I glared at Pop, secretly wanting to throttle the old man. He sat cozied in his battered brown leather recliner, his arm extended my way with a twenty-dollar bill crumpied in his wrinkled fingers. Jones, his poodle pal, danced at my feet for attention.
“Please, Lori,” my grandfather said, “go to Kline’s and buy the lacey candy canes. Kline’s is the only department store that carries them.” Then he added the clincher, the one that would grab even the Grinch’s heart, “It’s for your grandmother. For Christmas.”
Now why did he have to go and use that line? He knew I hated—with a capital “H”—going to any store. I especially detested Kline’s. “She likes Hershey chocolate, too, the dark kind with almonds. All the grocery stores stock it.”
“No, only her favorite will do.” He flapped the bill in my direction again, causing Jones to snap at it.
Gosh, he was so stubborn.
Every holiday season, Kline’s imported a unique candy cane from Italy. The box, constructed of a high-quality cardstock, was lined in ivory satin. In each partition rested a crinkly cellophane-wrapped twisted white stick, the edges banded in orange, yellow, or green. Orders were not available through the Internet, which I knew for a fact because I’d checked two years ago. Nowadays, one box of twelve would probably cost every bit of the twenty Pop had flashed.
It was almost a rite of passage—and a privilege—to get one of these special candy canes. As a child, my eyes had gleamed with delight when my grandmother gave me a stick rimmed with the orange stripe. Carefully, I tore it open and proceeded to lick one-two-three. . . four-five-six times. Instead of the traditional peppermint, a sharp tang of citrus sparked my taste buds.
“I have to have these in case. . .” His fist gently tapped his breastbone in the frightening potential heart attack manner. “Well, you know.”
Pop did not play fair. In my gut, I knew he’d faked for drama. Considering his age, however, the possibility existed, causing a small slice of my ticker to worry.
I really had no choice. He’d bug and bug me to run his errand until I caved.
I shifted my weight a bit more, staring at the bill waving over Jones’s head. Pop had no idea what he’d asked me to do. I had good reason not to go to Kline’s, only he didn’t know why.
I snatched the twenty from his hand. “Fine. But this is the last time.”
He chuckled, “I think you say that every year.”
“I mean it. I’m never setting foot in that place again.”
He leveled his “wise eye” look on me. “Grow up. You’re twenty-six for chrissakes. I’d been married five years at your age.”
I countered with the same ol’ argument. “Unlike my peers, Pop, I want to be married for a lifetime. Not try on marriage and then toss it away like an old sock if I don’t like the fit.”
“You’re getting a little long in the tooth.”
“And if I might suggest. . .” Blowing a huff up my face, I shifted my fists to my hips. “What?”
“Put on that pretty dress you wore for your sister’s birthday party. Its lines hugged your curves.”
Pop’s words stung my heart, probably more than he realized. I glanced at my current attire. So work boots and jeans weren’t the most attractive things to wear when shopping at Kline’s. They were practical for my job and I’d been raised on practicality—by him.
I brushed my eye to stave forming tears. “In my wildest dreams I never thought grandparents looked at their offspring that way.”
“I’m not blind, just old. All I’m suggestin’ is you wear the dress and high heels. It flatters your figure. You never know who you might run into. . .”
Like I wanted that to happen. My goal was to avoid seeing anyone I knew.
Then he hammered the final nail in the coffin. “And while you’re there, why don’t you get a haircut? Your long horsetail reminds me of pioneer women. Short and sassy with some of what you gals call highlights would be pretty. Your mom told me Kline’s Spring Water Salon is the best.”
“And the most expensive. . .”
“I’ll pay for the cut. Add a manicure and pedicure, too.” He dug out his mended-with-duct-tape wallet and removed the rarely used credit card. “Use this. Think of it as an early Christmas present.”
If my own grandfather thought I had the “uglies,” did others think the same thing? I pocketed the proffered card. “Fine.”
Leaving before he could criticize something else was a good plan, to hurry to my car and hide my watery eyes in private. Before I could turn away, he snagged my hand and pulled me to his side. “Are you mad at me, sweet pea?”
His tender question melted my bones. I could never stay angry with him. He really was the best grandfather ever. This man had taken me to the zoo. He showed me how to grill steaks like a pro, manhandle fishing gear, and shoot a gun.
Who could be angry at their hero?
“No, Pop. I’m not mad at you. I-I do need a makeover.” With a sniff, I poked his bony shoulder. “Thanks for caring.”
“Good.” His papery buzz on my knuckles said it all. “Now go.”
Once in my battered Wrangler, I let out a long sigh that reached my toes. I chewed on a cuticle and stole a peek in the side view mirror. I hated to admit it, but Pop was right—I needed a huge intervention, a miraculous transformation, Cinderella’s fairy godmother. How could I let myself look like this? I hit the gas.
