Friday, December 28, 2018

A Conflicted Christmas - Part Three by Margo Hoornstra




Mandy regretted sniping at Dean before she’d even finished doing it, but she simply couldn’t help herself. If she was smart—correction, if his arrival hadn’t muddled up her brain and apparently short circuited all her emotions, she would have handled this whole situation differently. She should have just slipped away and done her thing. Let Dean and the girls do theirs. Without me.
Tears stung at the very thought. Going their separate ways was the last thing she wanted. Having a complete and cohesive family again was. Not to mention, she wanted her husband back. The man she’d shared so much with over the years.
Even though she knew he’d help her, she lifted down the small wheeled cart and stacked the boxes of ornaments on top of it. She had learned to be far more self-sufficient over the past six months.
“What can I do?”
Dean appeared beside her as she tipped the cart on its wheels. When he reached for the handle, she twisted the other way then started walking toward the pavilion.
“Just for the record, that’s not how I meant my comment about the decorations back there.” Catching up with her, he reached out to place a hand on her arm. When she stiffened at the contact, he immediately let go. “I meant the sameness, the familiarity was a good thing. Comforting. Like coming home.”
Fat lot you’d know about that. You coming home? Or just anyone coming home in general? She kept more snippy remarks to herself. Why fight? Plus, this was the holiday season, after all. Peace on Earth, good will to men, and all that.
Even Dean.
“You wondered if there was something you could do.” She slowed her pace as they approached the entrance, even pausing long enough to allow Dean to open the door for her.
“Anything. Just ask.”
Several people were milling around in the huge cavernous room, setting up different booths that had been sectioned off with long, dark curtains. Luckily, she didn’t see anyone they knew. Right now, she didn’t feel much like socializing.
“One of the fathers owns a hardware store and brought in some artificial Christmas trees for us to decorate. You can help me set those up.” She stopped to study a diagram that had been taped to the wall. “We’re assigned to number sixty-five, which is…”
“…at the end of that aisle.” Taking hold of the handle on her cart when she momentarily let it go, Dean headed off in that direction, pulling their cargo along with him.
All she could do was trail behind. Watch his shoulder muscles flex, his appealing backside beneath a pair of jeans with just the right amount of tightness.
How will I ever get through this?
Purposely raising her gaze, she stared straight ahead and kept walking. Once they got to booth number sixty-five, it only took a couple of minutes for Dean to line the boxes up on the floor he then opened with his ever-present pocket knife. While she rolled the now empty cart to a back corner, he started pulling artificial tree parts out of their containers that had been dropped off earlier.
“This festival has always been a real community effort.” He set a newly assembled tree on a front table.
“It certainly has been that.” She turned away to gather some ornaments she set beside it. “Always.”
Dean gave her a brief nod of agreement as he reached for more tree parts.
As the minutes passed, they still hadn’t talked about anything more meaningful than how the younger students had made the ornaments in their art classes, and some of the older students had contributed ornaments made in shop class. With her adding that what she had brought was only a small number of them because so many other volunteers from her school were involved.
“Like I said.” Dean set another tree on another table. “Community effort.”
“Uh-huh.” Could she have made a more intelligent response?
Not today, apparently. Now that she thought about it, the innocuous conversation was probably partially her fault. More than partially even. It kept her from dealing with what they really needed to talk about.
She understood why Dean wanted a second career at forty-five, after his early retirement. And fully supported him in getting into the home security business. What she didn’t understand, and probably never would, was why he felt he had to go somewhere else so far away to do it. What was the inauguration of a new life to him felt a lot like the abandonment of their old life, to her. At the same time, she wanted him to be happy too. But uprooting the girls and giving up their once happy home was a lot to ask.
Still…
“Dean…”
“Mandy…”
They spoke at the same time then exchanged embarrassed smiles. Followed by an awkward silence neither seemed to have the courage to break.
 “I learned a lot about the home security business while I was in Reno.” Dean somehow developed his nerve first. “Wagner said I did really well. Was a real asset to him. He even offered me a management position. As long as I stayed there in Reno.”
Her hand froze on the miniature tree she was setting up, but she didn’t so much as look at him. That wasn’t at all what she wanted to hear. What happened to his talk a moment ago about familiarity and home?
