I fold the shiny red paper into a triangle and place a small square of tape in the exact center. Perfect. My Secret Santa gift to Ezra Whitley, the hottest guy in the office and maybe the country, is so him, I can’t wait for him to open it.
“Is that it?” My assistant, Jen, asks as she slips into my office and shuts the door behind her. She’s not my assistant alone. She helps five attorneys at Dewey, Cheetum, & Howell. (Kidding. It’s Torrance, Johnson & Whitley). But I’m pretty sure she likes me the best, seeing as we’ve been best friends since college.
“Of course. What else would it be?” I ask.
She flaps her hand as she does when she’s asked a rhetorical question. “He’s in the conference room with everyone else. You can slip into his office now.”
I grin, and donning my Santa hat, hum All I Want for Christmas is You under my breath as I creep to Ezra’s corner office. My own office is in the middle of the long hallway across from the copier room, but I don’t mind. I love my job. I work on family law cases, which is what I’ve always aimed for.
Ezra is one of the partners and handles criminal defense. He’s been working on a big homicide case for months. The media has captured many photos of him following his client saying, “No comment.”
I sigh over how gorgeous he is. He always parts his dark hair on the left with just enough product to keep it in place. His hazel eyes have a dizzying array of brown, green and gold ringing the pupil. Those eyes can snare me—zap!—in a nanosecond. They did once, when I was having a conversation with one of my coworkers in the break room. Ezra had come in and heard us talking about the best beach vacation spots and he’d joined in. I’d looked like a fool, smiling and nodding even as he left the room. I have no idea what he’d said.
“Fuck.” Why am I so lame? My shoulders droop as I push open his office door and place the shiny red giftbox in the middle of his desk. It faces the door, away from the window, but I often see him turned around staring out over the city.
“You are not pathetic,” Jen whispers. “Hurry up!”
“How did you know that’s what I was thinking?” I rush back.
“You said it out loud, Charley.”
My face heats as I sneak out and close the door halfway. “Do you think I’ve ever said what I’m thinking out loud to Ezra?”
Jen adjusts the collar of her sexy elf costume and presses her red lips together. “I don’t think so. You tend to clam up around him.”
She rubs my arm. “It’s not good. You need to talk to him.”
I gape. “Hell, no. I can’t have a decent conversation with any guy I date. Let alone the most gorgeous one in the world.”
I make a sound like an irate monkey and twirl around. Ezra’s smile is mesmerizing, and I can’t tear my eyes away. It’s the tiniest bit crooked, and a shallow dimple waits to pop out, but it never does. I’ve fantasized about that dimple. I want to lick it and feel the rasp of his stubble on my tongue as he ravishes my body.
My face feels hotter than freshly microwaved pizza pockets, and I smile and stammer until Jen takes pity on me and says, “Do you know Nick Bateman?”
“The Canadian actor? Yeah. He’s handsome. Not sure If I’d call him the hottest guy in the world though.”
I glare at Jen and hastily rearrange my face as Ezra looks at me. Jen said that on purpose because Ezra resembles Nick Bateman. It makes me like Ezra even more because it tells me he’s not narcissistic at all. But I already knew that.
“Who would you say is?” Jen asks, again for me because she knows that’s what I’m thinking and I can’t open my stupid mouth around Ezra, unless it has to do with a case.
He looks fantastic today, as usual. He started the day in a three-piece navy suit with a dark gray vest straight out of the 1920s, I know because I obsessively wait for him by the receptionist desk in the mornings under the guise of talking to Karen. He shed a few layers as the party began, and now wears only a form-fitting white button-up shirt, undone at the collar with the sleeves rolled to his elbows. His forearms are another part of my nightly fantasies. The tops have a light sprinkling of hair, and the smooth inner arms have twin veins running up them, not in grotesque way, just enough to hint that he works out regularly.
Unlike me, who hasn’t seen the inside of a gym since Bush was President. I’ll let you figure out which one. And that was the main reason for my many self-esteem issues. I was roughly the size of a small silver back gorilla. Weighing in at—none of your business, Nosy Nelly.
I come back to the conversation as Ezra says, “Paul Rudd.”
My heart speeds up, and Jen glances at me with a smile. “What a coincidence,” she says. I try to step on her pointy elf shoe but, wise to my tricks, she deftly moves away. “Many people have said Charley looks like Paul Rudd. Isn’t that right, Charley?”
“Well,” I clear the boulder in my throat, hoping I’ve caught tuberculosis, so I never have to come back here and face Ezra again. “They’ve said it. Doesn’t mean it’s true.”
Ezra’s smile softens as he looks in my eyes. “I can see it.”
Oh, holy shit. What is happening right now? I’m sure I resemble a beached whale as my jaw moves around and I shift on my feet. Jen tries and succeeds in stepping on my brown oxford.
I snap my mouth closed and smile at Ezra. “Oh, um…thanks.”
With a final quirk of lips and a nod, he walks away. His hands are in his pockets, and they pull the rich material of his suit pants tight across his perfect ass.
Jen nudges me.
“I know I’m staring,” I whisper as I wipe my chin, not looking for drool.
Her blue eyes are wide as I look at her, and we break into twin giggles.
My spine feels funny, like it’s not there anymore. “I pray to all that is Mariah Carey, please, please, let him like his present,” I say.
Jen laughs and pulls me down the hall to the Christmas party. She thinks I’m kidding.
