Carolyn Steele Agosta
Christmas of White
For weeks Kelly had been looking forward to this getaway. Christmas weekend at a mountain cabin. What could be better? Hot chocolate, holly and twinkle lights, cozy quilts, a couple of good books to read and old movies to watch. It was a good plan, a great way to beat the holiday blues, the aloneness that seemed worse at Christmas. She’d worked hard for this; she deserved it. She hoped she got snowed in.
But then it happened – the man who was making her work life a misery showed up on her doorstep.
This morning, they’d been in the final meeting of a three-day business retreat before Christmas break, which had seemed to go on and on. As head of HR, she was responsible for planning a retirement party for their CEO, which got put at the very end of the agenda. However, she had some good news to announce.
“I know we were all disappointed that we couldn’t come to an agreement with George Bennett’s agent about having him perform for the party.” George Bennett, a 1970’s folk singer, was their CEO’s all-time favorite performer, and although retired, he still sometimes did private parties. Logistics problems had seemed too much of a barrier, though. “Well, I managed to speak with Mr. Bennett myself, and not only has he decided he’s willing to perform that night, but he’s going to stay an extra day to have more time to talk music and play guitar with our boss, who I think will really be thrilled!”
The room erupted with cheers. What a great note on which to end this long, sometimes dreary meeting. She was seeing nodding heads and smiling faces, and began to gather her papers, when a lone voice raised a question. “What about the comedian we already hired?”
Oh, of course, it would be Daniel Boucher who raised the question, Daniel Boucher with whom she had bumped heads many times before. “I’ve been in contact with his people and was able to cancel,” she said. “To tell the truth, I’ve never been in favor of doing a roast. I just don’t think that insults, no matter how ‘funny’, are the right ending for someone who has given so much to this company. It’s a good time for everyone else, but I just cringed at the thought of Mr. Thompson having to grin and act like a good sport, when he deserves some, well, some appreciation for all he’s done over the years. He deserves his dignity.” She forced herself to smile and appear confident. Oh, Daniel Boucher, with his formal, unsmiling face, his suit-and-tie when everyone else was in Casual Friday attire, his killjoy spreadsheets and rigid budget. With a gentle voice and every ounce of persuasion she possessed, she added, “I think, at the end of the day, we all want the same thing. A really happy occasion for our boss. I’m sure we can find ways to make the budget work.” She heard a few agreeing murmurs spread through the room, but her nemesis stood his ground.
“We’d better nail those down then,” he said with his inevitable Daniel Boucher frown. “Because we already have contracts with the caterer, the venue, the florist. George Bennett was already going to be more expensive than the comedian, and now, I assume, we’ll have to pick up the expenses for his overnight stay.”
The upcoming CEO, tired by this point of spending more time on the subject, just told them to resolve the issues and make sure everything was handled by Monday. “This Monday,” he repeated for effect. “The day after Christmas.” Then he left, and all the committee left, and she was left face-to-face with Daniel Boucher. Irritating Daniel Boucher. Cold-hearted Daniel Boucher. The Grinch Who Stole Christmas Daniel Boucher.
“Well, thanks,” she said lightly, pretending a resilient good humor that she didn’t feel. “I do believe you just ruined my holiday.”
He frowned at her with his inevitable Daniel Boucher frown. The man never, ever smiled. She didn’t think he even knew how. “This is my job,” he said. “If you would have just contacted me earlier, I could have worked with you to resolve this ahead of time.”
“I wasn’t able to confirm with Mr. Bennett until last night.”
“Nevertheless. You could have informed me of your attempts.”
He just stood there, and she couldn’t stand it another minute. All her efforts, all the creativity with which she’d worked to find a better solution than the roast, all the frustration of trying to enchantingly persuade the musician to change his long-standing plans, all to be shot down by this automaton. “Well,” she said. “Why don’t we work on this a little later. Online. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and it’s already noon. I’m sure you have plans and, as for me, I’ve got to drive all the way to Big Stone Gap, and it’s supposed to snow. Let’s say that once I get there safely, I’ll give you a call and we’ll figure things out.” She turned and walked away as quickly as she could.
As she got to the parking lot with her suitcase, her cell phone had already begun chiming. She looked at it, saw DANIEL BOUCHER and turned the damned thing off. He and his calculator could jolly well wait until she got to her destination. It did begin to snow and driving conditions quickly deteriorated. Being snowed in became a distinct possibility. She couldn’t wait.
And then, right after she lugged all her stuff into the cabin, he showed up. Stubborn Daniel Boucher. Self-righteous Daniel Boucher. Daniel Boucher, the butcher of dreams.
Be calm, she told herself. Be polite. Don’t kill the bastard right on the doorstep.
He got out of his car and plowed his way to the door. Snow already piled up more than a foot high. “I tried calling you,” he said, snow falling on his hair and shoulders. “Why didn’t you answer? I had to follow you all the way here.”
