Joe glanced over at Christine. She was deep in thought, her brows scrunched together, a pencil stuck behind her ear, another pencil sticking out of her ponytail. Her fingers flew over the keyboard. Every once in a while she’d make a humming sound that made him smile.
It’d been two days since he convinced her to work in his apartment. He was surprised she agreed until he saw the vulnerability in her eyes and the confusion. It’d made him feel better that she was just as confused, just as vulnerable as he.
He had no idea what was going on between them and in some ways it scared the crap out of him. Whatever this thing was, it wasn’t something he’d ever felt before with any of the other women he’d been with. Christine was special. Was that what he felt the first night he met her? If so it was merely a drop in the bucket compared to what he felt now.
Normally, in all of his other relationships, he enjoyed spending time with the women he went out with but there were moments when he wanted space. He hadn’t felt any of that with Christine. In fact, it was just the opposite. He wanted to hold onto her tightly, to never let go. Inevitably a little bit of panic followed that thought because he had to let her go. She wasn’t going to be here much longer. A week at the most before she headed back to her life and her job.
She talked about her job a lot. Told him about the ad campaign she was working on. He’d even helped her bounce ideas around and given her some suggestions which she seemed to appreciate. He didn’t mind. He liked working with her, liked watching her nimble mind operate and was proud of her. But regret nudged away all of that. Regret that they hadn’t met sooner. Regret that she would be leaving.
He’d been where she was at one time and while he could warn her that what she was working so hard for wasn’t going to fulfill her he also knew she had to learn that on her own. If he convinced her to stay here with him, to give up everything she was working toward—and that was a big if—she would always wonder what could have been, how far she could have risen. He never wanted to be one of her regrets and so when the time came he would let her go. Even though it would tear his heart out.
He sat beside her, not surprised when she didn’t notice. Carefully he pulled her hands from the keyboard, a trick he’d learned a few days ago. Sometimes it was the only way to get her attention. She looked up at him, but he could tell she didn’t really see him. Her mind was still on the ad she was creating.
“It’s time for me to go to work,” he said.
She blinked and the fog lifted from her eyes. “It’s that late already?”
“You’ve been working for nearly eight hours.” He’d made lunch and placed it next to her, then ventured down to the restaurant to receive a delivery. When he returned the sandwich was gone and the plate clean. She probably didn’t even remember eating.
She rubbed her eyes with the pads of her fingers and sighed. “I’m sorry.” Her hands dropped to her lap. “Not a real fun date, am I?”
He smiled back and rubbed the knot between her shoulder blades. “This isn’t a date. If we were on a date I wouldn’t let you bring the laptop.”
That startled a laugh out of her and made him inordinately pleased with himself. Reluctantly he stood when what he really wanted to do was lay her down on the couch and have his way with her. She might have been consumed with her project during the day but she made sure her nights were just for him and the thought of that constantly kept his blood warm.
“I’m heading down to the restaurant before we get sidetracked. Remember to come down for dinner.” Usually she’d come down to eat with him. Sometimes she’d get too caught up in work and forget. When she did that he’d send dinner up.
She smiled, but it was a tired smile that made him worry she was working too much. “What would I do without you?”
For a moment neither of them moved, their thoughts probably going in the same direction. His gut twisted like someone had taken a steak knife to it and his breath lay suspended in his lungs, too paralyzed to let it out.
He bent down and kissed her on those parted lips, savoring her sweet taste, remembering it for the long winter ahead of him when there would be no Christine sitting on his couch in front of his fire. When he straightened there were tears in her eyes that she quickly blinked away. But he saw them and inside, there were answering tears.
After Joe left Christine stared into the fire and let the tears that she’d tried so hard to hide from him fall. She didn’t even bother wiping them away. What was the use? More would replace them.
She hurt like she’d never hurt before, a pain so great she feared nothing would alleviate it. Not even time.
She’d known staying here was a bad decision but she’d assumed it was bad for the project. She never thought she’d fall so hard so fast.
Her cell phone rang and for a moment she thought about ignoring it. No one would need her on Christmas Eve, but then the idea that someone was calling on Christmas Eve when no one should be made her pick the phone up.
Joe looked over the shoulder of his sous chef before turning to the guy calling his name. It was his manager, Marty, who’d been with the restaurant since his parents owned it. He didn’t look as if the place was packed with people waiting for tables. But then this was his twentieth Christmas with the restaurant. Nothing fazed him.