First stop: my apartment where I picked up the long-sleeved sheath in heather gray wool, black heels, and matching clutch. I also phoned the Spring Water Salon, who said, “Yes, they had plenty of time to squeeze me in.” Since Pop had offered to pay, I scheduled a three-hour appointment for cut, color, mani and pedicure, plus a few other items. Before I could talk myself out of it, I hopped in the car and zoomed downtown.
Kline’s Department Store had been established in the horse and buggy days when Somerville was a tiny blot in the road. As the years passed, the store expanded to the current location of an entire city block, a classic building of marble and granite with award-winning displays featuring the latest in designer fashion.
Everyone loved Kline’s except for me. Once upon a time, I loved the store; now, I dreaded going and rarely entered even to this day.
When I reached the front entrance, I frowned at the glass door, making successive “whooshing” sounds as it rotated by. What were the odds I’d see Jimmy? I didn’t want to—I surveyed my work jeans and long-sleeved top—especially garbed like this.
Jimmy Kline and I had grown up together in the playpens. His mother and mine were best friends. They’d taught Sunday school, manned the PTA, and served on the library board together. If I wasn’t at his house, he was at mine, resulting in a tight heart-bonding confidence. He pinkie swore never to tell anyone about my shy nature. About my passion for reading Nancy Drew. My secret hideout. My fondness for Mr. Bubble bubblebaths. How big roaches scared the bejeebers outta me.
I promised not to divulge how he thought ketchup should be classified a vegetable, loved Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and slept with his gray cat, Romper.
I was at my best with him.
About age fourteen, I couldn’t figure out why he no longer joked as he always had. Instead, he stared at me in a funny way that bewildered me. No raving beauty had bird legs and lanky arms like mine. Or lack of a chest. Or hair fastened into a bouncy ponytail.
About the same time, I’d noticed changes in him. Overnight, man hair had sprouted on his limbs and a muscular physique developed. His height skyrocketed past six feet, his jaw squared, and he smelled divine.
At sixteen, he’d done the most unexpected thing—asked me on a date. After the movie, we stopped at Coffee Café drive-through because he knew how much I adored iced frappacinos. After he parked the car at Flag Pole Hill, he stared deep into my eyes. We had a man-to-woman link that penetrated body and soul, the kind I’d read about in the romance books I’d pilfered from my grandmother.
With intense desperation, I wanted him and willed him to kiss me. Kiss me, kiss me. As I stared into his grass-green irises, his pupils blackened. His hands circled my biceps and he tugged me to his chest. I raised my chin and his mouth clumsily found mine. While exploring each other, our embrace tightened. His tongue darted between my parted lips. He tasted of coffee. My hand clutched his hair. A groan, the kind I’d never experienced before, trilled out my core.
He murmured a hoarse, “I love you,” as his hand kneaded my breast.
Instantly, I snapped out of the moment and stiffened. According to Mom, Grammy, and everyone who was anyone, touching female body parts was taboo. Confused, I shoved him away and demanded, “Take me home.” The sting of his frown hit my face. Red rushed up my neck and out the ends of my hard-to-curl hair. “Now.”
Once we reached my house, I’d flung myself out of the hand-me-down Camry and raced up the walk to the breezeway. The backdoor slammed behind me. Taking the stairs like a madwoman, I burst into my room, flattening my body against the closed door. My heart thump-thumped a wild tom-tom, tom-tom.
What had happened? Why had he done that?
“Lori? Are you okay?” Mom asked. The knob shifted against my backside. “How’s Jimmy?”
I’d pressed my hand to my forehead in a fashion worthy of celestial royalty. “Fine, Mom. Going to bed.”
“Okay, sweet pea. See you in the morning.”
Coming to terms with feelings was never easy. Thank goodness I’d had another whole day to prepare for when I’d encounter him at school on Monday morning. I’d gone with the best preventative: Avoidance.
He’d received the message. By the end of the week, the only acknowledgement he’d show was a cold nod when forced to admit my presence.
I’d been so immature. Deep within, I knew we should have discussed what had happened. But the shy me couldn’t. I’d let my immaturity fester into a hard pit. And to this day I still dodged him. Our lives had taken different paths, we enrolled in different colleges, took different jobs. Via Mom’s gossip, I heard he’d joined the Kline’s sales team, starting as a department manager. I’d found refuge with plants at a local organic nursery, a passion I’d inherited from Grammy who’d grow an amazing vegetable garden every summer. Now standing outside the imposing building, I rubbed my palms on my grubby jeans. The phrase “can’t get a man looking like that” bounced through my mind. I gave myself one final pep talk before stepping indoors.
What were the chances Jimmy could be vacationing in Antarctica?
I walked down an aisle adjacent to the women’s section, over to the elevator. The gold and bronze in the holiday decorations brought an additional beauty to the already attractive business. The sparkles and spangles of the party clothes and accessories caught my eye and more than a small part of me longed for an occasion to wear something so stunning. When passing the sales associates, however, their stares of “would you look at her” bored into the back of my head.
It took all the guts I possessed to continue on.
