Page 19 of Let It Snow...

Hmm. Come to think of it, a good place for Freddy would be in the Kingdom’s army. The idea bore considering.

  Claire was shaking her head in confusion, holding a hand up as if trying to stop him from saying anything more. “You think I can just walk out the door the day after tomorrow, put my hand in yours, travel to who knows where and forget about my responsibilities? My home, my shop, my family?”

  He heard the confusion in her voice, not to mention the longing. He didn’t suppose this was a good time to mention she’d be leaving her entire world behind, too.

  Damn Freddy and his schemes. This was not how Philip had envisioned this moment.

  But time was running out, and the proposal had been made. So all he could do was slowly nod. “Yes, Claire. That’s exactly what I am hoping you will do.”

  She stared at him, then at her brother, then at Philip again. Her eyes were luminous, wet, and her mouth was quivering. He longed to reach out and take her in his arms, to assure her all would be well, but he couldn’t force her. Claire had to decide on her own if she loved him enough to take the next step.

  Finally, after what seemed to him to be a lifetime, she gave him her answer.

  “I’m sorry, Philip. I’m truly sorry. But the answer is no.”

  * * *

  CHRISTMAS EVE WAS usually one of Claire’s favorite days of the year. She had wonderful childhood memories of last-minute baking, wrapping and decorating, and her parents had always seemed happiest around the holidays. With her bustling, successful shop, this year should have been another really good one.

  Instead, she spent much of the day dashing back into the kitchen to shed a few more tears and wipe her eyes.

  The man she loved—the man of her dreams—had asked her to marry him, to go away with him, and she’d said no.

  It wasn’t just her refusal making her cry, it was the memory of the look on his beautiful, beloved face. Philip had appeared completely bereft and shocked. She knew he was a little spoiled, and that he came from money, so perhaps he wasn’t used to not getting his own way. But deep down, she feared it was worse than that. She was afraid she’d truly broken his heart.

  Well, he wasn’t alone. Hers was broken, too.

  “Are you okay?” Freddy asked, joining her in the back room.

  She’d kicked her brother out Saturday night, a few minutes after Philip had strode from the kitchen without another word. She just hadn’t been able to deal with Freddy after she’d had her heart torn in two. He had come to the shop yesterday, but she’d sent him away once more, still not ready to talk to him. He’d come back again first thing this morning, and she knew she’d wallowed long enough. It was time to start thinking clearly.

  “I’ll be all right,” she insisted, dabbing at her eyes with her apron.

  “Have you heard from him since the other night?”

  She shook her head. “No. He might already be gone.”

  Claire blinked as tears threatened to well up once more. The thought of not seeing Philip again was enough to crush her.

  It wasn’t just that she loved him and wanted to be with him. She liked him, and he had become the most important part of her life. More important than the shop or her home, or even her brother, whom she’d looked after for so long. Philip had become everything. And she’d let him walk away.

  “So why don’t you go to him?”

  “And say what? Sorry I stomped on your offer—want a cup of coffee?”

  “How about ‘Sorry I said no, you caught me off guard, I love you and want to marry you’?”

  That sounded lovely. And impossible. “I can’t.”

  Freddy blew out a disbelieving breath. “Why not?”

  “I can’t just leave.”

  “I repeat—why not? It’s not like you love this place. You and I both know you started it because you needed to keep my greedy fingers off your money.”

  “True.”

  Her brother dropped his head, looking sheepish. “The point is, Claire, I’ve been watching you for a few weeks now.”

  “What the hell is it with men feeling the need to watch me?”

  “I was ashamed to come back,” he admitted, sounding truly contrite. “And I was afraid Louie the Rat King would send his goons over to bother you, so I stuck around the neighborhood. I did see one of ’em a couple weeks ago, and stopped him from coming any closer.”

  “Oh, Freddy, what a mess.”

  “But it’s my mess. Not yours. Your life could be great. I’ve seen the way you are with Philip. And I’ve definitely seen the way he is with you. That dude is madly in love with you, Claire.”

