by Becke Davis, writing as Becke Martin
“Please, Mommy – please!”
Aiden looked up from his bowl of spicy goulash. The new waitress knelt down, shushing the boy who must be her son. “I’m sorry, Joey. The mall will be closed before I get off work. I’ll get you a sheet of paper and a pen – you can write a letter to Santa instead.”
The boy chewed his lower lip. “Grandma would’ve taken me.”
Man, the kid was good. What mother could resist that soulful expression? Joey’s mother, apparently; she closed her eyes briefly, but she didn’t respond.
“But this is important,” the young boy whispered loudly, emphasizing almost every other word. “Santa gets millions of letters. What if he’s a slow reader, like me? I need to tell him in person.”
Aiden was always intrigued by human drama, but the boy’s mother was clearly distressed to have an audience. Fair Meadows, Ohio was such a small town, anyone new was bound to attract attention. He took another bite of goulash and pretended to ignore them.
His waitress moved as if to push back her dark blonde hair, then stopped as her hand met the lacy headband that was part of her uniform. Her fingers flailed for a second as if at a lost where to go next, then she reached into her apron pocket and tore a page from her order book. “Here, you can write the letter on this.”
“But Mom . . .”
“Hush, Joey – Santa won’t care that your letter’s not on fancy paper. And I happen to know he’s a speed reader.”
The boy, who looked to be six or seven, had big blue eyes like his mom’s and hair several shades lighter – baby-fine, flaxen and softly curling around his nape. He’d bet the boy was teased about it unmercifully at school.
Aiden pointedly opened the local paper and flipped to the sports section before returning to his dinner. The high school scores weren’t nearly as interesting as his waitress, though, and the realization came as a shock. It had been years since he’d noticed a woman – really noticed her, down to his gut. Why now, and why this woman?
Well, there was the kid. He was a sucker for kids. These days, if a man admitted that out loud people thought “pedophile,” but Aiden had always been fascinated with the intelligence and curiosity of children. He missed kids. He missed being a dad most of all.
Tears swam in front of his eyes, blurring the headlines he pretended to read. It was just Christmas, damn it. He wasn’t normally this maudlin. He’d had ten years to get over his son’s death, eight to adjust to the loneliness, abandonment and guilt after his wife killed herself. There was nothing wrong with him that getting past Christmas wouldn’t cure.
He heard the rustle of paper as the boy slid into the booth in front of his, sniffling quietly and muttering to himself. “I’ll never get the book now.”
At the word “book,” Aiden’s attention was caught again. It could be any book, but he was willing to bet Joey was going to ask Santa for the next installment of The Adventures of Billy and Buster, an incredibly popular series about a smart six-year-old and his Golden Retriever. Buster was really an alien from the Dog Star who helped Billy solve mysteries and save their town from an evil villain in every volume. The series had a special place in Aiden’s heart.
Every book ended with the boy and dog strolling through the front door of their small suburban home, where smells of a hot dinner wafted out to greet them. Billy’s mother’s question – “What have you two been up to now?” – was such a popular catchphrase, it had been co-opted on every show from SNL to The Family Guy, as was Billy’s response: “Nuttin’, Mom. What’s for dinner? We’re staaaarving.”
As the owner of Chapters, the only book store town, Aiden was well aware of the popularity of the series, although he rarely ran out of stock. That might not be true for the next book, though. A television show based on The Adventures of Billy and Buster was in the making, and the two-hour pilot would be aired on Sunday evening, the night before Christmas Eve.
The television network had persuaded the publisher to hold back the next installment until the day after the show premiered. That move promised one day of overflowing cash registers for book sellers and some very frustrated parents if the books should sell out. Just tonight, the local news featured an opinion piece accusing the reclusive author, who went by the name Francis A. O’Hanlon, of caring more about money than his young audience. Most people seemed to agree.
Deep in thought, Aiden folded the newspaper and laid it on the seat next to him. He picked up the dessert menu and signaled the boy’s mother, who responded with a friendly, if exhausted, smile.
“Can I get you some Dutch apple pie? It’s fresh from the oven. How about coffee?”
“Coffee, please, and I can’t resist Frida’s pie. Would you join me?”
She looked flustered. “Join you?”
