Brandon sighed in frustration. He’d been up and down every street in a five block radius surrounding the downtown park, at least three times. As far as he could tell, two thirds of Oberon was doing the exact same thing. But, was Jasmine anywhere among them? Not as far as he could tell. He was beginning to wonder if he hadn’t been stood up.
He looked around. Colored lights glowed brightly on the surrounding houses, in the windows and doors, along the rooftops. Groups gathered to gaze in admiration at lawn decorations gone wild. In one yard, Santa had arrived in a cherry-red, classic Mustang convertible. A busy pit crew of mechanical elves attired in Team Santa jumpsuits worked feverishly to change oil and rotate tires.
A life-sized creche, complete with real sheep and a miniature pony, graced another lawn. It was amazing to see the lengths people would go to, just to outdo their neighbors. But this was not what Brandon had come here for. He’d come to see Jasmine, and so far, she was nowhere in sight.
He slowed to study another band of carolers. Nope. Not there, either. Wasn’t that just like a woman?
He had no idea where to look next. He’d looped through the park once, already; detouring through the maze of tents, checking out faces in the lines. He’d even made a stop at the wine garden. Right now, he was about to give up. She’d told him she’d be here, tonight. But, was she?
What did you expect from Marsha’s daughter?
an evil voice in his head scoffed. You knew she was weird. Why would you imagine she could be trusted? Why would you take her at her word about anything?
Maybe because he wanted to believe her? And because he wanted to believe she was different—not like her mother. And, not like the long list of other women whose word had proved false. Starting with his own mother, the queen of revisionist history.
“I don’t recall ever saying that, Brandon. That’s really not quite the way it happened, you know
,” were just a couple of his mother’s favorite phrases. But, why was he thinking about her?
Oh, the hell with it. He should just give it up. Go back to the inn and— Shit. And what? He sighed. And nothing, most likely. Maybe, one more turn through the park, then?
A familiar peal of laughter caught his ear and he turned toward the gazebo, where a small crowd of people were dancing.
Finally! A curious sensation of relief sluiced through him when he saw her, and then almost instantly drained away again. Who the hell is she dancing with this time?
Brandon shouldered his way through the crowd, until he was standing in front of her. The tall kid who appeared to be her partner looked vaguely familiar. He nodded at Brandon and shuffled aside obligingly.
“Hey. So here you are,” Brandon said, trying to keep the annoyance out of his voice. “I’ve been looking everywhere.”
“Oh?” Jasmine’s smile faltered as he reached for her hand. She came to a stop, hid her hands behind her back and frowned at him uncertainly. “What do you want?”
. He bit back the answer on his lips and forced a smile. “We need to talk—remember? But, since you asked, at the moment I wouldn’t mind a dance.”
“Dance?” Lips pursed she scanned the crowd. “Well…sure, okay, why don’t you find Maya, then? I think she’s around here someplace.”
“Maya?” He stared at her in confusion. “Who’s she?”
“Oh, you know Maya,” Jasmine scolded. “She’s Doctor H’s— Brent’s
daughter. “She’s got a crush on you, you know. I’m sure she’d love to dance with you.”
“Huh?” Yeah, he knew Maya. She was a cute kid, and almost as exotic looking as Jasmine, with her mother’s Pan-Pacific features and coloring, and her father’s wide smile. “A crush? What makes you think that?”
Jasmine shrugged. “She told me. She is
one of my best friends, you know.”
Friends? Great. If he needed any more proof that he’d come close to robbing the cradle the other night, there it was. He shook his head, disgusted with himself. “Yeah, well, I’m sure she’ll get over it. And, as for dancing with her…I asked you.”
“Oh.” With no warning, Jasmine’s mood morphed from ditzy into anger. “Well, maybe I don’t want to dance with you, Brandon. Did you ever think of that?”
Uh-oh. We’ve been here before.
He looked at her sharply, studying the faint glassiness in her eyes. “You’ve been drinking again, haven’t you?” he asked, feeling annoyed and disappointed on the one hand, and far too hopeful on the other. Do not go there
, he admonished himself.
