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With the old gang together for the first time in months, Abigail had higher expectations for the evening than it turned out. Liz, her last single friend, was now engaged, which was the reason for the dinner. There were six of them who had stayed friends beyond high school. Now, Abigail observed to herself, she was the only sane one left of the bunch. One by one, over the past decade, they had fallen for Mr. Right and married him, some to more than one Mr. Right.
The conversation was mostly about kids, current ones, ones on the way, and questions over whether Liz would wait to have them. All but Abigail had chimed in with an opinion on the perfect time to have a baby. Two suggested right away. Of course, since they had done it that way, they assumed it was best for everyone. One was adamant that you should wait at least a year, and the last thought more along the lines of a five-year plan once the marriage was well established.
When had the women she most admired become so brain dead? Women who once had aspirations were now completely obsessed by everything baby and nothing much beyond that. Abigail had to wonder what their husbands thought of the change in them. Clearly, these were not the same women who said I do. Somewhere along the way, they had each morphed into moms rather than women with their own thoughts and ambitions.
As the Mom Crew began to dwindle – off to tuck in little ones – Abigail was left alone with Liz.
“When did this happen?” Abigail asked, shaking her head, certain Liz understood her meaning.
Over the course of the evening they had been exchanging glances as one after another mom gave Liz advice on breastfeeding. Wasn’t that a little premature since the wedding was nearly a year away?
Shaking her head in return, Liz shrugged. “I have no idea, but I’m left feeling a little shell-shocked.”
“For goodness sake, let’s talk about something adult. Like where will you honeymoon?”
“We haven’t decided yet, but wherever, it’ll be adults only.”
Abigail laughed at that. She had always related most to Liz. They had attended college just an hour away from each other, so they were better able to stay in touch. Overall, they were most similar: both from single-parent homes and least idealistic. They even looked alike with dark hair and eyes. At least, they were most similar until this engagement thing came up. Now, it appeared Liz was going over to the dark side.
“I have to admit, I’m still a little surprised that you said yes. I thought you wanted to wait.”
“I’m ready. I don’t know when it happened exactly, but by the end of the summer I just got this sense. I knew Kyle was the one. Then at Thanksgiving when he proposed, I didn’t hesitate. We were on the way home from his family’s when he just blurted it out.”
She wanted to be happy for Liz. In a way she was. Kyle was a great guy, but a little overbearing for her taste, which prompted a major question. Kyle was the dad type. Was Liz open to that? Would he insist? Abigail nearly asked but decided against it. Everything she wanted to ask could only be taken as negative. That’s not what her friend wanted to hear at the moment, so Abigail made certain to steer the conversation in other directions.
“Tell me about work. How are things at Conway?”
Abigail was more than a little jealous when Liz had landed such a sweet marketing gig so soon after college when it had taken her nearly two years to find the right fit. Now, seven years out of school, she was at a company she loved with a challenging job that kept her constantly busy. When going to work for Goodwin Manufacturing, never did she think she would enjoy it so much. As a matter of fact, early on she supposed it to be a leapfrog position to a larger corporation. After a year in acquisitions, she caught the eye of the owner and was soon fast-tracked to an executive position. From then on she had become so settled that she could hardly imagine doing anything else.
Maybe that’s what bothered her most about the conversation of the night. In order to do what her friends were doing – raising perfect kids in the suburbs – she would have to give up what she loved. With the travel demands and sometimes weeks-away schedule she maintained, there was no room for family. In truth, she was okay with that.
Liz leaned in. “Actually, I’ve got some exciting news. Conway has an open position, one they want to fill just after Christmas. I’ve spoken with Larry in HR and told him about you. The pay is fantastic. You would have a lighter travel schedule and still do something similar to what you do now. Wayne, the guy you worked with on the Stillman deal, got wind that I mentioned you. Now he’s lobbying for you. With your experience in bringing new companies into the fold and helping during the transition, you would be a great fit.”
Abigail sat there for a moment, processing this blast of information. Finally, she thought of Joe and how much of an opportunity he had given her at Goodwin. The idea of leaving him in the lurch was unthinkable.
“You know how I feel about Goodwin. I love it there. It’s smaller, but it’s a good fit for me.”
“I knew you would say that, but I had to ask. Small is good, but corporate life would be a game changer for your career, much greater opportunity for advancement.”
“I know you’re right, but I’m happy where I am. It’s not all about promotions and higher pay. I love what I do. I love the people I work with.” She shook her head. “Joe Goodwin has been so supportive. I can’t imagine walking away. He gave me a chance when I had absolutely no experience. He respects me and values me. I would never likely find a boss like that again.”
“At least think about it.”
Grinning, Liz leaned in. “So tell me, how’s it going with Elliot?”
“It’s not anymore.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. We just weren’t a good fit. He was a great guy and checked most of the boxes, if you know what I mean.”
“What happened, then?” Liz gave her that look.
“Nothing happened really. It just kinda fizzled.”
“You fizzled or he fizzled?”
“I guess I did. He was talking a little serious.”
“So you bailed?”
“Of course, I bailed. I’m not like you and the Mom Squad.”
Chuckling, Abigail teased, “You know you’re well on your way.”
Liz’s turned serious. “At some point you have to stop running.”
“I’m not running. I’m just not looking for my Christmas movie moment. I’m happy the way I am. I love working long hours. I like being free to come and go. I’m not ready to be tied down to some guy just so I won’t be alone.”
“You think I’m settling?”
“No! I’m not saying that at all. I just know if I did get married, that for me would be settling.”
“For the record,” Liz laughed softly, “you watch Christmas movies? The most unromantic woman I know?”
“Sure I do, and I eat ice cream. I watched two back to back last night in bed with mint chocolate chip.”
Liz laughed out loud at that. “So what’s a Christmas movie moment?”
“You know, there are a bunch of them: accidentally falling while ice skating and then he falls – you have that moment where he either kisses or nearly kisses you, or you decide to give up big city life to move to the perfect little town with every storefront decorated. Then there’s the moment you’re minding your own business, the next you’re standing under the mistletoe at just the same time as the cute guy in the atrocious Christmas sweater, the firefighter who volunteers with underprivileged children. Or your boss sends you on an assignment to shut down the factory, but you figure out how to save everyone’s jobs, and in the process, you fall in love with the factory manager, who also happens to be the town mayor. Or there’s the…”
“I believe you. I thought you were pulling my leg.”
“I really do watch. I enjoy seeing people come to love each other. It’s just what happens afterwards that they never show.”
“Like the woman having to give up her job to stay in that small town. She has five kids, blows up like a balloon, and joins the PTA. Oh, wait. I forgot the most important part. She buys a mini-van and then joins the PTA.”
Liz shook her head. “I’m not giving up my sports car.”
“Give it a few years. You will.”
Abigail had been in the office for an hour before any of the others began to straggle in. When she wasn’t traveling, she prided herself on being the first in and the last to leave. It was that kind of hard work and dedication that got her noticed by Joe in the first place. He once told her that she reminded him of himself in his younger years, a real go-getter. That was one of the finest compliments she could hope for from a man she admired as much as Joe.
Joe was the founder of the Chicago-based company and had built a multi-million dollar business from the ground up. Now, at sixty-five, he was much less a go-getter and more of a self-proclaimed bench sitter. He expected much of his employees, especially what he called his top-brass, of which Abigail was one. Being the only woman on the team of executives, she felt she needed to prove herself in every way, from playing golf to staying current on sports stats. For the most part she liked golf, mostly because she enjoyed beating the men, which she did often. That was another thing Joe admired about her, her place on his team during every golf scramble.
It was what her mother had taught her: you have to run faster than the boys to make a name for yourself in a man’s world. She did just that, ran faster.
“Joe wants to see you in ten.”
Abigail looked up to find Joe’s assistant standing in her doorway. “I’ll be there.”
“No. He said he will come this way. I was just giving you a heads-up.”
“Anything I need to be prepared for?”
Joe was a wildcard and a visionary, so you never knew what he would throw your way. Following his gut and taking risks was what had built the company. Now that he was taking a semi-backseat, he was no different. The only change was that he sent his top-brass out into the field to make his vision happen.
“I’m not sure what it’s about.” Janice said. “He’s in an unusually reflective mood this morning. Kind of bordering on sentimental.”
Abigail just stared at Janice. “I have no idea what to do with that information.”
“He’s excited about Christmas. Been talking about it for two days.”
“Got it. He’s a girl.”
Janice smiled. “You’ve been warned.”
Less than ten minutes later, Joe came in and took a seat across from Abigail.
“I’m reassigning you,” he blurted out.
Abigail could hardly respond. She had been working on the Phoenix factory acquisition for three months. They were due to go live in January with the new equipment in the factory. She had worked this deal from cradle to infancy to what she could only now call adulthood. They would begin production soon, and she planned to be there.
“I leave for Arizona tomorrow. The install of the new line is scheduled. I’m not sure taking me off of that would be prudent.”
Joe sat there looking at her sternly for a quiet moment. Abigail wasn’t sure she had ever seen him look so solemn. Did he doubt her? Had she not proven herself in every way possible all along the way of this deal? She was months ahead of schedule and well below budget.
Joe leaned up in his chair and clasped his hands. “I need you on something much more important to me.”
“Joe, I’m in neck deep in Phoenix. I’ll do both. Just don’t take me out of the loop.”
“I’ll put Jackson on Phoenix this week. He can fly out…”
“Jackson? Are you kidding me? He doesn’t have the experience.” She paused, wondering. “What project could be more important than getting Phoenix up and running?”
Joe’s face lit up. “Christmas.”
Abigail said nothing. Christmas? What was that supposed to mean? Was he drunk at nine a.m.?
“Specifically,” Joe clapped his hands, “the Christmas party.”
“Christmas party?” No doubt, he was drunk.
“Yes. I want you to head up the Christmas party. Once Christmas is over, you’re back on Phoenix.” He winked at her. “Don’t worry. Jackson can’t mess things up too much in the next few weeks.
Abigail sat in bewilderment as Joe stood, tossed his Amex on her desk, and said, “I want it to be big, bigger than last year.” He hesitated, thinking. “You weren’t here last year, right?”
“No, sir. I was in Wyoming with my dad. I always go the week of the party.”
She was fuming inside but trying not to show it.
“But you can be here this year, right? Maybe swap things around?”
“I haven’t scheduled my trip yet.”
“I hope you will be here. If you’re going to plan the party, might as well come.” He walked toward the door, saying, “Go to Christmas Village. They deliver.”
Joe stopped and turned back. “Abigail?”
“I want it big, something to remember.”
None of this felt real. Abigail stood in the largest Christmas decoration store in the city placing an order while Jackson was preparing to step into her project. She had briefed him before leaving the office. Since Joe had reassigned her, she still hadn’t come to terms with it. Angry at first, now, she found she was livid, and it didn’t help that the kid assisting her was new. He didn’t know his garlands from his wreaths.
Once her ridiculously large order was finally entered into the computer, she told him, “I’ll need this delivered.”
“Jorge does the scheduling.”
Abigail waited for him to offer to get Jorge. When he just stood there staring at her, she looked at his name tag and asked, “Robbie, will you please get Jorge to schedule the delivery?”
“Jorge is out. His wife is having their baby.”
Her blood pressure was rising, and she knew she was about to blow.
“So I can’t have my order delivered?”
“I’m sure Ryan can schedule it.”
Sighing heavily, Abigail asked, “Is Ryan’s wife having a baby, too?”
Robbie looked at her oddly. “Ryan’s not married.”
“Oh, for goodness sake! Is Ryan here?”
“He’s out loading a tree. I’ll go get him.”
Abigail hung her head, frustrated by the entire situation. She shouldn’t be at Christmas Village anyway, let alone dealing with Robbie, a kid who looked too young to even drive. He had no business dealing with the public.
When her phone rang, Abigail dug into her bag and pulled it out, glad that she did. It was Liz returning her call. She turned and walked over by the display of trees to talk privately.
“Hey, sorry I missed you, but I was…”
“I want that interview.”
“I’m done with Goodwin.”
“You just said you love your job.”
“I do love my job, but I’m not putting up with this.”
“Being treated differently simply because I’m a woman. Can you believe he pulled me off the Phoenix job to plan the company Christmas party? There are dozens of people he could have asked, but he asked me. Did he ask any of the men on the team? No, of course not. He asked me because I’m a woman. He’s making a point, and I’m furious about it.”
“That women are inferior or that women fit some stereotype.”
“You sound like your mother right now.”
“I’m right. What else could it be? He’s just showing his true colors. He’s a chauvinist. I don’t have to put up with this. Just set up the interview, and I’ll go in and wow them.”
“Call me with the details. Since Joe is sending someone else to Phoenix this week, I’m free most any day.”
Abigail hung up and turned to find a man standing there close enough to have overheard her conversation.
“How long have you been standing there?”
“Long enough to know you’re being treated differently simply because you’re a woman.” He grinned at her.
“You had no right to listen in.”
“I was just told you want to schedule a delivery. I didn’t know I would find you in the midst of changing jobs.”
Ryan moved behind the desk and scanned the order. “You’re planning a company party?”
She followed him to the counter. “I am, and I don’t know if I’ve ordered too much or too little. I’ve never done this.”
“How big is your space?”
“It’s a large lobby of our building. I don’t know the square footage.”
“When’s the party?”
“Two weeks from Saturday.”
He nodded. “Some of this I’ll have to order, but we have plenty of time. If you want, I can meet you there one day, and we can go over the layout of the space.”
Now that he was being so helpful, Abigail was feeling bad about how she had snapped at him before.
“That would be great. I could use the help.” She paused a moment. “Look, I’m sorry that I was so abrupt before. You’ve just caught me on an off day. I’m not normally so rude.”
“No worries. Obviously, you’re having a tough day.” He smiled warmly. “I’m here to make it a little easier.”
“Well, you are. The fact that you’re willing to come out is a tremendous help.”
“I would ask you what day is good for you, but since Joe is sending someone else to Phoenix, you seem to be free most any day.”
She grimaced. “Don’t make light of it. I’m furious.”
Shaking his head, Ryan assured her, “Not making light of it. I just happen to know your schedule this week.”
As much as she was trying to remain irritated, this man’s lighthearted teasing caused her to relax and nearly smile. “Yes. I’m free most any day.”
“I’ll drop by tomorrow. I have a few deliveries, so I’ll swing by after lunch.”
With pen in hand, Ryan asked, “Address?”
“It’s the Goodwin building.”
Looking up from the order, Ryan told her, “I know the place.”
“Great. I’ll see you tomorrow. Say, after one?” Suddenly, this ordeal seemed less of an ordeal.
“Sure. See you then.”
Abigail was waiting in the lobby when Ryan arrived. Just as he had the day before, he wore jeans, a denim jacket with a hoodie sticking out from underneath, and a beanie. He was cute in a lumberjack sort of way. Today, he was clean shaven, unlike his five o’clock shadow the day before. Either way he was handsome with his soft brown eyes and easy smile. When he approached her and removed his cap, she grinned at the sight of his haircut. It was nearly shaved on the sides but very long on top and worn slicked back, a popular new cut she saw more in the trendy crowd. Unsure why that surprised her so much, she did conclude there was likely more to this man than first met the eye.
Since leaving yesterday, she had thought of him often. He was well spoken and bright. She was a little surprised that he was a delivery guy – not that it wasn’t an honorable job, but he just seemed capable of something more mentally challenging. Maybe he just enjoyed the fact that he wasn’t strapped to a desk. That was one of the things she loved most about her job, the fact that she spent so much time out in the factories rather than sitting behind her desk. She wouldn’t fault anyone for sticking with what they loved.
“Good to see you again.” Ryan reached to shake her hand.
“You too, Ryan. I really do appreciate your coming by.”
“Happy to. Actually,” he said looking around the lobby, “I’ve delivered here nearly every year. I can tell you exactly what they’ve had in the past.”
“That’s great. Any recommendations you have, I’ll be open to.”
For the next hour, they made decisions over where to place trees, tables, and other décor. Ryan made helpful suggestions, often fueling Abigail’s creativity. The more they planned, the more excited she grew over the party. Their vision grew larger until finally Abigail said, “I think we better go with what we have. Any more and I’m not so sure we will pull it off in two weeks.”
“I agree. I’ll have to check on a few of the things we’ve discussed.”
Ryan excused himself for a minute while he made a call to a supplier for some items he had in mind.
While he was on the phone, Abigail scanned the room, trying to envision what it would look like for the party. They would have trees, poinsettias, garlands, and wreaths scattered all around the room to soften the industrial feel of the architecture. Each table would have an elaborate centerpiece. Ryan had promised to outdo the years before, which was her goal. She hadn’t said so, but that was her intention, to have the party be her last spectacular act before possibly resigning.
Her assistant was working with a caterer. All in all, the event was coming together fairly easily. Even though she found she was enjoying her task, she still hadn’t forgotten Joe’s slight. She wouldn’t, either.
All night Abigail had tossed and turned, still fuming over Joe’s taking her off her current project. She had devoted months to it, and now that it was at its most critical stage, she had lost control over the install. If things didn’t go well at start up, she would be held responsible. That was what truly sent her over the edge, the notion that Joe was intentionally setting her up to fail. Maybe that was his motive all along, to edge her out of her position. In that case, he should have just been straight with her. She was more than good at what she did. As a matter of fact, she had had headhunters approach her over the past year for similar positions at other manufacturing companies. What Joe had done was a shocking slap in the face, something that had opened her eyes to other possibilities.
Liz had already scheduled her interview for the next day, so Abigail could at least see what else was out there. From what Liz had said, the interview was just a formality. The job was hers if she wanted it.
Abigail sighed at the thought of leaving her position, the reality of it settling on her in a surprisingly sad way. She wasn’t one to make deep connections, but here at Goodwin, she had found she cared for the people she worked with. There was a sense of belonging she felt that was unlike her. Maybe it was best that she go now. If she were to get any more entrenched in the company and people, she might eventually regret it. Liz was right. There would be greater opportunities at larger corporations. She had worked too hard and invested too much of her life for her career to remain for Goodwin.
When Ryan rejoined her, he told her that all they had discussed was a go. Everything was available by her party date.
“Then I guess we have a plan.” She reached out to shake his hand. “Thanks, Ryan. You’ve made this much easier than I imagined.”
He took her hand. “It’s my job. And don’t worry. The day of the party, I will be here to coordinate delivery and set up.”
“Great. I will see you then.”
Ryan turned to go and then turned back. “I just had a thought. How about hot cocoa?”
“I don’t think so.” Abigail was flattered but not interested.
“Everyone likes cocoa.”
“I like it, but…” She hated that he had put her in this position. Saying no was never easy for her, not when the guy was so nice. “Look, you seem like a nice enough guy, but I’m not interested.”
He chuckled softly. “I meant a hot cocoa station for the party. I wasn’t asking you out.”
“Oh.” She looked away. “I’m feeling pretty embarrassed right now.”
“I bet you are. I’m almost embarrassed for you.” When she looked back, he laughed. “I’m just giving you a hard time. It’s no big deal.”
“So about the hot cocoa station?” she asked.
“It just came to me. I know a lady who rents out the equipment. I thought it would be a novelty. I can check into it for you.”
“That would be nice.”
After another awkward moment, Ryan was making his way toward the door as Abigail watched him leave.
Ugh! She felt like an idiot. He had handled the uncomfortable moment well, but she still felt like crawling in a hole. Maybe it would be funny in a day or two – not today.
Abigail closed the door behind her, more than satisfied with how the interview went. Just as Liz had suspected, it was more a formality than an interview. Rather than saying they would get back with her, she was told to think it over and let them know how much it would take for her to move to Conway. Astonishing! Just a few years ago she had felt desperate to make a name for herself. Now, her reputation was such that she was actually in demand. She had to smile a little at the thought of that.
Heading back to her office, she became less satisfied and more filled with apprehension. She was trying to imagine talking with Joe and telling him that she was resigning. What she pictured would be the expression on his face caused her stomach to burn. How could she simply walk away? Joe had been her mentor these past years and had taught her more about business than any four-year business degree could ever do. What he imparted was real-world know-how and experience.
That was what had so devastated her. Over the past few days since she had been blindsided by Joe’s reassignment, what she had come to acknowledge was how hurt she had been and still was. Joe had dismissed her and diminished her importance to him. Until that moment, she had felt something of a special relationship between them, as if he, too, considered himself her mentor. In truth, she had come to consider Joe as something of a father figure.
All of this was perplexing to her still. Nothing about what happened was like Joe. If anything, he was usually challenging her beyond what she thought she was capable of. Now, she wondered if he doubted her ability, something that could easily make her doubt herself if she allowed it. That wasn’t her, though. Her mother had raised her to be confident and bold – just like her, never a shrinking violet.
