Chapter 1: Christmas Eve
“It’s coming on Christmas ... they’re cutting down trees, putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace. Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on...”
The syrupy Sarah McLachlan lyrics that filled the air from the overhead speakers hardly registered with Rachel Adams, except the last refrain. She sincerely wished she had a river to skate away on, to take them away from the hardship that had dogged them over the past year.
“Mommy, I’m hungry.”
That simple statement by six year old Sarah jerked Rachel from her misery and back to the immediacy of her plight – she and her daughter were homeless and hungry.
Mother and daughter stood just outside the doors leading from the underground bus and light rail tunnel into the flagship Nordstrom store at Westlake Center in downtown Seattle. Just one flight of stairs above, at the street level it was already dark and the temperature had dropped enough that there were snowflakes mixed with the chilling rain. They had no place to go and she was down to her last five dollars. For the first time in her thirty five years Rachel was on the verge of panic.
Her husband Dave had died suddenly. She had found him slumped over his desk in his home office the week after Thanksgiving a year ago. The medical examiner said it was a massive coronary, most likely brought on by stress and sedentary life-style.
When they had married eight years ago Dave had been a programmer and engineer at Microsoft, and he had seemed to have a bright future. Rachel had been working for a national communications conglomerate in their marketing department located in Redmond, not far from the Microsoft campus. They met at a Christmas party thrown by acquaintances. Rachel was new in town, having grown up outside Minneapolis, orphaned while in college due to a hit and run driver. She was truly alone since she had no siblings and her parents had no siblings. After a series of marketing jobs out of college she was finally offered what she considered her dream job and jumped at the chance to leave snowy Minneapolis for the Pacific Northwest.
Dave was a dreamer who had big plans, and she fell for his easy get-along attitude and his self deprecating sense of humor. He was a handsome man and was well liked at the company. Everyone said they were a good match. Rachel’s intellect was every bit the equal of his, and her model-like figure, Nordic features, violet eyes and luxurious auburn hair seemed to make them a very good match. After a short courtship they were married and settled into a home just east of Redmond. She continued to work and they settled into what passed for an east of Lake Washington social life – meaning not much of one since they counted themselves among the workaholics and computer geeks who populated the area.
That all changed when Rachel became pregnant with Sarah. She worked right up until a week before her due date and then took maternity leave. Unfortunately, her maternity leave was constantly interrupted by the demands of her job. To make it worse, Dave was less than helpful. He still had a twenty-four-seven job so the entire burden of wife, mother and essential employee at her work fell on her. When her maternity leave ended, demands only got greater. Finally after the third or fourth time her boss Caroline upbraided her in public about unplanned absences because of child care glitches, post natal doctor appointments for Sarah, and childhood illnesses, she quit. Rachel thought she would do some consulting work at home, but she discovered that she felt amazingly liberated by staying home with her daughter, and she thought they were strong enough financially that she could take enough time off to see Sarah to the point of pre-school or longer.
Outwardly Dave seemed supportive, but her additional income was missed and the ability to spend without thinking about it was suddenly taken away. About the same time she noticed he was becoming distant and her cautions about runaway spending and their ballooning credit card debt were met with frosty hostility.
“I make the money in this household and I should be able to spend it!”
At that point Dave took over the household finances, assuring her everything was being taken care of. That was a lie.
A few months later Dave came home and announced he had quit his job and had joined some colleagues in starting their own business. Again he assured her that the clients would come flocking and they would never need her salary again.
That seemed to be true for a while. Dave was home most of the time working out of his office, although he spent most of the time holed up there on the phone or on his computer. The money situation seemed to get better and Dave surprised her with a new Lexus SUV. Looking back on those times she realized she was in denial, but she was enjoying the life of a stay at home mom. She took Sarah on play dates and spent hours shopping at the upscale mall at Bellevue Square where all the other bored Eastside moms seemed to congregate for their retail therapy. Unfortunately, she made few friends.
Very shortly after Dave died it came home to her that he had built a house of cards. The day of the funeral she got home to discover Dave’s BMW missing from the driveway. She reported it stolen, and then to her embarrassment learned a few hours later that it had been repossessed.