On the fourth floor, I entered the cool serenity of the seafoam green and ocean blue decor of Spring Water, the store’s salon. Plunking Pop’s credit card on the white marble counter and hoping-praying-hoping it would go through, I informed the uniformed attendant, “I’m Lori Davis, here for my overhaul.”
She glanced up from the appointment book and scanned me up and down, from my rowdy hair to my dusty boots. Her frown said it all: Needs major help. Chirping “Follow me, please,” off we went to the dressing room.
Several hours later, I ogled myself in the mirror. Who was this woman? Swishing my hair from side to side, I approved of how the new cut brushed my shoulders. Light refracted off the golden highlights. My brows had been de-bushed. My nails buffed to a high gloss. Shimmery holly berry coated my toenails. The dress skimmed down my “curves” and the heels boosted my height to almost six feet.
Not bad. I struck a model-worthy pose in front of the dressing room mirror. Not bad at all. Pop had gotten his wish.
I straightened my shoulders and admired again. From deep within, a new “me” emerged. Confidence and beauty became my companions. I snagged the cute clutch and exited the salon with a friendly wave and smile.
Wrapped in my euphoria, I didn’t pay a smidgen of attention to where I was going. I rounded a column on the first floor and slammed into a solid mass. Before apologizing, a piney scent enveloped my senses. Power radiated from the grasp of the arms that had caught me. As my vision cleared, embarrassment coursed through my whole being.
Jimmy. My rescuer just had to be Jimmy.
Did he have to look so handsome in a navy suit? The cut of his coat made his shoulders broader and the pants elongated his legs. The shirt’s French cuffs spoke exquisite elegance. His dark brown hair had been shorn short, reminiscent of a popular news anchor.
Suddenly aware of new thoughts about him, I tried to shrug away. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m not.” Releasing me, his deep voice caressed my body. “You look. . . incredible, Lori. Absolutely adorable.”
His words left me speechless. I managed to quip, “Y-you certainly know how to flatter a girl. Now, please, excuse me.”
His oxfords click-clicked on the marble floor when he followed me. “Can I help?”
“No, just going to uh. . .” Something like putty stuck in my throat. I pointed toward the escalators.
He caught up with me. “What for?”
“An errand for Pop.”
“Is he okay?”
“H-he’s fine.” I stopped by the escalators where Kline’s traditionally set up their seasonal division. Here, one could purchase the finest chocolates, the most fragrant candles, holiday decorations, gourmet cookies, delicious fruitcakes, top-of-the-line greeting cards and gift-wrap, et cetera.
I moved closer to an empty round fixture. A laminated sign posted on top said, “Our candy canes are not available at this time. Please check with us in one week. We apologize for any inconvenience.”
Jimmy brushed against my side, sending shockwaves through my limbs. I prayed he couldn’t hear my heartbeat’s loud wildwood drumming. His palm smacked his brow. “I’m so sorry, Lori, I should have remembered your grandfather always buys your grandmother a box. How can I fix this?”
I swiveled to face him. Crossing my arms, I leveled the evil eye his way. “You can explain to Pop.”
“I’d rather face a firing squad.”
“Now you know how I feel.” I slapped my purse against my thigh. “Rats. Now what am I going to do?”
Gently, his fingers circled my wrist. “It’s not your fault. I’ll tell him we had to throw away the entire order. A new one’s coming, but you know how that goes. From Italy. . .”
“Can’t they be Fed Ex-ed?”
“Others have the same problem. We’re on a waiting list. When they come in, I’ll set a box aside.”
Why did he have to touch me? Shaking my arm from his clasp, I mumbled “rats” again, but really wanted to spew something more profane. As I started to walk away, my right heel skated on the marble. The next thing I knew, I was lying flat on my flipside, staring at the fancifully plastered ceiling.
” Lori!” He dropped to his knees. “Are you okay? Did you hurt your head? I’m phoning Fire and Rescue.”
A throng of concerned customers circled us. I rubbed my hand over my eyes and into my hair. How mortifying. This was what happened, folks, when Lori Davis glams up. “No, don’t.”
“Can you sit up?” He slid his hands under my arms and shifted me into a seated position. Squatting behind me, he let my body relax into his. “Better?”
His breath brushed my ear. Ruffles of sensations fluttered by like butterflies and caused me to tilt sideways.
He removed his cell phone from his breast pocket. “You’re about to pass out. I’m phoning the fire department.”
“I’m not jittery from the fall.” “Convince me otherwise.”
“Stop being a moron and help me up.”
He stood, supporting me as I shifted my legs under my body and slowly rose upwards. I finally moved when all my bits and pieces felt normal.
Like they would ever be normal with him hovering over me.
I smoothed my palms over my dress, then shakily finger-combed flyaways behind my ear. “I think I’ll make it.”
His fingers pushed through my fine strands to the back of my head. “You have a large bump here.”
I knocked his arm aside. “Would you quit? I feel stupid enough. People are staring. I want to go home.”
He shook a no-no-no. “I’ll drive you.”