It’d become tradition for most families to eat dinner here on Christmas Eve and those who didn’t, came on Christmas day. Being in the restaurant business, Joe and his family never celebrated Christmas on December twenty-fifth. They waited until New Years when they closed the restaurant down for a week.
Marty jerked his head, telling Joe to come closer. “Yeah?” Joe wiped his hands on the towel he’d tucked into the front of his jeans and eyed a waitress as she hefted a heavy tray.
“Someone here to see you,” Marty said.
“Me?” Who the hell was here to see him? Everyone he knew was here tonight, including his family who were helping serve.
“Christine,” Marty said above the noise of cooks yelling and pans banging against each other.
Joe glanced at his watch. Usually Christine came later, after the crowds died down, but then this was Christmas Eve and the crowd wasn’t about to die down soon. He felt a tinge of regret that they wouldn’t be able to eat together. Not now, at least. He pushed through the swinging doors and into the restaurant. Christine stood against the wall watching the crowd. Her face was flushed, her eyes bright. When she spotted him, she launched herself at him. He caught her in midflight, her body slamming against his. Her soft curves molded to him as they’d done so many times in the last few days and he couldn’t help but hold her closer and inhale the fruity scent of her shampoo. The same scent that saturated his bathroom every morning, reminding him of her.
“Whoa,” he said, bracing himself so she wouldn’t knock him over. “What’s this?”
She kissed him on the mouth then smiled up at him. “He loves it.”
“Who loves what?” But he knew and instinctively his arms tightened around her in an attempt to keep her next to him forever.
“My boss. He loves my idea and the company wants to see it the day after tomorrow. They said if it’s executed as well as I claim then they want to go for it.”
She slid from his grasp and bounced on her feet, those wild curls bouncing with her. Her smile nearly stretched from ear to ear and her eyes sparkled with laughter and pride.
He smiled back, although it took effort to force his facial muscles to obey. “That’s great, sweetheart. I’m very proud of you.” And he was. Really he was.
She grabbed his hand and squeezed. “This is it, Joe. This is what I’ve wanted. What I’ve worked for.”
“I know.” He squeezed back, his heart breaking. “I know it is. Congratulations.”
The light in her eyes dimmed and the smile disappeared. “I have to pack. I’m leaving in the morning. I have to get to the office and polish this up. My meeting’s the day after Christmas.”
“Hey, Joe, could you c’mere?”
Joe nodded to his head waiter. “Give me a minute, Russell.”
Christine stepped back, the elation gone, her expression serious. “We’ll talk when you get home,” she said.
He nodded again, not trusting himself to speak. Afraid he would say things better left unsaid. Afraid he would make a fool of himself by begging her to stay when he knew in his heart he needed to let her go.
Christine was waiting for him when he got home, her suitcase beside the front door, her laptop case beside it. That more than anything told him this was real. She was leaving and there was nothing he could do or say to stop her. Not that he would. He would never do that to her, but all the same, he wanted to. Man, how he wanted to.
She looked over her shoulder at him, the Christmas tree lights like a halo around those golden curls. “Hi,” she said softly.
He closed the door behind him and dropped his coat. “Hey.” His feet appeared to be glued to the floor so they stared at each other for a long moment, so much to be said hovering between them.
“Are you ready to go?” he asked.
She nodded. Christmas music played softly in the background. The fire was still going strong. She must have gone outside and lugged some logs into the house.
She stood and faced him, the couch between them, and held her hand out. “Come here, Joe.”
He moved although it felt like he was walking through sludge, and took her hand to sit beside her. She curled a leg beneath her and faced him, dropping her gaze to their linked hands. Slowly her thumb rubbed his knuckles and she cleared her throat. “My dad left my mom and I when I was born,” she said. “Mom told me he wasn’t ready to have a family yet. It was just the two of us when I was growing up. Mom got pregnant with me out of high school and didn’t have many skills other than waitressing. Sometimes she’d work in retail, but those jobs never lasted long. Things were tight. We moved around a lot. Many Christmases were spent in shelters and standing in line at soup kitchens.”
Joe turned his hand in hers and squeezed her fingers but remained silent, aching inside for the little girl she’d been.