That night in the lonely house she went to Dave’s desk and discovered the financial disaster that he had left was actually a tsunami of debt that would in very short order sweep her happy life away. To her dismay, he had even cashed in his life insurance policy. To top it off, the IRS put a lien on everything else for unpaid taxes.
Rachel stared at the happy people who joined the throngs as they moved in and out of the Nordstrom store. Not long ago she’d been part of that scene, carelessly ringing up purchases with her platinum card. Now she had no credit cards, no car, and as of this morning, no place to sleep.
“Mommy, I’m hungry,” Sarah said again.
Rachel opened her handbag and saw the remaining granola bar packet. The purse had been expensive at one time but was now last year’s fashion and she had been unable to sell it.
She opened the plastic wrapper and handed her daughter one of the two bars inside. She was tempted to take a bite. She was hungry too, but that was all the food they had and she knew that even a little bite on her part would mean one less for Sarah. She was also afraid she would not be able to stop with one bite. When had she last eaten? Yesterday? Maybe.
Over the months she had sold everything in the house to keep the utilities going. Of course, the mortgage went into default. Kindly, wonderful, Mrs. Grayson, a widow next door, watched Sarah after school while Rachel looked for work, but there were no jobs and promising leads seem to dry up as soon as they got a look at her credit report. Oh yes, these days employers had lots of choices and they were very interested in things like debt and credit scores of the candidates.
Rachel finally admitted defeat and applied for food assistance. She was ashamed when she went to the upscale grocery stores in the neighborhood and handed over the ‘Quest Card, ‘ issued by the state of Washington. Then two disasters struck: Mrs. Grayson had a stroke which put her in a long-term treatment facility, and Rachel’s Lexus was repossessed. It had been a silly mistake on her part. She had played a cat and mouse game with the repo man, usually keeping her SUV in Mrs. Grayson’s garage, but on this day Sarah was sick so Rachel drove to the Walgreens, parked in front and ran in to get some medicine. She must have looked pretty funny as she walked out, keys in hand, to see her car on the back of a flatbed leaving the parking lot.
She walked the two miles home, crying.
By the time the school holidays came the house had been denuded of furniture and Rachel and Sarah spent most of their time sitting on the floor reading and playing board games. There was no TV, the cable having been cut off months before, and the big screen high definition television sold for pennies on the dollar. Her iPhone was useless without service and it too went for sale on Craig’s List, like most of the things that were saleable, including all the computer equipment. She used the computer at the library and met buyers outside a coffeehouse. She even tried to sell her engagement ring, figuring a one-carat diamond would bring a good price, only to find out Dave had betrayed her even in that. Somehow the beautiful diamond he gave her at their engagement had been replaced by a CZ. The ring was worthless except the gold setting, so she sold it and her wedding band and netted some money from the transaction. As her financial problems worsened she cut off contact with many of her acquaintances. She was ashamed and didn’t want anyone to know how desperate her situation had become.
When she was finally evicted three days ago she took the little money she had left, packed a roller bag with their remaining essentials, and she and Sarah walked down the street in the rain. Her own clothes consisted of one broomstick skirt, black cable-knit sweater, and her black low-heeled dress boots, and the raincoat she had on. Jeans, another sweater and Nikes were in the roller bag. Why she had kept this dressier outfit? Somehow, she felt it was one link to the normalcy she once knew. Everything else had been sold including all the wonderful outfits Sarah used to wear and almost all of her toys and books. Sarah’s backpack contained a couple of changes of clothes, her American Girl doll, and her favorite three books.
Without a plan, they hopped on the first transit bus to come along. It was headed for downtown Seattle. Rachel had no friends, no relatives and nowhere to go. She managed to get a very small room in a decrepit-looking hotel near Pioneer Square. The second night was paid for with her food assistance card. Taking that card for lodging was illegal but the leering proprietor seemed undeterred and also hinted not so subtly that she could stay as long as she wanted, but only as long as she would entertain him and some of his friends. She was outraged, but was ashamed to admit that in her despair she thought about it. The deciding factor was the way he looked at Sarah. Rachel and Sarah left very early the next morning and took the light rail to the airport. Luckily there were no ticket checkers and she and Sarah made the hour-long round trip a number of times that day, staying out of the storm, while she tried to figure out what to do.
