Her eyes widened ever so slightly at the sight of the handsome stranger, ever so slightly at his dark, unruly, two day growth of beard and ever so slightly at a shirt that opened to show the beginning of six pack abs, sprawled across the steps of the community center. Her community center.
“Josh, you can play over in the play area for a few minutes,” she said quietly and her son scampered away happy to have the play area all to himself.
“And you would be?”
“Sean Douglas,” he said standing and introducing himself. “From the North Stars.”
“Ah, yes. About the toy drive,” she said, visibly relaxing.
“The very same,” he said easily as she opened the door to the community center.
“Joanne didn’t seem to think we needed to do anything for it.” Joanne was the Arbutus Community Center’s director and her boss.
“Not much,” he said, amusement in his eyes. “Except for telling us where to deliver the toys.”
“Oh.” She had the grace to look a little disconcerted. “Of course.”
In her mid-twenties Sarah was a slim red-head with the bluest eyes Sean had ever seen. Even dressed in jeans and a jacket she radiated a calm, competence he wasn’t used to. “And we do like it if there’s someone there from the charity.”
“That seems reasonable,” she agreed.
“The game will be tonight. Perhaps you could come.” He nodded toward her son. “I could probably arrange for your son to drive around on the Zamboni at least once.”
Normally it would be Joanne representing the center or whoever she designated. But this was Saturday and she was out of town for a family emergency leaving Sarah in charge. Sarah, who was used to being the responsible one, of doing the right thing. Sarah, who…
“It’s for a good cause,” he said smiling at her and before she knew it she had agreed to attend with Josh.
Which, of course, was the only reason she was going, she told herself as she got ready for the game later. It had nothing to do with Sean Douglas. Oh he of the ice-blue eyes and rumpled appearance. Nothing to do with that smile. And nothing at all to do with that dimple on the corner of his mouth…
He could at least comb his hair before he made an appearance, she thought with a flash of irritation at herself, at him. Even if it was for charity and even if he was doing the community center a good turn. Well, not him personally. The team. The community center just happened to be lucky enough to have their cause picked out of a hat. She was pretty sure Sean never gave it a thought beyond that.
Which irked her because… because the community center mattered. To her, to the hundreds, no thousands of people it helped every year. With everything from a daycare center, toy-box program, community kitchens, teams of soccer, football and baseball, mother’s groups and movie nights, Arbutus Community Center was just that … a community center and she was proud to be the office manager for them.
She had the feeling they’d be lucky to be an after-thought to Sean Douglas. Why that mattered to her she didn’t know. But as she pulled on her newest pair of jeans and hoody she knew it did. She was female enough to be glad she’d lost the ten pounds which had made a new pair of jeans necessary. Not bad. Not bad at all, she thought eyeing herself in the mirror.
And smart enough to know she was wasting her time. Because after tonight she’d probably never see him or his team again. . Never see those blue eyes or that wicked smile.
But she’d hear about him, she thought, groaning. Josh was over the moon.
“A real hockey game! And I’m going to get to drive the Zamboni. Wow, the guys at school are going to be so jealous.” At six, he was crowing with excitement, over the moon at the chance to be involved with real life hockey players.
“Neanderthals,” she said in response to Zara, her best friend, when it came up over coffee. “Honestly why grown men would want to dress up in uniforms and skate around on ice chasing a puck is beyond me.”
“This from the woman who spent ten years of her life figure skating?”
“I started when I was four,” Sara protested. “It wasn’t like I put a lot of thought into it.”
Zara shrugged. “Maybe it’s the same with him.”
“But he’s grown now. And that’s all he does. That’s his job.”
“Bet you he’s in good shape,” Zara said with a trace of jealousy. “Think of how many girls there’d be playing with Barbies all day if we could figure out some way to get paid for it.”
Sarah rolled her eyes. “Well, I’ll spend tonight cheering them on, they’ll drop off the toys they collect and that’s probably the last I’ll ever see of Sean Douglas and the North Stars.”
She barely managed to snag a parking spot when she pulled in. The North Stars were playing to a full house tonight as they battled the Southern Gators, arch enemies in their quest for the division championship.
When she stopped at the box office to pick up the tickets she assumed Sean would have left for her she was met by an older woman in her mid-thirties.
“You must be Sarah. And this is your boy?”
“Josh,” she said smiling at the woman.
“I’m Laura. The coach’s wife. I told Sean I’d meet you here and get you set up.”
