Saturday, December 26, 2015

Week 21: Annabelle's Angel (Therese Travis)


It's Week 21.....

Thanks for joining in the fun this week and a huge congratulations to Pam Zarate, week 20's winner!

Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”   -- Isaiah 30:21


Sometimes, Annabelle Archer thought she'd have done well in an old-fashioned novel, a bit like the one she was reading aloud to her youngest sister and two of her brothers. It would be written in an early 1900’s style, about the spinster older sister who sacrificed her dreams of career or marriage to help raise her siblings. Of course, no one would write it, because who wanted to read a story in which nothing ever changes?
Gasping at herself—because she hadn't indulged in self-pity for months—Annabelle stifled the mangy, creepy-crawly feelings and turned the page of the storybook. She shifted so everyone could see the line drawing, then, in her best voice, she read,
“The children lay on their backs in the cold, fresh snow. They each flapped arms and legs until Ned called ‘Time;’ then each sprang to his or her feet to survey their new snow angels.
Bitsy's was the smallest, of course, and a wreath of fallen pine cones formed a tiny halo just a few inches above her snow angel's head.”
Brady tugged on her sweater. “What's a snow angel?”
“Duh.” Matt poked Brady's ribs. “It’s an angel you make out of snow.”
“Like a ice sculpture?”
An ice sculpture,” Annabelle corrected. “No. It’s something people make in the snow.”
Victoria clapped her hands. “Like a thnowman.”
Not quite.” Annabelle turned the book so the three youngest could see the picture again. “See? You lay down on the snow and flap your arms to make the wings.”
Faith, pretending to read her own book, but obviously listening, said, “So it's really a no-snow angel.”
Annabelle laughed.
Matt pushed against Annabelle’s arm. “You ever made one, A'belle?”
“No. I've never been in the snow.”
“Then how do you know ’bout them?”
“Because I read.” A lot. Too much, probably. She ought to pay more attention to her brothers and sisters. The two oldest boys stormed down the stairs, their shoes drumming like a herd of fifty horses on a boardwalk. Annabelle winced. Her grandmother would not be pleased.
“Guys, quiet. Grandma's asleep.”
“We know.” Liam tiptoed the last three steps. “That's why we asked coach to come pick us up. So you wouldn't have to load all the little kids in the car.”
Instead of the usual protests of being called “little” (Faith or Bradey) or pleas to go for a ride (Matt), all four of the said “little ones” looked at the front door.
“Where is he?” Victoria asked.
Not here yet.'' Joe jerked his head at Liam. “Let's get snacks and water. And Annabelle, you'd better get the door. None of the little kids know the coach.”
“Neither do I.” Although she'd seen him plenty of times, at church.
“But you're a grown-up,” Faith pointed out. “It's okay if you talk to strangers.” She closed her book and got to her feet, stretching her lithe fourteen-year-old frame.
Mattie tugged her sweater again. Most of Annabelle’s clothes were a bit stretched out of shape, because of his habit. “Can you ask him if he's made a snow angel?”
Ask the handsomest man in town—the one who had no idea Annabelle Archer existed—anything? “No.”
“Then can you introduce me, so I can ask him?”
No, Mattie. He'll be in a hurry.”
The bell rang and Annabelle looked around. No Liam, no Joe, and no Faith, and three wide open pairs of eyes waiting for her to protect them from strangers.
Usually she'd have to tie any one of them up to keep them from answering the door. Usually, they never made such a fuss over a simple act.
Sighing, Annabelle stomped across the hall to jerk open the door.
Rick Stockton was just as good looking as he'd been the last time she'd stared at him during a church service. Longish dark hair and a short goatee, and blue eyes that managed to twinkle even from across the sanctuary. They were much closer now. Too close.
Annabelle stepped back, one hand going to her cheek to make sure her hair covered her eye and eyebrow.
“Hi. I'm Rick.” He held out a hand. “Joe and Liam’s coach?”
“Right. Yes, Liam said you were picking them up.” She engineered a half-second shake before she backed away again. “Come in for a second. The boys are getting food.”
