Counting Down To Christmas
Melody Evans, a professional wedding planner, views happily ever after endings with a skeptical eye, but she’s never lost her childlike enthusiasm for her favorite holiday—Christmas. To veterinarian rancher Leland Jennings IV, Christmas is just for kids. If he could, he’d skip the whole month of December. But he does believe there’s one woman out there for him, and he’s holding out for her. Melody revives Leland’s Christmas spirit, and he rekindles her heart.
That feeling of instant connection. Eyes meet, and without even exchanging words, you know something is happening on a level uncommon in most human interactions. Everything else blurs as focus on each other sharpens. You ride that wave of recognition back and forth on invisible wires.
One minute Leland Jennings IV was leaning against a frigid wall, talking on his phone, and then he lost the thread of the conversation as a compact, white car appeared. In fact, he lost sight of everything when the woman at the wheel, partly obscured behind glass and with her hair covered by a fuzzy, pink cap, turned her gaze in his direction. There wasn’t anything particularly noteworthy about her, but her entrance on the scene plucked a chord deep inside.
The car stopped across the street in front of him before she backed it up into a parking space. A movement on the dashboard caught his attention and he squinted: a bobble headed, grinning cat in a grass skirt doing a hula dance for him. The woman’s lips moved in animated conversation as she glanced back over her shoulder while maneuvering the car into the space. There didn’t appear to be anyone else in the car.
In the building behind her, someone threw open the curtains in a second floor apartment and flicked on one of those electric holiday candles. It flickered directly above the woman in the car.
The cold from the brick wall inched through his jacket to his back. Leland pushed back his hat and rubbed the stubble on his upper lip with his free hand. The smell of his leather glove filled his nostrils in the crisp air as he studied her. He’d never seen the woman before. He was sure of that.
His sister’s voice rattling around in his eardrum brought him back to attention. “Leland! Hello? Are you still there?” Faith asked.
“Yeah, sorry. I got distracted.” He kept his sights fixed on the woman in the parked car. She threw her head back and laughed and then went on talking. Must be on speaker phone.
“So... are you going to answer my question?” Faith asked.
“I forgot the question. Can you repeat that?”
She clicked her tongue. “I asked if you got the list I texted to you?”
The woman in the car looked directly at him. He looked down, overwhelmed with the intense jolt he felt directly to his heart. “What list is that?”
Heavy sigh. “Leland, I swear...I sent you the kids’ Christmas list. I need to know what you’re going to buy them so we don’t duplicate.”
“Oh, yeah. I did see that but I haven’t looked it over yet... Say, why can’t I buy them what I want to?”
“Well, you could.” She spoke to him in the slow way you’d use on an imbecile. “Of course, a single, middle-aged man knows exactly what a three-year old girl and a six-year old boy want. But, I happen to have a list of what they asked Santa for. Why not go with that? Seth and I can’t get them everything on the list. That’s why we’re passing it onto you and Ma. You all can look it over first, tell me what you want to buy, and then we’ll fill in.”
Now, the woman in the car sat still, a pout on her lips.
Leland kept his eyes on her as he talked to his sister. “What ever happened to surprises? They’re little kids. Do they even know what they want, or do they just parrot what they see on TV commercials? And anyway, is it really healthy that they get everything they want?
Isn’t there something to be said for having to wait for gratification?”
Their eyes met again and Leland felt such a charge he had to look away.
“Well, I do appreciate your sentiments on the subject, but let me be frank with you. It’s fine for you with your successful practice and lack of responsibilities, but Seth and I are on a budget and Christmas and birthdays are the only times we get to indulge our kids.”
Oh, boy, he sure hated when Faith got her back up. “Point made.
I’ll look over the list and tell you what I’m getting for the kids.”
“You do that. And since you’re in town to pick up Ma, why don’t the two of you put your heads together today and let me know ASAP?”
He dared to look across the street again. The woman was moving strangely in her seat. Undulating, really. “Yeah...I’m on it.”
“While we’re on the subject, what do you want for Christmas?”
What was that woman doing? Squirming around behind the wheel with her face contorted.
“Not a thing. Don’t bother with me,” he said.
“Leland, don’t be that way. You are no fun at all. I’m going to get you something anyway, so you might as well give me a hint.”
“This is why I hate Christmas. I buy myself what I want all year as needs arise. It’s silly to get me something I probably don’t need or want.”
