"Hmm, smells great! Is that a roast I smell?"
Madge and Holly stifled their laughter.
"You got it," Houston said clapping him on the shoulder.
That night when Holly walked in, Gabriel turned into a cotton headed ninny muggings and stopped dancing to Jingle Bells with his daughter. When he finally swallowed the cotton back down his throat, he said, "You look beautiful, Miss Holly." She beamed a smile at him, a rare gift, better than anything she could give him under the tree.
"Thank you. You clean up nicely yourself."
"Come dance with us, Miss Holly!" Maisie's enthusiastic invitation could not be denied. Little Chris looked more like the Easter bunny hopping around while his sister did what little ballerinas do.
Soon a dance party was going on. Even Madge joined in dancing with the kids. When the music changed to a slower song, somehow, Gabriel found himself reaching his hand out to the pretty lady. She took it and he pulled her closer. Bad idea. He'd soon be dead with the electric current coursing through him. He felt someone tapping his shoulder. Houston.
"Can I cut in?"
He stepped back. "Sure."
But Madge who had been watching smiling said, "Don't you have a Christmas party to go to?"
His collar was getting tighter and tighter the closer he got to Pamela's house. One yank on his tie and he'd be dead. He took a deep breath, manned-up and went to knock on her door. She did look exactly like she'd planned, gorgeous in an eye-grabbing, over the top dress using her allure to her best advantage. That meant his eyes would have to go anywhere else but at where things plunged or split halfway up to tomorrow, or clung as tightly as a second sequin-sparkly skin.
When all of them arrived at the party, his employees clapped. He waved and went around the room in the obligatory circuit making introductions with her on his arm. He watched Houston dancing with Holly out of the corner of his eye. At least they were having fun. He finally got Pamela unglued from his arm and went to get a glass of sparkling cider and a plate of who knows what. He couldn't taste a thing as he watched his best friend laughing with Holly.
Pamela walked back up. "I can't believe you let him bring your babysitter. Isn't he robbing the cradle or something?"
That got his ire up. He glared at her. "She's a well-respected company employee who recently transferred up here to help me out. She's twenty-six, only two years younger than Suzette, but that is quite a bit younger than you isn't it." He walked off steamed.
When Houston led her off the dance floor finally, Gabriel offered to dance, but Holly turned him down. "My feet are killing me." Houston was smirking.
He kept checking his watch in between talking shop with his employees. Pamela had given up on him and hung around the no-host bar flirting. It reminded him so much of his ex-wife that it made him sick.
"I'm ready to go when you are," he said as he shouldered up next to Houston.
"Already? Sure. Are you okay with that, Holly?"
"More than ready," she said unsmiling.
"Now if I can peel Pamela away from the bar..."
It was quiet on the ride home. Her perfume had permeated the car giving him a headache again. On top of that was the alcohol on her breath. He was still a gentleman and walked her up to her door. She grabbed his lapels and said, "You can come in for awhile, can't you Gabe? Houston won't mind driving your babysitter back to your house, and I can take you back no matter how late it is."
He disengaged her hands and said, "No thanks, Pam. It was just a company party. That's all that was between us. If you thought it was more, I apologize."
He practically vaulted down her steps and ran to the car. Once he was back inside, he felt like he could fly around the interior like a balloon with the hot air let out. "Freedom!" he yelled as he drove away.
Houston chuckled. "I don't know how you ditched a goodnight kiss. That was the biggest ball of mistletoe hanging over her door that I've ever seen!"
"What? Thankfully, I missed it."
Gabriel kept his eye on the two of them from his rear view mirror as he was chauffeuring in the back seat. Holly looked almost as miserable as he'd felt, but then a smile played on her lips. "She was stuck to you like yesterday's gum on your shoe on a hot day in July!"
They all laughed letting the tension disappear. He drove carefully through the spitting snow. He thought ahead that tomorrow was Sunday and church. Then he'd take Houston to the airport early on Monday. After that he would enjoy a small, quiet Christmas Eve with just his little family, well and Madge and Holly. He looked forward to their big dinner. Everything was planned out. He would let the kids open one present that night, then the rest on Christmas morning. He gave a satisfied sigh.
