By ANGELA BRITNELL
For a principled lawyer, Sarah was rapidly turning into a total romantic fraud…
Sarah grimaced as she re-read the feature article. According to Chic magazine she had two choices – give “Countdown to a Coupled Christmas” a try, or face her family’s relentless sympathy if she turned up dateless yet again at the annual Christmas gathering.
The fact she was a successful lawyer with a perfectly satisfactory social life didn’t stop them trying to match her up with any eligible man they could find.
“Countdown to a Coupled Christmas” promised that if a woman put her mind to it, she would be paired up by the holidays. It was very specific about when to start the campaign because timing was supposedly crucial. You couldn’t invite a man home for Christmas if he was too “new” a boyfriend – and apparently three months was the magic number.
The first instruction made her balk.
Tell all your friends and enlist their help to find suitable candidates. Why not simply say – humiliate yourself at the feet of the romantically successful?
Reluctantly Sarah picked up the phone.
One month later Sarah filled in her progress report and cringed as she calculated her score. The countdown challenge gave her top points for going on eight first dates, but a metaphorical slap across the wrist for her single, pitiful follow-up date. By this point she was supposed to have identified the top three men and would now start to narrow them down by a process of elimination. Unfortunately the only man still standing was the smooth, charming Lucas Whittington.
The moment he’d landed in the West Tennessee office from their London branch on a six-month temporary placement Lucas set all the women swooning with his dark, good looks and yummy Britishness. Sarah had been the lone hold-out and when she’d phoned to ask him out on their first date – as per the instructions – she’d sensed his amusement.
“A date? I’ve been getting the impression you’d rather eat rat poison than talk to me unless it’s work related.”
It’d taken all her negotiation skills to get around that one. That was the trouble with talking to another lawyer – they knew all the tricks in the book too.
The biggest surprise came when she enjoyed their first date lunch. Lunch, not dinner, because it meant less pressure according to the Countdown. His quiet intelligence, dry sense of humour and easy good manners drew her in almost against her will.
“How would you feel about doing something like this again?”
The question had shocked her and by Lucas’s bewildered expression, Sarah guessed it’d done the same for him. She had almost confessed her ulterior motive for asking him out.
They’d spent their second date at a concert and discovered a mutual love of Broadway musicals – the old-fashioned ones like Oklahoma and Showboat. They’d sung together in the car afterwards as he drove her home, revealing the fact he did a passable American accent and possessed a decent tenor voice.
His kiss was hot with promise
She didn’t remember the last time she enjoyed herself as much and when he’d dropped her off at her apartment his kiss was sweet, but hot with the promise of much more.
Now she was mired in guilt remembering his parting words.
“You know, Sarah, I’ve been trying to put my finger on what’s different about you and I’ve decided it’s your honesty. What a man sees is what he gets, and I appreciate that. I don’t think it’s simply an American trait – I’ve been on other dates here and to say the women haven’t been strictly truthful is rather like saying Hitler wasn’t a very nice man.”
She answered her phone and her mother’s excited voice rang out.
“I know it’s early, but Aunt Betsy and I have been talking about Christmas.”
Sarah cringed. Considering it was still only the first week of November, she’d expected to have a little more time before the questions started.
“We think we’ll shake things up this year. With all the kids, it’s getting to be a crowd at home so we’re thinking of renting several cabins together in Gatlinburg for the week over Christmas and New Year.” Anne Radnor rushed on.
“Don’t try to tell me you can’t get time off – you’ve got a ton of unused vacation days. It’ll be great – and we might even get a white Christmas.”
Visions of being snowed in with her family deepened Sarah’s gloom. The Smoky Mountains often got the worst of Tennessee’s decidedly unpredictable winter weather.
I’m guessing you won’t be bringing anyone?
“Of course I will.” Sarah blurted out, stung by her mother’s blithe assumption.
“Ooh,” Anne squealed, “tell me everything right now!”
Sarah spun an extravagant description of Lucas and their romance and by the time she finished her mother was already picturing a huge family wedding and a horde of grandchildren.
“Just wait until I tell your father. He’ll be thrilled. Got to go. Aunt Betsy needs to hear this bit of news.”
Sarah wished she’d kept her mouth shut.
