- Women’s Fiction
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Alexandra Anderson has a loving husband who provides for her every need, a beautiful home in the suburbs, and money to fulfill her slightest whim. But after a lonely childhood, what she wants more than anything is a baby, a family of her own.
Sam Herrmann is married to his college sweetheart, and together they have three healthy, boisterous boys. Sam spends his days running numbers as a government accountant, and his nights and weekends trying to keep up with the grueling family schedule set by his wife – a wife he can barely remember.
What happens when two married people take a look at the perfect lives they’ve created
and decide it’s not enough? What happens when those same two people catch the eye of
a stranger, and like what they see?
A story of love and marriage. A story of hope.
Alex glanced at her watch as she finished tying the bow on the odd-shaped box
she’d been wrapping. Two hours down, one to go. This day was creeping by like it
was going in reverse. But that often happened—time passing in slow motion—when Ben
was gone. He’d left that morning, assuring her it would be only two nights this time.
Like the promise of two lonely nights, just her and a bottomless bag of salt-and-vinegar
Lay’s, was supposed to make everything hunky-dory.
“There you go,” she said as she handed the brightly wrapped gift to the woman in front
of her. It had been a real bitch to pull together, too, all odd angles and pointy edges,
and the woman had insisted on paper instead of a gift bag. She said bags were taking
the easy way out, and if she was paying, she didn’t want easy.
“Thanks. Looks great,” the woman said. “So glad I found you guys. This package would’ve
been a bitch to wrap.” Then she dropped a dollar bill into the donation jar—a dollar which
she’d pulled from a wad of fives and tens that she’d dug from the bottom of her Coach bag.
Unfortunately, the woman’s generosity, or lack of it, seemed to be par for the course.
Alex’s gaze strayed to the donation jar, half-full with mostly singles and a couple fives,
after a solid three hours, and she pushed the corners of her mouth into what might pass
for a smile. Then she forced the type of response she’d been trained to give since birth.
“Thank you, ma’am. You have a blessed day now.”
She let the corners of her mouth drop as the woman turned and walk-wobbled away from the booth, her lack of grace probably due to the amount of mass she was trying to balance on those pointy-toed, four-inch heels. Or maybe she just looked hefty because she’d tried stuffing herself into skinny jeans that left a generous muffin top hanging over the edge of the waistband. And of course Alex only noticed that because the knit top the woman wore, which looked like a silk-cashmere blend, hugged her figure, including the D-cups she’d obviously wanted to display, and had probably paid for.
As the ugly thoughts entered her brain, Alex shushed herself. Told herself that’s probably what
she’d look like too, if she tried dressing up in the beautiful clothing Ben bought her instead
of dressing down in her favorite relaxed jeans and comfortable flats. It’s not like she’d win
any beauty prizes herself. She just chose to hide her heft rather than flaunt it.
And right now, her heft was feeling rather … hefty. Her feet hurt from standing for the past
two hours. Her back ached from bending over to fold, tug, and tape. And she’d snipped her
finger at one point trying to make a bow for a customer who wanted something super special
pretty. The damn cut still hurt.
She was a mess. And if she had to listen to one more cycle of the same God-awful boring selection of “holiday music”—classics like Frosty the Snowman and Rudolf—she’d rip the damn speakers out of the ceiling herself.
Some days it was harder to be good than others. She’d come in early to cover another woman’s
shift at the booth, was halfway through her own two-hour shift, and was ready to call the rest
of it quits. That wasn’t like her. She’d never been a quitter. She’d been more the type to
break down into a whimpering pile of self-pity before admitting she couldn’t keep going.
She was just about there right now.
“Hey, girl,” she said to the woman next to her, whose name she’d forgotten about five seconds
after hearing it, “I need to run to the ladies’ room. Be right back, okay?”
The woman eyed her suspiciously, then glanced to the four-deep crowd gathered in front of
the booth. “Sure. Fine. Just be quick, okay?”
Already feeling the tug of guilt, Alex took her own survey of the people standing in line.
They looked tired, and sweaty, and generally annoyed at having to wait.
Well, tough. She was tired. She was sweaty. And she needed a break before she did something
she’d regret. But when she stepped from the booth, groans rose from the waiting crowd, and
that did it.
Anger boiled just beneath the surface of her barely controlled temper as she moved in front
of the booth and clapped her hands. “Ladies, may I have your attention? Please?”
Some of them looked up, others kept talking—either to each other or through the phantom
ear bud things they insisted on using.
“We understand that the line is long and the wait longer. We’re short staffed today, so
it’s probably not going to get any better. You’re welcome to stay and wait, or you’re
welcome to come back with your packages another time. The booth is open from nine to
nine daily through Christmas Eve. Or you are, of course, welcome to take your packages
home and wrap them yourselves.”
The gasp from her co-workers behind her told her she might have gone a step too far.
“What?” she snapped, jerking her head around to see what their problem was, and waved toward
the vicinity of the donation jar. “We’re supposed to take all this abuse for a dollar a pop?”