As soon as I turn the corner of the hall, I palm my forehead. What am I doing? Flirting with one of the junior associates? Sure, Charles is gay, but that’s no excuse. Sexual harassment is a big no-no in the firm. I should know, I’m in charge of making sure HR is on top of it. I’d had to leave my last job when one of the senior partners wouldn’t leave me alone, groping me in our “private meetings” and taking me on long lunches to hotel restaurants. I’d reported him to HR several times, but they’d done nothing to stop it.
I sigh as I enter my office. The lights are off, but enough comes in from the hall that the present on my desk shines with red sparkles. A smile overtakes my face because I know it’s from Charley. That hadn’t been there an hour ago when I’d gone to the Christmas party, and Charley and Jen have no other reason to the be on this side of the office at this time of day.
I suppose Jen could be my Secret Santa, but something tells me it’s Charley. It’s too prettily wrapped. It reminds me of him. He always takes such good care of everything and everyone. I idly wonder if he has any idea how amazing that makes him?
I was happy when Charles Vastano joined our family law team. He’s made for that kind of work. He has a soft spot for single moms. I heard him explain once that he’d grown up that way, and his mom had done everything she could to help him through school.
I wonder what that was like? Growing up with two parents hadn’t made my home life any better than Charley’s must have been with his mom. My parents hadn’t raised me, Mrs. Stafford, the nanny, had.
I pick up the box. I hate to tear the paper. It’s so nicely wrapped, even has a fancy red and silver bow with a charm attached. I turn it around and see it’s a tiny guitar. How did he know?
I pick at the tape with my fingernail.
I turn at the sound of Jason’s voice. He’s a paralegal, not much younger than me, and we’d hit it off when I’d started here.
He’s leaning in with both hands on the doorjamb, blond hair askew, suit rumpled. “What’s that?”
“Secret Santa present.”
“I thought we were doing that at the party?” He comes in, cheeks already flushed with alcohol. “Charley’s handing them out as Santa.”
I shrug. “I guess this one’s private.”
“Who’s it from?”
“Do you need to google the word ‘secret’?”
“Fuck you,” he says.
I grin as I open the end and slide the box out without ripping the paper. Tinkling laughter echoes down the hallway as a couple rushes by. I shake my head. Christmas is an HR nightmare…but I let it go. I don’t want to be a Scrooge. I like Christmas, but it’s been harder this year for some reason.
Jason scowls out the door. “If I hear Last Christmas one more time, I’m going to replace all the music playing with Slayer.”
I laugh as I open the box, then freeze. “Oh, my God.”
I hear a gasp. “Holy shit, Ez.”
Jason stands at my elbow, staring down into the box with me. I pick up the black frame. Inside is a vinyl record of The Beatles Abbey Road. It’s signed by Paul McCartney.
I grope for the edge of my desk and sit. I have no words. It’s a double-sided frame, and Jason takes it from me, inspecting both sides of the album. “Who? How?”
I open my mouth, but for some reason, I can’t say Charley’s name. I look around my office. I have a few things that hint of my love of music, but nothing Beatles specific. How did he know?
Jason hands it back. “There’s no way this is a Secret Santa gift. It’s too expensive. Maybe someone snuck in while everyone was at the party?”
Yeah, Charley. I don’t say it, still unsure why I’m not naming him, only that it’s private. I guard my crush on Charley. He really does look like a Paul Rudd impersonator. He’s got soft green eyes, a slightly bumpy nose with a round tip, and a boyish smile that makes the corners of his eyes crinkle even though he’s not even forty yet.
Jason waves in my face as I smile, remembering the earlier conversation in the hall, and Charley saying he got tongue tied. It’s true. He does it around me often. And while it’s adorable, I want to have a proper conversation with him. And now I have the perfect excuse. I’ll make him tell me about the album.
I blink at Jason’s sigh. “Not listening to me I see.”
“You know who it is, don’t you?”
“I have an idea.” I take the frame and set it gently on my desk blotter.
“And you’re not going to tell your best friend?”
“Hell no.” I usher him out, shut the door, and lock it. There’s precious stuff inside. “You’d ruin everything.”
Jason gasps with a hand on his chest. His necklace of Christmas bulbs lights up. “I resent that!”
“No, you don’t.” I push him ahead of me. “You’re a sadist. You revel in that.”
His grin is evil. “It depends on the person. I like to torture people I like. Not hapless idiots.”
“Are you assuming the person who gave me that gift is a hapless idiot?”
“They’re obviously in love with you. So, yes. Yes, I am.”
I stop. Frozen to the spot. The party is in sight across the small cubicle area, and I can hear shouting and laughter.
Jason turns when he realizes I’m no longer beside him. His eyes widen. “Shit, Ez. Are you…” He stops with a sly look on his face. “Come on. Let’s get in there. I can hear Charley’s Santa voice.” He comes over and hooks his elbow through mine and tugs. “It’s really cute. He’s the perfect guy for it. He’s so sweet and giving already.” He pushes me forward. “Right? Ezra?”
“Huh?” I’m still reeling from the love comment. “Uh, yeah. Sweet.”
Someone chokes behind me. Charley isn’t in the party; he’s behind me. I turn and glare at Jason, who waves and saunters into the conference room without a care.
“Hi,” I say.
“Hi.” Charley takes a few cautious steps closer.
Cue awkward pause. “Is it Santa time yet?”
“Yes. I’d better get go… get in there…Yeah.” He blushes under his white beard, and I want to cup his cheeks and kiss him.
He rushes by in his red Santa suit and hat. He really goes all out. An unfamiliar swoosh in my stomach makes me pause, and I rub it. I feel weightless and grounded at the same time, as if I’m safe and yet free to fly.
