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Shannon Raleigh turned to get a look at herself in the full-length mirror in the bathroom of her executive office suite and gaped in horror. The tall black boots and short red velvet dress she wore exposed most of her legs and the white fur-trimmed U at the bodice revealed a sizable strip of cleavage.
"I can't go into a roomful of kids dressed like this!"
Even from behind the closed door, she could hear her assistant Wendy sigh heavily. "Why don't you let me be the judge of that?"
"Because I know you'll say I look fine, when I don't. I can't usher kids to Santa's lap in a skirt so short I can't bend over."
"So don't bend over." Another sigh. "Look, Shannon, it doesn't matter that you're eight inches taller than Carlie. There's nobody else who's even remotely thin enough to fit into that suit. Carlie's car is stuck in a snowdrift. If you don't play Santa's helper there'll be no one to"
The ring of the phone stopped Wendy midsentence. The next thing Shannon heard was Wendy's happy voice saying, "Raleigh's Department Store. Shannon Raleigh's assistant, Wendy, speaking."
In the lull while Wendy obviously listened to the caller, Shannon cast another critical eye over her reflection. The little red dress was kind of cute. The color complemented her long black hair and made her blue eyes seem bluer. If she were wearing it anywhere else, she'd actually think she looked pretty.
A long-forgotten ache filled her. It was the first time in a year she felt pretty, sexy. But sexy wasn't exactly the way a grown woman should dress in a room filled with babies, toddlers and elementary school kids.
The ache was quickly replaced by fearwhich was the real reason she didn't want to play Santa's helper. How could she spend four hours in a room full of adorable children? She wanted a baby so badly it hurt, but she couldn't have kids. And seeing all those sweet faces, hearing their cute little lists, would crush her.
"I'm not coming out."
"Fine. That was Tammy in the shoe department. No one's come into the store for the past hour and she could tell the storm was getting worse, so she checked the forecast on the internet. They have no clue how much snow we're going to get, but they aren't shy about suggesting we might get another foot."
Shannon raced out of her bathroom and pulled back the curtain behind her huge mahogany desk. Thick fluffy snowflakes cascaded from the sky, coating the tinsel and silver bells on the streetlamps of Main Street, Green Hill, Pennsylvania. It blanketed the Christmas lights that outlined shop doorways, and sat on the roof of the park's gazebo like a tall white hat.
Her gaze on the little red Santa's helper outfit, Wendy also said, "Holy cow."
"Don't make fun. We have a serious problem here." Or maybe a way out. She turned from the window. "I think it's time to admit that the storm is keeping shoppers away."
"And most of the staff is scared silly about driving home. The longer we stay, the worse the roads get."
"okay, announce that the store is closing in fifteen and tell the employees they can go home. I'll call the radio stations so they can add us to their list of closings. Then I'll lock up."
As the announcement went out over the loudspeaker, Shannon called all the local radio stations and advised them to let listeners know Raleigh's would be closed for the night.
Just as she hung up the phone from the final call, Wendy peeked in. "Okay. Fifteen minutes are up. Store's empty."
"Great. Thanks. Be careful going home." "My boyfriend's coming to pick me up in his truck. I'll be fine."
Shannon smiled. "See you tomorrow." "If we can make it."
"We better hope we can make it. The weekend before Christmas is our busiest time."
Wendy shrugged. "If shoppers don't get here tomorrow, they'll just come on Sunday or Monday or Tuesday or whatever. Nobody's going to go without gifts this Christmas. I'd say your profits are safe."
Shannon laughed. Wendy waved and headed off. With a few clicks on her keyboard, she activated the building locks and the alarm system. Reaching for her coat, she peered down at her little Santa's helper outfit. She should change, but knowing the roads were getting worse with every passing minute, she simply yanked her long white wool coat from the closet and ran out.
At the end of the hall, she pushed on the swinging door that led from executive row to housewares. Striding to the elevator, she passed shelves and tables bulging with merchandise, all under loops of tinsel and oversized ornaments hanging from the low ceiling. On the first floor, she hurried past the candy department, to the back door and the employee parking lot. Putting her SUV into four-wheel drive, she edged onto the street and slowly wound along the twisty road that took her out into the country, to her home five miles outside the small city.
As she stepped out into the eighteen inches of snow in her driveway, a sense of disconnect shivered through her. Though it had been a year, it felt like only yesterday that she had been married and living in sunny, happy Charleston, South Carolina, where people didn't often see snow, let alone need winter coats and boots. Then she'd been diagnosed with stage-four endometriosis and forced to have a hysterectomy, her husband had unceremoniously divorced her and she'd returned home to the comforting arms of her parents.
