I usually say no.

But he was cute, I was bored, and what harm could come from answering a short survey?

I was only at the mall because the weather had been crappy all week, and I was getting claustrophobic in my apartment with my roommate and her boyfriend making out like a pair of spring rabbits in heat. I’d tried to remind them that it was Christmas time, not Easter, but Jolie had been too busy giggling and screeching while Dirk chased her back into her bedroom.

The slamming of her door was the jolt I’d needed to get me out of my funk and convince me I needed to get out of there. But after two hours of jostling through holiday shoppers and creating a wish list I’d never be able to afford on my salary from my job as a front desk assistant at the gym, I’d decided it was time to head back home. But not before I grabbed a caramel latte from the coffee vendor in the food court.

I left the line with my drink and was heading back toward the north end of the mall when I was waylaid by a tall drink of water. Literally. It was a seven-foot tall cardboard cutout of a glass filled three-quarters-full standing next to a kiosk advertising home-delivery bottled water systems. I was flustered after noticing a guy—who looked very much like Ryan Gosling—staring at me from where he stood by the entrance to one of those preppy clothing stores with a clipboard in his hands. I lowered my head for just a moment and walked right into the side of the thing!

A small group of girls and guys walking past laughed and pointed. I brushed off their looks and glanced at my drink. Thankfully, the lid was still secured. When I looked up again, I was startled by the gorgeous blue eyes looking back at me with a mixture of mild concern and amusement.

“Are you okay?” Mr. Clipboard’s eyes searched my body before sliding back up to my face. Then he smirked. “I’m sorry about that.”

“I-I’m fine.” I gave him a smile and shrugged. “It’s just my ego, which was already deflated.”

“I’d offer to buy you a drink as consolation, but…” He gestured to my hand.

I lifted my cup. “Thanks.”

His smile widened, making his eyes shine brighter. “A raincheck maybe?”

“Uh…I don’t even know your name.”

He clutched the clipboard in his left hand closer to his chest and held out his right hand. “Chris.”

“Nice to meet you.” The last word was barely audible as his hand closed around mine. His grip was firm…warm…and it made strange but delicious shivers race through me. I bit back a groan when he let go. My breath was raspy when I added, “Holly.”

“With an H, like the Christmas plant?”

“Yes.” I refrained from rolling my eyes but lifted a strand of my hair. “I even have the red for the berries. My parents thought the name was fitting with my birthday in December.”

I cringed internally. Stupid! Why are you telling a complete stranger something so personal?

“Hello, Holly. It’s a pleasure to meet you. And happy birthday…early or belated.”

“Uh…thanks.” My cheeks were suddenly warm. I tugged at the collar of my sweater, but it didn’t help. I closed my eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. Swallowed with difficulty. When I looked at him again, Chris was frowning.

“Are you sure you’re okay? Do you want to sit down for a minute?”

“No, I’m fine. I was just on my way out.”

“Oh, big plans tonight?”

“N-no. Nothing at all, really. I was just here to get away from my roommate and her boyfriend.” I mentally slapped myself. Shut. Up. Idiot. Just wear a sign next time that says you’re a lonely, single woman with nothing better to do than embarrass yourself at the mall.

“Then what’s the rush to get out into the cold? Come, have a seat and catch your breath.” Chris pointed to a table for two where the occupants were gathering their things. “Do you mind?”

“Uh…no…I-I guess not.”

“Quick, before someone else gets it.” He placed his clipboard behind my back, using it to guide me. Once we were seated, he set the clipboard on the table. “It’s crazy here, isn’t it?”

“Well, it’s only a week until Christmas. It’s like this every year.”

He shook his head. “Too many people for my tastes.”

“And yet, you’re here.”

He tapped the clipboard. “I needed some extra cash.”

“What’s that?” I tilted my head to try to read the words on the pile of sheets under his finger.

“Consumer surveys.”

“Is it like your annual household income and what kind of cleaning products you prefer?”


“I’d be glad to fill it out.”

He crossed his arms on top of the pile of forms. “You don’t have to. It’s nice just talking to you.”

“You said you needed the money. I’m sure that it’s based on how many surveys you turn in.”

“Well, yeah…”

“I have nothing better to do, anyway.” I beckoned him with my fingers.

