Sunday, December 18, 2016


Part I

By Celia Jolley

A Just for Fun Fiction Christmas Story

(But oops, my first draft was almost done when poof,
1am Sunday morning it disappeared.  So this afternoon I started writing it all over again.
But oops, it got published before I am anywhere near finished, not proof-read, not illustrated.
So here we are.  I will work to get it finished sometime Monday, maybe.) 

"Houston, we have a problem."  He'd tried to send a text while being wrestled down by a three year old and grabbing fingernail polish away from a five year old, but Gabriel needed to hear an adult voice.  It wasn't the first time he'd sent that text to his best friend Houston, his head of Man Power Management for his company.  However, as he escaped into the kitchen while putting the fingernail polish up on a high shelf, he punched the call through.

"So what's the problem, Gabe?  Are those your kids I hear in the background?"

"Yeah, they aren't the problem," he spoke as quietly as he could so his kids couldn't hear him,
"but their mother just dumped them off.  She also handed me the papers on her way out giving me the custodial parental rights.  I guess she's off to Hawaii with her most recent interest and can't be bothered with her children."

"That's great!  Isn't that what you've wanted?" Houston's smile could be heard in his voice.

"Thanks, yeah.  It's just that I'm not ready.  You know me, I'm a planner.  I like to have things without complications.  I mean I hadn't anticipated it happening this way. I was collecting the records of all her non-shows, records of her maternal failures, but I didn't see this coming.  Mrs. Setters their babysitter is gone for all of December.  There aren't any openings in the preschool for little Chris, and the school said I should wait to enroll Maisie until January.  I need you to put out an ad for child care.

"I will as soon as I can get to it, buddy, but I've been really busy down here.  It's your brother..."

"Oh, no, what did he do this time?"

"It's pretty bad.  He was super late picking his kids up from our center's day care, and when he did show up he was way drunk.  The staffer who had waited with the kids after hours tried to keep him from putting them in the car.  I'm not sure yet if it was sexual harassment, assault, or what, but she did call the police.  They at least are pressing child endangerment and drunk drinking charges.  I'm still sorting out the rest.  I finally got ahold of Sharon to come pick up the kids, and I got him out on bail.  However, the woman is insisting that she won't work here as long as Michael is the boss...Wait a minute.  How much are you willing to pay for a certified child care worker?"

"Are you thinking she might take the job up here?  I'd be willing to pay what she's making there with a moving bonus, and I'd be happy to throw in housing in the apartment over the garage to sweeten the deal.  Do you think she'd move?"

"I don't know.  She's single, but I don't know if she has a boyfriend or family in the area.  She's coming into my office now, so I'll get back to you."

"Thanks, buddy.  Let me know what you find out about my brother and if the woman is willing to come.  Talk to you later."

"Ahh, you got me," Gabe went down after being shot by a suction cup arrow to his knee while his little wild Indian gave a war whoop.  That brought his little nurse to come running with a Barbie bandaid for his knee.  Soon they piled back on elbowing him in the face and jumping on his stomach.  This is what it is all about, he sighed.  After they ran off, he still laid on the floor of his kitchen thanking God for his children.  It had been a long time coming.  He didn't bother to wipe the tear that slipped out of the corner of one eye to run down his jaw to drip coldly onto his neck. 

Later that night, Houston called back.  "She said she is strongly considering it.  I'll have the company lawyer draw up an agreement with her concerning her accusations against your brother in order for it not to come back on the company.  When I spoke with her on the phone a few minutes ago, I think she's willing to sign it and let it drop as long as he is facing the other charges.  I'll get back to you in the morning to let you know."

"That's good news.  Are we paying you enough, Houston?"

"Just put it in my Christmas bonus, boss," he laughed.  "But I'll have to admit, I wasn't feeling  it waiting in the police  station trying to get your brother out of jail.  He's crashed at my place because Sharon won't let him come back home.  He might have just used up his last chance with her, and can't say as I blame her.  She's pretty mad." 

"I tried to get him to go to a rehab before.  Maybe now he'll listen.  We need to put him on an extended leave of absence and put our V.P. manager in charge.  Thanks again for going above and beyond, Houston.  I hope he didn't throw up in your car again this time."