But just when she'd gotten adjusted to being back in town and working at the store, her parents had retired and moved to Florida. Worse, they now wanted her to sell the store to fund their retirement.
Once again, she was aloneand soon she'd be unemployed.
She trudged up the back steps to the kitchen door, scolding herself for being so negative. She knew what was wrong. The near miss with playing Santa's helper had rattled her. Four hours of ushering kids to Santa's throne and listening to their sweet voices as they gave their Christmas lists to the jolly old elf would have been her undoinga bittersweet reminder to her that she'd never bring a child into this world.
Inside the cold yellow kitchen, she'd just barely unwound the scarf from her neck when the doorbell rang. Confused, she walked up the hall, dodging the boxes of Christmas decorations she'd brought from the attic the night before. She flipped on the porch light and yanked open the door.
A snow-covered state policeman took off his hat. "Evening, ma'am. I'm Trooper Potter."
She blinked. What the devil would the police want with her? "Good evening."
Then Trooper Potter shifted a bit to his left and she saw Rory Wallace. All six foot one, no more than one hundred and eighty-five gorgeous pounds of him. His black hair and topcoat were sprinkled with snow. His dark eyes were wary, apologetic.
"Good evening, Shannon."
The policeman angled his thumb behind him. "I see you know Mr. Wallace."
"Yes. I do." How could she forget a dark-haired, dark-eyed sex god? While he had dated her roommate, Natalie, their first year at university, Shannon had had a secret crush on him. With his high cheekbones, well-defined chin, broad shoulders and flat abs, he had the kind of looks that made women swoon and Shannon wasn't blind.
"Mr. Wallace was stranded on the interstate. The hotels filled up quickly with travelers and now his only options are a cot in the high school gym or finding someone to take him in. He tells me that he's in Pennsylvania because he has business with you on Monday and"
"I came a few days early to get a look at the store on my own," Rory interrupted, stepping forward. "But I ran into the storm. I was hoping you wouldn't mind me staying the night. Normally, I wouldn't ask such a big favor, but as you can see I'm desperate."
Mind? She almost laughed. She would bet that fifty percent of the women he met fantasized about being stuck in a storm with him.
She opened the door a little wider. Not only would having him stay the night get her out of the doldrums about her life, but this also had all the makings of a perfect fantasy. Cold night. Gorgeous guy. And wine. She had tons of wine.
"Daddy, I'm cold."
Her fantasy came to an abrupt halt as she glanced down and saw a little girl standing beside Rory. She wore a pink ski jacket and carried a matching pink backpack. Little strands of yellow hair peeked from beneath her hood.
Her heart pinched with fear. Her breathing stuttered out. Did Fate think it was funny to let her dodge playing Santa's helper only to drop an adorable child on her doorstep?
"You can see why I don't want to stay in a shelter."
Fear and yearning collided as she glanced down at the sweet little girl with big blue eyes and fine yellow hair. As much as she knew spending time with this child would intensify her longing for her own children, she couldn't leave Rory and his daughter out in the cold or ship them to a crowded gym with hundreds of other noisy travelers and a tiny cot.
She also couldn't be a Scrooge. Her problem wasn't their problem. She would be a good hostess.
She stepped back so they could enter. "Yes. Yes, of course."
Carrying a duffel bag and briefcase as he squeezed into the foyer, Rory brushed against her, setting off a firestorm of sensations inside her. She ignored them. Not just because a man with a child was most likely married, but because she probably wouldn't have made a pass at him even if he'd been alone. In the year since her divorce, she hadn't been able to relate to men as anything other than employees. After her husband's anger over her inability to have kids and the way he'd dropped her like a hot potatono consideration for their five-year marriage, no consideration for her devastationthe fear of another man rejecting her paralyzed her.
Plus, come Monday, they'd be doing business. His family owned a holding company for various types of stores and Raleigh's would probably fit their collection. That's why she'd thought of Natalie's old boyfriend when her parents had decided they wanted to sell the store. It could be a quick, painless sale. She didn't want to jeopardize that.
But, wow. It had been fun to fantasize about being stranded with him, fun for the ten seconds before reality intruded, reminding her she wasn't normal.
As Rory dropped his duffel bag, she said, "It's a terrible storm."
"Worst in ten years," the trooper agreed, staying behind on the porch. "If you're all settled, I need to get back on the road."
"We're fine," Shannon said, as she began to close the door. As an afterthought, she added, "Thank you."
"Yes, thank you," Rory Wallace called out, too.
Already on his way down her front steps, the trooper waved goodbye and trudged through the thick snow on the sidewalk to his car.