A/N: In the words of my good friend Phoenix, "This is a Nancy Drew Free zone." If you're looking for Nancy, you won't find her here.

While this isn't the first story I've ever written, it is the first one I've posted here. Please be gentle. :-)

Summary: A last minute run to the grocery store on Christmas Eve puts Joe and Vanessa in the wrong place at the wrong time and leaves their families waiting, wondering, worrying… and praying for a Christmas miracle.

I'll Be Home For Christmas, Words and Music by Kim Gannon, Buck Ram, and Walter Kent, 1943, revised 1948

I'll Be Home For Christmas

Chapter 1

Nineteen-year-old Joe Hardy stared at the brightly lit Christmas tree, his blue eyes revealing an inner peace he was sure, just two short years ago, that he'd never feel again. He sighed and glanced at the entryway leading into the living room of the Bender farmhouse. Vanessa Bender, his nineteen-year-old girlfriend had told him to wait on the sofa while she went off to find something. The long-legged blonde beauty who had come into his life and stolen his heart was everything he could have hoped for and more. And he was happy to be spending this Christmas Eve with Vanessa and her mother, Andrea.

Joe shifted restlessly glancing again at the entryway, wondering if he should go try and help Vanessa find whatever it was she was looking for. Just as he was about to get up, she returned and settled herself down on the sofa next to him, one arm behind her back.

"So," he said, putting an arm around her and pulling her close. "Did you find what you were looking for?"

Vanessa's eyes glinted with mischief and she smiled seductively. "Mm-hmm, I did." Slowly, she pulled her hand out from behind her back and held it a few inches above their heads.

Joe glanced up and grinned, before looking back down at her. "Ah…mistletoe…" Without another word he pulled Vanessa to him and kissed her longingly, the way he knew she loved, and practically felt her melting in his arms.

Despite the mistletoe falling to the floor seconds after Joe kissed his girlfriend, the two teens remained wrapped in each other's arms, in their own little world, and didn't hear Andrea Bender enter the room several minutes later.

"Ahem," Andrea cleared her throat, loudly. Joe and Vanessa separated reluctantly and turned to a smiling Andrea. "Gee, I hate to interrupt," she said, her eyes twinkling, "but I'm afraid I have some bad news, honey," she finished looking directly at Vanessa.

"What?" Vanessa asked worriedly.

"I forgot to buy eggnog. Sorry, kiddo."

"MOM!" Vanessa practically wailed. "We always have eggnog on Christmas Eve! It's a tradition!"

"I know and I'm sorry. But we can still have our little tradition… We can use milk instead," Andrea suggested, hoping to avoid a meltdown by her daughter. Christmas was Vanessa's favorite holiday, and with only the two of them to celebrate it as a family for as long as Vanessa could remember, the traditions and rituals Andrea created were very important to her daughter.

Joe watched the exchange, wondering why eggnog was so important to his girlfriend and this tradition – whatever it was.

"It won't be the same," Vanessa pouted

"Uh…can I ask a question?" Joe interrupted, raising his hand as if he were in a classroom.

Vanessa nodded, but the sadness in her eyes went straight to his heart.

"What's the big tradition? And why is eggnog so important?"

"When I was little, Mom and I started this tradition. Every Christmas Eve, right before dinner, we sat in front of the tree and listed all the things we were thankful for in the past year. Mom always had a glass of wine but I guess when I was about four or five, I pitched a fit because I couldn't have wine too. So we had eggnog instead – something we could share," Vanessa sighed and shrugged miserably. "I know. It sounds stupid. We can be just as thankful without eggnog…"

Joe saw the disappointment in her eyes and heard the sadness in her voice. This tradition meant everything to her. And tonight, when the Benders were going to share it with Joe for the first time, Vanessa had wanted everything to be perfect.

Joe glanced at his watch and then looked up at Andrea. "It's five-fifteen… what time does that grocery store close tonight? The one out on the main road?"

"Six o'clock. Why?"

Joe looked at Vanessa and smiled. "My girl wants eggnog. And whatever my girl wants…" Joe pulled her close and kissed her soundly on the cheek, "…my girl gets."

Andrea shook her head, smiling. "You shouldn't spoil her like that, Joe. She'll get used to it," she admonished him, although she was secretly pleased.

