Genre = Contemporary Romance, Sweet Romance, Romantic Comedy

Never Stop Believing

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The Holidays Can’t Get Much More Perfect!

Singer, Natalie Bright, sings for her supper, and for her grandmother’s supper too. With bills to pay and her grandmother’s illness to fight, life takes all the energy she has and then some. Love is something she tried once in her twenties and it didn’t work out. Natalie’s never stopped believing in miracles or in Santa, but she’s not very hopeful when it comes to finding love.

Several years ago Dr. Jet Rahman lost the love of his life who was also his best friend. Now his work fills the empty space inside him, and what’s left goes to his five-year-old daughter. Does he believe he can find love again? He certainly believes starting over is possible when you find someone who’s a good match for you. He and Natalie though? Well, they’re not a totally brilliant idea, no matter how hopeful kissing her makes him

Read Chapter 1

“What are you humming? Sounds like a pop song. After training in the classics, that’s nearly a sin.”

Natalie turned to smile at the woman who’d raised her. She was not engaging in a music debate this morning, especially not since pop and jazz paid most of their bills.

“Is this a cane day, Bibi?” she asked as she blatantly ignored her grandmother’s question. Santa Baby had been in her head when she woke up this morning. She was going to have to look up the lyrics before her first practice.

And she was going to have to call around to see if she could find a suitably sexy costume for someone with generous curves—something Marilyn Monroe-esque that made the most of her ample boob-age. She was thinking of a short red dress trimmed in fur.

Her grandmother waved her free hand as she continued her slow trek to the small dining table in the kitchen alcove. The table didn’t fit the rest of the house, but it had belonged to Bibi’s grandmother. Bibi’s mother had paid to have it shipped to Ohio from England. Despite its inferior quality, Bibi loved it for the memories and did all her kitchen upgrades around it.

“Most days are cane days. What infirmity the disease doesn’t cause, old age makes sure I get. I’m losing the battle of life, Natalie. You’ll be on your own soon.”

Natalie plated their eggs and toast and carried their breakfast to the table. After setting down their food, she hugged her grandmother as she helped her lower her body into a chair. She gathered the butter and marmalade while her grandmother got situated to eat. The last thing Natalie put on the table was a Brown Betty pot containing her grandmother’s favorite British Breakfast tea.

When her grandmother fiercely frowned, Natalie automatically frowned back. Her mother had said she came out of her womb frowning exactly like Bibi.

“What is it, Bibi? I promise I made the tea exactly the way you taught me.”

And exactly the way she had for the last six years she’d lived in her grandmother’s home.

Her grandparents finished raising her after her parents died. Natalie had left at eighteen to go to Europe and study. Her heart had been full of dreams and schemes back then.

She’d returned to live with her grandparents at thirty, soul-battered and disillusioned. Her marriage to Evan spanned a blessedly brief period of five years in her mid-to-late twenties.

Neither career nor love had worked out as Natalie had planned, but her great-grandfather had survived World Wars I and II. Brights did not surrender to fate.

After her grandfather died in his sleep three years ago, both of them ended up alone. Judy helped, but she couldn’t replace the love of her grandmother’s life. Bibi grumpily grieved him still. Judy didn’t begrudge the woman that. Neither did Natalie.

“Finish what you’re doing and sit, girl. It hurts my old neck to bend back far enough to look up at you. You’re not a short woman.”

Her aging grandmother had shrunk from her previously impressive five-feet-nine height to Natalie’s five-feet-seven one in the last few years. Five-feet-seven wasn’t all that tall in her opinion, but Natalie grabbed her coffee and went to sit across from her grandmother.

“Are you okay, Bibi? Did you have a bad night?”

Her grandmother swept a hand toward breakfast. “No. It’s this—all this.”

Natalie stared at their morning feast. It was a modest spread, but filling and nutritious. With the day she had ahead, she’d be lucky to stop for a smoothie between tasks. Having a substantial breakfast had become critical to keeping up with her crazy schedule.

