your, ah, performance but I think I’m allergic to something there. I couldn’t see where I was going with my eyes watering so much.”

“Whew. I’m glad to hear that.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Forget it. That came out the wrong way. What I meant was I’m glad I wasn’t the reason you ran crying from the room. At least, I hope I wasn’t.”

His apology and sincere smile set my fears at ease. “Well, it was pretty embarrassing to see you jump out of that box. And then, I got the distinct impression the women were not pleased that I’d spoiled their surprise. Between that and whatever was causing my allergic reaction, I figured it was best to leave quickly.”

I tried not to stare at him but he was the most handsome guy I’d ever seen, much less talked to. Even in jogging sweats, his muscular build was clearly evident. He was several inches taller than me, with warm, twinkling eyes, gorgeous full lips, and a strong chin. Looking at him and thinking of romance seemed to go together. I shook my head slightly to clear my wishful thoughts.

“What?” he asked.

“Hmm?” I murmured.

“You were shaking your head at me.”

“Oh,” I stammered. “I wasn’t shaking it at you. I was thinking of something, but it didn’t make any sense,” I faltered.

He smiled. “You look like you’re a very sensible lady. By the way, I guess it would be good to introduce ourselves since we keep running into each other. My name is Chad Fairfield.”

He stuck out his hand for a handshake and as his warm fingers closed ever mine, I felt a tingle surge up my arm. I was so startled, I nearly jerked my hand away. He looked at me with a strange expression on his gorgeous face. Had he felt something, too, or did he just think I was acting crazy? I hoped he didn’t think I was weird but, on the other hand, I was sure he couldn’t have felt what I had when we touched. I mean, he was a gorgeous, hunky guy and I was, well, just average.

“Hi. I’m Kelly Kramer,” I said, smiling to hide my embarrassment.

“Well, now that we know each other, how about if we go somewhere for a cup of coffee? It’s getting cold out here.”

I followed his gaze up to the graying sky and noticed the temperature had definitely dropped several degrees. I’d been so busy fantasizing aboutChadthat I hadn’t even noticed. I shivered as a cold breeze blew my hair back from my face. What an idiot I was becoming! Feeling my face flush with my thoughts, I started to decline.

“Thanks,Chad, but I’m sure you must have had other plans,” I told him.

“Actually, you are my plan.”

I took a step back. “Excuse me?”

“Well, that’s two for two. I’m not doing very well today, am I? What I mean is, I’ve been looking for you ever since we met. When I saw your tears, I felt responsible for upsetting you that day and wanted to talk to you. Then, when I was leaving, I found a watch down in the wrapping paper and asked if it belonged to any of the women there. When they said no, I decided it must belong to you. I’ve been trying to track you down to return it.” He pulled at the front of his sweatshirt with a grin. “I’ve been out here jogging every day since I saw you here, trying to meet you. At least today it’s not raining.”

“You’ve kidding, right? I mean about really wanting to meet me, not just return my watch? You didn’t really run here in the rain, did you?”

“Yeah. Crazy, huh?”

My heart started beating like a drum. I couldn’t believe this handsome guy really wanted to get to know me. “I don’t think that’s crazy. I think that’s very—” I stopped myself before I said something really stupid.

Chad gazed down. “Very what?”

“Oh, nothing. I really appreciate you trying to find me to return my watch. I was pretty upset when I realized I’d lost it. It’s not worth much money, but it has a lot of sentimental value to me. It was a gift from a very special man.”

I tried to keep the sadness from my voice but didn’t quite make it. My dad had given it to me just three weeks before he’d died of a sudden heart attack. Since he was the one to raise me after my parents divorced when I was little, I had been devastated by his death. That was three years ago and I still had a hard time thinking of him without breaking into tears. Dad had always been there for me whenever I was hurt or upset, and it was tough facing things alone—without him.

I looked up atChad. His friendly smile seemed a little strained when he spoke.

“Well, in that case, I’m sorry I don’t have it with me to give you right now, but I was afraid of losing it when I jogged. If you’d rather not go get some coffee, I’ll understand. Maybe I could just come by the post office and drop off your watch tomorrow.”

For once, I wasn’t as nervous as I expected to be. Something aboutChad’s expression touched me, giving me hope that maybe he really did want to get to know me. Summoning up my courage, I smiled. “Actually, I am pretty cold, and coffee with you sounds nice.”