Chris pushed the clipboard toward me and handed me a pen from his pocket. “Thanks for doing this. Now I owe you twice.”

We talked randomly about the holiday and the weather while I answered the questions. When I was done, I noticed the bottom of the sheet had a space for an email address.

“Why do you need to know an email if it’s an anonymous survey?”

“You can be entered into a contest to win a thousand dollars.”

I raised an eyebrow at him. “Seriously?”

He shrugged. “That’s what they tell me.”

“And just how many surveys have you filled out?”


I laughed. “I don’t believe you.”

“Employees are exempt from entering. Even the temporary ones.”

“That must suck.”

“Yeah, I could use an extra grand.”

“Me, too.” I filled in my email address and pushed the clipboard back to him. “If I win, how about I split it with you?”

“That’s very generous of you. It’ll be less after taxes, but I’d be a fool to say no.” He pulled a blank form off the clipboard, flipped it over, and wrote his first name and email address. “So you know how to contact me when you win.”


He chuckled. “Right. If.”

We commented on the people passing us for a few minutes while I sipped on my latte. But after he checked his watch twice, I knew I should let him get back to work. Still, I’d enjoyed the time with him.

“I need to get going,” I said, standing up. “It’s been a pleasure, Chris.”

“The pleasure was all mine, Holly. If I—” He laughed then shook his head.


“I was going to say, if I don’t see you beforehand, have a merry Christmas. But…”

“Right. We will probably never see each other again.”

He smiled warmly. “Well, you never know. Have a merry Christmas, Holly.”

“You, too, Chris. You, too.” I walked away still wearing my own smile.


Four days later before I got ready for bed, I noticed an email with the subject of “Consolation Prize.” I almost deleted it as spam, but something about the address seemed familiar, so I opened it with a mental reminder not to click on any links in case a virus was attached. But then I laughed so hard, tears pricked the corners of my eyes.

Dear Holly I-Don’t-Know-Your-Last-Name,

It is with much regret that I am writing to inform you that you have not won the grand prize of $1000.00 that we agreed to split, minus tax deductions. It’s a huge bummer to me, because that means I’ll still have to do stupid jobs—like standing around the mall for several hours in holiday mayhem—just so I can buy groceries.

I know it’s probably not what you were asking Santa for, but if you’re not too depressed about losing—and your ego has recovered from your run-in with the Culligan Man—I received $50 from the survey company for my troubles. I’d like to offer you a date with me as a consolation prize so I can buy you that drink I promised.

‘Tis the season,

Chris, the Survey Guy

P.S. Don’t make me beg. Please. My own ego is fragile these days.

I hovered my mouse over the button to reply and clicked. But once I was staring at the blank body of my response, I couldn’t think of anything to write. At least not as clever as what he had composed. I settled with a quick answer that I’d be happy to accept the prize if he named the place and time, and then I clicked to send before I could change my mind.

The next morning, there was another email from Chris. It was even shorter than mine. He’d merely stated to meet at a popular uptown coffee shop that afternoon.

I couldn’t keep my legs still at work. It was so unlike me to fidget with my pen or constantly restack the paperwork on the reception desk, but that’s what I did. I kept reminding myself it was just coffee. He was just doing this because he was a nice guy, and maybe he’d felt guilty for making me look like I couldn’t walk.

As the hours crept on and the front doors remained closed for the most part, I prayed more members would come into the gym to make the time go faster. But the fact that it had snowed overnight and it was the Friday before Christmas meant the activity on the floor was pretty thin. I’d arranged to take a lunch at the end of my shift and leave early for the day so I could meet Chris, though that just made me more antsy because my stomach started gurgling around noon. At least I think it was from hunger.

Once it was time to clock out, I found myself lingering in the bathroom stall. I wanted to see him again, right? We’d had a good conversation at the mall. He was easy on the eyes, and that one dimple that his left cheek revealed whenever he smiled only made him more attractive. Not to mention, he wanted to see me again. If he wasn’t interested, he wouldn’t have reached out. Right? So why was I a bundle of nerves?

Feeling a little more encouraged after my personal pep talk, I made my way to my car and scraped off the frost on the windshield while I waited for the engine to warm up. Fifteen minutes later, I was pulling into the parking lot of the strip mall and walking into the coffee shop. I looked around the noisy, bustling room but didn’t see Chris. My layers of a sweater and a winter coat were suddenly too hot.