He sat back and smiled, doing his best to radiate seasonal good cheer. “I’m the last customer. Put your feet up – join me for a slice of apple pie, my treat. One for your boy, too, if it’s not too close to his bedtime.”
The pretty waitress held her order pad against her chest as if it were a shield. “Oh, thank you, but I couldn’t. It’s my first day – I don’t want to get fired.”
She jerked back as the kitchen door swung open. Frida, the diner’s owner and cook, gave them both a knowing glance as she bustled over to Aiden’s booth. “You want more goulash? I’m closing up the kitchen, but I can pack some up for you to take home.”
“You spoil me, Frida. I can’t eat another bite – I’m saving room for pie.”
“That’s my boy.” Short and wide with rosy cheeks and eyebrows like furry caterpillars, Frida was one of Aiden’s favorite people in Fair Meadows. For her part, Frida had always treated him like the son she never had, even though she was no more than ten years his senior. “So, you didn’t like the goulash? Too much pepper, right? I knew it. Could have used more carrots, I think.”
“It was perfect. No one makes goulash like you do.”
“How do you like my new waitress? A real looker, isn’t she? I knew she was coming today – saw it in my horoscope. She’s a good mother.” Frida’s highest praise – the new waitress didn’t know it yet, but she’d found herself a champion.
Frida urged the waitress forward. “This is Aiden. He works too hard, forgets to eat. He’s a good man, but he always has his head in a book. It’s not healthy – he needs to get out more.”
Aiden laughed at the waitress’s obvious discomfort. “Welcome to Frida’s matchmaking service. She’s a great cook, and a closet romantic. It’s her life’s goal to match up everyone in town. No one is safe.”
Frida turned beet red. “Oh, go on with you. What are you doing, keeping me from my work? I’ve got bread to bake for tomorrow. You’re off the clock, Ginny. Keep Aiden company while he has some pie. Don’t forget to have some yourself – might as well finish it off.” She turned to the little boy who was watching her with wide eyes. “Well? What are you looking at? Don’t just sit there – go get yourself some pie!”
Muttering to herself, Frida waddled back into the kitchen.
“Please join me?” Aiden raised his hands in mock surrender. “I promise I won’t bite. Here, let me pay you so you can go off duty.” He took a twenty-dollar bill from his wallet. “There, that should cover it. Keep the change.”
She took his money as if it burned her. Aiden watched the sway of her hips as she walked to the front of the diner. She glanced back at him and smiled nervously as she handed the twenty to Eddie, the teenager who was acting as cashier during winter break. Apparently that was all Eddie had been waiting for, because he flew out the door as soon as he handed the waitress a five dollar bill and some coins.
Aiden gave her a reassuring smile as she walked back to his booth. “Relax, have a seat.”
A blush pinked her cheeks and drew Aiden’s attention to the clear blue of her eyes. His stomach tightened at the surge of protectiveness that hit him.
“I . . . I guess that would be okay.” His waitress – what was her name? – cast a furtive glance toward the kitchen, where there was a loud bang as a pan dropped, followed by a no-doubt explicit Hungarian curse. “Is she always like this?”
“Frida?” He grinned. “She has a heart of gold and a mouth like a Hungarian sailor. You’re going to love working here. She’ll make sure you and your son are well fed, too.”
“It was really nice of her to hire me. It’s not like I had references or anything.” She flashed a quick look at her son as she walked to the counter and took out three plates.
Aiden smiled as the cute waitress cut three slices of pie – the one for him more than twice the size of the others. Her son was bent over the paper, his tongue pushing out between his lips as he concentrated on forming the words of his letter.
She slid a plate in front of Aiden along with a clean fork and a couple of paper napkins. He waited until she poured coffee for them both, then dug in as soon as she sat on the opposite side of his booth.
Aiden became uncomfortably aware of her nylon-clad legs nearly touching his under the table. He was stunned to feel a flutter of arousal – the subtle scent of woman mixed with apple and cinnamon was the most seductive perfume he’d ever known.
He polished off his pie before she’d taken her second bite. No wonder she was a tiny as a sparrow if this was how she ate. Or maybe he was making her nervous.
“You’re not from around here.”
She studied him cautiously as she swallowed a bite of her pie. “How’d you know that?”
He nodded toward the plate glass window. “I own the book store across the street. I eat most of my meals here. Never saw you or the boy before. And I know North Carolina when I hear it.”
