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Excerpt for Season's Meetings by Andi Marquette by , available in its entirety at Smashwords






Season’s Meetings


Andi Marquette

Copyright © 2014, 2017, Andi Marquette

Dirt Road Books, Inc


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including recording, printouts, information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to persons living or dead or to business establishments or events is coincidental.













Season’s Meetings


Rae glanced at the departures board yet again. Cancellations were piling up like the snow on the tarmac, so she figured it was just a matter of time. Yep. The status of her flight went from “delayed” to “cancelled.” She sighed, not surprised, but still bummed. At least this was her home airport. She took her phone out of her pocket and called Jeri, who picked up on the first ring.

“Where are you?” Jeri demanded.

“Hey, sis. No deal. Flight’s cancelled.”

“Shit. Did you even get out of DC?”

“Well, sort of. Reagan Airport is in Virginia, you know.”

“Smart ass. You know what I mean.”

“Sorry. Technically, no, I didn’t. I guess that’s good. I won’t have to sleep in an airport, at least. The snow’s coming down here pretty hard.”

“Can you go see if they can get you out tomorrow? I know that’s Christmas Eve, but at least you’d be here for Christmas Day. The boys would love to see you.”

Rae smiled. “That’s because I’m their fave lesbian aunt.”

Jeri tsked. “You’re their fave and only aunt. And it’s because you happen to draw really cool graphic novels.”

“Oh, I get it. They only like what I do. Not who I am,” Rae teased.

“That definitely helps. Especially when you draw them both as superheroes and make their own private comic book panels. Their friends are so jealous.” Jeri laughed. “Will you check the flights?”

“All right.” She adjusted her backpack on her left shoulder, her duffle bag on her right, and moved closer to the wall, out of the flow of harried passengers. “Don’t get your hopes up, though. The Weather Channel says this is sticking around tomorrow, too.”

Pause. Sigh. “I don’t like the thought of you spending Christmas alone—” She stopped, and Rae silently finished her statement: Even though you’ve always hated this holiday and would prefer to ignore it completely.

“Hey, it’s all good,” Rae said. “James told me to call him, even on short notice. He and Alex always have a Christmas dinner gathering and I have a standing invite. I won’t be alone.” She fibbed that last part, since she wasn’t sure she felt much like spending time with anyone on Christmas. No, she’d never been one for Christmas. Most likely, she’d work.

“Are you sure?” Jeri sounded worried.

It reminded Rae of their mom when Rae couldn’t make it home for the holidays when she’d been in art school. Rae tried to find any excuse not to come home and have to deal with their father’s drinking and yelling. And their mom would end up in the kitchen crying. It became a habit for her, avoiding Christmas. This year, she’d tried to do something different and break the negative connotations. She glanced up at the board again. Didn’t look like that was going to happen. But at least it’d be a quiet holiday, snowed in like this. Not necessarily negative, but it still carried some weight from the past.

“Positive,” Rae said. “There’s nothing to be done about it. I’ll call you once I know more. If I have to, I’ll reschedule for the boys’ birthday in March. There’s got to be some kind of sporting event going on that a couple of eleven-year-olds will want to check out.”

“And that’s why I’m so lucky to have a lesbian as a sister. She can take care of all the male role model stuff for my sons.”

Rae grinned, in spite of herself. “Okay, let me go take care of this. I’ll let you know what I find out.”

“Okay. Bye,” Jeri said. She’d stopped pushing Rae about the holidays years ago, especially after Rae came out, and it was something Rae appreciated about her sister. She was glad she’d sent the boys’ Christmas presents at the beginning of the month. At least she could feel like she was involved that way.

She made her way to the United Airlines counter at the gate through which she’d been scheduled to depart.

Her phone beeped with a text message and she checked it. James, telling her they would set an extra plate for dinner on Christmas Eve, from the looks of the weather.

Rae texted back: “Thanks. Checking with airline anyway.”

A couple of minutes later, her phone beeped again. “Girl, u know u ain’t goin anywhere. Come to dinner. Nvr know who u’ll meet.”

Rae texted him back that she’d call him later and she put her phone back in her coat pocket.

He was always trying to set her up with someone. Although maybe she’d take him up on it. She hadn’t done so well picking the last girlfriend, who’d ditched her a week before last Christmas. Shit. She really needed to break the Christmas curse. Maybe next year.

The line was just a few people deep. Resigned to her fate, Rae took the last position. She set her duffle bag on the floor and kept her backpack on her shoulder. No sense standing here with extra weight. She watched the front of the line. Most people were like her, just resigned to rescheduling, and didn’t hassle the counter agent, but Rae noted that no one was happy about the situation.

She also wasn’t last anymore. That position belonged to a woman who had moved into the line right behind her. Rae dubbed her “Art Gallery” because she looked like the kind of woman who represented artists and sponsored openings at swanky lofts somewhere. Smooth, classy, and maybe a little aloof. She was standing with her back to Rae, texting on her phone. Rae continued to check her out. Long black hair, but she had it pinned up. Expensive black cashmere coat. Rae’s gaze went lower. What’s this? Black jeans? Black motorcycle boots? Now that was an interesting look for a chi-chi art gallery chick. Rae started making up a storyline for Art Gallery’s character, and decided that rather than the Moneypenny to James Bond’s 007, she just might be 007.

Art Gallery hung up and put her phone into her chocolate-colored leather shoulder bag. She then dug around for something else, and her cell phone fell out onto the floor. Rae picked it up and held it out for its owner.

