Book: Bear Home for Christmas: BBW Holiday Paranormal Bear Shifter Romance (Christmas Bear Shifter Romance Book 1)

Book main: Foreword
Next: Chapter Two

 

 

 

Bear Home for Christmas

 

 

 

ARIANA HAWKES

 

 

Chapter One

 

The girl stepped down from the Greyhound, shivering as an icy blast of wind lashed her in the face and forced its way beneath her winter coat. She pushed her face into her scarf and fastened her coat belt more tightly around her waist as she shuffled over to the luggage hold to retrieve her bag. The ground was frozen, and she regretted yet again that the soles of her boots were so worn. It was too late to buy any new ones – as if she had the money for them anyway. The luggage guy grunted as he lifted every piece of luggage out, including hers, although it only weighed a few pounds.

“Name?” he snapped.

“Noelle Hollis,” she said, waiting for him to make a sarcastic comment, but he just nodded and passed her the bag. She hated her name. Her parents had picked it because she was born on December 25th, and it was a constant reminder of a time of year she’d rather forget.

“Thank you, and merry Christmas,” she said, far more perkily than she felt. He glanced at her over his shoulder, silently, and his expression chilled her to the bone. It was desolate, completely blank, lacking in any human warmth or optimism. I guess there are people out there who hate Christmas even more than I do, she thought. She threw her duffel bag over her shoulder and started walking.

She hadn’t been back to Northwood in almost 12 years, but she hadn’t forgotten the way. She passed through the dark, narrow streets that surrounded the dingy bus station, and quickly entered the heart of downtown. Her spirits lifted a little at the sight of the pretty town center. It wasn’t quite as she’d pictured it, the heavy snow covering every surface, transforming it into an alien world, but she still recognized it as the place where she’d felt happiest during her difficult and angst-ridden teens. Every residential window was illuminated with festive lights and decorations – the signs of cozy, loving homes. A huge Christmas tree stood in the middle of the central square, twenty feet tall and laden with baubles and tinsel. There was a tiny ice rink on one side of it where kids, well wrapped up in colorful scarves and coats, laughed and shrieked as they zoomed around chasing each other, knocking their friends over. Their parents watched them on the sidelines, glowing with pride. On the other side of the square was a German Christmas market, with bright stalls wafting delicious smells of mulled wine and sausages into the freezing air.

Noelle didn’t slow as she passed it. Christmas was for other people, people with normal lives. Not her. She turned onto a bustling street full of shoppers rushing to buy the last few gifts before the holidays, and followed it for ten minutes until the stores thinned out and it led to a quieter, suburban neighborhood. Her pulse quickened as she turned onto a narrow street and followed the house numbers, until she reached the one she’d been looking for: Number 34. A festive wreath decorated a white door that had been added since she’d last been there. She tried to remember the old door, but it was indistinct in her memory. She vaguely recalled her hand brushing some old, splintering wood and flaked red paint, but then the impression was gone again. Maybe that had been somewhere else – one of the many other places she’d lived in her teens.

She hung back, chewing her lower lip. No-one was expecting her, and although she’d been traveling all day to get there, she was now nervous to knock. Instead, she surveyed the front of the house. The small garden was transformed by a covering of snow – the lawn, the shrubbery and the potted plants, all concealed beneath a flawless white blanket. She’d played in that garden in summer many times, but it seemed unreal, like a snatch of somebody else’s memory had been implanted into her head. The window frame was new as well. It looked like an expensive job. The net curtains were closed, but they finished an inch above the windowsill, and there was a glow of orange light showing from inside the room. She crept closer, bending until it was at her eye level, and peered through cautiously. The sight of a human figure made her jerk backwards, as guiltily as a peeping Tom. I’ve got no reason to feel like this, she reminded herself, and looked again. It wasn’t either of her old foster parents. It was an elderly man, sitting in a rocking chair. He appeared to be asleep, a newspaper open on his lap. Who is it? She searched her memory. The parent of one of them? An uncle? She couldn’t recall anyone that he could feasibly be.