“When I got older and was able to take care of myself she found more steady work. Still waitressing, but steady. She always told me not to trust a man to take care of me. That only I could take care of myself. She said love was a fantasy. Love didn’t put a roof over your head or food in your belly.”
She paused and he allowed the silence to stretch.
“I took her words to heart,” she said. “I studied hard and earned good enough grades to get a full scholarship to the local college. Mom wasn’t around by then. I think she worked herself to death but I knew she was proud of me.” She finally looked at him. The firelight reflected off the tear tracks on her cheeks but she made no move to wipe them away.
“I have to go back to New York, Joe. I have to do this.”
“Love may not put a roof over your head or food in your belly, but it can bring you comfort and security.”
A tear rolled down her cheek. “I know that now.”
But it didn’t change her mind. He knew it wouldn’t but a small part of him still hoped.
In the end, he let her go because he had no choice. To keep her here would ruin what they had together. In time she would come to hate him and that he couldn’t live with. When he awoke the next morning the sheets were still warm from their frantic lovemaking but she was gone. A small package wrapped in bright red paper with a silver bow sat on his kitchen table. For a long time he simply stared at it, unwilling to reach for it. Finally curiosity overcame his reluctance and he carefully removed the wrapping to reveal an ornament of a little boy pulling a bright blue sled behind him. He smiled through the cracks in his heart.
Christine stared through gritty, sleep-deprived eyes out the window of her office. She spent all of Christmas day on the road then in the office finalizing the project and listening to her boss’s “advice” that was really commands to change this and that until the project she’d worked so hard on wasn’t hers anymore. Despite that she’d pushed through and delivered the best sales pitch of her career, convincing the Fortune 500 company to use their advertising firm for their business and thus securing her future.
Her boss was elated and already hinted at a big raise and an even bigger promotion. She smiled through it all, accepting congratulations and slaps on the back while inside the sadness that had been plaguing her began to take over.
All her life she’d worked hard—at being a dutiful daughter, at being a good student, at being an indispensible employee. All of that work came down to this moment. The pinnacle of her career. She should be feeling elated. Everything was within her grasp. This was the happiest day of her life and yet she couldn’t shake her melancholy.
She wanted Joe to celebrate her success alongside her.
She looked at her watch. He’d be in the restaurant right now getting ready for the big rush. She knew Christmas Eve and Christmas were his biggest days. Was the day after as well? Or would they be slow tonight? Should she call him and tell him or leave it be? Maybe it was best that they have a clean break.
The thought had her nearly doubling over in pain. She didn’t want a clean break. She didn’t want a break at all. She wanted to be in front of his fire reading a book or talking to him about nothing in particular. She wanted to go downstairs and enter the restaurant with its close clientele. The people who accepted her with open arms and not one question as to why she was there. She wanted to go to sleep with Joe’s arms wrapped around her and wake up spooned against him.
“Christine, you ready? Everyone’s waiting. We managed to get into that Italian restaurant you recommended.”
She turned from the window and smiled at her boss. “Yes, sir. Let’s go eat.”
“You sure you don’t want me to help clean up?” Julie asked.
Joe looked at his normally tidy apartment, at the ripped wrapping paper strewn all over, at the glasses and empty plates piled onto every available surface. “I’m good,” he said.
Julie looked at him pointedly. “No, you’re not.”
He sighed, picked up a plate and headed toward the kitchen, not willing to listen to his sister any longer. She followed, not taking his hint. “Call her.”
She plunked her hands on her hips. “Why not?”
“Because she doesn’t need me mucking this up. She needs to do this on her own.”
“She’s a fool. You’re a fool.”
There wasn’t any disputing that so he kept his mouth shut. December twenty-sixth had come and gone with no word from Christine. He’d waited all day but she never called. In hindsight he knew it was best. Talking to her would only delay the inevitable. She was gone, back to her life where she should be. He understood her reasoning a little better. She needed her job for security, to know that she would never have to enter another shelter again or live off the generosity of others. He could tell her he had plenty of money to keep a roof—hell, several roofs—over her head but he understood that wasn’t the point. She needed to provide for herself. Being reliant on him was no better than being reliant on the nearest soup kitchen. He got that. It didn’t mean it hurt any less.
Julie began shoving wrapping paper in a trash bag, her silence speaking louder than any words could. She felt he should run after Christine. He knew better.
“My agent called yesterday,” he said in an attempt to make small talk but also to get her mind off Christine. And maybe his mind as well although that might just be impossible.