“I’m so sorry,” she replied, forcing a gracious smile onto her face. “I was listening to Christmas music. Why in the world did you follow me?”
“You forgot this,” he said, and held up her briefcase. “I thought you might not be able to discuss the plans without it.”
She apologized again, slightly less graciously. “Thanks for bringing it. Um, you’d better get going, though. The roads are getting worse.”
“Oh, no,” he said. “We’ll finish this now. You’re not the only one with plans for the weekend. I have things to do, too.” Yeah, she just bet, Kelly thought as she let him in. She doubted he ever did anything for fun. Probably spent his free time clipping coupons and comparing lemons for sourness-per-ounce ratios.
They worked for over an hour, looking to see where they could cut costs without creating some kind of downward spiral for the event. She had to admit, he did come up with a couple of good ideas. The day grew dark. She switched on lamps, made a pot of coffee. Looked out the window.
“Oh, no!” she cried. “The snow!”
While they had worked, the snow continued to accumulate. Big time. It was up to the side windows of their cars. Daniel switched on the TV, and they watched as the weatherman reported the amazing snowfall with glee. Slowly, they turned to regard each other. “You’ll have to stay,” she said, without enthusiasm.
“Yes,” he replied, equally perturbed. “My sister’s wedding is tomorrow, back in Charlotte. I have a feeling I’m going to miss it.”
“What? Oh my gosh! She’s getting married on Christmas Eve? What is she, crazy?”
“Yes. She is a – what do you call them? Bridezilla. Worse than that. She is the Bridezillanator.”
Kelly laughed. Oh, my goodness, he had made a joke. He looked surprised at her laughter, so she asked, “What will you do? Isn’t there any way to get there? Didn’t you think of that before you followed me out here?”
“Yes. No.” He looked away a moment, then added, “Truth is, I wasn’t enthusiastic about going anyway.”
That sobered her up. “Why not?” Well, she probably knew why not, Mr. Not-a-Party-Boy Daniel Boucher.
“I told you,” he said, throwing out his hands and showing the first signs of emotion that Kelly had ever seen. “She’s gone berserk, planning this wedding. She’s completely obsessed, totally stubborn.”
“Family failing?” Kelly murmured.
He ignored that. “Telling everyone exactly what to do every second of the wedding day. What to eat. What to wear. When to go to the bathroom. She even made me learn to waltz.” He frowned and shoved his hands in his pockets.
“Well, the evil thing,” Kelly said, straight-faced. “The bitch.”
That made him smile. Oh my gosh, she thought. And his face didn’t hardly crack at all. “You’d better let her know,” she said.
“I’ll send an email.”
“What? No! You can’t tell her in an email! That’s heartbreaking! What are you, a monster? This is your sister, for crying out loud.” Kelly picked up his cell phone and forced it into his hand. “Call her. Right now. I’ll . . . I’ll fix us some dinner.” She paused for a moment and muttered, “Don’t expect much.”
Surprisingly, Daniel did make the call. He went over by the fireplace and had his back to her, but she could hear his voice quietly murmuring. Meanwhile, she turned with a sigh to the stove and resigned herself to his derision when he saw that he was only going to get warmed-up delicatessen food.
Caught up in the preparations, she didn’t have time to wonder how he was doing, but at one point she saw him throw his head back and laugh, so she guessed it was going alright. By the time he joined her, he was actually smiling. Who would have thought that grumpy Daniel Boucher had such a nice smile? Which he quickly dropped when he saw what she was doing to the potatoes. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Obviously, I didn’t expect company and I don’t really know how to cook.”
“You sure don’t,” he fervently agreed. Nudging her aside, he took over and, under his hands, the food seemed to perk right up and appear consumable. Kelly hurried to set the table. He poured the wine. They sat down to a surprisingly festive dinner and raised their glasses to each other. “To your good health,” he said, with a slight bow.
“Bottoms up,” she agreed. “Mazeltov.”
While they ate, they discussed the final proposal they would submit on Monday. “No, I never tried to derail your idea,” he said at one point. “I just brought up the financial concerns, as is my responsibility. Your plan is brilliant. A real improvement. I don’t know how you pulled it off.”
Kelly stared at him. “Well . . . thanks. I thought you hated it.”
“Not at all,” he said, and paused to chew and swallow. “No, it’s excellent. You always have good ideas and I liked what you said about him deserving his dignity. You just needed to fine-tune the finances and respect the budget. The thing is, you and I – we always seem to clash and I don’t know why. There’s a lot we could accomplish if we worked together better.”
“Well, you could be nicer.” His eyebrows went up at that and she continued, trying to make him see. “I wouldn’t always be so afraid to consult you beforehand, if you’d just be a little friendlier. You always seem so . . . unapproachable. Even . . . disdainful.” There, she’d said it.
