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Merry and Her Gentleman - a Christmas contemporary romance by Anne Avery
MERRY AND HER GENTLEMAN
 

“Merry Christmas?”

      The clerk in the Drivers License Bureau slid her glasses down to the tip of her nose and peered at Merry over the rims.

      “I can’t help it,” Merry said, bristling defensively. “Look at my birth date.”

      The clerk slid her glasses back up and scowled at the form Merry had set in front of her. “Hmmmm.”

      “My parents thought it was cute.”

      “Cute?”

      “That’s right.” Merry let her jaw harden and her eyes narrow ever so slightly to show she wasn’t someone the clerk could push around, regardless of the name on her license. “Now can we finish here, please? I have some shopping to do.”

      “Humph,” said the clerk, turning to key the information for a license renewal into the computer. As she worked, her eyes got squintier and her thin lips pinched into a disapproving frown.

      Merry’s grip on her purse tightened involuntarily. Twenty-three years of living with her parents’ idea of cute hadn’t made it any

easier to deal with the snickering amusement of people who thought names like Sally and Bill were as daring as anyone ought to get.

      Not that Merry didn’t agree with them, of course, but she would never have told her parents that. Other than their regrettable taste in names, they were the kindest, most loving and supportive parents a person could want.

      The trouble was, her father, John Doe, had a name that was a cliché for everything from a nonentity to an unidentified corpse. He’d almost missed enrolling in kindergarten because the principal thought someone was playing a joke on him; the college of his choice had treated his application as a test-run for a new admissions system and promptly lost it; and when he’d been arrested for participating in the peace marches in Washington in the early seventies, the police had taken a jaundiced view of what they thought was more political trouble-making.

      John’s high-school and college sweetheart had happily joined him in the D.C. jail, women’s section, but she’d almost refused to marry him on the grounds that she couldn’t possibly go through life with a name like Jane Doe. Given her political leanings, she would have kept her maiden name except that she’d been hoping for years that marriage would release her from the burden of having been christened plain Jane Smith.

      Fortunately for Merry, her mother had eventually given in despite the name because Jane, like John, had been an only child and the only things she wanted more than Peace on Earth were a loving husband, a rambling old house, and a big family with which to fill it.

      Unfortunately, John and Jane’s experiences had convinced them that their children needed names that were a little more memorable than plain Jane and John. As a result, the first child rash enough to venture into the world had been named Mick Jagger Doe in honor of Jane’s youthful infatuation with the Rolling Stones.

      Mick, who swore he’d stopped resenting his name when his mother had informed him that her other idol had been Pink Floyd, had been followed by Clarence Darrow (Dare) Doe, Robert John Kennedy (Ken) Doe, and Martin Luther Doe (who went by King, since John and Jane admitted they would have named him Martin Luther King Doe, to distinguish him from the original Martin Luther, if they hadn’t forgotten the religious reformer in all the excitement).

      After King, there’d been a break of a few years when Jane began to fear that four children was all she was going to have. But then Neil Armstrong Doe had come along with Willie Nelson Doe hard on his heels—Jane’s taste in music having mellowed somewhat from her hard rock years—and it began to look as if all Jane’s dreams were going to come true after all. Except the Peace on Earth part, which she was beginning to suspect was out of her hands, anyway.

      By the time Willie entered pre-school, John and Jane had settled into a comfortable, middle-class suburban life spiced with just enough political and social activism to keep them busy and give the boys plenty of time to get into trouble. They picketed for educational reform, helped build houses for Habitat for Humanity, marched to save wetlands, and, over the years, welcomed more than a dozen foster kids into their house and their hearts.

      Only one thing marred life’s perfection—John and Jane wanted a little girl. With each pregnancy, they sorted through possible names without ever deciding on one in particular.

      “She could be Gertrude Stein Doe,” said Jane, who liked obscure literature almost as much as she liked popular music.

      “Eleanor Roosevelt Doe,” John countered. His own mother had met Mrs. Roosevelt once and had raised her son with a sound respect for the lady’s achievements.

      “Well,” said Jane dubiously. “I suppose that would be all right. Better than Gloria Steinhem Doe, anyway. I knew a Gloria in high school. Terrible creature. Always stealing other girls’ boyfriends. And her family voted Republican.”

      At the thought, John and Jane shuddered and agreed that Gloria Steinhem Doe wasn’t to be thought of no matter what Ms Steinhem’s personal political affiliation.

      But all the debate went for naught, for one baby after another had popped out male, and that was that. Jane had finally given up hope of ever having a daughter. When she found she was pregnant with a seventh child, she resigned herself to the inevitable and agreed that this one would be called Jonas Salk Doe, since both she and John decided it was time they looked a little farther afield for their sons’ role models.

      Merry’s unexpected arrival on Christmas morning caught everyone by surprise, her mother most of all. Without a girl’s name waiting in the wings, so to speak, Jane and John had done the next best thing—they’d named their only daughter after their favorite holiday.

      No matter how much she loved her parents, there were times when Merry wished she’d been called Eleanor Roosevelt, instead. December was one of them and renewing her driver’s license was another. It was just bad luck that the two always fell at the same time of year. The only consolation was her license didn’t have to be renewed every year.

      “Look into the camera, please,” the clerk said, and snapped Merry’s picture before she had a chance to do more than open her mouth and squint at the light.

      The computerized machine cranked and whirred and spat out the plasticized license. Still frowning, the clerk studied the result, then slid it across the counter to Merry. “There. And Merry Chris— er, Happy Holidays.”

      “Thank you,” Merry said, taking the license. “The same to you.” What else was she supposed to say?