“Oh.” She relaxed slightly. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to jump on you. I grew up in North Carolina, but Joey was born in New York. He thinks I talk funny.”
Aiden laid on the charm a bit. “So, you plan on staying? Fair Meadows is a nice place to raise a family. You and your husband looking for a house? I could show you around town, if you want.”
She dropped her fork onto the plate with a clatter. “You’re not going to try and sell me a house, are you?”
“What? Oh, for – ” Aiden could feel the flush rise from his neck to his face. It was second grade again, and snooty Wendy Wilcox had just put him in his place when he dared to sit next to her in the lunchroom. You’d think in forty-odd years he would have developed some of the smooth moves the Irish were famous for.
He shrugged and shifted awkwardly. “Let me start over. My name’s Aiden, as Frida said -- Aiden Flynn. I own Chapters, a new-and-used bookstore, and I’ve never sold real estate in my life.” Shaking hands seemed too formal, so he simply nodded and smiled.
Her quick grin pierced his armor and made his skin tighten. His friends had set him up with dates who looked like cover models and still left him cold. This woman, with her beautiful but careworn face, was bringing him almost painfully back to life.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Flynn.”
“Aiden, please. And what’s your name again? I didn’t quite catch it. Your uniform says Rosie, but I knew Rosie – she ran off with a Scottish tourist. It was the talk of the town.”
“Virginia.” She blinked. “Ginny, that is. Most people call me Ginny.”
The pencil scratching in the next booth came to an abrupt stop, and a minute later Ginny’s son approached Aiden, his back stiff and military-straight.
“I’m Joey.” The young boy stuck out his hand, man to man, a look of warning in his eyes. Good lad, keeping an eye on his mom. “My dad was a policeman. Bigger than you. He had a holster and a gun and a badge.”
Was? Aiden’s eyes flashed to her ring finger, still adorned by a plain gold band. A widow, at her age? God, that was rough. No wonder there were dark circles under her eyes.
“Aiden Flynn. Nice to meet you, Joey. Sounds like you’re proud of your dad. Bet he’s proud of you, too.”
“A bad guy shot him,” he mumbled. “He got killed.”
Virginia-Ginny didn’t speak, just pulled the boy into her lap and stroked his hair.
Aiden nodded. “A hero. Bet your dad’s proud of you for taking care of your mom.”
The small thumb moving toward Joey’s mouth suddenly halted. “Do you think so?”
Joey peeked at his mother, then climbed off her lap. “I’m writing a letter to Santa.” His chest puffed out with pride. “All by myself. I think I spelled the words right, mostly, but I’m not done yet.”
“Okay if I talk to your mom while you’re working on that letter?”
Joey’s eyes widened. “Um, sure.” There was a spring in his step as he walked back to his booth.
“You were good with him.” Ginny’s voice was soft and silvery, like church bells pealing on a cold, clear night.
“I had a son once. Will died of leukemia when he was about Joey’s age.” Damn, he’d known the woman two minutes and he was dumping his troubles on her. “Sorry – now you’ll be worrying about your son. Don’t know what made me bring that up.”
She reached across the table and laid her small hand across his. “I’m so sorry. Losing my husband was bad, but if anything happened to Joey . . . I don’t think I’d survive.”
“Annie – my wife – didn’t. She killed herself two years after Will died. She’d been hoarding the sleeping pills the doctor had given her and took them all at once. By the time I realized what she’d done, it was too late.”
Aiden choked back half of the coffee in one gulp, just to shut himself up. He never talked about his wife, never talked about his son. Ever. It was the reason he avoided his parents, who couldn’t seem to talk about anything else. Something about Ginny was calm, peaceful. He felt as if he could talk to her all night, which was hardly fair – she looked worn out. When was the last time someone had taken care of her?
“When did your husband die?”
Now it was her turn to hide behind coffee. Before Ginny responded to his question, she brought the pot to the table and poured another cup for herself. He couldn’t take his eyes off her as she drank it, hot and black. “It’s been nearly three years. Joey talks about Joe a lot, but he doesn’t really remember him. How could he? He was practically a baby when Joe was killed.”
Aiden waited in silence as she took another deep gulp of the coffee. He sensed there was more to her story.