“Are you going home for Christmas?” Sarah snuggled into Lucas on the sofa and casually slipped in the question.
Please say yes. Being four thousand miles away would be the perfect excuse to get herself out of the mess she’d landed in. For the last three weeks she’d pushed the Christmas Countdown to the back of her mind and simply enjoyed spending time with him – but today was one month before Christmas, and the Countdown’s designated Asking Day.
“No. I want to make the most of my time here.” He kissed her cheek. “I’d hoped we might spend it together.”
Sarah’s heart leapt.
“I expect you’ve made plans with your family?” His usual confidence faltered. “I don’t want to intrude…”
“You wouldn’t be.” A hot blush raced up her face and neck. “I was trying to find the nerve to ask you.” The urge to be honest swept over her… but he’d get the wrong end of the stick and think less of her.
“Am I really that scary?” he teased.
No, you’re gorgeous, kind and loving and far too good for a woman who hasn’t the guts to stand up to her family and say this is who I am – take it or leave it.
Sarah tentatively explained her family’s holiday plans.
“I’d love you to come with me if you don’t think it sounds too dreadful. You wouldn’t have to stay the whole time if that’s too much.” She hastened to reassure him. “Normally I just drive home to West Tennessee for the day but I can’t get out of this unfortunately.”
“It’s not a problem. I’ve heard the Smoky Mountains are beautiful.” He tightened his arms around her. “I’ll miss being with my own family but I’ll enjoy getting to know yours instead.”
A flash of panic zoomed through her and Sarah blanched
She’d never taken a boyfriend home for Christmas before and it struck her as a serious step. The whole idea of the Countdown was ridiculous, because no romance could be forced to fit in with a schedule.
“You’re not regretting asking me, are you?” Lucas frowned.
“Why would you say that?”
“Maybe because of the frightened expression that’s replaced your smile?”
Sarah should’ve remembered how sharp he was at reading people. Even Rob Mercer, the senior partner, praised Lucas last week to anyone who would listen after his successful prosecution of a particularly nasty criminal.
“I’d take a wild guess you haven’t made a habit of taking boyfriends home for Christmas?”
Sarah shook her head and Lucas gave her a swift kiss.
“Will it help if I tell you I’ve wriggled out of similar invitations before and never asked any woman to join me for the holidays either?”
“I’m not easily intimidated, you know. I completely understand that I’ll be on display. No doubt your mother will rival the Spanish Inquisition with her questions and your father will want to know my intentions.” His deep blue eyes darkened and a shiver ran through her. “Are you interested in them, too?”
Somehow she managed to nod. Lucas ran his hand down over her hair, playing with one blonde strand before letting it fall back into place with a
“I’m struggling against going too fast here, Sarah. At the age of eighteen I made a plan for my life – but you’ve turned it upside down.”
“I have?” she croaked.
“Oh, yes, most definitely. I’m not supposed to consider settling down for another five years. By then I’ll be thirty-five and financially stable.”
You didn’t allow for the possibility of falling in love?
As soon as the words emerged, Sarah wished she could cut out her tongue. “I’m sorry, I didn’t…”
“Shush.” He touched a finger to her lips and gave one of the dazzling smiles she couldn’t resist. “I didn’t bargain on meeting a beautiful Southern girl with kind brown eyes and a sweet smile, that’s for certain. Especially one who can wipe the table with me when it comes to the intricacies of extradition law.”
A mild flash of disappointment ran through her. It’d been stupid to expect a proclamation of undying love, but a small part of her wished he wasn’t quite so rational.
“There’s a lot I want to say.” A lingering touch of heat flushed his skin. “Christmas. We’ll be away from work. It’ll help.”
Sarah wondered if the writer of the Countdown had ever thought beyond the need for a Christmas article to fill the magazine pages. The words tangled, web and deceive came to mind.
“I love that dress.” Lucas’s admiring gaze swept over her and Sarah couldn’t suppress a beaming smile.
The red lace dress might be a clichéd choice for the office Christmas party but she’d bought it after Lucas admitted to a weakness for the colour.
“Do you think we’re going to surprise a few people?” he asked.
“Definitely,” she laughed. They’d been discreet at work and no one apart from her friend Beverly, who’d suggested adding Lucas to her Countdown list in the first place, knew they were dating. As soon as they walked into this restaurant it’d blow their secret wide open.