Oh, God, please don’t stand me up!

I checked my watch and turned around to leave…only to stare into those bright, blue eyes.

“Hi, Holly.”

I gasped since I’d nearly run into him and closed my eyes for a second. Still trying to get my breathing back under control, I smiled at him. “Hi, Chris. You really have to stop doing that.”

“I’m sorry.” He gave me a devastating smile and slowly lifted his hand.

Something inside me stirred when his fingers moved a strand of hair from one side of my head to the other then grazed my cheek while he tucked it behind my ear.

“Your hair is so soft. I love the shade, too.”

“Uh, thanks.”

“Of course.” His dimple flirted subtly when he smiled. “Did you order yet?”

“I was waiting for you,” I said, shaking my head. I shifted my gaze to the register where two people were in line. Then I noticed a group of six were just coming into the coffee shop.

“Why don’t you find us a seat?”

I nodded and weaved my way through the crowded tables to the last empty one, a table for two, at the back of the room. Once I sat down, I realized I hadn’t told him what I wanted. I stood with the intention to tell Chris, but the couple that had been in line ahead of him were heading right toward me. I unbuttoned my coat and sat again, staking my claim on the table. They paused, glanced around, then changed their path to the other side of the room. I watched them while they waited for three women to vacate a table for four before sitting down themselves. Sighing, I resolved that I would just have to get in line myself when Chris was done.

“One tall, caramel latte for you,” he said a few minutes later, setting one cup in front of me, “and a tall, maple pecan latte for me.”

I blinked up at him, my brain and mouth trying to work together.

Chris took the seat across from me. “You look puzzled.”

“H-how did you know?” I finally managed.

“Facebook.” He removed the lid on his cup and blew across the top of the frothy liquid inside.


“It was easy to find you with your email address.” He attempted to take a sip of his drink, cringed, and then said, “You listed the drink in a post from last month as one of your must-haves if you could only take five things to a deserted island.”

A shiver raced up my back although both of my hands were cupping my hot drink. I raised both eyebrows at him. “Stalker.”

His eyes widened. “No! I just wanted to know more about you.”

“Uh, huh.”

“Look, I’m serious. I swear. I’m not some creepy guy stalking you.”

“Yeah, that’s exactly what a creepy, stalker guy would say. Gain my trust, and then attack when I least suspect it.”

Chris chuckled. “You’re just jealous that you didn’t think of checking me out, too.”

I opened my mouth, but nothing came out, so I snapped it shut again.

“Am I right?”

I narrowed my eyes at him and swallowed heavily. He actually had a point. Why hadn’t I thought of looking him up? The worst that could have happened was he either didn’t have Facebook or his profile was restricted to only friends. But now that I thought about it, maybe subconsciously, I hadn’t tried to find him for fear that he had given me a fake email address just like some women do when they don’t want to bother with particular guys. Yet, he had sent me the message that debunked that theory. So I could have—

“You’re cute when you blush,” he said, the rim of his cup hiding his smile when he blew on the contents again and tried another sip.

My cheeks grew even warmer after his admission. But then I thought of something. “Wait, your email last night said you didn’t know my last name. If you looked me up on Facebook…”

His face turned red this time. “Busted! I just thought of doing it after you replied to my message.”

I rolled my eyes at him and took a sip of my drink, relishing the smooth, creamy texture, careful not to burn my tongue.

“So, you like to fill out surveys.”

I shook my head. “No, I —”

“Don’t deny it. They’re all over your profile.”

“Oh, those aren’t—”

“They’re surveys. Like the one you filled out at the mall.”

“I don’t think—”

“Do they ask you questions that you provide mostly honest answers to so that others will know more about you?”

“Well, yes.” My knees were bouncing again. I wanted to shrug off my coat due to the fact that I was sweating, but after his admission, I also wanted to be prepared to jump up and leave if the need arose.

“Holly, the only difference between those and the one you filled out for me is your name is attached to the ones online. Plus, I doubt there are consumer agencies that care that ‘Alone’ by Heart best fits your love life, or that you think Sam Elliott is fuckable.”

I covered my eyes with my left hand. “Oh, my God! Now I’m going to die.”