Now it was after four. It was dark and cold on the streets and she’d run out of options. What would she do about tonight? Tomorrow was Christmas and everything would be closed, including places like the downtown library, which she had heard provided an out of the weather place for many of Seattle’s homeless.
She had never felt such hopelessness. She just wanted to sit down on the tiled floor and cry, but she knew she couldn’t because it would upset Sarah.
She had changed into the skirt and boots for their train trips and their travel around downtown. She thought that as long as she maintained an air of respectability, she could look as if she belonged among the shoppers that thronged the stores, and she would remain relatively unnoticed just outside the doors of such an upscale place. Rachel thought she would probably pass for someone keeping out of the weather while waiting for a spouse or friend to arrive, as long as they didn’t look too closely and see she had no jewelry. To her eastside acquaintances she would never pass muster. The absence of jewelry would be spotted in a heartbeat. All of her jewelry was gone; including the gold heart locket Dave gave her two Christmases ago.
She thought she loved him, but his irresponsibility and carelessness had left her, them, in this impossible situation. How could he do that to his family?
“Mommy, can I have some milk, please?”
She looked at her daughter’s angelic face.
“Maybe in a little while sweetie.” She tried to keep the tears out of her voice.
“I’m tired. Can we go home soon?”
Rachel, knelt next to her daughter, and before she could say anything Sarah said, “Santa comes tonight doesn’t he?”
“Yes.” She couldn’t say more because her throat was constricted with the tears that had started to come.
“And we have to go home or he won’t know where to find us.”
“Honey ... Santa will find us no matter where we are.”
She just looked at her mother as she took a bite of her granola bar.
Rachel reached out and hugged her, tears rolling down her cheeks.
Abruptly she was bowled over. She saw the uneaten portion of the granola bar sailing through the air as she pulled Sarah on top of her and held her tightly as they fell. Rachel ended up on the cold tile floor, somewhat dazed. As she tried to understand what had happened she found herself looking up into soft dark eyes full of concern. They belonged to a man kneeling at her side as she struggled to sit up.
“I’m so sorry ... so sorry. Are you okay?”
The fall and the loss of the last of her daughter’s food did it. Sitting on the cold and water-tracked floor, Rachel lost control and began to sob.
Uncertain about her mother’s tears, Sarah got up quickly and went to pick up the remnant of her granola bar, which had landed a few feet away.
The kind-looking man stood and held out his hand to help her up.
As Rachel felt his warm hand meeting her cold one, it was as if a jolt of electricity passed through her. Soon they were standing close together as she tried without much success to control herself.
Sarah pulled on her mother’s hand, while with the other hand she held up the retrieved granola bar. She looked very distressed. “It’s okay Mommy. Don’t cry.”
The man handed her a neatly folded handkerchief and she used it to wipe her eyes and face. He watched her with concern as she somehow found the strength to pull herself together. As she did so she examined him.
A handsome face, lots of smile lines, and a few scars, maybe forty-five, a head taller than her five eight, short dark hair, camel colored cashmere overcoat, unbuttoned over an expensive looking suit.
But it was those dark eyes - so concerned and so kindly looking that got to her.
They both seemed to realize at the same time that he was still holding her hand. When he let go she felt a twinge of loss.
“I’m so terribly sorry ... didn’t see you there. Are you sure you’re all right?”
At that point they both seemed to notice the beautifully wrapped presents strewn about as a result of their collision.
They almost collided again as they tried to reach for the same gift to retrieve it from the floor. He laughed. It was a nice laugh, a warm sound that was unforced and very genuine. A sound made by a man who has a sense of humor.
“This time of year I’m always in such a rush.” He looked at her, suddenly quiet, realizing he was stating the obvious.
“Can we start over? I’m Marcus James.” He smiled as he held out his hand.
She stood for a few seconds, getting lost in those eyes, feeling like a schoolgirl meeting the handsome quarterback.
He watched her. She flushed under his examination, wishing she had at least put on some lipstick.
She took his hand, again feeling the same spark at contact. She felt faint.
“I’m Rachel Adams...”
“Mommy, my granola bar – it’s all yucky from the floor, can I have another?”
She saw his gaze turn to Sarah.
