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Christmas In The Snow: Taming Natasha / Considering Kate

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“Natasha! Hey, ah, Natasha!”

Broken out of thoughts that weren’t particularly productive, Natasha glanced over and spied Terry. He was wearing a long yellow-and white-striped scarf in defense against a sudden plunge in temperature that had sprinkled frost on the ground. As he raced after her, it flapped awkwardly behind him. By the time he reached her, his glasses had slipped crookedly down to the tip of his reddening nose.

“Hi, Terry.”

The hundred-yard dash had winded him. He dearly hoped it wouldn’t aggravate his asthma. “Hi. I was—I saw you heading in.” He’d been waiting hopefully for her for twenty minutes.

Feeling a bit like a mother with a clumsy child, she straightened his glasses, then wrapped the scarf more securely around his skinny neck. His rapid breathing fogged his lenses. “You should be wearing gloves,” she told him, then patting his chilled hand, led him up the steps.

Overwhelmed, he tried to speak and only made a strangled sound in his throat.

“Are you catching a cold?” Searching through her purse, she found a tissue and offered it.

He cleared his throat loudly. “No.” But he took the tissue and vowed to keep it until the day he died. “I was just wondering if tonight—after class—you know, if you don’t have anything to do… You’ve probably got plans, but if you don’t, then maybe…we could have a cup of coffee. Two cups,” he amended desperately. “I mean you could have your own cup, and I’d have one.” So saying, he turned a thin shade of green.

The poor boy was lonely, Natasha thought, giving him an absent smile. “Sure.” It wouldn’t hurt to keep him company for an hour or so, she decided as she walked into class. And it would help her keep her mind off…

Off the man standing in front of the class, Natasha reflected with a scowl; the man who had kissed the breath out of her two weeks before and who was currently laughing with a sassy little blonde who couldn’t have been a day over twenty.

Her mood grim, she plopped down at her desk and poked her nose into a textbook.

Spence knew the moment she walked into the room. He was more than a little gratified to have seen the huffy jealousy on her face before she stuck a book in front of it. Apparently fate hadn’t been dealing him such a bad hand when it kept him up to his ears in professional and personal problems for the last couple of weeks. Between leaky plumbing, PTA and Brownie meetings and a faculty conference, he hadn’t had an hour free. But now things were running smoothly again. He studied the top of Natasha’s head. He intended to make up for lost time.

Sitting on the edge of his desk, he opened a discussion of the distinctions between sacred and secular music during the baroque period.

She didn’t want to be interested. Natasha was sure he knew it. Why else would he deliberately call on her for an opinion—twice?

Oh, he was clever, she thought. Not by a flicker, not by the slightest intonation did he reveal a more personal relationship with her. No one in class would possibly suspect that this smooth, even brilliant lecturer had kissed her senseless, not once, not twice, but three times. Now he calmly talked of early seventeenth-century operatic developments.

In his black turtleneck and gray tweed jacket he looked casually elegant and totally in charge. And of course, as always, he had the class in the palms of those beautiful hands he eloquently used to make a point. When he smiled over a student’s comment, Natasha heard the little blonde two seats behind her sigh. Because she’d nearly done so herself, Natasha stiffened her spine.

He probably had a whole string of eager women. A man who looked like him, talked like him, kissed like him was bound to. He was the type that made promises to one woman at midnight and snuggled up to another over breakfast in bed.

Wasn’t it fortunate she no longer believed in promises?

Something was going on inside that fabulous head of hers, Spence mused. One moment she was listening to him as if he had the answers to the mysteries of the universe on the tip of his tongue. The next, she was sitting rigidly and staring off into space, as though she wished herself somewhere else.

He would swear that she was angry, and that the anger was directed squarely at him. Why was an entirely different matter.

Whenever he’d tried to have a word with her after class over the last couple of weeks, she’d been out of the building like a bullet. Tonight he would have to outmaneuver her.

She stood the moment class was over. Spence watched her smile at the man sitting across from her. Then she bent down to pick up the books and pencils the man scattered as he rose.