When they had first moved to Bayport, Vanessa had not been at all happy. Then her tires got slashed and Andrea started second guessing her decision to move to this quaint little town from New York City. But those slashed tires had turned out to be a blessing in disguise, bringing Joe Hardy into her daughter's life. When they'd first started dating and Andrea started learning a little bit more about Joe, and particularly what had happened to his first girlfriend, Andrea wasn't at all sure she wanted Vanessa anywhere near him. But Vanessa fell for him hard and fast, and Andrea had to admit Joe made her happy. Not only that, he treated her like a princess. Vanessa had dated many boys while they lived in the city, but as far as the way they had treated her daughter, none of them could hold a candle to Joe Hardy.

"She should get used to it," Joe said as he stood, pulling Vanessa up with him. "She deserves it."

Vanessa wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him gently. "You're so good to me," she murmured.

"Okay, troops, you've got forty-five minutes to get that eggnog and get back here. That'll give us plenty of time for our traditional eggnog toast before dinner," Andrea said as Joe and Vanessa pulled on their coats and gloves and Vanessa wound a scarf around her neck.

"We'll be back in half an hour," Joe promised, taking Vanessa's hand and escorting her out the door.

oooOOOooo

Fifteen minutes later, Joe was standing behind Vanessa in the express checkout lane, although tonight it was anything but. Sighing, he wrapped his arms around Vanessa's waist and pulled her close to him. Leaning down, he buried his face in her neck, inhaling the scent of perfume that always drove him crazy. Vanessa hesitated but then leaned back against him, obviously trying not to give in to his ministrations.

"We are in the grocery store," she murmured softly, nudging him lightly with her elbow.

Giving another dramatic sigh of disappointment Joe straightened up, but kept his arms securely about her waist. As they moved forward a few feet, Joe swore he could feel someone watching him. Turning slightly, he looked behind him and saw an elderly couple staring at them, smiling.

"Hold on to her good and tight, sonny," the old man grinned and winked at Joe. "The good ones are hard to find; you don't want her to get away." With that, the man leaned over and kissed his wife on the cheek.

Joe laughed as Vanessa blushed. "That's good advice, sir," Joe agreed. "And I agree wholeheartedly." He planted a quick kiss on Vanessa's cheek. "I have no intentions of letting her get away."

The kindly old woman leaned close to Vanessa and squeezed her arm. "He's a keeper, honey. I can see in his eyes the way he adores you. Don't let him go."

Vanessa flushed a deeper red but nodded at the woman. "I won't." She looked up at Joe and winked. "He's stuck with me."

The line moved forward once more and it was finally their turn. Vanessa put the two pints of eggnog on the counter as Joe pulled out his wallet. While waiting for his change, Joe noticed an armored car guard hefting two large bags over his shoulder and heading for the door. "Look at that," he murmured, nudging Vanessa. "That's gotta be quite a haul considering how many people have been in here the past few days!"

Picking up their bag, Joe took Vanessa's hand and they fell in step behind the guard as he walked out the door of the supermarket. Stopping behind the armored car that was parked in front of the doors the guard waited as his partner came around from the front of the truck. Just as Joe and Vanessa were about to step around the guards, two men in black ski masks ran from the shadows of the store. Rushing towards the guards with guns drawn, the first man shot one of the guards point blank in the chest.

As soon as the gunshot rang out, Joe dropped the bag and shoved Vanessa to the ground behind him. "STAY DOWN!"

He heard screams, shouts and running footsteps but his eyes were focused on the downed guard. Blood was streaming from a small hole in his chest. He turned his head towards Joe and with great effort mouthed the words 'Help me'!

Joe didn't hesitate. He started towards the man as a myriad of thoughts swirled through his mind. Was the man married? Did he have children? How could his family ever celebrate the holidays again if he died on Christmas Eve? Joe hadn't taken more than three steps when another shot rang out. His eyes grew wide as a burning white-hot pain seared through his right shoulder. Stumbling Joe fell to his knees, clutching his shoulder. Looking down, he saw blood beginning to seep through his fingers, a slow trickle at first, but within seconds his gloved hand was covered in a dark red stain…

oooOOOooo

"STAY DOWN!"

Hugging the ground, Vanessa heard the words Joe had shouted at her echoing in her head as he shoved her to the cold hard cement. As she lay there immobile, Vanessa heard people screaming and shouting, cars peeling away from the store, a loud click and then…another gunshot. Instinctively she looked back over her shoulder and saw Joe sink to his knees.

'NO!' Vanessa wasn't sure if she screamed the word out loud or it was just reverberating in her mind. Then she saw it – the blood running through Joe's fingers, down his arm…and she couldn't stay put a second longer.

Scrambling to his side, she was barely aware of the chaos around her fading away. Her world had shrunk and at that moment there were only two people in it – she and Joe.

"Oh, my God, Joe!" she cried out, kneeling beside him.

