Mall Magic by Cat Shaffer

Deeni Crowe shoved open the glass door, stepped into the crowded mall and forced herself not to turn around and run back into the snowy cold outside. The place exuded so much Christmas spirit she was afraid she might break out in evergreen boughs and jingle bells.
Mall Magic
Mall Magic by Cat Shaffer
Taking a deep breath, she headed for the interior of this commercial jungle. She tensed as she passed under the giant candy canes hanging above her head and on to the colored lights strung on the food court palms and the elf—well, a woman dressed like an elf—squirting perfume at the department store entrance. All she needed was to be accosted by someone passing out fruitcake samples for her nightmare to be complete. Touching the angel pin on her decidedly non-holiday sweater, she took a deep breath and pushed onward. The pin was an heirloom, or as close as passed for one in the unsentimental Crowe family, a gift by her great-aunt the year before. The one and only reason she endured this mass of artificially cheerful humanity was because of her very favorite relative. If she didn’t buy something today, there was no way her package could make it to Aunt Lucy’s house by Christmas, even overnighted. Sighing, Deeni ducked away from a family bearing gifts piled high enough to block their vision and headed for the bookstore. Aunt Lucy’s present couldn’t be almost right, or simply okay, or nearly perfect. Her gift had to be something she’d love, something to make her face light up when she opened it. After all, it was the only one Deeni was buying this year. Her parents had their own way of celebrating the season. She supposed at one time they must have given her toys. But from the time she was old enough to count, her gift from her mother and father was a cashier's check. The day after Christmas, they’d drive to the bank and supervise as Deeni cashed it. Half in a savings account, half for something useful, that was how it always went. Granted, by the time she turned eighteen she’d had a sizeable CD, but she rather be broke with memories of fancy wrapping paper, bright ribbons and possessions she could brag about to her friends. The only good holiday memories Deeni had were from her high-spirited Aunt Lucy’s house. Aunt Lucy had a real Christmas tree, usually leaning at a 45-degree angle, decorated with gaudy ornaments and lots of tossed-on tinsel. Aunt Lucy always seemed to know what Deeni secretly wanted, whether a huge hot pink teddy bear or an N-Sync sweater. Naturally, her parents urged her to return those gifts and get something, as her father would say, “better suited to our life.” Deeni could almost hear them now, even though her parents were in Germany and wouldn't be back until mid-January. Inside her head, her mother's voice nagged her as she walked into the bookstore. Gardenia Louise, don't waste your money on those silly romance novels or gory horror books. If you're going to give Lucy something, give her a book on finance. She needs all the help she can get. Deeni shook her head to get rid of the imaginary nag and started toward a row of best-sellers. Picking up a thick murder mystery, she imagined Aunt Lucy on the beach in Florida, outside the home she'd rented for the winter, warmed by the sun as she became engrossed in the tale. Smiling for the first time since the mall Santa had boomed “Ho, ho, ho” at her, Deeni headed for the checkout desk. Head down, reading the back cover blurb, she smacked square into something that went, “Oof.” Her head snapped up. Her gaze met the eyes of the man she jabbed in the midsection with the book. “I'm so sorry,” she stuttered. “Did I hurt you?” “Just my lunch.” He grinned and held up a squished sack from the food court. “But that can be replaced.” “Let me take care of it.” Tucking the book under her arm, Deeni fumbled for her wallet. “Tell me what you had and I’ll repay you.” “There's no need,” the stranger said, right before the book slipped from under Deeni's arm and nailed his toe, only seconds before her purse made the same downward glide and spilled its contents across the bookstore floor. “I'm so, so sorry.” Deeni began to babble. “Really sorry. You have no idea how sorry.” Feeling even more like an idiot, she bent down to pick up her purse, belatedly remembering that the heavy volume had hit his foot. She straightened abruptly, catching her victim yet again, this time under the chin with her head as he tried to help her. “Please, let me.” His hand cupped her wrist and moved her over several steps. She caught an undertone of something—pain? aggravation? attempted murder?—in his voice and stayed where he put her. She accepted everything he gave her, the smashed lunch, the book for Aunt Lucy and her purse after he shoved everything back in. “Thanks. And I'm sorry about, well, everything.” She headed for the cash register before she could do any more damage; his muscular arm snaked out and stopped her. “You owe me lunch, remember?” She nodded. “So let's go eat.” He walked behind her—a good, safe distance behind her—until they were safely out of the store. He stepped up beside her as they joined the throng of shoppers, matching her pace as they strolled through the crowd. Deeni had never dated much, and certainly no one like the tall, well-built man beside her. The few times she had gone out had been with guys her parents would approve of. Dentists and accountants and junior executives working on their MBAs, professionals with a solid future. This guy was no accountant. She was sure those solid arms came from hard work, not hard workouts