Her stomach tightening, she walked up to the front door. For a moment, she was tempted to walk away, but she’d come all this way. It would be stupid to leave without trying to see them. She lifted the knocker and rapped three times. It was an empty, hollow sound, seeming to echo into the quiet house. She waited, counting the seconds. At 71, heavy footsteps sounded in the corridor and the wreath trembled as the door was snatched open. A woman in her late forties, with tightly-curled brown hair, thin, compressed lips, and deep grooves running from her nose to the sides of her mouth looked out at her. Her eyes widened slightly as she discovered that she didn’t recognize the girl on the doorstep, and she twisted her lips into a polite smile.

“Can I help you?” she said. Noelle’s heart had sunk so heavily that she struggled to reply.

“I – I was looking for Mary-Alice and Bob,” she stuttered. The woman’s expression told her everything she needed to know.

“I’m sorry. There’s no-one of that name here,” she said.

“They used to live here. At least 12 years ago, but maybe more recently.”

“Oh, we’ve only been here for the past six months, and the previous owners had a different name. It must’ve been a while back.”

“Did they leave a forwarding address or anything?”

“No. I’m afraid not. We don’t even have the details of the previous owners. They got their mail redirected, and that was it.” Noelle took a deep breath, her head swimming. That’s it then. There was nothing else she could do.

“Thanks for your help,” she murmured, already turning away.  

“Are you ok, dear?” the woman said, a flash of softness breaking through her brusque manner.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Thanks.” She turned and walked quickly away from the house and the street, for the very last time.

Noelle dug her nails into the palms of her hands to distract herself from the tears that were threatening to spill from her eyes. What was I thinking? she demanded of herself, angrily. Of course they’ve moved on after 12 years. It was such a dumb idea to come here. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb. Just like every decision I’ve ever made. And, just like most of her decisions, she hadn’t thought it through for very long before she’d bought her ticket at a Greyhound bus station and boarded a bus for a six-hour journey to visit the foster parents she hadn’t been in touch with for years. She kicked at the snow as she walked. Why do I do these things? She asked herself. But she already knew the answer: it was desperation. Pure and simple. She’d had nowhere to go for Christmas, and she couldn’t bear to spend yet another Christmas day alone in her cold, draughty house share, the empty bedrooms reminding her that all her roommates had gone home to their loving families, or were snuggled up in ski cabins with their boyfriends and girlfriends.

She’d woken up that morning, looked at the big number 23 on her bedside calendar, staring at her mockingly, and known she had to leave. She’d had many foster parents during her childhood, most for short periods, in between longer spells at children’s homes, but Mary-Alice and Bob Ricard stood out as the kindest ones. She’d only been with them for four months. They specialized in taking children who were in crisis for short periods only, and their comfortably untidy house was always full to bursting. They’d let her stay as long as they possibly could, but then a longer-term home had been found for her, with an apparently nice, sweet couple. Who’d turned out to be anything but, she thought, grinding her teeth at the recollection. After she’d left the Ricards’ place, Mary-Alice had sent her a few letters, but Noelle had been so listless and miserable living with the new foster parents that she’d lacked the energy to reply, and the contact between them had ended. She wondered where they’d gone. Maybe they’d moved on to a bigger house so they could take more kids. It was crazy to think she could’ve stayed with them for Christmas anyway – they probably had every available sleeping spot filled with children who needed their care.

By now, Noelle was back in the town square, and the happy, festive scene was like a punch in the stomach. At the side of the market, a kid was having a screaming fit, throwing himself on the ground, while his parents stared at him exasperated, weighed down with bags of shopping. It was so unfair. There were all these people, stressed about the big day, probably freaking out that their turkey wasn’t going to be big enough, maybe wishing that they didn’t have to deal with the festive season at all, and here she was, she who loved Christmas more than anybody, having no-one to celebrate it with. Every year, she felt like a stray dog, out in the cold, with its nose pressed up to a window, watching everyone celebrating inside.

Noelle wandered aimlessly, not knowing what to do. She could wait for the next bus back to the town she now called home, but the thought of returning to her cold, lonely room made her shrivel up inside. Maybe she could find a motel or something. She was too cold to think logically. Her feet were freezing, and maybe damp as well. It wouldn’t be a surprise to find that she had holes in her boots.