She tossed her head, beads clacking as her braids swung behind her shoulders. “So? What if I have? What’s it to you? I do what I please, you know.”
Yeah. He’d definitely got that point. A nice, sharp point it was, too. Kind of like stepping barefoot on a piece of glass. He shook his head. “You’re right. It’s none of my business. I don’t care if you want to get wasted every night of the week. But I can tell you one thing, you’re not driving yourself home in this condition.” There were limits, after all.
She looked at him for a moment. Then, to his surprise, a slow smile stole across her face. “You’re right,” she said at last.
His eyebrows rose. Okay, what was he missing? That was too easy. There had to be a catch, somewhere. “I am?”
“Mm-hmm,” she murmured, lips pursing into a mischievous pout. “I’m not driving anywhere tonight. I’m gonna walk home.”
“Walk?” He stared at her in confusion. She couldn’t mean it?
She nodded. “Sure. It’s how I got here, after all. Well, almost. I got dropped off, actually. But, either way—look Ma, no car.”
Terrific. He sighed. “Okay, so, when you’re ready to leave tonight, you let me know. I’ll give you a ride.”
The smile left her face in a hurry. “I don’t think so,” she snapped. “I’ll be fine on my own. Besides, you’re the one who thinks we shouldn’t see each other.”
“This has nothing to do with that,” he insisted. “I’d have to be insane to let you go anywhere by yourself tonight. You’ll likely wake up dead in a ditch somewhere. So, like it or not, I’m driving you home. End of conversation.”
“Oh, really?” She arched one brow. “What if I want to get a ride with someone else? You’re not the only person on the planet with a car, you know. You’re not even the only person in town with one. Look,” She made a sweeping gesture that encompassed the whole street. “There’re cars everywhere. And I could probably get a ride in any one of them if I wanted to.”
Brandon shook his head. “Forget it,” he said flatly. “You don’t need to ride with anyone else. You’ve already got a ride. With me. And that’s final.”
It was clear they weren’t going to have the discussion he’d been hoping to have tonight, but, all the same, he’d be damned if he was going to stand by and watch as she went off with some other guy. Not after she’d been drinking. Not remembering the way she’d reacted to him after a couple of beers. He might be a gentleman, but he wasn’t a saint. If she was gonna jump anyone tonight, it might as well be him. No. He took that back. It had damn well better be him.
And he absolutely refused to consider the implications there. Because if he really didn’t care what she did, why should it matter so much who she did it with?
* * *
“I’m really not ready to go home yet, you know,” Jasmine protested as she fumbled with her seat belt. “Leaving this early is your idea.”
Brandon reached across to help her with the belt, trying hard to ignore the smell of her perfume. “Yeah? So, you want to stop somewhere for coffee, or something?” Good idea. Coffee would probably do her good. It would probably do them both good, in fact.
“I don’t drink coffee,” she answered. She grabbed the strap away from him. “I got it, thanks,” she mumbled, ducking her head, still struggling to secure the belt, not even coming close.
This could go on all night, he thought, watching her efforts. He reached for the belt again. “Here, let me just—”
“No!” she answered, a little too quickly. Her voice sounded suspiciously squeaky. “I said, I got it.”
But, saying it didn’t make it so. Why was she being so stubborn? “Jasmine, you don’t have it. Just—”
“Yes, I do.” She pushed at his chest. “Now, back up, Brandon. Go away. Shoo.”
Shoo? “Okay, how about some light, then?” he suggested, flipping on the interior lamp. He leaned back in his seat and studied her face. There was a slight flush on her cheeks, and she was biting her lip again. Interesting. What was making her so nervous? Did she think he was going to try and kiss her, or something?
, a soft voice in his head suggested. That’s a great idea
. But, oh, hell, no, it was not! He ran the list of reasons through his brain once again: too young, Marsha’s daughter, world’s apart, nothing in common, big time trouble. The only problem was, he’d been telling himself the same things, over and over again, for three days now, and familiarity had begun to breed acceptance.