"No, fortunately I was able to pull over fast enough.  He's sleeping it off right now.  Drinking is so glamorous, huh."

"Well, thanks again and let me know as soon as you find something out in the morning.  Good night."

Gabriel sat on the side of his bed with his head in his hands.  It would have made his dad sick to see how he and his brother's lives had turned out, his messy divorce and Michael's drinking problem not to mention the impending doom of his brother's marriage as well.  "Oh, Lord, please help my brother because I sure can't."  He hoped God would still hear a prayer prayed through gritted teeth.

The next morning he grabbed the phone when Houston called.  He was making pancakes for his kids which were only black on one side.  So he'd served them brown side up and their discerning palates were pacified with lots of syrup.  Everywhere he looked was a mess with batter drippings, dirty mixing bowls and skillet, sticky plates and milk glasses.  He sighed happily as he took his friend's call while juggling the phone between his ear and shoulder and wiping his kids syrupy fingers.  He pointed them into the family room to watch cartoons.

"Good news, Gabe.  She said she's willing to move.  She also signed the agreement freeing up the company from charges.  She's still thinking about what to do about those pending with your brother though.   In fact, I'll come up with her Saturday to help her move."

"Thanks, Houston.  It couldn't have happened without your capable hands.  But are you sure she'll be a good fit up here?  I mean, these are my children we're talking about."

"Don't worry. She'll be perfect.  The staff and parents are going to be pretty upset to find out she's leaving.  But she agreed that a speedy departure would be best so as to not have to answer too many questions."

"Okay then, I'll see you tomorrow.  I rearranged my schedule so I could take today off for the kids.  This couldn't happen in a more timely fashion.  Bye."

Just then little Chris came in barking while Maisie had a rope tied to his belt loop to walk him.  We want a puppy for Christmas, Daddy!" Little Chris would lose his pants soon, so he untied the rope. 

"No puppies are coming in Santa's sack this year.  Sorry kids.  Why don't you go play something else now."

He tuned out their dismay and barely heard them say that they were writing Santa a letter to say that he was being naughty.

Then when he came back from putting in a load of laundry, Maisie was being pulled across the kitchen by little Chris with a rope tied to the chair's legs.  "Where do they get all this rope?" he  muttered. Maisie had stuffed a couch pillow in her shirt while his son had colored his nose red.

"I hope that wasn't an indelible marker, kids."

"I don't know, Daddy.  I found it on your desk."  Maisie said.  "Rudolph told me to do it."

Yep, indelible alright.

When he went in to check on his kids later, he grabbed the remote control away.  "Did that alien blob just say a bad word?"

"Everybody says it, Dad.  Haven't you been to kindergarten before?" Maisie said in a huff.

Little Chris wailed, "Mom always lets us watch it."

"Well, she's not here and you are in the Kingdom of Dad now.  I can't let you help me fight dragons later if you watch that junk."  He switched it to old Tom and Jerry cartoons instead.

His three year old who was jumping on the couch just bounced off barely missing the sharp corner of the coffee table.

"Are you okay, buddy?" Gabe set him back on the couch making sure he wasn't injured.

"Yeah, but move, Daddy, I can't see,"

Gabriel dragged the coffee table across the room, through the kitchen and out into the garage.  A stupid piece of dangerous furniture wasn't going to make him lose custody of his kids: no split open heads would be allowed.  His wife had drug him to court too many times on false charges enough to make him wary.  His lawyer had proved the charges false every time, but he wasn't going to take any chances.  It had gotten so bad that he'd begun taken a picture of them leaving his house before going back to their mother's every time to prove that they were injury free just for the record.

Looking around the messy kitchen, he rolled up his sleeves and took a deep breath.  "I'm going in!"  But before he'd loaded the dishwasher, the doorbell rang.  When he answered, his mouth hung open like a nutless nutcracker.

"What are you doing here, Madge?"  It was his ex-mother-in-law.

"I'm here to see my precious grandchildren, of course.  I can't believe my daughter.  She has the maternal instincts of a turtle, just laying her eggs and abandoning them to go sun somewhere on a beach."