She was now trudging along a wide, pedestrianized street. Most of the stores had Christmas trees in the windows and colored lights were strung from one side of the street to the other, reflecting red and blue and silver on the snow. Every festive symbol was a sharp reminder of how alone she was. She passed a café with a little blackboard outside advertising pumpkin spice lattes. That actually sounded really good, she thought. And she needed to warm up for a little while so her brain would thaw and start to work again.

There was a long line inside, but she didn’t care. Time didn’t have a lot of relevance right now. As she waited, she gazed straight ahead at nothing, trying not to think, just concentrating on the burn in her fingers and toes as they came to life again. It was a cozy place, with dim lighting, and tasteful festive decorations.

“What’s your name?” the chirpy clerk demanded, sharpie poised in hand as he took her order.

“Noe – Noemie,” she said. If she told him her name and he commented on it, as he was bound to, she might just fall apart. Turn into a puddle, right here on the floor.

“No-ay-mie,” he repeated slowly, spelling it just like that on the side of the cup. She was pretty sure that wasn’t how you spelled it, but whatever. She paid and as she took a step to the side to join the coffee-delivery line, she collided with someone, stepping right on their foot.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Excuse me,” a deep, masculine voice said, just as she opened her mouth to apologize. Something about the voice made her whip around, and she found she was staring at a dark green, rough cotton shirt. She raised her head another six inches and gazed directly into the most incredible eyes she’d ever seen in her life. They were large and almost black, with startling depth to them, and they were fringed by sooty black lashes.

“God, I’m sorry, it was my fault,” she said. Her gaze shot to his feet and she sighed in relief at the sight of a pair of steel toe-capped boots. She wasn’t a small girl by any means, but she was sure she hadn’t done him a lot of damage.

“No problem,” he said in a warm tone, and flashed her a smile of well-shaped lips and lovely, even teeth. He was gorgeous, she realized distractedly. She took a step back, he squeezed past her and they went on their way.

When Noelle’s coffee was ready, she took a seat at a table that looked right into the café, away from the plastic Christmas tree in the corner and the sickeningly festive scene visible from the windows. She’d also bought a turkey and cranberry sandwich and a slice of carrot cake – the first things she’d eaten since breakfast – and she devoured them in minutes, surprised that she’d been able to go for so long without food.

She wrapped her hands around her coffee and stared down at it miserably. She didn’t want to see the other people in the café, all the cute couples, comparing the gifts they’d bought. Right now, she felt like the loneliest person in the whole world. Christmas hadn’t always been this painful, which was exactly what made it so hard to deal with nowadays. When she’d been a little kid, it had been the happiest day of the year: her birthday and Christmas day all rolled into one. Her mom and dad always made a huge effort to mark it as a double celebration, saying it was important that her birthday didn’t get swallowed up by Christmas. When she woke up, there was always a stocking packed with thoughtful little gifts at the end of the bed, and a pile of birthday presents on the floor. Then downstairs was a giant tree with another pile of presents underneath. They’d have birthday cake in the afternoon before the Christmas dinner, and a few days later they’d have another celebration day, just for her birthday.

She was a generous-spirited kid, and she saved her pocket money for weeks before Christmas, buying her parents the best things she could think of, and she made them little handicrafts as well. Christmas day was playing with her new toys, and her mom helping her to make a snowman, while her dad cooked the turkey. Then they had a big lunch with her granddad and grandma, followed by snuggling on the couch, watching movies.

Then, when Noelle was ten, her mom and dad were killed in a car crash. Her grandma had a stroke two days afterwards, and her granddad was in no state to take care of her. And so began the endless cycle of foster homes and children’s homes. For the first two years, she was a mess, angry and uncontrollable, broken with grief. Then she met the couple who’d taken her in after Mary-Alice and Bob. To say that they were disciplinarians was an understatement. Their approach to her traumatized behavior was to beat it out of her. It had a profound effect on her, and she went from willful child to a subdued teen under their care. Observing the change in her, they declared their methods a success, as did the social worker who paid her occasional visits. But in reality, she was emotionally catatonic, her sadness like a solitary confinement. She sleepwalked her way through high school and moved out as soon as she was 18, to live with the first guy who showed her any kindness.

