The Perfect Christmas

Page 8

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Cassie handed over the bell, and the supervisor took her full kettle and replaced it with an empty one. “Good luck,” Cassie told the new bell ringer and meant every word. She nearly added that the woman was going to need it.

“You didn’t tell me how your morning went,” Simon said. He walked into the mall with her.

Cassie stood just inside the sliding glass doors for a moment, soaking in the blast of warm air. Until now she hadn’t fully realized how utterly cold she’d been. Four hours had felt like forever.

“You don’t want to know,” she said. Her teeth had only now stopped chattering.

“I don’t ask questions if I don’t want an answer.”

“Okay, fine. I misplaced a glove, and my nose lost feeling in the first half hour.” She looked at him and muttered, “It’s still there, isn’t it? My nose, I mean.”

“Yes.” His mouth twitched, but he didn’t admit he was amused.

“My feet feel like blocks of ice. A jealous wife threw coffee on me and some sweet old lady slipped a fifty-dollar bill into my coat pocket because she felt sorry for me. I threw it in the pot,” she added righteously.

Simon arched his brows. That apparently was his only comment.

“Furthermore, I recognized your plant.”

“My…plant?”

“The man you sent. Okay, so I made that remark about saying hello to Tiny Tim. Oh, and about seeing a shrink. I probably shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t help it. He was obnoxious. Did you pay him extra for being rude?” she asked. That sounded like something Simon would do.

He eyed her speculatively, but didn’t respond one way or the other.

“He told you, didn’t he?” Cassie could easily picture Scrooge running to Simon to tattle on her.

As they walked past a Starbucks, Cassie stopped abruptly. “I would kill for a latte,” she said and veered back into the store.

Simon followed, and they stood in line together. When they reached the counter, Cassie ordered her vanilla latte, along with two shortbread cookies. It was after two, and she hadn’t had lunch yet.

Simon ordered a large black coffee and paid their bill. Although the small area was crowded, a couple left just then and they were able to secure a table.

Cassie sank gratefully into the chair. She crossed her legs, and removed one boot so she could rub feeling back into her toes, pausing occasionally to sip her latte. It tasted like heaven.

“About this, uh, plant you mentioned.”

“Oh, him. Not to worry, I caught on fast enough. Well, maybe not as fast as I should have, but it was obvious that you sent him. He didn’t try very hard to hide it, either.”

“Not that obvious,” Simon said mildly. “Because I didn’t send anyone.”

“Oh, come on. There’s no need to carry on this charade.”

He regarded her sternly. “I am not in the habit of lying.”

She studied him—and realized he just might be telling the truth.

“I will repeat myself this once. I did not send anyone to test you.”

“Oh.” The man with all the complaints had been so unpleasant that it was a natural assumption.

To hide her embarrassment, Cassie tore the cellophane off her cookies and gobbled them both down.

“What did you learn from the experience?” Simon asked.

She rolled her eyes. “You didn’t tell me there’d be an exam.”

“It’s not an exam. I asked a straightforward question.”

“Well…” Cassie took a sip of her latte, then removed her other boot. “For one thing, I will never pass someone standing in the cold ringing a bell and not leave a donation. You wouldn’t believe how many people simply look the other way.”

“But you’ve ignored a bell ringer now and then, haven’t you?”

“Okay, I may have, but I won’t again. I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder at anything.”

The merest hint of a smile showed in his eyes.

“You find that funny? Why don’t you stand out in the cold for four hours and see how you like it?”

“I prefer to write a check.”

“Of course you would. It’s much easier.”

“Agreed. That’s the point. Anything else?”

“Well, there was the lovely old man.” She turned an angry look on Simon. “You must’ve chased him away.”

“Like I said, I didn’t notice any old man and I certainly didn’t chase one away.”

“He was definitely there. He reminded me of my grandfather. Grampa died when I was young, but I remember him so well.” She grew introspective. “He was in the war, too. That old man made everything that happened today worthwhile.”

She gestured at her stained coat and her stocking feet, then tentatively at her nose. “I think I’m finally thawing out.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

He didn’t sound glad. In fact, he sounded bored.

“Tell me about John,” she urged.

Simon’s deep sigh informed her that she was becoming tiresome. “What do you want to know?”

“Something. Anything. Did you assign him three tasks like you did me? What are they?”

“I won’t discuss my other clients with you.” The way he said it suggested she’d committed a major faux pas.

She forged ahead despite that. “Has John asked about me?”

Another sigh. “I should never have mentioned his name.”

“But you did and now I’m curious. Come on, Simon, have a heart. Give me one small detail, one tiny tidbit, about my hero.”

