"Mommy! When is it going to be our turn? I wanna see Santa!"
Chloe smiled down at her daughter. "Soon, honey. Soon."
She held tight to the small hand in hers. People rushed around, jostling and bumping them with their bags and bodies. Loud, childish Christmas music blared through the mall speakers and the lighted decorations flashed annoyingly. If it weren't for Grace, Chloe wouldn't have come within 5 miles of the crazy place. She'd already accomplished all of her holiday shopping online weeks before. This mall business was for amateurs.
Grace danced at the end of her arm. Her energetic spinning and jumping made Chloe smile despite the insanity around her. Besides being excited about seeing Santa, she was also looking forward to his workshop. She adored the mechanical bears and toys that surrounded the jolly man.
They walked forward a few steps and stopped. Chloe sighed again. It was only three days until Christmas. What had possessed her to wait so long to see Santa? It was all Matthew's fault.
Just the stray thought of her ex-husband and his lies and broken promises and missed visitation was enough to anger Chloe. She took a few deep breaths and cursed the day she'd agreed to marry him. She willed the anger away when she glanced down again and caught sight of the angel smiling up at her.
This was about Grace.
Chloe leaned up on tippy toes to try to see over the heads of the others in line. She sank back down to her heels when she couldn't see anything. This was taking forever.
"So," Chloe started. "What did you do at pre-school today?"
"We made macaroni pictures that are supposed to be for daddies, but I made mine for Grandpa."
Chloe bit her lip. She tried not to say anything bad about Matthew in front of Grace, but when he lied to her directly there was nothing she could do about it.
"Honey, you can make something for Daddy for Christmas. I'm sure he'd love whatever you made."
"He promised that he would take me to see Santa. I'm mad at him."
Chloe squatted down to eye level. "Daddy loves you. Sometimes he has business and he can't do everything he promises, but he loves you and thinks about you all the time."
Grace had the stubborn look on her face. Chloe knew it well; it was the same one she saw in the mirror every morning. "I made it for Grandpa."
Chloe pulled the little girl to her chest and hugged her tightly. "I'm sure Grandpa will love it." Tears filled her eyes. Her continual issues with Matthew were her own, and Grace had nothing to do with it. She knew that her ex loved their daughter, but sometimes it was hard to remember what she had ever loved about him.
She stood quickly as the line started to move again. They were only two or three people back now, and Grace was jumping again. "It's almost our turn! It's almost our turn! Come on, Mommy!"
Chloe blinked back the tears and waited for the little boy in front of them to finish telling Santa what he wanted. Grace's eyes shone up at her and the smile on her face made the entire wait in line worth it.
"Ho Ho Ho!" the Santa shouted. There was a candy cane pushed into the hand of the boy on his lap and an elf picked him and he ran to his mother, standing a little off to the side.
Chloe smiled and stepped forward. She helped Grace up onto the Santa's lap, and when she looked into his face, her jaw dropped and she couldn't help but whisper, "Clark?"
A look of recognition in his eyes and Chloe knew it was him.
"Silly, Mommy! It's Santa Clause!" Grace giggled and Chloe smiled.
"Tell Santa what you want for Christmas, honey," Chloe prompted.
Clark's eyes stayed on her, and Chloe tried to look away. She didn't even know why. "Merry Christmas, little girl. What's your name?"
"I'm Grace... And this is my mommy. I want a tea set and a new doll, and I want a baby brother, and there's something else, but I don't want Mommy to hear."
Chloe rolled her eyes. "Why don't you whisper it to him?"
Grace nodded and leaned up and whispered something into Santa Clark's ear. He smiled at Chloe and she wondered what her precocious daughter was saying, but knew it wasn't bad if Clark was smiling.
"Well, I'll see what I can do! Have you been a good girl?"
"Oh, yes. I'm the bestest daughter ever. Just ask Mommy."
Chloe couldn't help but laugh. "Well, maybe I should ask her. Why don't you take this little girl to get a candy cane?" He motioned to an elf and she plucked Grace off his lap and Chloe watched her go.
"Chloe," whispered Clark. "Meet me for coffee later? Something? I didn't know you were back in Metropolis."
She could only nod.
"Ten o'clock at Smith's on 27th? Can you get a sitter?"
Another nod and Chloe hurried off to find Grace. She didn't know what she was thinking agreeing to coffee with Clark, but seeing him had brought back too many memories. Her roommate would be home by then, and Grace would be asleep, so it wouldn't be an issue. But she still regretted agreeing to see him almost immediately.
