Dane Carlton took a deep breath and loosened his grip on the glass. Another shot of Wild Turkey would burn just as much as the previous two. Knowing that, though, didn’t stop him from tossing it down. The glass made a heavy thunk
when he set it down on the bar. Christmas Eve. He sighed and shook his head. Tilley’s Trackside Bar was not where he should be spending it. Damn
. He should be with Sara. He wanted to be with Sara, had planned to be with Sara. He knew any holiday, any get-together with her family, was loud, busy, crowded, and at times hard to take, but it would be a hell of a lot better than sitting in this place, alone, where the scent of stale beer and cigarettes hung in the air.
Sara. Sara Landry. Dane wanted no one else more than Sara. God, even now his heart pounded, just thinking about her, even after he’d been together with her five years. So why was he sitting in this hole-in-the-wall, nothing bar, while the girl who held his heart was across town, celebrating without him?
Pride. Simple, first-deadly-sin pride.
He pointed to his glass.
“Last one, Dane.”
“Oh come on, Johnny,” Dane argued. “I haven’t had enough to knock me on my ass.” Not yet, anyway.
“I beg to differ, but that’s not the reason. I’m closing. You’re the only one in here, and it’s Christmas. I’m heading home. I suggest you do the same. Do I need to call you a cab?”
“Hell, no. I walked here, and I’ll walk home.” His head pounded, threatening a headache. Fuck. There went his damned pride again. A cab would have been so much quicker, so much easier, but he wasn’t about to let anyone, not even Johnny, imply that he needed one. He didn’t need any help at all.
He really wished Johnny was staying open later. Perhaps with three or four shots, he might not feel anything. That would be nice. Broken to pieces, his heart shouldn’t be feeling a thing right about now. So why did it? Dane closed his eyes. He refused to think of Sara, or her loud, stupid bunch of cousins. He shouldn’t want any of them. And by tomorrow, or maybe next week or next month, he wouldn’t. He forced himself off the stool and gripped the edge of the bar. Slightly woozy, he wasn’t certain at first if his legs would hold him. He stamped them a bit. They did. He pulled out a few bills to cover his tab and turned away after he tossed them on the bar. He managed to make it to the door without staggering.
“’Night, Johnny. Merry fucking Christmas.”
The bitter cold as he opened the door hit him in the face. Flecks of either snow or sleet hit him in the face and sobered him as much as Sara’s slap earlier in the day had. He started down the empty street, refusing to look at the festive decorations and hanging lights that swung in the wind. He felt far from festive, and the holiday decorations only reminded him of his own loneliness. He supposed he could call his mother and see if there was still time to hop a train to Chicago to spend the holiday with them. His mother would always have a place for him.
. Dane staggered a bit when he hit some ice on the sidewalk. He’d forgotten that his parents were spending the holidays aboard some ocean liner called the Holiday Princess
. They had only agreed to leave a few weeks ago after he’d assured them he had plans for the holiday and wouldn’t miss them.
He made his way through the snow piling up on the walk and ignored the cold wet that seeped into his shoes and soaked his socks. He didn’t need any fucking cab. He didn’t need Sara or her family either. Hell, he didn’t need anyone.
By the time he reached his apartment blocks away, it wasn’t hard to convince himself he didn’t need anyone. His feet, his fingers, and his face were numb. His throat was tight and painful. His misery crushed down on him. He welcomed the pain and numbness that made him too tired to think about anything. He told himself it was a good thing he and Sara had had the argument. He’d managed to get a lot of work done after she’d gone before he’d stepped out for some Christmas spirit. As a city planner, his work was never done, and Sara simply didn’t understand that.