“And this is my daughter, Sarah.”
She wanted to take his hand back as he removed it to offer it to Sarah in greeting.
“I’m pleased to meet you Ms. Sarah.”
She beamed at him.
“I think we can do better than a granola bar. What do you say I take you and your mommy to dinner?”
He looked at Rachel.
“I hope you will let me make it up to you, Mrs. Adams. I feel terrible about running over you and destroying this young lady’s snack.”
“Yes,” she heard herself agree without hesitation. Then her conscious mind clicked in. He was a stranger and it was already dark. What if he was some kind of criminal?
But those were not the eyes of a criminal.
“Wonderful, I hate to eat alone and I would be pleased to be seen with two such beautiful ladies.” He grinned and winked at Sarah, who responded with a giggle.
“It’s Ms. Adams these days. I’m a widow, but please call me Rachel.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.” She could tell he meant it. It came from his heart, unlike so many others who expressed sympathy without meaning it.
Now why did I tell him I’m a widow? Certainly a man like this would not be interested in her. No, she would accept his offer of a meal because her daughter needed the food. Of course, she had to admit the idea of a meal in a restaurant on a cold rainy night was very appealing. She suddenly felt ashamed thinking that perhaps she could ask him for money so they could have a place for the night. Could she do that? Probably not, because he would think less of her and for some reason his good opinion was more important than anything right now, although she never expected to see him again.
They finished retrieving the gifts and she watched him call someone on his phone. She didn’t hear the conversation.
“I’ve got someone to come fetch the packages so I don’t have to worry about steamrolling anyone else,” he said with a smile. As he put away his phone, Rachel noticed he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. She also noticed a little gray at his temples, which made him look quite distinguished.
Within a minute or two a young woman dressed in a dark green wool fitted dress appeared. She was maybe mid-twenties and stunningly pretty. The dress with it’s just above the knee length, and her high-heeled black boots, looked wonderful on her figure.
“How may I help you Mr. James?” The way she said it, and her demeanor, suggested to Rachel that this woman would gladly drag him off to bed without preamble.
Rachel suddenly flushed, and almost unconsciously took a step closer to him, as if wanting to stake her territory.
“Pru, trying to juggle an armload of gifts caused me to trample this lady.”
Pru seemed to have to drag her eyes from his smiling face to look at Rachel. They exchanged tight smiles, and she gave Rachel a quick, dismissive, onceover before she looked back at him.
“Would you please get one of your elves to run these over to the Inn at the Market?”
“Certainly sir.” She smiled at him and then spoke briefly into her phone.
Within seconds, a young woman dressed in a raincoat appeared and took the gifts. Marcus, she thought of him as Marcus now, gave the young woman some money and insisted she take a cab to the hotel, which was only a few blocks away.
“Will there be anything else, Mr. James?” To Rachel, Pru’s voice seemed filled with innuendo.
Marcus seemed oblivious. “Thank you Pru. No I don’t think so, and thank you for all your help today.” She beamed under his gaze. “As usual I got a late start and just couldn’t have got it done without your help. When I see your dad, I’ll tell him how well you’re doing and what a wonderful daughter he has.”
Rachel caught the slight look of dismay that crossed her face as he referred to her dad. That was obviously not what she wanted to hear from this handsome man.
“Merry Christmas Pru, I hope to see you again soon.”
The smile returned full force, and Rachel felt another pang of jealously as Pru moved forward and hugged him.
“Merry Christmas, Marcus.”
Without looking at Rachel, she turned and moved through the doors to the store. She was sure Pru exaggerated her hip movements as she walked away. Rachel looked back at Marcus and saw him watching her with what looked like amusement.
She blushed under his gaze.
“Shall we go?”
They took the escalator up to the street, where he unfurled a large umbrella and offered his arm. She took it without thinking, as if it was the most natural thing. She took Sarah’s hand, and as he took charge of the roller bag, Rachel hoped he wouldn’t notice how light it was. Within minutes they arrived at the restaurant.
She was pleased to see it was Andaluca, a place where they served Mediterranean dishes and featured shared plates and a number of courses. She and Dave had dined there once several years ago while attending the symphony in Seattle.
“Tomás, I’ve brought two more guests, do you think you can fit us in?”
