Authors: Lisa Mondello
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Holidays, #Short Stories & Anthologies, #Anthologies, #Anthologies & Literature Collections, #Short Stories
Her mouth dropped open. "You were twelve?"
"Yeah. Here my folks were praying for a baby. You can imagine their surprise when all they got was a juvenile delinquent." He rubbed his face with his hand and shook his head as if in remembrance.
"I'm sure you weren't that bad or you wouldn't have ended up as successful as you are now," she suggested.
"Oh, success was a long time coming. The road getting to today has been pretty rocky." He dropped his gaze from her and circled the rim of his mug with the edge of his thumb.
"Tell me about it," she urged, suddenly intrigued.
He gave a quick smile. "Maybe someday."
"How am I going to help you redeem yourself if I don't know your story?"
"Does that mean you're coming?"
She'd backed herself into a corner with that one. "You know, I hadn't planned on going tonight. It was a spur of the moment decision. What would you have done if I hadn't shown up?"
He squinted one eye as he looked at her and said, "I probably would have been in the dog house."
"Let's just say that my mother is a maniac about three things-breakfast, lunch and dinner." He laughed hard and added, "And she doesn't share my need for taking in strays of the four legged variety."
"This sounds like a good story."
"Come on Sunday and I'll tell you about it."
She couldn't figure out why this meant so much to Kyle. But after meeting his folks, she had to admit the idea of a family Sunday sounded appealing. In fact, it seemed downright heavenly. She missed her own parents so much that she couldn't resist even a few hours in the company of nice people like the Prestons.
"We'll be there."
* * *
Lauren slammed the car door and stood in the driveway gazing at the Preston home. The house was something out of a Currier and Ives picture print. The lighted Christmas tree as well as the tiny white lights illuminating each window could be seen from the street and were the first thing to catch Lauren's attention. Snow clung to the evergreen garland strung around the railing and banister of the Farmers porch giving the house a welcoming quality.
With her gloved hand placed over her chest, she fought her emotions. It reminded her of her grandmother's home in upstate New York where she'd spent the holidays as a child.
She blew out a mist of breath. "They live in a postcard," Lauren muttered, unable to take her eyes from the picture perfect home.
"Mommy?" Kristen called from inside the car, breaking Lauren from her trance.
"Sorry, sweetie." She opened the door and helped Kristen out of the car, wondering if she would be able to make it through dinner without reliving all her childhood memories. Each Christmas Eve since she'd left home, she would cry for hours after Kristen was snug in her bed and the presents from Santa were neatly placed beneath the tree. Only she knew the heartache of what they were missing by being alone for the holidays.
The scent of pine needles intensified as they reached the front door. A wide wreath adorned with a bright red velvet bow hid most of the oval etched glass on the door. She rang the doorbell and immediately heard the scurry of feet and young voices running toward the foyer. Suddenly, she felt a mixed sense of excitement and apprehension filled her whole being. It was the kind of excitement she'd felt in her youth. Looking down at Kristen, she squeezed her little hand in hers and waited for the door to swing open.
"Hey," the young teenager said. Her hair was a multitude of color and shaved in various odd places. A quick glance at the line of gold studs on her ear made Lauren wonder if this girl had more gold than Fort Knox. "You Lauren?"
She nodded. "And this is Kristen," she said when the girl just stood there staring.
"Come on in."
From inside the foyer, Lauren was hit with the heavenly aroma of good old-fashioned home cooking. She missed that. Not that she was a bad chef, she just hadn't quite mastered much beyond a can of soup and a box of macaroni and cheese. It was a good thing Kristen wasn't finicky.
"Kyle!" the girl called out. Turning to Lauren, she added, "He's in the family room, wrestling with Scotty."
Judy appeared in the foyer wiping her hands on her apron before holding her hands out to take Lauren and Kristen's coats. "You don't have to scream to the whole neighborhood, Zoey," she said to the teenager. She turned to Lauren and said, "I'm so glad you made it. I hope you didn't have any trouble finding the house."
"No, I drive right by your house on the way to work, so I knew how to come."