“If you want something different for breakfast, Bibi, all you have to do is ask.”

“And that’s exactly what I’m talking about.”

Her grandmother spread her long arms and gripped the sides of the table with hands that rarely stopped quivering. Bibi’s muscle control was growing worse, but her doctors said there was no more to be done for someone her age.

“I feel like a failure. You should be sharing this meal with your husband and children, not with an old shaky woman like me.”

Natalie visibly rolled her eyes at the dramatic statement, shook her head, and then took a bite of her eggs. She ate in silence for a minute. Finally, she lifted her head and mock-glared at her grandmother, who seemed itching to start an argument this morning. “Having a permanent man in my life is not one of my goals, Bibi. Men cheat and leave you for someone prettier or skinnier. Or someone richer… I can’t leave that one out. I don’t have time for such nonsense anymore.”

“One man left you—only one. You gave up on men too soon,” Bibi insisted as she too started to eat.

“Yes, but you never left me. You never gave up. You paid for my music training even after my voice teachers told you my talent was mediocre. If anyone deserves for me to cook them breakfast every day, it’s you,” Natalie said in the firmest tone her extremely trained vocal cords could manage.

Bibi shrugged at the praise while she ate, but they both knew Natalie meant every word.

It pleased her that Bibi’s hands got a little less shaky with every bite. Or at least, that’s what Natalie believed. That small win was enough to justify the choice she made to give up her condo and move in with her grandparents to help.

“Your divorce was final three years ago, Natalie. The right man can show you heaven, just like the wrong man can show you hell. And you know what Sir Winston Churchill said about hell…”

If you’re going through hell, keep going,” Natalie recited in her best imitation of a man’s gruff voice. She’d had no choice but to learn the Churchill quote because it was one of Bibi’s favorites. In fact, if she had a nickel for every time Bibi made her repeat it over the years, she would never have to work again.

“You didn’t follow his advice, girl. You’re still going through hell for someone who’s worth less than a wad of chewed gum stuck to your shoe,” Bibi stated flatly.

Natalie swallowed a bite of toast. No one could insult her ex-husband quite as well as her grandmother. She liked Evan being compared to a wad of chewed gum stuck to her shoe. She grinned at her grandmother over the remains of their meal. “Why don’t you ever quote Americans, Bibi? Your mother was English, but your father was an American soldier. You were born in Cincinnati.”

“I know what you’re doing, Natalie. You’re trying to change the subject.”

She was… and that strategy typically worked with her grandmother. “I don’t want to talk about Evan anymore. Yes, marrying the man was a mistake. Did you not notice that I haven’t made another one like that since I divorced him? See, Bibi? I learned my lesson.”

“Well, you should have made a dozen more mistakes by now. That’s what unmarried women in their thirties do. They say to hell with appearances and date a bunch of damn frogs until they find their proper prince. That’s not just how it works in fairytales.”

Natalie sighed and gave up trying to eat. “My schedule is hectic—you know that. I tried online dating and the guys who emailed me back were all creeps. If I met someone nice, I probably would go out with them. I’m not circulating in the right places to meet them. One day maybe I will be.”

“You could let me pay for that high price dating agency in town. They’d probably take care of your lack of social circulation problem.”

“What dating agency? Oh… you mean The Perfect Date?” Natalie chuckled at the idea. “They’re way out of my price range. Neither of us can afford that. I’d rather take care of the house.”

“You’re singing for that agency and they aren’t paying you squat for your time and energy.”

“I’m singing one song for the Christmas charity drive and I cut my rate for them on purpose. They took bids for singers and I wanted to be the one to do it. They’re televising my performance, which will be both good and free publicity for me. I love doing the PBS show, but you know it doesn’t pay all that well. We talked about this, Bibi.”