“Mr. James, of course. These two beautiful ladies are most welcome!”
He took their coats and escorted them to a booth near the back. The place was intimate and the dim lights, dark mahogany millwork; muted hand painted murals, and plush fabrics reinforced that feeling. Above all, it smelled delicious. The leather-covered booth was very comfortable, but Rachel was disappointed to have to sit across from him. She had enjoyed the warmth of his body, and the smell of him as she held his arm as they walked to the restaurant.
“Something to drink to start?” Tomás asked as he stood by.
Before Rachel could decline any alcohol because she knew her empty stomach would not be happy, Marcus said, “Perhaps you’d like to start with a pot of tea. They have a fine selection here and maybe some cocoa for Sarah?”
Sarah looked at Tomás. “May I have marshmallows with my cocoa?”
“Of course miss, marshmallows it is, and a pot of tea for the lady. And you Mr. James?”
“I’ll join the lady in having tea and then you can bring some wine with dinner.”
“Very good sir.”
Rachel was puzzled that Tomás had left no menus, but she decided not to worry about it, because for the time being she was safe and warm anticipating a wonderful meal, sitting across from a handsome man who had a strange but wonderful effect on her.
Rachel wanted to head off any questions which might require her to lie, so she asked him. “Marcus, oh you don’t mind if I call you Marcus, do you?”
His eyes threatened to melt her as he smiled. “I hope you will, Rachel.”
He said her name and she felt warmth fill her body. She was speechless for a few moments.
“Oh, sorry, just lost in thought.” Actually she had been looking at his mouth, wondering what it would be like to kiss him. “I was just wondering what brought you to Seattle tonight.”
Before he could answer, Tomás returned with their tea and cocoa. He put the cup in front of Sarah with a flourish. “Cocoa for you miss as ordered, with marshmallows.”
They spent a little time preparing their tea. She noticed he took his plain with lemon, as she usually did, but tonight she poured in the cream and added some honey. She wanted the warmth of the tea and her body craved the nourishment of the milk and honey.
She took a sip and the warm tea seemed to be the perfect thing for such a miserable rainy night. How had he known?
He took a sip, seemed satisfied and took another as he looked at her, perhaps thinking about how to answer her question. “My newlywed daughter lives on Mercer Island. I work in lots of places around the world, but right now I call San Francisco home. Foolishly, I decided at the spur of the moment to drive up. I love driving, and I spend my life in airplanes so it’s just a good way to get away. Unfortunately, I ran into snow in the Siskiyous south of the California-Oregon border and had to spend last night in Weed. Never did find out who named the place but it’s not very big. I was lucky to get a hotel room.
“So this morning I was up with the snowplows, and thanks to all-wheel drive and an absence of Troopers on I-Five in Oregon and Washington, I was able to drive the remaining four hundred fifty miles in record time.”
Rachel smiled at him. He looked so boyish when he talked about his car trip.
“So I got into Seattle three hours ago, checked into my hotel, called Pru, who you met - she’s in some management position at the store and is a personal shopper - so she helped me with the gifts for my daughter and her husband and a few others. She’s a dear, and the daughter of a friend who’s been my mentor for a number of years.”
Rachel kept her thoughts about Pru to herself.
At that point the first course arrived. It was a cup of Tuscan tomato bread soup and it was glorious. Sarah giggled as Tomás made a great to-do about presenting her soup. She picked up her spoon and dug in.
Rachel tried not to eat too fast. The soup and the warm bread with humus and the tea had her feeling almost giddy.
When they finished the soup Tomás served a pear salad. Then he put glasses of Albarino in front of them before the next course. It was a delicious white and went perfectly with the chanterelle chicken skewer. Next came a potato croquette, followed by paella, grilled salmon skewers, and pumpkin risotto. At some point, the Albarino was replaced by Tempranillo.
Sarah had fallen asleep after a few bites of the potato croquette and was lying on the soft leather bench with her head in her mother’s lap.
They finished the meal with coffee, a tawny Port, and a shared dessert, a molten chocolate cake. Rachel couldn’t remember all the conversation. It seemed trivial, about movies and books and other subjects, although she discovered they had many of the same interests. He was in what he laughingly called the dirty energy business. She tried to keep it light and focused on him without revealing anything about her predicament. Although he did manage to get out of her stories about growing up and going to school in Minnesota, moving to the northwest for a marketing position, and the fact that sometimes she wondered if trading the incessant rain for the cold and snow was the best idea.