When Abigail returned to her office, her assistant handed her a message from Ryan. He had some updates that he wanted to run by her.
She dialed his number and waited as Robbie paged him. A few minutes later he came on the line sounding out of breath.
“Did I catch you at a bad time?”
“Not at all. We have a large truck in this afternoon. I’ve been off-loading a shipment of trees. As I go, I’m picking out the trees for your party. I think you’ll be pleased.”
“I’m sure I will. I appreciate the effort you are putting into this. You’re certainly going above and beyond.”
Ryan laughed softly. “I’m planning this as if I’ll be there.”
Abigail hesitated, wondering if he was fishing for an invitation. She decided to ignore his comment rather than try to figure out his meaning.
Trying to move the conversation along, she said, “Well, it seems as if it’s really coming together.”
“Actually, I have some information for you, a brochure I can drop by your office. The cost on the cocoa is well within your budget. Also, some of the items you want are backordered, so I will have to come up with substitutions. If you trust me, I’ll just handle it. If not, we can meet.”
“Oh, I trust you. You’ve supplied Goodwin in the past. You know what you’re doing. No need to drop the brochure by. I’m interested.” She laughed softly. The time had finally come where she could see the humor in her mistake. “And about the other day. I’m still embarrassed that I assumed you were asking me out.”
“Don’t be. After I recounted the conversation, I could see how you took it that way. I just blurted out what I was thinking without prefacing it well enough.”
“You’re being kind. At least I can laugh about it now. That day I was mortified.”
“Yeah, I’ve gotten a laugh over it a few times myself.”
Abigail pictured Ryan’s smile, something that made her smile too. After a quiet few seconds, she told him, “Well, if there’s nothing else between now and then, then I’ll see you for set-up.”
“Sounds good. I’ll see you then.”
Moments after Abigail hung up from talking with Ryan, Joe tapped on her door.
“Got a minute?”
Abigail nodded but said nothing.
Joe took a seat. “I’m just checking in to see how things are going with the party. Anything you need me to do?”
“Nice of you to ask, but I’ve got it covered.”
“What did you decide about going to your dad’s?”
“I will go the following week since I need to be here for set-up.”
“Good to hear.” He stood. “After the first of the year, you’re back on the Phoenix project. Until then, I would like you to stick around.”
She could only bite her tongue to keep from blowing up. He had said nearly those same words before, about her being around. Something about them didn’t set well with her and caused her to wonder once again if he doubted her.
Joe headed toward the door and paused in the doorway. He turned to her. “I’m glad you’ve got this. With Kimberly’s wedding two days before Christmas, I can’t seem to keep up with what’s what. She’s included me on more of the details than I’m actually interested in.” His expression fell. “Somebody’s got to be there for her.”
Once he was gone, Abigail thought over their conversation, especially the part about Kimberly, his only daughter. Since he had lost his wife just two years before, that was what he had meant when he said Kimberly needed someone to be there for her. While she didn’t know Kimberly well or particularly like what she did know of her, Abigail couldn’t help but feel sorry for her as she planned her wedding. Kimberly had been exceptionally close to her mother, and the fact that her mother was gone had to fill the occasion with as many tears as laughter.
Not that she had any girly dreams of having some spectacular wedding of her own, which she could certainly imagine Kimberly’s would be, she still couldn’t see planning one without her mom. Abigail got a kick over that thought. Her mom would not be the typical mother-of-the-bride. As a matter of fact, she would complain all the while, trying to convince Abigail that marriage was truly overrated and an institution only established to keep a woman in her place. Her mother was truly one of a kind.
Thinking again of Joe, that burning sensation returned, prompting her to reach into her desk for an antacid, a mainstay of her diet. The job at Conway was something she could hardly ignore considering the opportunities afforded her there in the future. Since this upheaval, she had deliberated her prospects at Goodwin with a great deal of pragmatism. In the position she currently held at the company, she had technically reached the top.
This decision wasn’t an easy one. As angry as she was just days before, now that wasn’t the case. She was still hurt and disappointed that Joe thought so little of her, but in the big scheme of things, her reassignment was no longer the basis of her decision. When she didn’t know what else was out there on the job front, staying at Goodwin for years more seemed likely. Now, though, with a solid offer on the table, she could hardly see passing it up.
The morning of the party, Abigail waited in the lobby for Ryan. They had agreed to meet at eight, and now it was just after. He had called to say his truck had a dead battery but that he was on the way. He shouldn’t be much longer.
After their initial meeting, they had several follow-up phone calls. Truly, she was impressed with Ryan’s level of professionalism. One email he had sent was from a different account, an architecture firm. Abigail came to discover that Ryan was an architect who only moonlighted as a tree deliveryman. His mother had started the Christmas Village some twenty years before, and after her death, he had kept the place going to honor her memory. Jorge managed the place for him each Christmas.
Even with Jorge’s help, Ryan told her that he took most of his vacation time each year during the month of December to help out. In that particular conversation, he was different, less professional and a little more personal. She didn’t mind. Actually, she kind of liked it.
Since the hot cocoa incident, Abigail had thought of him more often than she cared to admit. There was something about his big brown eyes that she couldn’t get past. They were warm and tender when he spoke. Not as if she expected him to ask her out, not after her flat-out refusal, but if he did, she would consider it. That was a decision she had come to even before she had discovered he was more than a deliveryman. She wasn’t that shallow, not like some of her friends. What she cared most about was that any man she dated wasn’t controlling or too needy of her time. Time was something she didn’t have much to offer.
That thought led her to consider the new job and the fact that she would travel half as much. Feeling as if she had no choice, she had accepted the offer at Conway earlier in the week. Between reaching the ceiling of growth opportunity at Goodwin and this new dynamic she felt with Joe, it seemed to be for the best. Joe was acting differently. He rarely stopped by her office.
From what she could tell, he rarely spoke with anyone. Something was going on. It was more than the wedding that had him so far removed from the job.
A colleague had recently spotted Joe at lunch with a man whom he thought worked for a competitor. Just two years prior, Joe had been offered a fair price for the business. Back then, he hadn’t considered it. Abigail could only now wonder if Joe was thinking of selling. Maybe that was the something he was keeping from her.
Interrupting her thoughts, Ryan came through the front door leading several men who carried trees. While she watched, they made trip after trip, bringing in enough greenery to create a forest. The process was impressive. Ryan had a map laid out with all they had discussed. There was no confusion. Each man who walked in seemed to know exactly where he was supposed to place his item. Soon enough, the lobby had a natural, woodsy feel to it that surprised Abigail. She never expected greenery to make such a drastic difference.
Ryan worked as much as he supervised. Rarely did he stop. Abigail could only watch the symphony of movement as each man did his job. Having expected the set up to last much longer, she had set aside the entire day to get this done. The table delivery was scheduled for ten. With the way things were going, she would be out of there by noon. The party began at six, so she would have plenty of time to go home to dress and be back in time to meet the caterers.
“Watch out!” Ryan shouted and dove toward her.
Abigail looked up in time to see the tallest of the trees had toppled and was falling her way. Before she could get out of the way, Ryan had grabbed hold of her and pulled her to safety. Stumbling into him, she found herself caught up in his arms and standing much too close to him.
Concerned, he asked, “Are you okay?”
She only nodded and stared up at him. Coming to her senses, she moved away, still a bit shaken by their closeness.
“I am so sorry about that. I placed that tree in the holder myself. I don’t know what could have happened.”
When the group of men gathered to inspect the tree, they found the holder was defective. Since they had a replacement in the truck, soon enough the problem was resolved. Just before leaving, Ryan came over to her.
“Are you sure you weren’t hurt? I grabbed you pretty hard.”
“No, really, I’m fine.”
She was shaken all right, but not by the falling tree.
He just stood there looking at her.
She wasn’t sure what to say. Finally, she assured him, “I’m okay if you’re worried.”
“I am, I guess.” He shook his head. “I’ve never had anything like that happen before. I’m truly sorry.”
“Ryan, I’m okay. Don’t give it another thought.”
“Good. I’m relieved” He hesitated a moment as if he wanted to say something more. After a few seconds, he said, “Well, I guess you’re all set. Once the tables arrive and you get the centerpieces in place, the room will be ready for a party.”
“I think so.” Scanning the room, she sighed. “It looks amazing already. I’m so grateful.”
“You should be proud. It will be a beautiful party.”
“You’ve done the work. I just showed up with a credit card.”
“That’s hardly true. You have remarkable creativity. I wish all my clients were more like you and had a vision. This was fun to do.”
They stood for a few seconds without speaking. Abigail considered inviting him to the party but then considered how complicated her life was about to become with a job change and with having to prove herself all over again. The last thing she needed was to add stress to that. Relationships were always stressful.
“Thanks again.” She held out her hand.
“Anytime.” After releasing her hand, he turned to leave but then stopped and turned back again. “So whatever happened with that interview?”
Wide-eyed, she stood there looking at him, wondering how he knew.
He laughed. “You know, when we first met, you were on the phone and asked someone to schedule an interview. You were angry at your boss for asking you to plan this party.”
“Oh.” She sighed softy. “I had forgotten you heard that.”
“I’m just wondering if you’ll be here next year?”
“No, I won’t be. I will be turning in my notice after Christmas.”
“Why are you waiting so long to tell him? Maybe he needs to know he stepped over the line with this Christmas party thing.”
“This is a busy time for him. His daughter is getting married right before Christmas. He has a lot on his plate right now. I don’t want to add to it.”
Ryan took a step closer. “I’m sure your boss will hate to see you go. You’re a hard worker.” He grinned. “A real visionary. I’m sure he never meant to imply that you are inferior in any way because you’re certainly not.”
Abigail looked away. “I’m not so sure what he thinks anymore. But whatever the case, I’ve accepted the job now.”
“I guess you really did wow them in that interview.” He smiled broadly as he backed away. “I can see how that might happen.” Lifting his hand, he said, “I’ll see you around, Abby.” With that, he turned and strode toward the door.
Not as if he could hear but still she whispered, “It’s Abigail.” For a moment more she stood there. Something about their exchange made her smile. It was the way he talked to her as if they knew each other well.
Then it hit her – the tree falling and his saving her just in the nick of time. Drawn into his arms, she had looked up at him and their eyes had met. It was a Christmas movie moment. She burst out laughing at that, at the absurdity of it. Usually the characters fell in the snow or ice skating or even off of a ladder, but this was close enough. Funny that just the night before meeting Ryan she had told Liz she wasn’t looking for a Christmas movie moment – and one came anyway. Laughing again, she knew she would have to call Liz later and tell her all about it.
The party was just underway – already a smashing success by anyone’s standards. The decorations were spectacular and the spread of food fantastic. The live music couldn’t be any more on target for the atmosphere. More than once Joe approached Abigail and told her that she had far exceeded his expectations. The second time he said, “That, kid, is why I knew you were the right one for the job.”
His comment was sincere. She knew him well enough to believe that. As she had watched him that first half hour of the party, she noticed how high in spirit he was compared to the past weeks. He was himself again, the Joe she used to know. This night caused her to wonder for the first time if she was doing the right thing in making the job change. She was, she reminded herself. It was what was best for her future. Joe’s slight wasn’t the worst that could happen, but it at least goosed her to make a change she should have thought of on her own. Without question, she had settled in and gotten too comfortable. Even her mother had warned her about that.
As the party was just kicking into high gear and as Abigail finally felt she could relax and enjoy herself, she turned at just the right moment to see Ryan walk through the door. She blinked a few times to make sure her eyes weren’t deceiving her. It was Ryan. He wore dark jeans, a dress shirt, and a sport coat. The sight of him made her stomach turn a slight flip, especially when she thought back to that moment when he had moved her from the falling tree. Now, he was crashing her party to be with her, and that made her surprisingly happy. It seemed their moment had had an impact on him as well.
They made eye contact from across the room and when they did, he smiled shyly and waved awkwardly. As he made his way closer to her, what became more than noticeable was the fact that several people knew him and stopped him to shake his hand. Most surprising was when Joe approached Ryan with a broad smile and not only shook his hand but embraced him and warmly patted his back.
Ryan knew Joe. Good grief! Ryan knew Joe. Here she had confided to him about changing jobs, and he never thought to mention knowing her boss. She felt like an idiot. Worse yet, they were both walking her way. All she could do was stand there frozen in place until they came to stand right before her.
Joe spoke first. “You two did a wonderful job.” He turned to Abigail. “I knew you both would.”
At a loss for what to say, Abigail simply smiled at Joe, refusing to look at Ryan.
“Ryan, every year you do your uncle proud, but this year, I’m blown away. Thanks for making sure Abigail had what she needed.” He winked at Ryan. “She’s a force of nature, huh?”
Ryan nodded at Joe. “That she is.”
“Best I got.” Joe slapped Ryan’s back. “I better go keep an eye out for Kimberly. She said she would stop by on her way to dinner.”
Abigail was left standing with Ryan. Furious that he would keep something like that a secret, she glared at him. “You’re Joe’s nephew?”
He only nodded.
“You couldn’t have told me that?”
“Once I realized you worked for Joe, I thought it best that I didn’t after what I heard you say on the phone. I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable.”
“Showing up so that I can find out this way isn’t uncomfortable?”
“Once I left today, I regretted not telling you the truth. I figured I could come tonight and explain it to you.”
“Why did you need to explain? I’m only here for a few more weeks. I didn’t have to know.”
Ryan looked away.
Abigail watched his face and thought he seemed disappointed by her reaction. Then his expression changed to one she could hardly identify. He seemed shocked and not in a good way.
“Oh, no,” he groaned warily.
“What?” She followed his eyes and saw Kimberly talking with Joe. She and her fiancé were there with a couple she didn’t recognize.
“Who is Brooke?”
Ryan turned to Abigail. “My ex-girlfriend.” As he spoke, his eyes suddenly lit up. “Hey, you look absolutely beautiful tonight.”
“Um, thank you?” That seemed to be a random statement until he spoke again.
“I need you to pretend you’re here with me – just until she leaves.”
“No way.” Abigail laughed and turned to walk away when Ryan took hold of her arm and drew her back to him.
He leaned in, whispering, “I will keep my mouth shut with Joe if you do this one little favor for me.”
“I won’t lie.” Already Abigail could see Brooke was heading their way.
“I’m not asking you to. Just stand here and look pretty.”
“What?” she exclaimed loudly.
With a lowered tone, he tried to reassure her. “You know I didn’t mean it that way. Just don’t say you’re not with me. I won’t lie either. I will just allow her to assume.”
“Ryan.” Brooke squealed and leaned in to kiss his cheek. Afterward, she looked at Abigail with notable curiosity.
“Brooke, I didn’t expect to see you here.”
He looked at Abigail uncomfortably, as if he feared she would walk away.
“We are having dinner with Kimberly and Chuck. We just stopped by for her to make an appearance for her dad’s sake.”
She turned to Abigail, her pleasant expression fading. “Have we met?”
Brooke was obviously a snooty little socialite, a trait that reminded Abigail too much of Kimberly.
“No, we’ve never met.”
Ryan quickly interjected, “This is Abby.”
Abigail looked up at Ryan with narrowed eyes then back at Brooke. She reached out and confidently shook Brooke’s hand. “I’m Abigail.”
Looking back and forth between the two, Brooke said nothing for a few seconds. Eventually, she asked Ryan, “Are you here together?”
“Right here together. We sure are.” Ryan wrapped his arm around Abigail and drew her in closer. “We’ve been together off and on much of the day.”
As much as she was angry with Ryan for not telling her he was Joe’s nephew, Abigail was even more irritated by the way Brooke had looked at her up and down without any discretion. She was judging her, as if she wasn’t good enough for Ryan. That fact prompted her to back Ryan in his scheme.
“We sure have.” Abigail said with a bright smile. “Our day started at eight, and it’s starting to feel like it’ll never end.”
Brooke stammered, “Well, how nice.”
Clearly, Brooke was as insincere as she was jealous, something that didn’t altogether disappoint Abigail. Allowing her to assume caused no harm. For Ryan’s sake Abigail was pleased. The look of desperation on his face when Brooke was walking their way caused her heart to go out to him. It was evident that he was still in love with her. Getting dumped was bad enough, but being replaced by a guy who looked like Brooke’s date was like pouring salt in the wound.
“Will you be at Kimberly’s wedding?” Her question was directed toward Abigail.
“I will be.”
Turning to Ryan, Brooke asked, “So how long have you two been together?”
He glanced down at Abigail, eyes pleading that she wouldn’t contradict him, and said, “This is a brand new thing.”
“But you’re bringing her to your cousin’s wedding? Do you do that with new things?”
By this point Abigail was outraged. Brooke was out of line. She was there with an ivy leaguer, an incredibly handsome one at that. Clearly she had moved on, so what right did she have to question Ryan? Plus, the fact that her tone was so condescending toward Abigail was striking a nerve. No one spoke that way about her and got away with it.
When Ryan stood staring at Brooke blankly, Abigail spoke up. “I would have been at Kimberly’s wedding either way. I’m part of Joe’s executive team. Now,” she looked up at Ryan beaming, “it just so happens that I’ll have the most handsome man in the room on my arm. I can’t complain.”
After a moment more of awkward conversation, Brooke left them and rejoined her party.
“I can’t believe you just did that!” Abigail said, stomping one foot, frustrated as much at Ryan as she was at Brooke.
Ryan just stood there, still at a loss for words.
“You’ve put me in a terrible position. I hate to lie – absolutely hate it.”
“I never meant for things to go that far. I just…” He trailed off and looked away.
“You just what? Used me?”
“I didn’t mean to use you.”
“But you did.”
“I’m sorry. It all happened so fast. She was walking toward us with that look on her face. I just reacted.”
“You blackmailed me.”
“I wouldn’t call it blackmail exactly.”
“Threatening to tell …” She realized how loud her voice was getting. She spoke more quietly. “That was blackmail, Ryan.”
“It was, and I’m sorry.” He reached out and took her hand. “All we have to do is get through the wedding and…”
“What? Do you honestly believe we are going to that wedding together?”
“You have to be kidding me. Joe will be there. I can’t lie to him.”
“What is there to lie about?”
Caught up in their conversation together, neither noticed that Joe had walked up. Grinning broadly, he said, “I hear you two are an item. I can honestly say I’ve never been more pleased.” Without saying anything more, he moved on to greet someone near them.
Abigail stood with her mouth open until finally she blinked hard and looked at Ryan. “That! That’s why we would have to lie. Now, even Joe thinks we’re dating.”
“That doesn’t mean we will have to lie. We just hang out at the wedding together. He’ll be none the wiser.”
She thought for a few seconds. “We know nothing about each other. We will have to have conversations with people, specifically, Joe. If he asks questions and we know nothing about each other, it’ll be obvious we’re not dating.”
“We can get to know each other before then.”
“How do you suppose we do that?”
He shrugged. “We date.”
“We go out a few times. That’s dating. That way when the wedding rolls around, we will have been dating for a few weeks. Then afterward, we can tell people that things didn’t work out between us.”
Abigail sighed softly. Actually, she liked Ryan. If it helped him to hang out with her at the wedding to make Brooke jealous, then what was the harm? Plus, this may work in her favor. Typically, she attended parties alone, which only bothered her this time of the year. Inevitably there were those sad looks she received from friends. Even when she didn’t feel the need to have a boyfriend, other people made her feel weird for not having one. That served only to make her second guess herself, and she hated – absolutely hated- the fact that she allowed their opinions to cause her to doubt herself. Not everyone was cut out to be married. If she never married, that wouldn’t be the end of the world.
“Okay,” she blurted out.
Surprised, Ryan asked, “Okay? Really?”
“Yes, but I have a few stipulations.”
“For one, you keep your mouth shut to Joe about my quitting. I don’t want him to know until he absolutely has to.”
“Deal. What else?”
“I have a couple of parties over the next two weeks. You go and pretend to be crazy about me. No flirting with other women. Be attentive and charming. Don’t get drunk or act stupid.”
“Piece of cake. One: Why would I flirt with anyone when I’m with a woman like you? Two: I’m always attentive and naturally charming. And three: I don’t drink and only rarely act stupid.”
When she smiled up at him, he said, “I have a few things scheduled, too. You go with me.”
She hesitated only a second. “We have a deal.”
“Good.” Ryan smiled and moved in closer. “Just for the record, I would have never told Joe your secret. He’s been like a dad to me. I wouldn’t do anything to upset him before the wedding. This is a hard enough time of year for him as it is.”
