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I first met Holly when we were sixteen years old.
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Santa comes once a year … or does he?
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I stand, a block away, mesmerized by the woman I’ve missed for so long. I’m transfixed as I watch Holly, where she stands outside, pouring hot cocoa into paper cups, adding a tiny candy cane to each one.
She’s handing the festive drinks out to children. Snowflakes fall from the sky as she stands near the queue of rosy cheeked kids waiting to sit on Santa’s lap, their last minute wishes ready to be added to his ever growing list.
Holly’s red hair is braided and wrapped around her head, the candy striped sweater and little green elf-dress she wears is barely able to conceal her curves, and my body craves her in the way it always has. Her heart shaped face is so familiar that my jaw tightens, remembering our last goodbye.
Tears stained her cheeks then; burying her father was a horrible way to end high school. Now, five years later, she wears a smile, bright as the snow capped peaks behind her. The mountain town of Mistletoe is brimming with holiday activity — Christmas is only a few days away.
But I keep moving through the crowds of shoppers who clutch their bags filled with last minute gifts. I don’t want to stop at any stores to window shop. I already know what I want.
Who I want.
Holly Saint Claire.
It’s always been her. But until recently I was in no place to come back and take her as my own.
I planned on waiting until after the holidays — until I’m sure I’ll be settling down in Mistletoe — but that was before I was standing down the street from her.
Now my plan must change.
I can’t wait to tell her I’m back. I need her, now.
I move toward her, thinking of all the things that we left unsaid. I run a hand over my beard. I’ve changed; grown up. And she has too.
Getting in line behind the kids, I wait my turn. When I finally step up to her, she gasps.
As she looks into my eyes, a hundred memories rush over me.
They rush over her too. She falters, setting down the cup of hot chocolate, and shaking her head. “Hunter? Is that really you?”
I nod, overwhelmed with the need to wrap her in my arms. I’ve been dreaming of this for so damn long.
“Have I really changed that much?” I ask, trying my best to smile, when deep down I want to growl, whisper in her ear. Tell her I will never leave again.
“The beard, the flannel, the…” She reaches for my arm, squeezing it. “You look so much…”
“More put together?”
“I was going to say stronger.”
“Why are you here? I mean … it’s been five years.”
“A long time.”
She nods, stepping away from the table. “Really long.”
“I had things to do before I could come back.”
“You never even called. You never wrote. I’ve worried. And I’ve missed you, Hunter. You just disappeared. Ghosted everyone … ghosted me.”
I knew coming here today would be hard, but as she walks toward the Christmas tree in the center of town — it’s huge and decorated with tinsel and lights — I’m reminded of just how shitty it was to leave like that.
But she left too.
“I know, but you had plans for your life, Holly. I didn’t fit in with them.” Truth is, I’m dying to know if I fit into them now. Just how much has she moved on?
“It’s good to see your face again,” she says softly. “Sometimes I wondered if those years were a dream.”
I smirk. “You mean a nightmare?”
She smiles gently, and I want to touch her skin, breathe her in. “They weren’t all bad.”
“No,” I say, thinking of the way her lips brushed against mine. “They weren’t.”
For a moment we stand in silence, staring at one another. I wish I could crawl inside her mind and understand exactly what she’s thinking.
Then, the spell is broken as a group of people call out to her. “Holly, we thought you were volunteering all afternoon?”
“I had a visitor,” she says as they approach. Turning back to me she asks, “Do you remember my friends? Sarah and Lila?”
I nod. “How could I not remember?” Those girls were sweethearts just like Holly. They were always were nice to me, but they always kept their guards up. With good reason.
“Wow, long time no see, stranger,” Lila says. “I haven’t seen you since graduation.”
I nod. “Yeah, just got back in town.”
The girls exchange looks and I know they are having a silent conversation. About me.
“Well, good to see you,” Lila says. “Tillie and I were just grabbing a box of cookies to take to the dance tonight.”
“They still hold the week before Christmas dance?” I ask.
“Mistletoe is built on tradition!” Lila says with a laugh. “Are you coming?”
I run a hand over my beard. “Not sure what tonight is going to look like, exactly,” I say.