My heart beat triple time as his warm smile returned. “Great. My car’s in the parking lot here. Do you want to ride with me, and then I can bring you back to your car? Or would you rather follow me?”

“I walked to the park today, so I’ll just ride with you.”

“Walked? Wow, you must really be into exercising.”

“I do like getting out and jogging but actually I just live right across the street.” I pointed to the apartment complex.

“Then we’re almost neighbors. I live in the dorm right up the road. I’m a junior at the college.”

I must have looked surprised. “I know,” he said. “My job doesn’t make you think I’d be the college type. But it helps to cover my tuition, along with a college grant.” The wind picked up, scattering fallen leaves across the track. “Hey, why are we standing here freezing? C’mon. There’s a great little restaurant near campus that serves good dinners and coffee.”

He led the way to a run-down looking car and opened the passenger door for me with a slightly embarrassed smile. “I’m sorry it’s not fancy, but premed school rules out new cars.”

“That’s okay. Mine’s nothing to write home about, either.”

As we sat over steaming coffee, I relaxed and enjoyed just sitting there talking withChad. Somehow, despite the fact that he was so handsome, I felt comfortable around him, as I normally didn’t with other men. We talked about where we’d gone to high school, our jobs, and our hopes for careers.

It had been difficult, at first, when I told him about my dad, but when Chad reached across the table and squeezed my hand gently, I felt better than I had in a long time.Chadtold me he came from a big family, with four younger brothers and sisters. He explained that his mom and dad both had to work full-time just to support all of them. He smiled proudly as he told me he was the first one in his family to go to college, even if it had meant taking a slightly unorthodox job to pay for it.

“Don’t get the wrong idea. It’s really just harmless fun. I’ve never asked out any of the women that I’ve met that way. At least, not before now.” His eyes met mine and I felt warm all over, as if a hot summer wind had caressed my skin.

The time seemed to fly by. I hadn’t realized how long we’d been sitting there, talking, until a laughing couple came in and I looked up toward the sound. When I glanced out the window, I saw that night had fallen.

“It’s getting late. I guess I’d better get back home. I don’t want to keep you from your studies.”

“That’s okay. After all that coffee, I’ll be awake for hours. Kelly, how about giving me your phone number? I’ll call you tomorrow after you get off work to see if you’re free. We could meet at the park and jog together. I’ll bring your watch.”

I smiled and happily wrote down my number on a napkin. He tucked it in his pocket, then paid for our meal and left a tip.

“I feel like I should pay, since you found my watch,” I told him.

He shook his head with a warm smile, then linked his arm through mine as we walked out of the restaurant. “I may be a struggling med student but I think I can still handle dinner every now and then. Besides, I’d never ask my date to pay.”

Startled by his words, I stopped in the parking lot and stared at him.

He returned my gaze and then shrugged somewhat sheepishly. “Well, three strikes and I’m out. It’s just that after talking with you tonight, it seems like we’ve been friends for a long time. You’re different from the women I usually meet, Kelly. I’d really like to get to know you even better.”

I could hardly believe my ears—a gorgeous, hardworking, intelligent guy was saying that he was interested in me. I tried to think of something cool to say like Krista would have, but finally just said what was in my heart.

“I’d like that, too,Chad,” I murmured.

On the drive back, I chatted happily about all sorts of things with him. But when he insisted on walking me to my apartment door, I got a little nervous. Maybe things were moving a little too fast. What if he wanted to come in? I wasn’t ready to push things into any sort of sexual relationship after one date, no matter how pleasant it had been.

Chad must have realized my feelings because he seemed to hesitate at my door before he spoke. “Well, I’d better get going. I’ve enjoyed the evening, Kelly.” He smiled and stuck out his right hand.

Relieved, I did the same but rather than shake it, he lifted it to his mouth and pressed a gentle kiss on the back of my hand.

“I think we’re past the hand-shaking stage,” he said softly. “But don’t worry; I won’t press you for anything else. We have all the time in the world to get to know each other well enough for more.”

That night, I thought I’d never get to sleep, and I was sure it wasn’t the coffee. My growing interest inChadwas much more than just the buzz of caffeine.