Touched by how kindhearted that statement was, Abigail smiled softly. “He’s a good man.” As she spoke, she scanned the crowd until she found Joe. At the moment he was laughing with some old friends. This night he seemed years younger, a sight that made her feel guilty over how she was going to disappoint him.
“Huh?” She turned to find Ryan grinning at her.
“Can this be our first date?”
She nodded. “From what I heard our first date stared this morning at eight.”
Chuckling at that, he nodded. “Seems like I heard that somewhere, too.”
From that point in the evening on, they remained together. Oddly, Abigail felt fairly at ease with Ryan. Because this was just a sham, there wasn’t that pressure to impress. He seemed to feel the same. He made her laugh over and over, something Abigail rarely did. Things she would normally not find funny actually were when looking through the lens with Ryan. He had a way of making normal things seem humorous. More than once he would point out a couple engaged in conversation. As they spoke, he would pretend to be reading lips and relay to Abigail what they were supposedly saying. She only stopped him when one couple’s conversation was about the man’s recent colonoscopy.
This date of hers was already surprisingly charming.
At half past six there was a knock on Abigail’s door. She liked it already that he was prompt. Tardiness was a deal breaker for her. As any of her friends would attest, she had many deal breakers. While others said she was too picky, she didn’t see it that way. Life was short. Why spend time with people you’re not compatible with? If someone doesn’t meet your criteria, why string him along? Because she was that way, she hadn’t had a relationship last more than a few months – ever. Only occasionally did that bother her.
With the door open, she found Ryan standing there with flowers in hand. Reaching for them, she asked, “Who does that anymore?”
“What, bring flowers?”
“Yes, bring flowers.” She took them from him.
For a few seconds he stood staring at her as if he didn’t understand her question.
Shaking his head, he smiled. “Sorry, I just wasn’t expecting this.”
“You to look like this.” He looked down at himself. “I’m underdressed for what you’re wearing.”
“You’re fine, seriously.”
He stood there another second. “For the record I will guarantee you’ll be the prettiest girl – uh, I mean woman, there.”
“Thank you. And I promise you’ll be the most handsome boy – uh, I mean man there.”
“Well played.” He nodded and grinned at her.
Back to her original question. “Do you always bring flowers?”
“Then why did you tonight?”
“You stipulated I had to be charming. What’s more charming than flowers?”
“I did say that.” She smiled as she walked toward the kitchen to put them in water.
Calling out from the kitchen, she suggested, “Let’s get started getting to know each other – in case my friends ask questions.”
He didn’t reply until she returned. “Could we do that over a quick dinner? I haven’t eaten since lunch. I was afraid I would be late, so I showered and came on.”
“Sure, dinner sounds nice. Arriving late and leaving early is my usual party schedule.”
As he was helping her with her coat, Ryan looked around her apartment. “Where’s your tree?”
“I don’t have one. I never put one up.”
“You’re dating a guy who owns Christmas Village and you don’t have a tree?”
She chuckled. “Hard to believe, but yes.”
“That will change. I’ll bring you one.”
“No need. I’m going to see my dad this weekend. I get all the Christmas I need there. Plus, it’s not like I have anything going on here.”
Ryan hesitated in the doorway. “It’s a shame if you ask me, Christmas without a tree.”
Dinner conversation was easy, something that didn’t exactly surprise Abigail. From the moment they had gotten into his car until now, they were both relaxed together. Just as at the party, Ryan made her laugh often.
When she did date, it was almost always executives or attorneys or whatever her friends set her up with. Much of the evening on any date was spent with both of them checking email and voicemail. Not so tonight. Not once had Ryan taken out his phone. Just as she had asked of him, he was attentive.
“When I said you had to be attentive, I meant at the party. If you need to check voicemail or email, I understand.”
“Why would I do that?”
“I don’t know, in case there’s something pressing.”
He laughed softly. “A pressing Christmas tree issue?”
“You’re also an architect.”
“I am, but that job doesn’t follow me home, either.”
“I wish I were as relaxed as you.” Mostly that was true. She had tried many relaxation techniques, but nothing made her less high strung.
He leaned in. “Really?”
“Yes, to some extent.”
“I have to ask, Abigail. What do you think makes you so driven?”
“That’s easy – my mother. She’s more driven than any man you’ll ever meet.”
“What does she do?”
“She’s an attorney, one of the most influential in Chicago. As a matter of fact, she’s arguing before the Federal Supreme Court after the first of the year. I admire her.”
“Impressive.” He took a bite. “What about your dad?”
Abigail shook her head. “The least driven man you’ll ever meet, especially these days. He was career army but retired now.”
“You said you will visit him. Where does he live?”
“Wyoming, now, but I never lived there. That’s where he grew up. Before my parents divorced, we moved around a lot. Army brat until I was ten. Devoted Chicagoan now.”
“I’ve lived here all my life. Even for school I didn’t go far, especially since my mom was alone. I liked to keep an eye on her.”
“And your dad?”
“They divorced when I was a baby. We rarely see each other. He has another family now.”
“I’m sorry about that.”
“Life goes on.” Ryan shrugged.” I had Uncle Joe. As busy as he was, he was always involved in my life, came to my ball games when he could. I really can’t complain.”
When Ryan finished his meal, he moved his plate to the side and rested his elbows on the table.
“I have to ask again. Are you sure I can’t bring you a tree? It’s, like, driving me crazy that you don’t have one.”
“Positive. I don’t even have ornaments.”
“I own a store!”
“I know, but seriously, I don’t need one. I had all the trees I needed at the party. I watch Christmas movies to get my holiday cheer.”
“You do not!”
He leaned in. “Know which one we’re in right now? I thought about it on the way to pick you up.”
Skeptical, she asked, “Which one?”
“The one where they agree to go to each other’s holiday parties so their families won’t give them a hard time about being single.”
“There really is one like that.”
She blinked hard. “You watch Christmas movies?”
“Not now, but I did with my mom. The year she died, she was sick all through the holidays. We watched hour after hour of movies.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. The holidays must be tough for you now.”
“Yeah, at times, but I don’t want to talk about tough times. I want to make fun of you for watching.”
“What’s to make fun of?”
“Are you kidding me? The clichés? The kiss in the last scene…”
At the same time they both laughed, saying, “Under the mistletoe.”
“Make fun if you want. I admit it. I watch every year.”
“Seriously, that surprises me. You don’t seem like the romantic type.”
Abigail shook her head. “I’m not – at all. I don’t know why I watch. Like you, I laugh at the clichés, but still, by the end of each movie, I’m left feeling something – I don’t know, warm maybe.”
“I won’t make too much more fun then. I have nothing against you feeling warm.”
The look on his face caused her to look away. It was another moment, one where she knew, if it were a movie, the girl would find herself falling. Unsettled by that thought, she stood abruptly.
“We should go or I’ll be later than I usually am.”
What bothered her most was that she and Ryan truly did go well together. She could see dating him for real. With the way things had begun, though, with his hoping to make his ex jealous, Abigail knew she would be a fool to get involved with a guy still hung up on his ex-girlfriend. Because she did know better, she would simply enjoy the season and walk away after Christmas.
During the drive to the dreaded suburbs, Abigail considered why Ryan had been attracted to Brooke. She was a classic beauty, like, sorority, popular girl beautiful. While Abigail knew that she herself wasn’t so bad, Brooke made her feel a little plain. Maybe that was why she had dressed up tonight. She would never tell a living soul, but Ryan’s reaction was exactly what she had been hoping for.
And what she had said to him, that he would be the most handsome man there – she had meant it. She knew her friends’s husbands. Most of them were decent looking guys but none as cute as Ryan. It was still his eyes that got her. Every time she looked at them she felt more like a girl than she ever had. They were dreamy, his eyes, and because they were she often made it a point to look him in the nose when they spoke. She smiled at that, wondering if he had noticed.
Abigail turned to Ryan. “I can’t see it.”
“You with Brooke.”
“Good thing since three on a date would make for an awkward evening.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I do, and you’re right. We were never a good match.” He glanced at her. “Why do you think that is?”
“You’re so laid back and don’t seem to care too much about prestige. She’s clearly an elitist.”
“Every word of that is true, and that’s why we didn’t work. I didn’t like who I was becoming when I was with her.”
“Really, why’s that? Who were you becoming?”
“A guy trying to impress a girl.” He paused. “I started the ladder-climbing thing to make her happy. It’s what she expected. Before I knew it, I was working too many hours to even spend time with her – something she didn’t seem to mind as long as I was becoming somebody who would impress her friends and family. I’m just not that guy.”
“You shouldn’t be. I think who you are is pretty great.”
Ryan smiled at that. “Yeah, I get that a lot.” Before she even stopped laughing at that, he admitted, “Honestly, if I could make a go of it, I would work full-time at the Village. I love it there. I like being in and out of doors and dealing with the public. I love designing displays that people go crazy over and want delivered as is. A few years ago, I would have never said that, but something happened after my mom died. I guess she left her love of the place to me.”
“You don’t think you could make a go of it?”
“Christmas all year? Hardly a market for that.”
“With some modifications and a great staff,” she intentionally threw that in there, “you could. You could make it more seasonal.”
When he said nothing for a moment, she could see he was thinking.
Already her mind was flooded with ideas. “I’m a brainstormer by nature. Would you mind if I put a few ideas on paper?”
“Why would I mind? If you can come up with a plan that would work, I would do it in a minute.”
“If – nothing. I’m great at what I do, and this is part of it. I take what’s good about any company we acquire and make it better, more efficient and productive.”
“I noticed the staff comment, and if you’re talking about Robbie, he stays. Somehow, keep him in your plan.”
“Then you need to train him better. He was clueless throughout most of the conversation.”
“He will get better. I’ll work with him more. He’s a good kid, helping his single mom since his dad split. There’s no way I’d ever fire him. For as long as he needs the job, he has one with me.”
“I admire you for your loyalty. He did seem like a good kid.”
“I’ve known him for years now. I used to be his Sunday school teacher.”
Abigail snapped her head around to look at him. “Sunday school teacher? You go to church.” It really shouldn’t surprise her since at Christmas Village there had been Christian sayings all over the place. And, too, Joe was a big church guy.
“I sure do. Have all my life.” He looked at her. “Have you ever gone?”
She suddenly felt far away from the conversation as memories of her day flooded her mind.
Sighing softly, tears stinging her eyes, she looked out the window rather than at him. “I did until my parents divorced. Well, I go when I visit my dad, but that’s only once a year.”
“Why don’t you now? Did the divorce make you angry at God?”
Surprised that he would ask such an intimate and personal question, she answered anyway. “Maybe.”
“It wasn’t God’s fault, if that’s what you’re thinking. People are responsible for the choices they make – not Him.”
“I still believe in God. I believe in Jesus, but after we left my dad, we never went back to church. I’m not sure what happened to my faith other than it just slipped away from me.”
Abigail thought of that first year and how she had asked her mom repeatedly if she would take her to church. Her mother was totally against it and made her feel silly for wanting to go. Eventually Abigail had given up on the idea, like she said, it just slipped away.
When she became quiet, Ryan asked, “Is this conversation bothering you?”
“Actually, no. As a matter of fact, it gives me a chance to ask something I’ve always wondered.”
“Does God unadopt people?”
“No, absolutely not. If you were His through faith in Jesus, then you’re still His. Is that something you did? Did you ask Jesus into your life to forgive your sins and be the Lord of your life?”
“Not so long before my parents split, I did. It’s one of my clearest memories I have of my dad. He cried so hard when I prayed that it made me cry.” She shook her head. “I’ve just wondered all these years if God would want me still since I didn’t go to church after that.”
“I can answer that with a resounding yes! He will never stop wanting you.”
“I’ve not lived as I should. I mean, I haven’t done a whole lot of bad, especially since I knew God was watching, but I didn’t do anything to get to know Him. I’ve just lived regular life.”
Ryan pulled into the drive and turned to look at her. When she reached for the handle, he grabbed her hand.
“Wait. Let’s finish this conversation.” When she nodded, he told her. “None of us are perfect. We all do things that aren’t God’s best for us, including me. But He would never turn away from me because of it. If anything, I turned away from Him.”
“In what way?”
“It’s pretty personal. Sure you want to know?”
“Because of my relationship with Brooke, I had to step down from teaching. I taught high school boys. One Sunday as I was speaking, I realized what a hypocrite I was. It’s like God started flashing some neon sign in my face. There I was telling them not to have sex before marriage when I was sleeping with Brooke.
“I was so convicted of it, that I asked her to marry me. I suppose I wanted to make things right with God. I had good intentions but did the wrong thing.”
“I’m guessing she said no.”
“She did say no. I know now it was for the best, but at the time, I was hurt and really confused about it all. I knew I had to get my heart in the right place, so I stepped down from my class.”
“How long ago was this?”
“Nearly a year.”
“If you ask me, you deserve better than her.”
He nodded and smiled. “Yeah, you’re probably right.
“Abigail, I just want you to know, anytime you have questions or want to talk about God stuff, I’m happy to.”
“I may just take you up on that.”
This was like no party Abigail had ever been to in the ‘burbs. The party was typical and the guests were pretty much the same, but what was different was her date. Ryan was such a hit that he had most of the women flirting with him. If he noticed, he didn’t act as if he did. It was easy to see why they were all so smitten by him. Without a doubt, he was his most charming this night.
Her friends asked tons of questions: How long had they had been dating? How did she meet him? What he did he do for a living? Her answers were always the same: second date, and he delivered her Christmas tree. For some reason she got a kick out of her friends thinking Ryan was just a delivery guy. Throughout the course of the night, most of them discovered that he was also an architect and owned Christmas Village. The latter was most impressive to the few kids who were there, prompting questions about Santa and when he would be at Christmas Village.
Ryan most impressed her when he was talking to children. She could easily see why he was a Sunday school teacher. Once, when talking to a young girl of about ten, he had the longest conversation about the Christmas cookie he was eating and how the girl had made them with her mom. If there ever was a Christmas movie moment, (a CMM, she thought), that was one. The night had been overflowing with them. Once, he was literally standing under the mistletoe when someone announced it, saying, “Get Abigail under the mistletoe with Ryan.” They looked at one another shyly and only shook their heads at the same time. She wanted to all right but felt paralyzed by how public the moment was. Someday, she wouldn’t mind kissing that man at all.
Brooke and his feelings for her came to mind again, something that made Abigail feel suddenly sad. The fact was, the only reason they were on this date to begin with was that he cared so much for her still and wanted to make her jealous at the wedding. Abigail had to hope that someday he would be over Brooke and be ready to date again. When that happened, she wanted to be the one he turned to. Until then, she wasn’t going to risk getting her heart broken. One thing she had learned from watching Ryan over the course of the evening, even she was susceptible to his startling charm.
Long before the party was winding down, Abigail whispered to Ryan that they could leave any time he was ready. He seemed surprised by that but said he was ready if she was.
Traveling back into the city, Abigail noticed how quiet Ryan was compared to their trip out. From what she had seen so far, this was out of character for him.
“I appreciate your going.”
“No problem.” He drove a minute more in silence and then looked at her quickly and back toward the road. “Why do you even go to things like that?”
She shrugged. “I guess I feel obligated. I’ve been friends with those girls since high school. Sorry that you didn’t enjoy yourself.”
“Me? I had a great time. You’re the one who couldn’t get out of there fast enough.”
“Did you want to stay?”
“No. I don’t mean that. I’m talking about how you acted the entire time we were there. It was obvious you didn’t want to be there.”
“How was I acting?”
He thought a minute before answering. “Know how you called Brooke an elitist? Well, you’re one, too.”
“I am not! Every time anyone asked, I would say you delivered my Christmas tree. If I was an elitist, I would have started with the fact that you’re an architect.”
“Maybe you’re not a social elitist like her.” He paused. “You’re a gender elitist.”
“And what exactly is that?”
“You think because you’re a career woman that you’re somehow better than all your friends who don’t work.”
“I do not!”
“Oh, you do, too. Little comments you made, the way you rolled your eyes when anyone was talking about their kids, just those two things prove you think your way’s the right way. There’s nothing wrong with being a mom and wanting to be home with your kids.”
“I didn’t say there’s anything wrong with it. It’s just not for me.”
“It may not be for you, and that’s fine. But for them, it is right, and you shouldn’t belittle that.”
Abigail became quiet, knowing he was correct. For the remainder of the way to her apartment, they were mostly silent. Occasionally, he would say something, fortunately off their last topic. She responded as necessary but said little else. At first, she had been angry and felt attacked. Now, she was simply embarrassed. He was right in many ways.
When they finally pulled in front of her building, she told him, “You don’t need to walk me in.”
“I want to.”
“I would rather you didn’t.”
“Okay. I see how you are.”
She turned to him, suddenly angry again. “Meaning?”
“I called you out, and now you’re sulking.”
“I am not sulking.”
“Are you kidding me? You’ve been sulking the past thirty minutes. If you don’t want me to walk you up, then fine. But I’ll sit here until you get in the door.”
“Fine.” Abigail reached for the door handle and paused. “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”
“The idea was fine.”
“I don’t need to be judged.”
“And you don’t need to judge.” He smiled wryly. “Just saying.”
Opening the door, she got out and slammed it again. The closer she came to her door, though, the worse she felt. She could still hear his car engine running, so she knew he was watching as he said he would. Finally, she stopped and stood still for a second before turning back. Back in the car again, she closed the door.
“I was awful.”
“Not awful, just haughty.”
When she said nothing, he asked, “Why is it such a big deal to you that they’re not like you?”
Abigail knew the answer to that but hated to voice it. “Because I’m supposed to be more like them, and I’m not. They know it. I know it. I just don’t know how to want what they want and be a normal woman.”
“That’s ridiculous. You’re not supposed to be like them. You’re supposed to do you. And you do. You’re phenomenal at being you. You wow everyone with how bold and assertive you are. If anything, they all wish they could be more like you.”
“That’s hardly true.”
“It is true. While you were so busy being passively aggressive defensive, you missed the jealousy. They want to go back to your life.” He smiled. “Of course they don’t really want to give up their families, but you’re now their ideal. You’re bright and have an impressive job. You travel. You have a rockin’ little body that hasn’t been stretched out by kids. Did you hear that comment? That woman with red hair said that to you, but you glossed over the compliment. Instead, you asked her if she ever planned to go back to work.
“Look, Abigail, I don’t think you did or said any of the things you did in order to be mean or cruel. I think you were just trying to defend who you are at their expense.”
Tears filled her eyes. “I never meant to hurt anyone’s feelings. I love them and would never hurt them intentionally.”
“Obviously they love you.” He chuckled. “I mean, if you’re always like that, then they must love you to keep inviting you.”
“I’m a jerk.”
She laughed at that.
“Okay, you’re not a jerk, but you were jerky at times.”
“I don’t want to be like that. I hate insecure people who hurt others just to make themselves feel better.”
“We all hate that trait in others and rarely recognize it in ourselves.”
“Know what this is called?”
She shook her head. “What?”
“Conviction. So when you know better, do better. Your friends will forgive you.”
“You think they will?”
“Sure they will. And it may help if your charming new boyfriend invited them and their kids to a special day with Santa at Christmas Village.”
“You would do that?”
“I would. I’ll email you the information and you can forward it to them.”
She sighed. “Should I even react to the fact that you just called yourself my boyfriend?”
“Yeah, Christmas boyfriend.”
Abigail’s conversation with Ryan stayed with her over the next few days. He had been right, and she knew it from the moment he called her on her behavior. He was right, too, that she was defending who she was at their expense. Over these past days, she had made two phone calls to apologize for the worst of her comments. Of course, her friends just waved her off, saying it was no big deal, but she could tell that each was grateful for the apology.
This was something she would learn to do differently. The more she thought about it, the more she was actually taking another cue from her mother. Her mother treated stay-at-home moms similarly, as if the decision to be a full-time mother was something to apologize for. As much as she had always looked up to her mother and wanted to be like her, Abigail had discovered an instance where she wanted to be nothing like her.
After her two phone calls, she called Ryan to give him an update. Having expected him to give her a hard time, she was pleased when he, instead, told her he was proud of her. He even apologized for being the one to point it out, to which she assured him she was glad he did.
While they spoke, he said it was her turn to accompany him on a Christmas outing. He wouldn’t tell her where they were going, but he did reassure her that it wasn’t a family event. There was no way she would be ready for that. Being with his entire family at a wedding where she could blend into the crowd was one thing, but to go to a more intimate family gathering was another.
Being the hypocrite she was, she had invited him to her mother’s company Christmas party the evening she returned from her dad’s. He didn’t hesitate to say yes. She promised him it would be a terribly stuffy occasion where they couldn’t possibly have even a minute of fun. Again, he didn’t seem to mind. After the two parties they had attended together already, she could be certain he would make her mother’s horrid party with pompous attorneys at least tolerable.