But back home, he collapsed onto the couch loosening his tie. "I am so glad that's over! Next year I'm turning it into a family party with Santa and stuff. I'm the boss, right? I can do that. By the way, thanks Madge for watching the kids. I'll take you to your hotel in just a minute."
"Hey, you're on my bed," Houston said with a playful shove.
"Where's Holly?" Gabe asked.
"She ran off to her apartment like a scared rabbit," Madge said. "What did you two do?"
He shrugged. "You got me? Do you know Houston?"
"Maybe she got scared when I tried to hold her hand. I mean, are we in eighth grade or something?"
Gabe couldn't help but laugh at his friend's frustration. Houston socked him with his pillow.
"I'd like to see you try it," Houston growled.
His friend wasn't far off. He'd thought of trying a zillion times. He sobered. "Are you ready to go, Madge?"
All the lights were turned off in his house when he got back, but he couldn't help but see her lights were still on up in her apartment.
He went to bed exhausted, but sleep eluded him for hours it seemed. He was still dancing in his living room in his mind.
The next morning he drove everyone carefully to church through a heavy snowfall picking Madge up on the way.
"Dang, my flight is cancelled in the morning!" Houston said in frustration after reading his phone in the car. "It looks like I will be hanging out with you a little longer."
"You know you are always welcome, Houston." Gabe was closer to his friend than to his own brother.
The children participated in the simple nativity scene. Maisie was an angel and Chris, a shepherd, except his son had snuck his favorite stuffed animal, a puppy, to hold in the play instead of a lamb. As the carols were sung their beauty settled over the sanctuary. But the electricity went out before the closing prayer.
When they got home, he and Houston went around turning things off or on as needed and lighting candles. The kids were jumping up and down with excitement until they saw that there were no lights twinkling on their tree and no Christmas movies to be watched. Madge was putting out cold sandwich fixings. As he went out to get wood to build a fire, he almost ran into Holly as she was coming in with an arm full. "Thanks," he said. He went out anyway to bring more in. He dumped it in the wood box as Houston worked to get a fire going.
Then Houston settled on the couch and kept calling the airport to check on the status of his flight. "At this rate, I might be here through Christmas. I know my folks won't be happy about that. I hate to think that I'd be forced to buy you a present, Gabe."
"That'd be the day," Gabriel laughed. "I might give you a candy cane though."
"Thanks, buddy. Seriously though, I hope the power comes on in time for your women to make that big dinner they're promising. It might be worth changing my flight for even."
"Yeah, I'd hate for the outage to complicate their plans."
Since the power was still out that night, Gabriel said, "You better stay here in the house tonight, Holly. Your apartment is only heated by electricity and will be freezing, literally. I can let the kids sleep with me and you can use Maisie's bed, and Houston, you can have little Chris'. I'm sure it will be more comfortable than another night on my couch.
Little Chris said sincerely, "You can sleep in my bed, Houston. If I had hay, I'd let baby Jesus spend the night too."
That grabbed all of their hearts.
When his voice was steady again, he said, "Madge, I'll take you to your hotel now. I'm sure they have back-up generators there."
"I hope it's not too dangerous for you to drive in, Gabriel. This is quite a storm."
As they were leaving, Holly put her hand on his sleeve. "Be careful, Gabriel." He'd rather get got lost in her eyes, but Madge was waiting.
Soon, his kids were tucked into his bed, and Houston was sawing logs in his son's bedroom. But Gabriel wandered out to the living room to sit in from of the fire. He found Holly there. When he sat by her on the couch, she threw part of the throw over him. "Cold?" He took that as an invitation to move closer.
"I see Madge gave you socks too," she smiled. "I've never met someone like her, so nice and generous," Holly said. "The kids are blessed to have her for a grandma."
"Yes, they certainly are." Then he paused before asking, "Is all this what you expected when you moved here, Holly?" He turned and looked into her eyes.
