THE PERFECT GIFT
by Dani-Lyn Alexander
Ten minutes. Jason had ten minutes to make the twenty-minute trip across town. He’d never be on time for his meeting. He stared at his watch as if it would tell him something different this time. Acid rolled in his stomach. Well, they’d just have to wait. Christmas Eve was tomorrow and he had to take care of getting Emily’s present. Truthfully, he should have gotten it already, but between working, looking after the house, and taking care of Emily, he had little time left over for anything else.
The only thing Emily had asked for this year was the Little Family Dollhouse. She’d get other gifts, too, of course, but he had to be sure to have that one. A coworker he’d spoken to before he left the office had told him how popular the house was with girls Emily’s age. Every little girl she knew either had one or had put it at the top of her list for Santa. Apparently now it was almost impossible to find. She’d suggested this small, out-of-the-way toy store that specialized in hard-to-find items. So here he was, sitting in a traffic jam, hoping it wasn’t too late to get what he needed. Impatience threatened to strangle him. He glanced again at the clock on the dashboard.
Emily was mature for seven, so he knew she’d accept that he couldn’t find the dollhouse. Still, he didn’t want her to be disappointed. Since Karen’s death, he’d raised her on his own, and so far it had proved to be the most challenging, most rewarding thing he’d ever done, and he desperately wanted to do it right.
The traffic light turned red, and Jason ground his back molars. Not one car had moved while the light was green. Not. One. Car. City traffic was the last thing he needed right now. He clutched the steering wheel tightly and dropped his head onto his clenched fists. This was ridiculous. Who would schedule a lunchtime meeting all the way across town on the day before Christmas Eve? His boss, that’s who. How could he possibly get all of this done? He rubbed his temples with the heels of his hands. Didn’t these people need to be at work or something? The motorist behind him hit the horn—again—and Jason couldn’t help but wonder what the man was beeping at. There was nowhere to go. No doubt he was just voicing his frustration. While Jason could certainly feel his pain, the constant honking was grating on his nerves.
Spotting a gap in the traffic, he darted to the right as soon as the light changed. He whipped around the next corner and slipped into a parking spot only two blocks from the toy store. Figuring he was lucky to get this close, he locked the car and jogged the two blocks. The freezing-cold drizzle not only soaked him but also coated the sidewalk with a thin sheet of ice. Since he was dressed for work in his suit and hard-soled dress shoes, the going wasn’t easy. Slipping when he turned to enter the store, he went down hard. His feet slid out from under him and he hit the wet sidewalk, scraping his chin on the step, tearing a hole in the knee of his pants, and soaking himself in the process.
Could this day get any worse? Even as the thought crossed his mind, things indeed got worse. As he pushed himself up, he caught a glimpse through the front door of the toy store. Although a few customers still browsed inside, the clerk was already putting the key into the lock. Oh, no! She can’t. Clutching the handrail tightly, he hurried up the two front steps to the door, grabbing hold of it before she could turn the key.
“I’m sorry, sir. We’re closing early today. I’m flying down to Florida to visit family for the holidays.”
Soaking wet, shivering in the cold, he could certainly appreciate her hurry to head south, but he had to get into that store. “Please. I just need one thing. It’s really important. I promise I’ll only be a minute.”
Apparently, the woman could tell he was having a rough day, because she gave him a sympathetic look as she held the door open and gestured for him to enter.
“Thank you so much.”
He looked around, quickly locating the girls’ section and headed straight for the aisle that held the dollhouses. The store was small but crowded with merchandise, and it took him several trips up and down the aisle to realize the dollhouse he needed wasn’t there. Great. Now what would he do? He hated disappointing Emily. Shoving his fingers through his hair in frustration, he turned to leave.
Unbelievable. He took a deep breath to ease the disappointment pressing like a weight against his chest. Just when he thought this day couldn’t get any worse, he spotted it. The Little Family Dollhouse. It sat on the end of the aisle, pushed against the back of the shelf, and there was only one left. Wary of his slippery shoes on the wet floor, he moved cautiously but quickly toward the shelf. Breathing a sigh of relief, he grabbed the box, turned to head for the register, and…met with resistance. Snapping back around, he pulled again. Once more the box was yanked away from him. He held tight to the dollhouse as he peered around the corner of the aisle at the other set of fingers holding onto his prize. A small, delicate hand had managed an incredibly tight grip on the box. His gaze slid up the arm and into the biggest, bluest, most beautiful eyes he’d ever seen. The breath caught in his throat.
LEAH GRIPPED THE dollhouse as tightly as she could and stared into eyes that had to be made from melted chocolate. She’d never seen such amazing eyes, and her gaze held his.
“I’m sorry. I need to get this dollhouse.” He still hadn’t taken his eyes from hers.
She smiled her best smile. “I’m sorry, too, but I had it first.”
