Authors: Robin Alexander
Shawn had let herself through the gate behind Jill’s building. She sat in her car wondering if perhaps she was being too presumptuous. She didn’t tell Jill that she was coming by. Suddenly, a notion struck her hard. Jill could be seeing someone else, as well, and what if she showed up with her date? In a panic, she shifted into reverse and prepared to make a hasty escape when the gate suddenly opened. Like a deer, she was trapped in the headlights.
Jill pulled in beside her and hopped out of her car with a huge smile. “What a nice surprise, and I thought this night was going to totally suck.”
“I brought you a Christmas tree. It’s little, but I thought you should at least have one to bring in Christmas. It’s live, so you can enjoy it year-round.”
Jill’s jaw sagged as Shawn pulled the miniature cypress from the trunk of her car. “It’s adorable. It’ll go perfectly on the table next to my French doors,” she said and planted a quick kiss on Shawn’s lips. “Thank you.” She grabbed Shawn’s arm. “Come inside.”
Shawn was thrilled that Jill didn’t seem the least bit put off that she was there. “I realize now that I should’ve called, but I wanted to surprise you.”
Jill looked over her shoulder as she unlocked the door. “You can surprise me anytime. Can you stay for a while?”
“As long as you want.”
“What do you normally do on Christmas Day?” Jill asked as she climbed the narrow stairs ahead of Shawn.
I sleep in, then I treat myself to something really unhealthy for breakfast. This is followed by hours on the sofa where I eat junk food and catch up on work. What do you do?”
“I’ve been sick every Christmas Day since my dad died—well, not really, but that’s my excuse not to go to my mother’s. I pretty much do the same as you.”
Once they were in the apartment, Shawn went directly to the table Jill had mentioned and set the tree on it. “What do you think?”
“It’s adorable, thank you so much.” Jill pursed her lips as she stared at it. “Now I regret throwing all my decorations away. Do you know how to string popcorn?”
“I’ve never done it, but I can be trained.”
“Okay, you go into the pantry and find the popcorn, and I’m going to rustle up a needle and some thread.” Jill turned to go, then spun around. “Are you hungry?”
“I could eat.”
Shawn grinned. “I can always eat that.”
Jill pulled her phone from her pocket. “Got ’em on speed dial.”
In the pantry, Shawn found the popcorn and howled with delight. She turned on the stove and set the metal pan atop the burner. She was shaking the hell out of it when Jill returned a few minutes later. “I love the swami hat kind! Look at how it’s rising.”
Jill leaned against the counter and gazed at Shawn. “You’re totally in touch with your inner child, aren’t you?”
“Absolutely,” Shawn said as she stared at what really did look like a swami hat rising up from the pan as the corn popped. Sometimes, you have to just let the kid out. I think it’s done.” Shawn switched off the heat as she removed the pan from the burner. “Can we eat it right out of the hat?”
“We’re supposed to be stringing it, remember? And we have pizza coming.” Jill took a knife from a drawer and handed it to Shawn. “Stab the swami in the head so it can cool.”
With surgical precision, Shawn sliced through the foil hat. “Sorry, swami.” She took out a piece of popcorn and fed it to Jill. “Appetizer.” She watched Jill as she chewed. “Are you bothered by what I told you last night?”
“No, I think it’s totally cool that you’re a botanist.” Jill grinned. “Not at all, sweetie. Like I said, I’m flattered.”
Shawn set the knife down and kissed Jill. “I wish I wouldn’t have waited so long to ask you out because you’re something special.”
Jill stared at her dreamily. “It’s like mag…
.” Her expression changed, and she looked confused for a moment before shaking her head. “I’m gonna go downstairs, the pizza will be here any minute. Johnny was expecting my call because I do the same thing every Christmas Eve. Pour us some wine or whatever you’d like to drink.”