He snorted trying to hide a smile.  "But how did you get here?  I thought you lived in Florida now."

"I flew, but don't worry, I got a room at the Holiday Inn Express.  If I had known that Chris Senior was going to die six months after we moved to the sunny state, I would never have gone there.  Since my son is stationed in the Middle East and still single, and since Suzette is who knows where, I hoped to be able to spend Christmas with Maisie and little Chris. They are all I have. There they are!"

The kids flew in to grab their grandmother and be enfolded in her hugs.  "Have you gone shopping yet for a Christmas present for your father, or for your mother yet?"

They hung their heads shaking them looking like they'd been accused of grand theft.

"Well, hurry and go get dressed then, and I'll take you in my taxi to the mall, if that's alright with your father, that is."

Gabe hesitated, not sure if it was a good or a bad thing to have her here. He didn't really have a problem with Madge other than she was a bit eccentric and opinionated.  Yet, his kids deserved to have a grandmother in their lives.  His mother was in Papua New Guinea and the kids hardly knew her.  So he nodded his head.

He went in to make sure his kids were dressed decently.  He couldn't find any matching socks for little Chris, but he hoped it wouldn't show underneath his pants.  Maisie put on a sweater dress but pulled her tutu on over it.  She always looked cute in it, so he helped brush her hair and put on a headband.  There.  Even a grandmother would think she looked adorable.

"The tree is pretty, Gabriel.  I'm proud of you for giving the children a good Christmas," Madge said wandering back from the living room."

"Well, I did the lights and the kids did the ornaments.  That's why they are a little sparse up on top," he laughed nervously hoping she wasn't judging him for his less than perfect effort."

"It's beautiful just the way it is," she patted his arm.

"We'll be back later," and with that, she went out the door holding a grandchild's hand in each of hers before he could even kiss his kids good bye.  He could hear his son's gleeful shout, "It's a real yellow taxi!  Cool!"  Then a quiet echoed so loudly that it hurt his ears.   He missed his kids already.

He had a moment of panic wondering if she would bring them back, but calmed himself over a second cup of coffee before tackling the rest of the dishes.  Now he could figure out something for dinner.  He'd ordered in pizza the last two nights and didn't think he could stomach more peperoni.  So he stuck his head in the freezer.  Empty, not counting ice cubes.  He wished refrigerators had a gauge on the door like a gas gauge to show when it was on empty.  Well, it was a choice between hot dogs, mac and cheese, or chicken noodle soup unless he made a run to the grocery store.

He hated to go to the grocery store.  Even worse, it was like open hunting season when a single man was seen sprinting through the aisles.  Every single woman, or woman who was single, could spot him yards away, from babes in the woods to cougars.  He'd learned to say, "It's nice to see you, Joy.  Oh look, there's the rutabagas!" or "Hello, Jenny.  Excuse me, but I just learned that the Bullwinkle cereal has the highest sugar content, and I need to get some for my kids." 

But when he saw Pamela, he slowed down from his Indy 500 pace and was ready to make a pit stop.  He ignored a yellow flag of caution in the back of his brain. "I didn't know you shopped here, Pam."  He could at least look at her around the basket of fruits and vegetables which hung from her arm. "Umm...You're looking cold.  Don't you need a coat or something"

Boy that was really smooth, he mentally slapped himself.

She just laughed like it was the best joke in the world.  "Hi, Gabe!  I was just thinking of you.  I heard about your office party coming up."

"My party?  Oh yeah, it's next Saturday, a week from tomorrow.  Are you going?"

"I can't without an invitation?  Are you inviting me?"

His shirt suddenly seemed tight around his neck.  "Sure.  Just give me your number and address, and I'll pick you up at seven."  They both got out their phones and exchanged information.

Now he knew what it felt like to wear cement shoes, the fast-drying kind of cement, the kind that men wore who were being taken in the dark of night to be pushed off a wharf.  Yeah, that kind of sinking feeling.


He realized he was still staring at her as his life passed before his eyes, but it had stalled at the thought that he hadn't even bought his kids Christmas presents yet to remember him by. 

"Oh, sorry.  I just remembered that I still need to shop for my kids for Christmas."

