Thursday, December 27, 2018

A Conflicted Christmas - Part Two by Margo Hoornstra

Dean Nichols peered through the snow spattered windshield at the emerging lights some distance ahead and hoped like hell there was room for him again in Mandy’s heart.
Of course, the girls would pick this week to ask him to come home for their holiday visit. The busiest tourist week all year in Cascade Lake. The very week of the Snowfall Festival when every single memory he held of his once happy life with Mandy and the girls was the most acute…and painful.
A new rush of snowflakes danced and whirled over the hood of his F-150 pickup as he sped along the interstate, and he flipped the wipers on high.
He’d been an idiot. A fool. Talk about your midlife crisis. He never in a million years thought one would happen to him. Reeling from too many broken promises, all he wanted was his family back. But the longer he stayed away, the harder it was to find the courage to return. Whether coming back now was too little too late, he’d find out soon enough. In the next few minutes in fact. When he arrived at their house.
Their house.
How he referred to the place where their family had lived together for so many years. Whether Mandy still did or not was another matter entirely. He had no idea what to expect from her. Among other things, like how would they greet each other? The couple who was once so inseparably close, after being apart for six months.
Sure as hell not like the long lost lovers he considered them to be. No matter how much he might want to reconcile with the woman he so cherished. From the top of her head to the soles of her feet, that never failed to keep his warm at night.
His headlights illuminated the upcoming exit sign for Cascade Lake and he pressed on the gas. It wouldn’t be long now, and all these unknowns would be answered. Visions of the love of his life filled his head. Wavy blonde hair, long lashed blue eyes, full, kissable mouth.
A body made for loving.
Blowing out a sigh, he took the approaching off ramp, then made quick work of traversing the streets of greater Cascade Lake. Down Center Boulevard by the water where most of the tourist shops were decorated to the hilt. Familiar black, vintage street lamps were decked at their necks with thick, shiny silver bows. Multi-colored lights sparkled from store windows to create kaleidoscope reflections. Dwarf Christmas trees with golden stars on top and wrapped in swirls of tinsel and lights sat in huge pots on the sidewalk. Home to colorful bursts of petunias and impatiens during the summer months.
“Much prettier along here in the wintertime. In my opinion, anyway.” He muttered to himself as he drove on passed the courthouse with its gigantic ceramic red suited Santa Claus. His bag brimmed with toys on the ground beside him, mittened hand raised in a wave and cherubic face in a constant smile of welcome.
A small salute seemed in order as he came along side. “Thanks, Buddy. I need all the welcome encouragement I can get.”
Real good, Nichols. Keep talking to yourself. Something he found himself doing on the long cross-country drive from Nevada. A half assed effort to gin himself up for the soon to occur reunion.
A left turn on Ash, then right onto Hilltop and, before he knew it, he was home. At least he’d made it as far as the driveway and stopped in front of the garage where both doors were shut down tight. Killing the engine, he had only one thing left to do. Get out and go into the house.
“But, how exactly?” The snow had finally stopped as he peered through the windshield at the two-story colonial where he lived at one time with Mandy and the girls.
Should he walk in unannounced? Stand on the porch and knock? Sit here in the damned car with the heat off and honk the horn? Under the circumstances, none of the choices seemed quite appropriate. Leaning forward, he rested his hands, sweaty palms and all, on top of the steering wheel. “Then what the hell is appropriate?”
“Daddy! Daddy!” Deanna burst out the door, making the decision for him. “You’re here!”
“Punkin.” He exited the car just in time to catch her exuberant little body in his waiting arms.
“Dad!” Slightly older Amanda bounced out next to make a beeline his way.
Reaching out, he easily caught her too. For the next few moments, time stopped as he hugged the girls he’d been away from for far too long, and had missed so much.
As hard as they were squeezing him, he squeezed them tighter.
“You’re home, Daddy. You’re home.” Deanna repeated the phrase like a sacred mantra.
“Yeah.” He kissed one on the cheek then the other. “I am.”
After they’d had their fill of hugs and separated, Amanda checked out his truck with a quick glance. “What did you bring us? Good presents, I hope.”
“Presents?” He reared back in mock mystification. “Why in the world would I bring presents?”
“Da-ad.” Amanda slapped him playfully on the arm. “You know why.”
“Yes, I brought presents.” Unable to help it, he hauled them both close to him again. “Plenty of them. For each of you, and your mother too.”
Though he’d tried his best to act totally nonchalant, for an instant, each of his daughters froze. Enough to clue him in to the fact that when it came to Mandy, some tension remained.
But why wouldn’t there be? She was certainly entitled. After all, he was the one who left her to try his hand at a new business venture. Going clear across the country to do it after she'd asked him not to..
Even if his intention was to supplement the State Police pension he’d earned after twenty years of service. Despite the heartache he’d caused though, his decision to tie into the home security and personal protection business had been a good one. Learning as he worked, he’d made the money he’d expected to. Secured the contacts he wanted to. He just hadn’t realized the result he’d banked on.
Now, he was more than ready to simply come home. If Mandy would have him.
“Hello, Dean.”
Hearing his wife’s voice after what seemed like a lifetime away, he very nearly stopped breathing. Carefully freeing himself from his kids, he stepped back. When his heart seemed to follow the lead of his lungs and cease working as well, he was sure he’d topple over from sheer lack of oxygen and restricted blood flow. All he could do was stare.
Mandy kept walking toward him. “How have you been?”
Both AWOL organs kicked in with a jolt. “Fine, Mandy. And you?”
“I’m fine, too.”
They were both lying through their teeth, though he doubted either one of them would ever admit it.