“It’s called exchanging gifts, and sometimes gifts are more fun to give than to receive as is common knowledge. Stop ruining everyone else’s fun.”
“Then I’ll have to get you something. And Seth. Christmas should be for kids only. I hate all this pressure to spend money. Consume, consume. At the last minute I get caught up in the frenzy and end up buying any old thing on Christmas Eve so everyone has something. I bet you don’t even remember what I gave you last year.”
She snorted. “I do. You got me a space heater. Seth and I still laugh about it.”
“That’s what I got you? Jeez, that’s an awful gift. I hope I picked out a pretty one. How about we adults stop giving gifts to each other?”
“No. That’s not going to fly. I like Christmas, and I like my gifts. Even if I am surprised to get a space heater. And while we’re talking about it, Seth and I want to host this year.”
He squinted. The woman had ducked down out of view. “What’s wrong with having it at the ranch like we always do?”
“How about we give Ma a break. I’d like to have it at our house, and it’s so much easier on us. We don’t have to drag sleepy, cranky children out in the cold—and besides, they don’t like being pulled away from their new toys.”
“The toys again. When did Christmas become all about presents and spending money foolishly?”
“All right, Ebenezer Scrooge, you’re starting to bring me down.
Can’t you try and enjoy yourself...You can bring a guest if you want.”
He hated that undertone of sympathy creeping in at the last comment of hers. “Thanks, but I’m not seeing anyone at the moment.”
“What happened to the school teacher?”
Across the street the woman popped up again in the car seat and crammed her knitted cap back down on her head. He darted his eyes away again when she looked at him. “That fizzled out.”
“Fizzled out or the glow wore off and you got bored? You got to work at it, little brother. You have some ideal woman in your head—”
“No, it’s not like that. I’m not looking for the perfect woman. I’m looking for my woman. My perfect fit.”
The car door swung open. He held his breath as her legs swung out and her boots hit the ground.
Faith clucked her tongue again. “I don’t know if it works that way.”
He watched her step out of the car. Average height. Hard to judge by the bulky coat she wore but she looked slender. The hair escaping from under the wool cap was light.
“Yes, it does. That’s exactly how it’s supposed to work,” he said, in a distracted voice. He didn’t know what it was, but if he believed in reincarnation, he’d swear they shared a past life together.
“Well, maybe in your world, but the rest of us live in a place based in reality. That reminds me. Have you had a chance to think over that other matter?”
The woman shut the car door and opened the back seat. She pulled out a large cardboard box brimming with gift-wrapped boxes.
His throat tightened and his vision blurred with tears as the wind stung his eyes all of a sudden. “What? Oh, you mean….”
With both arms full now, she used her hip to shut the car door. The slamming sound carried across the street on the brittle, cold air. The jolt to her body caused her to totter, and the top layer of presents hit the street. He followed the progress of one present scuttling across a frozen puddle.
In his mind, he leaped to her aid, but in actuality, Leland froze, his heart racing. She gathered the fallen gifts with some difficulty. When she stood up straight again, she fixed her eyes on him. Then, arms still around the box, she crooked her elbow and lifted one fuzzy, pink mittened hand high in the air.
“Leland?” Faith asked in a soft voice. “I asked if you’ve had a chance to think over what we talked about the other day?”
He knit his brows, trying to make out what the woman was doing. “I have, and I still think this is a premature discussion. You’re overreacting.”
He opened his eyes wide in disbelief. He wasn’t sure because of the mitten, but it looked like he’d just been given the finger.
A bison lifted his massive, fur encrusted head. He didn’t acknowledge the car driving past the usually golden grasslands, now buried under a blanket of white.
Melody Evans smiled. “Looking like a picture postcard, buddy.” She never got tired of the sight of the wildlife in her home state. The bison, bighorn sheep, antelopes, and deer. Well, one could get tired of the deer—especially trying to avoid hitting them at night.
The plains stretched out flat either side of her, ringed by the Black Hills in the distance. Despite the cold, the clear sky was big and blue. So beautiful. Could the day get any better? Her favorite Christmas carol came on the radio. It can!
She turned up the volume and sang along. Melody loved Christmas music on the radio—not too early, thank you very much—but at an appropriate time after Thanksgiving to get her in the mood.
