Emma was too busy to reflect on her day with Luke, although she wanted to. Those kisses, she thought, bore particular reflecting. She smiled at herself. What's gotten into you? Even she knew the answer: Luke.
The bulk of the shift flew by as Emma, Millie, and the other two waitresses dealt with the crowd. When things calmed down, one of the other girls begged Millie to go home, and Millie agreed.
"Why don't you ever leave early?" Millie asked as she wiped the counter. "You've earned it, that's for sure."
"Oh, one day I will." Emma yawned and stretched. "I don’t have anywhere to go, though, so there's no point."
"I bet if Luke was free, you'd be out of here like a shot." Millie gave her a knowing look.
"If Luke was free, I'd like to see him." Emma kept her voice neutral.
Millie scoffed. "'Like to see him.' Listen to yourself. You're in love with him, or almost, and that's the best you can do? Why, if I were younger, I'd be stealing him for myself."
"What…what do you…I'm not in love with him, Millie." Emma shook her head and ignored the butterflies that tumbled in her stomach. "I mean, we're dating but we haven't been for that long."
"Like that matters." The older woman bustled over. "I've seen you since you've started spending time with him, and I know what love looks like. You've both got it. Don't mess it up." She wagged an assertive, calloused finger at Emma. "It's Christmas and you have a gift. Keep it."
As customers drifted in and out of the diner, Emma pondered Millie's words. In love with Luke? Was she? She remembered thinking she'd never fall in love with anyone after what had happened with Sam; among other things, that had wreaked havoc on her trust in her own judgment. Surely, after knowing Luke for only two and a half weeks, she wasn't in love with him. She couldn’t be. Besides, she thought as she cleared a table, even if she was, she had no idea how he felt.
But you'd like to, a voice inside her said. She set down the tub of dishes and sighed. Yes, she'd like very much to know how he felt. That, and where Lila was. Emma frowned as she took a rag over to wipe some tables.
She should look for Lila again. She should call her mother and keep calling until she had an answer. She should go back over the friends they'd had at home and see if Lila had contacted any of them, however briefly. Then, she thought, she'd have to talk to people they'd known when they'd known Sam. The idea made her stomach flip, but not as bad as she might have expected.
You can handle it, she told herself. It's in the past. Even if you have to talk to Sam, you can do it. "I can," she said allowed. "I can do that."
"You say something, Emma?"
"Sorry, Millie." Emma shook her head. "I was just thinking out loud. Sometimes things feel more real when you say it out loud."
"Okay." Millie nodded and they both turned as the bells over the door jingled.
"Evening, ladies," Luke called as he and Sol came in. Sol mumbled something and made a gesture that might have been a wave. Luke looked at Emma and shook his head as he followed Sol to a table.
Emma couldn't help the smile that escaped, and Millie pushed her towards the men. "Go on, go take their order. Say hi to your boyfriend but don't forget the food."
"Hi," Emma said as she walked over.
"Hi." Luke stood up and kissed her on the cheek.
Emma blushed, half from the kiss and half from Millie's cackle from across the floor.
"Knock that off," Sol grumped. "I want kisses, I'll go to the movies. I want coffee, lots of coffee."
"Don’t mind him," Luke said as he sat down. "He's just overwhelmed with the Christmas spirit."
"I'm Jewish," Sol reminded him.
"So what? It can still overwhelm a person. What do you think happened to the Grinch?"
Emma tried not to laugh but it was difficult. "What, um, what you would like, Sol?"
"Meatloaf. And mashed potatoes." He narrowed his gaze. "With extra salt."
"You got it." She bit her lip and turned to Luke. "What would you like?"
You, all to myself, he thought, but caught himself before he said it out loud. "Meatloaf sounds good."
"All right. It'll just be a few minutes." She nodded and left.
Luke stared after her until Sol smacked his shoulder. "What?"
"Stop staring. You kids today. No manners."