Standing before him with the curls he loved to run his fingers through framing her face, she was attractive as ever. Even with the tell-tale signs of apprehension edging her eyes and pulling down the corners of her mouth. Drawn to her beauty, he started to move forward, arms out. At the warning in her gaze, he immediately censored what could have easily become a lovers’ embrace when he dropped his left arm to his side and merely extended his right hand he gently rubbed along her shoulder. The second they connected, a bolt of awareness flashed then sizzled up his arm to settle inside him. The manifestation of all the warmth and caring between them shot through to take its rightful place around his heart.
Too soon she took a step back and his hand dropped away.
“The girls just asked about presents.” Suddenly it hurt to look at her, and he turned toward the driveway where his truck sat. “Those are in there, along with all of my suitcases.”
He hoped she noticed the plural when he referenced his luggage. This trip, he wasn’t traveling light, having packed up everything he’d taken with him when he moved out. With the full intention of moving back in again. He’d no sooner gone over to drop the tailgate, push back the tonneau cover and begin unloading when Mandy followed him and put a hand on his arm.
“I’ve made you a reservation…for a room.”
She might just as well have added a well-aimed kick to the groin to that statement. It probably wouldn’t have hurt quite so much. But still brought him to his knees.
“Oh.” As his heart sunk, taking along any optimism he might have had left, the monosyllable was all he could manage. He hadn’t deluded himself into thinking his homecoming wouldn’t be awkward. What he sure hadn’t expected was it would be so devastatingly painful. Like being gut shot in the line of duty without any sense of purpose.
“It’s in your name. I had them send the confirmation to your email.”
He couldn’t think of anything else to do but pull out his cell. May as well find out where I'm headed. Since it sure as hell wasn’t where he’d expected to stay. The screen lit after he keyed in his code.
“Here, Dad. I’ll find it for you.” Amanda reached for the phone he readily surrendered.
Apparently, he’d underestimated Mandy’s level of desperation. Big time.
“This was totally mom’s idea. Not ours.” Giving Mandy a scathing look only a disagreeing daughter can bestow on her mother, Amanda spun the screen with her thumb then started to read. “King bed with tension relieving vibration unit. Two-person hot tub with in room provided robes, complimentary fruit and cheese tray with chilled bottle of sparkling champagne on request.”
The long, explicit room description was given in what must have been her most robust public speaking voice. As if she were out to prove a point.
Peering over her sister’s shoulder, Deanna looked at his phone then up at him, a huge frown marring her face. “Gee, Dad. Mom sure went all out for you.”
“That’s certainly not what I had in mind.” Mandy hurried to clarify, her cheeks flaming. “Snowfall weekend there’s not a lot available, as you all well know.”
Any other time, he would have welcomed Mandy making a reservation like this for him. Knowing they’d be enjoying the extensive amenities together. Among other pleasures which weren’t worth thinking about just now. Why frustrate myself more than I already am?
“Maybe if the hot tub’s big enough for two, you could swim in there alone, Dad.” With another glaring look her mother’s way, Amanda handed him back the phone.
“Okay, well.” He slid the cell back in his pocket, at a total loss. Until something came to mind. “It…uh…didn’t say how long you reserved the room for.”
One night? Maybe two? Allow him to slowly ease back into the household.
“Just a week. That’s how long the girls said you’d be staying.”
Now he really didn’t have a response.
Good thing Mandy opened her mouth, hopefully prepared to speak for both of them.
“I was just going downtown to the school’s booth for the festival tomorrow. The students have made ornaments to sell. I agreed to set up. Other teachers will oversee selling and such beginning tomorrow. Some took on clean up duty.”
 “I’d like to help.” When she seemed reluctant to accept his offer, he forged ahead anyway. “In fact, I’ll drive.”
“My car’s already loaded.” Pulling the remote from her purse, she raised the garage door and headed inside.
Sending him a clear and distinct message. If he had any chance in hell of going with her, he’d better haul some serious ass. Which he did. Even skinning around ahead of her to open the driver’s side door before she got there.
“Okay. Whatever you want.” By God, he’d still do his darnedest to be agreeable. Even if he did stand there and purposely hold the door open once she skirted around him to climb inside. “The girls can at least unload the Christmas presents from my truck while we’re gone.” Slamming the door at last, he hurried around to the passenger side.
“Sure, Daddy.” His daughters spoke in unison.
“We can unload the presents you brought,” Amanda added with a monumental eye roll.
“Sounds good, Punkin’” And I’ll deal with the rest when I get back.
Beyond that, he said no more, just crawled in and fastened his seat belt as Mandy, also noticeably silent, backed out of the driveway. Shutting his mouth and keeping it shut seemed to be the way to go for now. Anything else could risk being at odds with her. Not at all how he wanted them to come together after six months apart.
In a few minutes though, he couldn’t stand not talking any longer.
“Same old downtown Cascade Lake.” He lifted an arm as he glanced out the window when Mandy drove along the bright lights of Center Boulevard.
“Sometimes change isn’t the best way to go.” She answered him without taking her eyes off the road. “Sometimes tradition is best.”
All he could do was nod his agreement. He’d only made what he thought to be an innocent comment to break the silence that was stretching between them. But why argue?
They drove by Santa next. Smiling and waving. Still jolly as ever.
Good for you. He gave Old Saint Nick a raised eyebrow in greeting.
Shortly after, Mandy pulled to a stop in the parking lot of the large pavilion where the bazaar part of the festival was being held. They got out without speaking. Suddenly overwhelmed with memories of the first time he laid eyes on Mandy Gearhart, he couldn’t help but wonder if she was remembering too.
Probably not.
Eyes forward, keeping her attention focused on the task at hand, Mandy had the back hatch of her SUV open while Dean was still working to swallow the lump that had abruptly formed at the back of his throat.