“Some of us are not so fortunate as to be charmers,” he replied stiffly. “You always manage to create enthusiasm for your projects. It seems to be natural for you, to be so outgoing and inviting. Adorable, really.” He dropped his gaze and busied himself re-aligning his silverware. “But yes, I think we could work well together if we each tried to, you know, to . . .”
“Compromise?” she offered, mollified by his previous words.
“More than that.” He set down his fork and looked her directly in the eyes. “We each have our strengths and our weaknesses. We could probably work around those, but really, don’t you want to do more? Don’t you want to – I don’t know – build up your weak points, so they’re not weaknesses anymore? I know I do.” He leaned forward, and she noticed, for the first time, that he was actually quite a nice-looking man. “You made me call my sister. I really wasn’t going to. It’s foolish, but I can be very stubborn. No, it’s true. But I’m glad I did. She was upset at first, but I persuaded – yes, persuaded her to understand that I really didn’t have a choice, and told her how sorry I was to mess up her plans. And she did understand, after that. And we’re good now. So, I thank you for that. You helped me go beyond my limitations. And I – ,” he paused for a moment, then in a lower voice, he said, “Yes. I thank you. Very much.”
Kelly didn’t know what to say. Her perception of him did a flip-flop. Almost like the flip-flop her heart had just done. “Um, you’re welcome,” she said, very inadequately. What was happening here? Flustered, she got to her feet and began clearing the dishes. Daniel, perhaps also a bit flustered, began covering the leftover food. He washed and she dried, and afterward, he went over to start a fire in the big stone fireplace. Kelly decided no more wine. She pulled out the makings for hot cocoa.
“There are two bedrooms and two bathrooms here, so no problem about that,” she said. “You’d better get your suitcase out of your car before it’s buried completely.”
He nodded agreement and went out, coming back white with snow. “Unbelievable,” he said. “It must be four feet high.” He went to the bedroom she indicated and came back a few minutes later, dressed more casually in jeans and a v-neck sweater over a shirt that was unbuttoned at the collar. Kelly almost swooned.
She kept stirring the cocoa and he came over to watch. A tuft of his hair stuck up in an absurdly appealing way. “So,” he said. “What were your big plans for the holiday, that you spoke of. Are you expecting family or. . . anyone?”
“No,” she said. “Just me by myself. My folks moved to France last year when they retired. So…” Her voice wobbled and she cleared her throat. “It’s fine. I’m a big girl. So, I decided to come here and relax. Watch Christmas movies. Eat popcorn. Make my New Year’s resolutions.”
“Yes. Sounds like fun,” he said, and she couldn’t tell if he was being facetious. She opened her mouth to make some kind of retort when he added, “I’m just surprised. You’re so popular. I . . . assumed you had someone in your life. A fiancé, a boyfriend . . . whatever.”
She didn’t respond. Just took a few minutes to sip her cocoa and get herself under control. This past year had been rough. Devastating. Finally, she said, “Nope. It was just going to be me and Miracle on 34th Street. And that’s all I’m going to say about it.”
He slowly nodded. Glancing around, he said, “I’m still glad to end up here, to be truthful. At least, I don’t have to waltz around a ballroom now.”
“Are you any good at it?” she asked, grateful for a change of topic.
“Not bad,” he replied, “but so much depends on having the right partner.”
“Well, I can’t dance at all. Two left feet. Actually, two left elbows, it’s that bad.”
His lips twitched and he turned away. Pulled out his cell phone and fiddled with it a minute. “Here,” he said, “the lyrics aren’t really appropriate to the moment – it’s not a Christmas song – but at least it’s in waltz tempo.” The sound of Elvis singing Are You Lonesome Tonight? came from his music app, and he held out his arms to her. “Let’s try.”
Despite her protests, he took her hand and reached around her waist. “One, two, three, one, two, three …” he prompted.
Oh, man, Kelly thought. Oh man, oh man, oh man. Only their hands touched, but oh, he was so close. His face just above hers, his eyes gazing at her lips with a look of tenderness. She couldn’t breathe.
Clumsily, she tried to follow his movements, but she kept stumbling over his feet. “Don’t look down,” he murmured. “Just follow my lead.”
They moved around the kitchen, turning, turning. The waltz, she discovered, was not about ‘one, two, three’. It was about two. Two people, in each others’ arms. Centrifugal force pulling them apart, their embrace and sheer magnetism holding them together. They did not revolve, the universe did. Indeed, everything whirled about them, and they were standing still, caught in the middle, helpless in their sudden desire.
Elvis’s voice came through the roaring in her ears. Is your heart filled with pain? Shall I come back again? Tell me, dear, are you lonesome tonight?
Oh, she thought, as Daniel’s face came closer to hers. Handsome Daniel Boucher. Thoughtful Daniel Boucher. Daniel Boucher, the man of her dreams. No, she was not lonesome tonight. Maybe not ever again.
By Carolyn Steele Agosta
I hope you enjoyed this story. If you’d like to read more of my short stories and blog entries, just look here. Or if you’d like to learn more about my books, look here.