Gina Russell took a deep breath and sucked up her tears, dialing the number on the mysterious Christmas card. It rang twice and she hoped no one would answer.
What was she thinking, calling someone she didn't know?
As she moved the phone away from her ear to hang up, she heard a man's voice. "Hello?"
She couldn't be rude.
Gina cleared her throat and returned the phone to her ear. "Can you tell me who I'm calling?" She winced, knowing that was a stupid comment.
The man's laughter surprised her. "I think you dialed the number," he said. "Do you know what number you called?"
She rattled off the digits on the card. "Is this the right number?"
"Yes, that's my number. What's your name?"
"Gina." She knew better than to give her full name, living in the city. Chicago was nothing like Des Moines, Iowa, where she'd grown up.
"Well, Gina, how can I help you?"
She glanced around the room at all the packed items and sighed, thinking she just sounded stupid. "I'm not sure. What's your name?"
"James." He chuckled again, and for some reason, the sound seemed to give her peace in her heart. He sounded young and handsome, but she immediately put it out of her mind. No man ever gave her the time of day, because she'd been told often enough by her mother and her sister that she wasn't worthy of any man.
Maybe she was so lonely that anyone who connected with her would give her peace. That must be why his laughter calmed her heart.
"Well, James," she said. "I seemed to have gotten a Christmas card from you, even though it's only the beginning of December. It's a nice card, and you signed it that you had great news." She looked down at the envelope. "But it was sent to some administrative assistant and got in my mailbox by mistake." Tears burned behind her lids, but she forged on. "I'm no longer an…" She felt her throat constrict from her sadness, hardly able to speak. "Uh…I'm not an administrative assistant any longer." Sobs overtook her and she covered the phone until she collected herself, then moved her hand away. "I don't have a job, so you sent this beautiful card to the wrong person."
"Aren't you with Nativity Church?"
It was too difficult to force her lips into a smile, the tears instead making her frown. "No. They're down the street." She tried to suck up her tears, but it wasn't working. "I'm sorry."
"I'm not sorry. Why are you crying?"
As she wiped her tears, she walked to a chair in the living room and sat down. "Do you really want to know?"
"Yes, I do. What's the matter?"
She heard something clink in the background over the phone, figuring he was probably busy. "Well, I lost my job, and really have nothing to live for anymore, but it's not your problem. Bye, James. I hope you have a great life."
She moved the phone away from her ear, but heard him yelling. "Wait! Gina. Don't hang up yet."
Her eyes closed from the tears but she decided to keep talking to this man. She moved the phone back to her ear, not certain she wanted to tell him anything. "Why?"
"I want to talk to you in person. I have to…uh…straighten out this problem with my bookkeeping. Can you wait until I get there?"
She shrugged, even though it just delayed the inevitable of what she planned to do. "I guess so."
"Where do you live?" he asked.
It didn't matter if he knew. She probably wouldn't be around to answer the door and he could find the body.
A stranger, left to clean up her mess.
"Four doors down from the church in apartment 2C," she said.
"Wait for me. Don't do anything until I get there. As a matter of fact, can you do me a favor?"
She crossed one arm over her chest while holding the phone, hoping he didn't think of her as a 'favor' type of girl. "That depends. I'm not a call girl or anything, so you can forget that."
His laughter filled the phone lines. She liked hearing his laugh, so she decided then and there to hear him out.
"No, that's not what I'm asking," he said. "Can you watch television and tell me what the weather's going to be this week? I don't have time to check right now and I really want to know."
"Why don't you watch it for yourself?"
"I'm at work and can't do it. Please? I'll be there in about fifteen minutes. Just talk to me until I get there. Please?"
She looked over to the amber bottle of prescription pills on the counter. "I guess I can. But I have something to do, so I can't take long."
"Just give me fifteen minutes. It won't make a difference to wait that long, will it?"
She sighed, thinking about it. "No one cares. Why should I?" With the sadness choking her, she forced herself to breathe, the tears falling even harder.
"I care. Do it for me. You sound like a nice person and I have to meet you. You might be my soul mate. You might be my reason for being on earth. Please?"
What should she do? The guy was a stranger. What if he worked for her old boss?
No, he probably didn't work for the guy. She was just being paranoid.