He nodded and shut the door behind him.
Matt bumped Annabelle from behind, and got right under Rick's feet, staring upward, his eyes wide and awed. He didn't run into many men, not up close like this, although Joe, at sixteen, was galloping up on six feet, Liam not far behind. But this guy had quite a few inches and plenty of pounds on them.
“Do you know how to make a snow angel?”
“Oh, Mattie, he's not interested in—”
But Rick held out his hand, “Yeah, actually, I do. I used to live near Chicago. My cousins taught me.”
“Could you show us?”
His lips twitched, “Do you have any snow?”
Matt shook his head, and went on staring.
When Rick looked at Annabelle, his eyebrows quirked in a question, she said, “I was just reading them a story, so they were wondering.”
You should take them up in the mountains one day, and show them how to make one.” Rick smiled at all three of the kids gazing at him.
She doesn't know how.” Brady’s voice dripped scorn. “You'd have to teach her first. Unless you take us. Then Annabelle could stay home. Annabelle always wants to stay home.”
And sometimes, she wanted to strangle a younger brother or two.
Before Rick could answer, Liam and Joe pounded out of the kitchen, as noisy as ever. Annabelle shushed them and shooed them out with one motion.
“How come I never see your parents?” she heard Rick ask.
“They died.”
The bald answer sent shudders through Annabelle, and she risked another look outside.
“Our Grandma lives here, too,” Joe said. Before Annabelle shut the door, she saw the look on Rick's face. Pity. She wouldn’t tolerate her own pity, why would she accept someone else’s?
Rick stumbled off the curb before he managed to get his car door unlocked. Was she watching? He managed not to peek back at the house to check, and the meaning of Joe’s last words hit him.
“Both your parents? They both died?”
“Yeah. They were in a car accident.”
Liam, as usual, had more to say on the subject. “Grandma was driving, and Annabelle was in the car, too. And this truck ran into them, bam.” He shut his car door before he demonstrated the accident with his hands. “We never even got to see the car after that. Annabelle made them junk it.”
“It still bothers her to think about it,” Joe said.
“Does it bother your grandmother?”
“Well, yeah. That’s why she doesn’t drive.” Joe scratched his head, thinking. “Annabelle’s as good as a mom, though. Especially to the little kids.”
The more he heard about her, the more Rick realized their oldest sister was something else. Pretty, even with her straight blond hair covering half her face. “Your sister's name is Annabelle?”
Joe nodded. “That's her.”
“I’ve never met her before.”
Sure, you have. She takes us to practice and the games most of the time.”
Oh.” He started the engine, and pulled onto the quiet street. “I got the idea she didn't leave the house.”
She does, she just doesn't like to. ’Cuz of—” Joe made the same gesture Annabelle had when she'd opened the door, sliding her hand against the hair covering her eye. Liam poked him.
“Because of what?”
“Just stuff.” Joe stared out the window.
Right. Now Rick really wanted to know. Or maybe it was that he wanted to know Annabelle.
After the game, which ended in a defeat brought on by the coach's appalling lack of attention, Rick took the Archer boys home. They argued the entire way over whose fault the loss was, until Rick bellowed, “Quit blaming everyone else, you know it was me.”
The boys gaped at him as they got out in front of their house. Finally, Liam mumbled, “No one said it was you.”
“Then they should have.”
The front door opened and all four of the younger kids tumbled outside, laughing and calling something about cookies. Rick's stomach growled.
“You wanna come in?” Joe offered. “Annabelle's a really good cook.”
Rick looked at the six children in the front yard, and his empty stomach protested again. “There's probably not enough.”
“Are you kidding? Annabelle's been feeding us for years. There's always enough.”
It seemed there would be. When they led him through the back door and into the kitchen, he saw plates overflowing with cookies obscured the counters and a small table.
“I should eat some real food, first,” Rick mumbled.
“You sound like Annabelle. You'd better eat dinner with us, then.” Liam yelled into the kitchen. “Annabelle, Coach is staying for dinner.”