"OOoo," she squealed.  "Shopping's my favorite.  I can help you!"

"Uhh.  I guess I can pick you up in half an hour then after I drop my groceries off."

He kicked himself all the way to the cash register and all the way home.  Pamela was the last person he should ask out.  Someone needed to wrap her in yellow tape that said, "Danger, danger, danger! He'd already married a piece of eye candy once, and it led to a sticky divorce between two stupid adults who had left scars on the tender hearts of two precious children.

By the time he got back from the mall, he felt like he'd just been through marine training exercises.  All he knew was that he'd worked up a sweat just carrying shopping bags on both arms.  Not only that, but somehow he'd been tricked into buying her a ridiculously high priced bottle of perfume that smelled like l'eau de skunk.  When she dabbed it on her wrists and asked him if he liked it, he'd flunked his manhood test and just nodded like a bobble head.  He still had the headache to prove it.  He stuffed the bags up on his closet shelf and went into the kitchen.  He'd forgotten all about cooking dinner.  He'd kick it up and make chili dogs, his specialty.  After all, he'd remembered to buy a can of chili.

His ex-mother-in-law breezed in with his children looking unfazed after half a day shopping with kids.  But he politely asked, "Would you care to join us for supper, Madge?"

"I'd love to!  I'll just pay my taxi then.  Then let me help you set the table."

"The paper plates are over there."  He waved the spatula towards the island. 

When she came back in she said, "I saw you in the mall with that woman."

He felt like a deer in the headlights.  After all, this was his former mother-in-law.  "What woman?"

"The one you were buying expensive perfume for.  You do know that perfume is usually
 considered a gift given to signify a close relationship."

"It is?" he squeaked.  "She's not...we aren't...I haven't dated her yet.  I just asked her to go to the office Christmas party.  Today.  In the grocery store."

"I see.  I think I remember her as one of my daughter's friends, however.  So, be careful.  You should never date someone you would not consider as wife material.  The children should not be drug through another bad marriage."

"I agree whole-heartily.  I just ran into her at the supermarket, and the woman tricked me into asking her out.  I never intended to, believe you me."

"It's just an observation.  I'm not accusing you.  I believe you were the injured party in the divorce, well the children too, but that goes without saying.  I don't know where I went wrong with my daughter," she said as she munched on a potato chip.

"It blind-sided me, that's for sure.  I thought everything was going great.  I made enough to make us more than comfortable.  I came home and helped with the cooking, with the laundry, and with the kids and even quit going to the gym to have more time as a family.  But she said she needed the break and kept going spending more and more time there.  I guess that's where the innocent flirting, turned into not so innocent.  People tried to tell me, but I didn't believe them until she quit coming home at night.  I felt sucker punched in the gut."

"And now, she's on her third boyfriend since then.  It is so sad.  I'm glad she made you the custodial parent finally.  I'm the one who had my lawyer help her draw up the papers.  It wasn't good for the children to see her with so many different men."

"I am so very grateful, Madge.  It kept me awake most nights worrying and praying." 

"Well, the children seem happy." 

"I'm getting a new child care provider tomorrow.  She'll be living in the apartment over the garage."

"That's great!  I'll probably go visit some of my friends then while the children bond with her.  But how about if I take you all out for dinner so I can meet her."

"Sounds good."  He called the children in to eat then.  Maisie said a cute prayer thanking God for every single thing that was in the entire mall before thanking God for letting her grandma come to see them while the food grew cold.  They jabbered with their mouths full about seeing Santa at the mall, and about all the things they saw and wanted.  He realized then that he had not gotten one single one of those things when he shopped with Pamela.  He wasn't quite sure what he had gotten since his eyes glazed over after the first ten minutes.

"By the way, just so you know, Gabriel," Madge said waving her fork dripping with ketchup like blood, children can choke on hot dogs.  I always cut my children's up in small pieces."  Evidently she still cut them up in small bites so she could eat them minus the bun and minus the chili, just dipping them in ketchup instead."