“Good for you.” After adjusting a couple of wayward branches to a better alignment, she bent down to rummage through a box of homemade ornaments.
“He said he liked my grasp of the ins and outs of the business. Said my skills could help his company realize better profits without opening a satellite office here like we’d talked about.”
“I see.” She still didn’t glance up as her rummaging continued. Purely for show now. A way she could keep her head down and her eyes averted. Prevent him from discovering the tears welling in their depths.
Still not standing, the intensity of her fabricated search increased. Dean bent down along side of her, reaching toward the box as if he too intended to start rummaging. Instead, he placed his hands firmly over hers to stop her.
“But I hated every minute away from you and the girls. I told him if he didn’t want to help me open a satellite office in Michigan like he’d promised, I wasn’t interested.”
In that split second, her rifling finally ceased. The last chunks of ice around her heart thawed and fell away. Mouth open, she turned her face toward him, her eyes searching his as if she needed to determine the extent of his honesty. “You what?”
He cupped her chin with his thumb and forefinger. “You were right all along, sweetheart. And I was wrong. Moving away from Michigan was the wrong choice. He wasn’t interested in helping me start a business of my own here. He was after someone to help him run what he already had going out there.”
The anguish in his tone tore at her heart. “Oh, Dean. I’m so sorry. I know how much you wanted this.”
That he simply shrugged surprised her. “He’s not the only owner of a company of its kind. I’ll find another willing to franchise. Or even figure out a way to set up my own. If that doesn’t work, I can do something else. I want you way more than any autonomy. And the girls. If you’ll have me back.”
She took in his earnest expression and the pleading in those intense dark eyes. Bedroom eyes she’d always told him. Eyes that never failed to quicken her pulse and make her heart swell with love.
Gazing into those enthralling eyes now, she swallowed before she spoke. “It turns out I was wrong too.  One of my major arguments, selling a house that was nearly paid for seemed out of the question. And for more than just sentimental reasons, though that was a major factor.” Before he could respond, she went on. “Then there was the road block of pulling the girls out of the public school they’d attended all their academic lives and away from the friends they’d known since before they could walk.” She took a breath. Tears welled up again, but she no longer needed to hide them. “Both girls are so pragmatic, just like you.” She laughed lightly and swiped at her eyes. “Both of them later told me they were willing to make those sacrifices to preserve our family. They were willing to sacrifice…I wasn’t. I was wrong. For that, I’m truly very sorry.”
He grasped her hand and brought her with him when he rose, then pulled her close. “It wasn’t that I didn’t care about your concerns. I just wanted to see if I could…we could…do better. Add to the police officer’s pension I had.”
“It hurt you wouldn’t believe me when I said what we were making was enough for us. That you were enough for me.” Her voice cracked, and she grew silent, pressing her lips together as more tears fell.
Soon though, the apologies, the never should have saids, came out of her in a rush. Everything she’d wanted to say to him. Things she did say to him, if only in her mind, during so many sleepless nights spent without him.
Dean stayed silent and listened. For a while. Until he gently pressed two fingers against her lips to stop the flow. “It’s okay. It wasn’t either of our faults, and it was both of our faults.”
She pulled back slightly to look into his eyes, where she caught the hint of mischief. Any tightness around her heart eased. Hope she didn’t care to restrain rose in her like a beacon slicing across a darkened landscape. Its light growing in brightness until it filled every crevice, chasing out the sadness.
“That’s one way of looking at it.” She smiled at his unique logic, which was so Dean Nichols.
Reaching out, he toyed with a small piece of her hair by her ear. His thumb stroked a slow pattern lightly along the side of her throat. She didn’t move a muscle as shivers delivered by his touch crept along her spine then burst open to re-awaken her nearly forgotten need for him.
“I was hoping we could pick up exactly where we left off.”
The love and devotion she’d at one time come to expect from him and, at another time, feared she’d never see from him again, was openly reflected in his eyes. Joy and gratitude stole her breath then stayed in place to block her throat. Unable to speak through the clog of emotion, she returned his gaze, hers brimming with all the love she held in her heart for him.
Wrapping her arms around his waist, she buried her head against his chest, finding immeasurable comfort in the familiarity she found there as her voice returned at last. “I don’t know why not. So, let’s finish up here and hurry home.”