''Hey, hey, wait. I didn't say that.” But Rick was talking to an empty room, at least, until Annabelle walked in.
She stopped, making the same protective gesture over her face. He'd seen that move before, he realized, in church. And to his shame, he also realized had never seen the woman behind it. “Your brothers seem to think I invited myself to dinner.”
Her smile was small. “No, they think they invited you. And of course you're welcome. The little ones are setting a place for you now.” She waved toward a hallway behind her. “I hope you like meatloaf.”
“Love it.”
“And don't have any allergies.”
“Not a one.”
“That's good. We're a little worried about Mattie. We're not sure if he's reacting to food or if something else is going on.” What he could see of her face went red. “But you don't want to hear all that.”
“Why not? He’s the second to youngest, right? The one who wanted to know about snow angels?”
She nodded.
“He’s what, eight? And already Joe says he's turning into quite an athlete.”
“He is.” She looked up, obviously entranced with this subject. It was probably one of her favorites. “But he likes soccer better than football.”
“So do I, but mostly in the spring.” At her blank stare, he said, “That’s when soccer season doesn’t conflict with football.”
By this time they'd entered the dinning room. Until that moment, Rick hadn't thought to wonder how seven kids and one grandmother fit around the standard four-or-six person table.
But theirs was far from ordinary. It was a huge table, as long as one from a church hall, but made of carved, polished and somewhat scarred wood. It made him think of old fashioned floor length dresses and stringing cranberries and popped corn for the Christmas tree.
The snow angel boy—Mattie—yelled, “I'm sitting next to the coach!” all the while jumping up in the air and clapping his hands.
No, you're not. Why should it be you? He should sit with me and Liam.” Joe gave Mattie a dark, narrow-eyed glare.
“He should sit next to Annabelle. And someone else can sit on his other side and someone else can be across the table.” This from a tall teen who looked a lot like Annabelle, other than the hair in her face. Rick glanced at Annabelle. She'd be gorgeous if she'd just tuck some of that glossy blond blanket behind her ear.
He slid into the chair indicated and watched as each child brought in a dish or serving platter. The youngest, a tiny thing that reminded him of Cindy-Loo-Who, brought butter and condiments.
“Annabelle baked the bread,” the middle girl told him. “She says it's healthier if it's homemade—no chemicals or anything unnatural.”
“Except for Mattie.” The other of the younger boys climbed on the chair next to Rick. “Were keeping him gluten free ’til we know if he's ’lergic.”
“I see.” He looked into unblinking brown eyes. “What's gluten?”
It's what holds bread together. And sometimes it makes people sick. But not everybody, It prolly won't make you sick.”
No. Probably not.” Ride grinned, impressed. The kid couldn't be more than eight.
        Once again, Annabelle's face had turned red. “I'm sure Mr. Stockton doesn't want to hear about all our worries.”
The tiniest one tugged Annabelle’s sweater. “Who'th Mr. Thock-the-man?” No one laughed, and Rick had to fight his grin into hiding.
“That's me. But I think everyone should call me Rick.”
He tried to get Annabelle to look at him but she was too busy rearranging her silverware.
You don't know how much I appreciate this, Miss Archer. I haven't had homemade bread since my last Christmas with my family, and that was a long time ago. My grandmother made it.” He glanced around.  “Speaking of grandmothers...”
“Sometimes Grandma doesn't come down for dinner,” Liam explained. “We'll take her some soup up in a while.”
Joe smiled at Rick. “It's my turn, but do you want to say grace?”
“Uh, sure, if you don’t mind?” He directed the question at Annabelle.
For an answer, she folded her hands, so he thanked God for the food and the family who had invited him to share it.
One thing he couldn’t figure out. Every time Annabelle’s arm brushed him, or he caught sight of her hands as she ate, something stirred inside. He wasn’t sure what it was, other than disturbing. And she kept offering him food. Of course, there was nothing wrong with a hostess offering her guest food, but this guest had a problem telling her no. So he ended up taking everything, and eating far more than he really wanted. At this rate, he wouldn’t have an inch of room left for any of those cookies.