From past experience Abigail knew her mother wouldn’t receive Ryan well. The only man that she could remember her mom approving of was an attorney, the most boring man alive and one who didn’t last past two dates. She introduced them only because they ran into her mother one evening at a restaurant. The following day, her mother wasted no time in making calls to ask around about Will – coincidentally the same day Abigail told Will she didn’t want to see him again.
Watching the clock, Abigail waited for Ryan to pick her up for their mystery date. All he had said was to dress comfortably but not for outdoors. She had settled on jeans and a sweater but already wished she had chosen something nicer.
When he arrived and they got to the front of her building, she found they were going in his truck rather than the car he had used for the party in the ‘burbs.
“We’re making a delivery?”
“We sure are. My favorite of the year.”
“You’ll see when we get there.”
“Will I like it?”
Pulling his gear shift into drive, he looked at her and grinned. “I’m guessing not.”
Not so long later, when Abigail noticed they were pulling into the hospital parking lot, she asked, “Why would I not like this? I think it’s nice that you’re delivering the tree for the hospital. I don’t mind helping.”
“There’s a little more to it than that.”
The more they wound around the maze of parking lots, the closer they came to the children’s hospital wing.
“We’re going there?” Abigail pointed at the building, sensing they were about to have another CMM.
“Why wouldn’t I like this?”
“You don’t like kids.”
“I never said I didn’t like them.”
“It was pretty obvious at the party. That one little girl said something to you, but you never responded.”
“Honestly, I was lost in thought. I didn’t even hear what she said.”
Abigail remembered the moment well. That was the little girl who was discussing cookie making with Ryan. For some strange reason, Abigail had found herself thinking about her childhood and how she never did things like that with her mom. On occasion she had made cookies with her housekeeper but never with her mom. She wasn’t blaming her mom, but in that moment, listening to the child tell how much fun it was, Abigail had become unusually sad. Because of her mother’s work schedule, she had missed out on so much.
“You are obviously lost in the same thought now.”
“Anything you want to share?”
“Just that I probably shouldn’t have kids. I don’t think I will be a good mom.”
Once they were parked, he turned to face her. “Why do you say that?”
“I don’t think I would spend enough time with a child. They need parents who can and will be there for them.”
“I agree. But that’s a choice you make, whether to spend time with them or not.”
“Sometimes your work schedule dictates the choice for you.”
Ryan just shook his head. “I guess you’re right.”
Inside the recreation room on the fifth floor of the children’s hospital, Ryan worked to get the tree stand tightened while Abigail began to unload decorations.
“There don’t seem to be enough decorations for this large a tree.”
“These are just filler ornaments. Wait until you see what the kids bring.”
Soon, the room began to fill and each child entered with a box of handmade ornaments. Abigail was told by one little girl that she had been making decorations since Thanksgiving.
“You’ve been here that long?” Abigail asked, trying to hide her surprise.
“Yes,” the little girl answered and began to dig through her box.
Watching the girl closely, Abigail noted her ashen color and how dark the circles were beneath her eyes. She wore a scarf around her bald head. Even with her illness and obvious weakness, the child hadn’t stopped smiling since she had entered the room.
“I’m Abigail. What’s your name?”
Without looking up, she answered, “Sydney.”
“What a brave little girl you are, Sydney.”
Finding what she was looking for, Sydney pulled an angel made with cotton balls from the box and handed it to Abigail.
“This is the angel I made. Out of all the kids, I get to put mine on the top of the tree.”
“Wonderful. What a beautiful angel, and what a great honor for you that your angel gets to go on the top of the tree.”
“I know.” She was beaming in excitement.
Most of the children had parents accompanying them, but Sydney seemed to be alone. Tempted to ask where her parents were, Abigail thought better of it in case it was a bad situation.
Answering her unasked question, Sydney turned to her and said, “Will you help me with my ornaments until my mom gets here?”
“Sure, I will.”
“She gets off of work soon and comes right after.”
Abigail glanced up at the clock and noted it was nearly seven. The mother had to work while this precious child was so terribly ill. At the thought of it, images of a single mom struggling to survive came to mind – not like her mom as a single mom with a good income but more like the average single mom who struggled just to make ends meet.
Over the next half hour, Abigail worked with Sydney as they placed her hand-crafted ornaments on the tree. A few times Sydney sat to rest, and when she did, Abigail sat with her and they talked. The angel still remained, but Sydney asked that they wait for her mom to watch her place it on the top. She had promised her mom she would.
In all her life, Abigail couldn’t recall a more heart-stirring evening than this. This night, being with this little girl, caused something foreign to settle into her heart. She could only call it guilt. The more the night wore on, the more she felt a deep sense of shame for never having given her time this way. Many times she watched Ryan as he helped children place their ornaments on the tree. He laughed and seemed just as natural with these sick children as if they were healthy. It wasn’t lost on her that she had used volunteering with underprivileged children as one of her Christmas movie moments when talking with Liz. Tonight, though, she found no humor in it and found little reason to laugh at all. Instead, she felt on the verge of tears most of their time there.
When Sydney’s mother arrived, that was one of Abigail’s most emotional moments so far. Sydney’s face lit up and so did the mother’s. Abigail saw something deeper there in the mother’s eyes, though, something she was trying to keep hidden from her daughter. She was tired, worn to the bone. How was she managing a work schedule along with being there for a sick child? Abigail did find out that that day was the mother’s last for the rest of the Christmas season. Sydney was excited to have her mom there with her for the remainder of the holidays.
“Are you okay?”
Until he asked the question, Abigail hadn’t noticed that Ryan had come to stand next to her.
“I am. I was just thinking of how difficult this must be for these kids and families.”
“It’s horrific. What the illness of a child does to the entire family is something that one never forgets.”
His tone made his answer seem more personal than merely observational.
“My mom – and Joe of course, lost a little brother to some rare blood disease. My mom never got over it. The year she opened Christmas Village, she came and brought them a tree. She never missed a year after that.”
“And you’re carrying on her tradition?”
“I hope to always be able to.”
Abigail looked away rather than at Ryan. Her admiration and fondness for him was something she had never felt toward any man, and it seemed to be growing from minute to minute. It should scare her, but it didn’t. He gave her an unexplainable sense of peace.
Ryan held up one finger. “I’ll be right back. I need to help Sydney place her angel on top of the tree.”
Watching as Ryan lifted Sydney in his arms, Abigail smiled at the sweetness of the moment and how gently he held her. As he lifted her higher and higher, Sydney squealed in delight. Once her angel was settled in just the right place, he lowered her back down to her mother’s waiting arms. Of all the memories she would carry throughout her lifetime, Abigail had to believe this would be one she would cherish most. Never had she witnessed a more touching scene.
When Ryan returned to her side, Abigail looked up at him and found he had tears in his eyes. Immediately, tears sprang to hers at the sight of such a strong man affected by a tender moment.
“That angel means something.” He rubbed his eyes.
“What does it mean?”
Abigail turned to look at Sydney, finding that she was snuggled against her mother in a large chair.
“How do you know that?”
“Because her angel was chosen. That means it’s her last Christmas.”
Unable to speak at all, Abigail just looked on as Sydney and her mom talked softly, smiling at one another. How could her mom be so calm? Why wasn’t she running around and screaming for someone to help her daughter? How could anyone let go of such a precious little girl without dying, too?
Ryan had been called back over to the tree, so he didn’t notice when she quietly slipped out of the rec room. So overcome with emotion and on the verge of crying, Abigail moved quickly down the hall until she came to the stairwell. Ducking inside, she burst into tears before the door even closed behind her.
No more than ten minutes had passed when Ryan came barreling through the door, sighing heavily at the sight of her. “Here you are! I’ve been worried.”
Finding her sitting on the steps crying, he said no more but just sat quietly beside her and wrapped his arm around her shoulder.
After several minutes, once her crying slowed, he whispered, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought you. I guess I’ve been doing it so long now that I forgot what the first time feels like.”
Abigail looked up at him. She was a snotty mess but hardly cared. “Why does anyone do it?”
“Do what, volunteer?”
“No, have kids at all, knowing something like this could happen. Some random thing like cancer could happen to anyone’s child.”
“You’re right. It could.”
She shook her head. “No way am I ever taking that risk.”
Ryan spoke softly. “Love carries with it great risk. Anytime we love, we put ourselves out there. If you ask me, though, it’s worth it.”
“I disagree.” She sat up straight. “I know better than that.”
“That’s why you live the life you live, why you keep yourself so insulated from people.”
He wasn’t wrong. Truthfully, it wasn’t even subconscious. For as long as she could remember she had kept people at arm’s length. The one person she was closest to, her mother, had such a distant personality naturally that there was little risk.
There was something about the sight of Sydney with her mom that triggered even deeper emotions than Abigail could process at the time. There were so many emotions attached to the moment that she knew it was more than a mother’s love and loss that triggered her tears. Some wave of pain engulfed her and still she felt she was drowning in it.
She finally shrugged. “You’re right. I do keep myself insulated. Tonight only proves how necessary that is.”
Taking her hand into his, he offered, “Why don’t we get out of here?”
“Are you finished? I can wait.” She had no intention of returning to the room but was willing to wait if Ryan had more to do.
Driving along after leaving the hospital, Ryan was the first to speak. “How about hot cocoa?”
Nothing she could think of could have made her smile – except that. “I think a hot cocoa station will be a big hit.”
He chuckled softly. “This time I’m actually asking you out.”
“We are out.”
“Yeah, but I kinda blew it on this date.”
“You didn’t blow it. It was just tough. I’m sorry I was such a crybaby. That’s not like me at all.”
Smiling and nodding, he assured her, “Oh, I could have guessed that alright. I suppose that’s why I didn’t prepare you for it. I had no idea it would impact you that way.” He glanced at her. “You have a tender heart beneath that corporate exterior.”
“Wouldn’t dare.” He drove a moment more and then asked, “So, how about that cocoa? I know the best place in the world for cocoa.”
When they pulled into the driveway of a small brick house, Abigail looked at him. “Whose house is this?”
“My Nanna Bertie’s.”
“You are not taking me to your grandmother’s house for cocoa!”
“You better believe I am.”
“Seriously, another Christmas movie moment? Like I’ve not had enough for one night?”
She just shook her head. “Nothing.”
Ryan turned off the car and dangled the keys in front of Abigail. “It’ll get awfully cold out here. Come in or stay here, but I’m going in for cocoa.”
Inside Nanna Bertie’s house, Abigail felt the oddest sense of home. The place was filled with numerous smells. A fire was going with real wood – something she hadn’t been around other than at her dad’s. A cinnamon apple candle was burning on the kitchen counter right next to a plate of fresh sugar cookies. Abigail could hardly tell which was making her stomach rumble.
Nanna Bertie was a tiny woman with white hair. While she appeared to be frail at first glance, one conversation with her and you found her to be just the opposite. At the moment she was telling Ryan that she had climbed up a ladder to clean out a gutter.
“You shouldn’t be doing that!” Ryan exploded.
“It was clogged.”
Her answer was so matter-of-fact that it caused Abigail to giggle to herself. That would be her someday, independent and dangerous.
“All you had to do was call me or any of the boys.”
“No need. I have a ladder.”
Ryan just shook his head in frustration. “Nanna, please call me next time.”
“If I would’ve known you had such a pretty little girl with you, I would have called so I could talk to her while you worked.”
He just rolled his eyes.
“I know you didn’t just roll your eyes at me,” she said as she placed a cup of piping hot cocoa in front of Ryan.
The three sat and chatted for nearly an hour. Never in her life had Abigail been so immediately impressed with anyone as she was Nanna Bertie. Because Ryan’s mother and father divorced when he was still so young, his mother had moved back home with him. Nanna Bertie had helped to raise Ryan. It was clear to see how close the two were as they chatted about familiar things. Evidently, Ryan was in touch with her often, sometimes daily. Nanna Bertie seemed a bit offended that he hadn’t mentioned Abigail to her.
“So how long have you two been a thing?”
“We’re not a thing,” Ryan said as he glanced uncomfortably at Abigail, apologizing with his eyes. “I’ve convinced this beautiful lady to accompany me to Kimberly’s wedding. Beforehand, we’re just trying to get to know each other a little better.”
The older woman sat for a minute, glancing back and forth between the two. “That makes little sense.”
“Yeah, I kind of roped her into it. She works for Uncle Joe and now he thinks we’re dating.” He shook his head. “It’s a long story, but it all began with my trying to convince Brooke that Abigail was my date at Uncle Joe’s Christmas party.”
Stunned that he had told his grandmother the truth, Abigail looked at Ryan wide-eyed.
“Don’t worry, she won’t tell. She’s the most mischievous one of the family. I learned this kind of thing from her.”
Nanna Bertie sneered. “Never did like that Brooke – a little too snooty for my taste.”
Turning to Abigail, she said, “You might have snooty in you, but I think you’re a good girl overall.”
Abigail burst out laughing. “I do have a little snooty in me, but I’m working on it.”
Ryan watched the two as they spoke until finally he leaned in and grabbed his grandmother’s gnarled old hands.
“I brought Abigail by for a reason. We just left the hospital. Tonight was my night to decorate.”
Shaking her head, she smiled softly at her grandson. With such tender affection, she reached out and patted Ryan’s cheek.
“You’re a good boy, Ryan.”
“Abigail met the little girl who placed her angel on top of the tree.”
Nanna Bertie turned to Abigail. “What was her name?”
“Sydney.” In speaking her name, tears formed in her eyes and threatened to spill over her lashes.
“Sydney is a beautiful name. I’m sure she was glad to have your help.”
“Nanna, I told Abigail that you lost a young child. And of course my mom. We were just discussing how scary it is to have a child since so much can go wrong.”
“So much can go wrong. No matter how old they are, illness comes and accidents happen. But scary? No, not scary at all. The love you have for them makes everything you endure worthwhile. It’s more than the loss of a child you might face. You see them hurt and heartbroken over the years. I swear it hurts a mother’s heart just as much to see her child hurting, but still it’s worth it. I can honestly say, I had no idea what love was until they placed Joseph in my arms. I thought I did, but then something happened and my heart exploded.
“Next came your mom and my sweet little William.” She turned to Abigail. “He was five when we lost him.” She paused and thought for a moment. “You know, after his death, when I began to think about having another child, I wasn’t scared. Even five minutes of knowing a love like I felt for that boy was worth the heartbreak of losing him. I was eager to share that with another child.”
Nanna Bertie looked at Ryan. “Your Uncle Teddy wasn’t an easy one – still isn’t with the drinking and drugs, but I still have no regrets. Of all my kids, I think he’s the one the Lord used the most to make me His. I had to be. I couldn’t make it on my own.”
Abigail leaned up in her seat. “I watched Sydney’s mother cuddled up with her daughter tonight. How will she make it after…?”
“She will. Every day is hard. No matter what people say about time healing all wounds, that’s simply not true. But life still goes on. The sun rises, and you have to get out of bed. Next thing you know, the sun has risen for a year of mornings – then two. It’s not that you heal, you just learn to live broken.”
She looked at Abigail intently. “The loss of each of my children still hurts just as much today as when they died. Same with my husband. But hurt doesn’t stop the world; it just makes you learn how to live in this world differently. You allow the Lord to use you in your brokenness. You be of comfort to others who’ve lost. You reach out. You make some good out of the bad.”
Abigail sat back and sighed. “But if you never love then you won’t ever have to hurt that way.”
“True enough. But if you never love then you never live. What’s the point of existing without love in your life, no matter what form it takes?” Nanna Bertie smiled softly at Abigail. “You know what I think?”
“You’re just blowing smoke.”
Smiling back at her, she asked, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re no more capable of bypassing love than the rest of us. It’ll hit you someday, and when it does, if it’s real love – the kind God brings your way – then you’ll never regret it. I promise you that.”
Abigail nodded. “I can’t imagine you lying to me.”
“I might pull your leg, but I’d never lie.”
By quarter to ten they were pulling in front of Abigail’s building. The drive home had been comfortable and the conversation light. Ryan never mentioned any of the things they had discussed at Nanna Bertie’s or at the hospital. Finally, though, when he came to a stop, he turned to face her.
“I’ve been thinking about what we discussed on the way to the party the other night.”
“About how you came to know Jesus before your parents split.”
“A seed was planted, but it’s just rested there, dormant. I think it’s time you allow it to grow.”
“How do I do that?”
“Do you have a Bible?”
She shook her head no.
“May I give you one? It’ll be my Christmas gift to you since you won’t let me bring you a tree.”
“That would be kind of you.”
“I’ll warn you, though, it’s a little overwhelming to begin with. It helps if you go to a Bible study where you can ask questions.”
“Can’t I just ask you?”
Ryan smiled shyly and looked down as he answered. “I would be happy to help as much as I can. I can’t say that I know all the answers.” He chuckled. “Not even a fraction of the answers, but I’ll help as best I can.”
During the flight to her dad’s, Abigail had worked on an expansion plan for Christmas Village. She had been thinking about it since Ryan had admitted that he would much rather work full-time there than as an architect. How wonderful it would be to help him figure out a way. Once the wheels began to turn, she had ideas flooding her mind. Funny enough, an old Christmas movie came to mind, where the characters found a way of saving a struggling inn by having various holiday shows there. Not that this was the same, but her ideas were based on seasons. She had a plan for each season and month with the exception of early January, which would be spent recovering from the Christmas season and clearing out inventory to make way for spring. Her ultimate plan was to turn the vast warehouse and outdoor space into a nursery and seasonal decoration center to operate from early spring through the fall. Throughout the year, with the arrival of each random holiday, she had a plan. Even in late January she supposed Ryan could capitalize on the Super Bowl and then gear up for Valentine’s Day in February.
There would be very little down time, so if he managed his assets well, he would be able to maintain a year-around schedule. The off-season name would be The Village, then after Halloween, with much advertisement and celebration, Christmas Village would reopen. She could see media campaigns to drive excitement and cause people to come for the grand Christmas Village reopening each year. They would offer giveaways, have food, and of course serve cocoa. She smiled at that thought. Oddly, the more she strategized over the plan, the more invested she felt, which made no sense. There was no reason she would be a part of it necessarily. Still, there was a small part of her that hoped she would be, at least in some small way.
Since the night with Ryan at his nanna’s house, Abigail couldn’t help but think of him more. His tenderness with his grandmother was a memory she just couldn’t shake. Still, knowing what she knew, the fact that he loved Brooke was another thought that seemed to continually shake her. Often she reminded herself that people got over old flames all the time. If she was patient and waited it out, in time Ryan would be available. When that happened, she wanted to be there, to be the one he turned to. Maybe being a part of The Village would allow for that.
Those thoughts were about as foreign to Abigail as walking on the moon. Never once had she felt such a longing to be with someone. On a few occasions she had allowed her mind to consider a guy or two, especially the ones who checked off the most boxes. Within an hour of considering each of them, she would change her mind. None had ever made her feel what Ryan did. None had ever made her feel anything at all. All this time, she had assumed she wasn’t capable of deep emotion, when come to find out, she was simply waiting for the one guy worthy of it, and Ryan was. If any man was worthy, he was. His kindness toward others touched her so intensely, there were moments it nearly moved her to tears: at the hospital with the children, with his nanna, with his loyalty to Robbie, and maybe even most inspiring in his receptivity to the things of God. That trait reminded her of her dad, something that made her feel warm yet uncomfortable at the same time.
That was a feeling not so foreign to her. As she currently drove toward her dad’s house in her rental car, that was exactly what she was feeling already. Everything about his home was warm and inviting, the exact things that seemed to make her most uncomfortable. Each year when she visited, she stayed no longer than two nights and then rushed out early on Monday morning to catch the first available flight. For fifteen years that was the extent of personal contact she had with her dad. As many times as he had pleaded with her to visit more often or offered to come to Chicago to visit her, she was careful to keep things as they were. It worked, so she could see no reason to change things.
Once parked in front of his house and with dogs barking and announcing her arrival, it didn’t take long for her dad to appear and run quickly down the steps. Even before she had switched off the ignition, he had opened the car door and was waiting for her to climb out of the car. When she did, he pulled her roughly into his arms and held her for several seconds. This was typical of him, an emotional greeting that caused her to squirm.
She leaned back and looked at him. He looked good, tired but good. Not yet fifty, he was still in great shape, a handsome man by anyone’s standards. That made Abigail think of her mom and how she often said it was his good looks that led to this and that and Abigail. She smiled at that.
“You look good.” He was smiling broadly, still holding her in his embrace.
“I was just thinking the same of you.”
“How was the flight?”