"I have to admit that it is much more than I'd hoped. I feel like it's not just a job, but you've welcomed me into your family. Family holidays have always been kind of weird for me before this. I've always had such mixed emotions before, strangely missing my messed up family."
When he reached for her hand, she did not pull away. "I'm glad you're happy, 'cause I like you being here," was all he said. But boy, howdy, he'd gotten all he wanted for Christmas already, just having her hand in his. He tried to calm down and savor the moment. Soon they were talking about anything and everything until the wee hours of the morning.
When he woke up in his bed and was warm, he realized that the electricity had come on sometime in the night. He stretched with a huge grin on his face. It would be an uncomplicated Christmas after all and mighty sweet!. In fact, it was turning out better than he could have imagined. But he needed to go get Madge. So he went out to the kitchen to drink a cup of coffee first and came up behind Holly.
"Hi." He gave her a hug from behind and snuggled his face in her hair. She gave him a smile, but turned away as Houston walked in. He let go of her quickly not sure if Houston had seen or not. He half hoped that his buddy would fly away today. It would uncomplicate things between Houston, Holly, and himself.
"Well, I'll go get Madge," he announced after draining his cup.
"Good, because she's going to teach me how to do the turkey. We need to get it in the oven soon," Holly said.
It didn't take long for the aroma of a turkey to fill the house. The kids were playing Candy Land having forgotten that the electricity was back on and the T.V. would work again. Holly was setting the table. He'd put the leaves in so they would have room for all the food. He'd never felt so at home in his own home before. Gratitude filled his chest.
Finally, they sat down at the table and joined hands as he prayed. He liked how it felt to have her hand in his and rubbed his thumb over hers before saying, "Amen." He had just stood to carve the turkey when the doorbell rang. "I'll get it ," Houston said. Then he heard men's unhappy voices. His heart sank. It was his brother Michael. Houston came in scowling behind him.
"I didn't know what to do, Gabriel. Sharon won't let me come spend the holidays with her and our kids." His brother looked pathetic.
Gabriel glanced over at Holly. Her eyes were downcast, but she nodded. He sighed and said, you can eat with us, but you can't stay here, understood?"
Madge jumped up and got another table setting.
He had just sent the turkey platter around when the doorbell rang again. Everyone looked at each other in surprise. "Were any of you expecting someone?" Everyone shook their heads. I'll get it this time," he said.
He was shocked to find his ex-wife at the door. "What are you doing here Suzette?" His voice must have raised.
She started crying. "He dumped me. And I miss my kids."
She walked in past him. The kids jumped up yelling, "Mommy's here!"
Madge stood and asked, "What's going on, Suzette?"
"I came back from Hawaii early. I didn't want to spend Christmas away from my kids," she smiled looking around the table. "Hello, Houston. Hi, Michael." Then she saw Holly. "Who are you? Houston's girlfriend?"
He made the introduction leaving off her title as the babysitter because Holly was so much more.
It made him sick how his ex was already twisting the truth. She'd gotten dumped or she'd still be a turtle on the beach. Yet he looked over nervously at Holly who shrugged. "You might as well sit and eat with us then." He sighed thinking, "What a mess!"
Suzette said, "Go ahead and sit down, mom. I know where the dishes are. Houston went and brought in another chair.
Before all the dishes got passed around, the doorbell rang again. He threw his hands up in the air and huffed. This day was not going as planned. Far from it. He couldn't imagine who else might be showing up.
"I'll get it," Madge said jumping up. Her pleasant voice greeted someone joyfully at the door.
"Surprise!" In walked his mother and stepfather. He was shocked, but went over to hug her and shook Bob's hand. Michael seemed extra glad to see them.
"What are you doing here?"
His mother hugged him closely and whispered, "We thought your brother needed us." Then she stepped back and said, "And look at your beautiful children!"
Houston went and got more chairs and Madge, more plates. Everyone squeezed in.
"Who are they, daddy?" little Chris whispered loudly.
"They are your grandparents, son. But they've lived far away over the ocean since you've been born." He explained.
"Why?" little Chris asked.