As soon as she moved in with him, his attitude changed, his occasional compliments melting away and being replaced by insults and criticisms. She’d always been self-conscious about her weight, but he made it much worse, calling her mean, disgusting things, breaking the final threads of her fragile self-esteem. The day he hit her was the day she left him. It was Christmas eve, five years ago, she recalled bitterly, and it was due to be their first Christmas together. She knew thing weren’t right between them, but she wanted it to work so badly. She’d bought a tree and decorations, and made lots of food. In the evening, he’d announced that he was going out with the guys. She asked him to spend the evening with her instead, and he’d backhanded her across the mouth. Somehow, it had woken her up to how toxic the situation was, and she’d walked out and checked into a motel, and spent Christmas day there, alone. Probably as she was going to do this year, she reminded herself.

In the past, she’d assumed that she’d meet someone one day, and get married, and she’d finally get to have the Christmases she’d dreamed of. But it hadn’t happened. She was alone, year after year, struck dumb with her gnawing loneliness. When she thought of herself as a little kid, how full of innocent joy she’d been, it shocked her. How is this my life? she wondered, so many times.

She sipped her coffee. It was good. Too good. It tasted like Christmas magic. She pushed it away, regretting having ordered it. And then the music changed from pop to a Christmas song – a perky, joyful number. Her stomach knotted and, to her embarrassment, she burst into tears. But they weren’t just tears, they were huge, gulping sobs, wracking her body. She hadn’t cried for years, ever since she left her ex-boyfriend. But today, everything had come to a head. She clamped one hand over her mouth and put the other one in front of her face, trying desperately to shield herself from the gaze of the other customers as she fought to get her sobbing under control. She jumped as a hand touched her gently on the shoulder.

“Ma’am, are you ok?” a soft, deep voice said. Keeping her hand over her mouth, Noelle looked up. The guy she’d bumped into minutes earlier was standing in front of her, proffering a napkin. His dark eyes were full of concern. She took the napkin, wiping her eyes and blowing her nose as discreetly as she could.

“I’m sorry,” she said in a trembling voice. “It was just the Christmas music. It gets me every time.” His brow furrowed.

“May I sit down? – That is, unless you’d rather be alone? I mean, I don’t want to intrude.” She was tempted to ask him to go away, to leave her alone in her misery, but something in his expression stopped her. He looked so kind, and worried about her.

“No, please sit,” she found herself saying, snuffling a little.

He took a chair opposite her, and gazed at her directly, but not in a nosy way.

“I kind of get the feeling that this is about more than a Christmas song, if you don’t mind my saying so.” She glanced at him and glanced away again, thinking how red and puffy her eyes must be.

“It’s a long story,” she said. He smiled at her, kind of lazily, as if he didn’t have anywhere in the world to be. He really was an extraordinarily handsome man.

“I’ve got some time,” he said with a shrug.

And she told him. She told him how her parents had died, and her grandparents had been too infirm to care for her, and how the system had let her down, abandoning her to abuse at the hands of the Herzogs. And she explained why she was here – in this little town that she used to know – chasing a relationship that she’d long since abandoned, due to her inability to stay connected with people. He listened attentively, his eyes becoming huge with sympathy, or his jaw tightening with anger as she related the different parts of the story.

“You’ve endured so much in your young life,” he said when she was done. “It hurts my heart to hear these things. Your name’s Noemie, right?”

“No. It’s Noelle actually – I just couldn’t deal with someone making yet another comment about it. And, yes I was born at Christmas – on December 25th.”

“It’s a beautiful name. I’m Granger.” He held his hand out and she took it. It was large, warm and a little callused. Fleetingly, she felt like she wanted to hold onto it and never let go. She looked at him more boldly, now that her tears had stopped. He had a dark buzz-cut and stubble on his jaw that was around the same length as the hair on his head. She also realized that he was wearing a military uniform. She’d kind of been aware of it earlier, but hadn’t consciously acknowledged it.

“Are you in the army?” she blurted out.

“Special Ops,” he said with a grin. “At least, I was. As of 12 hours ago, I’m now a civilian.”

“Wow. What happened?” she asked, instantly brightening. She was always happier when the focus of the conversation wasn’t directly on her. He rubbed the back of his head.

“I’ve done my time and requested a discharge,” he said with a grin.

“You seem happy about that?”

