Wednesday, December 26, 2018

A Conflicted Christmas - Part One by Margo Hoornstra

She peered through the snow-spattered windshield at the neon sign and hoped like hell there was room at the inn.
Mandy Nichols kept a tight grasp of the steering wheel as she pulled her older model Jeep to a stop across from the hotel entrance. Her absolute last hope here in their little resort town of Cascade Lake.
“Of course, Dean and the girls would pick this week for his before the Christmas holiday visit.” Nerves always did make her talk to herself. “The busiest tourist week all year.”
The very week of the Snowfall Festival. When every single hotel, motel and bed and breakfast room for thirty miles in any direction was booked months in advance.
Keeping her foot on the brake, she shoved the gear shift into park. Call her crazy, but no way could she contemplate the idea of spending an entire week, day and night under the same roof with her soon to be ex-husband. Especially during the Festival. What used to be an annual high-point in their once happy life together.
She flipped off the windshield wipers then brought her mitten clad hands up to smooth absently over the top of the steering wheel. “Sitting here with the engine running, brooding, sure isn’t going to change things.”
An instrumental rendition of Jingle Bell Rock played on the radio, and she absently tapped her fingers in time to the beat, momentarily lost in the cheerful song.
Momentarily. Because before she knew it, the tune ended.
“Doctor John’s Hemorrhoid Crème. We devote our bottom line to your bottom…line.” The idiotic message, delivered in a nasally monotone, boomed out of the speakers next.
“No sense sticking around to hear about that.”
Her bottom line…she was flat out of distractions.
“No more stalling.” She shut off the engine with a renewed sense of purpose. “The sooner I go inside, the sooner I’ll have this over with.”
Before she completely lost her nerve.
Dropping the keys in her purse, she cranked the door handle then stepped out to the chilling sting of fat, wet snowflakes landing on her cheeks. She ducked her head as she scurried toward the door, all the while buffeted by frigid Northern Michigan winds. A perfect match for the current condition of her heart. Ice cold and frozen solid. Even the heated blast as she pushed her way into the lobby wouldn’t affect any change in that. Nor could the piped in Christmas carols swirling in the air. Or huge blue and red balls twinkling and sparkling as they dangled from the ceiling on silver cords. A large and lush green wreath studded with vibrant red holly berries and matching velvet bow hung on the wall behind a long, marble counter. That couldn’t do it either.
“There’s just no getting away from the Ho-Ho-Ho around here.” There she went muttering to herself again.
Except for buying gifts for the girls, she was in no mood to even do Christmas this year.
“At all.”
Two customers already in line turned around, forcing her to bring out an apologetic smile. An elderly gentleman with kind eyes smiled back. The younger, pony-tailed woman—who looked about as harried as Mandy felt—didn’t.
While she couldn’t very well block out the music, she could divert her eyes from all things festive. Glancing to her right, her gaze landed on a framed poster from a previous Snowfall Festival.
Wouldn’t you just know.
Preserved behind glass, this one was from seventeen years ago. Ironically, the very event where she and Dean first met. Shortly after he’d arrived in town, a newly assigned State Police Trooper, and she was a recently hired third grade teacher. Both embarking on new phases in their lives.
Taking off her mittens, she unzipped her parka. With people ahead of her, and only one agitated clerk in evidence, she couldn’t do much more than stand there, wait…and try her very best not to remember…
“Nobody told me there’d be an actual angel on the premises this year.”
The tenor voice, deep, smooth and rich, set off a tremor of awareness in her that flowed from head to toe. In truth, she was strongly attracted to the voice before she even laid eyes on the man behind it. Once she did that, she was a definite goner. Dark brown, neatly trimmed hair framed an incredibly handsome face. Broad shoulders topped the body of a male model.
She gulped in a breath and hiked her purse higher on her shoulder.
Obviously an outdoors man, he carried the scent of snow covered evergreens etched with cinnamon candy. As he moved forward, his appealing fragrance surrounded her.
“I’m Dean.” He flashed a warm smile. One that lit up his eyes, causing them to crinkle at the corners in the most charming way.
She hadn’t recovered enough from his angel comment to respond when he reached out to capture one of her hands in both of his.
Pleasantly captivated, she didn’t mind one little bit. “Mandy Gearhart.”
“Hi, Mandy Gearhart. If we’re already into supplying last names, mine’s Nichols. Dean Nichols. Nice to meet you.”
“Same here, Dean.”
From that moment forward, their life together evolved into something truly wonderful. A two-year courtship, fairy tale wedding and happily ever after with all the trimmings.
Until recently.
“Can I help who’s next?” The request was followed by an exaggerated throat clearing.
Brought back to the present, she blinked as the stocky clerk stared at her in expectation.
“I need a room for a week starting tonight.” Stepping forward, she didn’t even try to hide the desperation in her voice. What was the point?
“Let’s see what we have.” Pushing a pair of wire rimmed glasses further up on his nose, he tapped the keyboard with a number of sharp clicks, then squinted at the screen in front of him. “You could have made this reservation online, you know.” He flicked her a look of pure irritation before bringing his attention back to the screen.