"Just then he inhaled and a piece of hot dog and it got stuck in his throat.  He coughed and hit himself on the chest until he could breathe again.  "I did not know that," he sputtered feeling his eyes watering.  Somehow, his children lived through their dangerous dinner, but he was forewarned for next time.

"How would everybody like to go see Christmas lights tonight?" he managed to say without lodging any more of his dinner in his windpipe.

"The kids started up their usual joyful noise."

Madge said, "It sounds like fun, then maybe you would be so kind as to drop me off at my hotel afterwards."

Though strapped in, the kids almost were able to bounce the whole car down the road in their excitement and glee over seeing people's houses lit up.  It was easier to take them to see others' than to put up lights himself.

"Hey, let's stop here and get out," he suggested at the end of one block.  It was a lit up nativity scene painted on plywood with cutout holes to stick heads through for pictures.  The shepherds and angels and sheep were low enough for the children to use. 

"I want to be a puppy.  Why can't I be a puppy?" little Chris pouted.  "I don't want to be a sheep."

"Daddy, you be Joseph...but we don't have a Mary!"  Maisie wailed.

He thought for a minute Maisie would really cry, so he tried to think quickly,  "Madge why don't you come be Mary."

"Are you kidding me?  Elizabeth maybe, but Mary?  No.  I'll just take a picture."

The rest of the tour of lights they sang Christmas songs boisterously, only little Chris didn't remember all the words and sang, "Bring us some piggy pudding," and  "Chris the King."  He didn't know that the song wasn't about him.  Gabriel had really flunked as the spiritual head of his household.  Somewhere along the way, they had drifted away from church.  He needed to set that right.

The next morning, he reminded his two offspring that the new babysitter was coming.

"Is she going to be our new mommy?" little Chris asked.

That rocked him down to his socks, the socks that covered his curled toes, the ones he'd let Maisie paint and put snowman decals on.

"No, honey, she's just coming to take care of you, you know like Mrs. Setters does sometimes."

"You mean like Edith does at Mommy's house, the lady who smells like cigarettes?  And why can't the new lady be our mommy,"  Maisie wanted to know, "or will she smell like cigarettes too?"

"You already have a mother," he tried to sound calm.  "And I don't know how the lady smells."

"But we're not a family.  We want a family again, like Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus," she insisted. If she's pretty, Daddy, you can ask her, can't you?"

"No, sweetheart, that's not how it works.  We can be a family, just we three, like we three kings, you know."

He needed another cup of coffee after that.

The kids were in the living room eating the donuts he'd bought when Houston knocked on his back door.  He jumped up to let him in.

"Hey, is she really here?"  He imagined someone like Mrs. Setters and tried to see around his friend, but he stopped him.

"Just so you know, I asked her to the office Christmas party first," he had a bit of a challenge in his eyes.

"What?  How old is she?"

"Holly's in her twenties.  Come on and meet her.  The kids were oblivious in their sugar haze in the other room.

So he walked out with Houston to her car parked by the apartment.  "Holly, this is Gabriel Hanson.  He's the owner and boss over both branches of Hanson Enterprises."

The woman lost her smile faster than a mime wiping his hand in front of his face to change expressions.  She glared at Houston.  "You didn't tell me it was a family business, that Michael is his brother."

Gabriel decided he needed to talk fast.  "I'm very sorry and apologize for the terrible things my brother put you through.  You did the right thing calling the police.  Our father had a better vision for his company than that."

She scrutinized him closely making him feel like a bug on a pin until he noticed the faint freckles across her nose, and the loose curl that blew across her face, and the arch of her eyebrow over a pair of eyes the color of chocolate kisses, and her lips...she blushed and looked away just as his children ran up.  The expression on her face turned from ice cold to the warmth of a sunny day in wintertime, enough to melt ice cycles.

"What are your names?  I'm Miss Holly."

The kids talked over each other in excitement before Maisie took her hand and pulled her towards the house.

"I'll be back in a minute," she said over her shoulder.

"Let's get her things moved upstairs before she changes her mind," Houston said.  "Phew, I thought I was toast there for a moment."

"Yeah, I'm sure you'd hate to lose her for a date to the Christmas party, that's for sure," Gabriel said chuckling.  "But I'd hate even more losing her as my kids' babysitter."