“I can drive—”
“It’s me or the fire department, sweet pea.”
I knew the stern obstinate look in his green eyes way too well. He meant every word. I capitulated, “Fine. And don’t call me sweet pea.”
He passed me my handbag and then looped his arm around my waist. My forehead fevered from his nearness. If only I could get home before shattering into a million pieces.
I found myself escorted to the employee entrance. Before exiting, he informed the security guard of his whereabouts. “I can be reached by my cell phone if need be.”
The guard gave a mock salute and a deliberate wink. “Yes, sir.”
Once outside, the security lights stung my eyes. That didn’t escape his observation either. “I’ll get my car and come back for you.”
“No,” I said and squeezed my eyes shut briefly. “I can do this.”
He tucked me in his gray Grand Cherokee. In my mind, he still drove the family Camry, like he had the night he kissed me.
Kiss me. Kiss me.
To blot the thought, I stared at the dancing fairy lights decorating the trees planted in the parking lot.
“Are you all right? You’re frowning.” “Would you stop? How many times do I have to tell you I’m fine?” Fortunately, my place was only a fifteen-minute drive. He stopped in front of my town home. “Here you go.”
I squinted at him—the throbbing had intensified. “How did you know where I live?”
He shrugged. “Maybe I overheard your mom tell my mom.” He exited the Jeep and circled to the passenger side. He made sure I sustained good balance before assisting me to my front entry.
“I’m okay now, honest,” I said. “Humor me.”
“Why are you being so nice?”
“Lori, we used to be best friends. I regret whatever changed that.”
I had regrets, too, only now I wanted more than just “best friends.”
Taking my key, he unlocked the door. Inside, I plopped on the couch. He tenderly removed my shoes, propped my feet on a cushion, and set a pillow along my lower spine. When I shivered, he placed a wool blanket Grammy had knitted on top of my legs. Once nicely folded in, he sat next to me, running his hand the length of my leg, pausing to baby-massage my calf. “Better?”
Despite the rub feeling oh-so good, his touch caused a peculiar awareness in my tummy. I swallowed, “Yes. You can go.”
“I’m not leaving.”
“Look, you fulfilled your Boy Scout obligation. It’s hectic at Kline’s. You’re needed there.”
“The store will manage just fine without me. In fact. . .” he studied his watch, “it closes in five minutes and I’ll be officially off the clock.
“I’m staying all night to make sure you don’t have a concussion.”
I tilted forward. “Read my lips: I. Don’t. Have. A. Concussion.”
Gently, he pushed my body against the pillow. “You didn’t hear the crack when your head bounced. Sounded just like a watermelon landing on concrete.”
“You’re lying. There wasn’t any blood.”
“Please, Lori. I’ll feel better staying and maybe we can talk, like we used to in the old days.”
“I’m not leaving.”
Irritated, my eyes slanted to him. He was too big to wrestle with anyway. I swung my legs over the side of the couch and levered myself up. “Fine.”-
“I’ll get whatever you need.”
“No way, Jose. I’m putting on my pajamas, unless you think you can wear them for me.”
“Yeah, that’s not happening.” His body softened. “I’m coming after you if you take more than fifteen minutes.”
“Deal.” I went to the bathroom, washed my face, brushed my teeth, and put on my comfy men’s pajamas, a gift for Pop that didn’t fit him. Snagging a bottle of pain reliever, I returned to the living room.
His eyebrow quirked when he saw my get-up. “Perfect timing. One more minute—”
“Yadayadayada.” I jiggled the bottle. “A drink, please.”
To compensate for the sound of water flowing from the faucet, he said in a louder voice, “I looked at these town homes a while ago. I like the homey ambiance you created by mixing vintage stuff with modern pieces.” Returning, he passed me a glass. “I should hire you to decorate my place.”
“I had fun pulling the room together.” I tossed down two ibuprofen with a long swallow. “TV? Movie?”
His glance went from the flat screen retrofitted in an old armoire to a longing gaze on the fridge. “Actually, I’m hungry—”
“‘I’m hungry. I’m starving. Wasn’t that your infamous saying?”
“Hey, I was a growing boy and needed sustenance.” His laugh sounded lighthearted. Passing six feet, I’d say he’d grown enough. “Can I make something for us to eat?”
I pointed to the kitchen. “Go for it.”
He took a step forward, then relaxed. “What about you?”
“Microwave a mug of water. Stir in a packet of hot chocolate mix which you’ll find on a pantry shelf.”
“And don’t forget the whipped cream. It’s in the fridge.” As I watched him work, I realized our dumb teenage kiss had spoiled everything. A cavernous hole had replaced our former camaraderie. I wanted our friendship back. I wanted more than our friendship back. But how?
He returned with a plate piled with fruit, cheese, and crackers, a box of chocolate Snickerdoodles, and my requested drink, which he set on the coffee table in front of me. Seeing and smelling the food brought hunger pangs. I took the napkin he passed and helped myself. We talked as the light outside faded to deep black, as if the gap in our friendship had never happened.