"We live there so we can tell people about Jesus, people who have never heard about Him, not even the grown-ups, Chris," Bob answered.
His mother had kissed them, but he had seen the confusion on his children's faces. Not even Maisie would remember them.
But before he could have seconds, the doorbell rang again.
"Unbelievable! I'll get it," he said resignedly.
He was certainly surprised when he opened the door and found a young man wearing leather and covered in tattoos with his motorcycle helmet under his arm. "May I help you?"
"I'm looking for Holly Peterson. "Is she here?"
"And who are you?" his guard was up.
"I'm her brother." Now that shocked him speechless for a moment.
"Sure, come in. She'll be excited to see you.
As soon as he walked in, Gabe watched Holly rise slowly as if her brother was an apparition. Then she gave a small scream and ran to hug him. Everyone looked to him as he was grinning ear to ear. Gabriel was so happy for her.
"Everyone, I'd like you to meet Holly's brother Sam."
Her brother explained how he'd searched for his sister which led him to her old roommate who then had given him her new address. "My club was doing a toy run at the regional children's hospital in town, so I thought I'd swing by and surprise her for Christmas." Holly gave him another hug.
It took awhile before the hubbub settled down and another place was set.
The dessert was served and Gabriel was finally relaxing regaining his peace of mind when the doorbell rang again. Everyone burst out laughing.
His brother Michael did the honor of going to the door. He hollered, "Did anyone here order a puppy?"
His kids screamed and ran to the door. Maisie came back in hugging a little brown dog.
"Wait a minute..." but he was obviously outnumbered as everyone jumped up to pet the little thing.
"I just want to know who brought the puppy." He looked around the table as everyone shrugged.
"Santa brought him!" his kids chimed together.
His eyes went around the room and ended with Holly. She snuck a hand halfway up and mouthed. "I did it."
He was dumbfounded but everyone burst out laughing again. Somehow he felt like the joke was on him.
"I'll take the kids into the kitchen with their doggie," Suzette offered.
Holly put her hand on his. "Are you mad at me"
He leaned over and said in her ear, "A little, so maybe we can kiss and make up later."
She blushed like a Christmas rose.
Bob went and found his Bible while his mother brought the kids and his ex back in from the kitchen. Maisie was still hugging her dog who was asleep in her arms while little Chris clung to its leash. His stepfather cleared his throat and said, "You know, this day sounds a little like the first Christmas. It wasn't as uncomplicated as a young couple starting out in life would have wished. In fact, the first Christmas had many complications. I mean who would want to find their fiancé with child before they'd ever been together? And who would want to travel seventy miles while very pregnant riding on a donkey just to pay taxes? And who would have wanted to be desperate for lodging, but only finding a stable when Mary's time came? And who would have wanted only a manger of hay to lay their newborn in? Who would have wanted the smelly shepherds to be their first visitors? Who would have wanted to have to flee to Egypt. a couple hundred miles away, in order to escape Herod who sought to kill their baby? It was a very complicated Christmas from beginning to end with visitors from angels to shepherds, Wise Men to temple prophets, a strange mix indeed. Then he read the Christmas story.
After that, the younger people went outside to walk off their big dinner, only a rousing snowball fight ensued. The kids chased their puppy in circles. Finally, everyone was thorough chilled and worn out enough to go back inside.
Amazingly enough, after the dishes had all been done by the gentlemen since the women had cooked, everyone dissipated. Houston's flight had been rescheduled so his brother Michael dropped him off at the airport. Their folks left with him. They evidently planned to stay awhile with his troubled brother since Sharon had moved out to stay with her parents. Madge left with Suzette. He allowed the children to spend time with their mother at Madge's hotel room with the promise that they'd be returned by nine. He trusted Madge when she promised to see to it. Even Sam said he had to leave to join his group and then roared off.
That left him alone with Holly. They went and sat before the fire again. She kept getting the giggles over their complicated celebration. "You should have seen your face every time the doorbell rang!" Then she laughed some more. He could think of only one way to stop her. So he did. Mistletoe was not required.