Using his forefinger, he coaxed her chin upward.
Her eyes slowly rose to embrace his.
Nicholas cupped her upper arms and looked into her glistening eyes. “It’s more than okay,” he said softly. “But are you sure?”
“I’m sure.” Squaring her shoulders, she stepped back. “Let’s just put the fact that you’re leaving behind us and have a fun day together, okay? I mean, we’re both adults, and we knew this going in. We should just have a good day and be happy for the time we had.” However, her smile didn’t quite reach her eyes.
Not able to speak for fear of his voice cracking, he nodded and sent up a silent prayer asking God to help him accept that fact and concentrate on enjoying Anna’s company. After all, if this was to be his last day with her, he wanted it to be special. As special as she was.
Minutes later, they sat down to the table and after grace they started to eat their chili and cornbread biscuits. “Will you be spending Christmas with your family?” Anna asked.
He set his spoon down beside his bowl. “Yes. All my siblings will be there this year. It will be the first time in years that we’ll all be together.”
“Oh, that’ll be nice.”
“How about you? Will you be spending Christmas with your family in California?”
“No. I can’t really get away from the shop, and trying to catch a flight on Christmas Eve is crazy. I’ve already sent my presents on to my parents’ house. They’ll see that everyone gets their presents on Christmas morning.”
Nicholas noticed the normal cheeriness in her voice wasn’t there. He reached over and covered her hand with his. Her eyes went to his hand first and then up to his face. “There’s no way you can make it out there?”
“No.” Her shoulders drooped. “But it’s okay. I wasn’t able to go last year either.” She shook her head as if to clear it of the depressing thoughts, took her hand back, and picked up her biscuit. “It’s okay. I have friends here. Last year on Christmas Eve my employees, who as you know are my friends, we all met at Sweet Treasures. A lot of them have no place to go so I made a huge dinner for them. We did a white elephant gift exchange and had a lot of fun with that. Plus, I usually have a Christmas party a week or two before Christmas so that they can get their bonuses to buy presents or whatever they want to do with it. We’re having that party Tuesday evening. You’re welcome to come join us if you like.”
“That’s really sweet of you to do that for them and to invite me. I’ll see how things go and let you know.”
“Both are my pleasure.” She smiled. “How about you? Does your firm in New York host a Christmas party?”
“Yes. My assistant has it all planned out. It will be this Saturday evening.” An idea struck him. “Hey, why don’t you come join me? I can get a ticket for you on Friday evening. I’ll make sure you can come back on Sunday so that you’ll be back to work on Monday.”
Unfortunately for his heart, she slumped in her chair enough that he noticed it even though he could tell she was trying to hide her disappointment from him. “I would love to, but I can’t leave the girls at our busiest time of the year.”
That was Anna, always thinking of someone else. “I bet Cailyn can manage things,” he skittered out as his heart hit his shoes. This really was going to be good-bye, and nothing he could think to do was going to stop it. Just trying to stay rational through the looming heartbreak was impossible. “She seems pretty competent.”
“She is very competent, and she definitely could. But as much as I would love to, I can’t do that to her or any of the others. Sorry.”
Disappointment wound through him, but he completely understood. “That’s okay. I understand.” He added a big pinch of cheese to his soup and ate it. “Um. This is the best chili I’ve ever eaten.”
“Thank you. It’s my mother’s secret recipe. She used to enter it every year in the chili contest and every year she won something. Most of the time she got first place, and sometimes second or third, but she always won something.”
“I can see why.”
They finished eating lunch, and after trying on three different pair of skates, Nicholas finally found a pair that fit. Dressed for their adventure, he picked up a pair of hockey sticks and a hockey puck from the hall closet, and the two of them stepped outside her back door and into the cold. Even with the sunshine, the air was frosty and showed in each expelled breath.
For a split second, Nicholas was tempted to go back inside Anna’s cozy warm home, but he knew once they started skating, they would warm up quickly. Besides, nothing, not even the cold would stop him from playing hockey with her. He had a feeling she was going to be strong competition for him. His competitor side kicked in, and he could hardly wait to get on the ice.