At some point, I began to yawn incessantly. I’d convinced him I didn’t feel that way because of a massive head injury and stumbled to bed.
I woke the next morning to bright sunshine and remembered Jimmy sleeping on the couch. Shuffling into the great room, I saw his suit and shirt draped over the upholstered plaid chair. His shoes set next to the hearth. A blanket twisted around his waist. He only wore Batman boxers—my favorite superhero.
Tiptoeing closer, it took major will power not to touch him, to run my fingers the span of his spine.. .
“Good morning,” he twisted up and scrubbed his eyes toddler style, flashing his impressive six-pack. I jumped aside. “How are you feeling?”
I pushed my hands through my hair to gingerly feel the bump. “Looks like I’ll survive.”
He checked his Swiss Army watch which he’d placed on the coffee table. “I’m late.”
Grabbing his pants, he shoved one leg in, then the other. He jammed his arms in the shirtsleeves, looped the tie around his neck and hooked the coat with a finger.
Standing like a dummy with my mouth wide, I watched as the door shut behind him.
Before I could move, it flung open. He raced to my side and wrapped his arms around me. I settled my face into his neck and rubbed my mouth into the caressable skin. He felt soft and warm. The rasp of his beard scraped across my cheek. He pressed a kiss on my temple.
He settled and grinned. “I’ll check on you later,” snapped my pajama pant’s elastic band, the same way he’d done my athletic shorts when we were kids, and disappeared.
I said to the empty space, “Please.”
But his phone call never came, which made my emotions jump from frustration to anger to whatever. When the darn thing did ring a few days later, it was Pop. Wishing for understanding, I hit the connect
“Where’s your grandmother’s gift? Did you forget?” he blasted. “No, sir. The store’s out.”
“What do you mean out?” His voice reached a chilling high octave.
“Look here, young lady, don’t tell me to settle down. I’m your grandfather. Explain yourself.”
“I would if you wouldn’t interrupt. They had to trash the shipment because it came in crushed. They’re expecting another order soon, but it does come from Italy, so. . .”
“I see. That is a problem.”
“Jimmy? You saw him?”
“He helped me.”
“Did you get a haircut and your nails done?”
“I’m a raving beauty, Pop.”
“Good. I knew she was buried underneath all that hair and grime.”
I rolled my eyes, silently acknowledging how right he’d been. “I’ll check in with Jimmy, okay?”
“Don’t have much choice, do we?”
When I called and asked for “Mr. Kline,” a perky voice said, “He’s unavailable at the moment. Can I take a message?”
“Would you ask him to phone Lori Davis?” I repeated my number.
Within the hour, I heard back. “I’m sorry, Lori, I wasn’t available. I’ve been putting out fires all day long, every day.”
“I understand. That time of year. Changing the subject, I told Pop about the candy and. . .Tum da tum turn.”
He groaned. “He’s pissed.”
“I wish I had better news. Why don’t I get an update from the buyer and fill you in over dinner?”
Dinner with Mr. Handsome Man? I liked that idea. “Does six o’clock work for you?”
“Perfect. Come to the fifth floor.”
Only after I clicked off did I grasp the real dilemma: What to wear? I couldn’t go see him in my usual jeans and shirt. And he’d already seen me in my best dress.
After rummaging through my inadequate wardrobe, I found a black pleated skirt smashed in the closet corner and a white silky blouse my sister had given me for my birthday. I draped a gold pashmina across my shoulders and transferred handbag stuff to a sparkly tote. A simple refresher of eyeliner and mascara I’d purchased at the salon made my eyes appear bigger and sexier. That wasn’t so bad, I thought while blotting my lipstick.
At the store, I stepped into the elevator at quarter to five and hit the button for the fifth floor. When the door slid open, the receptionist gave me a broad smile. “Lori Davis? Mr. Kline is expecting you. I’ll let him know you’re here.” She turned a corner behind a half wall.
I tapped my shoe while waiting. She sure was taking a long time. Couldn’t she just have buzzed him?
A delicious foodie scent drifted from the same direction she’d gone. Something like…garlic and tomato—somebody’s dinner. Boy, it smelled terrific, too. I’d probably get a burger on the run at the food court with Jimmy. Where was he anyway?
The receptionist returned. “Please, follow me.”
We walked down a beige carpeted hallway. Name plates had been mounted to the left of frosted glass doors we passed. When we reached Jimmy’s, I paused to touch the letters spelling “Store Manager.” He had to be pleased with his accomplishments.
The receptionist opened the door. “Enjoy.”
I looked at her retreating backside. Enjoy what?
“Lori, thanks for meeting me here.” Jimmy took my arm and led me in his office. The Italian aroma was definitely stronger here. “I hope you don’t mind; instead of going out, I ordered in from the Italian Bistro—lasagna, garlic bread, Caesar salad, and for dessert, limoncello gelato.”