It’s much more fun to be here in person with you. Best to keep the smart-ass comment to herself. “My computer has been acting up lately.” She had no trouble at all telling the lie. He didn’t need to know the gory details of her recent life.
A looming non-contested divorce, two beautiful girls, ages fourteen and thirteen, who couldn’t accept the fact that their once blissfully in love and happily married parents were neither anymore. Both daughters she and Dean shared caused them very few problems beyond the inevitable drama of their teen years. Until the separation threw everyone into unknown territories. Neither girl had been exactly thrilled when their mother first suggested the idea of getting their father a hotel room while he was here, and she hadn’t had the energy for another argument.
Hence this trip to make the reservation face to face.
The trill of a desk phone beside the clerk cut into her thoughts. Quitting his room search for her, he reached over to pick up.
“Front desk.” Glancing down, he grew silent to listen.
For crying out loud. As far as she was concerned, the interruption of a phone call ranked right up there with cutting in front of someone in line. Extremely rude. I’d like to get this handled, please.
Leaning on the counter, when her cell chimed, she moved slightly away then rummaged in her purse until she found it. Amanda shown back at her from the display screen.
“Hi, honey. What do you need?”
“Where are you, Mom?”
She glanced over as the desk clerk caught her eye, held up the pointer finger of his right hand, then disappeared somewhere into a back room.
For heaven’s sake.
“Yes. I’m here.”
“Running errands.”
“Who just called you ma’am?”
She shut her mouth and blinked, waiting for an only slightly deceptive response to occur to her. None did. What was the use? She never was a very good liar, especially when her kids were involved.
“I’m at the Hamilton Inn making a reservation for your father.”
“Mo-o-m.” A heavy sigh followed. A massive eye roll no doubt came next. “I thought we talked about this.”
“We did.” She called up her most authoritative mother voice. “When I first informed you and your sister of my decision.”
“I don’t know how you could let things get this far.”
“How I…” She closed her eyes, gritted her teeth and slowly counted to ten. “That’s how you see this?”
“What I don’t see is why Daddy can’t stay with us for one measly week.”
“Because he can’t.” Her standard reply was decidedly weak. What else was new?
“But why?” Amanda was close to whining. Close but not quite.
“It will be easier for all of us.” Another equally feeble response came out of her. The only one she could share. Unlike so many others she kept locked up tight in an irreparably broken heart.
Especially the soul revealing…I have to keep your father as far away from me as I possibly can while he’s here to spend Christmas with us…rather you. Because the hurt he caused me is still way too fresh and raw. Just as she’d begun to locate the outer edges of the healing process, seeing him again, living under the same roof with him again, even temporarily, would be like having the scab ripped off a partially regenerated wound to create a whole new one. Because once he is in the house, even for a short time, I might not be able to stand the heart wrenching pain of seeing him leave again.
Another exaggerated throat clearing caught her attention. The desk clerk had reappeared. Drumming his fingers on the counter as he stared at her.
“I have to go, honey. I’ll be home soon.”
“But, Mom…”
“We’ll talk then. Bye. I love you.”
Waiting until Amanda responded in kind, she slid the phone back into her purse and again stepped toward the counter. “Did you find something?”
“I don’t have a standard room available for a full week on such short notice. Starting tonight.” The look of irritation struck again.
She totally ignored it. Customer service certainly was a lost art. “What do you have available?” And please, please, please don’t tell me nothing.
He peered intently at the screen, hit a couple of keys, and then peered again. “The only type of room I do have available for that length of time on such short notice is one of our suites—king-sized bed, two person in-room Jacuzzi tub, plus a few other amenities, which goes for one ninety-nine per night. Plus tax.”
Her mouth dropped open, she reared slightly back and blinked. Sooo out of her price range. Totally ridiculous to even consider. She’d have to teach an additional class all summer to pay for it. Get a waitress job on the side or something as well. Maybe this was a mistake after all.
I’ll be home for Christmas
You can count on me.
The taunting lyrics of a new Christmas melody suddenly flowed out of invisible speakers as if meant for her alone. Crooned in a deep, smooth, tenor voice, of all things.
Please have snow, and mistletoe
“I’ll take it.” Slapping her credit card on the counter, she made sure to shove it his way before she had a chance to change her mind. Which, considering the alternative, she definitely would not do,
…find me where the love light gleams
Resisting the urge to cover her ears, she confirmed the reservation with her signature, collected her card, then nodded her thanks to the clerk who was on the phone again.
I’ll be home for Christmas…if only
As she hurried away, she made sure to shut the door tight behind her blocking out the rest. Greeted by another blast of brisk, cold wind, she dodged a sudden deluge of heavier snowflakes as she rushed back to her car.
No way could she handle Home for Christmas ever again, not with one Dean Nichols.