Poor Dean simply cannot catch a break, no matter how hard he tries to make things right again. Ball's in Mandy's court now. Hope she makes the right decision. Join me here tomorrow to find out for A Conflicted Christmas - Part Three.


Vonnie Davis said...

I loved how you've shown us his contrite heart. Yes, I hope Mandy opens hers just a little. What a lovely story. Can't wait for tomorrow.

Margo Hoornstra said...

I’m so glad you’re enjoying Mandy and Dean’s story, Vonnie. See you tomorrow. ;-)

Leah St. James said...

Yes, me too. I'm so glad he arrived ready to return to his family. It sounds like he was trying to make things better for the family with the business venture. Maybe Mandy can cut him some slack. I love the way you repeated the opening line for him (or close to it)!

Jannine Gallant said...

Thank you for ditching the GPS! Looking forward to tomorrow!

remullins said...

I also liked the dual use of the beginning line. Will Mandy and Dean end up in that hot tub together?

Margo Hoornstra said...

Dean is basically a good guy, Leah. I had fun reusing a form of that opening line for his POV.

Margo Hoornstra said...

Hey, Jannine. Whatever I gotta do to keep you happy. LOL

Margo Hoornstra said...

Whoa, Robin. Shhhhhh. Who knows? I did enjoy using that opening line!

Diane Burton said...

I, too, liked the dual opening sentence. I like Robin's idea. Tomorrow's conclusion should be good.

Margo Hoornstra said...

Thanks, Diane. What? An HEA? We’ll see.

Rolynn Anderson said...

So much pain here. It's amazing to me how couples let these gaps develop, especially when children are involved. Hoping for new starting place for this family.

Margo Hoornstra said...

So true, Rolynn. Where there’s a will there’s a way.

Alicia Dean said...

Ah, I'm late, but that's a good thing, because now I can read the conclusion. Poor Dean, he didn't do anything unforgivable. Let's see if Mandy's cold heart melts toward him. Great story!

Alicia Dean said...

Oh yes, and I also love how you made double use of the opening line. :)

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