HOME FOR CHRISTMAS
(also available in the print anthology The Perfect Gift)
by Kate Davies
Publisher: Samhain Publishing
Release date: Dec., 2007
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She left everything familiar behind-but love found her anyway.
A story from The Perfect Gift.
Sophia is determined to spend Christmas on her own terms this year. Her daughter will be spending the holidays with her boyfriend's family, and Sophia has no intention of staying home alone with her memories.
She knows Ethan would be more than happy to keep her company. But he's her business partner—and her late husband's best friend. It's past time to stop leaning on him and learn to stand on her own two feet. A cruise to the Caribbean might be just the ticket to discovering who she is now, and what she really wants.
Ethan is stunned to discover that Sophia has decided to go on a cruise for Christmas—alone. He'd thought something more was finally developing between the two of them. If she's ready to move on after the loss of her husband, he'll be damned if he lets her move on without him!
On the spur of the moment, Ethan books a stateroom, determined to prove to Sophia that what they have goes far beyond friendship. The romantic atmosphere of the cruise sparks a passion the two had only dreamed of before—but can their fledgling relationship survive beyond the vacation of a lifetime?
For Patricia Helen. Thanks for being my second mom, my mom's best friend, and an all-around wonderful person. Though you probably won't recognize it now that I've gotten through with it, this story was sparked by your idea, and I'm forever grateful.
© 2007 Kate Davies
Sophia looked up and smiled at the formally-dressed waiter standing by her elbow. "Thanks," she said, lifting a flute off his silver tray. He nodded and moved on to the couple next to her.
She turned sideways, leaning one arm on the railing of the ship. The deck was crowded, people stacked three- and four-deep all around the ship. She'd staked out a place on the port side of the ship early on, not wanting to miss a single experience. If she was going to do something so completely different for the holidays, she was going to do it right.
She winced as she thought about all she'd done wrong so far. She'd handled the situation with Ethan badly, rushing off without an explanation. She could still see him standing in her driveway, his expression perplexed-and hurt.
Knowing she'd hurt Ethan twisted her stomach in ways she didn't want to contemplate. There'd be a lot of damage control to be done when she got home.
But she was here to enjoy herself. Time enough to think of her relationship with Ethan when she got home.
She looked around, taking a sip of her champagne. As far as she could tell, she was the only singleton on board. Everywhere she looked, couples walked hand in hand, or stood at the railing, arms around each other. Entire families clustered together, from grandparents to grandchildren, chattering excitedly about the adventure ahead.
Sophia leaned on the railing and rested her chin in her hand. She'd planned this trip to make a break with tradition, find a way to enjoy the holidays on her own terms. But moments like these made her wonder if she'd done the right thing.
Had she just brought her loneliness along with her for the ride?
"This is so exciting," the woman next to her said, disrupting Sophia's maudlin thoughts. "Is this your first Christmas cruise?"
"My first cruise, period," Sophia admitted.
"First time for everything," the woman's husband replied, holding out a hand to Sophia. "Rick Zimmerman. Nice to meet you."
Sophia introduced herself to him and his wife Deborah, who were taking the cruise to celebrate their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary.
"We got married right before Christmas," Deborah said. "It makes it easy to remember our anniversary, but harder to focus on just the two of us, what with all the holiday craziness."
"That's why we decided to take this cruise," Rick added.
Sophia nodded and took another sip of her champagne. Deborah continued to chatter away, a cheerful litany of their comical struggles to get to the ship on time. Sophia listened politely with one ear, even though her attention was mostly focused on the activity far below. In the distance, a crew member called out orders, muffled by the sounds of the crowd. The increased activity hinted that they were getting closer to departure.
The crowd around them continued to grow as late-arriving travelers attempted to get close enough to the railing to participate in the traditional send-off. Sophia held her champagne close to her chest so it wouldn't spill, juggling her handful of streamers at the same time.
Deborah gestured at the tiny space between them. "Are you trying to save room for someone? We can scoot over if you'd like."
Rick nodded and took a step to the side. "We can always squeeze in one more."
Sophia shook her head. "Thanks, but it won't be necessary. I'm on my own."
She watched as something uncomfortably close to pity flashed across their faces.
"Good for you." Deborah patted Sophia's arm. "Very brave of you."
Brave? Sophia fought back the urge to grimace.
"And you'll have to join us for dinner tonight. Can't have you eating alone."
"Thanks," she said, though she wasn't quite sure she was ready to be anyone's project on this cruise.
"Maybe you'll meet someone special," Deborah said, eyes sparkling. "Wouldn't that be romantic? A shipboard love affair!"
Sophia shook her head with a smile. "I'm not really looking to meet someone," she said.
All three of them turned around at the interruption.
"Ethan," Sophia whispered. Her knees turned wobbly and she had to lean against the railing to stay upright. "What are you doing here?"
"Same thing you are," he said. "Spending the holidays on a cruise."
He was still wearing the same outfit he'd had on back home when she'd left him in the driveway. The cable-knit sweater and jeans were much warmer than he would need in the Caribbean.
"I—I don't understand," she stammered.
"Mind if I join you?"
Sophia shook her head. Deborah and Rick moved over, giving Ethan just enough room to slide into the spot next to Sophia.
His arm brushed against hers, sending a shiver of awareness through her body. He leaned one hand on the railing and put the other around her shoulders. "Surprised?"
"Uh, yeah," she said.
"So was I," he murmured, his mouth a mere breath away from her ear.
She started to say something—anything—but a loud blast from the ship's horn startled her back into silence.
Ethan lifted the champagne glass out of her suddenly nerveless fingers and took a sip. Then he held it to her lips. "To new adventures."
She drank the rest of the champagne in one gulp. Somehow, she had a feeling she was going to need it.