How could it be, Rick wondered, that the same woman who had looked so sophisticated last night, so stunning, now looked like Christmas had exploded inside her apartment. Her cheeks were flushed, and tinsel was tangled in her hair, around her arms and legs.
Despite the disheveled appearance, Rick couldn’t help but smile when he saw the way her golden eyes were shining with joy. Nor could he stop from experiencing that tightening sensation in his stomach that had haunted him ever since Miley Stuart had left his office for the second time yesterday.
That sensation of surprise, something he rarely was, especially when it came to people. Nor had he been able to forget those eyes which had given him a myriad of colors: first a vivid gold as she had reacted to his offer of a reward for bringing his credit card back, then a subdued honey with flecks of caramel, when he had told her about his proposition, and finally a rich amber, when she had looked at him in that shy, coy, but very appealing way women had when they felt beautiful wearing a certain piece of clothing, when she had put on the dress he had bought for her. A dress he had insisted she keep after he had dropped her off last night.
A night that was supposed to end with him thanking her and she saying she had had a great time. Which was the exact way it had ended. Then why the hell was he here?
His smile was replaced by a slight frown of his eyebrows. Miley was nothing like the women he was used to dating. Not that she wasn’t attractive. She was, but it was something else entirely. She was refreshing from all the usual falseness from all those other women. He wanted to believe that what he was looking at was who she really was, no hidden agenda, no plans to seduce him to get something out of him.
“Rick! What are you doing here?”
If only he knew. Rick had been on his way home, when he’d asked his driver to take a detour, and had ended up parked outside her apartment and telling his driver he would get a cab ride back home.
“Miley. Good evening. I was…….” Now that was a first. Rick Hudson always knew what to say and was never tongue-tied with anyone, not even with the most intimidating of clients. And here he was, standing before this woman with no idea of what to say without sounding like an idiot, which he realized was exactly how he looked standing here and staring at her like one.
“You were……..?” Miley prompted.
“I was in the neighborhood.” Yes, nice going Rick. That doesn’t sound pathetic at all.
“Oh, right. Well, since you’re here, I might as well give you the dress.”
That at least, cleared his brain.
“I said you should keep it.”
“I know, but it still doesn’t seem right.” She bit her lower lip, and a string of tinsel fell over her eyes. He wanted to pull it away, and then taste that mouth of hers. And when he wanted something, he did it. Only he hesitated halfway, realizing that where Miley Stuart was concerned, he wanted to take things slow. Another first for him.
“Why? Consider it a gift. Isn’t that what people do during this time of year?”
“I should probably say no, but since I work at a department store which makes most of its profits during the holidays, then I agree. It’s just……I wouldn’t have anywhere to wear it again, and I don’t know, you might want to keep it or exchange it for something you want or……”
“I certainly don’t want to keep it. And that was a women’s store only, I doubt they’d have something for me. The only option left is for them to give me my money back but that is kind of distasteful. And I am sure they’ll come a time when you’ll need it again.”
At odds, as the silence lingered between them, Rick decided he had not thought this impromptu visit through to Miley’s place. Only before he had a chance to say goodnight, she said.
“Would you like to come in? I could use a hand with this mess.”
The fact that she was in her most unflattering clothes, some old cotton shorts and a plain white t-shirt, more yellow than white from being washed too many times or that there was silver tinsel tangled in every part of her body didn’t register until she closed the door after he had walked inside.
Miley was still coming to terms with Rick being in her apartment, especially when she was sure last night would be the last. And he hadn’t said the classical line “I want to see you again” or had kissed her goodnight like in the movies, which was why she thought she was still hallucinating.
Only, this was way better than fantasizing about him, right? At least, it would really keep her mind off her meeting with the doctor. She would be focused on keeping her reactions to him from jumping out to plain sight. And, she had to admit, she had had a great time last night. She got to know a side of Rick she had not seen coming. A more relaxed, less uptight side of him that only added to his appeal.
The movie was in its last ten minutes, so Miley turned it off and waited while Rick did another inspection of her place, this time lingering on her artificial tree with its disarray of decorations, some collected by her or her mother throughout the years, and others made by them when Miley had been little.
