Merry Christmas, Baby

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Josh Black was about to tell Cassidy St. George that he was in love with her when he was attacked by a reindeer. Trying to tuck the cartoon he’d drawn into her plaid Christmas stocking, the silver reindeer holding it in place suddenly toppled off the mantle. Josh caught the stocking with one hand in what could have been a great save, except there was no reason to save a fur trimmed stocking from hitting the carpet. Meanwhile, the reindeer connected with his knee. Hard. Josh swore out loud and clutched the fireplace in agony, eyes closed, knee throbbing. “Josh?” Cassidy called in concern from her kitchen, the oven door slamming shut. “Are you okay?” “Fine,” he managed to lie, thinking that this was his punishment for not being upfront with Cassidy and just telling her how he felt. He got beaten by a five pound Christmas decoration. But as he tried again to shove the drawing down into the stocking gripped in his sweaty palm, he rationalized with himself. He hadn’t wanted to risk a long-term friendship if Cassidy didn’t feel the same way he did, that’s all. Or maybe he was just a huge pansy-ass wimp, terrified Cassidy would gag at the idea of him being in love with her. So instead of telling her face-to-face like a normal guy would, for weeks he had been hinting in his cartoon strip that his alter ego Jack Block was in love with his friend Kristen. The first time the strip had hit the papers, with Jack mooning over Kristen, he’d about had a coronary, but if Cassidy had figured out she was Kristen, she hadn’t said a word to Josh. With each subsequent cartoon, he’d gotten bolder, with Jack pursuing Kristen and her reciprocating his feelings. Hey, Josh figured it was his cartoon, he was entitled to draw his love life any way he wanted, even if it didn’t reflect reality. Because in the real world, Cassidy still treated him like a neutered basset hound. Josh couldn’t take the strain anymore. Christmas morning was a perfect time for confessions of the chicken-hearted. Cassidy would read the stocking stuffed cartoon, where Jack announced to Kristen that he loved her, and of course she’d realize that it was really Josh confessing he loved Cassidy. He was hoping the whole Christmas spirit thing would create enough holiday guilt that Cassidy would at least refrain from screaming in horror at the moment of truth. He’d take whatever he could get. To the strains of the chipper Feliz Navidad playing on Cassidy’s stereo, he rummaged in the depths of her stocking, hoping she’d find the cartoon drawing last, after pulling out the peppermints and hazelnut coffee beans. That way if she did shoot him down, they would have opened the other gifts first and he could have a nice CD or whatever she’d bought him, as a consolation prize and parting gift. You don’t get the girl, but here’s a Borders gift certificate. Go buy yourself a clue. Josh could just picture the bubble over poor Jack Block’s brokenhearted head in next week’s strip. There was already a piece of paper in the stocking toe, right where Josh was trying to shove his drawing. He pulled it out, than rehung the stocking on the volatile reindeer. It never occurred to him not to read it. He just glanced down at it without thinking, relieved Cassidy hadn’t strolled into the room and caught him with his hand invading her stocking. The words on that paper jumped out at him and grabbed him in the heart, the nuts, and everything in between, squeezing like a thread wound around a finger too tight. My Christmas wish is for Josh to fall in love with me. That was convenient. He’d already fallen in love with Cassidy in about nineteen eighty-nine. He had just been minding his own business, riding his skateboard, when the old lady next door had brought her granddaughter home to live with her. Cassidy’s parents had died in a car accident, and when she’d stepped out of Mrs. St. George’s ancient Oldsmobile, Josh had taken one look at that sad brown haired beauty in denim overalls, and he’d fallen off his board and landed in a bush. She’d been having the same affect on him ever since. He had the swollen knee and lovesick heart to prove it. But if Cassidy felt the same way- and from the looks of her note, she did- he couldn’t ask for a better Christmas gift. Given the love story unfolding in Josh’s cartoon strip over the last two months, he had fallen for some unknown woman named Kristen. Cassidy wanted to cut Kristen’s eyes out with nail scissors and pitch them in the recycling bin. “Do you want a cookie?” she asked Josh, stifling her mutilation thoughts. Josh nodded, still watching her carefully, his eyes warm and… hidden. “Do you even have to ask? I never turn one of your cookies down.” He took a step forward and winced, pain twisting his mouth. “Why are you limping?” He was favoring his left knee, something she hadn’t noticed when he’d arrived twenty minutes earlier. He waved her question off. “I’m not limping. Just a little stiff, that’s all.” Before she could question him further, he took a pinwheel cookie off her tray and bit it, running his tongue over his lip to catch the stray bits, in a way that had her wishing more than anything she were a crumb. Something was different. Josh almost seemed as aware of what he was doing with his tongue as she did. He seemed flirtatious. “I just love your cookies, Cass.” Or maybe she was seeing what she wanted to see, and which only existed in her very hot and graphic sex dreams. Cassidy took a self-conscious step backward, hitting the corner of the coffee tray. The movement unbalanced the tray and three varieties of cookies rained down on the beige carpet. She dropped down to pick them up, unnerved at her own reaction. He was going to notice her tension if she didn’t get a grip, and the last thing in the world she wanted was to be the blubbering best friend, embarrassing them both, when he finally told her. Because she knew that’s why he was with her for one last Christmas Eve instead of with Kristen the cartoon character, who had a nonexistent waist, big breasts, and a tousled hairstyle that suggested she’d just tumbled out of bed. A man’s bed. Not that Cassidy had noticed or given much thought to that Sunday comic strip slut. And not that anyone couldn’t look good when drawn into a cartoon by a love-blind artist. But Josh was there to tell her he was getting married, she just knew it, and while the words had to be spoken sooner or later, she didn’t want to hear them tonight, when her apartment was crowded with presents and Josh, and saturated with rich baking smells. Her jeans protested when she sank to her knees. In some kind of futile effort to show Josh his colossal mistake in choosing Kristen when Cassidy was right in front of his cute face, she had put on sexy low rise jeans that emphasized her curves. Meaning they were too darn small. Oxygen seriously depleted, she started throwing cookies on the tray in a pile, hoping to get them all before Josh tried to help. Too late. His legs bent and his crotch was suddenly right in direct view as he helped the cookie clean up. Cassidy swallowed hard. He had a really nice crotch, hard thighs covered by soft denim, and the squat was pulling the fabric tight across a bump that was not his cell phone or a sock. Cassidy felt light headed, and it wasn’t from her tight jeans. “I’ve got it, Josh, don’t worry about it.” But his fingers kept tossing cookies, occasionally brushing against her hand, until there was only one snowman left, his muddy brown hat cracked from the fall. Josh picked it up, blew on it, and bit the cookie in half, giving her a big smile. “Good as new,” he said. Which was all fine and dandy until he took the second half of the snowman and placed it in her open mouth. Cassidy almost choked in surprise when the dry sugary cookie hit her tongue. The drool pooling in her cheeks from the crotch shot of Josh was the only thing that saved her from needing the Heimlich. “What’s the difference between snow men and snow women?” he asked her. She shrugged, chewing hard, stealing a forbidden whiff of Josh’s soapy clean scent as he leaned over her. “Snow balls.”