Grace was happily chatting with the elf who had taken her off of Santa's lap. Chloe caught part of the conversation, something having to do with Santa's workshop and the mechanical lollypops. "Come on, Gracie, honey. We need to get home. We still have to eat dinner, and you need a bath."
Chloe couldn't help but laugh at the wrinkled nose. "I don't like baths. But I'll take one because I'm being good for Santa," she announced.
She hopped off the chair she was sitting on and took the hand that Chloe offered before waving to the elf she'd been talking to. "Bye! Merry Christmas. Bye, Santa! Don't forget!"
Chloe hurried them through the mall and to her car in the parking lot. Their drive home was short and Chloe made quick work of bath time and the bedtime story. Despite dreading her 'meeting' with Clark, she was still looking forward to it. She'd missed him.
By nine o'clock, Chloe's roommate Kathy was already home and Grace had been asleep for an hour. She found herself nervous and she chided herself as she applied her mascara. "It's just Clark," she thought.
The same guy as always. Same bumbling, attractive, amazing... No. The same Clark that saved her life on too many occasions to count, despite her being bitchy to him in high school.
Chloe sighed as she glided her lip gloss across her lips. She'd been entirely too hard on Clark back then. She'd wanted perfection from a sixteen year old boy. What had she been thinking?
But this was just coffee, she reminded herself. Just two old friends catching up with each other. It wasn't about how Chloe treated Clark when they were sixteen or how Clark had just recently drifted off the face of the planet. Just friends. Just catching up.
Chloe left the bathroom and flicked off the light. After a quick stop in Grace's room, just to check on her, Chloe made her way out into the living room. "Hey, Kathy. Thanks for keeping on eye on Gracie for me."
Kathy waved her hand in a dismissive gesture. "No big deal, really, Chloe. I'm just watching the news and going to sleep anyway."
"Well, I appreciate it anyway." Chloe smiled and picked up her purse. She waved and shut the door and locked it behind her.
A quick ride in the elevator and Chloe was in the parking garage and in her car. She took a deep breath before starting her car and heading to Smith's.
By the time she arrived, it was almost ten. She didn't see Clark, so she sat down to wait at the entrance. He wasn't late, but it reminded her of all the times that he used to miss the bus when they were kids. She smiled to herself and picked a piece of lint off of her slacks.
"Chloe!" She heard the warning, but was not at all prepared for the arms wrapped around her and the fierce hug she was dragged into.
"Ooof, Clark. I missed you too." She couldn't help but laugh.
He set her down and smiled down at her. If it were possible, he seemed taller. He had always towered over her before, and now it was worse.
Clark took her hand and he looked around for a waitress. "Come on, Chloe, tell me everything. I want to know what's going on with you. Your daughter is gorgeous."
"She is, isn't she?" Chloe smiled.
A waitress directed them to an empty table and handed them menus when they had sat down. Clark wasn't really looking at it; instead, he was looking at her over the top of it.
"What?" She asked, apprehensively.
He just smiled. "I just missed you. I can't believe you have a kid."
"I know. She's the best thing I've ever done."
Clark smiled and glanced down at his menu. Chloe wanted to say more, but she didn't want to spend the whole time talking about Grace. And she could, it had happened before.
"So, tell me, Chloe. What is going on with you? We haven't seen each other since high school. What has it been? Five years?"
"Six," she corrected, then sighed. "I got married my sophomore year of college. Got pregnant about six months later. He finished school and is now a lawyer, I took care of Grace. Now I help manage a temp agency."
"That sounds like fun! So you like finding people jobs?"
"It's not horrible. My divorce was final about six months ago. Same old song and dance there. He worked too many hours, too ambitious, too much I couldn't deal with."
"I kind of got that earlier," he said as he nodded.
"What? I never said anything..."
Clark smiled. "Grace. It was her whispered gift."
Chloe looked at him quizzically. "What did she say?" she asked, sighing.
"That she wanted a new daddy."
Chloe shook her head sadly. "He promised to take her to see Santa, but ended up having to work. She was mad at him for lying to her. It seems he does that too often."
Clark nodded, but didn't say anything.
She smiled brightly and smoothly changed the subject. "What about you, Clark? Married? Kids?"
He laughed and shook his head. "No. I took a lot of journalism courses in college, which was your fault by the way." Chloe smiled again as Clark continued. "I spent a couple of years in Europe and one in Japan. All the time spent writing, building up my portfolio before coming back here to get a job at the Planet."
The waitress came back to their table with glasses of water. She pulled a note pad out to take their order and un-tucked a pencil from behind her ear only to ask, "So, what'll ya'll have?"
Chloe hesitated. She hadn't even looked at her menu. Clearing her throat, she thought for a second and ordered the club sandwich; it was usually safe.