I searched for words. To dine with him was overwhelming enough, but to remember my favorites? This went beyond any expectations. In the end, I stammered, “How d-divine.”
He led me to an adjoining room where a conference table had been dressed with a white damask tablecloth, china, and silver. I studied the spread. “Expecting a small army?”
“I know, I know. ‘I’m hungry, I’m starving,” I said
We laughed. Throughout dinner, we discussed the weather, holiday shows, friends we had in common. Slowly, but surely, our friendship was returning.
From a small fridge, he removed two small bowls. “Here’s temptation.”
The gelato. Even though I was stuffed, nothing would stop me from scarfing it down. In between bites of the delicious concoction, I brought the conversation to the real business. “So what’s the latest on the candy canes? I’ve got to get some before Pop detonates.”
His head shook a negative. “Not good news.”
With a sigh, I returned my napkin to my lap. “This is bad.”
“They’ll probably come at the last minute, like on Christmas Eve.”
“I guess that’s better than not at all. Hopefully, Pop can check his temper `til then.”
A glance at my cell phone told me we’d gone way past a quick dinner for someone whose busiest season was upon them, and I stood. “I should go. You have a business to run.” I picked up my shawl and handbag and faced him, “Thank you for the lovely meal.”
“We’ll do it again.” He buzzed my lips and I left.
Jimmy kissed me. Stunned, I wandered down the hall to the elevator. I placed a finger on the moist spot, reliving the moment. He kissed me. Kissed me.
Reality hit as the elevator descended. I’d seen him do the same thing to lots of other friends and family. His kiss was no big deal.
A couple of weeks later, I said to Pop, “Running to Kline’s every other day isn’t my only priority. I have my own life, you know.”
“I understand.” His exhale was long and drawn out. “I hate to see your grandmother disappointed. Are you coming on Christmas Eve?”
“Have I ever missed?” With a grin, I hugged him good-bye and scrubbed Jones’s ears.
At Kline’s, I wound my way through the women’s designer clothing, pausing to fiddle with the Swarovski buttons glittering on an ivory angora sweater. It was absolutely dazzling and way out of my price range.
From there, I moseyed to the lingerie department. An incredible crimson satin nightgown reduced seventy-five percent tempted me like a siren. Pressing a finger to my lower lip, I considered. The holidays were a time for something playful to wear instead of the practical men’s pajamas I usually favored. I could celebrate the new “me” with it, too. I cheerfully offered my debit card to the sales associate who remarked on the “excellent buy.”
When I reached the holiday section, I found the same sign saying the delicacy “wasn’t available.” I gave a stomp and a snort. From behind me came, “You acted just like a two-year-old.”
I swiveled about to grin at Jimmy, dropping my handbag on top of the gown in the shopping bag to conceal it. His eyes crinkled in a smile. “You would too if your grandfather was the monkey on your shoulders.”
“Sorry. The offer stands to phone him.”
“Nah. It is what it is. He’ll survive.”
The store’s paging system broadcasted “Mr. Kline to Housewares.”
“Guess you have to go.” I stuck out my hand for a shake.
He seized mine and hauled me close. His free arm circled my waist. We stood there for a moment; me lost beyond infinity while staring deeply into his emerald eyes. His clasp and his rough breath told me the feeling was mutual. An “excuse me” from a customer threading alongside us prompted me to withdraw, albeit reluctantly, from his embrace.
“What are you doing tomorrow night?” he asked.
I lifted a shoulder, “Annual holiday dinner with the extended family. A date—”
His eyebrow lifted. “Date?”
“Not that kind.” I giggled. “My traditional date with White Christmas.”
“You still watch that movie?” “Every single year and sing all the songs.”
“I remember your screeching rendition of ‘Sisters’.”
I raised a finger, “Don’t forget the classic ‘White Christmas’.”
“How could I? I remember everything thing about you. Lori—”
Once more the system requested “Mr. Kline to Housewares.”
“Gotta go.” He raced to the escalator, and then faced me and waved. “Happy holidays, sweet pea. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Already missing him, I called out “Happy Holidays” and headed for the exit.
Tomorrow? I paused. Had I missed something? What’s happening tomorrow?
I burst through my grandparents’ front door loaded with paper-wrapped gifts, my much-requested Cranberry Crunch dessert, and a container of homemade whipped cream.
In the kitchen, Grammy relieved me of the warm Pyrex dish. She set the dessert on the counter while I stowed the topping in the fridge. “I don’t know what to do, Lori. Your grandfather’s in a tizzy. He’s been acting oddly for…” she paused, scrunching her brow, “six weeks.”
Weird. About the time he’d started bugging me to run his errand. I hugged her. “Maybe I should talk to him.”
I found Pop lodged in his recliner with Jones in his lap, using the remote to tune the stereo to holiday classics. I pecked his temple. “Hey, old man, that’s my favorite song.”
“I like ‘White Christmas, too. Unlike the movie, we’ve never had snow in Somerville on Christmas Eve. That would be a miracle.” In an uncharacteristic low voice, he asked, “Still no candy?”