at the gym, judging by the calluses she felt on his fingers when their hands touched. The way he put his arm around her to guide her through a group of teenagers, how he steered her to the less-dense edge of the crowd—no man had been that considerate before. Maybe he was a carpenter, she decided, or maybe an auto mechanic. She sneaked a look at his left hand. No ring. Of course, he could still be married. Probably was. A sexy, considerate man was a hot commodity these days. “Here we are.” They stopped by an upscale Italian restaurant that just opened. Deeni couldn't afford this place. Before she could say so, he said, “My treat.” “I can't let you.” “Yes, you can.” He pushed the door open and she walked in. The place was beautiful, with colorful tiles on the floor, oak wainscoting and the heavenly smell of Italian cooking permeating the air. Deeni did a quick review of her finances. Maybe ten dollars in cash, a small-limit credit card for emergencies and a debit card that would let access the thirty or so dollars in her checking account. Okay, maybe if she just got a salad, she could afford a meal for the two of them. “Hey, Mac, you're here early.” The young and perky hostess greeted them. “Bobby's looking for you, by the way.” “Not now.” The man called Mac answered. “My guest and I are here for lunch.” “Oh.” The girl turned speculative eyes on Deeni. “Ooooh.” Taking a menu from the pile by the hostess station, Mac led Deeni to a table in a back corner. He must work here, she decided when he didn’t take one for himself. She remembered the calluses on his hands and decided dishwasher. Those guys got calluses from scrubbing heavy pots and pans, didn't they? “Hey Mac.” Their waiter walked up. “You're early.” Mac grinned. “If one more person tells me that, I'm going to get a complex. My friend and I stopped in for lunch.” “Hey, I was just saying.” The waiter held his hands up in mock surrender. “As late as you got out of here last night, I figured you'd still be in bed.” Yep, a dishwasher, Deeni decided, feeling disappointed even though she knew it didn't really matter. Who else would be the last one out? As the banter between the two men flowed around her, she reminded herself they were here because she battered him half to death in the bookstore. Her mission had been accomplished when she found a present for Aunt Lucy. This one-time lunch with a good-looking guy was a bonus she’d enjoy as an antidote to the misery of visiting the mall. “I recommend the Chicken Alfredo,” Mac said. “It's the chef's own recipe and the best thing on the menu, in my opinion.” Deeni sneaked a peek at the price and grimaced inside. This place was definitely not for an entry-level finance manager like her. Maybe in a few years, when she was a stock broker in her own right.... “Don't worry about paying,” Mac said, as if he could read her mind. “I'll take care of it.” “I can't let you.” Deeni had some pride. She had a debt to repay and she was going to do it. “Really, I want to.” Gesturing to their waiter, Mac ordered the dish for the both of them along with a bottle of white wine and a sampler of appetizers. This was the moment Deeni hated on dates, when they sat there face to face with time to fill before their food was served. She relied on her mother’s instruction what to do when forced to make small talk. She asked Mac about himself. “Are you from around here?” “For now.” Before she could ask another question, the wine arrived. By the time he poured them both a glass, he had taken control of the conversation. “I haven't seen you in the mall before,” he said. “I hate this place,” Deeni confided. “I'm more the small shop type, where I can run in and out. I especially hate shopping centers this time of year.” “I thought every woman loved to shop,” he said, buttering a slice of the fresh French bread and handing it to her. “Not me. And I especially hate to buy shoes.” Mac’s laugh relaxed her and before she knew it, she was telling him how she never had the kind of Christmas other people had, that her parents saw it as commercial entrapment. How Aunt Lucy had given her a taste of what other kids had, from the midnight church service on Christmas Eve to bright decorations and silly presents. In fact, she talked right up to the time their food came. She was appalled at herself. She didn't know this guy, not really, and she had to be boring him to death. “Well,” she said, determined not to do it again, “are you ready for Christmas?” “As ready as I'll ever be,” he said. “My father died ten years ago, and my mother's remarried. She and my stepfather are going to Arizona to be with his kids this year, so I've shipped my gifts out there.” “You’ll be alone, too,” Deeni said, the words escaping before she thought. When he didn’t answer, she realized how foolish her assumption was. Of course he wouldn't be alone. He probably had a girlfriend to spend the holiday with. And look how his co-workers had greeted him. They were like a family here, unlike the sterile atmosphere in which she worked. She bet he had to choose which invitation for Christmas dinner to accept, not wonder which restaurants would be open. “You shouldn’t be by yourself,” Mac said. “We're closed to the public on Christmas Day, but some of us are having dinner here. You should join us.” “Oh, I can’t. It would be an imposition,” she said, her protest stiff and formal even to her own ears. “Sure you can.” Mac reached out and took her hand. “You already like me, I hope, and you'll like everyone else, too. Noon on Christmas Day. Use the parking lot entrance.” Over the lemon