“That’s very nice of you,” Sara said as she followed Laura into the bleachers and to an area frequented by the family and friends of the team. By rabid fans and small boys, bug-eyed with wonder at seeing their heroes in action. Josh fit right in.
“When we get to the second period we’ll take Josh down to get ready for his ride on the Zamboni. And if you can come to the media box we’ll get you to describe the community center for everyone. That usually helps with donations.”
“Of course. I’ll be happy to,” Sarah said. She hadn’t expected this. But even if she wasn’t used to public speaking it was for a good cause. And she’d written the center’s mission statement on so many letters, flyers and other pieces of paper over the years that she should be able to do it in her sleep. Should.
But she was still a nervous wreck when they announced her at the end of the second period. She clutched the microphone the local anchor had thrust into her hands, took a deep breath and told herself she could do this.
“The Arbutus Community Centre serves over twenty thousand people,” she said earnestly. “We do everything from providing hot breakfasts to school-kids before they start their day to taking care of grandma for a few hours. We have movie nights and soccer tournaments, computer stations and job mentoring programs. “ Somehow she made it through without stuttering too much but she wasn’t sure she’d done the community center any favours by representing them tonight. Joanne was so much better at this stuff.
Laura seemed happy with her efforts though and she could tell Josh was having the time of his life as he went by on the Zamboni. Would it be enough? She watched as the North Stars hung on to their one goal advantage. Cheered as the goalie shut out yet another shot by the Southern Gators and was on her feet cheering as Sean snagged the puck from a player racing up the ice and passing it to a team-mate who scored!
By the time the game ended she was hoarse from screaming encouragement and Josh was exhausted. She put him to bed, a tired but happy camper and had to admit she’d enjoyed the hockey game more than she’d ever expected to.
When the team pulled up the next day with a truck load of toys she was over-come with emotion. “All these from one night?”
She shut her eyes picturing the faces of single mothers and their children, of families barely squeaking by and what these presents would mean to them. This year the presents given out by Santa at the community center were going to rock!
Sean nodded, clearly pleased with her reaction. “We’ll unload them wherever you want.”
“I guess this is it then,” she said smiling at him as the last toy was delivered.
“Guess so,” he said giving her a wide smile and just for a moment she felt her breath catch in her throat. And then he was gone.
Never to be seen again, she thought sighing. Not that she was looking for a man. If her marriage to Josh’s father had taught her one thing it was not to judge a book by its cover. Oh, and to avoid men at all costs. True their marriage had been over for three years now. Her mother and most of her friends thought it was high time to put it behind her and find someone new. But she’d proved she didn’t have the best taste when picking men and with Josh in the picture she was more determined than ever not to make another mistake. Besides they were doing fine on their own. Just fine.
“You want me to what?” Her voice went up in surprise as she viewed her boss. In her forties, Joanne was a mentor to Sarah, as much as her boss. A woman she looked up to and a woman for who she usually did whatever was asked of her without question. After all, Joanne was her boss.
It’s just that whatever she wanted didn’t usually include showing news crews through the center. It must be this family emergency, Sarah thought, with a rush of sympathy. Joanne had come back Monday looking tired and fragile in a way Sarah had never seen before. As she stood before her, in her small office, Sarah vowed to do whatever she needed to do to help her through whatever problems she was having.
Joanne looked at her with surprise. “It’s not a problem is it? I’d think compared to speaking to a full arena full of strangers it would be easy.”
“No. No problem.” She could show Sean Douglas exactly what they did at the community center although she could do without TV cameras trailing after them. But then take away the TV cameras and Sean Douglas would also disappear too wouldn’t he? Did she care? No…
By the time the TV cameras and Sean Douglas appeared that afternoon she had everything arranged. As much as you could arrange things that concerned children and old people and and and… animals – since when had the community center become a zoo!
She headed in the direction of a small boy walking a goat. Putting on her best smile she bent to face him at eye level. “Uh, Mac, why do you have a goat in here?”
He looked her in the eye and smiled at her with open-hearted loved. Ah, the perks of being an eight year old. “It’s my turn to look after him. Mrs. Jones said I had to take him. And… “ he shrugged, “so here he is. Just until I go home.”
“But, we don’t allow animals in here!”, she said striving for a sense of calm. “Do you see anyone else with their pet cat, or dog, or or…”
“It’s just until Dan takes him. He’s sort of like the class pet, except it’s just for Christmas and he’s a goat,” he said looking up at her with bright blue eyes that begged her, begged her to make an exception.
“I thought classrooms stuck to hamsters and things like that,” she said, buying time.