"Well, she's something else, pretty, feisty, and great with kids.  You should have seen her stand up to your brother and the way she protected your two nephews.  It was quite the scene at the police station."

"You lucky dog.  You got Miss Holly to agree to go with you to the Christmas party while I'm stuck with a Christmas party complication: I accidently asked Pamela to the party."

"You what!  Pamela?" Houston chortled. "That's not like you.  I thought you'd had enough of the spiked heel variety of the female species."

"Yeah, and guess who showed up at my doorstep...Madge."

"Your ex-mother-in-law!  How's that going?" 

"Actually, better than I thought it would.  She said that Suzette had the mothering instincts of a turtle which lays its eggs and crawls off."  They both hooted.

"Is that all Holly brought?  Suzette could fill up her car with just her shoes."  Gabe asked.

Miss Holly walked up just then with the kids hanging on her like she was the lollipop tree or something. 

"Can I help?"

"I think we got it all.  Come up and check out the apartment to see if it's adequate," Gabriel said.  He was glad he'd had his cleaning lady make it sparkle this week. 

The kids followed up behind her like Tigger and Roo, but she stopped in the doorway.  He caught his son before he tumbled back down the stairs.

"Oh my, this is so much more than I imagined.  It's quite nice.  Your home is too, by the way.  The kids showed me through it."

His mind buzzed back wondering if he had made the beds.  No.  If he had left his dirty underwear on his bathroom floor.  Yes.  He sure hoped the kids gave the nickel tour, not the whole quarter one.

"Well if there's anything you need, let me know and I'll get it for you.  We fixed this up for my mother after my father died, but she up and married a missionary and doesn't make it home  very often."

"Yeah, but Uncle Michael had to stay here in the dog house once when Aunt Sharon got really mad at him one time."

"Uhh, it's not the dog house, Maisie.  It's Miss Holly's house now," Gabriel choked out.

"I want a dog!" little Chris piped up.

Gabriel quickly tried to change the subject.  "The children's grandmother has offered to take us all out for dinner.  She flew in from Florida to spend Christmas with her grandchildren."

"Your mother?  I thought you said she was a missionary," said Holly looking puzzled.

"No, she's my ex-wife's mother, very nice though.  The kids are glad to see her."

"I wouldn't want to intrude," Holly looked away.

"No, actually she said she's looking forward to meeting you."

"Alright then.  Just tell me what time, and I'll be ready."

The restaurant was one within walking distance of Madge's hotel.  She was waiting for them and had a reserved table waiting.  He made the introductions and added, "It's awfully nice of you to ask us all here, Madge.  You remember Houston, don't you?"

"Of course, and it's the least I could do after you fed me dinner last night."

He scoffed, "Chili dogs?" but he saw a teasing twinkle in her eye.

His children were the best behaved he'd ever seen them in a restaurant.  Little Chris sat between his grandmother and Holly coloring on his placemat, while Maisie leaned up against her.  She was looking up at her with an adoring eye.  Holly slipped an arm around his daughter as naturally as if she'd done it every day of their lives.

Madge held up her menu to block the thumbs up she gave him where Holly couldn't see.  After the waitress took their orders, his son piped up, "Daddy says he can marry our babysitter if she's pretty enough.  She's pretty enough, isn't she, Daddy?"

He spit out his water across the table.  Houston was silently wheezing in laughter that would soon come straight out his belly.  Madge covered her grinning mouth with her napkin while Holly picked up her steak knife looking intimidatingly dangerous.  Maisie just looked back and forth.  If he knew his daughter, she'd think a marriage proposal would be coming right up.

"I never said that!  That was what Maisie said.  But I said, we'd be the three Wise Men, not the holy family...Never mind.  He looked off watching the blinking Christmas lights changing colors in the restaurant's window.  He was sure he was lit up like a red light bulb himself."  Finally their laughter at his expense, which even Miss Holly had joined in, died down.

When they got back, Houston crashed on his couch, not in a hurry to leave.  "I'm beat.  After dealing with your brother until late last night, I'm too tired to drive back, if that's okay with you.
But I just have one request, please don't marry Miss Holly until after I get my date to the Christmas party."  Then he hooted again while Gabe threw a pillow at him.