Lauren sensed Kristen's apprehension and drew her close. It wasn't often that they dined at a stranger's home. But Lauren noticed her eyes light up and she beamed when she saw a little girl with carrot red hair, about the same age as Kristen, come romping down the stairs. Immediately, Lauren noted the little girl's distinctive features did not resemble any of the other members of the family and knew she must also be adopted.
"Julie!" Kristen squealed. In the next few minutes, they all learned that Julie, Judy's daughter, was a classmate of Kristen's. The two friends bolted upstairs to play with a dollhouse in Julie's room.
Suddenly feeling alone, Lauren took a deep breath and followed Judy down the hallway to a room off the back of the large eat-in kitchen. When she saw a long blond form stretch out on the floor being tackled by a child dressed in a Batman costume, Lauren realized it must be Kyle. A chuckle bubbled up from inside her and she placed her hand over her mouth to muffle her laughter.
"Lauren's here," Judy announced. "And don't you dare hurt your brother."
Kyle twisted around until he saw Lauren. His face was beet red and his hair tousled from rough housing with the little boy. "Okay, Scotty, you won."
The little caped crusader wound up his fist and slugged Kyle in the stomach.
"Ooof! I said you won, buddy." Kyle rubbed his stomach and shook his head as he lifted to a kneeling position. "That little guy packs a pretty good punch," he said to Judy. "And you were afraid that I was going to hurt him?"
Judy playfully smacked him on the back of his head with her hand. "Oh, don't be such a baby. Dinner will be ready in about a half hour or so."
"It's a good time to feed Max. Care to brave meeting man's best friend?" Kyle asked, now standing. "I'll tell you all about Thanksgiving."
"Don't remind me," Judy said as she left the room.
He laughed. "Come on. I'll show you around."
Kyle clamped the collar of his coat as he and Lauren walked the frozen pebble stoned path toward the carriage house. He shot a quick glance over to Lauren as she walked beside him. The moon light shined against her silky blond hair and gave it a sultry quality against the soft features of her face. She turned and caught him staring and dipped her head in response before returning a coy smile. My, but she was pretty.
Tonight, she had a particularly noticeable bounce in her step as they walked and he wondered why? Hopefully, it was because she was having a good time, he thought. The way he'd commandeered her into coming to dinner may not have been the smoothest way to approach the woman, but it had been effective just the same.
"I didn't realize that your sister Julie was in Kristen's class," Lauren said.
"Julie is so shy. I'm glad she's taken to Kristen. They'll have a good time together today."
Lauren chuckled. "All Julie had to say was the word 'dollhouse' and Krissy flew up the stairs."
"Does she have one?"
"No, but I know she'd love one. What little girl wouldn't?"
"Is Santa bringing her one?" Kyle said, giving her a wink.
He watched her expression droop, but she still held on to her smile. "Not this year. Santa's budget is not quite that big."
Kyle stopped walking when they got to the side door of the carriage house that led to his apartment and he paused. His first thought was that if Lauren was in need, he'd just loan her the money. He knew that she had a hard time accepting help from others, so giving her money as a gift would certainly be out of the question. Money had ceased to be an issue for him since his explosion into the world of real estate development, but the last thing he wanted to do was insult Lauren with an offer of charity.
With full force, he pulled open the sliding door, flicked the light switch on the wall, and waited until Lauren walked into the garage section of the carriage house. He steered her to a closed set of stairs that rose to the living quarters.
"I could get her one," he suggested as they climbed the stairs, going against his earlier reasoning.
Lauren swung around to face him straight on, her mouth agape and her eyes widened. "Certainly not."
"Why not? It'll be a gift from Santa."
"It would be a gift from you. Look, I appreciate the offer, but there are lots of things Kristen wants that she doesn't get. It's not like she could possibly get everything on her Christmas list." Lauren took a deep breath and rolled her eyes. "What list? All she asked for was a daddy and she's not going to get that, either."
She turned and climbed the stairs until she reached the top landing. Kyle noticed the sudden heaviness in her step and regretted bringing up a subject that had caused her unrest.