“Thanks,” Art Gallery said, grateful, as she took it. “Kinda disorganized at the moment.” She flashed a smile.

Rae guessed her accent as New England. Boston, maybe? “Join the club.” Rae smiled back. “Were you going to San Francisco, too?”

“Yes. Not tonight, though, obviously.” She shrugged and smiled back. “Shit, as they say, happens.”

Rae nodded, strangely charmed at the statement, at the hints of mischief in Art Gallery’s dark eyes, and moved, in a weird way, by the sight of a woman in a cashmere coat and motorcycle boots.

“Bummer,” Rae said, trying to continue a little bit of conversation. Art Gallery had a nice voice.

“Oh, well. Probably doesn’t help that I’m not a fan of holiday travel,” she said. “Seems it never really works out the way it should.”

The line moved and Rae pushed her duffle along with her foot while Art Gallery pulled her rolling carry-on.

“That’s the truth.”

“Maybe I’m just a grinch,” Art Gallery added. “I’d rather just stay home with a cup of coffee and a book on Christmas.”

“That’s not grinch-y. That’s practical. Maybe if we all did that, there’d be less stress this time of year.” And fewer expectations, fewer fights, fewer freak-outs.

“And fewer crowded airports.”

“Which would make spending Christmas in one less of a hassle.”

Art Gallery laughed, then, a rich, velvety caress. Uh-oh, Rae thought. Lust virus warning.

“And maybe even enjoyable,” Art Gallery said.

“You never know.”

Art Gallery nodded, and for a few moments, she kept her gaze locked on Rae’s. “No,” she agreed. “You don’t, do you?”

Rae wanted to respond, but her throat had gone dry. Fortunately, it was her turn at the counter, and another agent had opened another line at the same counter, so Art Gallery was able to get her flight squared away, too. She flashed another smile at Rae before she turned to the counter.

“I’ll be right with you,” the agent said to Rae.

“Okay,” She said, pretending to just be waiting for the agent when in reality, she was working up a story line. Art Gallery would make the perfect superhero for one of Rae’s graphic novels. And a really excellent date. Hell, she was the perfect adventure. Kind of enigmatic but approachable. Incongruous quirks, like a long cashmere coat and big, clunky boots. She’d have a big, black bike, and really sexy shades, and black leather riding gloves. And she’d have a vulnerability beneath the bravado that could melt stone.

Yeah, Rae thought. A perfect mix of magnanimous and mysterious. The kind of woman Rae was drawn to, much to her never-ending chagrin. She wasn’t doing so well in the dating arena these days. But she’d settle for a couple of nights with Art Gallery. Who needed dates when a rendezvous with a woman like this would do?

“Ma’am? Can I help you?”

Rae focused on the agent, trying to ignore the fact that Art Gallery was a few feet to her right. Weird little sparks zinged around in her stomach. “Sorry. So lay it on me. Any chance of getting out tomorrow?”

The United employee looked at her like she’d just grown an extra head.

“I’ll take that as a no,” Rae said, adding a rueful smile to her statement.

The agent relaxed and smiled back. “It’ll take a lot of tomorrow to dig out,” she explained. “I’m sorry. This is a really bad storm. We probably couldn’t get you out until the morning of the twenty-fifth, but if you’re desperate, I’ll put you on standby. Don’t get too hopeful, though, because we’re trying to juggle all kinds of people.”

“No guarantee I’ll get out tomorrow?”

“No, unfortunately. I can’t say it won’t happen, but I can’t say that it definitely will.”

Rae debated for a moment. Well, what the hell? No sense trying to get her ass to California when she’d only have a day, maybe two, if she did get there. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. So can you reschedule me for March, maybe? Same destination?”

The counter agent relaxed even more. “Let me see what I can get worked out. When in March?”

“First weekend. Thursday to Sunday evening.”

She typed away at her keyboard. “Done.” She waited for the new documents to print out and she slid them into a holder. “I’m really, really sorry about this. It’s such a bad day for a storm.”

“Sh—I mean, it happens. Merry Christmas,” she said as she took the documents. She glanced over at Art Gallery, who was pointing something out on a paper she held to the agent helping her. She was engrossed in the conversation.

“Same to you,” the agent said. “Thanks for your patience.”

Rae gestured at the line that had grown behind her. “Thanks for yours.” She picked her duffle bag up and moved away from the counter, trying to act nonchalant while she stole glances at the woman next to her.

Art Gallery was just finishing up. She stepped away from the counter, slipped her arm through the strap of her shoulder bag, and looked at Rae, then approached. “Hope you got your flight worked out,” she said.

“Yeah. Hope yours is worked out, too.”

“As best it could be. Thanks for chatting. Take care.”

“Same to you,” Rae said.

Art Gallery hesitated, like she wanted to say more, but instead she gripped the handle of her rolling carry-on suitcase, and left the gate area. Rae willed herself not to watch her leave, willed herself to look through her new flight information, but she stared after her instead. And was so busted. Art Gallery had stopped to put her new documents into her shoulder bag and she looked right at Rae and held her gaze for a long moment, another smile on her lips. Then she was off, into the crowd.

Rae cleared her throat. Weird, how she wanted to chase after her and ask her—ask her what? To dinner? To grab a cup of coffee at an airport? She didn’t even know if Art Gallery was single. Or into women. Rae forced herself to go near the window that overlooked the tarmac, where ground crews worked in the twilight to plow paths that were covered within minutes. The snow was at least eight inches deep and it was still coming down hard. Estimates were anywhere from twelve to eighteen inches, more snow than they’d seen in this area in years. The great Christmas blizzard, newscasters were probably calling it by now.