I’m not sure if I want to kick Jason or strangle him more. Sweet and giving? He’s made me sound like a granny knitting sweaters for orphans. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s not exactly a sexy image.
I walk into the party in a daze, Ezra following behind me. Jen grabs my arm and tugs me over to a sea of gift bags and tissue paper. Very few people bothered with wrapping. I’m slightly affronted. Gifts shouldn’t be an obligation.
I wonder if Ezra opened his. What did he think? Oh, I hope he liked it. I squeeze Jen and she lets out an, “Oof.”
She laughs and pats my back. “You’re on Santa.”
I put on a smile and deepen my voice. A few naughty elves try to sit on my lap. The eggnog and punch have been well and truly spiked. I can smell the rum on their breath soaking into my pores. The suit is making me hot and itchy, or maybe that’s Ezra’s stare, that hasn’t really left me since we entered the room.
Maybe he knows the gift is from me. He did see me in the hallway not far from his office. Have I given too much of myself away? The thought makes my heart race. Oh, God. Will it be awkward now? More than it already is, I mean. Will he hate me? Be uncomfortable? Will I need a new job?
I take a cup from someone without thinking, chug the rum with a splash of punch and feel slightly nauseous, but I soldier on. I leave my own present for last. Everyone is occupied, so I shed the hat and beard, running a hand through my sweaty hair. I fish through the tissue paper in a Rudolph bag and pull out…a paleo diet book.
I’m hoping my embarrassed flush will be chalked up to the beard or alcohol. I stuff the book back in its bag with a pleasant smile on my face in case my Secret Santa is watching and go back for more punch.
“Easy, there.” Jen takes my cup and drinks it herself.
“Um, excuse you? Why is it okay for you to drink, but not me?” I reach for it but it’s empty.
“Because Ezra is looking at you…and, oh, shit!” she squeaks and scrambles away.
Ezra stares after Jen with concern but turns to me with one of his gorgeous smiles. I melt a little bit. Or a lot.
“Can I talk to you?” he asks.
“Of course.” My heart thumps but my stomach sinks in a curious mix of hope and dread. I throw my cup away, snag my gift bag, and follow Ezra out of the room where several people are making up their own lyrics to Baby it’s Cold Outside.
He stops out of sight of the party and turns on his heel. “It was you, wasn’t it?” He stands close, and he smells so good, I forget to answer him. “Charley?”
His hand is on my arm and I stare down at it without comprehending for so long, Ezra must wonder how I passed the bar. He called me Charley. “Sorry?”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” I lift my eyes. “Thank you.”
“Good.” He takes his hand back and shoves it in his pocket. “Was it you? My Secret Santa?”
“It’s supposed to be a secret.” I panic when his face falls. “But, yes. I’m sorry-”
“Why are you apologizing? Charley, that’s the most amazing thing anyone has ever gotten me.”
“Really?” I beam, possibly resembling Steven Tyler on acid, but I can’t stop myself.
“Yes, really. I…” He reaches out. His hand curls into a fist, and he drops it before it reaches me. “Thank you.” His voice is so deep and sincere, I’m astonished to feel tears prick the corners of my eyes.
“How in the world did you get it? Please, don’t tell me you spent a fortune on it. I know it’s rude to ask about the price of a gift, but…Charley.” His eyes implore me.
My smile softens. “Don’t worry another second. It was a second-hand gift. My aunt’s third husband died. She hated him…don’t ask,” I say when he blinks. “So, she gave me most of his belongings. I told her it would be worth some money, but she liked the idea of him not getting money for it—” I roll my eyes “—in the afterlife.” I shake my head at his perplexed look. “I hope that doesn’t taint it for you.”
Ezra blinks. “Oh, no. But did you not want it?”
I wave my hand. “It’s not a problem. I swear. I like The Beatles but I’m not a huge fan like you.”
“How did you know? That I’m a fan?” he clarifies.
I fidget with my gift bag. “I may have heard you talking to Jason when I was poking around for a good present idea for you.” I peek at him and am relieved when he smiles. It’s almost bashful.
“I’m very grateful. Thank you,” he says again. This time he touches me when he reaches out.
“You’re welcome. Merry Christmas or, you know, Happy Holidays.” I wince. “Sorry.”
He laughs. “Do you always do that? Apologize?”
I sigh. “It’s a bad habit.” I use all my willpower to not say sorry again.
He sidles even closer, and I hold my breath. Is this really happening?
“I want to get you something.”
“No!” I lower my voice when he jerks. “Sorry. Thank you, but I already got my Secret Santa gift, so there’s no reason.” I hold up my bag.
“I don’t care about that.” Ezra takes it from me and tosses it on a desk. “This is going to be from me to you.”
“Oh.” I hear the breathy, Marilyn Monroeness of my voice and cough to cover it up. “Thank you.”
He’s so close now we must be breathing the same air. I hope my breath doesn’t smell like cheap rum.
“I don’t know you very well, so I don’t know what your perfect gift would be, but I have a proposition for you.”
My heart sings. “Yes?”
Ezra’s eyes hypnotize me. “I want to spend the next two weeks with you in our spare time and figure it out for myself. And on Christmas Day, I’ll give it to you.”
A fucking adorable smile lights Charley’s face, and I can’t help but return it.
“Christmas Day? Really?” he asks.
I struggle to contain my smile. “Yes. Unless you’re out of town or something?”
“Oh, no. I’ll be around. Ma and I have dinner with my aunt on Christmas Eve, and then we open presents at midnight.”
“That sounds nice.”
“It is. We have too much to eat and drink too much wine, then my aunt passes out in the recliner watching A Charlie Brown Christmas, but wakes up for presents.”