Clark nodded, as if he'd eaten that before, and ordered a cheeseburger. The waitress took their orders and it was silent for a couple of minutes until Chloe asked, "Why are you Santa?"
"It's fun!" They both laughed. "But actually, I started doing it last year for a story and this year, I did it because I liked it so much. The kids are great."
Chloe smiled. Clark used to love Christmas. "I don't know," she teased. "There have got to be some drawbacks."
Clark grinned at her, the grin she used to make her weak in the knees. "Well, of course there are the ones that scream at the sight of me, but..." They laughed again as the waitress came back to offer them refills on their coffee.
Both accepted the warm-up and added cream and sugar. Chloe only drank it black when she had ground it fresh herself. If she remembered correctly, Clark liked it light and sweet. Behind her coffee cup, she just smiled.
"Why did we drift apart, Chloe?"
"We went to different colleges. You were busy, I was busy. I don't really have an excuse. I know I meant to. I know I wanted to."
Clark nodded, a little sadly. "I know. I was too caught up in the paper to reply to your emails a lot of the time, and then it got to be where I was embarrassed because it had been so long and I justI don't knownever got back around to it, you know?"
"Yeah, I know exactly what you mean."
The waitress came back, this time with their plates of food. She plopped the plates down along with a bottle of ketchup and asked, "Is there anything else I can get for you?"
Both shook their heads and Clarkalways politesaid, "No, thank you, Ma'am."
She smiled at him and fished around in her apron pocket for their bill and tucked it underneath a plate. Chloe picked up her club sandwich and after checking between the pieces of bread, took a small bite. Better than she expected.
Chloe watched Clark spread ketchup all over his burger, along with mustard and the lettuce and tomatoes that were on his plate, and shove it all together before taking a huge bite. She couldn't help but giggle as he wiped a blop of ketchup from his chin.
They chatted more as they ate, Chloe telling stories about Gracie, and Clark telling tales of his days in Japan. When there was nothing on their plates besides crusts of bread and cold French fries, Chloe reached for the bill.
Clark's strong hand covered hers and when she looked up, he shook his head. A vague memory of his hand covering hers before a long time ago when he'd almost chosen her over Lana blind-sided her and she barely heard him say, "No way, Chloe. Give me that."
A breath caught in her throat and she struggled to pull her hand away, as his thumb stroked the back of her hand. She looked up and met his eyes. "Clark," she breathed.
"I'm paying," he said in a low voice. "I asked you out. It's only fair."
She yanked her hand away and rubbed it with the fingers on her other hand. 'Jesus,' she thought. She wondered if he'd felt the electricity. Chloe decided it was her imagination when his smile was still casual and easy.
Taking a deep breath to calm herself, she finally agreed, "Fine. You can pay." He grinned at her and she felt it in her belly. 'No, no, no,' she chanted in her brain. 'Not supposed to fall for Clark.' She was not prepared to get hurt. Again.
She gathered her purse and coat and stood to leave. "It was great catching up, Clark, but I should get home. Mornings start early when there's a four-year-old in the house."
Clark nodded, like he knew what she was talking about ad stood up himself. She watched him shrug his jacket over those broad shoulders and shivered slightly.
They walked to the door and Chloe waited while Clark paid and then found their waitress to give her the tip. She smiled at him as he made his way back to her.
The wind cut through the coat she was wearing as they stepped outside and she shivered again, this time from the cold. She was completely unprepared for Clark's arm when it wrapped around her.
"Cold?" he asked easily.
She nodded and decided that snuggling in didn't mean anything except that she was chilly.
"Did you drive? Where are you parked?" he questioned further.
"Yeah, I drove. I'm about 2 blocks that way." She pointed. He nodded and steered them to an intersection. They waited for the light and she asked, "Did you drive?"
He shook his head. "Nah, I just, um, walked. I'm not too far."
She took a deep breath and thought for about two seconds before offering, "Want a ride?"
Clark hesitated as the cross-walk signal changed to a white hand. They started to walk before he accepted. "Okay, if it's not too much trouble. I really don't mind walking."
"Of course, Clark. We're friends, right? We were best friends once, weren't we?"
He smiled down at her and pulled her closer. She could never figure out what he was thinking. When they reached her car, she dug into the pocket of her jeans for her keys and thumbed the alarm button. Clark opened the door for her, despite her protests, and she waited until he slid in on the passenger's side.
Chloe started the car and turned the heater on full blast. After a few seconds it got warm enough for her to start driving.
"It's not too far," he repeated. "Take a left at this light and then a right on Williams Street."
Chloe stopped at the light and tapped her finger on the steering wheel.