Shawn was stunned as Jill turned and literally ran out of the kitchen. She found the bottle that Jill had opened the night before, and after a brief search for glasses, she poured the wine. Still mystified by Jill’s behavior, she wandered into the living room and gazed at the things Jill had on her shelf. She eyed an especially pretty vase and picked it up. Upon closer inspection, she realized she was holding an urn.
“Oh, man, there’s a dead guy in here—no offense, Mr. Searcy. I’m just gonna put you back on the shelf before I spill you all over the rug. Sorry to disturb you.”
Shawn replaced the urn just as she found it and noticed a slip of paper sticking out from beneath a black glass cat. The word
caught her attention, and nosiness got the better of her. She lifted the cat and read:
Ticket 1207 belongs to
Shawn’s brow furrowed as she gazed at it. All of the claim tickets that Jill had ever handed to her were in a drawer where she kept things she liked to hang on to. The last ticket was stamped 1207. She knew Jill’s handwriting well, and it wasn’t her who made that note.
“Ticket 1207 belongs to
heart’s desire,” Shawn said, hearing Theo’s voice in her head.
“Not possible,” Jill whispered and pressed her fingers to her temple. “I don’t believe in voodoo, magic, Santa Claus, or the Easter Bunny, and I sure as hell don’t believe that Theo is capable of casting a spell.”
But as she stared at Theo’s storefront, she felt as though she was in a
. Normally, it took her a few dates to become really interested in a woman. And if one had told her that she had been basically casing her like a bank robber does a bank for a year, Jill would’ve been at least disconcerted, but she wasn’t.
“She’s not perfect, stop
that, Jill.” Her eyes bulged as she slapped a hand over her mouth to keep more Theo from pouring out, but
heart’s desire is upstairs, why you hiding down here, fool?
swept through her mind.
Jill pointed at Theo’s store. “Stop that! This is power of suggestion. I’m swept up in some kind of mind game here.”
’ get lucky hiding from that woman down here. What you been
’ for years is on your couch, and you too hardheaded to go for it, jackass. Child, let go of yesterday
. Jill closed her eyes and clamped her hands against her head to dispel Theo’s voice from her mind. A rap on the door nearly made her jump out of her skin.
“Are you all right?” Johnny asked as Jill opened the door.
“Yeah, I just realized I forgot my wallet upstairs. Come in, I’ll be right back.”
“No, no,” Johnny said and caught her arm. He set the box in her hand. “Merry Christmas.”
“Aw, Johnny, you don’t have to do that.”
“Fool, you been
’ pizza from me for years, it’s about time you got one for free. Now carry
glow-in-the-dark ass up
stairs and decorate that tree with
Jill blinked. “What did you just say?”
Johnny narrowed his eyes for a second. “I said it’s on the house. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m…I’m fine.” Jill smiled uneasily. “It’s been a long day. Thank you so much for this, you’re very sweet.”
“You think I’m sweet, what’s on
couch is sweeter and spicier than a pickled pepper, fool.”
Jill’s jaw sagged as she stared at Johnny.
“Good night then…are you sure you’re—”
“Oh, yeah,” Jill said with a shaky laugh. “My sinuses are messed up, I feel like I have cotton in my ears.”
Johnny nodded as he stepped out onto the sidewalk. “Everybody I talk to is complaining of that. It’s all the rain we’ve been having. Merry Christmas, Jill.”
“Same to you and yours, Johnny.”
Jill locked the door as Johnny walked away and stared at Theo’s sign. “Marie, are you messing with me?” she asked, hoping Theo’s dead aunt wouldn’t answer. “I need a chicken foot.”
“You’re a confident woman,” Shawn said as she stared at her reflection in Jill’s kitchen window. “When she gets back, you just ask her—nicely—about that slip of paper. If she freaks out about you digging in her stuff, you…well, it wasn’t exactly digging. It was on the bookshelf for anyone to see. Or…you could just ask later.”
Shawn turned her back to the sink and tried to look casual when she heard Jill come through the door. “I went with the wine, is that okay?”