Her smile had been so bright when she walked into the family room, almost as bright as when the town Christmas tree was set ablaze. He wondered what she had been thinking to make her expression so radiant. But now, she seemed as down as she had the first night they met and it was eating at his insides.
Kyle opened the door a crack, and then pulled back after he heard the heavy thump of a charging dog on the other end. "Better let me go first. This dog...well...Max is kind of mammoth," he warned.
As usual, Max met Kyle at the door with slobbering licks, a heavy tail wag that could knock out a cow, and repeated gnawing on the sleeve of his coat to get his undivided attention.
"You weren't kidding, he's big!" Lauren gasped.
"Down, Max." The dog continued jumping. "I said down!" Kyle commanded in a deep authoritative voice.
Lauren kept her distance. "Have you had him long?"
"He's a stray. I've only had him a few weeks." He picked up one of his old running shoes that Max had apparently used as an afternoon snack. "As you can see, he's not exactly trained. Okay, boy, what else did you eat?"
Kyle looked around and assessed the damage while filling the dog's dish with food and water. Thinking it was safer all around to let him out, he put the dog in the side yard on a run while Lauren stayed in the apartment.
When he returned, Lauren had her coat off and was seated at the pedestal kitchen table reviewing a set of blueprints he'd left out earlier. His footsteps startled her. She darted a glance up at him like a child with her hand caught in the cookie jar and carefully placed the blueprints back on the table.
"I'm surprised Max didn't eat them," Kyle said. "What do you think?"
"It's a beautiful house."
He smiled with pride. "I could take you by to see it some time."
Her eyes widened. "You mean...it's yours?"
"Yes. I have a twenty acre lot over on Tower Hill Road. It's still under construction, but it's close to being completed." Well, that was true enough, he thought. He'd been working on the house for the past two years, making so many changes that he thought he'd never finish. In a way, the thought of the project coming to an end depressed the hell out of him. What was he going to do in a big house all alone? That wasn’t the way it was supposed to be when he started the project.
Lauren picked up the plans and began studying them.
"I've put a line of full view windows off the family room," he said, pointing to the blueprints. "There's a great view of the hills from the back of the property. A nice flat backyard that goes back a ways before it drops."
“Nice for kids," she noted.
“That was the idea. I’d hoped to have a few.”
She lifted her head from the blueprint and quirked an eyebrow.
“I had been seeing someone for a while when I decided to build the house,” he informed her, recalling that it had been Debra who’d actually pressed him to build a house of their own. He would have preferred staying in the carriage house until they decided to start a family. But Debra insisted she’d feel too “confined” and wanted something of her own.
“So the house was for you and her?”
He nodded. “I was too deep into construction to stop the project when the relationship ended, so I’m finishing it.”
“It’s a little big for one person.”
His sentiment exactly. “I’ve been thinking of putting it on the market when it’s complete.”
Lauren studied the plans again. "I noticed you put walls in the dining room. You should've knocked them down on both sides to open it up. Makes it more inviting. It's hard to move around in a house filled with family and friends during the holidays when..." Her voice trailed off and she blinked as if she were trying to force something out of her mind.
"This place is like a zoo during the holidays," he said softly. "But I wouldn't have it any other way. How about you?"
Her expression drooped again and he silently cursed himself for being the cause.
"We used to go to my grandmother's house for Christmas every year." Her full lips lifted to a smile, but Kyle noticed a hint of melancholy with her remembrance. "I used to think it was a drag to drive all the way upstate just for the day when I was a kid, but I always loved it." She blinked again, hard this time, and Kyle knew that she was holding back tears.
"Kristen must love it. Most little kids do."
"Kristen has never been. We stopped going when..." She shrugged and bit her bottom lip.
Well, at least that explained the tears and the strong feeling of independence. "When you left your parents," he finished.
"I didn't leave them. They sent me away." She stood up and fiddled with lock of hair behind her ear.
He felt her pain as his own like a stab in the gut. It was the same pain he'd felt long ago standing in that courtroom listening to his father's rejection. "I'm sorry," he said, knowing his words sounded feeble at best.