"Oh, knock it off." Luke rolled his shoulders. "I bet you've stared at plenty of pretty women."
"I stared at one, then I married her. Watch yourself, kid. You're going down the same path, I can see it." He gave Luke a pointed look.
"Sol, it hasn't been that long. And I don't think looking at someone means a marriage contract." Luke denied it reflexively, but the idea of being with Emma was…nice. Someone to take care of, someone to talk to, someone to share Christmases with. Luke sighed. The holidays don't usually turn me into such a sap, he thought. Maybe Sol's on to something.
Emma brought their food and he couldn't help smiling at her. She'd come out of her shell in the last couple of weeks, at least with him. Her eyes were brighter, she was less shy, and she smiled more. She hadn't sung for him, even though he'd asked once or twice. He hadn't pressed, but part of him couldn't wait to hear her sing.
His novel was coming along, the easiest and best thing he'd written, he was sure. The story of a woman who loved to sing, and her reflections on how her singing had affected her life, and vice versa. He worked on it every spare moment, to the point of taking a recorder with him in the carriage so that he wouldn't miss any idea that might help.
"Luke, do you need something?"
He blinked and realized he'd been staring. "No, sorry, I…just spaced out for a minute." Sol would have to be right, Luke thought. I do love her.
He caught her hand as she turned to leave. "I'll walk you home after your shift, okay?"
"Sure, but it'll be late." She was puzzled. "Don’t you need to go and work on your book?"
He shrugged. "It can wait a little."
"If you're sure." Emma smiled when he nodded. "I'd like that, thanks."
Sol snorted after she'd walked away. "Listen to you."
"What now?" Luke gave Sol an exasperated look.
"Bet Hemingway didn't postpone writing for a girl. You're a lost cause, son. Might as well admit it."
"He might have if he'd met Emma." Luke raised his coffee cup in a toast.
"It was really sweet of you to walk me home." Emma squeezed Luke's arm as they approached her building.
"You can thank me by inviting me up." He coughed and feigned a shudder. "I mean, it's so cold out. I should warm up, I think. Maybe some hot chocolate? You wouldn't want me to get sick, would you?"
"No. I…" Emma took a deep breath. "It's not much, but you can come up."
Emma opened the door and stepped in, apprehensive about what Luke might think. She hadn't done much of anything to the apartment. The previous occupant had left a couch and bed and the piano. Emma had found a table and other necessary pieces of furniture, but the place was still bare of decoration on the walls.
"It's nice." Luke looked around. "Plain, but nice."
"No, it isn't." Emma shook her head. "I haven't done anything in here except hide."
"Do you play the piano?"
"No, I…" Emma didn't know what to say. What could she tell him? That she was afraid of it? That it seemed to taunt her with all the things she used to be able to do? "No, I haven't played in a long time."
"Well, you will."
Emma wished she had his confidence. "Maybe. I should do something, though…I never even put up a picture."
"I'm sure you'll find something." Luke put a hand on her back and rubbed lightly. "I could help. I don't know much about art or anything, but I could help. I have this neat black velvet Elvis you could borrow. He's dressed like Santa so it's even good for the holidays."
Emma laughed. "I bet you do have that." She grew quiet and looked around. "I don't like it here. I don't like me here."
Luke hugged her and kissed her forehead. "Come on, let's have that hot chocolate."
They settled on the couch with their mugs after Luke found some Christmas music on the radio. He put an arm around her and pulled her against him. "See, it's not so bad now."
"It's better with you here." Emma closed her eyes and rested her head on his chest. "I've been so lonely, and it's my own fault."
"You had a tough time." Luke rubbed his cheek on her soft brown hair. "I can understand."
"I think…to Sam it was all a game." Emma sipped at her drink and stared at nothing. "How long he could string me a long, and I guess maybe he thought he might hit it lucky with me, he'd get a deal and make some money. I was no good at the game." She shook her head.
"Games are a waste of time. I think, anyway."