“I am. My parents hated me being in the military. At first, I hated it too. I went in when I was twenty, when I was young and stupid. I got caught by the cops in a car with open bottles of liquor and a whole pound of cannabis. I had the option of prison, or enlisting in the army for three years. Obviously, I took the latter option. The first six months were terrible, and I was always on punishment duties, but then I found that I excelled at the physical training and got put in this special division. I loved being a part of it and I actually ended up staying for an extra two years, but I’ve missed my family too much, and it’s time to go home.”

“That’s really nice,” Noelle said with a smile. “I’m sure they’ll be excited to see you.”

“Yup. They actually don’t know that I’ve been discharged. It’s like a Christmas surprise for them.” He blushed a little, making him look even more attractive.

“Wow, they’re lucky to have a son like you.” He gave a short laugh.

“Uh, especially as their other son isn’t exactly making them proud right now!”

“Oh – why?”

“He’s kind of gone missing. Taken off with his girlfriend. My parents don’t approve of him dating her. She’s the daughter of a family that lives nearby, and our two families have been at each other’s throats for years. My parents think she’s taking advantage of him and they’ve basically forbidden him to be with her. He was really mad at them, and he’s eloped with her.”

“Do you think she’s taking advantage of him?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never met her. All of this took place while I was away. My brother can be a little idealistic sometimes, but he’s a good guy. I guess I’d be surprised if he was with someone who wasn’t genuine. I guess I’ll find out.”

“And do you think he’ll come back in time for Christmas?”

“He will if I get my hands on him and drag him back home! That’s why I’m here actually. I’ve tracked him down to this town, and I’m pretty sure he’s here now. I just need to sniff him out.”

“Oh, so you’re not local?”

“No, I live in Richmond, a four-hour drive away.” Noelle gazed at him with interest, her misery pushed aside in favor of curiosity towards this heroic, kind man. Who also happened to be very attractive. She was used to good-looking guys being jerks, making snide comments, telling her she’d be ‘ok’ if she lost a few pounds. The hot guys at high school only ever thought about themselves, their cars, and the next girl they were going to fuck. But this complete stranger had shown her kindness, when he already had plenty of issues of his own to deal with. 

“How did you figure out that he was here?” she asked.

“His credit card transactions. I guessed the password on his online banking account.” He shook his head and chuckled. “He didn’t make it very hard. That’s my brother though – he’s always been the trusting type.”

“Thank goodness he is, or you would never have been able to find him.”

Granger drank the last of his coffee and sighed.

“I guess I should get back to my hunt. I just stopped by here to refuel. It’s already been a long day.”

“Of course. I’m so sorry for bothering you with my problems,” Noelle said. He leaned forward in his chair and seemed to be about to take her hand, but stopped himself at the last moment, as if he’d remembered that he didn’t know her well enough to do that.

“Hey, listen to me: you weren’t bothering me at all, and I came over to see if you were ok in the first place. So if anything, I was bothering you.” She smiled at him.

“I’m very glad you did. You made me feel a lot better, truly.”

“I’m happy to hear that. You can speak to me anytime. Let me give you my number. Whenever you want to talk, you can just call me up. I’m here to listen.” Noelle took her phone out, hardly able to believe her ears. Guys just didn’t say things like that. But then, most guys weren’t national heroes either.

“Give me your number, and I’ll drop call it,” he said, and she did. “Now I’ve got yours too,” he said, without explaining why that might be an important thing. “What are you going to do now?”

“I don’t – I’ll be alright,” she corrected herself quickly. She had no right to burden this stranger with yet more of her problems.

“You were planning to spend Christmas with your foster parents, right?” She nodded. He stayed silent, tactfully avoiding giving voice to what they both knew was the truth of the matter: that she had nowhere to go for Christmas, at all. But his huge black eyes burned into hers, full of sympathy.

“Why don’t you come with me and help me track my wayward brother down?” Noelle blinked at him. He’s just being kind, surely. “To be honest, I’d really appreciate the company. It’s been a little lonely so far,” he continued. Her head spun. She had nothing else to do right now. Whatsoever. And she discovered that she didn’t want to leave this man’s company either. Being with him felt like sitting in a patch of sunlight on an otherwise cold day. She grinned.

“If you’re sure?”

