“Pretty close,” Natalie said, crossing her arms defensively over her chest. “My dad left on Christmas day.”
The smile faded from his face. He pulled off the Santa hat. “I didn’t know about that.”
“Why would you? I’m sure you were spared the messy details.”
“I’m not entirely sure. They’d been fighting a bunch leading up to Christmas, but I think they were trying to hold it together through the holidays. That morning, we opened presents and had breakfast, the same as usual. Then, as I sat in the living room playing with my new Nintendo, I heard some shouting and doors slamming. The next thing I know, my dad is standing in the living room with his suitcases. He just moved out right then. I haven’t celebrated Christmas since that day.”
“You haven’t celebrated at all? In fifteen years?”
“Nope. I silently protested for a few holidays, passed between parents, but once I went to college, it was done. No decorations, no presents, no Christmas carols.”
He was almost sorry he’d asked. So many of Colin’s favorite memories had revolved around the holidays with his parents. Even after they died, Christmas couldn’t be ruined. He just worked that much harder to make it special for Lily. He’d always dreamed of the day he’d celebrate the holidays with his own family. He’d gotten a taste of it when they celebrated Shane’s first Christmas, but not long after that, he learned the truth about his son’s real father.
“That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.” And coming from a guy whose life had fallen apart in the past year, that was saying a lot.
“Divorce happens,” Natalie said. A distant, almost ambivalent look settled on her face. She continued down the stairs to the ground floor. “It happens to hundreds of couples every day. It happened to you. Heck, it’s happened to my mother three times. She’s on her fourth husband. My sad story isn’t that uncommon.”
“Really? It’s that important?”
“Yep. I look forward to it all year. I couldn’t imagine not celebrating.”
“It’s easier than you think. I stay busy with work or I try to travel.”
“I don’t miss it,” she said, shying away from his touch, although she didn’t meet his eyes when she said it.
He didn’t fully believe her. Just like he didn’t believe her when she said she wasn’t interested in going on a date with him. She did want to, she was just stubborn and afraid of intimacy. As much as he might be drawn to Natalie, he wasn’t going to put himself in that boat again. He was tired of butting his head against relationship brick walls. But even if they were just friends, he couldn’t let the Christmas thing slide. It was a challenge unlike any he’d had in a while.
“I think I could make you like Christmas again.”
Natalie turned on her heel to look at him. Her eyebrow was arched curiously. “No, you can’t.”
“You don’t have much faith in me. I can do anything I put my mind to.”
“I am serious,” he argued.
“You can’t make me like Christmas. That would take a lobotomy. Or a bout of amnesia. It won’t happen otherwise.”
He took a step closer, moving into her space. “If you’re so confident, why don’t we wager on it?”
Her dark eyes widened at him and she stepped back. “What? No. That’s silly.”
“Hmm...” Colin said, leaning in. “Sounds to me like you’re too chicken to let me try. You know you’ll lose the bet.”