“And the drive?”
He lived nearly two hours from the airport, so getting there was never without effort. Every year he offered to pick her up, but the thought of not having a car to escape if she needed was alarming. She wanted to know she was in control of the visit.
“I know it’s long. I’m glad you’ve come. I’ve been waiting 363 days for this.”
Because she knew he was being sincere, that statement made her a little sad. Deciding not to comment in return, Abigail moved toward the trunk to collect her bags and he followed along.
“So things may look a little different this year. You and I are in charge.”
Several years after the divorce, her dad had married a woman from his hometown. They had never dated before he left for the army, but once he returned home, Jeannie didn’t waste time in claiming him. She had had a crush on him since she was in fifth grade. Abigail knew that since Jeannie told the story every single year.
“She’s here, just having to take it easy.”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“We’ve had a bit of a scare, but everything turned out okay.”
“What kind of scare?”
“Ovarian cancer. She had a hysterectomy and is now taking a round of chemo.”
Abigail stopped in her tracks. “Why didn’t you tell me? That’s a big deal.”
It was especially a big deal when it hit so close to home. After being with Sydney so recently, the fact that cancer was affecting her own family was frightening.
“I know you’re busy.”
“Not too busy for a phone call.”
Wade stood before his daughter, hesitating in his response.
“Why didn’t you call, Daddy?”
“I didn’t think you’d care so much.”
“She’s your wife. Of course, I care if she has cancer.”
“I’m sorry. I should have called.”
They began walking toward the porch when Abigail stopped once again. “Why didn’t you think I would care?”
“Well, it’s no secret that you don’t like Jeannie so much.”
“I like her fine.” When her dad just looked at her in disbelief, she added, “I think she’s a nice lady. I’m glad you have her.”
“Okay.” He moved up the stairs and into the house.
Following behind him, Abigail was disturbed. Why did he think she didn’t like Jeannie?
The moment she walked through the door, it was like walking into a garden paradise. There were plants and flowers scattered all about, obviously get well arrangements. Abigail smiled. Jeannie was clearly loved.
Without discussing the matter further, Abigail went to get settled into her room – as settled as she could when staying only two nights. She lived out of her suitcase and never once used the empty drawers that Jeannie always showed her were empty.
Abigail sat heavily on the bed and looked around at the faded old curtains and quilt on the bed. The room was worn and tired, but still comfortable. She had been staying in this room once a year since her dad moved back to Wyoming after finally retiring. They called it her room, but there wasn’t one thing there that felt like hers. It never had. From the first time she had visited until this day, she felt like a guest at some casual acquaintance’s home. This wasn’t family. This was an annual obligation that she did only because her dad would be crushed if she didn’t come.
Later, after a surprisingly tasty dinner that her dad cooked, the two stood and washed and hand dried dishes together. Jeannie had come in for only a few minutes but wasn’t able to eat. She looked awful, much worse than Abigail was prepared for.
“Are you scared, Daddy?”
Wade handed the wet plate to his daughter. “Terrified.”
“Will she be okay?”
“Yes, I believe so.”
“You believe like faith believe or because the doctor says so?”
“The doctor is optimistic.”
Abigail was quiet for a second. Then she said, “I’m sorry you have gone through this alone.”
“I’ve hardly been alone. Her boys have been great about coming by. Heck, half the town has been here at one time or another to bring food.”
She looked at the flowers sitting on the counter nearby. “I can see that. I’m glad you have so many people who care about you here.”
“We do have that.”
“If I would have known, I would have sent flowers.”
“No worries. We have plenty of flowers.”
For some reason, they both became quiet after that conversation. Jeannie never came back out, so her dad went in on occasion to check on her. Each time he left, Abigail could see the strain on her father’s face.
The next time he returned, she said, “I really wish I had known. I’m sorry you didn’t feel you could tell me.”
“Honestly, Abby, I don’t call you unless I have to. I know that’s what you want.”
Abigail looked away. He was right. When he did call, she made excuses to get off the phone quickly.
“I’m sorry, Daddy.”
“I am, too.”
He just sat and stared into the fire. On one occasion he leaned up as if he wanted to say something but didn’t. After a few more awkward moments, he told her. “You’re only here for two nights. I sure didn’t mean to ruin it. I guess I’m just,” he hesitated and shook his head. “I don’t know what I am. Tired. I suppose I’m just tired.”
“I could have come another time.”
Wade leaned in closer to her. “I live for this visit, so no way was I going to risk you not coming at all.”
Tears burned her eyes at the emotion behind his statement. Something had been stirring within her from the moment she had arrived, a sadness she hadn’t felt since she was a little girl. A lump formed in her throat, so she swallowed hard. She opened her mouth to speak but then thought better of it. If she opened herself up that way, she might very well fall apart.
Again they were quiet, and once again he excused himself to check on Jeannie. When he returned, Abigail turned to him. “You’re so good to her.”
“She’s even better to me.”
“I know. I see it.”
Abigail vividly remembered the years her parents were married. Her dad was just as caring toward her mom as he was toward Jeannie. That wasn’t the case with her mom. Even as a young girl, Abigail felt the tension between them, especially from her mom. From her earliest memories on, Abigail couldn’t remember her mom ever acting happy – before or after the divorce. While they were a family, Abigail was her happiest. That was what made her feel so uncomfortable when visiting her dad. She found a tiny taste of that old life, and it never ceased to make her angry. Not hurt or upset but angry. By the time she would leave her dad’s place, she would spend the drive back to the airport angry at him for how happy he was in his new life.
Without looking at him, not wanting to see his face when she spoke her heart, she whispered, “I waited for you to come for me.”
“What do you mean?”
“When we left for Chicago. I kept thinking you would come and fight for me.” She bowed her head and began to cry. Quietly, she added, “I thought I meant more to you than that.”
Wade moved from his seat, sat on the cushion next to her, and lifted her face to look at him. “Is that what you’ve thought all these years? That I didn’t come?”
She only nodded.
“Of course I came. As soon as I returned from maneuvers and found you gone, I came to Chicago. I did fight, so much so that I landed my butt in jail for two days. Once she had a restraining order issued, I had no options or legal standing. With her high-powered boyfriend on her side, I didn’t stand a chance in court.”
“Dennis, the guy at the firm she went to work for.”
“Dennis is married.”
“Maybe so, but that’s who your mom went there to be with. She went for a visit that summer before and they rekindled something, I guess.
“She took every penny we had. My dad mortgaged his place to help me pay for an attorney. I still got no more than summer visitation since I didn’t live there in Chicago.”
Abigail wasn’t crying by this point. Her entire frame of reference for her existence had just been altered. Now, she was trying to fit the pieces into place. She remembered her mom leaving them that summer before, and when she returned, she was unusually happy. Only a few months later, they were scrambling to pack boxes so that they could be moved out before her dad returned. She never understood why, and when she asked, her mom never really answered other than to say she had accepted a job in Chicago.
Dennis? She knew her mom had been friends with him long before meeting her dad. Had they had an affair?
“So you came?”
“I did.” He grabbed her arms. “I can hardly believe you thought I didn’t? You were my world.”
Crying again, she could only lean into her daddy’s arms. “I thought you didn’t want me anymore.”
Wade held her tightly and cried even harder than his daughter. “From the second I knew about you, I’ve wanted you. You are the very best part of me.”
She thought of those first few summers going to visit her dad and how happy he seemed to see her. But once he would take her home again, the same feelings of abandonment returned. He was still in the army then. Once he retired and moved back to his hometown – and then married Jeannie – Abigail closed herself off to him. Not only did she feel abandoned, she felt replaced. Trying to be with her dad with Jeannie around was like sharing him. The summer she turned fourteen was her last summer to visit. After that, two days was her limit, and the rest of the year she completely shut her father out of her life.
“When we first left, I knew you would come for me. I knew it.”
For weeks after moving into the downtown apartment, Abigail would lie in bed at night and pray that her daddy would come. Prayer reminded her of her dad and made her feel close to him. Before the divorce, he would tuck her in and pray over her every night he was in town. The longer she waited for her dad, the less she prayed. She assumed God didn’t hear her, so she eventually stopped altogether. Eventually she gave up on her dad ever coming.
“Father’s joy – that’s what Abigail means. Do you remember my telling you that when you were a little girl?”
She smiled softly. “I do remember that.”
“You are still my joy, the absolute light of my life.”
He broke down crying again. “I’m so sorry you didn’t know. Honestly,” he paused to wipe his face. “When you started getting older and withdrawing from me, I just assumed you had outgrown me. If I had known you thought I didn’t want you…”
He took her face into his hand. “Abby, I have known no greater love in all of my life than loving you. When I say I live for these two days, I genuinely mean I live for these two days.”
Abigail went to bed that night with a deeply troubled heart. All those years she had lost with her dad – the love of her life – was because of her mother’s lies. As tempted as she was to call and confront her mother, she knew better. This was a face-to-face conversation to have.
The following day, from the moment they ate breakfast together until dinner that evening, Abigail felt like a daddy’s girl again. She allowed the wall she had erected between them to fall. With ease it did. Once, when Jeannie came to sit with them for a brief time, Abigail tried to apologize to her for being so distant, for making her believe she didn’t like her. The truth was, Jeannie was one of the most likable people Abigail had ever met. She had such a light and bubbly personality that Abigail just felt happy in her presence. Even in her weakened state, Jeannie was upbeat and determined to spend time with Abigail.
Now, sitting alone by the fire after her dad and Jeannie had gone to bed, Abigail looked around the room, feeling that warm sensation wrap around her. This was it – that Christmas movie feeling. As many times as had she tried to figure out why in the world she was so drawn to those movies, she finally understood it. Those movies reminded her of this feeling of Christmas with her dad in his warm and cozy home. There were tacky decorations scattered all over the place, just like in the movies, fake mistletoe and flashing lights over several doorways. Usually, when Jeannie was feeling well, she baked Christmas tree cookies and begged Abigail to help her decorate them. The house smelled of pine and was filled with love.
This was the life she could have lived with her dad – at least part-time. If she hadn’t been so jaded by her mother, this very well could be the life she lived with a man she loved. Maybe it could be still. If it wasn’t too late to turn things around with her father, then maybe it wasn’t too late for her distant heart.
That thought brought Ryan to mind. She smiled softly, reached for her cold cup of cocoa, and took a sip.
Abigail waited impatiently in the lobby of her mother’s office building. Currently, her mother was tied up in a meeting that would last at least half an hour more. She was determined to wait, though. Since the conversation with her dad, Abigail had a thousand accusations to throw at her mother. She had completely ruined her later childhood and sculpted her into a feminazi version of herself, leaving Abigail closed off in relationships and unable to develop deep connections. Today, she planned to dump it all on her. Not to mention the fact that she was quitting her job all because Joe – a father figure – had asked her to plan the company Christmas party. For goodness sake, the man simply asked her to plan a party and she was ready to walk away from a job she loved. How messed up was that? She was so scarred over her “daddy issues” that a simple request by her boss turned into some dramatic production.
For the first time all morning, Abigail smiled. The fact that she had met Ryan through the party planning wasn’t lost on her. More than once it crossed her mind how it had all come about. Because Joe had asked her to plan the party and because Ryan had overheard her conversation with Liz about the interview, everything else had fallen into place.
Since their last “date” – going to the hospital and to Nanna Bertie’s – Ryan had called once to confirm that they were still on for her mother’s office party, but that had been before her conversation with her father. Now, there was no way she was going to that party. Even if not for her mom, she would never go since Dennis would be there. Still, Abigail could hardly believe her mother had left her father for him. That was why she was waiting for her mom. She at least owed it to her to hear her side of the story before casting blame.
Once she was seated in her mother’s office with the door closed, Abigail wasted no time.
“Why did we move to Chicago?”
Christine sat motionless. Her face showed no change in expression.
“I accepted a job here at the firm.”
“Were you having an affair with Dennis?”
Momentarily speechless, Christine simply sat and stared. Finally, blinking several times, she asked, “Is that what your father told you?”
“Yes. Is it true?”
Her mother said nothing.
Abigail stood and began to pace. “So you destroyed our family – my family – for a man?”
Again her mother said nothing.
“Is the affair still going on?”
Shaking her head, Christine softly said, “No, of course not.”
“How long did it last?”
“Is it true that you had a restraining order issued against Daddy?”
“I had no choice. He was acting like a maniac, threatening to take you. I feared for my safety.”
Furious, Abigail shouted, “And that surprised you?” She lowered her voice only a little. “The man comes home and finds his child is gone and you expect him to act rationally? He adored me. I know you knew that. I was his world when he was home.”
Abigail began to cry at the thought of her dad’s being so hurt. She quickly wiped her eyes so that her mother wouldn’t see her weakness. The last thing she wanted was to display weakness in the presence of the strongest woman she knew.
“So all those years you hammered it into my head that I should never allow my career to come second to a man or a family, you were being nothing but a hypocrite? You allowed a man to destroy your marriage and your daughter’s life, yet you brainwashed me into believing men weren’t worth the sacrifice.”
“To say I ruined your life is being a little melodramatic, don’t you think? You had the best of everything here.”
For the first time in her life, she suddenly became aware of something: her mother had never known her at all – not the real her. And if she ever did, she made sure to change her completely.
“I had everything? Do you want to know the only thing I ever wanted? My dad. That was it. Coming here devastated me. You made me believe he didn’t want me.”
“I never said that.”
“When I would ask you if he was coming, you would say he was busy or training or on maneuvers. How did you think I would take those answers other than to believe he didn’t want me?”
“I knew you would get over it – and you did. You’ve had a good life…”
“No! I didn’t! I never did. My life has been shaped,” she paused, “no, misshaped by the fact that I felt rejected by my dad.”
Abigail became quiet for a moment. Taking a deep breath, realizing this conversation would go nowhere but her mother’s dodging any wrong-doing, she said, “You can reframe this however you choose, but I blame you for the fact that I’ve missed the past nineteen years with my dad.”
Abigail moved to the door. Just before reaching for the handle, she whispered, “I need some space from you.”
Christine jumped to her feet and rushed to her daughter.
“I’m sorry for how I’ve hurt you. Please don’t walk away from me. You are the only person I have in this world.”
Abigail wasn’t trying to be vindictive, but rather simply stating a fact. “There’s a reason for that, Mother. I love you, but I can honestly say, I don’t like you, even a little, right now.”
Never had she been an overly emotional person, but this day, Abigail bawled like a baby on and off for hours. After her visit with her mother, she never even went to her office that afternoon as she had planned. Instead, she called her assistant and asked her to cancel whatever was on her schedule. Then she called Ryan and left him a message that the party that night was off and that she would see him Friday night at the wedding.
Besides her thoughts of her mother’s actions and her father’s heartbreak, Abigail found she was concerned about and dreading the wedding. Ryan’s lingering feelings for Brooke troubled her. Most times she felt confident that she could ride it out and wait until he was over her. What if he never was? What if he and Brooke rekindled their relationship at the wedding? Weddings did that to people – just as Christmas did. It happened in most movies: dormant feelings come back to life. Doubly bad for her was that this was a Christmas wedding. If Brooke felt lonely, she would naturally gravitate to the man who had once asked her to marry him.
Abigail shook her head, trying to clear her mind. Obviously, she was losing it, trapped in a movie script of her own making. She actually laughed at herself and how girly she suddenly was. Not just the paranoid thoughts about Ryan and Brooke and her tears over her parents – though that was enough – but here she sat in her pj’s, watching a sappy Christmas movie on TV while eating mint chocolate chip ice cream. She had no idea who she was at the moment.
When her doorbell rang at seven, Abigail moved quickly to look out the peephole. It was Ryan, and he was smiling and maybe even whistling as he rocked back and forth and waited for her to answer the door. What was Ryan doing there all dressed up? She had called and canceled.
Cracking the door open, she barely poked her head out the door. “I left you a message. We aren’t going to the party.”
His expression fell when he saw her face. “You’ve been crying.”
“I called to cancel.”
“I dropped my phone in a koi pond – long story. I realized I didn’t have your number other than in my phone. I just assumed we were still on.”
“I’m sorry you’ve gotten out for nothing.”
“It’s not for nothing. Tell me why you’re upset.”
“It’s no big deal.” She was embarrassed that he had caught her looking like this.
“It’s a big deal to me.” Without asking, he reached out and pushed the door open. “I’m staying. We had a date, and I’m keeping it.”
With eyes wide, Abigail watched as he passed by her, slipped off his jacket and wrapped it over a dining room chair, and proceeded to the living room where he picked up her pint of ice cream and began eating it.
Unsure exactly what to do, she went in and joined him.
“What’re watching?” he asked with his mouth full.
“I’m not sure of the name, but it’s something about mistletoe and mountains.”
He chuckled. “Of course it is. Get me caught up.”
“She’s visiting her hometown from the big city where she now lives.”
“No.” She smiled at him. “Advertising.”
“Gotcha. Have they fallen on the ice yet or in the snow? I don’t want to miss that part. I’ve gotta make fun.”
“Is that her high school sweetheart? The guy with the white teeth and ugly sweater?”
“It is. I may be wrong, but I have a feeling they will fall back in love and kiss under the mistletoe.”
“I can hardly imagine that happening.” He grinned and offered her the spoon, so she dipped out a bite.
Over the next hour they watched the movie without saying much. Occasionally one or the other would make a guess about what was about to happen, then both would laugh when it did. The longer he was there, the more comfortable Abigail felt. Once during a commercial he used her phone to call for pizza. In the meantime he rummaged through her cabinets and refrigerator trying to find something to tide him over.
Ryan called out from the kitchen. “If you need money for groceries, I can spot you a twenty.”
“I’ll go to the store tomorrow night. I knew I would be out of town this weekend.”
“This is, like, dorm room sad. You don’t even have a jar of peanut butter.”
“I know. I’ll pick some up. Hey, the movie’s back on.”
They watched until the doorbell rang, which was, of course, exactly when the couple was about to kiss under the mistletoe. The doorbell rang again.
Ryan nudged her. “Get the door. This is your place.”
“Shh.” She waved him off without looking away from the screen. “It’s your pizza.”
Ryan left and missed the end of the movie.
When he returned, he groaned. “You mean I invested nearly two hours of my life and missed the best part?”
She laughed at him. “The kissed beneath the mistletoe. Now give me a slice of pizza.”
They ate and talked. Soon enough, another movie had begun. When he showed no signs of leaving, Abigail just settled back, pulled a blanket over her lap, and watched the movie.
About halfway through, during a commercial break, Ryan causally asked, “So, you gonna tell me what happened at your dad’s, why you’re so upset?”
“Nothing happened there – well, nothing bad.” She smiled and sighed. “If anything, it was the best time I’ve ever had with him. The entire trip was like a Christmas movie moment.”
“The long lost daughter returns home and there’s this touching conversation that unravels years of hurt and misunderstanding.”
“That’s definitely a Christmas movie moment.”
“There’s an acronym for it now?”
“Yes. I’m not sure what’s going on exactly, but my life is filled with them now. Everywhere I turn there’s some major cliché staring me in the face.”
She almost blurted out that it all started with the Christmas tree nearly falling on her, but she feared he would get the wrong idea. Only a few of the clichés had been at all romantic, like his saving her that day from the tree or taking her to see his Nanna. More often than not, the CMMs were more to direct her inward, to make her evaluate her entire way of life and the choices she had made and why.
“Have you considered that maybe God is trying to get your attention?”
“Does God do that?”
Ryan’s eyes widened as if he was surprised that she would even ask. “Of course He does!”
He shook his head. “Not sure. You’ll have to ask Him.”
The movie came back on, so they went back to watching, but all the while, Abigail’s mind was set on something she usually gave little attention to – God.
Two commercial breaks later, Abigail admitted, “This one is so cheesy, I’m not even sure I want to finish it.”
Reaching for the remote, Ryan switched the off TV and turned to face her.
“I want to talk to you about something, but I don’t want to freak you out.”
Because he seemed so suddenly serious, she felt a little nervous. “What do you want to talk about?”
“I’m a church guy. You know that.”
“Since you weren’t raised in church, I feel that I have to choose my words carefully around you.”
“Don’t. Whatever you have to say, please say it.”
“I have no idea what’s going on with you. You don’t have to tell me, but just know I’ll listen and be a friendly shoulder to cry on if you need me.”
“So much has happened over these past few days that I’m struggling to process it. After all these years, I found out my mom left my dad for another man.”
“Hence the canceled Christmas party tonight?”
“Yes. But much worse than that, I found out my dad had tried to see me. She shut him out and used her boyfriend’s influence with the judge to keep my dad from getting custody.” Abigail sighed softly. “I spent the past nineteen years thinking he didn’t care enough to come for me. That’s messed with my head – with who I’ve become.”