Emma gave a short laugh. "I tried to play it his way, tried to learn the rules. He'd always tell me I 'dropped the ball.' Either I didn't sing the right song, or my voice was off, or I wasn't aggressive enough. I lost friend after friend, after Lila, trying to do things his way. The day I found him with that other girl, I finally saw what the future looked like with Sam. There wasn't one. So I know it was good I got out, but…" She swallowed. "But it's hard."
"I know." Luke shifted on the couch and pulled her closer, careful not to spill their drinks. "When I came here, as happy as I was to be here, I had days where I was pretty bitter about how things had gone down with my family. I'd get kind of depressed on days like Christmas, or birthdays."
"I think it's terrible they won't to talk to you." Emma rubbed his arm. "I know my mom and I don’t get along too well, but she never tried to stop me doing anything, or make me feel guilty about it."
"That's good." Luke was silent, then changed the subject. "You need some Christmas decorations."
Emma sighed. "I bought one. It's on the table there. I…oh, wow, if I say it, I'll sound like such a martyr."
"Martyrisms are excellent fodder for writers, so tell me." Luke winked and she chuckled.
"It just occurred to me in the last few days that I've been avoiding Christmas, and other things I like to do, because I feel like I don’t deserve them. How dumb is that?" Emma stared at her mug to avoid looking at Luke.
"It's not dumb, Emma. And neither are you." Luke took their mugs and set them on the floor, then turned and wrapped his arms around her. "You did some bad things, but you know it now and you're sorry. You're trying to make it better, I can tell. That counts for a lot."
"You think so?"
"I do." He kissed her; a slow, reassuring touch of lips on lips. "You have to move forward, you know that. As upset as I was, I stayed and kept writing. You should start writing again, and singing."
"I thought…I thought I'd try finding Lila again." She closed her eyes as Luke stroked her hair. Being so close to him had her body waking up in ways it hadn't in ages. "And when I thought that, I think felt something kind of open, if you see what I mean. Like maybe I could write something again."
"I think." Luke kissed her. "You should write something." Another kiss. "Anything." Another, this time on her neck, and she shivered. "Just try." Instead of a kiss, he flicked his tongue over the pulse in her neck and she jumped.
Emma gave a shaky laugh. "I don't think I could write anything while you're doing that. It's distracting."
Luke laughed in return, a low rumble that made Emma's stomach flip. "I didn't mean now."
He caught her lips again and cupped the back of her head with his free hand so that she couldn't get away. Emma sighed and parted her lips, feeling first tentative, then light-headed when Luke's tongue swept in and met her own. Sparks erupted through her body and she clutched at his shoulders even though she knew he wouldn't let her go.
"Do you have any idea how good you feel?" Luke slid a hand under her sweater and smiled to himself as he felt her tremble. Her skin was smooth and warm, and he wanted to feel it against more than just his hand.
Emma dropped her head against his shoulder. She was somewhere between thrilled and terrified. Luke's kisses made her head swim, and his touch sent warmth shooting through her body, erasing the cold spots she'd carried inside for so long. She'd never expected to feel like this; had stopped hoping anyone would want to make her feel like this. His hand slid higher and she bit her lip, not moving, not sure what to do.
"Emma? Emma." Luke pulled back when she stiffened but kept his hand in place. "Are you all right? Do you want me to stop?"
"I…no, but I…" She took a deep breath. "I'm sorry. It's been so long and after everything that happened with Sam, I didn't think anyone would ever…want me."
"Emma, that's all in the past." He nuzzled her cheek and then held her close. "And I think it's pretty obvious that I want you."
"Shhh. It's all right." He nudged her head down and stroked her hair some more. "Just because you want something doesn't mean you should take it right away. Besides." He put a finger under her chin and moved so he could see her face. "Christmas is coming."
Emma smiled, then laid her head down again. Christmas is coming. A time for new beginnings. I should make one..