“Look,” he started, smiling back at her, the expression filling his eyes with even more warmth, and Leah’s heart melted a little bit. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I really need to have this dollhouse.”
His eyes might have melted her heart, but there was no way she was letting go of this box. Motherhood prevailed. She’d called all over the city looking for this dollhouse, and now that she’d found it, nothing could make her part with it, not even a pair of eyes she could easily lose herself in.
“This is the only thing my daughter asked for this year. I must have it.” Her grin faltered for just a second before she plastered it firmly back in place. Then she pulled her gaze away from his eyes, effectively removing any temptation she might have felt to release her hold on the box.
Having been so enthralled by his eyes, she’d somehow missed taking in the rest of him, and the sight that greeted her now left her momentarily speechless. He was a mess. His gray pin-striped business suit was soaking wet, dirty, and torn. Wet hair stuck up in thick, dark clumps along one side of his head. A large scrape marred his very sexy chin.
All right, don’t go there. Wow, he really was having a bad day.
He exhaled one of those annoyed male sighs she knew so well. “Look, let’s be reasonable here. I already had the box in my hand when you grabbed hold of it.”
“Actually, I had my hand on it first, and then you grabbed it.” Her smile wavered as she started to realize he might not release his hold.
“Okay, I’ll pay you the cost of the dollhouse if you’ll let me have this one.”
The dollhouse cost over a hundred dollars, and she had to admit the money would come in handy. Her job as a receptionist didn’t pay much. The only reason she hadn’t looked for the gift sooner was that she’d had to wait for her final paycheck before Christmas. Although she was tempted to accept his offer, she still held tight.
Allison hadn’t asked for anything else for Christmas. Leah had to have the dollhouse for her.
“I’m sorry. Even though your offer is very generous”—you jerk—“I’m afraid I can’t accept. My daughter is only seven, and this is the only thing she asked for this year. I have to have it for her. I’ve already been all over the city looking for it. I’m sure you can understand.”
She mentally kicked herself even as the words left her mouth. Maybe he hadn’t realized how impossible these things were to find. If Mr. Chocolate Eyes thought he’d be able to find another one, she might have a better chance of getting him to release his hold on the box. He forked his free hand through his hair. Good grief. No wonder it was so messy.
“Okay, let’s be reasonable.” He took another long breath, his wet clothes clinging to broad shoulders. “Only one of us can have the dollhouse. I understand your position. I have a seven-year-old as well. This dollhouse is the only thing she put on her list for Santa this year. She’d be so disappointed if it wasn’t under the tree. Please, is there any way I can talk you into letting me have it?”
“We’re obviously both in the same position. As adults, surely we can resolve this somehow.” She couldn’t help but wonder what he’d do if she just yanked the box out of his hand and ran. The only problem being she’d have to stop and pay for it. She couldn’t just run out of the store. Or could she? She glanced toward the front door and chewed on her bottom lip. She could always come back in later, after he’d gone, and pay for it. Of course, if the owner called the police and they caught her before she could come back, she’d spend Christmas in jail.
Definitely not an option. Allison didn’t have anyone but her mother and had never known her father. He’d taken off the day he found out Leah was pregnant. Right now Allison was with Leah’s parents in Ohio. She’d be home tomorrow, though, and Leah had to be at the airport to pick her up, not sitting in a jail cell for petty theft. No, she couldn’t run.
He was still staring at her, apparently thinking her silence meant she was contemplating his offer. “All right, maybe we could—”
“Excuse me.” The sales clerk didn’t appear to be the least bit amused. She stood with her arms folded across her chest, her foot tapping and a scowl on her face. “Sir, I let you in because you told me you just needed one thing. You said you’d only be a minute. I have to lock up now or I’m going to miss my flight.”
“We seem to have a misunderstanding here.”
At least he had the good grace to blush when he explained the situation.
“I don’t really care who gets the dollhouse. In one minute I’m locking that door and I won’t sell it to wither of you.” She turned her back on them and walked away, effectively ending any argument either of them could come up with.
When the Christmas music stopped and the lights flipped off a minute later, Leah panicked. “Come on. I really need to have this. Neither of us is going to get it if you don’t let go. Now.” Desperation nearly choked her. “Maybe we can find another one somewhere else, but we’re definitely not going to find rwo. Let me have this one and I’ll help you find another one.”
He appeared to be as surprised as she was by the offer, but he still didn’t let go.
“I’m leaving.” The clerk’s voice rang out, sounding completely annoyed.
“No,” they cried in unison.
“I’ll tell you what.” The man quickly glanced at the clerk and then back at her. “We’ll split the cost of this one and go together to look for another one. Then we’ll split the cost of that one, and we’ll each end up with a dollhouse.”
The rattle of keys made Leah’s decision. “Fine. You’re on.”