“Yes, I know we have. From those conversations, I concluded you lead with your heart and have no actual head for business. Luckily for you, I’m leaving you an inheritance. If you keep being so frugal with the pittance you make from your craft, I’m sure it will pay enough to feed your ten cats when you’re my age.”

“Ah… the Bright sarcastic wit is gracing us this morning. It always makes my day.”

“Pot. Kettle. Black,” Bibi sang as dragged the Brown Betty teapot close.

Natalie rolled her eyes before looking away to pray while Bibi poured her tea. It was the only time she grew fearful of her grandmother’s weakness. Not because she worried about the Brown Betty’s fate. Bibi’s well-used imported teapot had survived a multitude of drops and spills since her grandmother’s diagnosis six years ago.

No, what Natalie worried about was worse.

If Bibi dropped the teapot while pouring—as she sometimes did—her grandmother officially would be done with breakfast. Since she had a PBS recording to finish this afternoon and a jazz gig this evening, she wouldn’t be home to make sure her grandmother ate again today. Judy would try to coax her, but Bibi could be stubborn. They’d already gone through one round of hospitalization for dehydration and lack of nourishment. Natalie had no intention of letting that happen again. Maybe she could talk Bibi into dining out. No one needed to be in the house for so long, regardless of their affliction.

Natalie finally steeled her nerves enough to look back at her grandmother, who was now sipping her tea. The iron will Bibi claimed to have inherited from her military father was showing itself in the stranglehold her grandmother currently had on a dainty teacup with painted butterflies flying on it.

Natalie felt a real kinship with Bibi’s teacups. Besides steadying her for tasks, her grandmother’s iron will frequently fixated on finding Natalie a husband. The woman seemed determined to live long enough to see Natalie married again.

At thirty-seven, Natalie didn’t have time to feel sorry for herself. Instead, she focused on her work. It took all her time and energy to keep the utilities paid in her grandmother’s five thousand square foot house. Natalie also worked on earning enough to pay for a daytime companion when she had to be away.

Could her grandmother pay all the bills by herself? Yes, she could—for a while. But they’d both learned that hospital visits weren’t cheap, and medical insurance didn’t cover it all. When her grandfather died, his contribution had gone away. And who knew what troubles the future held?

Neither of them wanted Bibi to have to go into a nursing home. They’d have to sell the house, and that was not okay.

Natalie would do a lot to keep that from happening. The house was home to both of them, not just home for Bibi. Security is what she worked for, and Natalie worried about her ability to continue doing it every day.

Who had time for dating guys who likely wouldn’t be worth it? Not her.

Plus, even if she was interested in someone, finding someone good enough to pass Bibi’s standards for husband material would be next to impossible.

Her grandfather—God Bless him—died and left behind an enormous pair of shoes for a man in her life to fill. Evan hadn’t filled them. Evan hadn’t even filled one shoe’s worth. 

Natalie sighed inwardly—she’d learned not to let her physical frustration out—while she carried her dishes to the sink.

A friendly voice called a greeting as her grandmother’s ‘personal assistant’ let herself into the house with her key.

“Good morning! We’re in the kitchen, Judy,” she called back, her voice carrying easily through the front of their quiet home.

“Natalie, don’t yell. You might strain something vital and not be able to sing.”

“Morning all,” Judy all but sang as she came into the kitchen.

Natalie grinned at Judy’s wink before she headed to the still half-full coffeepot. She sighed internally again, feeling grateful. God bless Judy for helping mitigate Bibi’s unhappiness with her own perky brand of home health assistance. Who wouldn’t be unhappy though? Bibi was one disease progression away from spending the rest of her life in a wheelchair.

Natalie returned to the table. She lifted the Brown Betty and poured Bibi a refill before leaning down to kiss her huffing grandmother’s cheek.

“I have a gig at the club tonight, Bibi. Don’t wait up for me and please have some dinner before you take your night meds. Judy’s going to make that casserole we like. I’ll have some when I get home.”

“You worry too much about me eating.”

