KWANZAA ANGEL Christmas List


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As Erin Scott's family gathers for the annual Kwanzaa celebration.

Her old nemesis returns to town, opening old wounds and throwing her life into passionate chaos.

Excerpt from Kwanzaa Angel

by Shirley Hailstock

"Can you help me?" Erin Scott felt the tug on her skirt and heard the little voice at the same time. She turned away from the stack of sweaters she'd folded and refolded at least seven times that day. The store was crowded with people taking advantage of the after-Christmas sales and people returning or exchanging yesterday's ill-fitted or unwanted gifts. Behind Erin stood a little girl about seven years old with long dark braids.

"My uncle said it was all right to ask a stranger for help as long as I went to the stranger and they did not come to me," her young voice explained. "He also said a lady would be better than a man."

Erin smiled as she stooped to the child's level. "Your uncle must be a very good parent," she told her.

"Oh, he's not a parent. He has only me. I'm his favorite niece." She said it with all the adultness a seven-year-old could muster. Erin stifled a laugh.

"Are you lost?" Although Erin smiled, the little girl didn't.

"No, ma'am." She shook her head from side to side. The long braids, clipped with red barrettes, slapped at her face. She had bangs that flowed dark and engaging to her eyebrows and eyelashes that Erin wished were her own. "I know where I am."

"Then how can I help you?"

"It's my uncle. He's lost.” She checked over her shoul¬der. "He was buying a gift and I looked around. Then he was gone."

Erin glanced about the store. Everyone here was buying something. It was the day after Christmas, sale day. The biggest shopping day of the year, equal only to Black Friday. The store was so crowded Erin had left her office to join the sales staff. She admitted she loved doing it, but today had been so busy she hardly had time to look at any of the people she was serving, just their credit cards or checks.

"Don't worry, sweetheart. We'll find him. Now what's your name?"

"Alicia Marie Allen."

She spoke distinctly, like she'd learned her name in nursery school.

"Okay, Alicia Marie Allen, my name is Erin." She pointed to the small white name tag pinned to the lapel of her red suit with her first name printed in block letters.

"Can I call you Erin?"

Erin nodded.

"My uncle makes me call big people Ms. or Mrs."

Erin smiled broadly. She wanted to hug the child. "Well maybe in my case, he'll make an exception. Now what's your uncle's name?"

"Uncle Raimi."

Erin stiffened. She lost her balance, putting her hand on the floor to keep from falling. It couldn't be him, she told herself. "Uncle Raimi Price?" Erin asked, grasping at a straw, knowing she was wrong even before the child's head bobbed up and down. There was only one person she'd ever met named Raimi.

"Uncle Raimi Price," the child supplied as if on cue and with the same aplomb with which she'd given her own name.

Erin caught her gasp before it escaped. Raimi Price was in her store. What was he doing here? When had he returned to Cranbury, New Jersey, and why did no one mention he was in town?

The rumor mill here was as lively as it was in any small community. Cranbury was only a few miles square. She could walk it end to end in under an hour. Yet the grape¬vine had failed to get word to her that the man who'd dumped her at the senior prom was back and likely to cross paths with her at any moment.

The small hamlet in the center of the state was quiet and reserved with only a meager area they could call down¬town. On any summer evening you could find people walk¬ing down the streets. At this time of year, they admired the holiday decorations and store scenes. Erin's store sat in the center of town, near the lake. When she'd bought the old warehouse building, people called her idea crazy, but today those same people shopped there regularly and spoke to her with a smile and a nod. Any one of them could have told her Raimi was back. Yet none of them had. Had they forgotten what happened to her? It was years ago. She was thirty-two now, no longer a sophomore, and no longer in love with Raimi Price. But the pain of his humiliation would live with her forever.

What would Raimi's presence change? Would they remember what he'd done to her? Of course they would, she told herself. It was a hazard of living in a small town. Everyone knew everyone else and memories were long.

"Do you think we could look for him?" The little voice brought her back to her position on the floor.

"I'll—I'll get someone to find him," Erin stammered.

"There he is." Alicia's voice rose with excitement, and she scampered off toward him. Erin wanted to turn away, but she was crouched on the floor. She stood up slowly, fear making her heart beat faster, waiting for that moment when he'd make eye contact with her, the moment he recognized who she was.