“They do. But our school is doing a nativity scene and part of doing it is …”
“Animals,” she finished for him. How had they ever got the parents to go along with that one?
“It could be worse. Maggie got a –“
“A donkey,” Sara said weakly. This was SO NOT HAPPENING TO HER.
She looked outside at the vast expanse of lawn. OK, it was more like a postage stamp but close enough.
“The animals are going to have to go outside,” she said firmly leading the way. “You can use the bike rack as an animal hitch. She helped Mac tie his goat and then went inside in search of Maggie. In truth it’s hard to hide when you have a donkey with you.
“But it’s cold outside,” Maggie said with a wail.
“He has a fur coat on,” Sara said, with a good deal more patience than she felt. “Besides it’s only until your mother picks you up. You can go visit the donkey and make sure she’s alright.” And Maggie’s mother could deal with the problem then.
Problem solved, she congratulated herself, smoothing an unruly curl out as she led Maggie back to the out of school daycare and noticed the news van pulling up. She’d already given out the releases to be signed by all the parents.
She put on her I AM AMAZING (yes, yes I am) smile and headed out to greet Sean Douglas.
“Sean. It’s so good to see you again.”
“Is there anything in particular you wanted to see?”
“There`s so much to choose from,” he murmured. “I`ll leave it up to you.”
”Just forget about us,” the producer said. “We`ll follow along and take any other shots necessary when you`re done.”
”OK, then,” Sara said, smiling brightly. “The administration offices are just down there. That’s where my office is.” She pointed in their direction but wasn`t surprised when the cameras stayed where they were along with Sean Douglas.
”If you follow me I`ll show you where the community kitchen is,” she said leading the way. Luckily things seemed to be going well when she opened the door. Rose, one of the grandmothers was giving a demonstration on cooking chicken soup.
”Why when I was younger you had to know how to stretch a penny. And soup was a good way to do it. If you had a chicken or a turkey you could boil down the carcass and get wonderful stock from it. Of course if you don`t you can always use boullion cubes. Then you just use whatever you have handy. Potatoes, noodles, rice and flavour it with the same spices you use to flavour a chicken. Rosemary and thyme or even just some poultry seasoning from the spice rack. And I`m telling you, there`s nothing like chicken soup when you have a cold.”
She could see the cameras eating it up along with Sean and said a silent thanks to Rose who was clearly having a good day. “Next”, she said brightly, ”we have our daycare. Full days for the younger children and after school care for the older children.”
She caught a ball that came bouncing towards her and returned it with ease to Sam, a child of about eight. Fortunately he didn`t seem to have any animals with him.
“And you keep all this running,” Sean said.
“I do. Along with everyone else who works here,” she said hastily, not wanting to give anyone the wrong idea.
“I imagine it would be a good deal easier if there were a little more money.”
“There`s always more we could do,” she said simply. “Programs that we`d love to run but just don`t have the cash for.”
“Well, we`d like to partner with the library to provide more learning assistance to children having difficulty. They already have reading buddies and that`s great but there`s a real need for more help for children having difficulty in school.”
“And that isn`t being done in the schools?”
“Certainly some of it is but we`d like to offer more. And with so many children already needing after-school care it would be easy to work it into the program.”
“Don`t children need a break from school,” Sean asked. “Maybe some more sports related programs?”
“And we try to offer some sports as well. But we`re limited in what we can do.”
“And that,” he said gently, smiling at her with a hint of glee in his eyes, “is why the North Stars have decided to partner with the community center this year. And to start things off right we’re donating $5,000.00 to the center!”
She felt her breath disappear as her eyes widened in shock. This wasn’t happening, couldn’t be happening! And yet clearly it was.
“I don’t know what to say,” she managed to say weakly. She felt weak and shaky so that what she wanted to do most was take a seat or rest her head against his shoulder – where had that come from – don’t even go there she told herself looking at Sean. This was good news. She should be thanking him graciously, not looking like a guppy in desperate need of air.
“A thank you is more than enough,” he said smiling at her.
“Of course. That goes without saying. Thank you. THANK YOU! I just, I never expected…” Oh great, now she was babbling. Out of the corner of her eye she caught Becca, one of the Out of School Care program leaders waving to her desperately. She waved back and turned to the news camera.
“We look forward to partnering with the North Stars,” she said with what she hoped was polished professionalism. As the camera turned towards Sean she frowned at Nellie from the Community Kitchen. Whatever it was could surely wait at least ten minutes.