She just wanted this evening to go on forever, because she knew that outside this cocoon of sensual delights were the raw weather and the raw facts of her current life. And he would walk out of her life as abruptly as he had entered.
Finally he looked at his watch. “I have to apologize again – I’ve kept you late.” Rachel was jarred back into reality. How could she ask him for money after the wonderful evening they just shared? She promised herself she would for Sarah’s sake. How would he take it? Would he believe her story?
Sarah awoke blinking. “I was having a dream about Santa. Mommy says even though we might not have a home he can find us.”
With that statement, Marcus stopped smiling. “Sarah, yes he can, he knows where all the good little girls and boys are on Christmas Eve.”
Rachel couldn’t look at him. She was ashamed.
No bill presented, Tomás brought their coats and smilingly ushered them to the door and to a waiting cab. The bitter wind whipped the cold rain. Rachel was confused when Marcus said, “Inn at the Market” to the driver. Maybe he intended the driver to drop him there and then take her somewhere. But where would she go? She had no money to pay the cabby. In less than five minutes they were pulling up next to the hotel. Sarah was on Rachel’s lap, asleep, when Marcus handed some money to the cab driver and said “Merry Christmas.” The driver replied, “Thank you very much sir, and Merry Christmas to you!”
Marcus turned to her. “We’re here, Rachel.”
She was confused. Where was here? This was his hotel. He got out of the back of the cab and turned to her and said her name very softly. She was exhausted and had drunk too much wine. Almost unconsciously she took his hand, feeling the reassuring warmth. He took Sarah from her and carried her into the lobby, where he approached the reception desk.
The desk clerk greeted him. “What may I help you with tonight Mr. James?”
“Bette, my wife and daughter surprised me and will be staying with me tonight.”
The pretty young woman looked at Rachel, and the sleeping Sarah held in Marcus’ arms, “Very well sir, and shall I adjust your room service breakfast accordingly?”
“Please do, and thank you.”
You’re welcome sir. Always a pleasure to have you stay with us, and welcome Mrs. James, and Merry Christmas to you all.”
“Merry Christmas to you Bette. I hope you get a chance to spend time with your family tomorrow.”
She smiled at his consideration. “I’m off at eight in the morning, and then home for a quick nap, and then to my parent’s home by four for the big family dinner.”
Rachel was unconvinced the girl believed any of the story about her being Mrs. James, but she was past caring. For this Christmas Eve night she and her daughter would be safe and warm. Somehow, she also knew that Marcus would not make demands of her. In her wine-fogged state that thought was tinged with a little regret. During dinner she had fantasized about having his arms around her.
His was a large room with a luxurious bath and one king size bed. The bed was turned down and the room was only illuminated by a small bedside lamp. He gently put Sarah on the bed without waking her.
Rachel moved close to him and looked in his eyes. “Why are you doing this?”
The sudden pain in his eyes shocked her. He looked away for a moment, struggling to compose himself. Finally he looked at her. “My wife died five years ago. We had been married nineteen years. Much of that time I was on the road but she never complained. I was with her every day that last six months as the cancer, as it made her waste away ... regretting each day that I had been gone as a day wasted not being with her. When I saw you today, I knew right away you were in trouble, and I admit I was lonely. I still miss her every day.”
He paused. They were so close she wanted to throw her arms around him and make the pain go away, as they stood in the dim light of his hotel suite. “My life is only about me. My daughter is married now and starting her own life. I try to be respectful of the people around me and I give a lot to charity, but I wanted to do something for someone ... just to make a difference in a person’s life on Christmas, and so Rachel, I hope you’ll accept my hospitality tonight, and for whatever time you need.”
Rachel moved close to him and leaned her head against his chest. She sighed as she felt his arms slowly move around her and hold her, and then her tears came. For several minutes they stood like that as she sobbed against his chest, crying with bottled up grief for Dave and the life they knew, and with relief that somehow this wonderful, kind, and caring man had produced a miracle on Christmas Eve.