She made a non-committal sound in her throat.
“The deal went through on the cookware.” In late spring he would launch his own line of pots and pans and cooking utensils, designed by him.
She straightened to look at him. “That’s great, Joe.”
The warmth in her voice told him she truly meant it and that he’d successfully changed the subject.
“So does that mean you’ll be traveling to New York?”
Or maybe not. Damn she was like a dog with a bone.
“Maybe. We haven’t discussed it yet.”
She made that sound again. He was beginning to think it meant she didn’t approve of whatever he was saying.
Someone knocked on the door and they looked at each other. “Maybe pop forgot something,” he said as he made his way to the door. But when he opened it his pop wasn’t on the other side.
He leaned a shoulder against the doorframe because he wasn’t sure his legs would keep him upright.
“I heard there was a party going on here.”
He looked her up and down. It’d been a week since he last saw her. Seven days of pure hell. There were dark circles under eyes that watched him warily, gauging his reaction, weighing whether or not she’d made the right decision.
“You missed it,” he said. “Party ended a half hour ago.”
His sister slapped him in the shoulder as she sidled past him, then looked pointedly at Christine. “Ignore him. He’s been salty the last week or so.” Julie disappeared into the night leaving him alone with Christine.
She raised a brow. “Salty, huh?”
He shrugged, not quite knowing how to respond to that. Telling her he’d been lost without her seemed a bit premature considering he didn’t know why she was here.
She shifted from one foot to the other, making him glance down. No flip-flops this time. He stepped back and she entered his apartment. “Looks like it was a good party.”
“Lots of presents.” He shut the door behind her and walked to the couch, leaving her to follow.
“Did Santa bring you everything you asked for?”
He turned around to find her right behind him, looking up at him, the warmth of her skin just inches from him and yet he didn’t touch. Not yet.
“Depends,” he said.
“Depends on what?”
He moved closer, throwing caution to the wind, needing to feel her skin beneath his, to smell the fruity scent of her shampoo. “Depends on why you’re here.”
She looked away and bit her lower lip before sinking down into the couch and patting the spot next to her. He hesitated before sitting beside her, bracing himself for what she had to say.
“The company loved my idea. They bought it.”
She shrugged as if it were no big deal when he knew it was.
“I’m serious, Christine. Congratulations. You worked hard and you deserved it.”
“Thank you.” She looked away again, into the fire. “But it was hollow. I just…” Her shoulders rose on a deep breath that she held for a few moments before letting out slowly and turning to him. “It just wasn’t what I thought it would be. You were right when you said it wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
“That was me and my experiences. Yours will be different.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. All I know is that we went out afterwards to celebrate and even though I was in the best restaurant in the state–”
He raised an eyebrow and she smiled.
“Okay, the best restaurant in the city, I was still lonely. All I thought was that I wanted you there to celebrate with.”
His heart turned over and with it a kernel of hope sprang forth. Hope he tried to squash before it bloomed and flowered.
“My mom was wrong,” she whispered. “Love can’t buy you a house with a roof or food for your belly but it can bring you security and comfort. Just like you said.”
He swallowed, almost too afraid to speak. “What are you saying?”
She touched his cheek with her warm fingers and he wanted to lean his head into her touch but held back.
“I’m saying I want to work this out between us. Somehow we can make this work.”
A smile slowly worked its way up from his insides. “I think we can make that happen. I’m not willing to work in New York but I’m not unwilling to live there from time to time if you don’t mind coming back here every once in a while.”
She blinked rapidly but it wasn’t enough to stop the tears from forming. “I can arrange that.” She shook her head. “I’m not sure what happened, how it came to this in such a short amount of time.”
He didn’t either but he wasn’t going to dwell on it too much. It happened. They were together. Call it fate. Call it magic. Call it love. Whatever forces were at work he was just damn glad they came his way.
Note from Sharon:
Some stories are difficult to write, like pulling teeth. And some stories just flow out of your fingertips like it was already written and the author is the conduit to get it on paper. Christmas Cheer was the latter. Joe and Christina’s story came to me within minutes and the story effortlessly flowed from me. It was a joy to write and I’m so pleased everyone has enjoyed it. Thank you for stopping by week after week and for following Joe and Christina’s story. I will definitely have to do this again.
Happy New Year and may 2012 be prosperous and wonderful for you!