“For someone who loves this time of year, I am impressed you waited until now to put up your tree.”
“I was just busy with…..other stuff.”
“Stuff?” He went to sit on the couch putting aside the empty boxes Miley would have to take down to the little storage room in the building.
“Yeah, you know work, and very elegant functions.” Her heart fluttered when he smiled at her.
The moment was interrupted by the pig-shaped timer going off, telling Miley her batch of cookies was done. This was a tradition she and her mother had honored since Miley could remember. Whenever they decorated their place for Christmas, they would make cookies and then decorate them with colored frosting, and then eat them almost all in one night. The memory made her close her eyes and will away the tears she had not shed.
When her golden eyes opened again, Rick was looking at her. A careful measured stare as it traveled up and down her body. She remembered the tinsel and went warm in the face before saying.
“Would you mind giving me hand with this?” Miley lifted the tinsel.
Rick went to her and Miley starting turning away from him to untangle herself. When she was done, she walked to the tree and started to go around it until a thin strip of silver traveled from the top to bottom. She grinned, like she always did, and continued to do so before going for the cookies.
She went to the kitchen which was basically in the same space as the living room, a small counter island separating both rooms, and used her mittens to take the tray out and let the cookies cool for a while before she would start decorating them.
He picked up a decoration and Miley said anticipating his question.
“I made that one with my mom. We thought it would be cool to make a snowman out of crumpled white paper. It used to look more like a snowman before, now it looks like a run-over by a car snowman.”
Rick pointed to one of the many framed pictures.
“Is that your mom?”
Her throat felt tight, but she managed to answer.
“Does she live with you?” He asked as if he was expecting her to come out into the living room at any moment.
“She, uhm, does. But she’s not here right now.”
“Where is she?”
“She’s at…….she’s away, you know how all parents must travel at some point in their lives.”
“For mine it was always France.” Miley detected a hint of longing in his voice and saw it on his face, as he stared down at the decoration resting on his hand. Because he was beginning to look uncomfortable and the last thing she wanted was to make him want to leave, she said.
“Oh, well, France, that’s just so overrated right? I mean, it’s the reason I haven’t gone there myself. Not to mention it’s where babies come from and it’s kinda hard to make one on your own, unless you’re some supernatural creature right?”
He goggled at her, clearly thrown back by her sudden attempt at lightening the mood. Then, for the first time since she’d known him, Rick burst out in laughter, a sound so warm and pleasant, Miley put her elbow on the counter and leaned her head on her hand watching him, mesmerized.
When his laughter subsided, Miley realized he was watching her watching him and felt embarrassed, her face going red as Santa’s suit.
For lack of anything smart to say, Miley busied herself around the kitchen assembling what she would need to decorate the cookies. The red, green and white frosting, the eatable silver dots, the sprinkles also in red, white and green and the plate where she would put all of them after she was done.
“What are the cookies for?”
Miley nearly dropped the plate she was carrying as his voice sounded inches away from her. When she turned, he was leaning against the kitchen counter, the sadness gone and a naked interest dancing inside his green eyes.
She set the plate down and used the distraction of putting the cookies on a wooden board to quiet her thrumming pulse and be able to form a coherent answer.
“It’s this tradition I have with my mom. Whenever we decorated the tree, we made cookies and decorated them. When I was little we would save some for Santa, though nowadays we just end up eating them all between ourselves.”
“You miss your mom, don’t you?”
That had Miley lifting her head and analyzing his face. There it was again, that tone of doubt, like Miley saying no was the answer he was expecting to hear. Had he had a bad relationship with his parents? Was that the reason he was so guarded, so careful not to open himself more to people?
“I do. What about you? Do your parents still live in France?”
“Yeah, you said they had gone there to….”
“No, they’re not.” He cut her off. “They passed away a few years ago.”
It made Miley’s heart go out to him for he was trying very hard not to sound sad about it.
“Thank you. Well, I should go.” He said as he started to head for the door.
“Wait!” Miley exclaimed in a desperate tone.
“I…….” please don’t go yet, she wanted to say. Instead, she pointed at the cookies and said.
“Want to help me out?