What was his name? Spence wondered. Maynard. That was it. Mr. Maynard was in several of his classes, and managed to fade into the background in each one. Yet at the moment the unobtrusive Mr. Maynard was crouched knee to knee with Natasha.

“I think we’ve got them all.” Natasha gave Terry’s glasses a friendly shove back up his nose.


“Don’t forget your scarf—” she began, then looked up. A hand closed over her arm and helped her to her feet. “Thank you, Dr. Kimball.”

“I’d like to talk to you, Natasha.”

“Would you?” She gave the hand on her arm a brief look, then snatched up her coat and books. Feeling as though she were on a chessboard again, she decided to aggressively counter his move. “I’m sorry, it’ll have to wait. I have a date.”

“A date?” he managed, getting an immediate picture of someone dark, dashing and muscle-bound.

“Yes. Excuse me.” She shook off his hand and stuck an arm into the sleeve of her coat. Since the men on either side of her seemed equally paralyzed, she shifted the books to her other arm and struggled to find the second sleeve. “Are you ready, Terry?”

“Well, yeah, sure. Yeah.” He was staring at Spence with a mixture of awe and trepidation. “But I can wait if you want to talk to Dr. Kimball first.”

“There’s no need.” She scooped up his arm and pulled him to the door.

Women, Spence thought as he sat down at a desk. He’d already accepted the fact that he had never understood them. Apparently he never would.

“Jeez, Tash, don’t you think you should have seen what Dr. Kimball wanted?”

“I know what he wanted,” she said between her teeth as she pushed open the main doors. The rush of autumn air cooled her cheeks. “I wasn’t in the mood to discuss it tonight.” When Terry tripped over the uneven sidewalk, she realized she was still dragging him and slowed her pace. “Besides, I thought we were going to have some coffee.”

“Right.” When she smiled at him, he tugged on his scarf as if to keep from strangling.

They walked into a small lounge where half the little square tables were empty.

At the antique bar two men were muttering over their beers. A couple in the corner were all but sitting on each other’s laps and ignoring their drinks.

She’d always liked this room with its dim lighting and old black-and-white posters of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. It smelled of cigarettes and jug wine. There was a big portable stereo on a shelf above the bar that played an old Chuck Berry number loudly enough to make up for the lack of patrons. Natasha felt the bass vibrate through her chair as she sat down.

“Just coffee, Joe,” she called to the man behind the bar before she leaned her elbows on the table. “So,” she said to Terry, “how’s everything going?”

“Okay.” He couldn’t believe it. He was here, sitting with her. On a date. She’d called it a date herself.

It would take a little prodding. Patient, she shrugged out of her coat. The overheated room had her pushing the sleeves of her sweater past her elbows. “It must be different for you here. Did you ever tell me where you were going to college before?”

“I graduated from Michigan State.” Because his lenses were fogged again, Natasha seemed to be shrouded by a thin, mysterious mist. “When I, ah, heard that Dr. Kimball would be teaching here, I decided to take a couple years of graduate study.”

“You came here because of Spence—Dr. Kimball?”

“I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. I went to New York last year to hear him lecture.” Terry lifted a hand and nearly knocked over a bowl of sugar. “He’s incredible.”

“I suppose,” she murmured as their coffee was served.

“Where you been hiding?” the bartender asked, giving her shoulder a casual squeeze. “I haven’t seen you in here all month.”

“Business is good. How’s Darla?”

“History.” Joe gave her a quick, friendly wink. “I’m all yours, Tash.”

“I’ll keep it in mind.” With a laugh, she turned back to Terry. “Is something wrong?” she asked when she saw him dragging at his collar.

“Yes. No. That is… Is he your boyfriend?”

“My…” To keep herself from laughing in Terry’s face, she took a sip of coffee. “You mean Joe? No.” She cleared her throat and sipped again. “No, he’s not. We’re just…” She searched for a word. “Pals.”

“Oh.” Relief and in security warred. “I just thought, since he…Well.”