In one hand Raimi had a shopping bag with the store's logo on its side. With the grace of a large cat, he knelt to the floor and received the running child. Erin watched him hug her, then push her away, saying something repri-manding before pulling her against his chest and hugging her again. Finally, he stood, taking the child with him, holding her with only one arm. The other he used to pick up the shopping bag.

Erin hadn't seen Raimi Price since his last day of high school, sixteen years ago. He'd humiliated her so badly at the senior prom that she never wanted to see him again. Yet here he stood, looking directly at her. The crowd in the store seemed to recede as Alicia pointed toward her and Raimi came forward.

He hadn't changed much in sixteen years. As a seventeen-year-old he was the best-looking guy in school: tall, athletic, tight buns. At thirty-four any boyishness he had had long since vanished. The man approaching her was blindingly sexy. His skin was dark and rich like smooth silk. His hair was thick, closely cut, and he wore a small mustache. He still had that outdoor athletic look. Erin remembered thinking he reminded her of a Montana cow¬boy—rugged, strong, capable-of-anything—and how she'd wanted those strong arms banded about her body.

It was true, she thought.

The weather outside was warm for December. She'd seen a lot of sweatshirts and jeans this afternoon. Raimi Price wore no coat. Gray wool slacks and a cable knit sweater outlined his body to the point that Erin wanted to run her hands over him, despite the amount of time between them and despite what she'd just been thinking about him. Looks this good should be against the law, but Raimi Price was a law unto himself.

Quickly she moved behind the service desk. Her mouth went dry, and her heart started a tom-tom beat that was more than a little familiar. He approached her, standing Alicia on the floor next to him but keeping hold of her hand. He set the shopping bag down and extended his hand to her.

"Thank you," he said. She allowed her fingers to be swallowed in his. "Alicia said you were helping her find me. It's so crowded we got separated. I can tell you, my heart nearly jumped out of my chest when I discovered her missing."

"I wasn't missing, Uncle Raimi," the high, sweet voice contradicted. "You got lost."

"Everything is fine now." Erin's voice was a whisper as she pulled her hand away from the warm grasp. She didn't know what to say. She didn't know just seeing him again could make her knees weak. She hated him. She'd hated him for sixteen years, but he appeared not to know who she was.

One part of her wanted to remind him of what he'd done, confront him with the details of their one and only date. The other part of her was grateful the event had no significance in his mind.

"I see you've been doing some after-Christmas shop¬ping." Erin said the first thing that came to mind. It beat having him scrutinizing her like a lab rat.

"Kwanzaa," he said.

"Oh-h-h." Her mouth formed an O.

"Is there something wrong with that?"

"Of course not." She gave him her associate smile. "Happy Holidays." Erin tried to walk away. The area had been completely crowded a moment ago. Now that she looked around to help another customer, everyone was being taken care of.

"What did that mean?" Raimi asked.

She turned back, knowing it was rude to ignore him. She met his eyes. They were brown, yet had a depth that had turned her knees to water in high school and had the same effect on her today.

"It's just that. . ." She hesitated.

"Go on."

"It doesn't seem in the spirit of Kwanzaa. Aren't you supposed to make gifts for Kwanzaa if you're going to give them?"

"I suppose you made every one of yours."

She had, but thought it prudent not to admit it. It would sound pretentious. "They aren't a requirement. You don't have to give gifts."

"I know that. Every family celebrates the holiday differ¬ently. My family gives gifts."

Erin could only smile. "I apologize." She looked down at Alicia, who hung tightly to Raimi's hand. "I hope you enjoy yourself." She smiled at the child. "Good-bye, Alicia."

"Happy Kwanzaa, Erin," the little girl said.

Erin looked up at Raimi one more time. They'd probably never see each other again. A pang went through her that she hadn't expected. "Mr. Price," was all she could manage.

Erin went to see to another customer. She felt Raimi's eyes on her back and wondered why he didn't leave. She refused to look over her shoulder. She wouldn't let him know he was having any effect on her. She pulled a picture frame from the shelf, and her clumsy fingers dropped it It didn't break when it landed. She reached down to retrieve it and looked at the place where Raimi and Alicia stood. They'd moved. She saw him look over his shoulder and point toward her as he said something to Anne Marie, the department manager who ran the specialty gifts depart¬ment. A second later, he glanced toward her again. A frown marred his face. Then he and Alicia disappeared from sight.

Erin stood up and reached for an identical frame, which she handed to the customer. Her gaze remained on the space where Raimi Price had stood.

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