Some people liked to decorate their houses early, but not Melody. She savored the period between December 1 and 25 by doing something every day: decorating her house, baking cookies, making homemade gifts for her friends, putting on holiday music, and scouring the shops for those perfect presents. This year was going to be a knitwear Christmas. She glanced at the fuzzy, pink mittens on the passenger seat. They turned out so well, she’d made several pairs with matching hats to give away.
She mentally made a list of people she wanted to give gifts to.
Oddly, as she thought of the editor of the bridal magazine she sometimes wrote for, her phone rang and the very same lady’s name came up on the screen.
She turned down the radio. “Hey, Patsy, I was just thinking about you! Wait a second. I got to put you on speakerphone.” She fiddled with the buttons. “Are you there? I’m in the car.”
“Where are you going? Somewhere fun, I hope.”
“Guess that depends on your idea of fun. I’m on my way to the
“Ah, networking, huh?”
“No, I really like being there. I’m actually dropping off presents for needy families. How are things in New York City?” She’d been wondering if she should send Patsy a little Christmas gift. They’d gotten friendly, but she wasn’t sure if they were that friendly yet, and she didn’t want to put Patsy in an awkward situation if she didn’t get anything for her. Gifts should spread joy, not cause pangs of guilt.
“Freezing cold but no snow yet. Hey, I’m just wrapping up end of year stuff and wanted to double check with everyone. I have you down in March for ranch wedding venues, right?”
Melody rode over a ridge and the town came into view. “That’s right. People keep coming up with new ways to throw away their money. The further they throw it the better, it would seem, with all the destination weddings.”
A smattering of hotels on the outskirts of town flew by. With so many popular attractions like Mount Rushmore and the Badlands nearby, tourism was a big industry adding volume to their little town certain times of the year—like putting mousse in your hair to pump it up before a big event, such as a wedding.
“Well, thankfully weddings are big business, or we’d be out of work.”
She entered the town proper. Amid the galleries and t-shirt stores catering to tourists, you could pick out the real bones of the community like the daycare center and the grocery store. The main streets all decorated for Christmas with holiday lights and pine boughs came into view.
Melody scanned the streets for a parking spot. “I know. I’ve got almost more than I can handle on the consulting side of things. I want to shake those fools by the ears and tell them to save their money for something important like a down payment on a house or college tuition for any kids they might have—should they last long enough to procreate. I’m already seeing the first crop of divorces among the couples I’ve worked with.”
“The cynical wedding consultant.”
“I never wanted to be a wedding consultant, you know. I did it once for a friend and suddenly a career is born. I’d prefer to write but I don’t make enough as a freelancer. Honestly, the more I see of these big productions, the more I think we should ditch the wedding vows altogether.
“As it is now, the financial challenges put too much stress on young families. Have renewable contracts instead. I’m not sure we’re meant to be monogamous given the longer lifespan. I think rather than spend all that money on a wedding, use it to for something practical. Something to build on. And then every few years say ‘is it still working?’ and if not re-evaluate the situation. Move on if need be.”
“Not a big believer in the Happily Ever After?”
“I’m a firm believer in the Happy Enough for Now—until your bad table manners get on my last nerve or somebody better comes along.” Her sights lit on a cowboy standing on the left side of the street. Cowboy of the tall, lanky variety. Their eyes locked, but then an empty parking spot on the right side stole her attention.
Melody stopped the car and looked back over her shoulder as she backed into the open spot between two cars. The guy across the street watched her every move. Probably hoping I’ll scrape the car next to me and prove his point about women drivers.
“On a happier note...You say the ranch venues are popular?”
“Oh, you bet. Everybody wants to be a cowboy or cowgirl for a night. Except the actual cowboys who probably can’t afford the weddings I arrange. And ranching isn’t the industry it once was. Many of the ranches need to diversify to survive. Become guest ranches, offer big game hunting, go into llamas—that sort of thing.”
“Are there still cowboys?”
Melody threw back her head and laughed. “Are there!” She looked back at the guy across the street, leaning against a wall under the awning of the boardwalk. Soft grey Stetson hat, sherpa-lined suede coat, and jeans ending in cowboy boots all completed the look. He was a study in earth tones except for a beaded hat band with flashes of turquoise. “I’m looking at one right now. Cowboy from head to toe. He’s holding up the wall of the post office. Or maybe he’s posing for the tourists. Tourism being the other big business around here.”