“He was only joking.” Wanting to put Terry at ease again, she squeezed his hand. “What about you? Do you have a girl back in Michigan?”

“No. There’s nobody. Nobody at all.” He turned his hand over, gripping hers.

Oh, my God. As realization hit, Natasha felt her mouth drop open. Only a fool would have missed it, she thought as she stared into Terry’s adoring, myopic eyes. A fool, she added, who was so tied up with her own problems that she missed what was happening under her nose. She was going to have to be careful, Natasha decided. Very careful.

“Terry,” she began. “You’re very sweet—”

That was all it took to make his hand shake. Coffee spilled down his shirt. Moving quickly, Natasha shifted chairs so that she was beside him. Snatching paper napkins from the dispenser, she began to blot the stain.

“It’s a good thing they never serve it hot in this place. If you soak this in cold water right away, you should be all right.”

Overcome, Terry grabbed both of her hands. Her head was bent close, and the scent of her hair was making him dizzy. “I love you,” he blurted, and took aim with his mouth; his glasses slid down his nose.

Natasha felt his lips hit her cheekbone, cold and trembly. Because her heart went out to him, she decided that being careful wasn’t the right approach. Firmness was called for, quickly.

“No, you don’t.” Her voice was brisk, she pulled back far enough to dab at the spill on the table.

“I don’t?” Her response threw him off. It was nothing like any of the fantasies he’d woven. There was the one where he’d saved her from a runaway truck. And another where he’d played the song he was writing for her and she had collapsed in a passionate, weeping puddle into his arms. His imagination hadn’t stretched far enough to see her wiping up coffee and calmly telling him he wasn’t in love at all.

“Yes, I do.” He snatched at her hand again.

“That’s ridiculous,” she said, and smiled to take the sting out of the words. “You like me, and I like you, too.”

“No, it’s more than that. I—”

“All right. Why do you love me?”

“Because you’re beautiful,” he managed, losing his grip as he stared into her face again. “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”

“And that’s enough?” Disengaging her hand from his, she linked her fingers to rest her chin on them. “What if I told you I was a thief—or that I liked to run down small, furry animals with my car? Maybe I’ve been married three times and have murdered all my husbands in their sleep.”


She laughed, but resisted the temptation to pet his cheek. “I mean, you don’t know me enough to love me. If you did, what I looked like wouldn’t matter.”

“But—but I think about you all the time.”

“Because you’ve told yourself it would be nice to be in love with me.” He looked so forlorn that she took a chance and laid one hand upon his. “I’m very flattered.”

“Does this mean you won’t go out with me?”

“I’m out with you now.” She pushed her cup of coffee in front of him. “As friends,” she said before the light could dawn again in his eyes. “I’m too old to be anything but your friend.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Oh, yes.” Suddenly she felt a hundred. “Yes, I am.”

“You think I’m stupid,” he muttered. In place of confused excitement came a crushing wave of humiliation. He could feel his cheeks sting with it.

“No, I don’t.” Her voice softened, and she reached once more for his hands. “Terry, listen—”

Before she could stop him, he pushed back his chair. “I’ve got to go.”

Cursing herself, Natasha picked up his striped scarf. There was no use in following him now. He needed time, she decided. And she needed air.

The leaves were beginning to turn, and a few that had fallen early scraped along the sidewalk ahead of the wind. It was the kind of evening Natasha liked best, but now she barely noticed it. She’d left her coffee untouched to take a long, circular walk through town.

Heading home, she thought of a dozen ways she could have handled Terry’s infatuation better. Through her clumsiness she had wounded a sensitive, vulnerable boy. It could have been avoided, all of it, if she had been paying attention to what was happening in front of her face.

Instead she’d been blinded by her own unwelcome feelings for someone else.

She knew too well what it was to believe yourself in love, desperately, hopelessly in love. And she knew how it hurt to discover that the one you loved didn’t return those feelings. Cruel or kind, the rejection of love left the heart bruised.

Uttering a sigh, she ran a hand over the scarf in her pocket. Had she ever been so trusting and defenseless? Yes, she answered herself. That and much, much more.