Over the next several weeks, Chad and I saw each other almost every day. He’d brought my watch to me the day after our first “date,” and we’d walked for a long time in the park, just talking and laughing. He’d suggested that we walk, rather than run, so I wouldn’t lose my watch again. I’d agreed, saying I’d decided  I would just have to put it away until I could have it fixed. Maybe I’d get a cheap one to wear until then. It had too many happy memories associated with it to risk losing it again. First Dad, and now,Chad.

Chad kissed me for the first time after we’d been seeing each other for nearly two months. We’d gone to a two-for-one special showing at the local theater and shared a large soda and popcorn. When he brought me home,Chadhad apologized that he wasn’t able to take me anywhere nicer. He explained that he’d just had to buy new books for the next round of college courses. He also told me that since meeting me, he’d turned down all of the offers to appear as Santa’s “special helper.”

He looked into my eyes. “Kelly, you’ve grown to mean a lot to me,” he whispered. “That job never was something I really enjoyed, but I did it because it paid so well. Now that I’ve met you, there’s only one woman I’m interested in sharing myself with, and that’s you.”

My heart melted at his words and when he took me in his arms and kissed me, I eagerly kissed him back. As his warm lips caressed mine, I was filled with more than passion. Whether I was ready to admit it to him or not, I knew I couldn’t deny my feelings to myself. I was falling head over heels in love with Chad.

I looked up into his eyes after we finally ended the blazing kiss, wanting to tell him how I truly felt. There was a way I could show him without worrying about getting tongue-tied, or saying it poorly. Did I dare to ask Chad to spend the night? Was I that sure about my feelings for him? I thought I was, but still, the idea was a little nerve wracking. I’d dated in high school and a few times since graduating, but I’d never slept with a man before.

It wasn’t that I was a prude, I’d just never found a man I cared enough about to want to sleep with. But with Chad, it was different. Yes, I was sure of it. I took a deep breath for courage.

“Chad, would you like to stay with me tonight?” I stammered.

He gazed down at me and then kissed me slowly and tenderly. “There’s nothing I’d like more, Kelly, but you sound as if you’re not sure. I don’t want you to do anything you have any doubts about.”

“I don’t have any doubts. It’s just that, well—” My words died in my throat. Now that the moment had come, I was too embarrassed to tell him I was still a virgin.

Chadwrapped his arms around me and held me close. “Shh, you don’t have to say anything. Sometimes you don’t need words. When the time is right for us, you’ll know.” Then he kissed me once more, deeply and hungrily. The passion flared between us, and he broke the kiss suddenly, stepping back from me. “Kelly, if I don’t leave right now, I won’t be able to hold back. I’ll call you tomorrow.” With that, he ran his fingers lightly over my cheek and hurried to his car.

As I watched him walk away, I almost begged him to stay. But, seeing him go only made me love him all the more. Unlike so many men,Chadwas not pressing me to have sex with him. Instead, he was giving me the chance to wait until I was truly sure it was what I wanted.

I walked into my apartment and closed the door behind me. Maybe I hadn’t been totally sure about my desire for sex tonight. But there was one thing I knew with absolute certainty: I loved Chad with all my heart.

Over the next couple of weeks,Chad and I saw each other many times in the evenings. But, somehow, the same intensity didn’t seem to be there, prodding me to ask him to spend the night as I had before. I noticed sometimes he seemed rather preoccupied when we were chatting. But, I also knew he had some big exams coming up soon, so I thought that must be the reason.

By that point it was only a couple weeks until Christmas and I was delighted when Chad suggested we pick out a tree together. We went to one of the tree farms nearby and took a long time deciding on just the right one. I was a little disappointed when one of the workers there quickly cut it down with a chainsaw, rather that letting Chad and me chop it down the old-fashioned way. But still, we enjoyed picking it out. I knew Chad was probably a little short on money, so I insisted on paying for it since it was going to go in my apartment.

After that, we took it back tied to the top of his car and carried it into my living room. After a lot of laughing and hugging and a few kisses, we managed to get it into a wobbly tree stand. Then we spent several pleasant hours decorating it. We even hung some mistletoe from the ceiling fan, and every time I walked underneath, he pulled me into his arms and kissed me.

Eventually, we both were hungry so I offered to make something.Chad shook his head.

“Nope. Today is too special for you to have to cook. I’m taking us out to eat. Where do you want to go?”

I smiled at him. “How about that cute little restaurant you took me to the first time?”