“That’s some tough stuff to sort through.”
“So here’s the church part I warned you about.”
“Hit me with it.”
“God is doing something here, as I said before, to get your attention.”
“Why would He want to get my attention?”
Ryan smiled softly. “You said you invited Him into your life when you were a kid, right?”
“He has never wanted to be on the outskirts of your life, Abigail. He wants to be your life. Whatever is stirring around between you and your dad is a way for God to help you see Him.” He pointed up. “In a different light.
“You have much to learn. One of the fundamentals is that God is your Father. You asked me if God unadopts people, so you have some idea of the concept. Still, the answer to that is no – never. Could your dad ever not be your dad? Even my dad, while not acting like much of a dad, will always be my dad. He can’t undad me.
“God uses the parent and child relationship here on earth to teach us about our relationship with Him. When anyone has a strained relationship with their earthly dad, it skews their view of their heavenly Dad. That seems to be what He is trying to show you. God has loved you all along, but your upbringing has kept you from getting to know Him.” Ryan tilted his head in thought. “This seems to be a parallel with your earthly dad. You were kept from him as well.”
Abigail looked down, tears filling her eyes. “This is too much for me right now.”
He reached out and took her hand. “I know, but I had to break the seal and give you something to pray about.” He grinned. “Let’s try to find another movie.”
As much as she knew he meant well, Abigail wasn’t able to process all Ryan was saying. Actually, that wasn’t true. What he had said made sense, but she just wasn’t ready to go so deep. She would want to in time, she was fairly certain, but until she came to a better place in dealing with her mom and trying to somehow find a way to embrace this new relationship with her dad, she didn’t want to add any more emotions to the mix. Thoughts of God stirred up emotions that caused her to feel uneasy. She prided herself on being smart and knowledgeable in every area that mattered. Ryan’s comment that she had much to learn stung and made her feel embarrassed. Unsure why, all Abigail did know was that she wasn’t ready to investigate that yet.
As Ryan was skiing channels looking for a new Christmas movie, Abigail blurted out, “Oh! I have something for you.”
She went into the dining room where she had dumped her briefcase and pulled out her tablet. Taking it to Ryan she handed it to him.
“These are just some early ideas of what you might do with Christmas Village throughout the year. You can brainstorm and come up with plenty I haven’t thought of.”
Ryan scanned through the notes shaking his head. “This is great stuff! No wonder they pay you the big bucks.”
“I really think you have a good opportunity here, Ryan. If you were serious about working full-time at The Village, I believe you could make it work. Marketing and promotions will need to be your primary focus the first few years, but soon enough, the city will know where you are and what you offer.”
“I like that, The Village.” He scanned some more. “And then the big promotion when we officially become Christmas Village again.” He looked up at her. “You’re brilliant.”
She only smiled and shrugged.
“No, really. This could be life changing for me. Some of this has crossed my mind but seemed to be more of a dream. The way you have it laid out here, I could see it working.”
“You’ll need an investor or two. Unless you have a wad of cash I don’t know about, I’m sure purchasing inventory this spring will be costly, especially if you go with the outdoor furniture option.”
Ryan nodded. “I have a filthy rich uncle who would hear me out.”
“I was thinking that.”
When Ryan brought Joe up, it caused that now familiar sense of unease again. There was simply no way she could walk away from him – or from Ryan for that matter. She wanted to be a part of him pursuing his dream.
“You have me. I would invest in this.”
“No way would I ever ask that of you.”
“I’m offering. I believe in this.” She paused a second. “I believe in you, Ryan. You can make this work.” She chuckled. “Plus, I’ll manage your early marketing. You can’t fail with me on board.”
The expression on his face made her look away. He was so shocked by her words that she felt nearly embarrassed and feared her feelings for him were evident.
“This is strictly business of course – me as an investor.”
“Of course,” he echoed her words. “Well, I have much to pray over.”
Abigail nodded. “You do.”
While Ryan read over her notes once more, seeming even more excited this time through, Abigail took over skiing stations. Settling on a movie she had seen at least three times, she turned the volume down so Ryan could continue to read.
He glanced up at the TV. “Turn it up. This is one of my favorites. I hate to be a spoiler, but they fall in love in the end.”
“Humph! Imagine that.”
They watched mostly in silence but then chatted during the commercial breaks. During the third break, Abigail casually asked, “What do you think about the wedding?”
“Uh, I’m for?”
She laughed at that. “What I mean is: are you looking forward to it?”
Shrugging, he shook his head. “I guess I haven’t thought much about it.”
When he stood, she looked up, wondering if he was planning to leave. His movement seemed abrupt.
“Where are you going?”
“To get more ice cream.” Stopping and turning back, he waved his hands all around in her direction. “I know with all this going on: pajamas and your hair in a sloppy ponytail, you planned on more than a one-pint night. I’ll guarantee I’ll find more in the freezer.”
While she waited for him, knowing he would find two more pints, she called out, “Bring an extra spoon. You hogged the last pint.”
Ryan sat and handed Abigail the spoon. Passing the pint back and forth, they nearly finished off the entire container.
“It’s late,” Ryan said as he finally set the ice cream on the coffee table.
“It is, and I have to be at work early.”
“Are you okay now? I can stay.”
“I’m much better now. Thanks for staying.”
“Anytime.” He turned to face her. “I know we haven’t known each other long, but I meant what I said. If you ever do want to talk, I will be a friend and listen.”
“I believe that, and I appreciate the offer.” She paused and smiled. “Just you hanging out with me tonight made a big difference.” She waved her hands all around in front of her. “Can you believe how much more pathetic all of this would have been if I was watching alone tonight?”
He nodded. “Pretty pathetic. Glad I saved you from that.”
Grinning sheepishly, he said, “So, we still had our date tonight. That makes four counting the first Christmas party. I would say that’s enough to tell people we’ve been dating. Now, you won’t feel as if you’re lying at the wedding.”
“I’m sorry I’ve put you in this position. You’ve been a great sport about it.”
“It’s been pretty nice.”
“Okay then.” He sat there a moment more as if he wanted to say something.
When he didn’t, she said, “Okay.”
“Well, I should go.”
“Thanks again for hanging out.”
“Thanks for the ice cream.”
While saying goodbye at the door, he did the same thing, hesitated as if he wanted to say something more. Abigail just stood there waiting.
“Well, I should go.”
She smiled. “You said that already.”
Ryan grinned and looked down. “Yeah, I did, didn’t I?”
His departure was sweet and awkward. As near as she could remember, Abigail had never had a better night in her life. This was what a relationship should look like – two people fighting over their share of the ice cream.
Stepping off the train, Abigail felt a tremendous sense of relief. After meeting with the HR guy at Conway and formally turning down their offer, she felt back on track somehow. From the moment she agreed to take the position, she had felt a tremendous sense of turmoil deep within. She was where she belonged at Goodwin, and all along she had known it. This season of upheaval had clarified many things for her, a significant part of that being that Joe was more than a boss and mentor. He was family. As much as she had felt offended, she would find a way to work through that and get back on track with him. The first step of that was to at least try to understand what had prompted his actions.
Back at the Goodwin Building, she didn’t even go to her own office but Joe’s instead. Janice wasn’t at her desk, so Abigail leaned in Joe’s doorway. “You got a minute?”
Joe looked up at her and smiled. “I have a minute for you.”
With a small lump in her throat, Abigail closed the door behind her and took a seat across from Joe.
“I need to talk to you about something.”
He sighed heavily and lowered his head. “I’ve been waiting for this.”
He looked back at her. “Of course, I have.”
She wasn’t sure how that could be possible. Maybe he had sensed her displeasure during their previous encounters.
“Were you not pleased with my performance on the Phoenix project?”
“What? That’s ridiculous. No one brings together an acquisition like you.”
“Then why did you pull me off and put Jackson on it? Jackson of all people!”
“That’s what’s been bothering you? That I reassigned you?”
“How could that not bother me? I’ve invested months in this project.” She paused and then sputtered when she did begin to speak. “I felt blindsided and couldn’t figure out what I had done to deserve it.”
Shaking his head, Joe chuckled softly. “Abigail…” He stopped and looked at her intently. “You’re the best I’ve got. But it’s more than that. To me, you’re family. That’s why I assigned you to handle the Christmas party.”
“Julie planned the party every year up until she got sick. The party last year was just a reminder that she was gone. I could hardly attend my own company Christmas party. Honestly, I barely got through Christmas at all. Kimberly felt the same. So this year we decided that we weren’t going to let death steal Christmas from us even one year longer. That’s why she decided on a wedding just two days before Christmas. Julie died two days before Christmas.
“By giving you the party, I was handing something over that I cherish.”
Tears sprang to Abigail’s eyes. “I had no idea you were struggling. I had no idea it meant so much to you.”
“It does, and you did exactly what I expected – turned it around for me. I had a great time.”
“Joe…” She was at a loss. How could she have doubted a man who had always treated her with such kindness and respect?”
“I want you to have this.” Joe slid an envelope across his desk. “I was going to track you down and give it to you today. It’s a small token of my appreciation.”
Abigail found a check for a thousand dollars in the envelope with a personal note from Joe saying how much he appreciated her hard work.
“I can’t take this.”
“Sure you can. It’s a small bonus. You deserve it.”
“I really don’t. I didn’t do that much. Ryan took care of most of the details.” She stopped and thought of the defeated expression in Sydney’s mother’s eyes. “But I do know of a family who can use it.”
“Then by all means, give it away.”
“Ryan took me to the children’s hospital. There’s a single mom whose little girl is dying.”
Joe smiled softly. “I’m sorry I missed that this year. I was caught up with Kimberly. I knew she had to be my priority as she’s working through the last of the wedding details.”
“You usually go?”
“I have for years. I lost a little brother, you know.”
“Yeah, Nanna Bertie told me.”
“You’ve met my mom?”
“Ryan took me there after the hospital. I understand why the hospital is so close to your family’s heart.”
“For Ryan, this is more about his mom. He’s a good kid.”
“I can see that.”
“My baby sister, Ryan’s mom, died a week before Christmas a few years before Julie. Did he tell you that?”
Abigail shook her head no. She knew she had been sick during the holidays but not that she died so close to Christmas. Why hadn’t Ryan mentioned that?
“Now you see why Christmas had become more filled with pain than a time of joy? I had lost sight of the real meaning – I lost sight of Jesus and why He came.” Joe leaned in closer. “Abigail, I know I will see them both again in heaven – and my little brother. I just needed to refocus on Jesus in order to remember that this isn’t all there is. This is but a breath.”
For a moment she could only sit staring at Joe. His words were poignant and filled with such sincerity. How could she not want to emulate this man?
“I’m sorry I took things the way I did. I was too defensive and quick to assume the worst.”
“I wish I had clarified. The day I asked you, I was trying to keep my thoughts in a positive place. I feared talking about Julie would only bring me down.”
They both sat for a few seconds until Joe asked, “So, is there something you want to tell me?”
Abigail shook her head. “No, I can’t think of anything else.”
She wondered if he was talking about Ryan. If he was, she wasn’t ready to discuss something that was still only a possibility.
“You sure? This is a small town when it comes to business.”
Now she understood. He had gotten wind that she had accepted a job offer.
“I’m positive. I made a stop on my way in this morning and took care of a mistake I had made.”
Smiling broadly, he nodded. “Hmm, that’s good to hear.”
She smiled in return. “So I’m back on deck for Phoenix?”
“You are but not until next month.” He held up his hand to stop her complaints. “Don’t worry. I’ve kept my finger on the pulse. Jackson hasn’t made a mess.”
Joe leaned back in his chair. “For the remainder of the month, I want you here – not traveling. You’re family. Family is supposed to stick together. We have a wedding this week.”
“We sure do. I’ll be there.”
Joe stood and moved to stand behind his chair. Gripping the top of the chair with both hands, he shook his head.
“This chair has been good to me, Abigail. I’ve built a life sitting behind this desk – not just for my family but for all the families who work here and depend on my leadership. It’s a demanding chair, though, one that requires dedication and tenacity, long hours and sacrifice.
“Truth is, I’m tired. I’ve built a life that I don’t have time to enjoy. I’m still playing a young man’s game at an age where I should slow down and live.”
Abigail had been suspicious that maybe he was selling out. He was! Why hadn’t she waited just one day more to reject that job offer? Maybe it wasn’t too late to undo. Conway would think she was an indecisive flake, but she would call immediately after she left Joe’s office.
“Abigail, I feel like more than a mentor toward you. I’ve come to think of you as my own. I can’t imagine anyone I would rather have sit in this chair than you.”
She jumped to her feet. “What?”
“Kimberly has no interest in this place or the skill to lead if she did. You have what it takes. You’re more like me than my own daughter. I would be honored to hand over my company to you.” He winked. “I’ll keep my finger on the pulse here, too, but I trust you to run things while I get out and live.”
“I don’t even know what to say.”
He shrugged. “Say yes.”
“Yes! Of course it’s a yes.”
“Finish up in Phoenix next month and then plan to come in off the road. We will have months of transition, but by this time next year, I plan to have you fully in charge.”
Abigail went into her office and closed the door. Just as she had done the night before, she cried. Not only was that another Christmas movie moment, it was the mending of a broken heart. All along, Joe’s actions had hurt her so deeply that her only safe way to react was in anger. Now, she understood her value to him.
Just as with her dad, this moment was unraveling the woman she thought she was and revealing a tender heart longing to be loved and cared for. As much as she had thought she was beyond those feminine emotions and feelings, she only now saw the truth. She was still a daddy’s girl at heart.
When her phone rang, if it would have been anyone but Ryan, she wouldn’t have answered. Seeing his name come up on her screen, though, made her heart race.
“Hey, I’m just checking in, making sure you’re okay.”
“I’m more than okay.”
“That’s what I was hoping to hear.”
“Things have taken a major turn my way.”
“Yeah, how’s that?”
“I turned down that job this morning.”
“Not that I know what’s right for you career wise, but that makes me glad. I would hate to see my uncle lose you.”
“He knows I was talking to Conway.”
“Did he call you out on it?”
“Not in so many words, but I knew he knew.”
“What made you change your mind?”
“Everything – my life. All this happening around me has me dazed. I can’t imagine making such a life altering decision when I’m so confused about so many things. That was my earliest thought this morning. Then,” she paused a second, “when I talked to Joe a little while ago, he told me he wants me to take over for him.”
“He does! He said he wanted to live a little.” She chuckled at that. “I guess he wants to see me tied to his chair for the next few decades.”
“That’s amazing news! Hey, don’t forget about the little people now that you’re in charge.”
She smiled at what she was sure was the sweet expression on his face. “I’m not in charge yet. We will be transitioning. And don’t worry. I’ll still make time to work on the marketing for The Village.”
“Yeah, you better think twice about that. You’ll have your hands full.”
“Never too full for you.” She made the statement intentionally, hoping he would pick up on her feelings for him. Putting herself out there was scary since she had never invested herself emotionally before this.
“Is that so?”
“Abigail, I’m going to hold you to that.”
Once she hung up the phone, she sat staring at it. The call had ended with them agreeing to meet at the wedding. Since Ryan was an usher, he would have to be there too early for her to go with him. She didn’t want to sit around for hours waiting. That time would be better used to run by her house to pack before she dressed for the wedding. That thought led to the fact that she still hadn’t called her dad.
She dialed and waited. When he answered, she said, “I want to come home for Christmas.”
Her dad was silent on the other end.
“Is that okay, Daddy? I know Jeannie’s boys come on Christmas day…”
“Of course it’s okay, Abby.” He was crying. “I haven’t been with you on Christmas Day since you were nine years old.”
“I know. That’s what I keep thinking.”
“When will you come?”
“I have a wedding Friday night. I can’t miss that. There’s a late flight after. That way I’ll get to spend all of Christmas Eve with you, too.”
He was quiet again, so she just sat and waited for her dad to stop crying. During the silent moment, in her mind it was as if she heard someone whisper, Abby, and somehow she knew it was her name again. That was the first time she considered herself Abby in nearly two decades. That little girl who had a daddy who adored her, one who had read to her at night and played dolls with her in the back yard and snuck and ate ice cream from the container, she wasn’t gone after all.
Finally, she whispered, “I’m so sorry, Daddy. It shouldn’t have taken me so long to come home.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t fight harder. If I had thought you needed me or wanted me, I would have done more. You hid your feelings well, Abby. Please never do that again. Anything you’re feeling, tell me.”
“I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you, little girl.”
After a few seconds, he choked out, “I’ll pick you up this time.”
“I want that.” She didn’t want to escape home anymore. Even though she wasn’t raised there, wherever her dad was, was now home.
Overflowing with emotion from yet another CMM, Abigail rested her phone on her desk. What a Christmas, she thought as she sighed. One thing – a thought she had been trying to dodge – was what Ryan had said about God is trying to get her attention. Finally, she had to agree with Ryan. This – this Christmas movie Christmas, could only be born of God.
The remainder of the afternoon, Abigail did something she never did – blew off work. With Jackson in Phoenix, she had little to occupy her time, nothing pressing anyway. She had her own pressing personal matter. In three days she had to wow Ryan. After seeing Brooke, Abigail knew what the competition looked like. Admittedly, Brooke was stunning. Now that she realized she was living out her own Christmas movie Christmas, Abigail considered the plot and the desired outcome. She wanted to win Ryan. Since the next scene would be a formal setting, she knew what that meant. A spectacular entrance was needed – one of those moments when the formally plain girl stood in the doorway with a splendid dress on and captured the attention of the entire room, especially one handsome man in particular. In her case, though, she wouldn’t call herself plain necessarily but rather business chic transformed into… She tried to follow the script as it was being written in her mind when suddenly she burst out laughing at herself. Was this what girls do? Romanticize and fanaticize and act like a complete imbecilic where men were concerned? If so, then Abigail decided she had caught on pretty quickly after years of not playing the game.
In an exclusive shop on Oak Street, a clerk stood looking at her with an expression that pleased Abigail. It was her dress alright. Bold colors seemed to be a no-no for a wedding since it would take away from the bride, so she had settled on a gown in a soft light silver. The top had a base of satin fabric with a delicate layer of the same color lace over top. The bodice was snug and made from horizontal strips of the same fabric, and the skirt was long flowing silver satin. The dress was exquisite, the exact thing she would need to prevent Ryan from accidentally get caught up in Brooke’s Christmas wedding rebound.
Never had she felt or looked so romantic. Ever trying to downplay her beauty in order to be taken seriously in business, Abigail often wore suits and hardly ever accentuated her natural attributes. This occasion was different. This was war, and she planned to pull out everything she had in her arsenal.
Finally, the moment she had been waiting for had arrived. Abigail arrived at the church with little time to spare. Last-minute shopping for Jeannie’s family had taken more time than she had anticipated, so by the time she got home and packed, she was rushing around trying to get dressed and to the church. When she finally did get there, she went running through the church and barely made it into the sanctuary before the doors were closing. Grabbing hold of the closing door, she snatched it open and found Ryan standing there not a foot from the door.
When he saw her, he sighed in obvious relief. Then his expression transformed into exactly what she had hoped for. With eyes wide he surveyed her dress and smiled.
“You look…” He shook his head. “I’m not sure what word to use. Breathtaking, maybe?”
“That’s a pretty good word.”
“Give me a minute, and I’ll come up with a few more.”
“Breathtaking is fine.”
He offered her his arm. “I will ush you to your seat.”
“I’m not sure that I’ve ever been ushed before.”
They began to walk down the aisle together. It wasn’t lost on Abigail how romantic the moment was with his looking so incredibly handsome in his tux.
“I was beginning to wonder if you had stood me up.”
“I would never do that.”
He smiled. “I suppose you had to come for the boss’s sake, especially now that you’re about to take over.”
“More than that. I came so that Brooke would see our blossoming fake relationship.”
His expression fell. “Oh, yeah. Thanks for that.”
When she noticed how close they were drawing to the front, she hesitated. “I would rather sit farther back. This is where the family is sitting.”
“I know. You’ll be sitting with me. I’m family.”
Next thing she knew, she was sitting next to Nanna Bertie, and Ryan had left to seat another late arrival.
Small talk was easy with a lady like Bertie. She began talking and didn’t stop until Ryan took his seat. When he did slide into the seat next to Abigail, Nanna Bertie leaned over her and said to Ryan, “This girl of yours is a keeper. I want to be sitting at your wedding next.”
As the color drained from Ryan’s face, he turned to Abigail. “I’m sorry.”
Abigail only shook her head. “It’s okay.”
This time Ryan leaned over Abigail and whispered, “Nanna, Abigail is just doing me a favor, remember? We are friends – that’s all.”