It was about damn time, Spence thought as he watched her start up the walk. Obviously her mind was a million miles away. On her date, he decided and tried not to grind his teeth. Well, he was going to see to it that she had a lot more to think about in very short order.

“Didn’t he walk you home?”

Natasha stopped dead with an involuntary gasp. In the beam of her porch light she saw Spence sitting on her stoop. That was all she needed, she thought while she dragged a hand through her hair. With Terry she’d felt as though she’d kicked a puppy. Now she was going to have to face down a large, hungry wolf.

“What are you doing here?”


She nearly laughed. His breath was puffing out in white steam. With the wind chill, she imagined that the effective temperature was hovering around twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit. After a moment, Natasha decided she must be a very poor sport to be amused at the thought of Spence sitting on cold concrete for the past hour.

He rose as she continued down the walk. How could she have forgotten how tall he was? “Didn’t you invite your friend back for a drink?”

“No.” She reached out and twisted the knob. Like most of the doors in town, it was unlocked. “If I had, you’d be very embarrassed.”

“That’s not the word for it.”

“I’m suppose I’m lucky I didn’t find you waiting up for me inside.”

“You would have,” he muttered, “if it had occurred to me to try the door.”

“Good night.”

“Wait a damn minute.” He slapped his palm on the door before she could close it in his face. “I didn’t sit out here in the cold for my health. I want to talk to you.”

There was something satisfying in the brief, fruitless push-push they played with the door. “It’s late.”

“And getting later by the second. If you close the door, I’m just going to beat on it until all your neighbors poke their heads out their windows.”

“Five minutes,” she said graciously, because she had planned to grant him that in any case. “I’ll give you a brandy, then you’ll go.”

“You’re all heart, Natasha.”

“No.” She laid her coat over the back of the couch. “I’m not.”

She disappeared into the kitchen without another word. When she returned with two snifters of brandy, he was standing in the center of the room, running Terry’s scarf through his fingers.

“What kind of game are you playing?”

She set down his brandy, then sipped calmly at her own. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“What are you doing, going out on dates with some college kid who’s still wet behind the ears?”

Both her back and her voice stiffened. “It’s none of your business whom I go out with.”

“It is now,” Spence replied, realizing it now mattered to him.

“No, it’s not. And Terry’s a very nice young man.”

“Young’s the operative word.” Spence tossed the scarf aside. “He’s certainly too young for you.”

“Is that so?” It was one thing for her to say it, and quite another to have Spence throw it at her like an accusation. “I believe that’s for me to decide.”

“Hit a nerve that time,” Spence muttered to himself. There had been a time—hadn’t there?—when he had been considered fairly smooth with women. “Maybe I should have said you’re too old for him.”

“Oh, yes.” Despite herself, she began to see the humor of it. “That’s a great deal better. Would you like to drink this brandy or wear it?”

“I’ll drink it, thanks.” He lifted the glass, but instead of bringing it to his lips, took another turn around the room. He was jealous, Spence realized. It was rather pathetic, but he was jealous of an awkward, tongue-tied grad student. And while he was about it, he was making a very big fool of himself. “Listen, maybe I should start over.”

“I don’t know why you would want to start something over you should never have begun.”

But like a dog with a bone, he couldn’t stop gnawing. “It’s just that he’s obviously not your type.”

Fire blazed again. “Oh, and you’d know about my type?”

Spence held up his free hand. “All right, one straight question before my foot is permanently lodged in my mouth. Are you interested in him?”

“Of course I am.” Then she cursed herself; it was impossible to use Terry and his feelings as a barricade against Spence. “He’s a very nice boy.”

Spence almost relaxed, then spotted the scarf again, still spread over the back of her couch. “What are you doing with that?”

“I picked it up for him.” The sight of it, bright and a little foolish on the jewel colors of her couch, made her feel like the most vicious kind of femme fatale. “He left it behind after I broke his heart. He thinks he’s in love with me.” Miserable, she dropped into a chair. “Oh, go away. I don’t know why I’m talking to you.”