She could see he noticed the people waving at her but taking his cue from her he plunged ahead. “Together we should be able to do amazing things.”
Somehow she couldn’t help feeling he meant more than just the community center. Probably just her imagination. “We’ll definitely be able to add some more sports programming. Maybe we’ll get some of the players too…”
“We’ll work out the details,” Sean said hastily.
Before she knew it the camera crews were wrapping things up and getting ready to head out on another story. She continued to talk to Sean even as she noticed more of her co-workers waving to her. She frowned. This was ridiculous. She knew they wanted to know what was going on but they could at least give her ten minutes!
“Sara,” Nellie yelled, “Rose is missing!”
Missing? Sara turned towards Nellie and Becca, along with several other of her co-workers. Oh God! They hadn’t been selfishly trying to divert attention to themselves, there’d been a real emergency. And she’d gone blindly on ignoring them
She hurried towards them now, followed closely by Sean. “What are you talking about?”
“She’s missing. And worse. So are Mac, Maggie, and the donkey.”
She gave her head a shake, closed her eyes. This was not happening. Not to her.
“That’s not possible,” she said with a great deal more confidence than she felt.
“I told Mac he could go check on his goat, then Maggie wanted to check on the donkey so I said sure,” Becca said, not looking Sara in the face. “I mean it’s just outside the door. Nothing could happen.” She broke off as Sara shot her a look.
“So where did Rose go?” she asked Nellie.
“Well, she saw the children head out and thought they might be up to some mischief,” Nellie said. “She decided to go check on them.”
“OK,” but I don’t see how they could all go missing.”
“You’re right, you’re absolutely right,” Becca said, despair in her voice. “ But we were so busy singing carols and trying to make sure everything was picture perfect for when the cameras came around we sort of lost track of time.”
“Which is what happened to us too,” Nellie said, clearly feeling badly.
“But that’s – what – ten minutes. How far could they get in ten minutes?” She could hear her voice going up at the end even as she tried to stay calm.
“More like twenty,” Becca said apologetically. “And that’s what I thought. But when I started looking for them I couldn’t find any sign of them.”
Sean just looked at them in amazement. “Two kids, a little old lady and a donkey just disappeared into thin air?”
She rounded on him. “This has never happened before. Ever.”
“OK,” he said gently. “But what are we going to do about it now?”
“I, we. We have to find them,” she whispered horrified. “Before anyone finds out they’re missing. Before anything happens to them.” Suddenly she felt her legs start to go rubbery. What if they were hurt? What if they couldn’t find them?
“Round up everyone you can spare in the center,” Sean said, taking charge. He pulled out his cell phone and started to make a call.
“Who’re you calling?”
“Some of my team mates,” he said. “With luck they can come help.”
Before she knew it they’d organized a group of twenty some people to search the surrounding area. She’d wanted to head out immediately to search herself.
“You need to stay here,” Sean said. “You can answer any questions from us and pass information on to the other searchers when necessary. And if we haven’t found them soon you’ll have to start talking to parents.”
Oh great. Her worst nightmare.
“We have to find them,” she said fiercely. “We just, we have to.” She didn’t even want to think about any other alternatives. But as the groups spread out leaving her to hold the fort as it were she wondered if maybe they shouldn’t have kept the news cameras here. If maybe they should be calling the police and asking for their help. Because what mattered most were that her missing charges were found. If any of them were hurt she’d never forgive herself.
The other children seemed oblivious to what was going on. Becca and Kerry led them in a reindeer ring toss and caroling in which some of Rose’s friends joined . Of course the reindeer ring toss was a little more interesting when you weren’t sure which way the player was going to toss the rings. But what they lacked in eyesight or aim was more than made up for in their enthusiasm.
Sarah paced up and down, her nails biting into the flesh of her hands as she waited for something, some news. And the arrival of the first couple of parents to pick up their children before heading for home did nothing to ease her fears.
She looked out the windows seeing how the volunteers had all but disappeared from view. She could see a few down at the edge of the park. Towards the water she thought with a shudder. Rose wouldn’t go there. Unless she was following after Mac or Maggie. And they knew better. They’d stay away from the water.
Unless they were chasing the donkey. And she didn’t know what a donkey would do. Except refuse to stay where she’d tied it she thought in despair. She’d thought she was so smart. That she had everything under control. Managed. Little Miss Perfect.
And now. She blinked back tears. It didn’t matter what happened to her. As long as they found Mac and Maggie along with Rose and the donkey. She wasn’t quite sure what she’d have done if Sean hadn’t been there and rallied a crew of volunteers to search the surrounding area. For once she was glad she’d been wrong about a person.
