Jamie located the red box on the shelf and was ready to move it to his basket when slender white fingers landed next to his and tried to pry the package out of his very own hand.
“Please please please let me have this box of hot chocolate. I am sick and home alone, so I had to walk here in fifteen-degree weather, and this is the last box in this store. Please, I just want to drink hot chocolate and watch The Polar Express and sleep.”
“Are ye crazy, lass? Ye walked in this weather?” It was the first thought that crossed his mind, and the words tumbled out of his mouth before he even realized it.
“Umm, yes. I did.” She took her eyes off him, but her hand remained on the box. “Since Santa didn’t have the courtesy to bring me the only thing I’ve asked…”
Jamie rolled his eyes, trying not to stare incredulously at the lass in front of him, begging for a box of hot chocolate.
“Ah, I guess you can have it,” he said, at last, withdrawing his hand from the smooth package. “I’ll search for an alternative,” he murmured, eyes already trailing along the shelf.
Cocoa will do, he thought. Maybe he would buy a bar of chocolate to melt, too. Yes, that would work.
“Excuse me?” She was looking at him again, sniffling and dabbing her nose with a tissue. “Do you… Do you have a car?”
Jamie eyed her worriedly. “I do.” He didn’t have time to spare. But then, it was Christmas, and no matter how much he wanted to hurry back home, helping her was a good deed - in the Christmas spirit. “D’ye want a lift home?” he asked, thinking that she wouldn’t live far away if she’d come on foot.
“Oh, that would be great!” she said and flashed him a smile. “I guess you don’t have any grand plans for tonight either, being here for a box of hot chocolate like me?” The green eyes looked at him intently, and she finished her question with a nudge on his arm.
Grand plans. Oh, he had those. And even thinking about it…
Jamie smiled at her but didn’t reply to her question. “Meet me in five minutes at the exit?” he asked, waited for her nod, and left the aisle with quick strides in search of a chocolate bar.
Five minutes later they were out in the cold again, the chilly wind instantly turning their noses and cheeks red.
The lass didn’t stop talking all the way home. For being so sick, these are a lot of words, Jamie thought, but only smiled politely at her. He couldn’t concentrate enough to listen to her, anyway.
“Here we are,” she said at last, and he pulled the car over. “Maybe you want to come in? For a cup of hot chocolate?” she asked, eyes glinting, from the flu or her excitement he wasn’t exactly sure.
“Thank ye,” he said, as softly as he could, not to insult her. “But I’ve got to go home. Enjoy the hot chocolate…and the Polar Express!”
She lowered her gaze to the hands in her lap for a moment and then shrugged slightly. “Merry Christmas!” she said and opened the car door.
“Merry Christmas to ye, too,” he smiled and waited until she was inside the building to start the engine again.
He couldn’t wait.
Fifteen minutes later, he opened the door to find Claire dusted with flour, her dark curls painted white by the chubby hands that hovered over her face.
“Look mama! Ball!”
“Yes, Willie, you can set it onto the pile of balls you’ve already made.” Claire’s voice was soft, but Jamie could hear the smile beneath her words.
“Mama, he’s ruining all the dough,” Bree whispered, eyeing her brother uneasily. Her own little trees and stars were lined up on the table in front of her.
“There is enough dough for everyone, love.” Claire’s eyes moved from her daughter to her husband, still standing next to the door. “You’re late,” she said, hoisting up an eyebrow.
“I ken.” Jamie left the bag on the chair next to the door and walked to her. “I met a lass at the grocery store and drove her back home.” Claire’s other eyebrow moved now, mirroring the first. “She wanted the last box of hot chocolate and she had walked all the way there to get it. So I let her have it. And I couldn’t let her walk back in this weather.”
It wasn’t exactly an apology, and yet it was. He was late. And trying to describe what had happened aloud, it didn’t sound good. But Claire would surely understand…
“Oh, my kind lad,” she crooned, moving closer to him. Claire cupped his face smearing his still cold cheeks with flour and gave him a warm kiss on the lips.
“Come see my cookies, Da!” Bree shouted, making both of them wince at her shrill voice.
“Come, Da,” Claire winked at him, already moving back to the table.
“I bought yer favorite chocolate,” he whispered a long moment later. “Seventy percent cocoa.”
She smiled at him, and he couldn’t contain his happiness looking at that beautiful smile, at the proud grin on Bree’s face, at the scowl on Willie’s as he concentrated to roll another chunk of dough into a ball.
“Go make us that hot chocolate, then.” She bumped into his arm, lightly.
Jamie moved to grab the bag he had ditched next to the door. Before he set everything on the counter, he turned his head back to look at them again. He could spend an eternity looking at them. His family. Dirty and happy and soaring with laughter as they looked Willie’s mountain of dough-balls.
His stare lingered so long that Claire sensed it, and looked up at him. “I wonder if we weren’t so disheveled, would you stop staring?”
Oh no. He wouldn’t. And the way he looked into her eyes told her that much. He would never have enough of them.
Jamie opened the cocoa package, singing tunelessly. “Oh, the weather outside is frightful… But the fire is so delightful…”
“And since we’ve no place to go,” Claire joined him, her lovely voice warming his heart. “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow…”
“No!” Willie shouted over their voices before they had the chance to continue. “Giggle bells!”
“Giggle bells!” Bree laughed, her hands immediately on his belly, tickling him.
“Giggle bells, giggle bells, giggle bells rock
Giggle bells swing from Willie to Bree…”
Claire’s hands moved to Bree’s midriff and a scream left her mouth.
“Snowing and blowing up bushels of fun
Now the giggle hop has begun…”
Jamie couldn’t stay away, their magic alluring, filling his lungs with air, his heart with blood, his existence with a purpose. He moved behind Claire, resisted the urge to kiss her neck, and tickled them all until they were out of breath.
Hot chocolate or not, they would have the Merriest Christmas.