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Page 25

testpreptraining

“It was good practice,” Maggie had said with a laugh, “for when you really go out with someone.”

But even to herself, she had sounded false and hollow.

During the weeks leading up to Christmas, the island bustled with holiday activities, concerts, celebrations, lighting contests, and festivals. What Holly looked forward to the most was the annual lighted boat parade. Held by the Friday Harbor Sailing Club and the San Juan Island Yacht Club, it was a flotilla of decorated and fully lit vessels that went from Shipyard Cove to the yacht club and back. Even the boaters who didn’t join the parade strung their boats with lights. The last boat in the flotilla would be the Santa Ship, from which Santa would disembark at the Spring Street dock. He would be met by musicians, and ride on a fire truck to the convalescent center.

“I want to watch it with you,” Holly had told Maggie, who had promised she would walk to the dock after closing the shop, and meet them there.

The dock and surrounding area was massively crowded, however, and the cheerful clamor of parade-goers and carolers was near-deafening. Maggie wandered through the multitude, past clusters of families with children, and couples, and groups of friends. The lighted boats glittered and sparkled in the darkness, eliciting cries of excitement from the crowd. With a sinking heart, Maggie realized she wasn’t going to be able to find Holly and Mark easily, if at all.

It was okay, she told herself. They would have a good time without her. She wasn’t part of the family. If Holly was disappointed that she hadn’t shown up, it wouldn’t last for long.

But none of that helped to ease the tightness of Maggie’s throat, or the pressure of anxiety in her chest. She kept searching through the crowd, past family after family.

She thought she heard her name in the tumult. Stopping, she turned and scanned her surroundings. She caught sight of a girl in a pink winter coat and a red hat. It was Holly, standing with Mark, waving to her. With a small gasp of relief, Maggie made her way to them.

“You missed some of the boats,” Holly exclaimed, taking her hand.

“Sorry,” Maggie said breathlessly. “It was hard to find you.”

Mark smiled and put an arm around her shoulders, drawing her against his side. He glanced down at her face as he felt her drawing in deep draughts of air. “You okay?” he asked.

Maggie smiled and nodded, dangerously close to tears.

No, she thought. I’m not okay. She felt like she had just had one of those dreams in which she had been trying to find someone or something that was always out of reach, one of those stumbling-around, panicky nightmares. And now she was where she most wanted to be, with the two people in the world she most wanted to be with.

It felt so right that it scared her.

“You’re sure you don’t want to get a tree?” Mark asked the next Monday, as Maggie helped him to load a perfect Douglas fir onto his truck.

“I don’t need one,” she said cheerfully, sniffing the fresh traces of sap on her gloves while he tied the tree down. “I always spend Christmas in Bellingham.”

“When are you leaving?”

“Christmas Eve.” Seeing his slight frown, Maggie said, “Before I go, I’ll leave a present for Holly under the tree, so she can open it Christmas morning.”

“She’d rather open it with you there.”

Maggie blinked, uncertain how to reply. Did that mean he wanted her to spend Christmas with him? Was he thinking about inviting her? “I always stay with my family on Christmas,” she said warily.

Mark nodded, letting the subject drop. He drove her to the house at Rainshadow Vineyard, and together they wrestled the tree inside.

It was quiet in the house, with Holly still at school. Sam had gone to Seattle to visit friends and to do some holiday shopping.

Maggie smiled as she saw the proliferation of white paper snowflakes hanging from doorways and ceilings. “Someone’s been busy.”

“Holly learned to make them in school,” Mark said. “Now she’s turned into a one-woman snowflake factory.”

He started a fire in the fireplace, while Maggie unwrapped packages of white twinkle lights for the tree.

Within an hour, they had set the tree in its stand and strung it with lights. “Now for the magical part,” Maggie said, wedging her way into the narrow space behind the tree. She plugged the light strand in, and the tree began to glimmer and sparkle.

