“That may have been the most amazing bread pudding I’ve ever had,” Natalie said as they stepped out of the restaurant and back into the mingling flow of holiday shoppers.
“It was excellent, I have to admit.” He wasn’t entirely sure where he wanted to take Natalie next, but he knew he didn’t want to rush home. Not because he didn’t want to make love to her again, but because he wanted her to take in some of the holiday ambience. This was a shopping center in December, but it wasn’t the day-after-Thanksgiving crush. There was rarely a riot over a sale at the Louis Vuitton.
He also wanted to simply spend time with Natalie. He’d meant what he said in the restaurant earlier. For the past year, he’d been going through the motions, trying to figure out what his life was supposed to be like now that he wasn’t a husband or a father any longer. It had been easy to focus on work, to center all this attention on expanding Russell Landscaping into Chattanooga and Knoxville.
It wasn’t until his sister announced her engagement that he’d snapped out of his fog. Pam may not have been the right woman for him, but there was someone out there who could make him happy. He’d started dating again, unsuccessfully, but he was out there. And then he’d spied Natalie at the engagement party and his heart had nearly stilled in his chest from the shock of how beautiful she’d become.
How had the quiet teenager with the dark braid, the braces and the always-serious expression grown up into such a beauty? The timing was terrible, but Colin had known that he would do whatever he had to do to have Natalie in his life again.
Of course, at the time, Colin hadn’t known about her pessimistic stance on love and marriage. That had been like a dousing of ice water. It was cruel for the universe to bring him into contact with such a smart, beautiful, talented woman, then make it impossible for them to have any kind of chance of being together. She even hated Christmas. That was a smack in the face of everything he held dear.
Their night together after the bridal shop had just been a chance to release the unbearable pressure building up. He had been dismayed to wake the next morning and find he wanted Natalie more than ever. Continuing to see each other casually until the wedding was a good idea in theory, but it was prolonging the torture in practice. This date, this night together, would probably do more harm than good in the end. But he couldn’t stop himself.
Colin knew he was playing with fire. He hadn’t gone into this thinking any of it would happen the way it had, or that he could somehow change Natalie’s mind. At least about love and marriage. His determination to help her find her Christmas spirit had made slow progress, but progress nonetheless. He could already see cracks in that facade after only a week of trying.
He could see a similar weakness when she was around him. Her mouth was saying one thing while her body was saying another. When she’d stepped out in that wedding gown, it was like nothing existed but her. As much as she built up her theories about biology interfering in relationships, he could tell she was comfortable around him. Happy. Passionate. If they could both be convinced to take whatever this was beyond the wedding, there would be more between them than just sex.
But would what she was willing to give him be enough to make him happy? Companionship and passion seemed nice, but without love in the mix, it would grow tired, or worse, she might stray, like Pam. Without the commitment of love and marriage, there was no glue to hold two people together. It didn’t matter how alluring or wonderful Natalie seemed, she would never be the woman he wanted and needed. But for now, for tonight, none of that mattered. They’d had a nice dinner and he had a bet to win. Reaching out, he took her hand. “How about a stroll to walk some of that dinner off?” he asked.
“I probably need to.”
They walked together through the outdoor mall, passing a trio of musicians playing Christmas carols. Farther up ahead, Colin could spy the giant Christmas tree that the mayor had lit the week before. The whole place was decorated. There were white twinkle lights in all the bushes and wrapped around each light post. Near the fountain was a fifteen-foot gold reindeer with a wreath of holly and a cluster of oversize ornaments around his neck.