The look on her face made him want to smile and stroke her hair. He thought better of it and kept his tone brisk. “Because you’re upset, and I’m the only one here.”

“I guess that’ll do.” She didn’t object when Spence sat down across from her. “He was very sweet and nervous, and I had no idea what he was feeling—or what he thought he was feeling. I should have realized, but I didn’t until he spilled his coffee all over his shirt, and… Don’t laugh at him.”

Spence continued to smile as he shook his head. “I’m not. Believe me, I know exactly how he must have felt. There are some women who make you clumsy.”

Their eyes met and held. “Don’t flirt with me.”

“I’m past flirting with you, Natasha.”

Restless, she rose to pace the room. “You’re changing the subject.”

“Am I?”

She waved an impatient hand as she paced. “I hurt his feelings. If I had known what was happening, I might have stopped it. There is nothing,” she said passionately, “nothing worse than loving someone and being turned away.”

“No.” He understood that. And he could see by the shadows haunting her eyes that she did, too. “But you don’t really believe he’s in love with you.”

“He believes it. I ask him why he thinks it, and do you know what he says?” She whirled back, her hair swirling around her shoulders with the movement. “He says because he thinks I’m beautiful. That’s it.” She threw up her hands and started to pace again. Spence only watched, caught up in her movements and by the musical cadence that agitation brought to her voice. “When he says it, I want to slap him and say—what’s wrong with you? A face is nothing but a face. You don’t know my mind or my heart. But he has big, sad eyes, so I can’t yell at him.”

“You never had a problem yelling at me.”

“You don’t have big, sad eyes, and you’re not a boy who thinks he’s in love.”

“I’m not a boy,” he agreed, catching her by the shoulders from behind. Even as she stiffened, he turned her around. “And I like more than your face, Natasha. Though I like that very much.”

“You don’t know anything about me, either.”

“Yes, I do. I know you lived through experiences I can hardly imagine. I know you love and miss your family, that you understand children and have a natural affection for them. You’re organized, stubborn and passionate.” He ran his hands down her arms, then back to her shoulders. “I know you’ve been in love before.” He tightened his grip before she could pull away. “And you’re not ready to talk about it. You have a sharp, curious mind and caring heart, and you wish you weren’t attracted to me. But you are.”

She lowered her lashes briefly to veil her eyes. “Then it would seem you know more of me than I of you.”

“That’s easy to fix.”

“I don’t know if I want to. Or why I should.”

His lips brushed hers, then retreated before she could respond or reject. “There’s something there,” he murmured. “That’s reason enough.”

“Maybe there is,” she began. “No.” She drew back when he would have kissed her again. “Don’t. I’m not very strong tonight.”

“A good way to make me feel guilty if I press my advantage.”

She felt twin rushes of disappointment and relief when he released her. “I’ll make you dinner,” she said on impulse.


“Tomorrow. Just dinner,” she added, wondering if she should already be regretting the invitation. “If you bring Freddie.”

“She’d like that. So would I.”

“Good. Seven o’clock.” Natasha picked up his coat and held it out. “Now you have to go.”

“You should learn to say what’s on your mind.” With a half laugh, Spence took the coat from her. “One more thing.”

“Only one?”

“Yeah.” He swung her back into his arms for one long, hard, mind-numbing kiss. He had the satisfaction of seeing her sink weakly onto the arm of the sofa when he released her.

“Good night,” he said, then stepping outside, gulped in a deep breath of cold air.

It was the first time Freddie had been asked out to a grown-up dinner, and she waited impatiently while her father shaved. Usually she enjoyed watching him slide the razor through the white foam on his face. There were even times when she secretly wished she were a boy, so that she could look forward to the ritual. But tonight she thought her father was awfully slow.

“Can we go now?”

Standing in his bathrobe, Spence rinsed off the traces of lather. “It might be a better idea if I put some pants on.”

Freddie only rolled her eyes. “When are you going to?”

Spence scooped her up to bite gently at her neck. “As soon as you beat it.”