She set her bags on the floor and opened the document holder so she could text Jeri the new info. In addition to the new itinerary and receipt, the ticket agent had included a one hundred dollar voucher for a future flight. That was a nice holiday present, though she would’ve preferred the visit with her sister and nephews. Whatever. She’d spent holidays alone in the past. Not like she could change the weather, after all. She thought about Art Gallery, and what her plans for the holidays were. Like it mattered now. She was long gone, which was sort of sad, somehow.

Rae put the papers into the front pocket of her backpack and hoisted it to her shoulder. She picked up her duffle bag, dreading the drive home, but knowing it needed to be done. At least she was at Reagan Airport and not Dulles. Ten miles versus thirty.

She headed back to the main terminal. She’d call James when she got home, though she still wasn’t sure she wanted to go to a dinner party. She’d probably end up staying home tomorrow, given the weather. Which was fine. She had to do some more work on the latest project. Rae’s thoughts drifted back to Art Gallery, and her long, black coat and motorcycle boots. Definitely more pleasant than thinking about a holiday dinner party.

Ready, she exited through the sliding doors, prepared when the winter air slapped her bare face. It made her think of broken ice across a pond. Here, protected by the airport’s overhang, the streets were wet and slushy, but the few cars that crawled by were coated with snow and ice. A sloppy, nasty night. She’d worn her combat boots because she’d just weather-treated them. Hopefully that would help with the worst of this.

She waited for a cab to pass before she crossed the street toward the parking garage. She glanced to her right, wondering who else might be braving the weather and standing outside. The cab passed, leaving Rae a clear shot across, but she didn’t take it. Art Gallery stood about fifty yards away near the curb, talking on her phone. Was she waiting for a cab? No, she didn’t grab the one that had just gone by. She stood near a shuttle sign for a hotel.

Rae started to head over to her but stopped. What was she doing? What would she say? Hi. Want a ride? Crazy. She hunched against the cold and resolutely crossed the street instead, without saying anything. Art Gallery had clearly made arrangements. She was waiting for a shuttle, chatting on the phone with a friend or girlfriend—hell, maybe even a husband. Had she been wearing a wedding band? She couldn’t recall. End of story. Right? Right.

Ten minutes later she had loaded her bags into the back of her trusty Subaru all-wheel drive and she buckled up and prepared to brave the elements. It’d be at least forty-five minutes home in this, if not longer. At least. And only a few minutes back to the terminal. She made her decision. Why not? It was practically Christmas, after all.

She steered out of the parking garage to the terminal rather than the airport exit. Fortunately, a layer of snow covered whatever ice might be underneath and it wasn’t too bad, as long as she was careful. As she approached the terminal overhang, she slowed down a little bit and got into the shuttle lane. Art Gallery was still waiting, but she wasn’t on the phone anymore. A couple of other people stood near her, apparently waiting for the same shuttle. Rae pulled up right in front of her and lowered the passenger side window.

“Excuse me,” Rae said, loud enough for her to hear.

Art Gallery bent a little to see who was addressing her. She smiled. She had a great smile. The kind that made Rae think about slow dances and warm nights. “Hey,” Art Gallery said, sounding a little surprised.

“Not to disrupt your plans, but I live in DC and I don’t mind giving you a ride to wherever you need to go.”

She came closer to the car. “That’s awfully nice of you, but I don’t want to put you out.”

“You’re not. I’m offering.”

Art Gallery regarded her for a few seconds, and those weird little sparks Rae had felt at the gate resurfaced in her gut. “Dupont Circle?” Art Gallery finally said.

“That’s my neighborhood.” And Rae was already unbuckling and practically out of the car before Art Gallery could say anything else. “Here. I’ll put your suitcase in the back. Get in. It’s warmed up.”

Art Gallery didn’t protest. Rae slammed the back of the car shut and returned to the driver’s seat. Her passenger was already buckled up and ready to go. She’d closed the window. “You’re right. It is warmed up. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” Rae belted herself in and pulled back into the traffic lanes, which were mostly empty. “I’m Rae, by the way.”

“With an ‘e’?”

“Yeah.”

“Nice. I’m Erika.”

Not quite a superhero name, but it was smooth and classy, like its owner. “Good to formally meet you. Where to?”

“The Madera. Do you know it?”

“On New Hampshire? Nice place. Artsy.” And about fifteen minutes’ walking distance from her apartment. Convenient.

“Yes. And now I won’t bother you too much so you can concentrate on driving.”

Rae laughed. “It’s okay. Just don’t ask me to read anything.”

“Good, since I’m not normally one for awkward silences.”

The sparks had increased, and Rae was warm in spite of the night.

“So what’s in San Francisco, Rae?” The way she’d added her name to the end was kind of sexy, like punctuation with a wink.

Rae exited slowly onto the main thoroughfare that would take them back into the city. “Family.”

“You were going to visit them for the holidays?”

Were being the operative term here, yes.” Rae lightened the statement with a smile as she settled in for a slow drive following the ruts left by a few other intrepid drivers before her. The plows had been through, but already another layer of snow had fallen on the churned-up slush. Fortunately, most people seemed to have decided to go home early, and traffic was light.

“Sorry about that,” Erika said, in a tone that seemed to convey genuine concern.

“On the plus side, I do live here, so it’s not that big a deal to go home from the airport. Still, there’s no chance I’d get out of here until Christmas Day, so I had to postpone the visit.” She shrugged. “Someone said earlier today that shit happens.” Rae glanced over at her and caught her smiling. She refocused on the road.