He shook his head quickly. “No way. I meant an expensive place. I want to take you somewhere nice. I’ve been saving up, and want to take you somewhere really special.”

His offer touched me deeply but I knew how hard it was for him to save extra money on his budget.

“But it’s getting past dinnertime already,” I reminded him. “By the time we both clean up and change our clothes, it’ll be too late to get dinner anywhere.”

He gazed intently at me for a moment and I was afraid I’d been too obvious. “Okay,” he said finally. “How about the little Italian place a few blocks from here? I know you love Italian food, and it’s not too fancy for jeans. We can go just as we are.”

“That’s perfect.”

And it was.Chad sat close to me in the secluded booth and we sipped red wine and ate delicious Italian food until I teased him that I was so stuffed, he’d have to roll me to his car.

His eyes lit up with desire and he whispered huskily in my ear. “I can think of something a lot more enjoyable that I’d like to do with you.”

I swallowed and fanned my face as I felt it heat up suddenly. He laughed and picked up the bill the waiter had left. Then he reached for his wallet. A moment later, he frowned and started looking around the booth and under the table.

“Chad, what’s the matter?” I asked.

“I can’t find my wallet.”

“But you had it earlier at the tree farm. It must be here somewhere.” I picked up his heavy winter coat and shook it, and then checked the pockets. Nothing.

After a few more moments of frantic searching, he groaned. “I remember now. I took it out of my pants pocket and set it on your coffee table in the living room when we were trying to get the Christmas tree in the stand. The branches kept snagging my pocket and I was afraid it would fall out. I’d planned to take you somewhere nice to dinner and didn’t want this exact thing to happen. Oh, I can’t believe I did that.”

He looked so upset that I immediately hugged him and offered to pay for the meal.

“No,” he protested. “This was something special I wanted to do just for you. I can’t have you pay. You do that too often as it is.” He looked around the restaurant. “Maybe I can call a buddy to come and lend me some cash. I’ll pay him back after I get my wallet.”

“Chad, it’s okay. Really. You don’t have to do that. I can put it on my credit card. It’s not that big of a deal.”

He looked at me for a long moment and then nodded silently as he handed me the bill. The amount surprised me. I didn’t think we’d ordered that big of a meal. But then I looked at the nearly empty bottle of expensive wine we’d ordered and realized why the tab was so high.

I told myself it was okay. Even after charging the meal and the expensive surprise I’d bought Chad for Christmas, I would still have a little left on my credit card limit. Besides, with Christmas so close, I was going to be putting in more hours of overtime at work.

I dug out my credit card and laid it on top of the bill, then put them on the end of the table for the waiter.

On the way back to my apartment, Chad was very quiet. I wondered if maybe I’d done the wrong thing by insisting that I pay for our meal. I certainly hadn’t meant to hurt his pride. When he parked his car and turned off the engine, I laid my hand on his shoulder. I wanted to make him smile again—to feel that wonderful glow inside that he always gave me when we teased and snuggled. Suddenly, I knew. I wanted to make love to him. Not one day in the future, but now.

“Chad,” I said. “Do you remember when you said I’d know when the time was right for us to sleep together? Well, it’s tonight. Right now.”

His head whipped around and he stared at me, shocked. “But—”

“No buts,” I insisted. “I’m sure. Please,Chad, make love to me tonight.”

Suddenly, I was in his arms and he was kissing me with more passion than I’d ever felt. He broke the kiss and stared into my eyes. “Kelly, I can’t believe it. After my screw up over the wallet, you still want me?”

“Of course I do. I don’t want anyone but you.”

He hugged me tightly and then we raced from his car to my apartment. Snow had started falling, making it seem all the more romantic. I told him my thoughts when we got inside and shook the snow from our coats, and he grinned.

“It’s too bad you don’t have a fireplace. I’d lay you down on the carpet in front of it and make love to you with nothing but a roaring fire to keep us warm.”

Then he bent and scooped me up in his arms and carried me to my bedroom. We helped each other undress and then sank onto the bed in a hot embrace. After several minutes of touching and kissing, we made love. It hurt a little the first time. But afterward, snuggling in Chad’s arms as he held me, he told me that he hadn’t known I was a virgin. He said he couldn’t believe I had chosen to be with him rather than anyone else. I knew I had found the man I would always love.