I think back to my last three Christmases spent in Aspen with people I wouldn’t trust to watch my drink at the bar. “I’m free Saturday afternoon. I’m coming to your place.”
His rosy cheeks pale. “What?”
“I told you I have to figure out the perfect gift for you. That means we’re spending all the time together that we can manage.” My autocratic tendencies are peeking out, but I can’t help feeling that Charley thinks I’m just blowing smoke. “I’m serious.”
He runs his fingers through his dark brown locks and blows out a breath. “I’ll have to clean.”
“Don’t do too much. I’m not looking for a hotel room. I’m looking for the real Charles Vastano.”
He gulps and my smile stretches.
“I’ll call you tomorrow. Be careful getting home,” I call out over my shoulder.
He waves as I walk away. I go to my office and grab my coat and scarf, and of course, my gift. I can’t remember the last time I smiled so much.
“Leaving so soon?” Jason pops his head in my office.
“I am. Are you okay to get home?” I thread my scarf ends through a loop around my neck and pull.
“Of course, I’m not in fucking high school.”
“Well, young man, make sure you’re home by eleven.”
He snorts. “I don’t think I’m in danger of getting Lee pregnant.”
“Lee? Don’t be stupid.”
“What? He’s sober…ish.”
I shake my head. “I won’t hear the end of it from Sue.”
“Lee’s not going to report me to HR. It’s after hours.”
I can’t tell him about confidential stuff, so I look at him with my best “boss” face. “Don’t.”
“Pfft.” He checks the hall behind him. “Sooo, tell me about cutey Santa. What happened?”
My sudden grin startles Jason and he whoops. “So, it was him? Yes!”
“It was. I’m going to spend some time with him and figure out a present for him for Christmas Day.”
“Christmas Day?” I recognize the look on Jason’s face. The same one he gets every year when he asks if I’d consider coming to his families’ house upstate.
He knows I’ve never had cause to celebrate the holidays. My parents would always travel. Dad worked the whole time. Mom networked with the wives to wrangle tennis tournaments and fundraisers for causes they never had to worry about. I usually stayed home if I could manage it. Mrs. Stafford was good to me, but she was always careful not to cross the line over into family territory and stayed professional.
His eyes light up. “No Aspen?”
“That’s great, Ez.”
“I’m not spending Christmas with him. I’m just giving him his gift that day.”
Jason hums. “Whatever you say, boss.” He turns rather tipsily to walk away, necklace blinking like mad. “Just for the record, I like Charley. He’s a good guy.”
I bite back the retort on my lips. I already know he is.
Jen comes up as I’m staring after Ezra’s retreating back. “He wants to come over tomorrow.”
“Babe.” Her eyes round.
“I know. He wants to get me a present.”
She clings to my arm and hops, the bells on her shoes ringing. I shrug and start to hop with her.
“Oh my gosh. This is perfect!”
“Wait.” I stop hopping. “That means I have to actually speak to him.”
“Charley.” She takes my face and squeezes. “You were just talking to him like a normal person. You can do this.”
I take a deep breath. “I can do this.”
“You can.” She makes a fist and pumps it.
My shoulders fall. “What if he’s just being nice? It’s not like he said anything about dating.” I sit in Stacy’s cubicle chair.
Jen perches her little elf butt on the desk in front of me. “Well, then use this as an opportunity to put the idea in his head. Or just ask him out.”
“Oh, sure. The troll asking the god out for brunch.”
Jen slaps my shoulder. “You are not a troll.”
“I’m nowhere near Ezra’s level.”
“Yes, you are. A number on the scale doesn’t erase what a good person you are. I wish you could see yourself the way other people do.” Jen sniffs. “And besides, you’re not ugly. Far from it. You’re good looking. And, so what if you don’t have a six pack? A lot of guys don’t. You’ve got one of those dad bods. A hot dad bod. Even though you’re not a dad.”
I start to laugh. “Thanks, Jen.”
Jen’s lips curl as she stares at me. “Once you guys are comfortable with each other, that stuff doesn’t matter.”
“We’re getting ahead of ourselves,” I say. “Like I said, he didn’t say anything about dating.”
Jen gets a funny look on her face as Jason saunters by with Lee. “We’ll see.”
I shake my head and stand. “I’m going home. Do you need a ride?”
“No. Go on. I’ve got mom’s car.”
I give her a hug. “Okay. Be careful.”
I make my way out of the office slowly, thoughts of the next day swirling in my brain. I drive home, traffic light since it’s late. I pick up rogue socks and coffee cups, then shower and fall into bed. I decide to let it lie. We aren’t getting married for God’s sake, we’re hanging out, that’s all. I have to stop putting so much pressure on myself.
I nod off with Ezra’s eyes on my mind.
I look up at Charley’s building. It’s in an older Brooklyn neighborhood. Children run around the small yards, building snowmen and throwing snowballs, and I’m a little worried about their bloodthirsty shrieks.
I take the stairs to the second floor and knock on the door. It opens immediately to a smiling Charley. I smile back. “Hi.”
“Hi.” He moves aside. “Come in.” He’s wearing jeans and a Christmas sweater.
“Thanks.” I walk in and toe off my boots. “Those kids are serious about their snowballs.”
Charley laughs. “Most of them are good kids. They play hard.”
I look around. His apartment is decorated with red and green lights and a small tree sits on a table with a bunch of presents beside it. Garland is wrapped around a banister between the living area and small kitchen. It smells like a Williams Sonoma and feels cozy and warm.
“I like your place.”