“I was going to give you a five,” a woman waiting several feet away muttered.
“Well, how nice of you,” Alex answered, putting all the sugar into her voice that she could
cull from being raised south of the Mason-Dixon line. “A whole five dollars for the mountain
of packages you’re carrying? And that five is supposed to cover not just the cost of the
paper—which, by the way, is not crap—but the ribbons and bows, all the supplies. And out
of what’s left of that big, generous donation which—let me see if I can do some quick math here—
comes to less than a dollar a package, we’re supposed to miser out some sort of pittance
for the animals at the shelter?”
Her voice had risen to something close to a shriek, and she knew she was perilously close
to hysteria. Worse, she didn’t give a flying fuck.
“What the hell is wrong with you people? It’s Christmas! Supposedly a time of giving,
joyfully, to others. Peace on earth, good will toward men, and all that horse hockey.
Animals are God’s creatures, too. Open up your frickin’ wallets.”
That she’d managed to control the “f” word, at least to some extent, pleased her, despite
the realization that she’d ranted herself far over the line of grace. If her own internal
barometer hadn’t told her that, the screaming silence that met her outburst did. She gulped
and viewed the group. Some frowned, looking even angrier than before she’d opened her mouth.
Some averted their gazes, as if they’d been caught in the act of something foul and dirty.
And others moved to escape, probably off to buy their own wrapping supplies.
“Good going, Alex,” her booth-buddy said. “You chased them away.” And she didn’t sound
the least bit grateful.
Before Alex could respond, she heard a chuckle, low and sinful-sounding, from the back
of the dwindling crowd, followed by, “Bravo. Well done.”
Her gaze raced to find the source, although she’d already recognized the voice. Then she
found him. Sam Herrmann, leaning against a fake potted tree that dripped twinkling white
lights that made him look like he was wearing a halo. He stood in a relaxed pose, his
legs crossed at the ankles, his arms crossed over his chest, like he felt easy, and happy
to be there. One of those half-smiles that did funny things to her stomach deepened the
dimple on the right side of his face, and she felt her mouth curl in response.
Until she remembered what she’d just done, and what he’d just seen.
Oh Lord, he’d seen her melt down in the most un-Christian, ungracious manner, and he was
laughing. At her. Shame nearly flattened her, and she slapped her palms to her face and
said, “I am so sorry. I don’t know what’s come over me. I’ve never done anything like that.”
“We believe you, Alex. But why don’t you take off now? We’ll get someone to cover your shift.
I’ve already placed the call for a replacement.” This from their shift leader, Ellie, an older
woman who’d probably seen it all, although certainly not done it all, if Alex guessed correctly.
Alex removed her hands and attempted to smooth her face, tried to retrieve some of the
dignity she’d had when she arrived that morning, then pivoted to face the booth. Ellie’s
brows were scrunched in a frown, her mouth twisted at one corner, and she was breathing
so fast little gusts of air were coming out of her nose like she was a bull getting ready
Another bubble of hysteria moved through Alex, but she managed to swallow it while she
grabbed her purse from under the booth. “I am so sorry. I don’t know what’s come over me,”
she said as she stood. “Maybe it would be best if I called it a day.”
She removed her wallet from the purse, thumbed through the bills she’d stuffed in there
earlier, and pulled a couple out. “I hope this will help defray some of the trouble
I’ve caused.” She passed the notes to Ellie, whose eyes rounded as if it had been million
instead of a couple hundred.
“Thank you,” Ellie said, then paused as if debating what to say next. “That’s very
generous of you, Alex.”
“Thank Ben. He makes the money.”
Alex hadn’t intended to make such a snarky remark, but there it was, the root of her
marriage problems. Ben made the money and didn’t much care about anything else, except
maybe looking like a good provider and righteous man.
Her head throbbed now, along with her neck and feet, and she could feel Sam Herrmann’s
stare as surely as if he’d pointed a laser beam at her skull.
Figuring it was always better to meet a challenge head on, she turned, and there he was,
closer than ever and looking as if he could eat her for lunch.
The air sucked from her lungs in one giant squeeze, and her heart dropped like it
was on a one-way trip to hell.
Stop it! she scolded herself as she tried to force air back into her body.
She was imagining things. The notion had been only frustration talking. Frustration,
and disappointment that despite all the money, all the trappings of wealth, she
wasn’t happy. Unhappy didn’t even cover it. Lonely. Miserable. Those might do.
But that’s what she got for placing all her hopes on another human being, her
husband, to bring her that happiness.
Everyone knew another person couldn’t make you happy. And if that’s what you were
waiting for, you’d have a long wait.
Still, the lure of this new hope drew her, like a kid to a lit firecracker, and
she found herself moving in his direction, one tentative step after another until
they stood face to face, inches apart, so close she could see the dilation of his
beautiful green eyes, the quickening of his breaths, as if she affected him the
same way he affected her.
“What are you doing here, Sam?”
“I came for you.”