“That’s great.” Jill dropped the pizza on the table, walked over to Shawn, and clasped her face in both hands. “You’re a real person, that’s what I like about you. That’s why you seem so magical to me.” She continued to hold Shawn’s face and narrowed her eyes. “You are
, right, not a dream? Because I kinda feel like I’m losing my mind.”
“You’re the dream,” Shawn said with a smile. She took Jill’s hands, pulled her even closer, and kissed her. “That’s real.”
“Yes, it is.” Jill smiled. “I just heard your stomach growl, let’s eat.”
They took the pizza, popcorn, and the wine to the coffee table in the living room, and Jill turned the TV on. She scanned through the channels until she found the one playing back-to-back Christmas movies. Shawn held her thumb up as she chewed a bite of pizza—thoroughly.
“I love the Grinch, but I hated Rudolph as a kid. I still do.”
“What’ve you got against the superstar reindeer?” Jill asked.
“Nothing against him, I just hated how the other reindeer and Santa treated him in that cartoon. I think Yukon Cornelius should’ve taken over for Santa, he had more heart.” Shawn waved her pizza as she spoke. “That show made such a social statement. If one is different from the herd, they’re shunned, the family is ashamed. Santa was a bigot. He only liked Rudolph in the end because he was useful. Rudolph should’ve kicked snow in his face and said, ‘Bite me, bearded butthole,’ but he didn’t. Rudolph was all about delivering those toys because he was the bigger deer.”
Jill pointed at Shawn. “Yeah, and that elf in charge of the toymakers, he was a jerk, too, when he was so mean to the one that wanted to be a dentist. Elves need dental care, too. You can’t tell me that one of them never had a toothache. You’re right, that show was all about celebrating the differences.” She shook her head. “I can’t even go there with the misfit toys being exiled to that island.”
“Right,” Shawn said with a nod and smiled wistfully. “My brother and I were the most well-behaved kids between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Mom used to tell us that elves were watching to see who was naughty or nice. We’d get into an argument, and she would say, ‘The elves are on patrol, you little shits, and if they catch you behaving like a couple of hyenas, you’ll get coal.’ Sometimes, she claimed to see one looking in the window, and I don’t think she was pretending.” Shawn shrugged. “She was smashed most of the time. Her best friend was a bottle of vodka. One year, she was so toasted that she put the wrong labels on the presents. My brother got a doll, and I got a dump truck that I didn’t want to give back.” She looked at the tree. “So what else will we put on it besides popcorn?”
“I have a shrunken head Theo gave me. I was gonna give it to my brother for Christmas, but when I realized the eyes lit up, I kept it. I’m thinking it’ll make a good topper.”
Shawn nodded with a smile. “Oh, yeah, that’s so New Orleans, that could be our theme.” Shawn rolled her eyes. “Sorry, I meant your theme.”
“Ours,” Jill corrected. “We’re doing this together. You should know that this is probably one of the best Christmases I’ve had in a while. Thank you.”
Christmas music was blaring from the TV as Jill and Shawn stood back and admired their decorations. The eyes of the shrunken head were lit up, and it made a fine tree topper after Shawn bored a hole in the bottom of it with a kitchen knife. The popcorn string had been wrapped around the tree, and the ornaments were made up of fleur de
earrings, an alligator keychain, and Mardi Gras beads.
Shawn raised her wineglass. “Perfecto.”
“Now we can relax, prop our feet up, and—it’s midnight. Merry Christmas.”
Shawn pulled Jill close and gave her a soul-stirring kiss. “Merry Christmas to you.”
Jill awoke just before dawn with a crick in her neck and a warm body beneath hers. The TV was still on. They’d watched movies for a long time, and Jill didn’t remember falling asleep. Since she was using Shawn as a bed, she assumed Shawn dropped off first.
“Don’t touch my feet…I hate that…not that…either…okay…just for a…” Shawn mumbled as Jill carefully crawled off of her.