"Have you talked to Pete?" Clark asked.
She shook her head. "He was worse than you at keeping in touch. Did you?"
Chloe could see the faint smile from the dim glow of a street light. "No, but there was a story about him in the newspaper."
"Yeah? What?" She slowed as they approached Williams Street. Twisting the wheel, she turned onto the street and slowed, waiting for further instructions.
"Three miles on the left. It's called Sunset View Condos."
She nodded, and prompted, "What about Pete?"
"He's running for mayor of Grandville," he explained.
"Really? That's funny." She giggled as the stopped at a light. "He never wanted to be in the spotlight like that."
"I know! He ran my campaign for Class President when we were freshmen and we had the bee girl attack, but he always said he wanted to be behind-the-scenes."
Chloe laughed. "I remember that. You got mad at me because I thought the other guy was a better candidate." She hit the gas when the light turned green.
"I was stupid when we were kids."
Chloe nodded and couldn't help but laugh. "Yeah, you were."
She glanced over, catching his pout, and laughed harder. She stopped again at a red light, and Clark said, "It's the next little turn-y lane thing."
Chloe nodded and inched forward. She hated traffic lights. When the light turned green, she shot forward and threw her arm out in a reflexive gesture, trying to stop the person in the passenger seat from going forward. With Gracie, a brilliant motherly idea. With Clark, not so much.
He laughed and teased, "Aww... How sweet! But, Chloe, really, I don't think you're going to do anything with that arm."
She stuck her tongue out at him and turned into the Condo's he'd named earlier. He was digging through his wallet as she stopped at the security gate. He finally fished his license from his wallet and reached across Chloe to hand it to the guard. "I'm Clark Kent. Building 72, apartment 7." The guy squinted at the plastic card and handed it back. He must have pushed a button because the gate arm swung up and Chloe thanked him before driving in.
"Okay, which building?"
"Third one on the left, at the end."
She nodded and sowed as they neared the building he had indicated. When she stopped, Chloe looked over at him and smiled. "Thanks for dinner," she said.
"No problem." He leaned in and Chloe drew back, but Clark was too quick.
His kiss was soft, warm and a lot better than she had ever imagined in high school. She couldn't help but open her mouth. She didn't want it to ever stop. His tongue probed gently inside and she heard herself moan. Chloe pulled away. Too much, too soon.
One of Clark's hands was on her cheek and the other was on her thigh. He smelled so good and he smiled again and she was not going to sleep with him.
"Want to come inside? For coffee or something?" he asked lamely.
Chloe hesitated. She wanted to, despite her resolution earlier that she would not go in. "I can't. I have to go home."
He nodded and looked a little sad.
"I want to. But... Gracie."
Clark smiled at that.
"Shh..." Clark said as he covered her mouth again.
Chloe couldn't think. She couldn't move or breathe. Clark was kissing her.
The boyno, manshe'd had a crush on since forever. Was kissing her and she never wanted to stop.
So good. Chloe moaned again and threaded her fingers through Clark's hair. God, so good.
Clark pulled back, this time and chuckled softly. "I can't believe we're making out like teenagers in your car."
She giggled and nodded. "I know, but we never did this then."
"True. I was stupid."
Chloe just nodded and watched him lean his head back on the seat. "I should go in, huh?"
She didn't want him to. Well, she did want him to go in, but Chloe wanted to be with him when he did. Shrugging, she nodded. "I guess you have to."
"Can we go out again tomorrow? Or you can come over here and watch a movie or something?"
"Why don't you come over to my place for dinner? You can meet Gracieofficially, not as Santa, and I can make dinner. I make a mean lasagna."
"I love lasagna."
"And I can rent something from Blockbuster."
"Good plan. So I'll see you tomorrow?"
Chloe giggled and nodded. "Maybe you need my address?"
Clark looked confused for a second before he grinned. "Yeah," he agreed. "I guess I do need that."
Chloe dug through her purse and pulled a small notebook out. Jotting down her address and phone number and a quick note about her building's security, she tried to ignore Clark's fingers trailing up and down her arm.
She swatted his hand away, playfully and tore the paper from the book to hand to him. "Think you can find it?"
He nodded. "What time?" He asked and then kissed her again.
"How about seven? Gracie has to be in bed by eight."
"Great." He leaned down to kiss her again.
She groaned. "God, Clark. I have to go home."
He nodded and pulled back. "Okay. I'll see you tomorrow."
He smiled and dropped a final kiss o her lips before opening the door.
"Good night, Chloe."
Se watched him walk up to his door and he waved. She took a deep breath and turned her car back towards the gate and started home.
She couldn't wait until tomorrow.