Taking him at his word, she raced downstairs to prowl the foyer and count to sixty. Around the fifth round, she sat on the bottom step to play with the buckle of her left shoe.

Freddie had it all figured out. Her father was going to marry either Tash or Mrs. Patterson, because they were both pretty and had nice smiles. Afterward, the one he married would come and live in their new house. Soon she would have a new baby sister. A baby brother would do in a pinch, but it was definitely a second choice. Everybody would be happy, because everybody would like each other a lot. And her daddy would play his music late at night again.

When she heard Spence start down, Freddie jumped up and whirled around to face him. “Daddy, I counted to sixty a jillion times.”

“I bet you left out the thirties again.” He took her coat from the hall closet and helped bundle her into it.

“No, I didn’t.” At least she didn’t think she had. “You took forever.” With a sigh, she pulled him to the door.

“We’re still going to be early.”

“She won’t mind.”

At that moment, Natasha was pulling a sweater over her head and wondering why she had invited anyone to dinner, particularly a man every instinct told her to avoid. She’d been distracted all day, worrying if the food would be right, if she’d chosen the most complimentary wine. And now she was changing for the third time.

Totally out of character, she told herself as she frowned at her reflection in the mirror. The casual blue sweater and leggings calmed her. If she looked at ease, Natasha decided she would be at ease. She fastened long silver columns at her ears, gave her hair a quick toss, then hurried back to the kitchen. She had hardly checked her sauce when she heard the knock.

They were early, she thought, allowing herself one mild oath before going to the door.

They looked wonderful. Agitation vanished in a smile. The sight of the little girl with her hand caught firmly in her father’s went straight to her heart. Because it came naturally, she bent to kiss Freddie on both cheeks. “Hello.”

“Thank you for asking me to dinner.” Freddie recited the sentence, then looked at her father for approval.

“You’re welcome.”

“Aren’t you going to kiss Daddy, too?”

Natasha hesitated, then caught Spence’s quick, challenging grin. “Of course.” She brushed her lips formally against his cheeks. “That is a traditional Ukrainian greeting.”

“I’m very grateful for glasnost.” Still smiling, he took her hand and brought it to his lips.

“Are we going to have borscht?” Freddie wanted to know.

“Borscht?” Natasha lifted a brow as she helped Freddie out of her coat.

“When I told Mrs. Patterson that me and Daddy were going to have dinner at your house, she said that borscht was Russian for beet soup.” Freddie managed not to say she thought it sounded gross, but Natasha got the idea.

“I’m sorry I didn’t make any,” she said, straight faced. “I made another traditional dish instead. Spaghetti and meatballs.”

It was easy, surprisingly so. They ate at the old gateleg table by the window, and their talk ranged from Freddie’s struggles with arithmetic to Neapolitan opera. It took only a little prodding for Natasha to talk of her family. Freddie wanted to know everything there was about being a big sister.

“We didn’t fight very much,” Natasha reflected as she drank after-dinner coffee and balanced Freddie on her knee. “But when we did, I won, because I was the oldest. And the meanest.”

“You’re not mean.”

“Sometimes when I’m angry I am.” She looked at Spence, remembering—and regretting—telling him he didn’t deserve Freddie. “Then I’m sorry.”

“When people fight, it doesn’t always mean they don’t like each other,” Spence murmured. He was doing his best not to think how perfect, how perfectly right his daughter looked cuddled on Natasha’s lap. Too far, too fast, he warned himself. For everyone involved.

Freddie wasn’t sure she understood, but she was only five. Then she remembered happily that she would soon be six. “I’m going to have a birthday.”

“Are you?” Natasha looked appropriately impressed. “When?”

“In two weeks. Will you come to my party?”

“I’d love to.” Natasha looked at Spence as Freddie recited all the wonderful treats that were in store.

It wasn’t wise to get so involved with the little girl, she warned herself. Not when the little girl was attached so securely to a man who made Natasha long for things she had put behind her. Spence smiled at her. No, it wasn’t wise, she thought again. But it was irresistible.


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