“We all adapt to changing times.”
“Isn’t that the truth? Now, there’s something I believe in. Go with the times or go broke. I see a lot of that around here. I might even write an article about it. How we all sell a bit of our souls to maintain in a changing economy.”
Patsy’s laughter rang in her ears. “Not for us at the bridal magazine, I’m afraid...oh, before I forget, I met a guy from South
Dakota who says he knows you. Small world, huh?”
“I’ll say. How often do you meet someone from South Dakota? You have to actually live here to come across one. What’s his name?”
“Ted Woodson. Do you know him?”
It felt like she took a fist blow to the solar plexus. Melody blinked her eyes and took in a sharp breath. “Yes. How did you meet him?”
“His wife is a friend of my sister. I met him at a party.”
The pain in her chest shot hot waves of alarm over her body. “Oh...I hadn’t heard he got married. I wonder when that happened?”
“I don’t know them that well, but their oldest is five and they’re expecting number two.”
“Hey, Patsy, I just got to where I was going. I have to hang up now, but I’ll be in touch.” She heard her own voice talking but wondered where it came from when her mind had walked out of her head and shut the door behind itself.
“Oh, okay. Well, happy holidays in case I don’t talk to you before.”
“Yeah, you too.” Melody ended the call and sat for a moment, staring into space.
She did the math in her head. Ted had a five-year-old. They broke up for the final time less than seven years ago. With her stomach threatening to rise on her, Melody took in three deep, calming breaths.
It all came back to her: the three years she now thought of as “the sickness” when she’d clung to the belief she could make Ted want her as badly as she wanted him. Their on again, off again romance dragged on, and each time she went back to him, she thought the outcome would be different. In the end, she’d shamelessly put her feelings out there. She told him she loved him and wanted to get married.
His response that day still burned her ears. It’s not you. I’m not looking to settle down. Marriage and children. It’s not for me. For a man who decidedly knew he didn’t want to ever get married and have children, he’d moved pretty fast. Part of her life's narrative had been she fell in love with a man who couldn’t make that commitment. Now, she had to rethink that. Turns out it was her. He had been looking for someone else.
She jolted back to the present when she realized she wasn’t just staring into space, she’d been staring at the cowboy across the street, and he was staring back at her. He looked away before she did.
Okay. Deep breath. Let the bad feeling go. Think of something bright and cheerful. In her head, Melody replayed the last Christmas carol she’d heard on the radio. She thought of all the gifts in the backseat and imagined the joy on children’s faces when they unwrapped them.
That’s better. Her lips relaxed upward into a smile again. She pushed the release button on her seatbelt. Nothing. She pushed it again. Oh, not this again!
Her chest rose and fell in agitation. This wasn’t the first time her seatbelt jammed. The cold weather brought out the worst in the old car. To make matters worse, she felt the cowboy’s eyes on her, and there was no dignified way out of this situation. Either wriggle upward or wriggle downward.
Melody chose the downward course of action. Luckily, she was able to loosen the portion of the belt around her waist to the extent she’d be able to slither under it. She slid down in the seat and winced when her knees hit the underside of the dashboard. Through a series of wiggles and contortions she managed to free herself. Her cap got knocked off in the process.
When she righted herself, that cowboy was still watching the show. She pulled her cap back into place while silently cursing him. Talking on the phone too. Probably telling his buddy about the crazy lady stuck in her car.
She grabbed her fuzzy, pink mittens from the seat next to her and jammed them on. Then aware she still had an audience, she mustered her dignity and got out of the car. Without looking, she knew he had his sights trained on her. The alley leading to the back entry of the building she was headed to was only steps away. She opened the back door of the car and grabbed the box of presents. She’d just duck down the alley, out of sight….
When she closed the door with her hip the impact sent presents
flying. Now her cheeks flamed with shame and rage. One gift skidded across a patch of ice, heading under the car. In a quick move she was able to halt it with one foot before it slipped out of view. With great difficulty, she gathered the errant presents back into the box, all the while conscious of his scrutiny.
She stood up straight, box in arms, to meet his gaze. All the humiliation and frustration that had been welling up in her since hanging up the phone, spilled out. Her hand slid up the side of the box almost of its own accord, middle finger up. There followed a brief moment of satisfaction at the look on his face...and then she looked down her arm to her hand.
This particular gesture did lose some of its power when wearing mittens.