“I worry because you don’t always behave, Bibi. Be nice to Judy today. She’s taking you to get your hair done.”

“Why? Who’s going to see my hair?” Bibi asked with a scowl.

“Me and Judy—and our eyes are reason enough,” Natalie stated. She’d almost perfected Bibi’s signature haughtiness.

“Good thing you’re a singer and not a comedian or the lawn would never get mowed.”

Judy laughed. “Good one, Matilda. I’ll phone ahead and warn the hairdresser you’re in one of your moods today.”

Winking at Judy for using Bibi’s proper name in her chastisement, Natalie headed to her room to dress.

Read Chapter 2

“I had no idea we were so busy. I’m running out of energy just making notes,” Mariah complained as her ink pen zipped across the legal pad.

“Try a tablet. People can type much faster than they can write.”

“Technology serves us well, but I prefer not to let it rule my every activity. I like to see my handwriting on paper. Crossing out my lists makes me feel like I’m working hard—much harder than deleting them electronically,” Mariah said, grinning at her chuckling co-worker. “Stop laughing and tell me what’s left. What’s the next big thing on The Perfect Date’s calendar?”

As her chuckles faded, Della consulted the tablet in her hand. “The next big thing is a dress rehearsal for our televised Christmas charity spot. That happens late next week. We need to identify the Santas and make sure they block out time to work with us.”

“It one song. How many Santas do you need?”

“Four,” Della replied, then reconsidered. “Well, we need five, but Iris found the most perfect one already. His name is Christopher Rudolph, and that man won’t need anything to look natural in a big red Santa suit. He has a white beard, white hair, and eyes the color of the sky.”

“Does his stomach shake like a bowl of jelly when he laughs?” Mariah asked.

Della giggled. “I’ve never met the man. He must be one of your special clients. I thought I knew everyone in the database, but I missed the one who looks like Santa. What can I say?”

“A client who looks like the galactic average Santa doesn’t come to mind. Has he been active in the last six months?”

“He paid the membership fee to be in the database, but that’s all the activity I found. His bio was average, definitely not our best work. I probably need to redo his video.”

Mariah studied the woman, all but smirking in the chair across from her. Della knew she couldn’t turn down this opportunity. It would cost her a free date per Santa, but the Christmas fundraiser would broadcast across six Cincinnati television stations and some in Lexington, Kentucky. For the 15k she would lose in fees, The Perfect Date would get well over 50k worth of televised spots. And that wasn’t even counting the shared videos and website visits to re-watch it.

“What do you think about offering Natalie Bright a spot in our database?”

Mariah tapped her chin. “Can she afford to be with us in the future?” Mariah asked.

Della sadly shook her head. “I don’t think so. Natalie does jazz and contemporary gigs, as well as her PBS show about classical music. I don’t know her salary, but the PBS network relies on donations. I didn’t pick up any financially desperate vibe from Natalie when we talked, so her income probably pays her bills.”

Mariah sighed and shook her head.

Della lifted a hand, palm up. “She wasn’t even the most expensive singer I found. We’re barely paying her the equivalent of the agency’s sign-up fee to do her Santa Baby routine. PBS paid for the song’s rights. Natalie said she’d have her routine mapped out by rehearsal. All the guys are going to have to do is stand where she says and let her pull off their Santa hats to reveal them.”

Mariah winced at the news. She had to admit that most of Della’s budget-friendly promotions, like the occasional cocktail hour meet and greets, had more than doubled the dating requests they’d seen their database clients make in the last six months. They also were getting much of their new business from satisfied couples spreading the word via interviews Della conned them into videotaping after they’d met their perfect match.

How could she complain about this one? Her clever assistant had already covered both her and Iris’s salaries for the year. It would be churlish to refuse Natalie Bright a date because she worried about starting a “free” precedent. Despite expanding profits, though, the agency wasn’t solvent enough to handle pro bono clients yet.