“Absolutely. I’d also value your brainpower. I’m a little drained from my last assignment, and I feel like my mind’s not working at full capacity.”

“Sure, I can maybe help with that,” she said, sounding more confident than she had during the rest of the conversation. She had a natural talent for problem-solving. She was amazing at doing crosswords and Sudoku.

“So, what’s your next step?” she asked.

“Well, I know that he stayed in a hotel here in Northwood last night. I went there and showed the front desk clerk his photo and she also confirmed it, saying that he was with a petite, blonde girl. So I now have a description of his girlfriend too. But, they checked out because the hotel was fully booked for tonight, and I don’t know where he’s planning on staying. I’ve been checking his bank account regularly, but nothing new is showing up.

“What else have you been doing to look for him?”

“Uh, walking around the town endlessly, hoping to catch sight of him, and calling up the hotels, asking to speak to him. But no luck so far, and all the ones I’ve tried are booked out tonight, making me think he must’ve left already.”

“Do you think he has an ultimate destination in mind?”

“I just don’t know. At first I imagined that they were just running, to get away from our parents, but maybe there’s something they’re aiming for. It could even be a place that the girl knows.”

“Is there anywhere special that you used to visit as a kid? Any relatives or friends he could be hoping to stay with?”

“I’ve been thinking about that. We used to go on vacation on the west coast, but, for one thing, it’s in the wrong direction, and for another – ” He indicated the window right behind her. “It’s not exactly beach weather.” Noelle turned in her seat and saw that it had begun to snow again, flakes falling softly, drifting one way and another in a very light breeze. She shuddered, not looking forward to going back out there.

“Does he have a car?”

“Nope. And there are no transport tickets showing up in his bank account either, which makes me think he’s hitching.” He shook his head, frowning. “I mean, he’s a big guy and all, and he can take care of himself, but hitching – seriously? All it takes is one psychopath with a gun.”

“I’m sure he’s ok. Most people have good intentions. Especially at this time of year,” she said, attempting to reassure him, although she didn’t believe the words as she spoke them. That hadn’t been her experience of life so far, by any means.

Granger tapped the screen of his phone. “Let me check his account again.” She watched his face, seeing it fall as there were evidently no new transactions. He shook his head.

“Nothing. He also has some cash on him. He took out $200 two days ago, so there’s even a chance that he’s paid for a hotel in cash, which could make things more difficult.”

“Shall we go walk the streets again?” she said.

“Uh –” She followed his gaze towards the window. The snow was falling much faster now, as if it meant business. “I don’t think there’s much point right now. He could be anywhere. There’s no point us getting frostbite. How about we have another coffee and I call up the hotels again, seeing if I can get ahold of him?”

“I think that’s a good idea,” she said, getting out of her seat. “What can I get you?” He was up faster.

“No, I got it. Another pumpkin spice latte?”

“Please,” she said, a little startled. She watched his retreating figure, so tall and broad beneath his uniform. How does he know that’s what I’ve been drinking? she mused. She kept her eyes on him as he walked up to the counter and ordered. He moved confidently, easily. His body must be incredibly strong and muscular. He said he was part of an elite force. They probably had insane training schedules. It was hard to imagine him being in the military though. He seemed too nice and normal. She’d always imagined those guys as ruthless machines. She saw him joke with the barista, the girl’s face lighting up as he smiled at her, and a flicker of jealousy tightened her stomach. What? Why am I feeling like this? He’s just a stranger who’s shown me some kindness... Uh, because you’re attracted to him, doofus! the no-bullshit side of her character announced. I am; it’s true, she acknowledged. But how could she not be, really? He was absolutely gorgeous. Those eyes were just ridiculous. He looked at her so directly when they spoke, his gaze never wavering, and she felt like she could just drown in them. He had a lovely, broad jaw, and very kissable lips as well. She blushed. What was she thinking? He was so far out of her league. She didn’t have the right to be thinking those thoughts about him.

He was back. He’d brought real mugs instead of takeout cups.

“I thought I’d try one as well,” he said, placing the identical coffees on the table.

“Thanks!” she said. He dipped his head and brought the cup up to his mouth, pursing his lips and blowing on it gently. A tingle shot all the way through Noelle’s body, and she couldn’t help thinking how much she’d like to feel those lips against hers. Stop! she mentally ticked herself off.