“Oh, thanks.” Charley shuffles by me where I stand scanning his bookshelf. Cozy mysteries. Cute. “Can I get you a drink?”
“Sure. Whatever you’re having is fine.”
He clinks around in the kitchen, as I study his art and photos.
I bend to look at a photo of Charley and a woman with short dark hair. “Is this your mom?”
“You look alike.”
He smiles as he hands me a coffee cup. “Have a seat.”
He doesn’t seem as nervous today.
“Feeling any residual effects from the party?” I ask.
“No. I only had a little punch.”
“So, tell me about Charles Vastano.” He chokes on his coffee and coughs. “Shit. Are you okay?”
He chuckles and wipes his chin. “Yes. Sorry, I just had a flashback to my job interview.”
I wince. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to spring that on you.” I run my fingers through my hair. “Give me your top five weaknesses.”
He laughs and gets more comfortable. “I never understood those interview questions. You’ve done a lot of interviews. Why do you ask them?”
“I honestly don’t know. Someone gave me a sheet of questions to ask. Sometimes I feel like mixing it up just to see if the other partners notice. ‘What exactly are you hiding in that shoebox in your bedroom closet?’ ”
“Oh, man, that would be mean,” he laughs.
“It would. But so much fun just to see the panic on their face.”
“Wow. I had no idea you had an evil streak.”
I narrow my eyes playfully. “Making assumptions, Mr. Vastano? I’ll have you know I can be just as evil as the next person.”
“Of course, you can.”
“I am a highly sought-after defense attorney. How many of those do you know who are fluffy kittens?”
“Oh, now who’s making assumptions? Not all lawyers are ruthless, soulless assholes.”
I laugh. “You’re right. You’re a lawyer, and you’re probably the nicest guy I’ve ever met.”
He’d been doing well, but as soon as I say those words, he blushes and ducks his head.
“So,” I look around for inspiration. “You like mysteries. Is that all you like to read?”
“Not all. But those are fun and relaxing. They don’t take a lot of brain power for me to enjoy, you know?”
“Sure. What else?”
We continue to talk about his favorite authors and move on to movies, and whenever he tries to steer the conversation to me, I deflect. This is about him, so I can figure him out.
After an hour, we decide to head out for some lunch. I pull on my coat and look over to find Charley turning in a circle looking for his sleeve.
“Wait, wait.” I smile. “Here.” I fish it out and help him thread his arm through the sleeve.
I’m standing close when he looks up and says, “Thanks.”
I breathe in his cologne and say, “You’re welcome.”
We walk down the stairs and outside, dodging snowballs. Charley takes me to a deli on the corner of his block.
“This place has great Reubens. Is that okay?”
We walk into warmth and heavenly smells and sit at a high-top.
“Charley!” The woman from Charley’s photo comes up to our table.
“Hi, Ma.” Charley leans over and kisses her cheek.
“Who’s your friend?”
“This is a colleague from work. Ezra Whitley.”
I smile. “Ms. Vastano. Pleasure to meet you.”
She beams and grabs my neck in a hug, squeezing with all her might. “Oh, you’re so handsome. I didn’t know my Charley knew such a good-looking man.” Letting go, she kisses both my cheeks.
I laugh. “Thank you. I didn’t know Charley had such a beautiful mother.”
She swats her son’s shoulder. “Charm. See Charley. This is what you need. Someone charming.”
“Ma! Stop it. We’re just colleagues.”
He rolls his eyes at me in apology, and I chuckle.
“Fine. Fine.” She looks between us with a smile. “What can I get you boys?”
“Two Reubens. And a water.”
I nod. “Coffee for me, please.”
She hustles off and we face each other. I smile at his embarrassment.
“She’s great,” I say.
“Oh.” He runs a hand over his hair. “Yeah. She is. I guess it’s a rule written in their DNA. ‘Must embarrass offspring as much as possible’.”
“You’re lucky she cares enough to ask questions that might embarrass you.”
Charley blinks and slow smile softens his face. “You’re right. I’m lucky to have her. What about you? Has your mother ever humiliated you?”
I shake my head. “No. I haven’t seen my parents in a few years.”
He pauses unraveling his scarf and stares at me in stupefaction. “Oh, God. I’m sorry. Do…are they…” He pauses to blow out a breath. “You know what? It’s none of my business. Sorry.”
“There you go apologizing again,” I murmur as I tug on the end of his scarf and slide it off his shoulders. “They’re emotionally bankrupt. They put me through private schools and hired a nanny to raise me. I know. Boo-hoo. Poor rich kid.”
Charley scowls; the first time I’ve ever seen such an expression on him. “Money or no money, it doesn’t automatically mean you had a good childhood.”
“What happened to your father?” I ask, trying to stick to my plan.
“He left. I was barely two, so Ma says. I don’t remember him. She said he was a mechanic who had no intention of starting a family.”
He shrugs. “I’m sure we were better off without him, in the long run. I suppose the extra income would have been nice when we hit a rough patch, but Ma took care of us. She was always waiting tables, but she started to bartend and that was better tips. Her dream was always this.” He indicates the deli. “She wanted her own place. Once I was out of the house, she started to save up. I got scholarships and grants and worked to put myself through school. As soon as I could afford it, I helped her open this place.”
I don’t realize I have a sappy smile on my face until Mrs. Vastano comes back with our drinks and laughs.
She leans and whispers, “You’re smitten with my Charley. He’s a good man. You be careful with him.”
I’m not one for being embarrassed easily, but my cheeks grow warm, and I give her a smile and a nod.
“Ma, what did you say?”