Once inside, he switched on the light above the stove, which gave off enough glow for him to see. He didn’t bother to reach for the remote that controlled the hundreds of tiny bulbs on the Christmas tree. Seeing it sparkle like stars in the night sky would only remind him of Sara when she’d decorated it, her smiles and laughter as she’d worked on it. How happy she’d been when she’d hung the new ornament she’d bought for his tree: two doves together with the year on it, as if he and Sara were a couple. He’d removed it after she’d left that morning. Dane saw the silhouette of where it sat on the coffee table. She had obviously seen more into their relationship than he did. He snorted.
Oh, he saw it. He knew she wanted more.
He just didn’t want to see it. He was scared to look commitment in the eye. Because he knew that’s what Sara wanted: commitment.
Besides, he liked them where they were: safe bed buddies, friends, comfortable in each other’s company. Why change that? Why demand something more?
Ignoring his cold, wet pants and shoes, he fell on the sofa. Maybe he’d go take a shower in a minute. He wasn’t ready to go into the bedroom or lie on his bed or even look at it. It would probably smell of Sara’s perfume anyway. He was better off here. He pulled his cell phone from his pocket and checked the display. No missed calls or texts. Actually, no one had called.
“It doesn’t matter. I don’t need anyone,” he muttered to himself. He liked hearing his voice in the quietness of the room. Dane closed his eyes. “Tomorrow, I’ll pack up the tree. Or maybe I’ll just shove the damned thing out the window. Someone can pick it up and take it home. I don’t need it. I hate Christmas,” he said, slurring his words and hating himself for it.
* * * *
Dane woke with a start.
His head was fuzzy, and it took several seconds of blinking for his eyes to focus.
He was pretty certain that when he’d flopped onto the couch, the lights on the tree had been off. So how had they gotten turned back on? “What the hell?”
He tried to sit up. His head felt like it weighed twenty-five pounds. Then he saw her: an absolutely gorgeous, model-beautiful blonde with the bluest eyes he’d ever seen. The sight of a strange woman wearing a sparkly white minidress, black stiletto heels, and a Santa hat in his apartment had him springing off the sofa in an instant. Damn. His vision swam, and he lost his balance. Weak-kneed, he fell and crashed into the coffee table.
The girl reached out and swiped the Christmas dove ornament off the table a second before he would have fallen on it. His left knee hit the floor. His right one hit the corner of the table. His face slammed into the surface not far from where the ornament had been. Dane groaned.
“Oh, I bet that hurt.” Her words held not an ounce of sympathy. “Good thing this ornament didn’t get broken, though. It would look great right here.”
She hung the doves on the branch where Sara had hung them. How did she know it had hung there? And hadn’t Sara said the same exact words? It would look great right here.
“Who the fuck are you, and what are you doing in my place? How’d you get in here?”
“Ooooo, aren’t we in a good mood? I was told you’d be cranky.” She turned from the tree and offered him a smile that shone almost as bright as her dress.
“You’re about to see me crankier as I toss your ass out of here.” He needed to use both hands on the coffee table in order to haul himself to a standing position. Damn, but he wished the room would quit spinning. He took a step toward her. “Who told you I was cranky? Steve? Did Steve send you?” Steve, his partner at city hall, couldn’t know about his argument with Sara. No one did, unless Sara had told someone. Maybe she did, because leave it to Steve to pay for someone to come and spend Christmas Eve with him. “Whatever he paid you to come visit me, you can keep it. Now get the hell out and leave me alone.”
“I can’t leave you yet. And you can’t toss me out either.”
“Wanna bet?” He reached for her. He’d never physically tossed anyone out the door. And he didn’t readily like the idea of starting his tossing career with such a beauty like her. But damn, she’d challenged him. There was his fucking pride again.
His hands clapped together as she disappeared before his eyes.
“See, I told you,” she said, speaking from behind him.
He turned so fast he nearly lost his balance. “How’d you do that? Who are
“I’m Christy, the Ghost of Christmas Past.”
He chuckled. “Yeah, right. And I’m Santa Claus.”
She grew serious. “No, you’re not. You’re Dane Carlton. Santa is much nicer than you are.”