The next morning, Gabriel walked yawning into the kitchen in his flannel sleep pants needing his coffee.  But Holly had beat him to it as she cradled a cup in her hands standing there in her flannel night shirt. 

"I tried not to wake you, and I hope you don't mind, but there wasn't a coffee maker that I could find in the apartment."

He slapped his head.  "I forgot.  My mother's not a coffee drinker, so we never put one up there.
Sorry about that.  I'll get you one of those single serve coffee makers as soon as I can."  Then he stood there nervously trying to cover up his toe nails before she noticed. 

"Nice paint job.  I'll have to ask Maisie to do mine," she grinned. 

"Yeah, next time I want snowflakes," he jested.

She laughed.  "Your kids are great.  We're going to have fun."

He ran his hand through his hair.  There he stood in all of his unwashed, uncombed, un-toothbrushed glory.  At least he had pretty toenails.  She on the other hand didn't need a thing to make herself look more beautiful.  He swallowed hard.  He had not bargained for this. 

"I made a whole pot.  I figured you and Houston would want some when you woke up, but I better run upstairs to get ready for church.  Are you sure you have room for me?

"Of course, my car  has six seats, so it's no problem."  Then she pulled her coat on and went out the back door.  He watched her through the French doors walking away while he drank his coffee.

"Bird watching?" Houston shuffled in, "or did I just hear Holly?"

"Yeah, she made us coffee.  You know, buddy, I was expecting someone more like Mrs. Doubtfire, you know a woman who has to shave her moustache off each morning."

"Are you complaining?" Houston winked at him.

"No, but I'll have to walk the line, you know," he cleared his throat.

"If it helps to know, she told me she's not interested in a relationship, but was just going to the party with me because she doesn't know anyone else."

"That's cold," he said.  He didn't know whether to be mad for his friend or laugh.

"Her roommate says, she doesn't want to have anything to do with guys, and is always putting them off."

"So, you like a challenge?" Gabe asked.

"Not really.  If she doesn't warm up quickly, then I'm out of here.  There's too many miles between us for a lackluster relationship."

"At least you asked her out on a date.  That's a first in what, a year?"

"Yeah." His friend scowled.  Houston had been through a bad break up with a girl who he thought was the one.  "But you're no better.  You haven't been on a date since your divorce, then you ask Pamela of all people!"

"As if I wasn't dreading the Christmas party enough already.  Well, we'd better get ready for church."

"Mind if I borrow some clothes?  I didn't bring any thing with me," Houston smiled.

"Just like old times when you were my closet-robbing roommate, huh?  Sure, help yourself.  But I get the first shower!"  They stared at each other then bolted.  Houston beat him to the bathroom elbowing him out of the way with a jab to the ribs.  Soon he could hear the shower running.

So he drank Houston's cup of coffee after finishing his own.  His friend would have to settle for the awful stuff that always came out of church coffee pots.  He went and got his children up and dressed.  It was going to be a cold cereal kind of morning.

When they got to church, he took the kids to the children's department.  Houston was scowling at his Styrofoam cup of coffee like it was poison when he got back.  Then they went into the sanctuary and sat like guard dogs on either side of Miss Holly almost growling when other young men came over to introduce themselves.  He felt positively Neanderthalish.  These fresh-faced whipper-snappers were still wet under the ears, as his grandpa would say, while he felt ancient in comparison.  That irritated him to no end, but he had no idea why and refused to think about it.  He could tell Houston was feeling the same way.  They caught each other's eye over her head and fist bumped behind her.  It was a man-thing.  A few young ladies did come to greet them as well, some giving Houston the once over.  They'd given up on him.  He was no longer fresh meat.

Madge looked over at them and gave a little smirky wave.  He'd forgotten this was her church.  He should have picked her up.  Well, he'd take them all out to dinner, his treat.  He just hoped his kids didn't let loose any more bombshell conversation starters again.

At the restaurant, Miss Holly had his kids playing "I spy with my little eye..." while they waited for their food to come.  Pretty soon, they all were playing and laughing, until Houston said in his ear, "I spy with my little eye, Pamela coming over here."