Tomorrow on Christmas Eve they’d be heading to Gatlinburg to join her family and the weather forecast was perfect – cold and frosty but with no hint of snow.
“Come on.” He took hold of her hand and tucked it into the crook of his elbow. He pushed open the door and a rush of warmth and loud laughter drifted out. “First stop the bar, I think.”
Curious stares, halted conversations and knowing smiles followed them as they made their way through the crowded room
“Now you know how celebrities feel.” Lucas whispered in her ear, making Sarah giggle.
The evening flew by in a swirl of excellent Indian food and a touch more wine than she usually indulged in, but Sarah relished every moment.
“Are you two having fun?” A hot-faced Beverly appeared by them, waving a glass in the air and wavering on her spike-heeled shoes. “Hey, listen up.” Beverly yelled over all the noise and everyone stopped their conversations and stared. “I want to propose a toast to our happy couple.’
“Shush, Bev, leave it,” Sarah begged.
“Never let it be said that my best pal here is a quitter. She set her mind to having a boyfriend by Christmas and succeeded. Three cheers for Chic magazine’s Christmas Countdown.” She stumbled over one of the bar stools and would’ve fallen if Lucas hadn’t gently grasped her arm and kept her upright.
“Let’s take you home,” he said kindly and turned to Sarah. “I think we’ve all had enough.” His impassive voice hurt more than if he’d been angry.
As they got Beverly into a taxi and headed back to her apartment Sarah’s mind raced with all the possible ways to explain herself to Lucas, but there really weren’t any. They left her friend in the capable hands of her mother who was visiting from New York, and rode in silence back to Sarah’s house.
“Do you want me to come in or have I served my purpose now?” he said. “I assume you won’t be lying to your family.”
Don’t I get a chance to defend myself? Even the worst criminals get that opportunity. Come in and I’ll make tea.
“You’re far too clever.” The hint of a smile tugged at his mouth. “You had me at the word tea.”
Sarah crossed her fingers behind her back. Maybe they weren’t a lost cause yet. “Everyone has their weakness.”
“I thought I was yours.” Lucas touched his hand to her cheek. “I damn well know you’re mine.”
His tenderness undid her. Sarah broke down and sobbed uncontrollably. She babbled incomprehensible apologies as he hugged her tightly.
“I’ve been so stupid,” she wailed.
“How about the cup of tea you promised me?”
She hoped that was his way of hinting things would be all right and they didn’t speak again until they had the teapot on the table and two cups poured out. He’d addicted her to his favourite Earl Grey with no milk and a thin slice of lemon.
Quietly she told him everything.
“Did you fancy me at all when you asked me out?”
The straight, typical prosecuting lawyer’s question made Sarah flinch.
“Of course,” she protested. “I didn’t join in the general ‘let’s all drool over the hot Englishman’ because that’s not me.” As an expression bordering on smug crept over his face, she added, “I’ll smack you if you continue to smirk like a well-fed cat.”
“That was a feeble apology if ever I heard one.” She gave his arm a playful tap. “I realise now that what I did was beyond stupid. I wish I’d never read the idiotic article in the first place.”
“Why not? I’ve made a complete fool of us both.”
“But if you hadn’t, I’m taking a wild guess you’d never have asked me out – right?”
Sarah shrugged. He was totally right.
“And I’m not sure I’d ever have got past your do-not-touch aura – although I badly wanted to.”
“Did you really?” A tingle of hope sneaked into her heart.
“Most definitely.” He looked sheepish. “I asked Beverly about you.”
The devious creature! She conned us both.
“What do you mean?”
“I told you that the Countdown made me call up my friends and ask for help. Beverly was the one who suggested you.’
“We can either be annoyed or treat her to a well-deserved Christmas present. I vote for the present. A big, expensive one.”
“Seriously? You don’t mind?”
“This is one occasion when the end surely justifies the means. The way we got here – together – doesn’t matter.” Lucas glanced at his watch and smiled.
“By my reckoning our own Christmas Countdown starts now.”
Sarah threw her arms around him and gave Lucas a big kiss.
“Happy Christmas,” he said firmly, but with a distinct twinkle in his eyes.