"Gina, just stay on the phone with me," he said, bringing her out of her thoughts. "I have to make another call, but hang on, please?"
"Sure." The phone went dead, just like her goal for her life. She was alone once more, the pills calling her name.
But she'd promised James. She couldn't do anything just yet. He wanted to know about the weather, so she had to concentrate on that job for now.
Gina turned on the television and flipped it to see the weather, checking the local snow reports. It was a few weeks until Christmas and the snow was dumping on the Chicago area already. She hated snow and she hated the dark of winter.
The phone clicked to life. "Gina," James said on the phone. "Are you still there?"
She wiped her tears. "Yes. It's going to snow all week. I hate snow. I hate winter. I hate December and Christmas." She cried harder, letting her head fall to the back of the chair. "I hate myself and everything."
"Stay on the phone with me, will you?"
After lifting her head, she flipped the dial to see what was on, hitting only commercials. "Why?"
"Because I care. Like I said before, you might be my soul mate. Now, tell me what you ate today?"
"What I ate?" She felt confused. "Don't you mean what I drank?"
He paused for a moment. "Drank?"
"Yeah. I hate alcohol, but I figured it would go well with the bottle of pills."
"What pills?" he said in a very angry voice. "Gina, what pills did you take?"
She looked over at the bottle. "None yet. They're on the counter."
"Don't take the pills. Promise you'll wait for me." His voice sounded urgent, but she didn't know why.
Strangers didn't care. Even people she knew didn't care. What was up with this guy?
"Why should I wait?" she asked.
"Soul mates, remember? If you take the pills, I'll never know what you're really like and I want to know. Promise me."
She could hear a car engine in the background. "Don't come over here. I'm fine and you don't have to worry about me." Warm tears filled her eyes again, while the lump in her throat multiplied in size. "No one should worry about me." She almost choked out her response.
"Why do you think that?"
"Well, my boss fired me yesterday. When I told him about the baby--"
She leaned her head back with a sigh, thinking about her horrible life. "Yeah. Baby. I never slept with any guy by my decision, but he had other plans that weren't very nice, a little over a month ago. He yelled at me yesterday and told me his wife wouldn't appreciate him getting me pregnant and his other girlfriends would be jealous. I had no idea he was even married or dated around. I certainly didn't want to date him."
"What happened next?"
"He fired me and told me to disappear from the earth, or he'd do it for me by the end of the week." She wiped her cheeks. "When he forced himself…" She gasped a breath, remembering what had happened. Don't fall apart now. She couldn't back down from what she wanted to do, or her old boss would do it for her. She had to collect herself. "It was horrible."
"That sounds evil. Let me help you. How old are you?"
"Twenty-six." She grunted her disgust. "How many virgins do you know at 26? I mean ex-virgins?" She sobbed again. "It wasn't my choice. It's not fair."
"No, it's not. How much did you drink today?"
"Just a small glass. It didn't taste as good as I thought it would." Sobs made her gasp. "I'm such a loser. I can't even drink well."
"No, you're not a loser. God doesn't make losers. Gina, turn the television to a movie for me. I want to know what you're watching, word for word. You're helping me."
She wiped her cheeks, trying not to cry. "A movie now?" She flipped through the dials. "What kind of movie?"
"All types of movies. What do you like to watch?"
A sudden thought made her smile. "Do you like chick flicks?" She knew she'd gotten to him, because he sounded very masculine.
"Well, sure, I guess." He paused. "What's a chick flick?"
She chuckled, throwing her head back. "You don't know?"
"No. I've been kind of busy with my life. What's a chick flick?"
James was an intriguing man. She didn't want to hang up on him, but wanted to know more. "How many women have you dated, anyway?"
"One, in high school, but that doesn't matter."
Only one woman? That seemed odd, because he sounded much older than high school. Maybe he'd married the woman. "Yes, it does matter. If you've ever dated a woman, you'd know what a chick flick is. It's a sappy movie made for women. It makes you cry, because it usually has a sugary sweet happy ending. The plot is mostly very weak, with few subplots. There's a lot of talking and secrets, and you can watch five minutes, take a twenty-minute break, then come back, not missing anything."
"Sounds like a soap opera."
The sound of his voice made her wonder what he was really like, deep down. He sounded so calm and seemed able to take any situation and make it better. As she glanced toward the kitchen counter, she rethought the pills. Maybe she'd wait until she met this guy.