“None of your beeswax. You boys enjoy your lunch. Oh, Charley, be a good boy and go help your aunt Gale with her Christmas decorations.”
She pats my cheek, gives Charley a look, and walks off.
I can’t help but chuckle. “So, I guess we know what we’re doing the rest of the day.”
He coughs in his water. “Oh, my God, no. You don’t have to come with me.” He wipes his chin with a napkin. “She just needs help with reaching high up and stuff, that’s all.”
I shrug. “I told you I’d be spending all available time we have between now and Christmas figuring you out, Charley.” I lean over the table. So close, I can see a dark ring outlining his green irises. “If that means helping your aunt with her Christmas decorations, then that’s what I want to do.”
“You’re crazy,” he says, but I can see the shy happiness on his face.
Our food arrives, and we eat in peaceful silence.
Charley’s Aunt Gale is just like her sister with short dark hair and a penchant for making Charley squirm. I laugh a lot and drink a cup of eggnog I’m not sure was legal. It was more fun than I’ve ever had with a woman twice my age.
We help with her tree, an old fake silver one straight out of a box and wrap red and green lights around her porch railings. It’s getting dark by the time we take a cab back to Charley’s place.
We’re standing under the lights of the front stoop of his building. “You don’t have to come in. You must be getting tired of me by now.”
I step closer. “Charley,” I whisper. “Where does all this self-doubt come from?” He moves away, subtly but enough to make me pause. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to put you on the spot.” I step back. “I can go.”
“Oh, no. I’m sorry. It’s not you. I-I…”
I take his gloved hand in mine. “Hey, it’s okay. I’m a pushy bastard. Sometimes you have to hit me over the head before I realize I’m being overbearing.”
“You’re not. I’m a little overwhelmed…with all of you.” He waves his hand over me and I smile.
“Your mom says I’m handsome.” I step close again still holding his hand. “Do you share that opinion?” He lowers his head, and I tuck my hand under his chin and lift it. “You and Jen were talking about it in the hallway, weren’t you?”
“Well, I think you’re handsome, and kind, and giving. And I want to get you the perfect gift, but I think I also want to get you.”
“Get me? Get me what?” And then it dawns on him. “Oh.”
He falls against the brick wall of the building. Snowflakes dance in the wind under the glow of the lamp. I lean in until our lips are inches apart, waiting for him to stop me. His eyelids droop to half-mast, and he closes the remaining distance to my lips.
Ezra’s lips taste like winter. He’d taken a candy from the front register when we left Ma’s deli and stuck it in his pocket. The frigid temperature makes the mint cold on his breath. I kissed him. Me. I never make the first move, which is probably why I’m still single. Shit, what if this isn’t what he was after? It seemed like it was.
I stop kissing him, trying to remember how to breathe voluntarily, and wait for him to speak. Is he annoyed? Pissed? Oh, God. What if he’s disgusted? He asked me about my self-doubt, and it’s true, I can’t seem to stop the negative thoughts swirling in my brain.
But instead of speaking, Ezra steps in closer, squishing me to the front of his body, and slants his lips over mine.
I think I make a sound, but I’m too distracted to think about it, which is nice for a change. He must not mind that I’m not as built as he is because he thrusts his leg between mine. He smells delicious, even after helping me dig through Aunt Gale’s dusty boxes, and I want to lick his neck, but I’m afraid that would come off as slightly carnivorous, so I settle with licking my lips to keep his taste on my tongue a few extra seconds.
Our eyes lock as we catch our breath.
“I didn’t plan on mauling you,” he says.
My breath is a puff of white as I laugh. “That’s more than okay.”
His smile does that crooked thing I love, and he eases away. Cold air rushes between us, leaching his body heat from mine, and I shiver.
“You better get inside.”
“What about you?”
“I think I’d better head home for tonight.”
“Okay.” I straighten away from the wall and unlock the door. “Thanks for coming over. I had a good day.”
“Me too. I’ve learned a lot about you today.”
I smile. “You really don’t have to get me anything, you know.”
He ignores that. “Can I see you tomorrow?”
I can’t help saying, “Are you sure?”
“All our spare time, remember?”
I blow out a white plume. “You’re so stubborn.”
He smiles and dances down the front steps.
“Don’t slip!” I say. “How about lunch again?”
“What’s one of your favorite places in the city?”
I think about it. “Meet me back here before noon.”
“A surprise, huh?” He looks at the car he’d somehow summoned. Was I really that distracted? “I can work with that. Goodnight, Charley,” he says as he walks backwards.
I don’t remember going upstairs or letting myself in my apartment, but suddenly I’m on the couch with my coat still on, and all I can think about are Ezra’s lips.
I let out an undignified sound, a cross between a squeal and a mating call, and dial Jen. She’s got to hear about this.
Ezra is early, and I can’t seem to wipe the grin off my face. I can’t believe this is my life right now. I’ve done nothing but fantasize about Ezra since I first started at the firm, and I kissed him last night! We’re spending time together, and as Jen pointed out, that’s traditionally known as dating. I wasn’t sure about that yet, but I liked the idea. Loved it, in fact.
Unsurprisingly, he looks gorgeous in a cream cashmere sweater, dark blue jeans, and smooth Italian leather boots. I try my hardest not to feel frumpy in my old jeans and Yankees hoodie. But, well…Ezra wants to get to know the real me.
“This is a typical weekend outfit. As you can see, I value comfort over style.”
“You look great.”
I give him a skeptical look but try to let it go. “Thanks. You look amazing. You always do.” I’m slightly mortified but my breathy voice, but I can’t control it around him. I’ve tried, and it’s something I’ve resigned myself to live with. Otherwise, I’d be forced to leave the city and get a job fighting parking tickets.