It has to be hard, living like Mandy does, with an irreparably broken heart. My guess is Dean isn't faring much better. Come back tomorrow to find out for A Conflicted Christmas - Part Two. 
Plus, I have more short stories, available for free, on my WEBSITE


Leah St. James said...

Great start, Margo! I love Mandy's snark and am really looking forward to meeting Dean -- and Dean and Mandy together. :-)

Vonnie Davis said...

Goodness, what in the world did Dean do? I'll be back tomorrow to find out. Once broken, hearts tend to mend slowly. Poor Mandy.

Diane Burton said...

Great start, Margo. You piqued my curiosity. Can't wait until tomorrow to see where this is going.

Margo Hoornstra said...

Thanks, Leah. Come back tomorrow and you’ll get your wish.

Margo Hoornstra said...

So true, Vonnie. Once broken... Hope you give Dean the benefit of the doubt. ;-)

Margo Hoornstra said...

Thanks, Diane. See you tomorrow. Merry Day After Christmas.

Rolynn Anderson said...

I get her situation...after all those years together, he would easily fit into a Christmas scene...and bring back good memories. Which would hurt. Has the trappings of a mid-life crisis. Good set-up, Margo!

Jannine Gallant said...

Good for Mandy, sticking up for herself and getting the room instead of caving to her daughters! I'll be back tomorrow!

Margo Hoornstra said...

Exactly, Rolynn. She’s very vulnerable right now. Glad you approve. ;-)

Margo Hoornstra said...

Uh-huh. She’s pretty determined, Jannine. Gotta love those daughters though, don’t cha?

Brenda Whiteside said...

I sure hope we find out what he did...and we can all forgive him!

remullins said...

Throwing exes together is kind of a trigger for me but I'm hoping Dean is redeemable. Until tomorrow!!

Alicia Dean said...

Ohhhhh...this is such a great start! I'm curious as to what he did. I'm proud of Mandy for sticking to her guns, so far. But, I have a feeling Dean is hard to resist. (That was my sweet daddy's name, by the way). :) Love this so far!

Margo Hoornstra said...

You will, Brenda...and he will. LOL

Margo Hoornstra said...

Exes can be where the story is, Robin. There’s always tomorrow.

Margo Hoornstra said...

Thanks, Ally. Mandy is motivated. Love the name Dean. Glad I struck a chord.

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