"Sort of like a soap opera," she said. "They're not my favorite, because they're fluff. I like mysteries or thrillers. They're more fun because you have to use your brain."
"I agree with you. I like brains, too. You sound very bright."
She sighed again, realizing she wasn't for him. She had baggage no one needed, and really wasn't very bright. "Not really. I didn't finish college, because I ran out of money."
"What was your major?"
She looked down at her stomach, her problems filling her mind. "Elementary education. I would've made a terrible teacher." She wiped her cheeks, feeling sad again.
"Why do you say that?"
"I'm not good with kids. They hate me."
He chuckled, the sound warming her heart yet again. How could one man take a bad problem and turn it around like that, just with his laughter? She almost felt hope when she talked to him.
"That might be a problem if you don't think you're good with kids," he said. "I'm sure it's not as bad as you think and I doubt they hate you. What do you look like?"
She felt the tears again, wiping them away before they fell onto her cheeks. "I'm ugly, according to Daniel."
She thought back to his angry face from the day before. "The ex-boss. He said he only used me for something to do. I didn't even interest him."
"I'm really glad you're done with him. He sounds pretty evil to me, because I can tell you're something special."
She didn't believe him, so she stayed silent. While flipping the channels on the television, she found a good mystery and described what was going on. She even explained what was going on during a commercial.
"What do you look like?" he asked again, interrupting her rendition of the music on the commercial.
"I'm a redhead with medium length hair, blue eyes, and a round face. I look younger than I am, but that doesn't matter. Looks don't matter to me. So, what do you look like?"
James laughed again. "But looks don't matter?"
"Nope." She was hardly that superficial.
"Okay, let's see. I'm thirty-two, about six feet tall, brown hair, and green eyes."
"Are you dating or married?"
He was silent for a moment. She hoped she didn't hit a sore spot.
"No," he said. "I think I told you that already. Did you eat or drink anything other than the alcohol?"
"No, and you only told me you dated one girl in high school. You didn't tell me if you're still dating her or married her. Are you on drugs or something? Even I remembered that and I had something to drink."
His chuckle filled the phone lines, making her grin. "You're very funny. No, I'm not on drugs. I don't even drink because it affects my performance at work." He was silent for a moment. "I just pulled into your apartment building. I'm coming upstairs in a few minutes. Don't be afraid because it's just me."
It suddenly occurred to her that if he knew Daniel, he might be after her. It was a stretch, but if he had someone send her the card…she couldn't risk it. "Wait. Are you a masher or a serial killer? Strangers aren't to be trusted. I learned that the hard way. Don't come up here. I trust no one."
She could hear his laugh in stereo from the hallway and over the phone.
But wait. The card was a religious card, and Daniel would never have one of his minions send something like that. Maybe James really did come to rescue her. Or was he playing games? She doubted it, just from the card and the fact that she loved hearing his voice. It was as if he was sent to give her inner peace, and the Christmas card telling her he had great news was the real deal. If she hadn't called the number on the card…she couldn't think about it.
"No, I'm not a serial killer," he said. "I'm just a good guy who has a great job helping people. Where are you from?"
"Des Moines. What do you do for a living?"
He didn't answer. Instead, the doorbell rang. "Gina, it's James. Can you open the door, please?"
He didn't sound like he was shoving a knife attached to a note into her door like she'd found from Daniel that morning. She had to trust someone. She was tired of fighting and she needed help.
Gina moved the phone away from her ear. "Prove it. What do you look like?" She stood from the chair and walked to the door, trying to look out the peephole. However, she couldn't see anything.
He chuckled again. "Brown hair, green eyes, six feet. Can you open the door?"
"Answer the door already," old Mrs. Wilkins yelled from down the hall. "I'm trying to watch my game shows."
While unlocking the door, Gina wondered if she should care what she looked like, but decided it didn't matter. James wasn't a model, so she'd just kick him out after a few minutes. She had to pay those bills, and those pills were calling her name again.
She opened the door and felt her mouth drop to the floor. The most gorgeous brown-haired, green-eyed man stood in front of her, with major muscles and a masculine face. He was dressed in scrubs…and that's when it hit her. He was there to take her to the looney bin. It really wasn't her lucky day.