In the middle of the awkward exchange, all Abigail could do was sit and smile and pretend his comment didn’t bother her. It did bother her. What hope she had faded with his clarification that they were only friends. Unsure why it hurt exactly since she had known all along this was a sham, she decided that she would be more careful and not romanticize what they had. Yes, all that had happened with her dad and Joe were CMMs, but this thing with Ryan wasn’t that at all. This was an accidental byproduct of what really mattered, her restored relationships with the two men she loved most.
She sighed as the music began and everyone stood, not really convinced of that last thought. Maybe it was an accident and a byproduct, but there weren’t only two men she loved. Not that she would ever admit it to anyone, but love for Ryan had snuck up on her somehow. It was too soon and ridiculous and most certainly due to some Christmas endorphin release, so she would ignore what was stirring around inside and causing her heart to flutter at Ryan’s nearness.
Just then, Brooke passed by as one of the maids of honor, glaring at Abigail as she stood by Ryan’s side. Simply because she couldn’t help herself, Abigail reached for Ryan’s arm and looped hers through his. He smiled down at her and winked. Abigail took that as a little thank you for her impeccable timing, so she smiled back at him with a little you’re welcome.
When they sat, Nanna Bertie leaned in and said in a not so quiet voice, “I remember. This is about that snooty Brooke. You want to rub Abigail in her snooty nose.”
Ryan shushed her. Quietly, he whispered, “Nanna, please!”
Abigail never took her eyes off the bride and pretended to ignore the exchange.
Thankfully, the ceremony was over quickly and all were off to an elaborate reception in the ballroom of a nearby hotel. Abigail shared a cab with Ryan and both rode in near silence. On a few occasions, one or the other would remark on what a beautiful wedding it was, but the conversation would dwindle after a sentence or two. When they arrived at the hotel, they walked together into the ballroom arm in arm. This could have been one of those moments to enjoy, entering such an elaborate event with someone like Ryan, but the fakeness of it all had begun to wear on her. As exciting as this should be, it was simply sad.
This was her reminder that she was nearly thirty years old, and she had spent the last decade chasing one man after another away. There were some decent guys in the mix, not as great as Ryan, but good enough. Maybe Abigail should give that some thought. She might revisit some possibilities. At least her Christmas movie Christmas had shown her that much – that relationships weren’t an end but a beginning.
At the moment Ryan was talking to a mutual friend of his and Kimberly’s. They had all grown up together. Abigail contributed nothing to the conversation but simply listened. This guy with his hand resting on the small of her back, her Christmas tree delivery guy, was someone so special that all thoughts of revisiting dumped boyfriends faded away. None could compare. She knew that already. That was the tragedy of it.
After the wedding, life would get back to normal, and Ryan would no longer be in her life. As things stood now, it was foolish to think she could be a part of his expansion at The Village. Simply because he was Joe’s nephew, she had to believe she would run into him time and again, but his active role in her life would end. That made her deeply sad, the kind of sad she had to cover up so that Ryan wouldn’t suspect she had developed feelings for him. He would blame himself most likely. That was the kindhearted man that he was. He would feel guilty over it and maybe even ask her out to try to make amends. No way would she go for that.
She was a big girl with a big future. No matter what flutter caused her to wonder if she was possibly having a heart attack, Abigail would go back to being Abigail – Goodwin executive – strike that – Chief Executive Officer. Easily, with a task so crucial and chair so demanding, she could pour herself into her work. Her next thought made her smile. Since it was said of driven men that their job was their mistress, wouldn’t that make her job her mister? Never before meeting Ryan had she entertained marriage, so why change that now?
Admittedly, over the past week she had lain in bed night after night imagining what married life might look like for her. Would she ever be able to juggle a career while being a wife? And what about children? Ryan would undoubtedly want children. Now, living in the reality of it all, Abigail had to admit how impossible that would be. She would simply get back to loving her mister and eventually forget Ryan.
The time of pre-dinner mingling finally ended, a moment that couldn’t come soon enough for Abigail. Ryan had talked with dozens of people. Each time, introductions were painfully awkward for them both. He didn’t stammer exactly when he introduced her, but he chose his words so carefully so that he wouldn’t tell a lie that it sounded forced and odd. Several people looked back and forth between them as if confused. Clearly, Ryan regretted their decision to come together as much as she.
The one time he spoke to Brooke, Abigail had excused herself to go the restroom and returned to find them talking. Even before she was close enough to hear them, she watched as Brooke hugged Ryan and walked away. Ryan didn’t mention the encounter and neither did Abigail. At least Ryan had accomplished what he had set out to do. It seemed evident, based on the long and tender hug, that Brooke’s interest was revived. From there on out, Abigail noted, Brooke kept tabs on them wherever they moved in the room.
When dinner was served, they sat next to each other and ate in silence. After finishing only part of his meal, Ryan pushed his plate aside and rested his elbow on the table. His actions reminded her of their dinner before her friend’s party and made her even more miserable considering how this whole thing was turning out. He looked at her for a long moment as if he had something to say, so she finally rested her fork on her plate and turned to look at him. She hadn’t wanted what she had just eaten and only shoveled more in to keep up the pretense that she wasn’t heartbroken by the end of them.
“Again, I’m sorry I’ve put you in this position. It was never fair to you, and I shouldn’t have asked. Honestly, at the time, I didn’t know it would be like this.”
“I didn’t either.”
“I know you’ve been uncomfortable.”
“I have,” she admitted.
“You don’t have to stay the entire time. You’ve done your job.”
His words seemed a bit biting, so she looked away.
“I will call you a cab when you’re ready.”
“I have a car service picking me up. They already have my luggage to take me to the airport.”
“You’re traveling on Christmas?”
“I’m going back to my dad’s.”
“That’s good to hear. I’m glad you’ll be with family. I’ve wondered.” He spoke softly. “I was kind of worried that you would spend Christmas alone in an apartment with no tree.”
She tried to sound upbeat. “No need to worry about me.”
“If you need to go now, I understand.”
“I will stay until after the first dance. Plus, I want to see Joe dance with his daughter. I can’t imagine a more beautiful sight than that.”
Time dragged by so slowly that Abigail wanted to scream. Here she was in her beautiful gown with such a handsome man, and all she wanted was to run away. That’s exactly how the movie would go. Then once she left, Brooke would swoop in for the kill, not as if that was any of her concern anymore. That movie, the one where she was planning on battling Brooke for Ryan’s affection, was a flop. This was a new movie and the music was just beginning to play. In this one, the poor unloved girl would run home and find comfort in her daddy’s arms. That wasn’t so bad a thought. She wasn’t crushed, but she was genuinely hurt. No wonder her mother had advised her to never allow her heart to have a say in a relationship. It was painful. Of course, the memory of her mother’s advice only served to make her angry. What a dreadful night, no matter her most beautiful gown and handsome date.
Finally, the blessed moment came. Kimberly and Chuck danced. Blah, blah, blah, Abigail thought. Then Joe cut it, exactly what everyone was waiting for. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room, including the bride’s and her dad’s. It was the sweetest moment Abigail had ever witnessed, a moment that made her want a dance of her own someday with her daddy. It wouldn’t be at a wedding with Ryan, but at least she now knew her heart was capable of love. That had to be a good indication. Someday, years down the road even, Abigail could hope for love. Maybe between now and then she could conjure up fantasies of a dream wedding like this one.
“Will you at least stay for one dance?”
Ryan’s question surprised her. Because he had been so unusually quiet throughout the night, she had assumed he was just as eager for her to leave. Brooke’s date wasn’t nearly as attentive as he should have been and often left Brooke alone while he drank and became noticeably louder at the bar. On more than once occasion, Abigail observed how Ryan looked at him and then at Brooke to see how she was handling his behavior. Truthfully, it was touching to see how concerned he was for her.
That’s when it all came together in her mind – this was their movie! She merely had a supporting role. They were the couple who would find their way back to one another after time apart. The fact that it was a Christmas wedding made their story all the more romantic. So no, staying to dance one dance wasn’t in the script. Abigail knew this was her cue to exit.
“It’s nice of you to ask, but I think we’ve done enough.”
Ryan looked away. “Okay. I understand.” He looked back and smiled at her. “You were too kind to go through with this.”
“I think it worked.”
He nodded. “It did. She said she was happy for me.”
“So go and tell her.”
With a puzzled look on his face, he asked, “Tell her what?”
“That this was just a sham.” She thought better of that. What girl would want to know she had been played? “Or better yet,” she leaned in playfully. “We can stage a big fight, and I can storm out of the room.”
“Why would we do that?”
“So she can swoop in and pick up the pieces.”
“Are we even having the same conversation?”
“She’s been jealous all night. So it worked – your plan worked. Now, with her date acting so obnoxious, this is the perfect time to reconnect.”
“Oh my gosh! Is that what you thought this was about? That I want her back?”
Ryan stood there staring at her. “I just wanted her to know I’m okay. Every time I see her, she gives me that, Oh, poor Ryan pathetic look. I’m over it: over her, over the embarrassment. I need her to see that so she’ll stop feeling bad. If she would have said yes to my proposal, that would have been the biggest mistake of my life – and hers.”
Abigail just stared at him. That totally changed everything.
He grabbed her hand. “So you’ve thought I still have feelings for her all this time?”
She nodded, still too surprised to speak. Here she was planning on walking away and leaving Ryan to Brooke, when all along he was over her. Her mind was now whirling with the implications.
He shook his head at the thought. “That would have been a real jerky thing for me to do, use you to make her jealous.” When she was silent, he added, “I would never do that to you. Why in the world were you willing to help me do that?”
“I felt bad for you.” She looked down. “I don’t know: I just wanted to see you happy and was hoping this might help you win her back.”
“Abigail, the last thing I want is her back.”
He grinned at her and began to drag her toward the dance floor. “Just one dance.”
Her mind was still whirling as she followed him. He wasn’t still in love with Brooke, so what did that mean for her? He was available, right? Wasn’t that what that meant? And why did she suddenly feel like a teenage girl?
Ryan took her into his arms and pulled her close. He smiled at her and then looked away, seeming embarrassed. “I’ve got to tell you, besides the fact that I’m a terrible dancer, I feel pretty silly right now.”
Armed with the knowledge that this handsome man was totally on the market, she moved in even closer. “I am, too, and why is that?”
“I’ve done it again, misread the situation entirely.”
“In what way.”
“What you said earlier, about our blossoming fake relationship – that stung. I have to admit, it had begun to feel a little real to me. I should have known better.” He chuckled. “You made it pretty clear the day you thought I was asking you out.”
Now his fallen expression as they walked down the aisle made more sense. “That’s why you haven’t spoken much tonight? When I said that, it hurt your feelings?”
“Go ahead. Make fun. I guess we’re even. This is my hot cocoa moment.” He shook his head. “I was way off base.”
Abigail thought back to several conversations where this misunderstanding only grew. All the time she had thought he still loved Brooke, he was investing himself in her. Taking her to the children’s hospital and to meet his nanna, then the night he sat with her when she was upset about her mom, those were all gestures made to get closer to her and show her that he cared. He wasn’t simply trying to log several dates so that they could say they were dating. They were actually dating.
“You weren’t off base at all.”
“Meaning?” He seemed hopeful.
“Meaning, I would love to go with you to get hot cocoa.”
“So this isn’t a fake blossoming relationship after all?”
She shook her head. “Not at all. It’s blossoming all right.”
Her heart was bursting with happiness. The way Ryan held her so close and grinned nonstop, she wanted to shout at the top of her lungs how happy she was. This moment, yet another in a long line of CMMs, clarified it all for her. No wonder people were willing to risk being hurt. Like Nanna Bertie had said, five minutes of this feeling was worth whatever may come, no matter how painful.
She could only sigh at the thought of how it all came together so romantically. “I can tell you this now.”
“When the tree fell and you saved me, that was the moment I suspected something was up – my first Christmas movie moment. I mean, you didn’t have on an ugly sweater, but you did save me.” She grinned. “Then you took me to meet the kids and to your nanna’s. Somewhere along the way, I just knew.”
Ryan laughed softly. “I knew when I introduced you to Brooke as Abby, and you corrected me by saying Abigail.”
She was puzzled. “How did you know based on that?”
“I’m not sure, but something deep inside said you would someday let me call you Abby.”
“That’s what my dad calls me.”
“Now it’s what I’ll call you. It makes me feel as if you’re mine.”
“I like the sound of that, being yours.”
“So that’s it? We’re doing this thing, like, dating for real.”
She nodded. “Looks like we are.”
As much as Abby wanted to stay and hammer out a deal with Ryan – that was funny that she equated their relationship to a business deal – she had a flight to catch. After all that had happened with her dad, there was no way she would let him down.
“I know, you have to go.”
When she only nodded up at him, she wondered if he might kiss her. The way he was looking at her gave her the impression he might. His expression was tender and hesitant and hopeful, all the right feelings that might urge on a first kiss.
“If only we had mistletoe and I was wearing an ugly sweater, I would kiss you right now. But since you’re about to leave, I want to wait. It’s got to be the right moment – not rushed and on a dance floor with hundreds of people watching our first kiss.”
“Will you save that kiss for me?”
“You better believe I will.”
Christmas Eve at her dad’s was exactly where Abby needed to be. She never questioned that. While she had hated leaving Ryan after such a sweet moment together, this was right. The day had been a quiet one as they geared up for the craziness of Christmas Day. Jeannie’s three sons and their families would arrive at ten for brunch. From that point on, she had been warned, the place would be in utter chaos with eight grandchildren tearing through the house. Surprisingly, Abby looked forward to seeing it. She had never had a big and eventful Christmas filled with children’s excitement and laughter. This would be a first for her. More than anything, though, she simply wanted to see her dad’s face on Christmas. That’s what she remembered most on Christmas Day as a child, his joy and excitement.
The night before when she had found her dad waiting for her after her flight landed, she nearly cried. He was so happy to see her again that they just stood and hugged for an unusual amount of time. What was most troubling for her was the fact that she had missed so many years of these touching moments with him. Still, she blamed her mom for that – a feeling that nearly ruined this one.
First thing Christmas Eve morning, her mom had called. Every year since moving to Chicago, their tradition had been to have dinner out at a nice restaurant on Christmas Eve night and then get together later on Christmas Day. Neither had a tree and there was never any festivity about the day. At one or the other’s apartment, they would exchange a gift and then move on. Why was she only now seeing how incredibly tragic that was?
When her mom had called, at first she ignored it but then felt bad and called her back. Her mother was devastated to discover she was at her dad’s for Christmas. Truthfully, deep down, it didn’t bother her that her mom felt so bad about it. She had orchestrated this entire situation with her decisions and deception. Now, she was reaping what she had sown. Eventually, they would get beyond this, but for now Abby genuinely needed space from her. This was for the best.
By early evening Jeannie had gone in to rest for a while after dinner. Abby and her dad were in the kitchen washing and drying dishes when the doorbell rang. Abby continued with her work while her dad went to answer the door. When he returned, he just stood in the doorway looking at her. She sat the plate she was drying on the counter and looked at him, wondering about the baffled expression on his face.
“It’s for you.”
“It’s some guy who says you don’t know it yet, but he’s going to be my son-in-law someday. Decent looking guy wearing an ugly sweater – ring any bells?”
Her eyes lit up as she passed by her dad. “That’s Ryan.”
“I invited him in, but he said he would wait for you out front,” her dad called after her.
Abby slipped on her dad’s parka and stepped out onto the front porch. Sure enough, Ryan was wearing the ugliest Christmas sweater she had ever seen. Rudolph’s nose was actually a sewn on fuzzy red ball.
“How did you find me here?”
“I know a guy at your work. Your dad is listed as your second emergency contact on your employee file.”
She laughed. “What are you doing here?”
“I brought you something for Christmas.” He held up mistletoe. “I wish I had kissed you at your friend’s party and at your door that pajama night. I wanted to and even tried to work up the nerve. I let my past rejection ruin what could have been spectacular Christmas movie moments. Then last night on the dance floor, you looked so beautiful. I could kick myself for missing so many opportunities.”
“So you came all this way to kiss me?”
Ryan lowered his head and kissed her softly. When he finally raised his head again, he whispered, “That was worth the trip.
“Besides that, I wanted to tell you that I like you just the way you are. Everything about you wows me and has from the beginning. I like that you’re bold and decisive and driven. You don’t have to give up who you are because the world says you need to be more like the average woman. I wouldn’t change anything about you.
“So here I am, after tracking you down in a remote part of Wyoming, in the ugliest sweater I could borrow from a friend, intending to give you every Christmas movie moment you can think of.”
He pointed to the yard. “If you will take a little walk with me, we can fall and land and I will kiss you again. If you’ll invite me in, we can have hot cocoa by the fire. I will decorate cookies with you and sing Christmas carols.” He grimaced. “I apologize in advance for that one.”
Abby slipped her arms around Ryan’s neck. “Just the fact that you came is the greatest CMM of all.”
She rested her head against his chest and listened to the beating of his heart. This was what she wanted, to feel this feeling always – way more than five minutes of it. After another moment, she moved back and grabbed his hand. “Let’s go in. There’s someone you need to get to know.”
Hours went by while Ryan talked with her dad. Mostly, they talked about Jesus and other religious topics that Abby didn’t understand at all. Occasionally, one or the other would look and her and give a better explanation, but mostly they just talked. There was a sense of kindred spirits about them. Without question, her dad approved. They laughed often and then at times became serious again. What was evident, though, was that Ryan was more similar to her dad than she would have ever noticed without their being together. They were both kind yet strong men, qualities that seemed to bring balance to both men’s personalities. She had no doubt that either man would give the shirt off his back, but she knew as well that it would best not to cross either of them or try to harm those they love. These were the two most perfect men alive, and they were both hers.
Glowing in pure satisfaction over the evening, when her dad said he was heading off to bed, Abby jumped up and ran to hug him goodnight. Wrapped up in his embrace, she smiled when he whispered, “Seems like son-in-law material to me.”
She nodded and whispered in return, “I’m glad you see it, too.”
Once they were alone, settled in before the fire sipping their hot cocoa, Ryan turned to Abby. “Your dad is,” he paused and shook his head, “terrific.”
“Yeah, he is terrific.” Abby sighed.
“My dad is nothing like that.”
“I’m sorry. You deserve a terrific dad.”
“I’ll just borrow yours.”
She nodded. “Agreed.”
They sat for a few seconds more looking into the fire, all snuggled in together under a warm blanket. In that moment, it all came back to Abby, the revelation she had had sitting in this very same spot the last time she was there.
“Last time I was here, I figured out why I like Christmas movies so much. They remind me of the feeling I get here. This feels like the home I haven’t had since I was ten.”
“I can see that. This place is straight out of a movie. You know, it helps to have a tree. Even an apartment can feel like home when you have one.”
“I’ll never have another Christmas without one.”
“No, you won’t.”
She smiled at that since it seemed like a promise of a future together. That’s exactly what she wanted, him to be her future.
Ryan sat up and clasped his hands together. “I need to tell you something. I’ve wanted to tell you since I first arrived.”
“What?” He seemed unusually serious, and that frightened her a little.
“You’re going to think I’m crazy.”
“You flew to Wyoming to kiss me. I already think you’re crazy.”
“I mean, this is way too soon, and I know how this will sound.”
Exasperated, she said, “Just say it!”
“I’m going to ask you to marry me someday. I need to know you’ll say yes.”
Her fears of the worst faded. That was an easy answer. “Yes. I will most definitely say yes.”
He sat back. “Good to know. I’m not always the best at reading the situation.”
“No, you’re not. You seem to be getting better at it, though.”
“It’s barely been a month. You don’t think I’m crazy for telling you I’m going to ask that?”
“I should but I don’t.”
They just sat for a moment allowing the reality of a future together to sink in. An amusing thought occurred to her and caused her to laugh out loud.
“What so funny?”
“Do you realize you’re talking about proposing and you haven’t even told me you love me yet?”
Ryan laughed, too. “Well, I would say it now, but that would kind of kill the spontaneity of it.”
“It kind of would.”
“I’ll wait and catch you off guard.”
“Great. I’m a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of girl. I love spontaneity.”
“You’re anything but a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of girl.”
“True, but in this case, I’ll look forward to being surprised.”
“Can I say something else way too soon?”
“Sure. I’m getting used to it.”
“I want you to know, kids aren’t a deal breaker for me. If you never want them, I’ll find a way to pour into kids, like teaching or hiring them at The Village.”
“You really are planning ahead just hours after our first kiss.”
“Am I scaring you off?”