“So she did. That was kind of tacky. Probably shouldn’t swear at a first meeting.”

Rae grinned, but kept her eyes on the road this time. “I rather enjoyed it.”

“Then I won’t apologize. At least not for that.” She left a little hint of possibility at the end of that statement, like she was leaving clues about some of her inner workings that Rae had to unravel.

“So what about you? Are you from San Francisco?” Rae asked.

“No. I’m based in New York, actually. I was visiting a work colleague here, and then flying to San Francisco to visit friends for Christmas.”

“So your holiday plans—”

“Out the window,” Erika said with a laugh. “Good thing I had a feeling this might happen. I made another reservation at the hotel right before I left for the airport. If I had actually boarded the plane, I would have canceled. Looks like I’ll be taking the train back home.”

“Smart move, on both counts.” Rae envisioned Erika notifying the hotel via a miniscule headset like in The Matrix. “So you’re just passing through for business, then?” Maybe she was a government agent. Rae could see that, too. She steered for the exit, across a ridge of snow, and eased the car to an almost-stop at the bottom of the ramp, but there wasn’t any traffic. The streets were slick enough here that she didn’t want to spin out on the ice.

Erika waited a few moments before continuing the conversation. “Mostly. I figured I’d get that last meeting in before Christmas shuts everything down for a bit. I was able to visit an old friend who lives here, too.”

Rae made a noise of agreement as she worked her way around a semi. “So, what kind of business are we talking about?” That was much less personal than asking about the old friend. She tried to sound just interested, like anyone might be when talking to a stranger at, say, an airport while waiting for a flight.

“I’m a literary agent.”

Secretly, Rae gave herself a high five. She’d pegged Erika as involved somehow in the arts. She hadn’t quite nailed the field, but she was in the ballpark. “Cool. What areas?”

“Science fiction, fantasy, and mystery, mostly. But I also have some paranormal authors I work with.”

“That is seriously cool.” Rae geared down for a right-hand turn.

“I’m glad you think so. Most people’s eyes glaze over when I reveal my secret identity.”

“No, that’s really excellent. Tell me some authors you’ve placed.”

Erika named a few and Rae threw another glance at her. “Excellent. The power behind the throne, huh?”

She laughed and a really nice warmth flowed up Rae’s legs into her chest. Uh-oh. She was definitely coming down with what seemed to be a lust virus. Damn.

“I take it you read those genres,” Erika said.

“Yeah. Kind of neat to know that I met the agent of a few of the authors I’m familiar with. And you know, you could always just tell people you’re an agent, to prevent the eye-glaze thing.”

“And how would that work?” she asked, with that little punctuation wink that made Rae breathe a little faster.

“Easy. Somebody asks you what you do, and you just say, ‘Oh, I’m an agent. Just got back from DC, and now I’m on a new assignment.’ It’s not completely wrong, after all.”

Erika laughed again, but this time it was a sultry little chuckle, and the warmth coursing up and down Rae’s legs turned into a burn, bordering on an ache.

“True,” Erika said. “So what about follow-up questions?”

“You tell people you’re looking for a few good spies. Or vampires, maybe, since you acquire paranormal. Then, when they think you’re totally nuts, that’s when you drop the ‘literary’ part in.”

“I see. It’s how I’m packaging my field that might be the issue.”

“Exactly. It’s in the branding.”

“Do you work in advertising?”

“No. I’m a graphic artist, actually.” She slowed as the car in front of her was trying to turn right.

That is seriously cool. What venues?”

“Graphic novels, mostly.” Rae turned left onto Twenty-third Street. They were almost at Erika’s hotel and that definitely calmed the lust virus down. A little.

“So give me one of your biggest titles.”

Wolf Moon series.”

“No way. You’re that Rae Trent?” The surprise in her voice made Rae tingle a little more.

Rae shrugged, shy. “Yes, that’s me, but there are a few others who work on the series, of course. We’re waiting on text for the next volume, actually.”

“I cannot believe I’m sitting in the car of a woman who draws for Wolf Moon. That’s a great series.”

Rae maneuvered the car around a traffic circle and exited onto New Hampshire. “Glad you like it. The next one’s supposed to be out in June, but you didn’t hear that from me.”

“I heard nothing,” she said in a fake mysterious voice.

Rae pulled up in front of the Madera Hotel, getting as close as she could to the curb. It resembled a 50s or 60s-era upscale apartment building. A maroon awning extended from the front entrance to the curb and fortunately, the hotel staff had done a good job shoveling and clearing.

“All right. Here you go,” Rae said, hoping she didn’t sound as wistful as she was now that the ride was over. She unbuckled and got out before she did something even crazier than offer a ride to a stranger. “You okay getting out over there?” she asked as she took Erika’s bag out of the back and held onto it, so as not to set it down in the snow.

“Got it, thanks.” She got out and shut the door then stood on the curb just in front of the awning, waiting.

A hotel employee approached, bundled in a long winter coat, hat, and gloves. “Good evening and welcome to the Madera. Can I take that?”

Rae let him take Erika’s bag and he, too, didn’t set it on the ground. He started to walk back toward the hotel’s entrance, but Erika didn’t follow him.

“Thank you so much for the ride and the conversation. It made what might have been a shitty night definitely not that way.” She dug into her shoulder bag and pulled out a business card. “Email me, will you? I’m going to try to get out of here tomorrow evening, but I’m not holding my breath. Probably Christmas Day, more likely. But I will be checking email. I would really like to chat more.”