Later, during the night, we opened the curtains to look out at the quiet snowfall and the stars and made love again. That time, his passion drove me so wild that I cried out his name as my heart thundered in my ears.

The sunlight glinting off the white snow woke us the next morning.Chad and I kissed and then rubbing my eyes, I glanced over at my alarm clock.

“Oh, no! Chad, I forgot to set the clock. Your first class starts in twenty minutes!”

He jumped out of bed and yanked his clothes on. I handed him his coat and he gave me a fast, hard kiss before he said he’d call me later and ran out the door.

I sank back on the bed to catch my breath. Luckily for me, it was my day off. After such an emotional high last night, all I wanted to do was stay home and remember it while I waited for Chad to call. Eventually, I got up and decided to do my laundry and straighten up the apartment.Chad would probably come by this afternoon and I wanted it to look nice.

It was several hours later before I finished everything, including making the bed with fresh sheets. I sat down on the couch and rested my feet on the coffee table. I was tired, but it didn’t matter. Yesterday had been the most wonderful day of my life.

As I pulled my legs back to stretch out on the couch, something caught my eye. I looked down and realized it was Chad’s wallet. With making love last night and waking up late this morning, we’d both forgotten all about it. I reached down to pick it up but it had fallen open. Three dollar bills slid out as I lifted it. I stuffed them back in but noticed there was no other money inside.

That was strange.Chad had made such a big deal of taking me out for a nice dinner last night, and then ordered that expensive bottle of wine. He’d said he’d been saving money just for the occasion. If that was the case, where was the rest of his money? Three dollars wouldn’t have even paid a fraction of the tip on last night’s bill. I stared down at his wallet, trying to remember what he’d said. Maybe I’d misunderstood. But the longer I thought about it, the more sure I was that he’d said it the way I remembered. For a crazy moment, I wondered if it had all been an act to get me to pay for dinner. But Chad wouldn’t do that. Would he?

I looked at the wall clock in the kitchen. He should have finished his last class an hour and a half ago. Even with taking the time to go back to his dorm and clean up, he should have called by now. Maybe something had happened to him.

I pulled on my coat, slipped his wallet in my purse, and drove to the college.

He’d shown me around campus and pointed out his dorm, but I’d never been inside. Wondering if it was okay to go in there, I glanced down to look at my watch. Then I remembered I had put it in my jewelry box until I could get it fixed. I hadn’t had the heart to buy a cheap replacement. Even without seeing the time, I knew I should have heard from him by now and the cell phone in my purse hadn’t rung once.

Nervously, I walked in the dorm entrance and was thankful to see a sort of lounge room and a front desk. Going up to the front room, I asked the man there if he would ring Chad’s room.

The man grinned. “Sorry, honey, you’re too late. He’s already gone out. He’s doing a show tonight, if you know what I mean. He’s at the little restaurant by campus. There’s a bachelorette party going on there tonight. Yep, the babes sure do like getting those big surprises. And Chad does it better than anybody else, from what I hear. He’s been so busy doing it lately, he hasn’t had time to do front desk duty. Guess he can’t get enough, huh?”

I turned around and hurried back to my car without answering. I couldn’t believe it.Chad told me he had quit doing that since we’d started dating seriously. There had to be some mistake. There just had to be. Within twenty minutes, I pulled into the parking lot at the same restaurant where we’d gone that first night.

I felt guilty for even believing what I’d heard. Obviously, the man was enjoying teasing me at my own expense. But still, I thought back on several afternoons lately when I’d hoped he’d call or come by but he hadn’t until evening. And Chad hadn’t wanted to eat at this restaurant last night. Was it because he really wanted to take me somewhere nice, or was it because too many of the people there would recognize him. Was he afraid that I’d find out he’d lied? And how had he planned on taking me to dinner with just three dollars?

I gripped the steering wheel harder and drove slowly through the packed parking lot. There wasn’t an empty space in sight. I drove on around the back to look for a space and slammed on the brakes.

There, parked right behind the building, was Chad’s old car. I felt my heart crumble. He’d lied to me. I was such a fool. He’d obviously just strung me along until I’d gone to bed with him. Tears rolled down my cheeks. I wiped them away, but more just kept coming as I thought of how he’d even tricked me into paying for last night’s expensive dinner.