“We’ve been living with Joe’s mom, Carol. I don’t have any relatives of my own, and she missed Joe as much as we did. It helped her to have Joey around. And it helped financially, too.”
Aiden’s hackles rose. “Your husband was killed in the line of duty, and you’re hurting for money?”
Ginny played with her paper napkin, tearing it into shreds. “It wasn’t exactly in the line of duty.”
Her voice dropped and she flashed a furtive glance at her son, who was entirely focused on the last few bites of his pie. “Joe was at the local bar with some of the guys. He should never have had his gun with him, but he’d just gone off duty. He got in an argument when the bartender tried to cut him off. One thing led to another . . . I’ll tell Joey the truth when he’s old enough to understand. Anyway, what there was of Joe’s insurance went to a college fund for Joey. I’m not touching it.”
“What brought you to Fair Meadows?” Aiden reached out to grasp her hand in an instinctive urge to comfort her. He stopped himself abruptly when he realized how inappropriate that would be. He realized how much he missed the comfort of the casual human contact he’d enjoyed during his marriage.
“Carol died just before Thanksgiving. Children aren’t allowed in her building, but the landlord turned a blind eye while Carol was alive. After she died, there were complaints. We had to leave.”
“You’ve had it rough.” How could anyone put out a young mother and child? What was wrong with people? It was the holiday season, for God’s sake.
Ginny sat up straighter. “It’s not like we’re destitute. Carol left her condo to me, but her estate has to go through probate before I can put it on the market. The lawyer wouldn’t even let me take our things until they can sort out what belongs to who. I still had Joe’s old Ford, and I remembered Carol talking about Fair Meadows. She had visited here as a kid and liked it a lot. I filled the tank and here I am, talking a blue streak.”
Aiden played with his coffee cup, avoiding her eyes. “Where are you two staying?” He had a bad feeling they were living in her husband’s old Ford, a feeling confirmed by her silence.
“I’m not broke,” she said after a minute. “I’ve got today’s tips, and I’ll have a paycheck on Tuesday. We’ll be fine in a day or two.”
“Stay with me.” The words were out before he could come up with all the reasons why it was a bad idea. Only one thing mattered: they needed a place to stay. “You can’t really see it from here, but I live behind the bookstore. There’s plenty of room – three bedrooms, two baths. Sorry, I’m talking like a realtor again. Joey isn’t afraid of dogs, is he? I have an elderly retriever – Buster loves kids, wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
Ginny laughed. “You named your dog after the puppy in the books. My son loves those stories.” Her lips thinned. “Why do people have to be so greedy? The new Billy and Buster book is all Joey wants for Christmas – he knows I can’t afford much. But even if I have the money, the books will all be gone by the time I finish my shift.”
Aiden felt his pulse throb at his temple as a headache threatened. “Sometimes it’s not up to the author. When a writer sells the rights to a book, it doesn’t belong to him anymore. Could be the author regrets selling the rights to that TV network.”
“Hmmph.” Ginny shrugged. “It’s still not right. Lots of kids are going to be sad when those books sell out.”
“C’mon, Joey’s falling asleep over there. Get your things together and come on over to my place.” Aiden stopped abruptly, unsure if he was being too forward. Wondering if he’d completely lost his mind – inviting a virtual stranger to stay at his house, where, if Ginny accepted his invitation, her son would sleep in Will’s old bed.
“I’m just offering you a place to stay, Ginny. No ulterior motive. You heard Frida; she’ll be expecting a report. If I don’t behave, she won’t feed me.” Aiden didn’t know why he had the urge to reassure her when he had doubts himself. Although he dated occasionally, he’d never brought a woman back to his home. It had never felt right before.
Ginny twisted her wedding ring as if she was having similar reservations. “You seem like a nice man, and if it was just me . . . but, there’s Joey, you see. I have to make sure he’s safe.”
Aiden respected her for taking her responsibility for her son so seriously. “You’re right to be cautious.” Oddly, the more Ginny hesitated, the more certain he became that this was the right thing to do. “You can check with the sheriff, if it makes you feel more comfortable.”
“I don’t know.” Ginny swayed. She rubbed her eyes as if she could barely keep her eyes open. When Joey shifted as if he were uncomfortable on the seat where he’d fallen asleep, his mother seemed to make a decision. “Joey needs to sleep in a real bed. If you’re sure it’s okay, I’ll let Frida know I’m leaving.”