Plus, most clients expect to be making dates with people who were their financial equals in terms of jobs and earnings. The rightful assumption was that everyone in the database could front the 3k needed to make a date request when the mood hit them.

Her mother’s friends, Jellica and Ann, had been the only exceptions. They were not typical or affluent. Perhaps one day The Perfect Date would take in more pro bono clients, but not right now. The bigger plan was to move the office to a better part of town—a safer part.

Mariah drummed her fingers on the desk. “How about we play fairy godmothers for one magical date only? We could offer Natalie a short list of potential princes after culling our personal picks to find her a willing dinner partner. We would control everything. There would be no cost to either Natalie or her date, which would definitely make it seem like a reward instead of a normal service. Also, I think we could work out a sponsorship deal with our two favorite chefs. Trudy and Jack might provide dinner for two to get one of their restaurants featured in the press.”

Della smiled as she nodded in approval. “I think those are all great ideas. Natalie’s got a great sense of humor. Elliston and I went to see her at a jazz club where she performs every other week. She works a room really well as an entertainer. I can definitely make sure the local newspapers interview her about it afterward, which I think she’d be willing to do. Since the Santa Iris already found is so department store perfect, I’d like to make sure all the other Santas are diverse. That’s a necessary business message to send these days, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity.”

Mariah nodded in agreement, then grinned. “Elliston’s turned you into a regular marketing machine, hasn’t he?”

Della lifted a shoulder and wrinkled her nose at the thought. “More like he chuckles and feeds the beast whenever I mention any wild idea about making The Perfect Date more money.”

“I won’t argue with your motivation or your mentor. Your husband-to-be is one smart businessperson,” Mariah said with a laugh.

Della chuckled as she thought about Elliston’s gorilla theory. She’d been playing in the man’s jungle for a while now. It was bound to have an effect. “Don’t get too used to my enthusiasm for marketing. I may be running on guilt still. After chasing down Iris at her old job and luring her here for Lincoln, I never thought you’d trust my judgment again.”

Mariah grinned. “You get a pass for Lincoln and Iris. They couldn’t be happier together. That’s the actual goal of what we do. Money just keeps the lights turned on and the doors open.”

“I think I did much better with the Honorable Eleanor J. Skyler. Despite my urges, I didn’t chase down that partner she liked at her law firm or run her off with too much advice about letting go of the past. Nope. I stayed in my office and let it all play out.”

Mariah burst out laughing. “Who are you trying to convince—me or yourself? If you thought it would have helped her, you’d have chased that guy down and talked him into joining.”

“Probably,” Della admitted. “I enjoy seeing clients get their happily ever after. That’s the best feeling in the world.”

“Well, try to restrain yourself with Natalie Bright. Keep our data in mind, Dr. Livingston. No one finds their perfect match with a single date.”

Della couldn’t answer without laughing, so she didn’t try.

“The Santa Baby spot is now a complete go on my end, but you have to talk the other guys into doing it,” Mariah warned. “And good luck finding four ethnically diverse Santas in our database. We have a lot of diversity among our clients, but diversity comes with limitations we boast about honoring. Not everyone celebrates Christmas. I’m glad I won’t be the one trying to explain this to them.”

“Challenge accepted, Dr. Bates,” Della said with a giggle as she stood up and saluted.

*** 

“Hello. I have an appointment to see Dr. Rahman. Can you let him know that Dr. Della Livingston is here? If he’s with clients, tell him there’s no need to rush. I’m happy to wait for him to have a few free moments.”

“Of course, Dr. Livingston. We’ll let him know.”

Della sat in the waiting room. Ten minutes went by before a nurse emerged and led her back to an empty patient room. Another five or six minutes passed before Dr. Jet Rahman walked in to see her. How this successful and handsome man remained single defied her understanding. She’d seen that he’d turned down some requests. Maybe he wasn’t over his wife dying yet.

“Thanks for stopping by. I truly couldn’t get away today.”