      A few choice words occurred to her once she was outside the License Bureau’s kiosk and had a chance to look at the picture. Silently vowing to drive with great care for the next five years, Merry tucked the license into the back of her wallet, then pulled out her Christmas gift list.

      In an effort to be more “customer friendly”—yeah, right, Merry thought grumpily—the License Bureau had placed its service kiosk in the area’s largest mall. With a little careful planning at the start, she might be able to cross most of the items off her list with one marathon swing through the shops.

      She eyed the crowd, then ran one last check. Credit cards? Yup. Checks? Those, too. Canvas totes? Five of them, all large, and all equipped with sturdy shoulder straps. One even had wheels. List? The full three feet of it. She’d used a strip of adding machine paper so she’d have it all in one piece.

      As a last precaution, she knelt and tied double knots in the laces of her walking shoes. One quick glance to get her bearings, then Merry took a deep breath and plunged into the crowd headed for the first stop on her list.

 

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      “One of those, I guess, and one of those. And this and this.” Geoffrey Winston Hanover III pointed to four bottles among the selection of perfumes the stunning blonde behind the counter had showed him, then plucked another couple of brightly colored boxes off their respective displays and added them to the pile. “Those, too.”

      The way he figured, there was no sense in shopping at the area’s largest and most expensive department store if you couldn’t take advantage of the selection as well as the gift wrap service. He frowned at the jumble of boxes, silently counting. Six. And he needed nine.

      “What about this?” He pointed to a shiny gold box lying open on the counter. The crystal vial of perfume it held glowed like amber in its satiny nest. “Do women like this, whatever it is?”

      The clerk gave him her most fetching smile. “Oh, yes. Enchantress is very popular. And very sexy,” she added, letting her voice drop to a more seductive level as she dabbed a bit of the perfume on her wrist. “Don’t you agree?” She leaned over the gleaming glass counter and waved her wrist under his nose.

      He pulled back in distaste. “Yes. Fine. All right. I’ll take two. No, make it three. But wrap them in a different kind of paper so I can tell them from the others.”

      “Of course.” Her sexy little pout had the look of having been practiced in a mirror.

      If he’d been sixteen, he probably would have embarrassed himself by getting a hard-on right there in the middle of Perfumes and Cosmetics. But he was thirty-two, not sixteen, and he’d been the recipient of more than his fair share of sexy pouts in the intervening years. The woman’s efforts at seduction left him cold.

      “Can I offer you anything else?” she asked, discreetly smoothing her sleek black dress over her perfect hips.

      “Just the bill and the gift wrap,” he said, then pointedly turned away as she gathered up the boxes he’d selected and wobbled off on heels so high they would have crippled a normal woman.

      With a disgusted sigh he shoved his hands into his trouser pockets and leaned against the counter. Hell of a time for Ms Gompers to take a vacation.

      For years his super-efficient secretary had handled all his Christmas shopping, which was just the way he liked it. If he’d had any idea the stores would be this crowded or the noise this bad, he’d have refused to approve her vacation until she’d finished the job.

      Well, all right, he wouldn’t have gone that far, but he’d have made damned sure she found somebody else for the job first.

      Maybe he should have gone skiing in Switzerland after all, just as he usually did. After twenty-some consecutive Christmases spent skiing, however—his parents had first packed him off to St. Moritz with a tutor and some of his boarding-school friends when he was nine, just as they had with his older brother—he’d decided it was time for a change.

      Too bad he hadn’t thought about what he’d change to before he’d canceled his reservations and given Ms Gompers three weeks’ vacation. Now here he was, two weeks from Christmas with no plans, no place to go, and no one to do his Christmas shopping for him.

      That’s what he got for acting on impulse. He should have known better. Life always went more smoothly when you kept to a routine, when everything was neat and orderly and carefully thought out and nothing was ever left to chance.

      He pulled his hand out of his pocket and checked his watch. Half an hour wasted, and probably another hour on top of that by the time he got the rest of the gifts and fought his way back to his car. Maybe more.

      He groaned and shoved his hand back in his pocket.

      The clerk at the Elizabeth Arden display across the aisle—a sleek brunette, but otherwise indistinguishable from the sleek blonde who’d waited on him—smiled sympathetically.

      Geoff deliberately shifted so he couldn’t see her come-hither look and found himself staring straight at another customer who was standing a few feet farther down the counter, studying the crumpled shopping list that spilled over her hands like a battle pennant. Judging from the over-stuffed bags that hung from her shoulders or sat on the floor at her feet, she must be almost finished. He wouldn’t have thought it was humanly possible for one woman to carry so much...stuff.

      With her clunky shoes, worn jeans, and battered ski jacket, she was a notable contrast to the elegantly garbed sales clerks who adorned the cosmetics counters. But worn jeans couldn’t disguise the appealing way she filled them and the shoulders and back of her coat were half buried under a wild mass of red-gold curls. And what woman in her right mind would go shopping in high heels, anyway?

      She frowned as she reached the end of her list, then rapidly scrolled back to the top. Still frowning, she eyed the shiny display of cosmetics in front of her, lifted one of the boxes to peer at the sticker on the bottom, then set it back with a sigh.

      “Mr. Hanover?” The blonde was back, smiling brightly. “Your total came to one thousand four hundred sixteen dollars and seventy-three cents. Would you like me to put that on your company charge for you?”

      “No.” He pulled out his wallet, selected one of the several platinum-colored cards at random and tossed it onto the counter. “Put it on this, will you? And make sure the price stickers are all off the boxes. Someone missed one last year.”

      She dimpled and fluttered her lashes. “I don’t know a single woman who would mind seeing those stickers!”

      He glared. The dimple vanished.

      “I’ll be right back with the charge slip.”

 

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