Her cell went off and she answered it immediately. “Have you found them?”
“No. But we’re pretty sure none of them went near the water.”
“How do you know that?”
“I’ve been talking to some people who have been down here for the last hour. I’m pretty sure if any of them had come this way they’d have seen them.”
“We’ll find them,” Sean said. “I promise you.”
“You have too,” she whispered as another parent drifted in. She could hear Becca saying they’d had a great day and Harriet was a star.
Another phone call. From someone she’d never heard of before. She turned away from the children and parents.
“Lady why would I make this up? There’s a donkey outside my back door eating lettuce as we speak. Along with a couple of kids and a little old lady named Rose. I asked them where they were from and none of them seemed too sure. Rose seemed to be in charge though and she said something about the Arbutus Community Center so I figured I’d give you guys a call.”
“And we’re so glad you did,” Sarah said, feeling her eyes start to tear up. “I’ll send a couple of people right over to get them.”
“Do that,” the owner said crisply. “A friggin donkey,” she heard him saying to someone in the background before she clicked her phone off.
“I know where they are!” she said to Sean as soon as he answered. “The owner of Arbutus Food Mart called. They’re over there. The donkey’s eating lettuce!”
“I know where that is,” he answered promptly and she felt a huge surge of relief. “We’ll take the team van and have them back in no time.”
She felt weak with relief. But if she’d thought of sitting down and resting for a moment that thought disappeared at the sight of Mac’s parents heading towards her.
“Becca said you needed to talk to me,” his mother said, worry in her eyes.
“Oh, yes. Mac’s going to be a few minutes late. But he’s fine,” she said seeing the instant fear in their eyes. “His school has made him responsible for one of the animals for the school nativity scene. And he’s been helping out with one of our older residents.”
“But he shouldn’t leave the center should he? And his teacher never said anything about an animal. We live in a condo.” His mother’s voice rose.
“The important thing,” she said emphasizing the matter, “is that he’s alright.”
“Of course. But we don’t have room for …”
“And neither does the center,” Sarah said quickly. “But there’s room in my backyard.” Oh, where had that come from?
“You’d do that?”
“Just overnight,” she said hastily.
“Mac can come over and help look after the …”
“Goat,” Sarah said weakly. “I’m not sure…”
“He needs to realize what he’s agreeing to when he volunteers for something like this,” his mother said firmly.
Her words were shut out by the arrival of a very worried daughter of Rose. “What’s this about my mother being out on her own with a donkey?”
“She’s not on her own,” Sarah said weakly. “Two of the daycare center kids are with her and a hockey player from the North Stars. It’s a field trip,” she improvised.
And as she watched Sean walking along with Rose on one arm, bending down to talk to her with the two children out in front and a goat following, fairly obediently, for a goat, behind, she breathed a heart- felt sigh of relief.
A couple of hours later she made sure the gate for her backyard was firmly latched as Billy the goat and Eyore the donkey were led in by Mac and Maggie. Overhead the stars twinkled brightly overhead as Sean ordered a pizza.
“Can we stay out here and watch them,” Mac said, excitement in his voice.
Sean put his arm around him. “They’ll be fine on their own. We can come out and check them periodically.”
“But why can’t they come inside with us,” Maggie said plaintively.
“Well,” Sean said patiently. “These are farm animals. Not indoor animals. They’re used to being outside. And they’re not housebroken at all.” He shook his head as she looked at him, questioningly.
“How do you know?”
“I grew up on a farm. And that was our rule. Only pets were allowed inside the house.”
Sarah held her breath but Mac, Mollie and Josh all seemed to accept this answer. She wasn’t quite sure what she’d have done if they hadn’t. Or if Sean hadn’t been here to help.
She made hot chocolate and searched for a Christmas movie they could all watch while Sean ordered pizza. As they settled into the living room with hot chocolates waiting for the pizza Christmas movies were discussed with A Christmas Story winning out.
The pizza arrived before she knew it and she realized Sean had ordered a small vegetarian just for her even as he joined in sharing a meat lovers with the boys. Mollie looked undecided so they gave her a piece of each.
Later as the children dozed off Sean looked at her with a look that made her go all melty inside. Holding her gaze he leaned forward. Gently, he touched her forehead running a finger down her nose, over her lips and lingering. Her breath stopped while her heart began to race. As he leaned forward to kiss her she realized that maybe, just maybe, Santa had managed to give her the best Christmas present ever. Just maybe …