Chris chuckled. “Why are you embarrassed? You put it on the Internet.”

“Please, just change the subject,” I mumbled.

“Is it because I know? Is that what bothers you?”

It had been a long time since I’d wanted to crawl under a rock, Sunday’s encounter with a life-size billboard at the mall notwithstanding. I refused to admit that he was right…again. But my silence only proved his point.

“Holly?” His voice was softer. “Your honesty is…refreshing.”

I felt a tear in my eye for some reason. Why did I care so much that he had teased me?

“I wonder, are you as forthcoming in person?” There was a hint of concern in his voice, and his hand rested over my right that I still had wrapped around my cup. “I’d like to know the real Holly McGregor.”

I sniffled, only half-paying attention to him.

“Look at me.”

Although his tone remained quiet, it demanded that I obey. I lowered my left hand and blinked away the forming tears. His smile was gone. In its place was a slight frown, despite the light still shining in his eyes.

“I’m sorry, Holly. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

I took a deep breath to calm my nerves, but my exhale was shaky. “I guess I figured I’d be the one to tell you all about me, not some online profile.”

“I have a feeling those answers barely scratch the surface of the who you really are.”

A corner of my mouth turned up at that.

“But to even the playing field, the song that most represents my love life is ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’ by Foreigner, and I think Stevie Nicks is fuckable.”

I laughed.

His smile was back. “Hey, she’s hot.”

“I hate to admit it, but she is. You’re right again. God, will you please stop doing that? It’s annoying.”

Chris sipped his drink for a moment then grinned widely. “Like cheese and wine, some people only get better with age.”

I rolled my eyes at him and lifted my own cup.

“So, now that we’re here face-to-face, tell me about you, Holly.”

“I don’t know. I’m not that interesting. There’s not much to—”

“That’s okay, I’ll just read your previous posts.” He pulled out his cell phone.

“Stop! Okay, you win!”

He laughed and put the phone on the table. “Good, because that probably would have taken quite a long time to get through your history.”

“Now you’re just being mean.”

“Note to self, Holly does not like to be teased.”

I pressed my lips together and narrowed my eyes at him.

“Would it be easier if I put all my questions into a survey of my own?”

“That isn’t—” A sudden, increasing melody made us both jump. I realized it was my phone. I had felt it buzzing in my pocket letting me know I had new texts, but the ringtone I couldn’t ignore. “I’m sorry, I need to take this. It’s my mom, and she only calls when it’s important. I’m really sorry.”

“By all means.” Chris picked up his own phone and seemed to tune me out.

“Hi, Mom. I… What? Slow down. Oh, God. Are they sure? Can’t they… Yes, I heard you. Yes, I’m writing it down,” I said, reaching for my purse to get a pen. My hand shook as I scribbled some words on a napkin. “I-I’ll get there as soon as I can, Mom.”

As soon as she hung up, I dropped my phone on the tabletop and covered my eyes. This wasn’t happening. I was dreaming, and I’d wake up any moment. Please, God, tell me I’m dreaming.


I jumped and looked up through blurry eyes to see Chris frowning at me with a furrowed brow. The din of the coffee shop rushed back in, drowning out my mom’s words that kept repeating themselves. In those few short moments on the phone, I’d forgotten he was here. Where I was. And then in an instant, I accepted that this was in fact reality. I suddenly found it hard to breathe.

Chris reached out and covered my hand with his. “Holly, talk to me. What’s wrong?”

Blinking away my tears, I managed to say, “My dad was in an accident. They don’t know if he’ll make it. Another guy ran a red light while turning and fishtailed on the snow, hitting my dad’s car.”

“Oh, my God. I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do?”

“No. I-I need to get to the hospital.” I went to stand up and ended up knocking over my purse. It fell to the floor, some of the contents spilling out. “I’m so sorry to cut this short.”

“Holly, stop.”

I looked up from where I crouched on the tile floor while reaching for a wayward lipstick tube that rolled further under the table. “I-I have to go.”

“Yes, I know. But take a moment to breathe. I’ll pick up your things.” His hands gently grasped my upper arms. He helped me stand then sit back down. He squatted in front of me and held my gaze, his hands clasping mine while he evenly said, “Deep breath in. Let it out slowly. Again. Good girl. Keep doing that.”