Rae took the card like it was made of glass. “Will do,” she said, attempting casual.

“Good. Thanks again.”

Rae nodded. The way the snow fell on Erika’s hair and long, black cashmere coat made it a sort of magical tableau, and even if she wasn’t really a superhero, she definitely had some kind of magic. “You’re welcome,” Rae managed to say. “Thanks for the company.”

She smiled and turned away but stopped halfway to the entrance and looked back at Rae. “Email me.”

Rae raised the card at her. “Yep.” And she watched her go inside, her coat almost swirling around her black jeans like a cape. She stood in the snow for a bit longer, not sure why, until a car pulled up behind hers. She got back into her car and placed Erika’s card on the passenger seat, like it was a placeholder for her. Rae put the car in gear and pulled away from the curb. Another fifteen minutes and she’d be home, and she’d resolutely vow not to email Erika that night. Too weird. And it might come across as desperation. But for what, Rae wasn’t sure. Erika had her thinking all kinds of things, and a lot of them didn’t involve clothing. Damn lust viruses had a habit of doing that to her.

Tomorrow. She’d email Erika tomorrow, when she was a little more sane.

#

Rae woke up the next morning and looked out the window. No way in hell was she going in to the office today. Her phone rang. She checked the ID. Speak of the devil. Leon.

“Hey, Mr. Supervisor Guy. What’s up?”

“Merry Christmas Eve. Did you get out of DC last night? Because I will be amazingly surprised if that’s the case.”

“And I’d be really pissed, because it would be four in the damn morning if I did.”

“Oh, shit. That’s right. I’m sorry. Is it?”

“No,” she said with a laugh. “I’m still in DC.”

“Then I’m sorry again because you didn’t get to see your sister for Christmas.”

“Shit happens, as they say.” Rae cleared her throat and thought again of Erika while she pulled sweatpants, a sweatshirt, and thick socks on. She moved her phone from shoulder to hand when she finished. “So what’s the word?”

“Do not—I repeat—do not attempt to go to the office. The city’s pretty much shut down. Just stay home and draw pretty pictures. And call if you need to.”

“Where are you?”

“Home. See you day after tomorrow, if we haven’t all died in the snowpocalypse—oh, are you good for Christmas Day? Lynette and I can set a place for you. You’ll love her mom,” he finished, with just a hint of sarcasm.

“I’m good, but I really appreciate the offer. Thanks.”

“It’s there if you need it, even last minute. All right, stay warm. I’ve got to call the rest of the crew. Later.”

“Yeah. Later.” She hung up, relieved. Leon’s energy level was always high, and though she appreciated it most of the time, early in the morning was not one of those. She went to the kitchen and placed the phone on her counter while she ground coffee and got her coffee pot ready. Did Erika drink coffee, and if so, how did she take it? She pegged her as woman who would appreciate a strong cup of dark coffee, maybe a little splash of cream, but no sugar.

While the coffee brewed, she went into the guest room, which also doubled as a studio, and turned her Mac on before she opened the curtains and let the day’s light in. At least a foot of snow. Probably more, she thought, as she looked down on the street and the white lumps that at one time were cars. Leon was right. The city was shut down. An SUV braved the street, but other than that, the world was snowed in. White Christmas for sure, and definitely excellent coffee weather.

Her radiators creaked and hissed cheerfully, and she was glad to be on the second floor because she got the heat from the downstairs apartment, too. Great light, nice space, and reasonably priced, for DC. Rae filled her coffee cup and went back to her computer so she could check her email before she started working. And then maybe she’d think about sending a message to Erika. Speaking of—Rae put her cup down and went to the closet by the front door.

She had put Erika’s card in her coat pocket last night. Her fingers closed on its smooth surface. Again, handling it like it might break, she took it back to her studio and set it on her light table. If she was going to email her, all she had to do was reach for the card. She stared at it for a moment. She hadn’t even really read it, so she didn’t even know what Erika’s last name was.

Maybe she was afraid she’d jinx something. That was dumb. Jinx what? A chance meeting in an airport? She settled into her chair, took a sip of coffee, and opened her inbox.

An hour later, she went back to the kitchen and fixed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which she ate standing at the counter. Another cup of coffee, and she was ready to start drawing. Back in her studio, she turned her speakers on, selected one of U2’s early albums, and settled in at her drawing table. Every now and then, a little tone emanated from her computer, letting her know when an email came in, but she ignored it and worked until noon, stopping only to get more coffee and go to the bathroom.

She started sketching another panel but stopped when she realized that she’d just drawn Erika, in black jeans, black boots, and a long, black coat, standing next to a big, black motorcycle, eyes hidden by sunglasses. “Wrong comic,” she said under her breath, though she was pleased about the new character. She set that drawing aside, though she kept coming back to it, adding details to the version of Erika she’d started. Maybe she’d scan it and send it to her later on.

Or maybe not.

Erika might think she was stalking her or something. Some people got a kick out of being in a comic book. Others, not so much. Her phone rang.

“Hey,” she answered.

“You are totally coming to dinner,” James said, the Southern in his accent emerging.

“I am?”

“Yes, you big ol’ grinch, you. I know how you are this time of year, but deal with it. Just think of it as a regular party.”

“With red and green and a big tree with ornaments—”

“Fine. Ignore all that. You didn’t get to see your sis and nephews, so Alex and I will be your surrogate family. And Devya’s coming with a friend, so you won’t have to sit and talk to us the whole time.”

“Thank God for small miracles.”