Better to think about cookies than try to figure out what about this woman disturbed him so much.

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Saturday, December 19, 2015

Week 20: Starlight in Her Eyes (JoAnn Durgin)

Congratulations to ???, who won a copy of CHRISTMAS WISHES...SPECIAL DELIVERY in the Week 19 drawing!

1st Chapter

Monday Morning, Early December

Colin Young tugged off his glove and punched in a quick succession of numbers on the keypad. “Please let that be right.” He hoped his memory hadn’t gone numb along with his fingers in the near-freezing temperatures. When he heard the telltale click on the door and spied the flashing green light, he cracked a grin. “We have liftoff. Good morning, Philadelphia!”
After pulling open the heavy steel door, he stepped inside the building, bringing with him the sound of jingle bells as well as a mini-squall of wet snow. Shivering in his wool overcoat, he brushed flurries from the sleeves and stamped his feet on the floor mat. “Brrr! Why does it have to be so cold…?” He stopped when he spied a pair of shapely ankles showcased in deep red, high-heeled shoes.
“You’re late.” Serena Monroe approached him with a pointed glance at her watch. Ah yes, the senior producer’s ever-dutiful assistant a/k/a his personal watchdog. As usual, the frown line between her brows surfaced. She’d perfected the look, but in her early thirties or thereabouts—near to his age—she should be careful or that line would become permanently embedded. Her chestnut-colored hair was twisted in a bun at the back of her head, making it difficult to tell how far those tresses reached although he suspected halfway to her trim waist. As always, Serena wore her trendy but somewhat masculine eyeglasses and her lips were set in a firm line. Rosy red lips, but that was neither here nor there.
“I beg to differ, love. I wasn’t on time, and there’s a difference.” Colin graced her with his most charming smile as he shrugged out of his overcoat. “Not to mention I have a legitimate reason even you might find sentimental.”
“I doubt it.” No-Nonsense Serena took his coat and handed it off to one of the interns who always seemed to be lurking about the premises. Her gaze skimmed over his designer shirt and jeans before she cast a wary glance at his feet. “Please don’t tell me you’re wearing jingle bells on your shoes.”
“Fine, then. I’ll show you.” He hiked the bottom of his jeans and lifted a red hi-top sneaker. “Notice the reindeer nose on the laces. Pitiful or not, it’s my attempt to infuse a bit of festiveness into my new place of employment. I’ll have you know my choice of footwear generated smiles and holiday greetings during my morning walk from the apartment to the station.” Jingle jingle. “’Tis the season and all that.”
“You’re a novelty,” Serena said. “I’m sure they don’t know what to make of you.”
“Yes, well, I’m more of the ‘God bless us, everyone!’ mentality than ‘Bah! Humbug!’ If any unseemly types are roaming the streets, I’d rather they love me before they shove me and hug me before they mug me.” Colin chuckled when Serena shook her head and resumed walking down the hallway.
The network transfer from Des Moines to Wake Up, Philadelphia! had been a huge coup for his television broadcasting career. After months of contract wrangling, he’d finally arrived two weeks before Thanksgiving to find the television station desperately in need of a revival. Seemed the higher-ups held expectations that he might boost the ratings for their aging program as well as bolster employee morale. No pressure there, but he felt up to the challenge or he’d go down trying.
Serena checked her clipboard. “Have you had anything to eat this morning? We can’t have your stomach rumbling. The mic will pick it up.”
When he didn’t answer immediately, Serena darted into the lunchroom three doors down. In less than a half-minute, she returned and handed him a holiday-themed napkin along with an English muffin smothered in a layer of chunky peanut butter. His breakfast of choice. The woman paid attention and must have been lying in wait for his morning arrival. Scary thought, even though it’s what the station paid her to do.
“Much obliged. You may now cross ‘Colin’s breakfast’ off your handy-dandy list.” Colin took a bite and then licked his lips. “Hmm. Yummy.”