While Ginny disappeared into the kitchen, Aiden whipped out his cell and punched speed dial. “Stephen. Any news?” He paused to listen. “Hell, yes, it’s a deal breaker. Fix this now, or I find a new agent. They might not have technically crossed the line, but they’ve certainly gone against the spirit of the deal, and time is running out. Contracts were made to be broken, Stephen, and that includes yours. Yeah, you do that.”
And if he couldn’t get the TV station to release the publisher from the ridiculous clause so they could sell the damn books, well, by God, he’d start a new series – another boy, another dog. Suddenly, he was bursting with ideas.
Frida bustled out of the kitchen with Ginny right behind her. “You’re taking them home? Good. Come by before opening tomorrow, if you’re awake – I’ll whip up some breakfast for the three of you. You two can’t work on an empty stomach, and that boy needs some meat on his bones. You’ll be safe with Aiden, Ginny. He’s one of the good guys. But you let me know if he tries to get fresh – if he wants to eat at my diner, he’ll behave himself or else.”
To hide his embarrassment, Aiden slipped out of his booth and bent over Joey’s sleeping form. He smelled of heat and little-boy-sweat, reminding him so much of Will he nearly doubled over in pain. But Joey was alive and well and in need of a warm bed. Luckily, Aiden had more than he could use. He lifted Joey over his shoulder, barely feeling the slight weight.
Aiden bid Frida goodnight and led Ginny across the street, their footsteps echoing in the silent night. The crystalline snow that had begun to fall made his house look like a Christmas card. It had been a happy house when Will was first born. It could be happy again.
Tonight, as the brightest star shone down on the three of them, he felt as if Will and Annie were watching. Buster would be joining them soon; some days the old guy could barely drag himself up from his favorite rug. Will had been four when they got the puppy for him, not long before he became ill. The loyal Golden Retriever had kept Aiden company through all the long, lonely years. Buster’s joints were stiff and painful, and his whiskers were turning white. It was going to break his heart when his dog died.
As he opened the front door, he could imagine Annie’s voice as clearly as if she were in the other room. “What have you two been up to now?” He and Will would exchange a secret grin, then Will would say, “Nuttin’, Mom. What’s for dinner? We’re staaaarving.”
What would his wife and son think about Ginny and Joey sleeping in their house, in their beds? He liked to think they’d be happy about it. For the first time in years, Aiden felt the tingle of hope. He felt as if Ginny and Joey had been led to him for a reason. Maybe they needed him as much as he needed them.
He’d written the first Billy and Buster after his son’s illness was diagnosed, and wrote the second book at Will’s request after a difficult round of chemo. After Will died, Aiden just kept writing, long after he’d lost the spark, because kids enjoyed the stories. He’d kept his anonymity because he missed Will too much to talk about the books and what they meant to him; they hit too close to home, Buster and not-Will.
Every boy should have a dog. Aiden wondered how Ginny would feel if he offered to get Joey a puppy for Christmas. He was making assumptions he had no right to make. He barely knew Ginny or her son. But he believed in a future with her the way he believed in Santa Claus. Aiden remembered the words of the famous editorial responding to another Virginia as if they were etched into his heart. He quoted softly to himself, “‘The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see’.”
As he laid the sleeping boy on his son’s old bed, Aiden felt a sense of rightness. When Ginny met his eyes with a shy smile, he reached for her hand and squeezed it lightly. Linking her fingers with his, he switched on the night light. Buster pushed past them and walked over to the bed, sniffing at Joey’s slight form. Aiden felt something uncoil in his chest when Buster curled up next to the bed, just like in the old days.
Ginny broke the silence. “Thank you. Those aren’t big enough words, but I don’t know what else to say. I hardly know you, but I feel as if Joey and I have come home.”
Aiden drew Ginny into his arms and held her. Just held her. It wasn’t a thunderbolt, wasn’t fireworks, but it was magic, all right. And he believed. Hell yes, he believed.
For the first time in years, he could hardly wait for Christmas.
This story is dedicated to two wonderful children who died too soon:
Chance Carr and Emily Paeltz
Copyright 2009 by Rebecca Martin Davis