|An Act of Charity by Julian Keys|
Noel Larkin’s hyper-holiday spirit is a mystery to both her boyfriend, Roland and her dour accountant, Benjamin. So when charming Hank, a non-profit organizer, re-appears in her life, Noel was delighted. At last she’d found romantic harmony, or so she thought. Then comes Christmas Eve and revelations that shake her faith in all three men. Can anyone restore her Christmas spirit to her before her birthday arrives the next morning? It would take an act of selfless charity to do so... (F/M)
“Hello—” she said, throwing open the door. There they were, bundled up warm, an older woman and a young man. Noel’s eyes fastened on the man, and she forgot the rest of what she was about to say.
She hadn’t seen Hank Bole since high school and to say he’d matured was an understatement. His smile, however, was the same as she remembered, bright as holiday lights.
“Noel,” he said, leaning in to kiss her cheek. His warm breath smelled of peppermint. “You look fantastic.”
To her embarrassment, Noel giggled, much as she had back in high school. Rubbing sweaty hands down her skirt, she managed to invite them in. Mittens were stuffed into pockets, coats and mufflers hung up on hooks and she finally got to see Hank in all his adult glory. His golden hair was darker than she remembered, but then he’d often bleached and spiked it back in his wayward youth. His features were more chiseled, his bearing more serene. Those bright blue eyes, however, were as mischievous as ever, and, with a wink, could still melt her into a puddle.
You’ve got a boyfriend, she sternly reminded herself, even as the song “Let it Snow” began to jingle in her head… The weather outside is frightful, it suggested, But the fire is so delightful…
“This is Mona Criden,” Hank introduced the woman, “the real founder of our charities. I’m just the poster boy.”
“It’s such a pleasure to finally meet you.” Mona vigorously gripped Noel’s hand with bone thin fingers. She was wearing a bit too much make-up, but her tone was sincere.
“Thank you for taking the time to come here,” Noel said, “I really should have visited you—”
“See? “ Hank said, “What’d I tell you? I said she’d thank us for coming to take her money.”
Noel blushed and herded them into the living room. They settled in the plush armchairs about the tea table.
“In high school, whenever anyone was in need, they went to Noel,” Hank continued. “For a shoulder to cry on, help with their homework. I even remember her giving away her lunch to those who forgot theirs.”
“I didn’t think you’d noticed,” Noel admitted, her face very hot. “You were too busy with the drama club.”
He chuckled. “You mean I was too full of myself to notice anyone else. I wish I had taken more notice of you then,” he added, a sparkle in his eyes.
I wish you had, too, Noel thought, finding it very warm in the room.
“Was he a good actor?” Mona asked, apparently enjoying the reunion she was witnessing.
“He was a ham. And the rumor was he used his acting talents to lure gullible girls into bed.”
“I’ve reformed!” Hank protested, looking so comically aggrieved that they both laughed. Their merriment was cut short by the sound of rattling china and the appearance of Benjamin, a silver tray between his hands. Noel caught her breath and felt her face pale as he intruded.
“Your coffee, Miss,” Benjamin said drolly, and set the tray down. At least he’d used her good holly-leaf china, Noel thought, rather than the whimsical snowman mugs. It would have been just like him to mock her with those. Benjamin viewed her Christmas paraphernalia with all the scorn of an art critic eyeing paintings of clowns.
Her guests glanced at him, then at her, eyes wide. Great. What a time for her accountant to show off his weird sense of humor.