My tone matched his. “Sorry. Maybe Grammy will be happy not to have the calories.” I straightened. “Be right back. I’m stashing my coat in the closet. Coming, Jones?”
Jones scampered behind me to the hall closet, which I found had been crammed full of everybody else’s outer garments. I proceeded to the spare bedroom and its closet. As I rummaged for a free hanger, a light object bonked me on my chest and landed by my feet. Picking it up, I glanced at the container, a white one stamped in gold lettering: “Made exclusively for Kline’s Department Store.”
Now why would a box of Grammy’s candy be in a closet?
It had to be an old package. Before I could open it and steal a piece, Jones pulled on an ancient blanket that appeared to conceal something underneath. Thinking of all the possibilities, I grinned. The pup gave a final yank, jarring loose an avalanche that crashed to the floor.
More white boxes. I picked up one, and then glanced to the top shelves to discover more stashed there, probably sixty in all. What the—
“I can explain,” Pop said.
I whirled around. “Has Grammy saved the candy all these years?”
“No,” he shifted from one foot to the other. “I bought them.”
“You bought. . .Why?” Then the truth found me. “Y-you bought Kline’s entire order?”
“I only wanted to help.”
“How. . .” But before the question was out of my mouth, my sixth sense smacked me sideways. Pop had played matchmaker. The insistent makeover, the clothing, the tizzy fit, constantly sending me to Kline’s to buy Grammy’s gift—all tricks to push Jimmy and me together.
This time his meddling had gone too far.
Anger, a howling whipped up like a much dreaded, terrifying Texas thunderstorm, consumed me. “How dare you? How dare you interfere in my life? Do you know how much you’ve humiliated me? You’re my grandfather. You’re supposed to love me as I am. I didn’t need you to fix me up with Jimmy. I can find my own man, in my own way, in my own time.”
A hush enveloped the living room where the clan had gathered nearby. In an uncharacteristic fit, I threw the boxes on the ground, the shattering of the expensive treats sounded peculiarly satisfying. Jerking my coat off the hanger, I stepped over Jones and past Pop.
“Lori, don’t leave,” he implored. “Let me explain.”
I paused. Some brainless relative snickered which ratcheted my fury even higher. I flung open the front door and bolted for my car. The last image I had in my rearview mirror was my grandfather standing on the stoop, regret painting his face.
Once home, I threw my coat and handbag on the sofa. I gulped for air while I tore off my clothes. How could my grandfather hurt me this way? And how could Jimmy even consider being a part of his wacky plan?
My gaze fell on the beautiful red gown lying across the end of the bed. I snorted. What had I been thinking when purchasing it? I wasn’t a spectacular “new me.” I was plain ol’ Lori, regardless of Pop’s efforts to change me.
Still, the gown sent its message. Oh, why not? I don’t need a man to wear this for, I thought as I put it on.
Returning to the living room, I turned on the Christmas tree lights and punched the DVD player to start my movie. While that set up, I microwaved a bag of popcorn and opened a Coke. No diet for me tonight. I’d drown my sorrows in sugar.
After I stuffed a hot fistful of popcorn in my mouth, the doorbell rang. I hoped it wasn’t Pop begging me to return to the party. I needed time and space to figure out the whole situation.
Setting the bowl aside, I stomped to the foyer, ready to lay twenty-six years of wrath on my grandfather. But no one stood on the front porch. When I ducked inside, something sitting on the top step caught my eye. Snatching up the way-too familiar box of candy canes, which I knew I’d never, ever want to see again, I tossed it to the curb, again being rewarded with the crunch.
As soon as I slammed the door shut, the bell chimed a second time. “Now what?”
Another Kline’s gift bag, larger this time and festooned with an elaborate gold ribbon and a spray of evergreen, sat on the step. This one was too pretty to ignore, I rationalized, and untied the bow. Pushing aside the tissue, I uncovered the angora sweater I’d admired.
A gasp escaped my lips. It was more beautiful than I’d remembered. The buttons flashed in the lamplight. The delicate fabric called me to gently stroke it with my fingers.
Who? I jerked upright and searched the darkness.
Sanity returned. It didn’t matter. My anger couldn’t be soothed with gifts of bribery. I quickly laid the wrappings on top of the sweater and returned the bag to the step. Maybe the threatening snow wouldn’t fall and ruin it.
I dumped myself on the couch and propped the popcorn bowl on my tummy. Shoving a fistful of kernels in my mouth, I reached for the remote. The ding-dong sounded for a third time. I chewed, then shouted, “Go away.”
It sang again. And again. This was infuriating. “Whatever happened to `Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men?’ Why can’t I be left alone in my misery?” I clomped to the door and yanked it open. There stood Mr. Co-conspirator, smiling at me.
I fixed my madder-than-hell eye on Jimmy and tried my best to close the door, but his cowboy-booted foot jammed against the frame thwarted me.