Even as used to Iris as she was, Della smiled at his accent as she watched him lower his white-coated body to sit on a low stool. It made her a little nervous when he rolled it until he faced her. This felt like an examination, and she couldn’t let that happen. “Let me get to the point quickly, Dr. Rahman.”

“Jet, please.”

“Jet,” Della repeated, keeping her soft smile in place. “You can call me Della. May I ask my question now?”

“Certainly.”

Della drew in a breath. “Do you and your family celebrate Christmas?” She could tell from his stare that she’d surprised him. “If you don’t, that’s fine, of course. I have a reason for asking.”

“Call me curious now,” he said. He looked away and then looked back. “I was born and raised in London. My very proper English mother faithfully stuffed a duck and made Yorkshire pudding every December. My Nana and Pop-Pop—my mother’s parents—brought my sister and me figs and oranges for our stockings. We also trimmed a tree.”

Della could see he was fighting not to be indignant. She bet he could do indignant well. Her mouth twitched at the thought.

“Did you seriously drive all the way here to ask me that?”

Nodding, Della shifted in her seat. “Yes, I did, and that’s excellent news.”

She sat up straighter, smiled in approval at the handsome man in front of her, and met his intense chocolate gaze with her best pleading one. “The Perfect Date is helping sponsor Cincinnati’s televised Christmas charity drive this year. They divide proceeds from the drive among several charities involving children. We need five clients from our database to dress up as Santa for a half hour. All you’d have to do is stand on stage in a Santa suit and smile when a pretty singer pulls off your Santa hat during a song. In exchange for volunteering to represent us, you’ll get one free date request put on your account.”

Dr. Jet Rahman chuckled like a college boy over her question. Della couldn’t help being charmed. When he smiled, it transformed his face. If a man could be considered beautiful, this one was.

“Now I’m understanding your need to plead your case in person,” he told her.

Della shrugged. She felt no shame—none at all. “I know I could have sent an email or text, but I need to have an answer by tomorrow. Dress rehearsal is next Thursday at 5:30 pm. The singer we hired hosts a PBS show about classical music. CET is allowing us to use one of their empty stages for practice. The actual event will take place on the Saturday after the practice at 3:20 pm. So, Thursday evening for an hour, and again Saturday for an hour.”

“Five Santas. Dr. Bates is being very generous.”

“We paid for the singer as well. It’s for a good cause.”

Very, very generous,” Jet corrected.

Della bowed her head and dropped her eyes. Now came the hard part. “In the spirit of full disclosure, I also had one other big reason to come ask you—specifically you—in person.”

“I see. Should I be worried about that reason?” he asked. Then he snapped his fingers. “Was I singled out because my dating life among your clients is practically dormant? Sasha started school this year. My evenings have been full of kindergarten homework and my weekends are the only time I get to rest. Honestly, the only date I’ve been making is one with my bed. Sleep is quite the luxury when you have a five-year-old and a busy medical practice.”

Della laughed softly as she shook her head. “No, it’s nothing like that. Our agency leaves that sort of nagging up to your mother.” When he genuinely laughed at her joke, it was like winning the lottery. The man was an enigma. “The event is being televised. I’m trying to choose men who represent the diversity of our client base. In short, I decided I needed an Indian Santa to round out the group.”

Dr. Rahman laughed. “I haven’t been to India since I was a child, Dr. Livingston.”

“Della…”

“Della,” Jet conceded. “My father’s family prefers to come to the states to visit. One of my widowed aunts lives with me in exchange for watching my daughter. I know I look very much like my father, but my parents raised me to be my English mother’s son.”

“You won’t have to speak or sing during the song. No one will know your exact heritage. I feel confident you’ll do fine.”

Grinning, Jet hung his head. “I can’t believe I was the agency’s first choice for a representative brown Santa.” He normally didn’t say such things outright, but today merited the blunt exception. He applauded their efforts at trying to be inclusive at least.