“Girl!”

She laughed. “All right. What time?”

“Five. Start putting on your winter gear so you look like that kid in A Christmas Story. Which Alex is playing non-stop here, just so you know.”

“Actually, I like that movie. All right. Should I bring anything?”

“Nope. We’ve got it covered. See you soon.” He hung up and she went to get another cup of coffee. It would be fun to hang out with the boys. And they always had really good food.

She brought her fresh cup of coffee back to her studio, opened her email inbox and scanned through the messages. The most recent caught her attention because she didn’t recognize the sender. Maybe a fan. Rae opened it, and had to read it twice before it registered that it was from Erika.


Hey. I’m pretty sure this is the email address of Rae Trent, who I met last night at the airport and who gave me a ride to the Madera. Forget the email and please give me a call. My number’s on my card. –E


Possessed by some force she couldn’t control, Rae’s arm shot out and she grabbed the card off the table. Where’d she put her phone? She took the card with her to the kitchen, looking for her phone, which she found on the counter. Sparks zipping around her stomach again, she dialed the number before she opted not to. By the second ring, it was too late to change her mind.

“Erika Myles.”

“Hi. It’s Rae.” The words felt weird in her mouth, like she’d been eating cotton balls. Her heart was pounding way harder than it should have been.

“Hi, stranger,” she said, and the unexpected warmth in her voice only sent another cascade of sparks through Rae’s veins.

“Hey. I guess you decided to stick around today, huh?”

“I did. I got busy trying to find an email address for you. Which wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. And you have a great website, by the way. I really like your work.”

“Thanks.” The sparks were now fireworks. “Oh, sorry I didn’t get a chance to email. I got kind of busy on this project I’m working on.” Rae winced. That sounded rude.

“Don’t worry about it. What I’m wondering is one, if you can actually get out of your house, and two, if you’re busy tomorrow. I know that’s Christmas Day, but…”

She didn’t even need to think about it. “Yes and no.”

Erika laughed, and the sound made Rae ache in a way that she hadn’t in a long time. “So which is it?”

Rae grinned. “Yes to the first, no to the second.”

“Well, then. Since I’m here in DC at least through tomorrow, do you feel like killing some time with a visitor? I’d like to buy you a drink.”

“Definitely,” she said before she ran Erika’s request through deeper analysis. “What time?”

“You know what? I’d like a little more time to chat than just an evening drink. How about lunch tomorrow instead? I’m sure we can find some alcohol somewhere.”

“Probably. Lunch it is.” And maybe dinner? A girl could dream.

“I’m going to have to impose on you and ask that you come here, though. For obvious reasons.”

“Sounds great.” Rae leaned back in her chair. Date? Not a date? I suck at this.

“The restaurant here is pretty good,” Erika said “And yes, they are open tomorrow. The show must go on through Christmas, they said. Especially since this place has a bunch of people who are stranded. And there’s a bar.”

“That sounds fine. Noon?” Did she at least sound cordial, and not like she was completely freaking out?

“Excellent.”

“Are you okay for tonight?” Rae was prepared to invite her to Christmas dinner with James and Alex, and since they always took in strays, it would’ve been fine. The question was whether Rae could make it through without coming across as dorky as she felt.

“I am. My old friend invited me to dinner. Thank you for asking.”

“Oh, okay. Good. Guess I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”

“Looking forward to it. Bye.” She hung up and Rae stared at her phone. Oh, God. What would she wear?

#

“Darling,” James said in his silky baritone when he opened the door for Rae. “Don’t you look edible.” He made “nom nom” noises as he leaned in and pecked her on the cheek.

“I feel like I should represent for the lesbian nation when I come over here. Lose the flannel and Birks, you know.” She handed him the bottle of wine she’d brought.

“Nice,” he said after he glanced at the label. He wore jeans and a nicely tailored rose-colored shirt that contrasted with his dark skin.

“Always, where you’re concerned.” She took her scarf and hat off and shoved them into the pockets of her old Army coat.

“Girl, stop.” He took her coat with his free hand and hung it on a peg near the door. “Though I told you not to worry about bringing anything. But for wine, I’ll always make an exception.”

She laughed. “I’m trying to overcome my issues with Christmas. So let me buy you some booze.” She unlaced her combat boots and as she placed them on the mat beneath the coats, she paused, staring hard at the pair of black motorcycle boots that stood beneath a long, black cashmere coat.

“Who—” she started to ask James when a petite dynamo of a woman flung herself into Rae’s arms, laughing.

“So glad you’re here,” Devya said as Rae managed to set her down and extricate herself. Even dressed in faded jeans, a baggy maroon sweater, and thick gray socks, Devya always looked like she should be in a Bollywood film as the gorgeous leading actress.

James laughed. “You could lay out a linebacker with a tackle like that.” To Rae, he said, “C’mon and get some Christmas cheer.” He turned and Rae started after him, glad she’d worn her thickest socks.

“Cheer’s in the kitchen,” Devya said. She brushed past Rae as they entered the big open space of the modified loft James shared with Alex, furnished with tasteful Ikea and select antiques. Lots of exposed brick, which gave the space a warmth Rae enjoyed. Their table could normally seat eight—three on each long side and one on each end—but tonight it was set for five. A Christmas tree stood near the picture window, and it was like something out of a magazine. Its lights glowed blue and white, throwing reflections off some of the ornaments and Rae thought about seeing Erika tomorrow, and Christmas suddenly seemed okay.

“Honey, look what blew in,” James called.