“The show goes live in forty minutes. Not a good day to be late.” Serena’s heels clicked on the hard floor as she marched with her trusty clipboard under one arm and an enormous black handbag looped over the opposite shoulder. The vintage—circa Age of Aquarius—red and white patterned dress she wore revealed her sense of personal style and femininity to great advantage. Somewhere beneath Serena’s prim and proper exterior was an intriguing woman begging to come out and play.
“If there’s ever a good day to be late, please be so kind as to let me know. Never fear, love. I’ll have plenty of time to meet and greet the audience before we go live.” With a few quick bites, Colin devoured the English muffin. Crumpling the napkin, he dropped it in the nearest trash receptacle. “Come now, Serena.” He followed her into the elevator and the doors closed. “Please try to show the new guy a measure of goodwill.”
After exiting the elevator on the fifth floor, Colin kept pace beside her as they walked. Click clack. Jingle jingle. “I was detained in traffic behind yellow buses carrying schoolchildren eager to kiss the famous Liberty Bell.” He ran one hand through his hair, still damp from the fresh snowfall. “The symbolism of a cracked bell will never cease to amaze me.”
Serena’s features momentarily softened. Much better. “Visitors come to hear the history of the Liberty Bell and to remember its significance to American citizens. Not to kiss it. Or to see its famous crack.”
He grinned and cleared his throat at her last statement, determined not to chuckle. The corners of Serena’s mouth quirked. “I’m sure you’re aware it was cast in London and the clapper cracked the bell during its very first use.”
“Your point?” Feigning shock, Colin moved one hand over his heart. “Please don’t tell me you’re making a generalized statement of the defectiveness of all things made in London.”
“Depends. Where were you born?”
Colin grunted. “Surrey.” Maybe there was humor and spontaneity hidden beneath this woman’s stoicism. Without a doubt, she understood the fundamentals of irony.
“Close enough,” she said. “Once you’ve settled in Philadelphia a bit more, you should take some field trips. Familiarize yourself with the city. The Christmas season is especially fun.”
“Now there’s a thought. Are you offering to personally escort me about the City of Brotherly Love?” Since he’d started at the station, Serena had been all-business while he preferred a much less confined way of living. Well, at least the old Colin Young did. The new and improved version was still finding his way as a Bible-believing, Christian man. Far from perfect, but he was trying.
“I’m offering to escort you from the back door to your various stations each morning and ensure you’re on the set fifteen minutes ahead of the broadcast for the sound check. The rest is up to you.” Holding the door, Serena ushered him into yet another hallway—this building had endless floors and hallways, and certainly more than the Des Moines television station. Besides that, whatever happened to the old-fashioned custom of a man holding the door for a woman? Perhaps Serena hadn’t been around enough gentlemen.
“Tell me something, Serena. What do you do for fun during the holidays? Rescue lonely Christmas trees? Find orphaned animals a good home?” He needed to trim his sarcasm. For all he knew, the woman worked tirelessly for the underprivileged.
“Something like that.” And again with the clicking of her heels as she moved farther down the hallway. Moving ahead of her, Colin made sure to open the remaining doors.
“Thank you,” Serena said with a nod of appreciation. A small victory, but he’d take it.
Ten minutes later, the hair stylist—Marla, a surprisingly jovial woman considering she had five children under the age of twelve—hovered about him. Her every movement evoked the strong scent of peppermint. As Colin watched in the mirror, she artfully arranged his blond hair so that it fell in natural waves, mussed in a somewhat rakish-looking way that also suggested urban hipness. Or so Marla claimed.
His gaze moved to where Serena read a book in a corner chair. She’d kicked off her shoes and curled her long legs beneath her. For once, she wasn’t studying notes on her clipboard, but presented the image of a woman in repose. The festive cover of her book featured a man and woman in one another’s arms under mistletoe. Fascinating. She struck him as more the highbrow type who’d prefer classic literature to a holiday romance.
After twisting off the cap of his water bottle, Colin took a long drink as he surveyed Serena. Quite a fetching picture she presented. “What has you so engrossed over there?”