He leaned in close again, just to test his theory, and she glanced up at him. Eyes wide, lips parted.
Well, whaddaya know, he thought, unable to keep from smiling. That’s exactly what she did think, wasn’t it? And, what she wanted, too. At least...did she?
Only one way to find out.
He leaned closer. She shrank away from him. “No, don’t. Please.”
Okay, maybe not. And, probably just as well, he supposed. Still, it was an effort to pull himself away from her. He snapped the light off to conceal his annoyance. “Okay, so, you don’t want to go home and you don’t want coffee.” And you don’t want to kiss me. “So what do you want?” And, if his voice sounded a little too cold, well, it was hardly his fault. Disappointment was welling up inside him, clashing with the frustration he’d been feeling all day, and tightening his insides into a knot.
“We could...I don’t know, drive around for a bit and look at the lights?” she suggested in a tiny voice.
Oh, yeah, didn’t that sound like fun. “You gotta be joking, right? What are you, a kid?”
She smiled, although it looked a little shaky. “Well, sure. It’s Christmas. Everybody’s a kid at Christmas, aren’t they?”
“No,” he answered, turning the key in the ignition. “Not everyone.” As a matter of fact, he hadn’t been a kid in a very long time.
It was a weird-ass Christmas, that was for sure, he thought, glancing around him as he drove. Jasmine had her window rolled all the way down and the air that rushed in was warm, not cold. It smelled of lemon blossoms instead of evergreen. There was no snow on the ground, no frost on his windows, and he’d be damned if those weren’t magnolias in bloom.
Magnolias at Christmas? Now, there’s something you don’t see every day.
They drove around in silence for several minutes, the tension between them increasing with every mile, until the only thing Brandon wanted was to get her out of the car. Well, maybe it wasn’t the only thing he wanted, but it was the only sure way to cut the screaming pressure he was feeling without one of them losing several articles of clothing.
He pulled up in front of her drive and turned off the engine. She looked at the house in surprise. “That’s it? We’re back? Already?”
So, what did she think? He was just gonna chauffeur her around all night? “Yep. End of the line. Time for all good little girls to go to bed.”
She looked at him, eyebrows raised, and Brandon could have bitten his tongue in two. Now, why’d he have to go and say that, for Christ’s sake? So help him, if she told him she wasn’t a ‘good little girl’ he would not be responsible for his actions.
“Good night, Jasmine,” he gritted from between clenched teeth.
“Hmph,” she murmured darkly. She got her belt unfastened on the third try and then struggled with the door. “Well. You know what, Brandon,” she said, as she pushed the door open at last. “I really think you should consider a career change. You obviously have great natural talent as a tour guide that you’re completely ignoring. What do I owe you for this wonderful driving experience?”
“Don’t even start,” he sighed.
Her eyebrows went up again. “What? You don’t think the ride was worth anything, either? Well, maybe you’re right.” She got out of the car, leaving the door open behind her, and started up the drive. She was weaving just a little––but enough that, unless she corrected her course, she’d miss the front porch and end up in the Japanese style meditation garden that ran across the front of the house. She might fall into the koi pond, or—
“Shit,” Brandon muttered as he watched her trip over an ornamental stone lantern and crash into a bonsai pine. “I knew it.” He set the brake and got out of the car. “Hold on a minute,” he called as he hurried after her.
By the time he got to her, she was on her feet again, brushing pine needles from her butt. The scent of resin was sharp and sweet and for the first time all night, the world smelled like Christmas. Brandon breathed it in, almost forgetting his mission as ancient longings, deep, painful and unfulfilled swirled to life inside him.
For just an instant, he felt like a child again. Standing in the dark. Bathed in the colored lights spilling down from the bulbs strung beneath the eaves. Waiting for the magic of the season to enfold him. The spangled light illuminated Jasmine’s face as well, turning her into an angel, an elf, an honest-to-God fairy princess, and he reached for her, without thinking.