Alex poked his head out of the kitchen. “Rae’s in the house,” Alex teased as he did a hip bump with her. “Get this party started.” He had on an apron to protect his shirt, a light sage. He also wore jeans, but unlike James, who was in his stocking feet, he had house slippers on. Rae was glad she went with jeans herself, though she’d picked a gray button-down shirt, her thumb-of-the-nose to Christmas.

Devya gestured past him at the interior of the kitchen. “Come and meet a really old friend of mine.”

Rae was sure her jaw dropped when she saw Erika leaning against the kitchen island, a glass of wine in her hand. She almost felt around with one of her feet to see where her jaw had landed so she could put it back before anybody noticed. And oh, lord, Erika was wearing a different pair of jeans that looked like a favorite pair, from the way they hugged her hips and thighs. She had a white tee on underneath her button-down shirt, a blue a few shades darker than her jeans. But the quirkiest part was her thick red socks. She wondered if Erika wore them and her boots at her New York office.

“I’m not as old as Dev claims,” Erika said, a really nice smile on her lips that lit up her eyes, too. “And actually—” she glanced at Devya before she looked at Rae again. “We’ve met.”

“Seriously?” James brushed past all three of them, carrying another bottle of wine. “Where?”

“At the airport.” Erika gave Rae a little wink. Or maybe Rae imagined it.

“Yeah. Yesterday, actually,” Rae managed, heat racing from her head to her feet and back again.

“I want to hear this story,” Alex said. “But first, munchies on the table. Honey?”

“Be right there.” James finished opening the other bottle of wine and poured another glass, which he handed to Rae before he took a cheese platter out of the fridge.

“But Devya didn’t actually mention your name,” Erika said, and she shot Devya an accusing look.

“Forgot,” Devya said with a shrug.

“I—” Rae started but Devya grabbed Erika’s free hand.

“I have to show her the view,” she said. “I’ll bring her right back,” she said sweetly to Rae as she pulled her out of the room, an apologetic expression on Erika’s face.

“Back in a few,” Erika said. “Don’t go anywhere.” She smiled and Rae managed to nod, hoping she didn’t look as nervous as she felt.

She turned toward Alex and pecked him on the cheek, to distract herself. “Something smells super good.” Alex was a whole lot shorter and slighter than James, who had played college football and still maintained a physique along those lines. James, on the other hand, was more bookish, though he liked some sports. He played a mean game of racquetball.

He grinned. “James wanted a Southern dinner.”

“Oh, no. You did not make fried chicken for Christmas.” Rae brushed past him to the stove, a stainless steel match to the refrigerator and dishwasher. Even the kitchen looked like fabulous gay men from Ikea had designed it. “You did.” She turned with a huge grin. “I will totally marry both of you.”

“Collards on the back burner,” Alex said, smiling back. “And cornbread.”

“Squash casserole,” James added from the doorway. “Baked macaroni and cheese.”

“That’s it. I’m marrying into this family,” Rae said as she took another deep breath, savoring the smells, and remembering how her favorite aunt in Mississippi would cook a meal like this when she and Jeri went to visit as kids.

“Along with my mama’s sweet potato pie.” James finished.

“Seriously. Let’s elope. Right now,” she said.

James laughed. “Let’s crack this wine instead.” He handed Alex the bottle Rae had brought, who used one of his myriad kitchen gadgets to open it.

“This is going to be really good with the chicken,” Alex said as he smelled it. “But then, wine is pretty much good with everything.” He set the bottle aside so the wine could breathe. “So. Erika?” He gave her a pointed look and she knew she was blushing. “Uh-huh,” he said. “She’s a good-looking woman.”

“Seems nice,” James added. “Classy but down-to-Earth.” He stirred the pot of greens. “And single.” He raised his eyebrows at her. “And of the right persuasion. So Devya says.”

Rae shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant, and sipped her wine. He laughed and went back into the other room, much to her relief.

Alex took the pieces of chicken he was frying out of the pan and set them on a plate to drain.

“You have no idea how great it is to have this for Christmas,” she said.

“It’s a nice break.” He looked over at her. “Helps with some of the holiday aversion this time of year. Good food, good wine, good company. Do things a little different, make some different memories.”

She took another sip. “It’s great. Thanks for inviting me.”

“If you said no, James was going to go and physically carry you out of your apartment.”

She laughed.

“Whether Erika was here or not,” he added, sly. “All right, dinner in about twenty minutes,” Alex announced. “Go on out there and socialize.” He shooed her out of the kitchen, and her stomach clenched in both anticipation and anxiety at the thought of interacting with Erika face-to-face again. Devya was pointing things out to Erika through the picture window on the other side of the room and James was busy with the sound system. Rae joined the two at the window.

“It’s a gorgeous view,” Erika said, then smiled at Rae.

Devya nodded as she ate a small piece of cheese. “The boys have such a great place. I’m glad you’re here to enjoy it.”

Rae silently agreed.

“And you could have been more specific about your ride to the hotel yesterday,” Devya said, giving Erika an affectionate glare.

Erika shrugged, sheepish. “I thought ‘super interesting graphic designer’ was pretty specific,” she said.

“A name might’ve been nice. Though you’re right. Rae is hot.”

At that, Erika coughed and even in this light, Rae could see her blush.

Devya laughed and shot Rae a smile. “You were actually the super interesting, hot graphic designer,” she elaborated.

“Thanks,” Rae said, sure a flush had spilled out over the collar of her own shirt, and glad that by the window, the light was dim. She thought about the drawings she’d done of Erika as a superhero, and the flush spread. She studied the wine in her glass.