“Mmm, delicious,” he said, his voice becoming a deep rumble.

“It’s my favorite.”

“I can totally see why you love it. The guys back at the base would kill themselves laughing if they saw me drinking it, but I don’t care. I think it’s my new favorite coffee!” Her gaze flickered all over his face. His overt masculinity made his soft side all the more appealing. “Oh, wait,” he said, as his eyes met hers. “You’ve got a little –” He reached out with a finger and brushed a fleck of foam off her nose.

“Oh.” She wiped her whole hand across her nose, giggling with embarrassment. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. It was cute.” She froze. What did he just say? She shot him a glance to figure out if he’d blurted it out without meaning to, but he seemed unconcerned, as relaxed as he’d been before.

“Do you always have a big family Christmas?” she asked. He leaned back in his chair and stretched.

“Yup. Mom, dad, me and Adam. Usually half the clan over as well. My mom’s a good cook, so they’re always scrabbling for an invite.”

“Clan?” she echoed. His face tightened a little, as if he realized that he’d said too much.

“Oh, our big family group. It’s pretty chaotic, really,” he said, in a dismissive tone. He took another sip from his coffee and then his lips parted, as if he was working out how to express the thought that was bouncing around in his mind.

“Christmas must be a difficult time for you,” he said at last. He watched her with wide, soft eyes. She sipped from her coffee, hiding her face in the large mug for a moment while she gathered her thoughts.

“It is. It’s hard not having a family to spend it with.”

“You came here specifically to spend it with your foster family?”

“Kind of. I hadn’t really thought it through in my mind. I just woke up this morning, looked around my room, and knew I couldn’t spend Christmas day there, so I jumped on the bus and went to visit them because they’d been so kind to me in the past. I usually spend the holiday period alone.” She stared down at the table, feeling like the biggest loser on earth.

“I’m sorry. No-one – and especially not someone as amazing as you – should have to spend Christmas alone.” She stared at him, startled.

“I’m not so amazing,” she said. “Where did you get that idea from?”

“You are. You’ve been through so much, and you’ve come out of it as a strong, good-hearted person.” She allowed herself a little smile.

“But how can you know this? You only met me a couple of hours ago.”

“Because I can see your soul,” he said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “And I can see that it’s pure and genuine. Most people who’d had your experiences in life would’ve ended up being misanthropes, but I can tell that you’re keen to help other people. Like you’re helping me to find my brother.” She blushed at the intensity of his words.

“I – I guess you’re right.”

“Mm, so speaking of my brother, let me just check again.” He tapped on his phone.

“Oh – wait. It looks like he just purchased a Greyhound bus ticket. For $53.40.”

“I guess that could be two tickets for $26.70 as well.”

“And you’re smart too,” he said, smirking at her with a sideways glance. Ridiculously, her heartbeat speeded up, and her chest fizzed with adrenaline. She didn’t know why he kept complimenting her, but she liked it a lot.

“We should go to the Greyhound station right now. There’s a chance they could still be boarding the bus,” she said.

“Good idea.” He leapt to his feet. Do you know how to get there?”

“Yup. I’ve just come from it.”

“Of course. Let’s go.” 

Noelle put her coat back on and followed Granger to the exit. As he opened the door, a blast of snowy air hit them in the face.

“Uh oh,” he said, closing it again. To her surprise, he reached for her hood and pulled it over her head, then fastened the top button of her coat, so the collar covered her mouth and nose. “There you go,” he said. She blinked as he fastened up the collar on his own heavy, military coat. He heaved the door open again, and they headed out into the snow.

“It’s basically this way,” she yelled over the howling wind, pointing across the street diagonally. “About ten minutes’ fast walk.”

“My car’s around the corner, but it might take longer to drive,” he yelled back.

“I think so. There’s a one-way system, and I don’t even know how it works.”

“Ok, let’s walk.” He headed off at a fast march, and Noelle struggled to keep pace with him. She slipped once, twice, and he looked back at her.

“Here, take my hand,” he said, holding it out to her. Without thinking twice, she grabbed onto it and clung on, not wanting to slow him down. The wind was raw on the exposed part of her face, and she shivered beneath her coat.

Next: Chapter Two