Serena’s cheeks colored a becoming shade of pink. “Nothing, really. Just a silly book.”
“If it prompts such a wistful expression from you, it’s decidedly not silly.”
“It’s mindless fun and heartwarming.” She closed the book and tucked it inside her handbag. “I only read this type of book during the holidays.” A touch of defensiveness edged Serena’s slightly southern accent. He hadn’t a clue where she’d been born except to assume it was somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line. After grabbing her rather spectacular red shoes, she pushed her feet into them.
Colin couldn’t resist. “If reading a holiday romance novel puts you in a charitable frame of mind toward God, country, and your fellow man, then I’m all for it.” Based on her quick frown, perhaps his comment was a tad cheeky.
“Couldn’t you just listen to Colin’s yummy accent all day?” Marla winked at Serena. “No matter what he says in that deep, sexy voice of his, he sounds so cultured and sophisticated. I sure don’t know any American man who could get away with saying decidedly.”
Serena avoided his gaze and rose to her feet. “I’m sure Colin’s accent covers a multitude of sins.”
Colin stared at her, momentarily stunned. He’d built his career on the ability to come back with a quick retort but this woman had caught him unaware. Did she honestly hold such a low opinion of him? He’d apparently need to do more than open doors for Serena to prove he was a decent sort.
“Now, now children. Play nice.” Marla sprayed his hair with something from an oversized aerosol can.
Wrinkling his nose, Colin couldn’t stop his sneeze. “Bless me all the way to Canterbury,” he mumbled under his breath. He waved one arm to stop Marla’s continued assault. “I think that’s quite enough, love. How many showers will I need to rinse this shellac from my hair?”
“It’s a new formula. Trust me, honey. Your lady friend won’t have any problems running her fingers through your hair.” After giving him one final spritz, Marla whipped the plastic cape away from his shoulders. Twisting the chair around so he could see his reflection in the mirror, she raked her fingers through his hair. “What’d I tell you? VoilĂ . Touchable softness and it falls right back in place.”
“Right. A bona fide miracle in a can.” Colin slid out of the chair. “Thank you, Marla. Always a pleasure.” She might be surprised to know he hadn’t enjoyed the company of a “lady friend” in well over a year. Since coming to faith through Jesus, he’d adopted an entirely new set of rules for personal conduct. Not that it’d been easy, and it was a day-by-day process, but moving from Iowa to Pennsylvania and his new co-host position had helped to keep his mind focused and otherwise occupied.
Serena hadn’t bothered to wait for him—no surprise there—and she was already halfway down the hall as he darted around the corner. He didn’t relish being made to feel like a puppy nipping at her heels. After the makeup artist had dutifully powdered his nose, as per their morning routine the past two weeks, Colin and Serena entered the large wardrobe room with its endless racks of dresses, blouses, jackets, and skirts for his female co-host, Gabrielle Shanahan.
Across the room sat rows of suits, shirts, slacks, and sweaters worn by his unfortunate predecessor, Graham Preston. He was surprised they hadn’t donated the lot to charity after Graham’s untimely death from a car accident eighteen months ago. Keeping the clothing struck Colin as somewhat morbid, but they’d had a succession of interim hosts before he’d been hired. If they’d hoped he might fit into the man’s clothes, they’d have been wrong, not to mention a couple of inches short in the length of the trousers.
At slightly over six feet tall, Colin’s shoulders were broader and he stood taller than Graham, at least in terms of physical size. The son of a New York network anchor, Graham had become a legend in his own right in the Philadelphia broadcast community. Colin’s gaze drifted to the shelves containing Graham’s shoes. Big shoes to fill, metaphorically speaking. He doubted Graham had ever bounced around the television station with jingle bells on his impeccable leather shoes.
Setting down her clipboard and purse, Serena then sifted through a nearby rack before pulling out a garment bag. Colin caught his name emblazoned on the front of the bag before she unzipped it and drew out a well-tailored, dark double-breasted suit. Walking to the one shoe rack with his name on it, Serena selected burgundy leather shoes and handed them to him.