*****
Home.
Coming from Mandy’s lips, the single word rang with the sweetest sound Dean had heard in a very long time.
“Yeah. Let’s.”
From that point forward, he put up little trees he decorated like a madman. Anxious to, as Mandy said, finish up here and hurry home. Where, if he was extremely fortunate, he’d be able to get her alone for an hour, hopefully more.
“What do we do with the empty boxes?” He held up the last of them when they finally had all the decorations unloaded and displayed.
“Leave them here under the tables.” Mandy lifted the cloth skirt attached to one of them. “They probably won’t sell everything. Whoever oversees clean-up can use them to bring back what’s left.”
“Then we’re good to go after this.” He shoved the boxes into haphazard stacks under the table.
Mandy crossed her arms as she watched him. The smile spreading across her face erupted into a giggle as he stowed the last box, settled the skirt back in place, then stood to face her.
“Let’s go.”
“Let’s.”
Grinning like an idiot, he helped Mandy into her jacket before putting on his. Without taking the precious time necessary to zip up, he ushered her toward the door.
He kept his arm tightly around her shoulders all the way back to the car. The drive home, by the town’s holiday decorations was much more pleasant than the ride there as they plotted and planned what the next phase of their life together might look like. Even Santa seemed to be smiling larger than before when they drove by.
Dean gave him a friendly nod and wink in return. Merry Christmas, Old Man.
“The girls have a slumber party to go to tonight.” Mandy took her eyes off the road for a second to glance over at him.
All of a sudden, her reason for being so adamant before about him staying somewhere else tonight became clear. Still, he couldn’t help it when most of the blood fueling his brain headed south. “When do they leave?”
She actually blushed in the most adorable way as she briefly cast a glimpse toward him again. “Probably about the same time as we get home.”
Home. There was that sweetest word in the world again.
“Do we have to drive them? Drop them off anywhere?” If so, he’d be more than happy to do the honors.
“Not this time. Susie’s parents are picking them up. The party is at Casey’s. Only for one night.”
Was her voice tinged with disappointment? Or was his suddenly deprived brain hallucinating on him? Before he could decide, they pulled into the garage, and Mandy hit the button to close the door.
“There’s some chili I can heat up for dinner.” She peered over the top of the car at him after they both got out. “If you don’t mind leftovers.”
“Chili sounds perfect. With cheddar cheese, right?”
She glanced back at him and smiled. “Of course. I wouldn’t dream of serving you chili without cheddar cheese.”
“Can’t tell you how wonderful that is to hear.” The smile he’d been sporting for a while now was still so broad, his cheeks were beginning to ache. And he didn’t mind one darned bit. Taking off his jacket he hung on the wall hook just inside the door, he reached to help Mandy out of her coat, allowing his palms to linger on her shoulders.
She placed her hands on top. “It’s good to have you home, Dean.”
“You have no idea how good it is to be home.”
Turning her in his arms, he lowered his head, about to kiss the lips he’d been away from for far too long.
“Mom!” Deanna’s cry echoed from the living room. “I can’t find my ballet flats. Have you seen them?”
“No.” Remaining in his embrace, Mandy lifted her chin to project her voice. “Did you check the hall closet?”
“They aren’t in there either.”
“Check way in the back.”
“Okay, but I don’t think they’re there.”
Letting her go when she cast him an apologetic glance then stepped back, Dean was right behind her as she headed for the living room. As the kitchen door shut behind him, what appeared before him stole his breath. It was all there, just the way he’d left it. The fireplace along one wall, the sectional couch, the matching recliners he and Mandy bought themselves to celebrate their tenth anniversary.
Both their daughters’ overnight gear was stacked by the front door.
“They ended up in my room, Deanna.” Amanda bounced down the stairs. “I put them in your bag already.”
Hitting the bottom step, she paused much as he had. Though she made no comment, a huge smile broke across her face at seeing her parents standing there together.
“Okay. Great. Thank you.” Deanna backed out of the closet and turned around, then stopped and reacted in much the same way as her sister.
“Call when you’re ready to come home tomorrow, and one of us will pick you up.” Mandy’s voice was calm and matter of fact as both girls stood side by side staring at their apparently reconciled parents.
A horn honk from the driveway broke the spell.
“There’s Susie. Come on, Deanna.”
“Right behind you.”
Collecting sleeping bags, pillows and backpacks, they helped each other struggle through the door.
“Bye, Mom and Dad. Love you.” Their voices blended to resonate back just before they closed the door with a whump.
“Love you too.” He and Mandy responded with a chorus of their own.
With his arms wrapped easily around her again, he closed his eyes in pure enjoyment as Mandy nestled her head against his shoulder. Right where she belonged.
“Looks like we won’t be needing that suite at the Hamilton Inn after all.” Her voice came out soft.
He flicked a gaze toward the pendulum clock on the mantle. “It’s after six. Too late to cancel for tonight. Your card’s already been charged.”
“It’s a shame to let such a nice, expensive hotel room go to waste.” Her voice held an intimate undertone that ignited a spark deep inside him.
And darned if almost all his blood didn’t shoot downward again.
“I agree. We should put all those amenities to good use at least once, don’t you think?”
“Oh yes. Definitely.” Turning in his arms, she gazed up at him.
Finally, after long last, he bent his head and kissed her lips for real. Gently at first, in case she wasn’t ready for the contact. Which, as it turned out, couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Her palms naturally skimmed over the familiar territory of his chest and shoulders, and she clasped her hands together around his neck. When she raised her mouth to accept the pressure of his again, he eagerly and passionately returned her kiss, filled with every ounce of love he held for her. And so much more to come.
Two weary travelers who, after wandering aimlessly for far too long, arrive home at last. To finally find their rightful place together at the inn.