His inspection went from my newly cut hair to my manicured toes. He fingered an all-too skinny strap, which chose that instant to slither off my shoulder in a wanton move. “Nice nightie.”
At that moment, I comprehended a satin gown was way too revealing for visitors.
Shoot. I didn’t want him to see me like this. I didn’t want him to touch me like that. And the devilish glint in his eyes might be. . .scandalous. When the cold penetrated my half-naked body, I shivered. “I’m busy. Hit the road, Jack.”
“I need to explain.”
“Oh, I’m pretty sure I got the whole story. Good-bye.” If I didn’t get inside soon, I’d have double pneumonia in the morning. I attempted to close the door again, but he had bigger muscles than me.
“Lori, come on. It’s freezing, getting darker, and might snow.” He lifted his face to the sky. “Let’s discuss this inside, please.”
What the heck. The sooner he had his say, the sooner he’d leave and the sooner I could start my movie. Returning to the living room, I crossed my arms over my chest and wished for a robe to cover my near nudity. He shut the door and followed me. “I have big plans for tonight, so scram-oose.”
“I think you’re trying to get rid of me.”
“You’d be correct.”
His head tilted to his left as his eyes surveyed my preparations.
“Your holiday tradition?”
He circled to the coffee table and grabbed the popcorn bowl. “Fine. This won’t take long.”
“Help yourself,” I said sarcastically. “I’m hungry-I’m starving. Whatever.”
“Boy, you’re sassy tonight.”
Plopping on the couch, he munched on a few handfuls. “A couple of months ago, I ran into your grandfather at the gas station. When I asked about you, he wondered why we’d never dated. I told him I tried in high school, but when I kissed you, you acted like I’d been infected with the Black Plague.”
“You touched the no-fly zone, remember?”
“That? It was an accident.”
“I think not.” My cheeks grew hot. Had I been mistaken all these years? Why hadn’t he said something then? “Are you finished?”
“Just beginning. Your grandfather said he wanted to think. A few days later, he presented this plan. I went along because…Well, because…”
This was taking forever. At this rate, I’d be celebrating Valentine Hell before I’d see my show. I rolled my hand, “Because. ..”
“I’d always hoped we could get together.” Rising, he set aside the bowl. His hand swiped over his short hair as he paced. “I’m just going to say it—”
Sick and tired of his fussing around, my fists went to my hips. “You two deceived me. Embarrassed me. You’re—”
“I love you.”
“…done.” Then I comprehended the words he’d just spoken. My chin nearly smacked the floor. “Tell me you didn’t say what I think you just said.”
“I love you. I’ve always loved you. I’ve always been at my best with you—my heart, my soul, my friend.” He dug a small ring box out of his jacket pocket. “This is for you.”
Jimmy loved me. Delight bloomed in my heart. I took the box, briefly closing my eyes. He loved me-loved me-loved me.
Lifting the lid of the white leather box embossed with gold edging, I gasped. Nestled in the satin fold sat a two carat, emerald-cut diamond ring, with identical round sapphires on either side. It resembled the moon and the stars.
I was flabbergasted. Finally, I squawked, “J-Jimmy?”
He took the box from me. “When I talked to your pop, I realized I had to go with his plan because I really and truly wanted you to fall madly in love and marry me. There’s never been another woman for this man.”
Dropping to one knee, he extended the hand holding the ring toward me. “To have you in my life, it seems, you fulfill my hopes and dreams. To have you in my life, it’s true; there is no one, but you. To have you in my life, my dear, means no grief or pain. I will love you each morning again and again.”
This time, Jimmy managed to seriously astound me. He hated poetry.
“Hey, I’m hurting down here.”
“Kinda cheesy, don’t you think?” I snickered, thinking he should be in punishment a tad longer. “Hallmark won’t be contacting you anytime soon.”
“Just a little something I’ve been working on for a while.” He wiggled his hand. “Will you, Lori? Will you marry me?”
My heart soared to the summit of Mt. Everest. The rush of blood surging through my body brought trembles to my limbs. All our past, present, and future crashed through my thoughts.
Sometimes life takes us in the most circuitous routes.
My gaze met his. There, I found home, everything I’d been wanting and waiting for all these years. So keeping with his tone, I said, “I’ll love you all my life, my dear, forever, for always, year after year. Yes, Jimmy, I’ll marry you.”
Rising, he wrapped his arms around my shoulders. We embraced for what seemed like an eternity, holding, sensing, feeling, taking each other in. He took my left hand and slid the circle on my ring finger. Winks and twinkles flashed in the tree lights. Lacing his hands with mine, our foreheads met.
A slight movement beyond the window caught my eye. “It’s snowing! On Christmas Eve! It’s a miracle. I’ve got to call Pop.”
Turning, he laid his arm across my shoulders and squeezed. “Like your favorite movie, sweet pea. You got a happily-ever-after.”
“All thanks to candy canes and a meddling grandparent.”
“Let’s make holiday traditions of our own.”
I moved my arms about his neck. His kiss left me breathless. “I like that proposal, too.”