Della winced. “Well, you weren’t actually the first choice. One client had recently married. One just came out of the closet and didn’t want to be on camera after doing so. Another is moving out of the state, so he’s canceling his membership. My list kept shrinking.”

“Oh, then you’re saying I was your last choice,” Jet concluded with a smug smile over finally figuring it out.

Sighing, Della nodded. “Yes. You fit most of my requirements. I wouldn’t normally bother a busy doctor like you, but I’m here because this truly is a worthy cause. Is there any chance you’d be able to take a little bit of time to help? It’s really a matter of a few hours plus travel time.”

Jet rubbed his jaw as he thought. Thursday appointments ended after lunch. If he left the clinic by 1:00 pm, he easily could make a trip home before heading to CET. He also didn’t think he was on call at the hospital on Saturday.

 “Can I bring my daughter and aunt to watch on Thursday? We could do a family night after. Sasha would love that.”

“Absolutely. Bring your family,” Della promised, hoping Natalie wouldn’t mind the extra audience.

Read Chapter 3

Natalie tugged at the fur collar that dipped down awfully far. That’s what she got for having to borrow her costume. Nothing in her closet was Christmas-y enough. “I believe I need to stitch this up a bit before Saturday. No one will hear a word of the song if my girls are bouncing out of my costume. I’m not intending for this to be a burlesque performance.”

“It might as well be, Natalie. Obscene fits that rap music you insist on doing for money,” Bibi announced with a snort.

“What I’m singing is not rap music, Bibi. I don’t have the vocals for rap. It’s simply a fun Christmas pop song that I can entertain viewers with. Before you share your opinions with others who might innocently happen by tonight, please remember that I have a reputation to maintain here at the station,” Natalie said as she pushed her breasts down inside her furry top as far as she could. She looked up and smiled at Bibi’s companion. “Thanks so much for bringing her, Judy. I made dinner reservations for us afterward. You’re welcome to join us—my treat.”

Judy smiled and shook her head. “I will never pass up a chance to get to hear you sing, and the trip was no trouble. Thanks for the lovely dinner invite, but my oldest grandchild has a soccer match. He called dibs on my time this evening.”

Natalie nodded. “Maybe another time. I suppose I need to go greet my Santas. I see most of them have arrived.”

“Those are some very nice-looking Santas. It’s a shame to cover them up with all that red flannel,” Judy said with a grin and a wink.

Natalie giggled. “Yes. Dr. Livingston picked well, didn’t she? They’re all very pretty and pretty is best for TV.”

“The one looks like the real Santa. Maybe they hired him.”

“No, he’s a client too. I may buy Bibi a date with him. He’s a little younger than her, but wouldn’t it be fun to tell people you dated Santa? What do you think, Bibi?”

Her grandmother’s quiet expletive set Judy and her both to giggling. Risking total breast exposure, Natalie leaned down and kissed her grandmother’s cheek. “I was teasing, Bibi.”

“Stop trying to be funny. Go sing,” Bibi ordered.

Natalie giggled again as she straightened to find a male staring at her. At his side was a tiny blonde girl with curled hair and a pretty winter hat. An older woman hovered behind both of them, looking around.

“Hi. Can I help you?”

Natalie’s smile grew when he cleared his throat. Nothing like an unobstructed view of breasts to mess up a guy’s mind.

“I’m…”

“My daddy is going to be Santa,” the little girl said when he paused too long.

Natalie chuckled. “I bet he’s going to make a wonderful Santa.”

“I get to watch,” she said quietly. “My aunt gets to watch too.”

“Absolutely,” Natalie agreed. “You and your auntie can keep my Bibi company.”

“Bibi?” the girl said with a giggle. “What’s a Bibi?”

“Bibi is my grandmother.” Natalie turned and gave her grandmother a warning look. “Say hello, Bibi.”

“Hello Bibi,” her grandmother said snarkily as she winked at the little girl.