“I’m guessing the hi-tops are out for the show?”
“That would be correct.” Next Serena moved to a short rack of dress shirts, selecting a white one with thin blue pinstripes. From a small jewelry box, she chose a pair of gold cuff links and a tie clip and deposited them in his open palm. Somehow he’d always thought a woman choosing his wardrobe would be fun. With Serena, it seemed more a clinical process.
“Appropriately patriotic and all-American,” he said after she chose a bright red silk tie. “Please don’t feel the need to babysit me, Miss Monroe. At Wake Up, Des Moines! I was more than capable of getting to the studio of my own free will each morning. On time, no less.”
Offering the shirt and accessories to him, Serena blew out a sigh. “Capability’s not the issue, Colin. Believe it or not, I’m here to make your life less complicated.”
“While I can appreciate that—and in spite of my sometimes childlike tendencies—I’ve been dressing myself since I was four.” Taking the garment bag from her, Colin motioned for her to either turn around or leave. They went through this same routine every day. She’d choose his wardrobe and then he’d dismiss her for a time. Modesty wasn’t the issue but he had standards. Limitations. “Surely the esteemed Mr. Preston didn’t allow you to help him dress.”
The pink drained from Serena’s face. “As a matter of fact, he did. Be sure to brush your teeth. And you have peanut butter on your mouth.” Using her thumb, she swiped it over his bottom lip.
“Yes, Mum,” he said, irritated she felt the need to remind him of the simple necessities. That was going above and beyond the call of duty. Still, he couldn’t shake the unexpected warmth Serena’s touch shot through him. He found himself off-guard, but not in an unpleasant way.
“I’ll be back in ten minutes to help with your tie.” She was right. If left to his own devices, his tie would forever hang askew. Nicole “Nikki” Reardon, now Nikki Kingsfield—his former co-host in Des Moines and best friend, then and now—had always helped him with his tie before every show. Now Serena was paid to push him from Point A to Point B. How odd, but he’d try to view it as a perk of his more high-profile position.
When she returned, Serena gave him an approving once-over which pleased him more than it should. “Very nice.” She stepped forward without hesitation and turned up the collar of his starched shirt, something she’d never done before. Although he knew it was innocent on her part, the brush of her long, slender fingers on his neck filled Colin with an unexpected sense of intimacy. His pulse ticked faster and his collar suddenly felt a little snug. Serena would be appalled if she could read his thoughts.
“You’ve also done this before,” he said.
“Of course. It’s my job.” Beneath the glasses, Serena’s blue-eyed gaze briefly met his before dropping to his tie. But not before he caught the flicker of something indefinable. Hurt, perhaps? After focusing on her right ear with its delicate pearl earring, Colin moved his gaze to her neck. With her hair pulled back, it showcased how long and lovely it was.
“You do it considerably well,” he said. Too well at the moment, if it were possible. He was beginning to strongly dislike the words “of course” from this woman. Likewise when she told him it was her job to do something or other. Her nails were buffed to a high shine and devoid of color. Being this close to Serena, Colin noted a small stain on the collar of her dress. He caught a whiff. Grape jam? Best not to tease or mention it lest he incur her ire. Could it be he’d discovered a small chink in this woman’s armor? Needing a new focal point, he stared at an ugly abstract painting on the far wall.
Concentrated on finishing her task, Serena smoothed his tie and then stepped back. “Please don’t fiddle with the tie. This one doesn’t play musical tunes. We learned that lesson with the one you wore the other day. Your interview questions are on a card on the table if you need to refer to them. Look for the yellow highlights.”
“I’m ready, Serena,” Colin assured her. “No need for cues or prompts. You’ll learn I’m very good at ad-libbing if the situation warrants.”
“I know. You’re a master at it.” Serena turned and headed toward the studio. “I’ll be waiting for you after the show to brief you about tomorrow’s guests,” she said over one slender shoulder.
An idea popped into his mind, irrational or not. Catching up to her, Colin put his hand on her arm. “Here’s a thought. Let’s shake it up a bit. Live dangerously. You can brief me over lunch instead.” Where had that suggestion come from? Obviously from some subliminal part of him. Or perhaps it was the Holy Spirit at work?