This concludes the gifts of free Christmas short stories from the authors of The Roses of Prose. We hope you enjoyed your time with us. Hope your Christmas was Merry and Bright. Have a very Happy New Year!



18 comments:

Diane Burton said...

Great ending, Margo. This segment explained why he left. I understand her reasoning for not going with him originally (been there more than once). The girls were willing to sacrifice, even when she wasn't. She is so lucky he wanted to come back. I hope she learned something. He definitely did. Nice ending in the luxury suite. Happy New Year, Margo.

Alicia Dean said...

Awww, in the end, they were both willing to sacrifice for love, for their family. I love the way you made it all come together to give them their Happily Ever After. Such a satisfying, Christmasy ending. Loved it!

Vonnie Davis said...

What a sweet and satisfying ending to this story. It was a lovely read. I'm so glad they were able to set aside pride and hurt feelings to see the larger picture: they loved and needed each other.

Brenda Whiteside said...

A merry Christmas after all. Nice ending.

Leah St. James said...

Awwww...and sigh. So happy they found their way back together (with a side trip to the inn to rekindle their romance). :-) Great story, Margo!

Margo Hoornstra said...

Thanks, Diane. It is all about choices. Pls we’re never too old to learn, right? Happy New Year!

Margo Hoornstra said...

So glad you enjoyed their story, Ally. It is all about love.

Margo Hoornstra said...

Pride will get you every time, Vonnie. Thank you so much for the compliment. Glad you liked my story.

Margo Hoornstra said...

Merry Christmas, Brenda. Here’s to those wonderful HEAs.

Margo Hoornstra said...

So happy I made you happy, Leah. Couldn’t let that expensive suite go to waste. LOL

Christine DePetrillo said...

So sweet. I love a good reunion story!

Jannine Gallant said...

A terrific ending and wrap-up for our stories!

Margo Hoornstra said...

Me too, Chris. Nice to ‘see’ you.

Margo Hoornstra said...

Thank you. Thank you, Jannine. Bittersweet, though.

Rolynn Anderson said...

You've centered on a big issue...we could all live to 100. Will relationships thrive given such longevity? Clearly this couple and their kids have hit a positive milestone. What a nice Christmas gift for this family...solidarity! (P.S....Coincidence that I'm reading Kinsella's latest novel, SURPRISE ME, dealing with Margo's question with some hilarity). Thanks for the great story, Margo!

Margo Hoornstra said...

You are definitely welcome, Rolynn. My pleasure. Hopefully meaningful relationships will stand the true test of time. I believe they will. Enjoy your latest read.

RE Mullins said...

So happy they got to use the hot tub! Thank you so much for an enjoyable read and conclusion to the Holiday stories.

Margo Hoornstra said...

You're very welcome, Robin. Yeah. I couldn't let that $200+ a night suite got to waste.