  “Madly? Maybe. But am I mad enough to just walk away from my entire life and go off with him to who knows where? He says he’s from Spain, but I’ve never heard him speak a word of Spanish. For all I know he lives in the back of beyond!”

  Her brother shrugged. “So what? Does it really matter where you live if you honestly love each other?”

  She stared at him, wondering when on earth he’d started to sound like a genuine grown-up. Freddy had always been the one needing advice. He’d sure never offered it. But now he was making a lot of sense.

  “You really think I could just walk away?”

  “Not only do I think you could, I think you should,” he replied. “And it has nothing to do with my problems or him bailing me out.”

  Though she imagined he was considering that a nice bonus. Ah well, leopards couldn’t change their spots overnight.

  “What about the shop?”

  “That lady you hired to work in the back is pretty amazing. I bet she could manage the place. Hell, I’ll stay here and help her.”

  Gaping, Claire could only laugh.

  “I’m serious. You can get your accountant to handle the money side if you don’t trust me. Between me, Mrs. West and Jeannie, we’ll do all right.” Freddy came close and took Claire’s hand, staring her in the eye, not once shifting his gaze. “I swear to you, I’ve learned my lesson. I want to help you. I want your dreams to come true, since you’ve sacrificed so many of them for my sake. Please, Claire.... You have the chance for real happiness. Grab it.”

  Could she really? Was there still a chance?

  Her heart was thudding in her chest, and every instinct urged her to do what her brother said. To grab happiness and live life to the fullest, with no regrets, no recriminations.

  Philip was the man she wanted to spend her life with. And she intended to tell him that.

  She only hoped she wasn’t too late.

  * * *

  PHILIP DECIDED TO HEAD for home without saying goodbye to Claire. He simply couldn’t see her again, knowing he’d lost her.

  Not when there was something he could do about changing that.

  Saturday night, when he’d come upstairs dejected and defeated, Shelby had insisted that he would find someone else. As if anyone would ever make Philip’s heart beat fast in his chest again. He was thirty years old, had been looking for the right woman since he was sixteen, and had never even come close until he’d met Claire Hoffman.

  It was her or it was no one.

  Teeny had urged him to not give up, to go right back downstairs and get her to change her mind. But neither he nor Shelby had seen what had happened. The way Philip had bared his heart to her...the way she’d rejected it.

  She might love him, but she wasn’t ready for a life with him. Which meant he needed more time. The only way he could get it was to go home, tell his parents the truth about what had happened, and ask them to release him from his promise. Ask them to give him a little more time to win the woman he wanted.

  “They’ll agree. They have to,” he told himself as he looked out the window of the train at the passing countryside.

  When he’d come to America several weeks ago, he had arrived through one of the crossings into Europe, and had flown over the great sea. But this world was bigger than his own. He could travel faster—cover more distance—in Elatyria. So even though he would have to take a ship over the much smaller ocean there, he intended to cross between worlds here, in America, by way of the nearest major border. Hopefully, he would be back in his own kingdom by week’s end.

  He had left Teeny and Shelby in New York, both because he fully intended to come back, and because he wanted them to protect Claire while the threat of her brother’s creditors hung over her. Considering he’d left Shelby with enough money to pay off the bookie, that threat shouldn’t last for long. However, Philip didn’t trust the man he’d fought with not to seek revenge on him, and take it out on Claire.

  The sooner Philip got back to New York—back to her—the better.

  He reached the nearest major crossing, which was just outside a town they called Boston, by late in the afternoon. He had hired a car to take him to the precise coordinates, shrugging off the driver’s curious look as he dropped him along a country road. Waiting until the man and his vehicle were well out of sight, Philip made his way toward a long, low field, to the invisible border that existed in a small stand of trees on the far side of it. Just a few more steps and he would be back on his own world, where he belonged, even though he would be leaving a huge part of himself—his heart—behind.

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