She covered Shawn with a blanket and watched as she rolled onto her side before she raced downstairs to the store. She’d begun working on a charm bracelet but decided that it didn’t fit Shawn’s personality. Her new project was a silver watch pendant. Jill chose a chain she felt would complement it the best and slipped it into a velvet bag. All she had to do was sneak back upstairs and wrap it.
“Did you know it’s illegal to work on Christmas?”
Jill whirled around and stuffed the bag into her back pocket. “I wasn’t…I just came to check on a few things. How about breakfast?”
“Yes,” Shawn said with a smile.
Jill walked over and took her hand. “Eggs, bacon, pancakes? It is Christmas, after all, so we should splurge.”
“I totally love your logic. Put me to work, I can make a mean pancake.”
“All right, I’ll do the eggs and bacon,” Jill said as she led Shawn upstairs.
“Can we make Christmas dinner, too?” Shawn asked with a yawn. “I think that would be fun.”
“Yes, but I don’t have anything traditional. I’m sure we can pull some things together, though.”
Shawn followed Jill into the kitchen. “After breakfast, I’ll run home, shower, and raid my pantry and fridge. Would you like to come with me?”
“Oh, definitely. I’d love to see your place.” Jill took the pancake mix from the pantry, grabbed a mixing bowl, and set out everything Shawn would need to make the batter. “I feel like I should apologize for kidnapping you last night, but I don’t really feel guilty about it.”
“So it’s okay that I don’t feel guilty about using your toothbrush?”
Jill’s brow rose. “You did?”
“No,” Shawn said with a laugh. “I was tempted, though, especially since you stuffed that dirty sock in my mouth.”
Jill held up a finger. “That was the pizza, I’m totally innocent. I do have another brush. It’s in the drawer beside the sink, and it’s yours.”
Shawn stirred water into the batter and gazed up at Jill. “A toothbrush is a very serious offering.”
“Not for me.”
Jill smiled. “But no sock for you, Dobby. He was a creature in the Harry Potter movies who could only be freed if his master gave him clothing,” she explained when Shawn’s brow shot up.
“You watch Harry Potter!” Shawn exclaimed and slung batter onto the counter. “I’ve got all the movies and the books, too.” She lowered her voice. “I’ve got a sorting hat.”
Jill’s “What” was guttural. “I’ve got a wand!”
Shawn cocked her head. “Aw, we’re both dorks, that’s so cool.”
“I’m gonna get my wand,” Jill said as she ran out of the room.
Shawn fished the vial out of her pocket and stared at it a moment. “Is this wrong?” she wondered aloud softly. “She’s got a freaking wand! Screw it, I’ll do us both.” She ripped the cork off the vial and poured all the contents into the batter, but wretched guilt stole her joy. How fair was it to basically cast a spell over Jill? Shawn wondered.
Very carefully, she tried to scoop out what she’d poured in, but whatever was in Theo’s love cocktail had already been absorbed by the batter. She debated on pouring it out but had used the last of the mix in the box. She nearly jumped out of her skin when Jill came bounding into the kitchen wearing a pair of Harry Potter glasses and waving a wand.
Shawn licked her lips. “I know it’s wrong, and I feel really dirty saying it, but you just got so much hotter.”
Shawn’s apartment smelled of pine. She hadn’t decorated, either, except for a small pine bough in the middle of her kitchen table. It was flocked with fake snow and dressed in silver bells with a red bow. Jill was supposed to be digging through the kitchen for anything they could add to their feast while Shawn showered. Instead, she roamed around looking at Shawn’s things.
Judging by the contents of Shawn’s pantry, she loved peanut butter, almond butter, sugary cereal, and bread. A search of the freezer resulted in a score when Jill found one Cornish hen. It wasn’t turkey, but it was as close as they were going to get to one. Jill set it in the sink to thaw and gazed at Sticker sporting a tiny sombrero that probably came off the top of a tequila bottle. She poked at it and realized Sticker was plastic.