“It’s not magic,” Mark said, but he was smiling as he stood back to view the tree.

“What is it, then?”

“A system of tiny bulbs illuminated by the movement of electrons in semiconductor material.”

“Yes.” Maggie held up a forefinger significantly as she approached him. “But what makes them twinkle?”

“Magic,” he said in resignation, his lips twitching.

“Exactly.” She gave him a satisfied grin.

Mark slid his hands through her hair and grasped her head, and looked at her. “I need you in my life.”

For a moment Maggie couldn’t move or breathe. The statement was startling in its bluntness, in its directness. She couldn’t turn away, could only stare at him, mesmerized by the expression in his blue-green eyes.

“Not long ago I told Holly that love is a choice,” Mark said. “I was wrong. Love isn’t a choice. The only choice is what you’re going to do with it.”

“Please,” she whispered.

“I understand what you’re afraid of. I understand why this is so hard for you. And you can choose not to take a chance. But I’m going to love you anyway.”

Maggie closed her eyes.

“You’ve got all the time you need,” she heard him say. “I can wait until you’re ready. I just had to tell you how I feel.”

She still couldn’t look at him. “I may never be ready for the kind of commitment you want. If you were just asking for meaningless sex, it would be no problem. That I could do. But you—”

“Okay.”

Her eyes flew open. “Okay what?”

“I’ll take the meaningless sex.”

Maggie stared at him in bewilderment. “You just said you were willing to wait!”

“I’m willing to wait for commitment. But in the meantime I can settle for sex.”

“So…you would be fine with a physical relationship that’s going nowhere?”

“If that’s your best offer.”

Staring at him, Maggie saw the glint of laughter deep in his eyes. “You’re jerking my chain,” she said.

“No more than you’re jerking mine.”

“You don’t think I’ll go through with it, do you?”

“No,” he said gently, “I don’t.”

Maggie was too worked up to be able to sort through the entire tangle of emotions inside her. There was indignation, fear, alarm, even a touch of amusement…but none of that was responsible for the vibrant, shivery heat that had begun to pump through her entire body. The sensation collected in places that deepened her flush and made her awareness of him unbearable. She wanted him, right then, with a stomach-lifting, heart-pounding, dizzying need.

Maggie was dimly amazed that her voice was steady as she asked, “Where’s your bedroom?”

She had the satisfaction of seeing his eyes widen, the glint of amusement vanishing.

Mark led the way upstairs, glancing at her at intervals as if to make certain she was still with him. They went into his room, clean and sparely furnished, the walls painted a neutral color that was indistinguishable in the weak December daylight.

Before she could lose her nerve, Maggie stepped out of her shoes and stripped off her sweater and jeans. The cool air of the bedroom made her shiver as she stood there in her underwear. Mark approached her, and she lifted her head to see that he had taken off his sweater and T-shirt, his upper half bare and muscular and beautiful. His movements were careful, gentle, as if he was trying not to startle her. She could almost feel his gaze as it slid over her, coming to rest on her face.

“How beautiful you are,” he whispered, letting one hand caress her shoulder. It seemed he took forever to finish undressing her, kissing every new inch of skin that was revealed.

Finally she lay naked on the bed, reaching up for him blindly. He dragged off his jeans and took her against him, his skin fever-hot beneath her exploring hands. He kissed her, his mouth artfully searching, then demanding, and she opened to him, yielding everything.

New sensations unfolded, pleasure surging in response to the clever explorations of his mouth, his gentle hands, the heat nearly overcoming her.

Bracing his weight over her, Mark smoothed her hair back from her perspiring face. “Did you really think it could be less than this?” he asked gently.

Maggie stared up at him, shaken to the depths of her soul. For them there could be nothing less than love, nothing less than forever. The truth was there in the mutual velocity of their pulses, the shocks of desire that resonated between them. She couldn’t deny it any longer.

“Love me,” she whispered, needing him, longing to possess him at last.

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