Well, he wasn’t going to get away with making a fool of me without me telling him how despicable I thought he was. I pulled up and parked my car directly behind his so he couldn’t get out. I sat there for a long time, just staring at his car and waiting. But finally, when I was beginning to shiver, I grabbed my purse and stomped toward the rear employee entrance. I was so upset that I was shivering and crying by the time I made it the few yards across the snowy parking lot and inside the restaurant.

Heat blasted at me like an oven, warming me immediately. I wondered how the employees could stand  to work in this heat. Hearing a burst of applause from inside made me think of Chad and why I was there. I kept walking but didn’t go ten feet before I saw him.

He was whistling and looking perfectly happy. I let my teary eyes drift down. His naked chest glistened back at me.

Oh, God. It was true.

“How could you?” I screamed. Yanking open my purse, I grabbed his wallet and slung it over the shelves at him.

Chad looked over and froze. At least, he had the decency to look ashamed. Who was I kidding? Decency? The man didn’t know the meaning of the word.

I turned and ran for the back door. Suddenly, strong hands grabbed me from behind. I whirled around and slapped at Chad’s naked chest. “Let go of me!”

“Not until you tell me what’s going on. Is it because of dinner last night? I found the money in my other pants at the dorm. I was going to tell you—”

I jerked away, trying to free my arms to wipe away the tears that blurred my vision, but his hands held my arms to my sides. I glared up at him through my tears. “After seeing you here like this, I never want to speak to you again. Is that clear enough for you?”

His hands loosened on my arms but he didn’t let go. His voice sounded full of pain. “So, this really makes that much difference to you? To us?”

“Of course it does! How can I love you when I can’t even trust you? You said you gave up doing your strip show for me.”

His hands dropped from my arms. “For what it’s worth, I did.” Then he turned and began to walk away.

A dishtowel hung from a shelf near me. I grabbed it and furiously wiped my tears away so I could watch him as he walked out of my life. My eyes dropped lower. I couldn’t help it. Just once more I wanted to see the whole man to whom I’d given my heart.

Worn blue jeans clung to his backside and legs. A wet dish scrubber stuck out of one hip pocket. Something tickled my arms and I looked down to see a stream of suds trailing along my skin.

What in the world?

A loud clatter drew my attention as a waiter I recognized came in and set down a tray full of dirty dishes. “Hey,Chad,” he called over his shoulder as he headed back inside. “The boss says he needs another tray of plates at the serving table pronto.”

Shock and my own stupidity hit me like a freight train. God, what had I done? Chad wasn’t doing a strip show—he was washing dishes. No wonder he hadn’t wanted to go there for dinner.

I ran to him. “Chad, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it.”

He looked up at me with tears in his own eyes. “No, Kelly. Don’t. I should have known it was too much to ask for you not to care. You deserve someone better than a damn dishwasher.”

That time I grabbed his arms. “No! You’re wrong. I thought you were here because you were showing off for other women like when I first met you. I was so jealous and hurt I didn’t pay attention to anything.” I shoved one hand in the soapy dishwater and splashed it in the air. “I don’t care about this.”

He stood there for a long moment, just staring at me silently. He explained that the only reason he was shirtless was because he’d spilled a platter of food, and was changing his shirt.

Had I ruined everything with my jealousy and doubt? Finally he said, “Don’t move.” Then he strode over to a small set of metal lockers along a far wall. He pulled out something, and walked back to me with it cupped in his hand.

He looked so serious I was afraid to blink for fear of missing something important. “Give me your hand,” he told me.

I held out my left hand, palm up. He gently placed a lovely gold watch in my hand.

“Merry Christmas,” he told me. “I know it can’t replace the watch your dad gave you, but it’s given with just as much love. And the jeweler told me he has a nice wedding band that matches it, later on when we’re ready for it.”

I stared down at the beautiful watch and then at Chad’s wet soapy hands and started crying all over again. Only that time they were tears of joy. I gripped it tightly to my heart and said the only thing I knew to say.

“It’s the most wonderful gift anyone has ever given me. I love you,Chad.”

When one of my tears dropped on the watch, I started to wipe it on my blouse.

Chad smiled. “Don’t worry. It’s waterproof.” He held up his dishwater-covered hands. “Just like me. Now hush and come here.”

When he pulled me into his arms, I kissed him with all the love I felt. He was right. Sometimes you needed words and other times, all you needed was love.

 

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