"Oh no!" he groaned.  But he stood and made introductions.  Madge could smooth anything over and made pleasant small talk with the woman, which Gabriel was incapable of at the moment.  It was like at least ten clothespins kept his lips shut tightly.  Fortunately, their table was full and he wouldn't need to ask her to join them.  He breathed a deep sigh of relief when she went to sit elsewhere.

"Wow, did you see that lady's claws?" Evidently little Chris had been awed into silence while she had been talking at their table.  Madge decided to help him color his placemat before any more jewels fell from his lips.

"Those were fingernails, silly.  I thought they were pretty, but not as pretty as yours, Miss Holly," Maisie said.  "I like this color red."  Gabriel agreed.  Pamela could have fed ten hungry children for a month on what it cost to have her nails done, gold tipped and all.

"Thank you," Holly responded. "That was a nice thing to say.  I've seen some of your nail painting work.  You're quite good," she grinned up at him while he blushed almost as bright as the color on her nails.

Houston looked at him totally perplexed.  Good.  Let him stay that way.  Tonight he was getting the nail polish remover out and kissing snowmen goodbye! 

On the way home after dropping Madge off, he asked if Holly would mind meeting him in the kitchen to go over their work arrangement.  He set the kids in front of a Christmas movie since it was clouding over outside.  Houston took a reluctant leave looking wistfully at Holly before he left.  She never saw it.

He made coffee and sat down across from her.  "I just want to make sure we're on the same page so we don't run into too many complications.  The most important things in my life, are my two kids, besides God, of course.  I want to give them a sense of security in our home.  They've been batted back and forth between my house and my wife's, but she finally gave me primary custodial rights.  Up until now, I've just had an occasional sitter.  I have all the important numbers posted on the frig.  You can put them in your phone.  I was hoping you won't mind doing the grocery shopping and feeding the children breakfast and lunch and occasionally making us dinner, but only if you have time."

"I can tell I need to save you from fast food overgrazing," she giggled.  "Sorry, that wasn't very professional."

He grinned back at her.  "I deserve that.  But I'll try to call before I come home to see if I need to bring take-out.  The maid comes on Thursdays..." 

"You have a maid?  You mean, you don't need me to clean your house for you?"

"Of course not.  I can have her clean your apartment too,  if you like."

"No, that won't be necessary."

"She washes a load of sheets and towels and sometimes a couple loads of the kids' if she has time.  I do my own.  Since there's not a laundry room in your apartment, you can use ours here in the house."

He went on, "I need to leave the house no later than seven in the morning."

"I'll be down at six-thirty then."

His eyes gazed off thinking about seeing her in his kitchen every morning.  "So, what are your plans for the holidays, I mean after the office Christmas party, that is," and he smiled.

She twisted a napkin.  "I don't have any plans."

"What about family?"

She looked at him for a moment before taking a deep breath.  Then she began talking.  "The first time I was placed in foster care was when I was five."

"Wow, that's Maisie's age.  I can't imagine."

"Well, my brother and I went back and forth to different foster homes, then back to our parents before they finally lost parental rights.  When I was in seventh grade, a family finally thought I was worth keeping.  They also ran a day-care, and I loved working with the children.  So, after I graduated high school, they invited me to stay with them until I got my AA degree and my preschool teacher certification."

"Won't you be going to spend Christmas with them?" He asked.

"No, they moved out of state.  We don't have as much contact as we used to."

"What about your brother?"

"We were put in different homes since he was older.  Now I've lost him.  I still try to find him online, but so far, no luck.  So, it's just me."

"Well, we want you to celebrate with us.  It will just be Madge, the kids and me."

"I wouldn't want to intrude."

"Are you kidding?  The kids would mutiny if I didn't invite you."

He finally got a big smile out of her.  Besides, Madge would love to have your help in the kitchen.  She's planning on a turkey with all the fixings for Christmas Eve, and then just leftovers on Christmas day."  

"Alright then.  I'd love to help her.  She's a very nice lady."

"Yes, she is.  I'm glad the kids have a grandma around.  And their new babysitter."

End of Part I


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