“Well, yes, you are low maintenance,” she said before wandering into the living room.
There was no TV. The sofa was dark brown leather. The accompanying recliner didn’t match, at least not in Jill’s opinion, as she ran her hand over the burgundy fabric. It was easy to tell that Shawn spent a lot of time in it. A laptop sat on the table beside it, along with unopened mail and a pair of reading glasses. But what really caught Jill’s attention was the framed photo of a man with a little girl with a head full of light brown hair sitting on his lap.
“Oh, it’s you, how cute,” Jill said as she gazed at the child’s light blue eyes. She was dressed in footie pajamas covered in snowflakes, a cookie in her hand.
“That’s my grandfather,” Shawn said as she leaned against the doorjamb, wrapped in a robe, her hair wet.
“He’s a handsome fella, but you were absolutely adorable.”
Shawn smiled. “I wasn’t allowed to eat sweets as a kid. The sugar made me crazy. Grandpa always made sure I had at least one cookie when I went to his house. My grandma snapped that picture, she spoiled me rotten, too. Come see the quilt she made me.”
Shawn had shown Jill around the apartment, but not the bedroom. Jill followed her, eager to see the most intimate place in one’s home. It smelled like Shawn, fresh and clean. The headboard of her bed was a series of black cubes that held keepsakes like the Hogwarts sorting hat, a jar of coins, and a stuffed cat that looked like a dog had gnawed on it. One cube held books.
Jill ran her hand over the quilt. “She made this out of your old clothes, didn’t she? I see the footie pajamas you had on in that picture.”
“It was her last,” Shawn said with a sigh. She died of a stroke eight years ago, and Grandpa had a heart attack a few months later. Everyone said he followed so quickly because he couldn’t live without her. That’s the theory I like to believe, but it was probably his love of bourbon, cigars, and moon pies that took him out.” Shawn took the sorting hat from a cube and set it on Jill’s head. “Which house do you belong to?”
“Cheese puff,” Jill replied in a gruff voice.
Shawn regarded her with a serious expression. “Do you know how hard it is to find someone with a sense of humor and who isn’t afraid to show her silly side?”
Jill nodded. “I know very well.”
“Then see how lucky you are to have found me?”
“I’m just gonna stand here and see how long you can maintain a straight face after saying that, even though it is true,” Jill said with a laugh.
“I’m thinking about figuring income taxes, it’s very effective.” Shawn clamped her lips tightly together against a grin that forced its way through. “I’ll get dressed, it’ll only take a minute,” she said as she stepped into the bathroom and closed the door.
Jill took off the hat and placed it back into the cube. “What’s the story behind the cat?”
Jill gazed at it sadly. From the looks of Chewy, she figured it belonged to a beloved pet that had passed on. “Did you have a dog?”
“Two cats when I was growing up.”
“They mauled poor Chewy like this?”
“No, I did.” Shawn opened the bathroom door, clad in a pair of jeans and a sweater. “I chewed on that cat all the way into my teens, until a dentist realized I was grinding my teeth.” She walked over to the dresser, opened a drawer, and pulled out a photo. “I was fifteen when this was taken.”
Jill laughed at the picture of Shawn asleep on a sofa, one of
ears in her mouth. “Tell the truth, do you still give it a nibble?”
“No, I’m a big girl now. I have a night guard to keep from damaging my teeth. What did you find in my kitchen?”
“Your peanut and almond butter obsession.”
Shawn grimaced. “I haven’t been to the grocery store lately. “Would you prefer to go out for a traditional dinner?”
“No, I like your idea of cooking, and the pantry scavenging thing is kinda fun.”
“I’ve got a canned ham my elderly neighbor gave me a few years ago, but I didn’t have the heart to throw it away.”
Jill shuddered. “Okay, that’s just…no.”
“Good, I’m using it as a doorstop in the laundry room.”