"Get in the store!" he said through gritted teeth, his eyes squeezed shut and pain lacing his voice.

"Not without you," Vanessa argued. Alarmed at the amount of blood he was losing, Vanessa yanked the scarf from around her neck and wrapped it around Joe's shoulder a few times then pressed down - hard. "I'm sorry," she said, tears springing to her eyes when Joe let out a muffled cry of pain.

"Get inside," Joe repeated, his words more ragged this time.

Vanessa wrapped an arm around his waist, vowing not to leave him out here at the mercy of the two armed men. Realizing she had no idea where the thieves were, Vanessa glanced behind her and shivered in fear. The second guard was now lying on the ground, unconscious, as the men rifled his pockets.

"Where's the damn keys!" one of them muttered, followed by a string of curses.

"They're distracted," Vanessa whispered to Joe. "I think we can get inside without them noticing." As she looked up at the doors of the supermarket, she saw a man pulling on them, trying to get in to no avail and it hit her what the loud click had been. The doors to the store had been locked! It prevented the two armed men from entering the store, but it also left anyone outside at their mercy. As the man turned and started to run across the parking lot Vanessa called out to him.

"Help us!" He stopped and turned hesitating for a second. His eyes strayed to the masked men – and their guns – and he turned and ran. "PLEASE!" Vanessa screamed, tears streaking her face. "HELP US!"

Looking back to the store, she saw the kindly older couple who had been in line behind her and Joe. The old man was gesturing wildly to a store employee, pointing to the doors, to Joe and Vanessa, but the employee was shaking his head adamantly. The old woman was staring straight into Vanessa's eyes, tears running down her cheeks in rivulets. The woman started towards the doors as the employee grabbed her arm.

'I'm sorry,' the old woman mouthed to Vanessa. Vanessa watched helplessly as the employee forced the woman and her husband towards the back of the store to safety, away from the glass doors. Vanessa stared at the now empty lobby of the store and realized she and Joe were completely alone…

oooOOOooo

"I FOUND THEM!"

The masked man crawled out from under the armored car, clutching a set of keys in his hand.

"Quick, get the door open!" the second man yelled, already hefting the heavy bag of cash off the ground. Seconds ticked by as his partner fumbled with the keys, not knowing which one opened the back door. In the distance a siren sounded, although it was rapidly growing closer. "Come on, hurry up!"

Finally his partner let out a shout and pulled the door open. He threw the first bag of cash inside and reached for the second one but something caught his eye. At the far end of the parking lot red and blue lights flashed, throwing an eerie strobe effect across the cars in the lot. "SHIT! The cops are here! We're supposed to be long gone by now!"

As he hefted the second bag of cash into the truck, he realized they couldn't possibly get away unseen before the police arrived. The sound of crying caught his attention and he looked down, just now noticing the teen-aged couple huddled together on the ground. He'd shot the boy when he tried to help the guard, but in the confusion assumed the injured teen had crawled away. 'Lucky for us he didn't,' he thought as the police car grew closer still. He grabbed his partner by the arm and pointed to the young couple.

"Throw 'em in the back! We'll need something to bargain with!"

oooOOOooo

"Come on, Joe," Vanessa encouraged him. "Please, try and stand up!" Her voice was filtering through the haze of pain and Joe knew he needed to move. Vanessa had one arm around his waist and the other was holding his uninjured arm across her shoulders. Grabbing a handful of his jacket, she tried to pull him to his feet. Joe gamely tried to stand but he stumbled, falling forward and dragging Vanessa down with him.

"Run," he told her, trying to disentangle himself from her, push her away when suddenly she was wrenched from his grasp and Joe knew it wasn't of her own doing. Without her to hold onto, he fell to his hands and knees.

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"

Vanessa's scream ricocheted in his ears and ripped his heart in two. Shifting slightly, Joe turned his head and saw a man literally throwing Vanessa into the back of the armored vehicle. Pushing himself up onto his knees, Joe hissed and tried to ignore the blinding pain in his shoulder. For the first time he heard the siren and knew it was close. Looking up, he thought he saw the red and blue strobe lights streaking across the parking lot. If he could just hold them off for another few seconds…

Without warning, Joe's arms were grabbed and he cried out in pain as he was pulled to his feet. With a man on either side of him, Joe felt himself being lifted off the ground and heaved into the back of the truck. He hit the back wall squarely with his injured shoulder and saw stars. As the door slammed shut, he and Vanessa were engulfed in darkness. On the verge of passing out, Joe wondered if they'd live to see Christmas Day….