He glanced at her coat and, seeing the huge coffee stain, must have taken pity on her. “All right, if you have to know, he’s an engineer.”

“An engineer?” she repeated slowly.

“Your children will be left-brain geniuses.”


“Children.” Overwhelmed with excitement she grasped Simon’s hand.

“Restrain yourself, please.”

“Oh, Simon, loosen up a little, would you?”

He looked at her coldly, as though her comment didn’t merit a response.

“Has John asked about me?”

He nodded.

Rubbing her palms together, she blurted out, “And what did you say?” After asking, she quickly changed her mind. “No, don’t tell me—I’d rather not know.”

“It wasn’t unflattering, if that’s what you’re implying.”

This was promising. “Really?”

“Are you looking for compliments, Cassie?”

“No…well, maybe.” Then, because she was curious and she couldn’t resist, she asked, “Do you like me, Simon?”

He regarded her for a moment, as though carefully weighing his response. “Not particularly. Wait—let me rephrase that. I don’t have any feelings for you whatsoever. Except for the appropriate reactions of a professional toward his client, of course.”

What would it have cost him to smile and say something nice? “You really are a dolt.”

He stiffened. “I beg your pardon?”

“You heard me. You know, if you smiled more often you might look human. You’re supposed to be a psychologist—haven’t you heard that a smile is a positive way of interacting?”

“I don’t see any reason to—”

“Forget it. You are who you are, and I am who I am.”

“That was profound.” He seemed to be making fun of her.

Cassie didn’t care. Simon was a means to an end, and if he found her a decent man she could love for the rest of her life, then it didn’t matter if he liked her or not.

“When can I complete the second task?” she asked, eager to hurry the process along. From the sound of it, John was equally excited about meeting her.

“I’m making the final arrangements next week. I’ll be in touch as soon as everything’s set.”

“Okay.” Cassie finished her latte and dabbed at the crumbs left over from her shortbread cookies. “You’re not very good at relationships, are you? Personally, I mean, not professionally.”

Acting as if she hadn’t spoken, Simon shoved back his chair and seemed about to leave. “As I said earlier, I’ll be in touch.”

“Before you go, I’d like to ask how you came to this line of work.”

“You already know I don’t answer personal questions. This isn’t about me.”

“But it is.”

“Au contraire. You came to me for services rendered. Do you interrogate your dentist about his background—or private life?”

“No, but—”

“You let him do his job and you walk away satisfied when he’s finished. It’s the same with me, or it should be. I perform a service, nothing more. I’m good at what I do and I enjoy my work.”

“Always?”

“Some matches are more difficult than others. Some clients more trying.” He looked pointedly in her direction.

“At least you can take comfort from knowing that once I meet John, you won’t ever need to see me again.”

“Yes, there is that….”

Cassie couldn’t help it; she burst out laughing.

Simon seemed genuinely puzzled. “Why is that funny?”

“It wouldn’t have been if you hadn’t been so honest about it. You’ll be happy to get rid of me, won’t you?”

He stood and tossed his empty coffee container in the proper receptacle. “You did very well today, Cassie.”

For a moment, she thought her ears had deceived her. “Was that a compliment, an actual compliment, from the great Dr. Simon Dodson?”

“Not really,” he said soberly. “It was a statement of fact. The truth is, I didn’t expect you to last all four hours. You surprised me.”

“I want to meet John,” she told him, disregarding the implied insult in his words.

“So I gathered, and soon you shall.”

Ten minutes later, they left Starbucks together and exchanged civil goodbyes.

Cassie could hardly wait to get back to her condo so she could talk to Angie. The minute she’d showered and changed, she reached for the phone and hit speed dial.

After several rings, she was connected to voice mail. That was odd. Angie hadn’t said anything about going out—but then it wasn’t as if Cassie was her parole officer.

Much later that afternoon she heard from Angie.

“Where were you?” Cassie asked right away.

“Shopping. ’Tis the season, you know?” Her friend seemed to be in high spirits.

“Did you find any bargains?”

“Lots. How’d the morning go?”

“Simon said I surprised him.”

“You saw Dr. Dodson?”

“Yeah, he showed up to check on me. We had coffee afterward.”

“You and…Dr. Dodson? Simon?”

“What’s so odd about that?”

“I don’t know,” Angie said. “I just can’t picture it.”

“It wasn’t like a date or anything,” Cassie insisted. “More of a…debriefing. He said he’d be in touch next week with the details about my next task. I get to be an elf. That has to be easier than what I did this morning.”

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