Natalie looked back at the girl’s father. Was he honestly a client at The Perfect Date? Did all their men look as good as the ones Dr. Livingston sent to her as Santas? “Grab a couple of chairs for your family, Santa. When they’re settled, head toward the others and one of my helpers will get you suited up.”

“Of course,” Jet answered. “Thank you.”

Natalie lifted an eyebrow. “Do I hear London?”

“Yes,” he answered.

“Bibi’s family hails from there,” Natalie said before turning when someone called her name. She turned back to him. “Looks like I’m being summoned.” She looked at the little girl. “My name is Natalie. What’s your name?”

“Sasha. Aunt Runa said my mother read too many Russian books.”

Natalie chuckled when Sasha’s father turned to glare at the blabbing aunt. “Fascinating,” she said to cover her amusement. “Well, I hope you enjoy the show, Sasha. It was very nice to meet you and your family.”

***

Natalie was at ease as she placed the handsome Santas in a star pattern which would allow her to do her best Eartha Kitt impression and dance between them. This was turning out to be much more fun than she’d expected. The Santas were charming. Some were flirty. The one was so spot on that he looked like he’d jumped off a decorative Christmas plate.

Sasha’s father wasn’t as animated as the others, but he was cooperative. He held her gaze more than the others did when she tugged him to where she wanted him to stand. Of all the men, the London Santa was the one who sent her pulse racing a little. But it wasn’t his looks that snagged her. They were all handsome. No, it was something…

“Natalie, hold up. Your mic’s slipping.”

Natalie turned her back to her sound engineer so he could clip the portable mic into place on her costume.

What was it about cute Sasha’s father that did it for her? Maybe it was the way he stared at her. He didn’t pretend not to be interested like most males. However, his interest didn’t feel much like normal attraction. Instead, she felt like the first piece of a puzzle he’d gotten stuck with solving against his will.

Natalie laughed when her engineer pushed on her back to let her know everything was fine. Lord, she was spending too much time with her snarky grandmother. Even her private thoughts were snarky these days.

Did Dr. Livingston realize the man was English and not Indian? Surely she did. If not, the moment he opened his mouth and spoke, the world would know. The man’s British accent was the kind that made women swoon—well, women like her swoon. She’d always loved voices.

Not that she could afford to be interested in him, and judging by Sasha’s blonde cuteness, he likely went for the skinny blonde soccer mom type, anyway. Natalie was many wonderful things, including confidence in her womanhood. But she was not skinny, not blonde, and not rich enough to pay to date even the poorest of The Perfect Date’s Santas. Music was her calling in life but had not been a super lucrative career. The London Santa was probably a doctor or something. His hands looked like he got regular manicures.

Natalie reached up one of her own hands to push her overly styled hair back behind her. When had she noticed the man’s hands, for goodness sakes? They spoke for less than five minutes. Maybe Bibi was right. Maybe she needed to make a few more mistakes. Maybe she needed to date that violin player she’d featured on her classical music show last month. He was nice, and they had a lot in common.

“Ready to sing?” her engineer asked as she walked to her mark.

“You know me, Charlie. I’m always ready,” Natalie replied with a smile.

The recorded music began, and she soon forgot everything except the song.

The Perfect Date Books 1 through 8

About The Perfect Date Series

The essence of all romantic comedy is that falling in love and navigating an unexpected romance is never easy or simple. Instead, it’s messy and emotional, and if you’re lucky, it’s also sexy and fun.

Some relationship professionals, like my character of Dr. Mariah Bates in this series, sincerely want to help people find their perfect love match. For the various heroines I’ve created, many of whom are older, Mariah’s going to need all the help she can get. Or maybe she just needs to step out of the way. You can be the judge.

NOTE ABOUT THE HEAT LEVEL:  I’ve taken a nearly-closed-door approach to the eight books in this series. The focus is on sensuality and I’ve packed a lot into these stories. I categorize them as “Sweet Romance” by today’s industry standards for romance, but these books are definitely on the Spicy end of the spectrum.

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