He smiles. “Thank you. Are we heading out?”
“Yeah, let’s go.” I put on a hat but leave off my coat since it’s not as cold out today.
“Are you going to tell me where we’re going?”
We walk a few blocks west and then north, and I stop in front of a store. It’s a special one, and I go every year at Christmas.
“A toy store?” Ezra doesn’t sound irritated or surprised, merely curious.
“Yep. This place is Brooklyn Treasure Chest. They give away toys for Christmas every year. You know, for families that can’t afford to put much, or anything, under the tree.” I take off my hat, suddenly sweaty under the wool yarn Aunt Gale uses to knit. “I help them with stuff.”
I can’t read his expression. “What kind of stuff?” he asks.
“Oh, you know. I buy some, and I help wrap some. Whatever they need.”
He blinks several times in a row. “And how long have you been doing this?”
“Mom and I started when I was about sixteen, I think. We mostly helped wrap and deliver, since we couldn’t afford much back then. But, well, now it’s easier to help with money and stuff…” I trail off. “I’m not trying to brag or make myself look like a saint or something. I swear.” I take a deep breath. “It’s just that I’ve been busy at work and Christmas will be here soon…so, I was going to come this weekend—”
“But I messed up your plans,” he finishes for me.
“Not messed up.” I grab his hand. “Altered.”
He laughs. “That’s the lawyer in you.”
I shrug. “Is this okay?”
“Of course.” He looks away, and I think I see a glimmer in his eyes, but he blinks too fast. “Charley, this is… You’re amazing.”
“Oh.” I shuffle on my toes. “Compliments. You keep doling them out.”
“Well, you deserve them.” He squeezes my hand.
I bite my lower lip. “It’s hard to get used to.”
His expression softens. “I think exposure therapy is the best way to get over that.”
I smile and duck under his arm when he opens the door for me. It’s difficult because I’m not short, and he laughs.
The afternoon flies by as we purchase and wrap toys. Ezra practically buys out the whole store, much to the delight of the owner, a sweet old man named Angelo. He gives us some drinks and a snack, since we forgot to get lunch first. Later, we grab some slices bigger than our heads at a place down the street and walk off the carbs in a big circle, until we reach my building.
Ezra follows me, and my knees wobble on the way up the stairs. I don’t know what to do with him now. I’m certain we’re not going to bed or anything, but more of the kissing from last night would be nice. I need to brush my teeth. Those slices had garlic on the crust, but then he might feel self-conscious since he ate some too and doesn’t have a toothbrush. Better for both of us to have garlic breath.
“What are you thinking over there?”
I spin on my heel. “Huh?”
“You’re thinking hard about something.”
My face catches on fire. “Nothing.”
Ezra’s smile grows slowly until he’s grinning. He sets down the book he’d been holding and saunters over to me.
“I think you’re lying.” He takes my face between his large hands. “Your cheeks tell me the truth.”
I make a distressed sound, and he chuckles and leans in to kiss me.
Oh, well then…
The kiss goes on forever, and I float until we end up on the couch. He pushes me into the cushions, not quite lying on me, but he clearly wants to.
“I wasn’t planning this.” Ezra swipes his thumb over my cheekbone. “I wanted to get you something that would mean as much to you as that album meant to me. Music was always my escape. It kept me company when my parents were at parties or out of town.” His thumb slides down to my lips. “But now all I can think about is kissing you and holding you as it gets dark and the snow on the streets makes it difficult for me to leave.”
I swallow. “Then stay.”
He smiles. “I’d like that.” He sits up which I don’t like. “Can I borrow some clothes? Let’s make popcorn and watch Christmas movies.”
His excitement makes me laugh and I shake off my lust. “Okay. Give me a minute.”
I give him some clean sweats that I wore in college when I was twenty pounds lighter and put Home Alone in the DVD player. We have popcorn, Diet Cokes, because that’s all I have, and every blanket I own on the couch in a nest Ezra has made around us. I’m a little concerned about having to pee, but figure I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.
“This is the suburbs of Chicago, right? What do you think the parents do to afford that house? I’ll bet the dad’s a lawyer. Wait, no, the mom is a lawyer. She kind of dresses like one, and she’s scarier than the dad.”
I laugh. “True. He seems like he’d work in an advertising firm.”
He throws popcorn at my open mouth. I miss more than I catch, not caring that they’ll most likely end up between the cushions; I’m having too much fun. I watch him more than the movie as he laughs at the bad guys getting pulverized. We migrate inch-by-inch until we’re lying down, heads at each end of the couch. We stretch out beside each other, and we barely fit, so Ezra throws his leg over mine.
We’re snuggling. Holy crap.
I squeeze my eyes closed, praying this isn’t a dream, or else I’m not really snuggling with Ezra Whitely and he’s not falling asleep next to me.
It suddenly occurs to me what my perfect gift is. I sit up, careful not to jostle him, and grab my phone.
At work Monday morning, I’m still wracking my brain on the perfect gift for Charley. It was only two days, but I feel like we got much closer. He loves his mother and aunt, gives to kids at Christmas, and supports his mom’s deli. I could help pay off their debt…no, that might be insulting. He loves books. I could take him shopping for all the books he wants.
“Not romantic enough,” Jason says, reading my brainstorming notes over my shoulder.
“It’s romantic. But maybe not perfect.”
Jason grins. “You really like him, Ez. I’m happy for you.”
“Thanks.” I know I’m smiling like an idiot, but I don’t care.