The smell of food cooking filled Jill’s apartment. She and Shawn had worked well together in the small kitchen sharing kisses whenever they had to move around each other. When Shawn went to the bathroom, Jill pulled her own vial of Theo’s powder from her pocket, and after a moment’s hesitation, poured all of it into the baked beans.
What could it hurt? she wondered as she watched the mixture dissolve. “That’s a loaded question since it did come from Theo. It’ll probably make us gassy…or worse.”
Jill sighed as she opened a bag of bite-sized candy bars. After she removed the wrappers, she arranged them on a plate in the shape of a Christmas tree, all the while feeling guilty for dropping the potion into the beans. She wasn’t willing to concede that there were such things as magic powder. But if by some chance Theo’s powder was real, then their love wouldn’t be. If there was an expiration on the spell, what would become of them when the effects wore off?
“Are we done?” Shawn asked as she opened the oven and peeked in at the hen, then spied the candy. She snatched the base off the tree and was about to pop it in her mouth.
“Don’t you dare.” Jill grabbed Shawn’s arm with a laugh. “No dessert before a meal.”
Shawn scrunched up her face. “Who made that rule?”
“Oh, hell, you’re right.” Jill grabbed one of the candy bars and shoved it into her mouth. “I think we’re ready to put the food into serving bowls.”
Both of them worked quickly, and before long, the spread was set. In the middle of the table was a tiny Cornish hen surrounded by bowls of baked beans, mashed potatoes, gravy, rolls, stuffing that came from a box, and the last can of cranberry sauce Jill snagged at a corner store that was about to close.
Shawn pulled out Jill’s chair. “Thank you for indulging me. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a home-cooked meal on this day.”
Jill gazed at Shawn as she took the seat beside her. “Thank you for making Christmas fun again.”
They filled their plates with food, and Jill couldn’t take her eyes off the baked beans. Sweat actually beaded on her upper lip as Shawn scooped them up on her fork and raised them to her lips. “Don’t eat those!” Jill screamed and slapped the fork out of Shawn’s hand. Beans rained down on her lap.
“Is that a Searcy family tradition or something?” Shawn asked calmly. “I’d like to do it with the mashed potatoes when it’s my turn.”
“I need to make a confession.” Jill groaned and pinched the skin of her forehead. “Theo gave me some crazy powder. She said you’d be mine forever if I fed it to you. It’s probably nothing but flour, but I still feel guilty.”
“Oh,” Shawn said as she slowly set her fork down. “If you believe it’s only flour, then why are you telling me this?”
Jill shook her head and looked away. “Just on the off chance it isn’t. Shawn, it feels so good to have you here, it seems so natural. I venture into dating like I’m buying a car. Normally, after I’ve spent this much time with a woman, I’ve picked her apart, and I’ve weighed everything I don’t like about her against the good. I can’t find one thing wrong with you. You’re everything I’ve hoped for, and it seems so foolish to admit that this soon, but I feel it. If that powder is more than flour, then I’ll never know if it was that stuff or us if things work out.”
“Do you think I may be your heart’s desire?”
Jill slowly met Shawn’s gaze. “It feels like you are.”
“I saw that slip of paper under the glass cat. I recognized my ticket number. Did Theo write that?”
“Yes, but she saw your—”
“When? Was it before I asked you out or after?”
Shawn held Jill’s gaze. “Is that why you agreed to go out with me?”
“It had absolutely nothing to do with it. I’ve admired you, too. You never flirted with me, so I assumed you were taken.”
“I asked you how your day was going every time I came in. That was my version of flirtation,” Shawn said as she picked up her fork, filled it with beans, and stuffed it into her mouth. “Theo gave me a vial, too, and I put it into our pancakes.”
“How are we ever going to be sure we work? That whatever happens between us is real?”
“I believe in love and magic. We have the magic, and I know we’ll have the love.” Shawn scooped her fork into the beans and held it to Jill’s lips. “To us.”