When Serena looked down at his hand on her arm, he released his hold on her. From what he’d observed, she closeted herself in her office while the others often indulged in three-hour lunches which sometimes extended into happy hour as they slurped margaritas and flirted with one another and assorted business types from Center City. He’d once lived in the middle of that world, but no more. Funny thing how he didn’t miss it. Not at all.
Serena eyed him and Colin could tell she was weighing her options. He needed to sweeten the deal. “I’ll have my assistant order some of those humongous hoagie sandwiches and, for our dessert, I can offer you delicious strawberries dipped in Belgian chocolate, courtesy of a generous station sponsor. Please say you’ll join me.”
Removing her glasses, Serena met his gaze squarely. “Colin, your reputation as a consummate professional on-camera is without question, but your history with women precedes you. If I agree to lunch, it’s solely for the purpose of discussing business. Just so we’re clear, I have no interest in being anything to you other than a work colleague.”
“Understood.” To Colin’s regret, he’d come by the womanizing reputation honestly. Since moving to Philadelphia, he’d kept a low profile, spending most of his evenings alone in his new downtown loft. He must be getting soft, or old—or both—since he could now fully appreciate the merits of staying in and reading or tinkering about in the kitchen.
Finally, Serena spoke again. “I’ll meet you here in the studio at noon. Once the show tapes, everyone clears out and it’s very quiet.”
“I’ll see you then. Thank you, Serena.”
While he’d been making a concerted effort to listen to Christian music, singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” in the halls of the station early on had done nothing to quell the rumors about him. His behavior had probably been misinterpreted as flippant or irreverent when nothing could be further from the truth. Based on his former lifestyle and public persona, he couldn’t blame them. The idea of getting a dog, as Nikki had suggested, was growing on him.
A little more than an hour later, once the On Air light ceased blinking and the show wrapped, Colin stood to his feet beside Gabrielle. In her heels, she was nearly his same height whereas the top of Serena’s head only reached his shoulders. A warning signal sounded in the back of Colin’s mind which he promptly ignored.
Gabrielle eyed him with a quirked brow. “I noticed the way you looked at Serena this morning, my friend. A word of advice? You’d be better off to steer clear of her in terms of anything other than station business.”
Colin stiffened. “No worries, love. She’s already told me as much.” Even if Serena should decide to encourage his attentions—a highly unlikely prospect—pursuing the comely assistant would not be advisable.
Gabrielle’s dark eyes widened. “You don’t know, do you?” Tucking a few strands of her medium-length blonde hair behind one ear, her expression was difficult to read. The woman was affable, and their professional chemistry was undeniable, but Gabrielle was no Nikki Reardon. Off the air, his new co-host was more detached and impersonal.
Colin resisted the urge to cross his arms. “I know Serena’s very good at what she does, almost to a fault.”
“Forget I said anything. It’s not my place.” Gabrielle turned to leave.
“Not quite so fast.” Colin kept his voice low so the crew wouldn’t overhear their conversation. “While I don’t wish to engage in idle office gossip, can you give me a bit of a heads up?”
Gabrielle stepped closer. “Steer away from personal issues with Serena and you’ll be fine. She has some…baggage.”
“Is that all? In my estimation, we’ve all accumulated some sort of baggage if we’ve lived a life that’s actually worth living. As long as she’s not a suspected murderer or a candidate for the loony bin, I’m not worried.”
Gabrielle gave him a small smile. “Enjoy the rest of your day, Colin.”
“I’ll do that. You too.” Watching her go, Colin puzzled over Gabrielle’s warning. All the while, he couldn’t shake the image of a pair of blue eyes. Challenging him. Drawing him in.
“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another,” he quoted under his breath. He liked that particular verse of scripture. He enjoyed his sparring sessions with Serena as a way to begin each morning. In some ways, it invigorated and energized him.

As much as anything, Colin could use a friend. He suspected Serena could, too.

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