|A Many-Colored Lantern by Julian Keys|
“In this family, the greeting is ‘Happy Holidays!’ And we mean it.”
It’s three days before Christmas, and out-of-work handyman Ethan Rowe has hit rock bottom. In the midst of robbing a thrift store, he responds to a loud and ringing cry for help.
Science teacher Sophie Cauldwell isn’t looking for love when she shouts for help, only a rescue from attempted robbery. When soulful, chivalrous Ethan answers that cry, however, she’s found her knight in shining armor. It doesn’t matter that she knows absolutely nothing about him, Sophie opens herself, her soul, and her family home to him.
Enchanted as Ethan is by brainy, beautiful Sophie, he is only hoping to get a free meal when he accepts her invitation to dinner. Warmly welcomed into a home that celebrates the season in every possible way, however, he begins to fall in love with her and her multi-cultural kin. But is it only the magic of the holidays keeping their romance alight? Ethan finds it hard to believe that their love could survive the truth, even in this time of miracles. Can Sophie and her family change his mind and restore his faith?
“What do you do when you’re not rescuing damsels in distress?” Sophie had asked, and Ethan’s stomach had gone sick again. Search through garbage cans, he’d thought. Steal packs of cigarettes and liquor and cold medicine to sell for pocket money. Jesus, what was he doing still escorting her? It wasn’t like there could be anything between them.
And yet he couldn’t pull away. She was too… comfortable. From her thick hair to the oversized coat she wore, everything about her was as soft and welcoming as a warm bed. Even her name exuded a kind of coziness: Sophie. He wondered what it would be like to snuggle with her under the covers, to have her naked body next to his, skin to skin.
She was waiting for a response. He said the first thing that popped into his head, something about saving the junkie’s life, and she laughed—which only made him want to lean in closer.
“I’ve got a crazy temper,” she admitted, “but I mean, can you believe it? That asshole broke into a thrift shop run by a children’s charity! That’s like stealing from kids. Who would do something like that?”
The warmth stirring in his crotch went cold, and he looked away.
“I dunno. Someone desperate, I guess.”
Sophie turned them at a corner, past a café that smelled of mochas and sugar cookies. Behind the glass doors, Ethan saw couples intimately sharing tables. There were carolers performing, singing songs of wassailing and decking halls.
God, wouldn’t that be paradise? Sitting in there with Sophie, listening to the carols, indulging in an eggnog latte. He let out a snort. How pathetic was it that he hadn’t the resources to do even that? To buy a girl a cup of coffee.
He glanced away and almost stopped. A block down from the café was a street of beautifully renovated Victorian homes. God. Porticos and mansard roofs, turrets, oriel windows…. For a moment the carpenter in Ethan took over, heart swelling at the sight of all those expertly refurbished gables and cornices. And then regular Ethan was back absorbing the expensive decorations, and the way the windows glowed behind their frost, rather than being dark and ominous. The plowed snow, piled up on either side of the tree-lined lane, was white, not muddy black and gray as in Ethan’s part of town and the air smelled of firewood and dinners cooking.
Ethan’s mouth watered helplessly and he found it hard to swallow. He couldn’t walk down this street. He didn’t belong here, not for years now. They’d take him for a vagrant and a thief and they’d be right.
“I work with kids,” Sophie was still moving, walking backward and nearly falling over a fire hydrant. Much as his instincts told him to hold back, Ethan couldn’t help but follow her.
“At the Natural Science Museum,” she elaborated. “Programming, tours, teaching, it’s the greatest thrill to see that ‘wow’ expression on kids’ faces when you show them how the human body works or explain the connection between electricity and magnets. I love my work. I’m annoying you aren’t I?”
Shit. His misgivings were showing. “Um no, it’s not that.”
“I bet you like girls who are quiet and supportive.” Her expression fell, as if she’d just ruined a job interview. “The kind who wouldn’t dream of disturbing you while you paint.”
It was his turn to laugh. Was she kidding? Not just about the painting, but about the kind of girl he wanted. He’d been seven years on his own, and during the first few he’d kept the television on for the illusion of company. Forced to sell the set, he’d replaced it with an old clock radio he’d found in a dumpster. He never switched the damn thing off. Silence was deafening, terrifying. Sophie could babble all night long and he wouldn’t tire of it.
“I like your voice,” he said, which was an understatement. She had charming intonations; they flowed and hummed like a harp.
“I have a mother and sister and we’re pretty close,” she was still apologizing. “We chatter incessantly. You’ll see when I introduce you. Here we are.”
“Introduce me?” he said with alarm, even as he trailed her down a path and up the steps of a restored gingerbread. It had been lovingly repainted in mistletoe-green, and gold. Violet-blue holiday lights outlined the bay windows and hung like droplets from the eves.
On the door was a pine wreath accented with small apples, pomegranates and shiny stars.
“Mother!” The door wasn’t locked and Sophie was already in before Ethan could stop her. For a single heartbeat, he thought about running off with her packages. Then he guiltily stepped in, shutting the door behind him.