confection of a dessert Mac ordered and Deeni ate every bite of, she found herself telling him how much she missed Aunt Lucy, and how this would be the first Christmas they hadn’t been together. Surprised to learn Mac had a cousin near the small, friendly Florida town her aunt had chosen for her winter home, she felt better as he talked about his visits there. That was a good place for her elderly aunt, surrounded by people with the same loving spirit as her. “Promise me you'll come for Christmas,” Mac said as they stepped out into the wide mall walkway. “You’re sure your boss won’t mind?” she asked, struck by the sudden thought that he was, after only, a dishwasher. “He won’t say a word. Remember dinner at noon.” He grinned. “I’ll see you in two days, then?” “Noon on Christmas. I promise.” “I'll hold you to that,” he called to her as she walked away. **** Christmas Day dawned annoyingly bright and clear. On Christmas Eve, after calling Aunt Lucy repeatedly and never getting an answer, Deeni felt her usual holiday depression coming on. She'd gotten an e-mail from her parents wishing her a good Christmas and reminding her to schedule her annual dental appointment, but that hardly filled her with holiday joy. She hoped for a snowstorm as she snuggled down in her bed as an excuse not to go to the Christmas party the next day. But when she arose, there wasn't a flake of snow to be seen and the temperature was well above freezing. She gave up and drove to the mall to fulfill her promise to a stranger. A dozen or so cars stood in the lot of the closed mall when she pulled up a few minutes after noon. A sign on the restaurant's door said “Open by invitation only,” so she knew the party was still on. Taking a deep breath, she grabbed the gift bag from the seat beside her and headed for the door. Having been taught that one never went to a party without a hostess—in this case, host—gift, she had stopped at the 24-hour grocery store near her home the day before and bought a bottle of good white wine, some expensive chocolates and a neutral gift card. Mac had excellent tastes for a dishwasher. She hoped he'd enjoy these things he probably couldn't afford for himself. Steeling herself, she walked into a room brimming with conversation. Thirty or more people dressed in the cheerful colors of the holiday chattered away. That they were having such a good time made Deeni feel even more of an outsider. She might have left if Mac hadn't spotted her. He came up with a wide smile and hugged her in greeting. “I'm glad to see you. I was afraid you might have forgotten the time.” Or chickened out. She knew that’s what he meant. “Come get a drink and meet everyone. Then I have a surprise for you.” “Oh, I have one for you.” She handed him the gold foil gift bag. “Merry Christmas.” “You got me a present?” Mac's face lit up with pleasure even before he pulled away the tissue paper to uncover the wine and candy. “Thank you so much. Now let's go find your surprise.” They wound their way toward the back of the room, Mac introducing her as they went. Everyone seemed friendly, as if they were truly glad she’d come. Maybe the afternoon wouldn’t be so bad after all. Still lost in the flurry of new names and faces, she bumped into Mac’s back when he suddenly stopped by what she suspected as a coat closet. “Close your eyes, or you won’t get your present,” he ordered. Deeni obeyed and waited, preparing herself for whatever small trinket he could afford. Her hands were cupped, ready to take it, when he said, “Open your eyes.” She did. And there, standing in front of her in a bright green snowman sweater and Santa cap, was Aunt Lucy, arms outstretched to hug her. Deeni felt tears well up as she was wrapped in the loving embrace of her favorite relative. “How did you… When did you?” she stammered. “Surprised you good, did we?” Lucy laughed as she reached out and took Mac's hand. “This young man called me day before yesterday. He told me you were going to have a bad Christmas and said he'd like to pay for me to come up here.” Winking at Mac, she led Deeni over to a table and sat down beside her. “You know, honey, I've worried about you all your life because your parents want you to be someone you're not. You're more like me than either one of them, which is what gives them fits. I love you as much as I would my own child, so I want you to pay attention. “That's a good man over there, and I think he could come to care about you. He may not have a law degree or be a captain of industry, which is what your parents want, but I think he’ll do all right. He told me on the ride from the airport that he plans to open a second restaurant, and if that does well, build a chain. He's a man with dreams, and I’d say he has what it takes to back to up.” “Open a second...” Deeni repeated, stunned. “Aunt Lucy, isn’t Mac the dishwasher here?” “Oh, honey,” Aunt Lucy laughed, “he owns the place. And makes a pretty penny, too, guessing by the car he drives.” Deeni slumped back in her seat. This was Mac’s restaurant? He wasn't struggling to get by on minimum wage? “Hey, you two, it's time to eat.” Mac reached for Deeni’s hand. “Roast turkey, ham, all the trimmings...everything you expect when the family gets together.” Deeni let her hand rest in Mac's as they walked to the buffet table. Things felt right today, with Aunt Lucy on one side of her and Mac on the other. A swell of unfamiliar joy rose in her and she laughed out loud. “Merry Christmas,” she called out to everyone in the room. “Merry, merry Christmas!”

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