“Listen, I’m like ninety-nine percent sure he likes you too, so I doubt he’s going to care what it is, as long as it comes from your heart.” He puts his hand on his chest.
I ball up my notes and throw it at him.
He laughs and hops off my desk. “Seriously, man. I think you’re putting too much pressure on yourself. He’ll love anything from you.”
I sigh and refrain from running my hands through my hair and ruining it since I have a meeting soon. “Maybe you’re right. But I don’t want to screw this up. He’s special. I’ve never had a date like yesterday. I’ve never been that comfortable with another guy before.”
“That’s because the guys you usually date think they have to be all sophisticated, drink bourbon, and talk about the stock market.”
I frown. “Am I like that?”
“Only with certain people. It’s like a foreign language you had to learn to survive in the world of attorneys, judges, and politicians.” He gives me an understanding smile. “Charley’s the exact opposite of that. He’s a lawyer, but he usually has the luxury of caring about his clients. I think you need him, Ez, before you fall down the rabbit hole even more.”
I take Jason’s words to heart and brood about them all day. I do want Charley, but I don’t want to use him like some gameshow prize that keeps me human. Although, I don’t think I’m that bad, I can see myself losing pieces of me as the years go by. We have to be equal. So, what could I possibly contribute to a relationship with someone as good as Charley?
I don’t come to any conclusions by the end of the day. I wander down the hall, tie loose, hair finally succumbed to my fingers, and knock on his open door. He looks up and smiles, and I know I’m sunk. I want him and I vow that I’ll never take advantage of his kindness.
“Hi.” I shove my hands in my pockets, desperate to hug him, but I can’t. Not at work. “How was your day?”
“Good. Judge Hartfield agreed to deny custody to Ray Goodman.”
“Are you okay? Rough day?”
I shrug. “Nothing unusual.”
I walk around to his side of the desk and perch on the edge. “Can we get dinner?”
“Yeah. You’re still on the search for the perfect gift, even after yesterday?” He shuts down his computer and grabs his briefcase and coat.
Confused, I stop walking. “Did I miss something yesterday? Did you tell me, and I zoned out?”
He presses his lips together. “No.”
I run to my office and lock up. We get in the elevator waving good night to a few people. It’s seven at night and most people are gone.
“Let’s go to your place,” Charley says.
“Sure. I called a car. It should be out front.” I smile. “You’re turning this around on me. I’m supposed to be figuring you out.”
He shrugs. “Who says it can’t be a mutual fact-finding mission?”
I glance at the elevators doors as they close and see Jen give Charley a thumbs-up. I look at him, but he stares at the floor numbers as we descend. I forget about it as we exit the building and climb in the back of the town car.
Traffic is bad as usual, but we talk about his case as the driver maneuvers back streets and reaches my building. We’re not supposed to, since it’s a company policy, but I give him a tip since it’s Christmas and he’s my usual driver. “Thanks, Tony.”
I lead the way to the elevators, and we reach my floor a few minutes later. I was there this morning to dress for work in a hurry and left a mess in my wake. Luckily, the housekeeper, April, comes on Mondays and Thursdays. I feel bad, though.
“Come on in.” I turn on the lights and see my place in comparison to his. It’s stark. Less comfort, more style. Monochrome. “I’m not here much.”
“It’s nice. It reminds me of your office. Although, you have more personal touches.”
I do? I turn the corner to bring the whole living area into focus. Only a bar divides the space from the kitchen. I freeze and drop my briefcase, but Charley catches it with a, “Oops.”
There’s a tree in my condo with lights, ornaments and glitter. Garlands are draped everywhere in and snowflakes hang from the ceiling.
It’s dawning on me that Charley is smiling and watching my reaction. “Charley, what did you do?”
“Do you like it?”
“It’s gorgeous, but you didn’t have to do this. How did you even get in here?”
“Jen talked to Jason and we made a mad dash to stores and here on our lunch break.”
Tears prick my eyes, and I swallow them back. I can’t remember the last time I wanted to cry. I go to him and hug him. “Why did you do this?”
He wraps his arms around my back and squeezes hard. “Because I wanted to. And I hated to think you don’t celebrate Christmas.”
I shrug and move back to look in Charley’s eyes. “I never had a reason to.”
“Well, now, I hope you do.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“I’m going to put you out of your misery and tell you what my perfect gift would be.”
My heart beats like a jazz drummer warming up. “What?”
He hesitates, and I squeeze him for courage.
“It’s you. Ezra Whitely. In my life. I want to date you, kiss you, love you.”
I dive in and take his lips. Pushing in to taste him. He laughs in my mouth but moans and lets me have my way. I pull back reluctantly. “Sorry.”
“You’re developing my habit of apologizing when you don’t have to.”
I laugh. “Yes.”
He stills. “Yes?”
“Yes, to everything you just said.” I make sure he’s looking in my eyes. “I’ve fallen for you, Charley, and I don’t ever want to get back up.”
He laughs with joy and a little relief, and I hate that he had doubts. From now on, I’ll make sure he never doubts me again.
“I’ve been in love with you for years, Ezra.”
I cup his cheeks, and instead of admonishing him for never saying anything, I say, “Thank you for waiting for me.”
“I will always wait for you. You’re my perfect gift.”
I kiss him. “What about Christmas? I was going to give you your present on Christmas Day.”
“You still can. Or, you know—” he fidgets with my tie “—you could join me with Ma and Aunt Gale. If you want. There’s absolutely no obligation-”
I kiss him again to stop his rambling. “I would love to.”
Forget an album, Charley’s smile, I realize as I kiss it off his face, is my perfect gift.