“Oh, I love this song,” Devya said as a slick bass groove emanated from the speakers that hung tastefully around the room. “Be right back. I’ll check on Alex.” She went back into the kitchen.

Erika cleared her throat. “Sorry. I didn’t want to embarrass you,” she said.

Rae shrugged. “I’m flattered.” She took a swallow of wine for bravery and added, “It’s mutual. Except you’re the super interesting, hot literary agent.”

Erika regarded her over the rim of her glass, a different kind of smile on her lips. Rae flushed again, but this kind of flush was not the kind that showed.

“So how do you know Devya?” Rae asked, trying to lower her pulse rate with distraction.

“Boarding school in Massachusetts. I was a perpetual Christmas orphan and she was always bringing me to her family gatherings this time of year. Guess that hasn’t changed all that much,” she said, looking around the loft.

“Sometimes those are the best Christmases.” Rae looked out the window, all too aware of Erika’s proximity. She picked up a trace of her cologne, sort of crisp and spicy, and looked over at her.

“True.” She held Rae’s gaze, and even in the softer light on this side of the loft, the expression in her eyes indicated that she was not at all sorry she was a Christmas orphan this year.

“Y’all dig in,” Alex announced as he emerged from the kitchen carrying a huge platter of fried chicken.

“I think I want to marry into this family,” Erika said as she followed Rae to the table.

“Take a number,” Devya said as she put the casserole dish of macaroni and cheese next to the chicken.

She and Alex loaded the table up, James refilled all the wine glasses, as Devya directed Rae to sit next to Erika. Maybe Christmas didn’t have to suck after all. Erika’s voice and her laugh and the way her dark hair fell around her shoulders made that clear, as did the few instances when her hand brushed Rae’s as if by accident, though the little spark of mischief in her eyes said otherwise. And by the end of the meal, Rae had practically forgotten why she traditionally hated this time of year, and after they’d helped clean up, she was actually disappointed that Christmas Eve was nearly over.

“Ladies,” James said as Rae, Devya, and Erika suited up for the cold. “Let’s do this again sometime. Maybe I can talk Alex into making it a holiday thing.”

“That would be totally cool. Devya? How about Indian next year?” Rae adjusted her scarf before she zipped her coat.

“If we get snowed in again, definitely. If not, we could do it on the day before Christmas Eve.” She pulled her gloves on.

“I’m in,” Erika said as she finished buttoning her own coat up. “At some point, we can do a New England seafood Christmas.”

“That would be excellent.” Alex hugged each of them, and James did the same. “Be careful out there and call if you get stuck. We’ll come and save you.”

Rae glanced at Erika in her long, black coat and big, black boots, and knew who she’d much rather have pull her out of a snow drift. “Bye, guys. Merry Christmas,” she said, and meant it.

“Do you want a ride?” Devya asked as Rae opened the front door. “It’s on the way to Erika’s hotel. Not a big deal.”

“Okay.”

“Oh, give me a minute. I forgot to check something with Alex.”

“All right. We’ll meet you outside,” Erika said. “We’re dressed for it, after all.”

“It’ll just be a few minutes.” Devya left the foyer. She hadn’t put her winter shoes back on yet.

Outside on the sidewalk, Rae breathed in the icy night air, liking how it was almost like an aperitif. Erika adjusted her scarf and the two of them stood near the main entrance to the lofts, where the glow from the lights inside added a soft yellow to the red of the Christmas lights strung on the awning. Rae was painfully aware of being alone with Erika, and she combed her brain to think of something amusing to say, to hide how nervous she was.

“I had a thought,” Erika said, relieving Rae of the responsibility to talk first. She stood about a foot away, a little smile playing on her lips. “And maybe I’m being presumptuous, since neither of us is that into Christmas.”

“Hey, I’m willing to change my mind.”

“Me, too.” Erika looked up and Rae followed her gaze, to the big bunch of mistletoe that hung above the main entrance. She hadn’t even noticed it going in.

Erika dropped her gaze back to Rae’s, and what Rae saw knocked anything she might have said out of her mouth.

“So let me help change your mind,” Erika said softly and then she leaned in and before Rae had time to register anything, Erika’s lips were against hers, soft and warm and oh, so delicious, and fireworks blasted down Rae’s spine all the way to her feet. She was sure the snow beneath her boots was melting.

“That totally worked,” Rae said as Erika pulled away. Her heart pounded so hard she was sure even her heavy coat couldn’t muffle it. “Christmas might be my new favorite holiday.”

Erika smiled. “Mine, too.” And she kissed Rae again, this time for a little longer, and the tip of her tongue traced a bit of Rae’s lower lip, and Erika’s gloved hand gripped Rae’s. Erika pulled away again much too soon but out of the corner of her eye, Rae saw Devya through the glass doors, getting off the elevator.

“Can I get more of that tomorrow?” Rae asked.

Erika smiled. “Definitely. It’ll be Christmas Day, after all.”

Rae was pretty sure that wouldn’t be enough, but Devya was at the door.

“Okay,” Devya said as she emerged from the building. “I’m parked right over there. You two ready?”

Rae caught Erika’s gaze. “Totally,” she said. “Totally ready.”

“Same here,” Erika said.

Devya gave them both a puzzled look but moved toward her car. Rae didn’t even notice how cold it was anymore and after Devya dropped her off and she was back in her apartment, leaning against her door, her boots dripping on the mat and a huge grin on her face, she knew she had changed her mind.

Christmas definitely didn’t suck.


End

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