“Not at all. If I hadn’t been watching this movie with you, I would likely think you’re a bit crazy. Since I’ve had a front row seat, I completely understand. Like you, I just know where we’re headed. I don’t doubt it at all.”
“Good to know I’m not in this alone.”
“You’re not at all. I’m sure about us. Too much has led up to us becoming us not to believe it’s meant to be.”
She looked down. “Just so you know, I’m still unsure about kids. But I can’t imagine you never being a dad. I’ve seen how you are with them. You’ll be an amazing dad.”
It wasn’t him she was worried about. What if she could never be a good mom? What if she just didn’t have it in her – like her own mom?
He lifted her face to look at him. “We can take that one slowly. We will know if and when the time is right. After all, you have a new job ahead. I have a new start-up company to get off the ground.”
If there ever was a moment in the past weeks where her life had taken on the qualities of a movie, this was it, as if she were watching as it all unfolded scene by scene. Just a month before, none of this was on her radar: things with her dad, her new job, or especially not the thoughts of dating, let alone marriage. And kids? Never would she have entertained the thought of having them just a month ago while at dinner with Liz for her engagement announcement. She couldn’t wait to call each friend and eat crow.
Abby was the first one downstairs on Christmas morning. When she went into the living room, she found Ryan there sleeping soundly, one leg hanging off the sofa. For a moment she stood watching him, realizing that this was the man she would someday wake up with – nice to know what she was getting herself into. He wasn’t a pretty sleeper with his mouth hanging open and his making raspy noises. That would take some time to get used to. Fortunately, she had a noise maker to drown out the sound. She smiled at him, her heart feeling all warm and sentimental. So this was what it was like being a girl?
Hoping to get a head start on the day, she went into the kitchen and made a pot of coffee. Even before the pot was finished brewing, her dad came in dressed already.
“I’m glad we’re the first up.” Wade sat and placed a small wrapped box on the table.
“What is this?” Abby sat next to him and looked at the box. “We exchanged gifts when I was here before.”
“I know. This is just a little something extra, something special. I didn’t think of it until you were already gone.”
Tearing into the paper, she found herself excited. Normally she wasn’t much on gifts, but somehow her everything was upside down this Christmas. Things that normally meant little moved her in surprising ways. Just the fact that her daddy had thought of something that he considered special for her touched her deeply.
With the jewelry box unwrapped, Abby flipped the top open and found a small silver cross – her cross. At the sight of it, she began to cry. “You saved this for me?”
When he nodded, she whispered, “I’m so sorry, Daddy.”
When she had been with him for Christmas one year, he had gotten her the cross. She remembered it well since it was the first year she stayed only two nights. She was fourteen then. The morning she packed to leave, she intentionally had left the necklace on the dresser. At the time it wasn’t as much to hurt her dad that she did it. Instead, she didn’t want a reminder of him to go home with her. It would hurt too much to wear a reminder of a dad who didn’t want her.
“I promise I didn’t leave it to hurt you.”
“I was never sure why you did.” He looked away. “I guess I understand more now.”
Wade leaned in and took the box from her. “Let me put it on you.”
Ryan came in just as the moment was unfolding. He hesitated in the doorway. “Should I give you two a minute?”
Abby shook her head. “No. Come in and look at what my daddy gave me.” She held the cross out for Ryan to see.
He reached out and touched the cross. “Looks like your dad and I think along the same lines.”
“Really? You got me a cross, too?”
“No. Hold on.”
Ryan went into the living room and returned with a gift. When she removed the lid, she found a Bible with her name inscribed on the front.
She looked up at him and asked, “You’ll help me figure this out?”
“Of course I will.”
“I didn’t understand most of what you were talking about last night.”
“It takes time, but you’ll catch on. We have a lot of churchy words that we throw around. I’ll be more careful about that.”
Wade spoke up. “We will talk each week on the phone. We can read the same passages and then discuss them.”
Abby felt that same sense of embarrassment creep up again. “I feel that I should know more than I do.”
Ryan shook his head. “Don’t even worry about things like that. Everyone has to start somewhere.”
When she looked away, he reached for her chin and turned her face back to look at him. “Don’t let negative thoughts start undermining you already. You have the remainder of your life to learn and get to know God. That’s what this book is all about: His introduction of Himself to you.
“I know you pride yourself on being in control of the deal and having a leg up on everyone else, but in this case, that side of you will only cause frustration. What God asks of us is to come to Him as little children. He’s eager to teach you. You just have to let Him.”
Abby looked at Ryan and then her father and sighed. She felt robbed of getting to know God through her childhood – robbed of who she should be by now. Feeling that way only made her angry. With so much good ahead of her, she knew that letting go of those feelings and regrets would allow her to focus on the now rather than then. She had much to learn. With a new relationship with her dad and now Ryan, why not throw a relationship with God into the mix? She liked a challenge.
Her dad’s description of the chaos of the day was an understatement. What proceeded to happen once the last of the grandchildren arrived nearly made Abby’s head spin. Not one of them was over ten. There were shrieks and fights and tears and laughter. So many emotions could erupt at any given moment that Abby sat quietly most of the time and just observed. Ryan didn’t help. Most of the shrieks and laughter were a direct result of his influence. At one time there were five children on top of him, which of course eventually led to tears and a fight when one had his finger pinched.
Feeling as if she was being a responsible parent, Abby finally told Ryan he couldn’t play for a while. Then the kids were all mad at her and told Ryan his mom was mean. They didn’t know her or Ryan since she had never been with them for Christmas, so as far as they knew, she was his mom. There was something sweet about that, the innocence of these children. When they weren’t practically tearing the house down, each and every one of them was notable in some way.
One, a boy of about seven, was the ringleader. He could get the others to do most anything, but that wasn’t a bad quality in her book. He was a born leader and would make something of himself someday. A little girl of three or four was a real diva and theatrical enough to command the attention of the room. She was definitely a future actress or would land a role on Housewives of Wherever. There was a little cowboy who wore boots and chased the dog so he could ride him. Then the littlest one was snuggly and once came and sat on Abby’s lap. It didn’t last long, but while it did, it felt weird but good. The gooey residue he left behind on her pants was a little gross but easy to overlook since he was so incredibly cute.
In some way, they were all great kids. Collectively, though, they were enough to scare her away from even considering having one. As one family left and then the second, leaving only two children, Abby could see the draw, especially when the gooey one held his arms out for her to hold him. That turned the tide in his favor.
When all were gone and only Ryan, her dad, and Jeannie were left, Abby tried to get Jeannie to go in and rest, promising to clean up the kitchen. Jeannie refused.
“Those crazy kids gave me a boost of energy I haven’t had in months.”
“They’re pretty great – absolutely crazy but great.”
The two chatted while they cleaned until Ryan came in. He didn’t say anything but just stood there, looking at Abby with an unusual expression on his face. Finally she asked, “Are you okay?”
He shook his head as if to clear his mind. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”
Ryan took her arm and led her to the front door. “You should put this on.” He held out her coat.
Scattered about was their luggage that he had brought down while she helped Jeannie. They were due to leave in two hours so that they would make it back in time to go to Nanna Bertie’s. Ryan had never missed a Christmas with her. Though he had suggested Abby should stay with her dad, she wanted to go with him instead. This year would be a first for her being with his nanna. Since she was in her mid-eighties, there was no way of knowing how many more Christmases she would have. Nanna was such an important part of Ryan’s life, being with them both mattered to Abby.
Outside with the door closed, Ryan stood there for a few seconds. He was smiling and a time or two shook his head as if in disbelief.
She laughed at him. “What’s up with you?” Her smile faded. “Is something wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong. As a matter of fact, everything is better than it ever has been. Making this trip was the best decision of my life.”
“I have to agree with that. That was some first kiss.”
“This trip was much more than about a first kiss.” He moved in closer and took her face in his warm hands. “Abby, I love you. The more I’ve thought about it, I’ve realized I never actually fell in love with you. There was never a slow progression. From the very beginning, love just seemed to always be there, like it was supposed to be.
“I know this has gone fast, way too fast for any sane individual, but since I’ve known you, nothing has felt more right than being with you. It’s been a whirlwind Christmas season, the best I’ve ever known. You know, my mom died so close to Christmas that the past few years it all made me sad. But then you happened this year and changed all that.”
He chuckled. “It’s no accident that I spent my mom’s last Christmas watching all those movies with her. It would make her happy to know she helped set the stage for all this, me being able to make this Christmas one we will both remember.” He dropped to one knee.
Abby gasped, realizing what he was about to do.
“I can’t let Christmas slip away without asking you to marry me, and I wanted to ask you right here where we shared our first kiss.”
She watched with amusement as he slipped an aluminum foil ring on her finger. She had wondered what he was up to earlier when he was in the kitchen with the older two girls. They were all laughing and hiding whatever it was they were doing. Best thing about her ring was that they had glued sprinkles on it. No diamond ring could be more beautiful or mean so much.
“I can’t possibly say no to a proposal with a sprinkle ring included.”
“Do you mean it? You don’t think I’m crazy?”
“Oh, I think you’re totally crazy all right, but there’s no way in the world I would say no to this kind of crazy.”
“So this is a yes?”
From the moment he had begun speaking until now, Abby knew her answer. “Yes. Absolutely yes!”
Ryan stood and took hold of her arms. “Do you realize you accepted my proposal even before you’ve told me you love me?”
“Oh.” She whispered. “Then, I love you and yes.”
“That’s better,” he whispered back as he leaned in to kiss her.
Lifting his head, he told her, “We don’t have to set a date. We can take time and get to know each other.”
She nodded as she admired her ring. “That sounds wonderful.”
“I talked to your dad last night after you went to bed.” Ryan shook his head. “At the time I had no idea I would propose today. I had just meant I wanted to ask in the future and wanted his blessing.”
“I suppose he was okay with this?”
“He was. I promised him I would always take care of you and that I’ll help you grow spiritually. That seemed to win him over.”
Smiling at that, she felt incredibly blessed to have her dad be a part of all her momentous occasions.
“I talked to him, too, about when you were a little girl, the day you asked Jesus to be your Savior.”
“What did he say?”
“What you did, what a special moment it was and how it made him cry.” He paused and then admitted. “Honestly, I needed his perspective so that I would know what I’m dealing with. I had to know you were saved – that you belong to God. Now, I need to help you grow and get to know God. That, to me, is the most important role for me as a husband. That may sound strange to you, but that’s my job above all others, to help you see Jesus.”
“Honestly, it does sound strange. Much of what you and my dad believe is so foreign to me, but I know it’s real for you both, so I have to believe it will be someday for me, too. I’m willing and open to learn. Just show me the way.”
Ryan drew her closer. “I will try my best.”
She had a sudden thought and moved back. “I can’t wait to see the look on Joe’s and Nanna Bertie’s faces tonight.” She hesitated. “You will tell them, right?”
“Of course, I will. I’m so happy I could shout it from the rooftops.”
“They will think we’re crazy for getting engaged so soon.”
“I honestly don’t care what anyone thinks. As long as you’re happy, that’s all that matters to me.” He grabbed her coat and pulled her closer. “You are happy?”
“How can I not be happy? You’ve given me my own Christmas movie Christmas. I couldn’t ask for a better ending.”
Ryan grinned at that. “Ending? This is only our beginning.”
The pounding at her door jarred Abby awake. When she looked at the clock and found it was nearly one a.m., she jumped from the bed fearing the worst.
Tying her robe, she peeked out the peephole and found Ryan there.
When she opened the door, she asked, “What in the world are you doing here?”
He had only dropped her off at eleven after Christmas at his nanna’s.
“I couldn’t sleep.” He moved past her and removed his coat.
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“This is crazy!”
Of course it was all crazy. Was he only now seeing that – having second thoughts even? The likelihood of that caused her heart to sink as she watched him pace back and forth in her living room.
“Talk to me.”
He stopped and looked at her. “What if we don’t wait? That’s how Christmas movies end. They get married by New Year’s, right?”
“Are you kidding me?”
“No.” Ryan sighed softly, deflated by her reaction. “I told you it was crazy.”
“It’s December 26. How could we possibly plan a wedding that quickly?” She considered the alternative. “Or did you mean just get married at the courthouse?”
Honestly, she didn’t like that idea at all now that she had her dad back in her life. She wanted him to be able to walk her down the aisle just as Joe had Kimberly. As much as that, she wanted her father-daughter dance.
“No way would we get married at the courthouse. I’ll call my pastor first thing in the morning.” He looked at his watch. “Well, in seven hours.”
“Ryan…” She trailed off, not sure what to say. This was difficult to wrap her mind around.
“So it’s not a no?”
Abby smiled and spoke softly. “No, it’s not a no.”
“So the timing is what you’re most worried about?”
“Yes. We would have to pull this off in six days.”
“You mean five. I want to get married on New Year’s Eve, not New Year’s Day. I don’t want the year we met to end before you’re my wife.”
She swallowed hard. That was about the sweetest thing he had ever said.
“We can do this, Abby.”
“I know it may sound silly, but I want the works. I want my dad to be able to walk me down the aisle and dance with me.”
He took her by the arms and pulled her closer. “Then that’s what you’ll have. I work with some of the best party planners in the city. We can make this happen.”
“But they will be tied up planning New Year’s Eve parties.”
“You leave all that up to me. All you need to worry about is your dad, dress, and a bridesmaid. That’s enough, right? One bridesmaid?”
She was so moved by how excited he was that she could barely answer. “It’s perfect.”
“I’ll ask Uncle Joe.”
Abby leaned into Ryan and rested her head on his chest. Tears filled her eyes, and for a moment she couldn’t speak at all.
He wrapped his arms around her, asking, “Are you sure you’re okay with this? I don’t want to pressure you into something you’ll regret later.”
“I’ve never been more okay.”
By eight thirty that morning, Abby had received a text with her to-do list. Besides her dad, dress, and bridesmaid, he had given her two appointments she needed to make over the next few days: one was to meet him to get the license and the second to meet his pastor. That one made her nervous. What if there was a test and she failed? Her plan, just in case, was to go home at lunch and get her Bible. Until the meeting, she would read it as fast as she could and take notes on the highlights.
A separate text came through a minute later that said: Most important – reconcile with your mom!
Abby cringed at that one, but of course she would do it. Her mom meant too much to her to leave her out of such an occasion. No matter how hurt and angry she was still, she wanted her mom there. What she was torn over was if she should ask her mother to go with her dress shopping. It would be a mad-dash through the samples at each store until she found one. Since she hadn’t been dreaming of a big wedding for more than a few days – she smiled at that – she didn’t have anything in mind. As long as it was her size, white, and pretty, she would take most anything.
What did matter to her, though, was that she was able to remain excited. With her mother’s likely reaction to her getting married so soon after meeting Ryan, there was no way her mother would allow for excitement. Instead, she would spend the day trying to talk Abby out of the wedding, or at least to postpone it for a year or ten.
This was truly a dilemma. Her ultimate conclusion was that she wouldn’t invite her mother. Instead, she invited Liz to meet her out shopping. Continuing with the craziness of the occasion, she decided to surprise Liz and didn’t tell her what they were actually shopping for. She told Liz she needed her to go with her and pick out a bridesmaid dress. Liz assumed the dress was for Abby and agreed to go, even telling her how sorry she was that she had gotten roped into yet another wedding. Then quickly Liz apologized that she would be the next friend roping Abby into a wedding.
Abby was the first to arrive at the bridal salon and took that time alone to look around. The sheer volume of choices was overwhelming. When she told the clerk she would need the dress by the weekend, that helped to narrow down the selection considerably.
Liz came rushing in. “I’m so sorry I’m late. Traffic was crawling.” She stopped abruptly and looked at Abby. “I didn’t even ask. Who’s getting married?”
“A girl at Goodwin.”
“And she’s asked you to be in her wedding?” Liz shook her head. “Not me! I don’t get that close to co-workers. It was bad enough being in all the Mom Squad weddings.”
“I’m happy to be in this one.” Abby grabbed Liz’s arm. “Just help me pick a color.”
“Why do you get to pick the color? That’s not how this works.”
“It does with this wedding.” She grinned to herself. “I’m thinking red. That might be a party dress to wear again at Christmastime.”
Liz began to sort through the dresses on the first rack, scowling at most. “No one ever gets to rewear a dress – ever.”
“No, you’re right. So I guess it matters most that you love it for that day. I would never make you wear an ugly dress.”
“Yes, you.” When Liz just stared at her, Abby told her, “Ryan and I are getting married on New Year’s Eve.”
“Shut up!” she shouted so loudly that the sales lady looked at them both in obvious disapproval.
“We are. We have to find both of our dresses today.”
Abby and Liz went to three different stores before they ended up back at the first store for the dress she knew was the one. Trying to be a good maid of honor, Liz had insisted that they look at other options. Eventually, Liz agreed, too, that they should go back for that first dress. When Abby had tried that dress on, it gave her the same feeling as the silver gown for Kimberly’s wedding. No doubt, it would cause the same reaction when Ryan saw her – it was breathtaking. Even as she tried it on this second time, she could only sigh.
Pure white satin was covered in tulle embroidered with delicate vines and flowers trailing along the bottom. The lacy top had two narrow straps and a slender fit with no real waist; instead, it flowed naturally into a full bottom that swayed back and forth with every movement. Overall, the dress seemed soft and romantic and so extremely girly that Abby’s eyes filled with tears at the perfection of it. This was her dress without question – another item checked off of her small to-do list.
Between stores, Abby had called her dad. When she broke the news to him, he didn’t hesitate or ask questions. He just promised to be there. Jeannie was another story. Unless something changed and her strength returned, he didn’t want her traveling. That was understandable. Abby promised to find someone to video the ceremony for her. At that, her dad had broken down and insisted that they film him walking her down the aisle. He said for him, that would be the best part.
So far, her to-do list was coming together nicely. Ryan had been texting her with updates all morning and asking how her shopping was coming along. They would meet for the license the following day and with the pastor the next. When that was over, Abby would be able to relax. That wasn’t at all true. Still, she hadn’t talked with her mother. There could be nothing she could dread more.
Once she was done with Liz, Abby went to her mother’s office on the off-chance that she might be there. She was.
When Abby entered her mother hugged her, a display of affection she rarely demonstrated. It was obvious that her mother regretted what had happened. Or if not regretting what she had done, she was at least regretting that Abby had found out about it.
“I’m glad you’ve come.” Christine sat in the seat next to her daughter.
“I’ve come with some news.”
“What news?” Christine drew in a sharp breath. “Oh, for goodness sake. You’re not moving to Wyoming?”
“No, Mother. But it’s as shocking as that, maybe even more so.”
“I’m getting married.”
Christine sighed. “It could be worse than that.”
“This weekend.” When her mother’s jaw dropped, Abby added, “To a guy I’ve known for a month.”
Still, Christine sat looking at her.
Abby was amused. Because her mother was on the hot seat over the past, she wasn’t voicing what were most definitely her objections.
“He was the Christmas tree delivery guy for my office party.”
The expression on her mother’s face was priceless as she continued to try to hold her tongue. Finally, she exploded. “I know you’re saying all of this to get a rise out of me. I know you better than this.”
“Actually, Mother, I’m not. Everything I’ve said is true. I know you won’t be happy for me, but you’re at least invited to the wedding.”
When her mother sat back in her chair and simply stared straight ahead, Abby could see her mind was spinning. She looked nearly faint.
“Have I taught you nothing at all?”
“You’ve taught me some truly valuable lessons.” Abby stood. “Mostly, though, what you’ve taught me about relationships and love, I plan to try to forget. You were wrong all along. I can have both – a career and a husband who loves me.”
“Love? You’re marrying a deliveryman. Do you honestly think this has nothing to do with money?”
“I know for a fact it isn’t.”
“How can you be so certain?”
“Ryan is Joe’s nephew. He also owns his own business – one he’s about to expand. For him, life isn’t about money. It’s about love and God and family.”
“God?” Christine rolled her eyes. “Great! You’re marrying your father.”
Abby smiled at that. “More than you could know.”
She moved toward the door and stopped there. “I’ll let you know when and where. I hope you can come.”
The train ride to Abby’s office went by in a blur while she recounted the visit with her mother. It was exactly how had seen it going – actually, maybe even better than she had supposed. Surprised at herself that she wasn’t more hurt, she tried to figure out why that was exactly. After all, it was her mother. Shouldn’t she be upset that her mother didn’t approve and may not show up for her wedding? The last few miles of the train ride she pondered on it and finally concluded that it had to do with closeness. She wasn’t that close to her mother. Over the past years, they had become more like acquaintances. That was the thought that struck a nerve and made her saddest.
At least every few hours on Tuesday, Ryan had checked in with Abby either by phone or text. He asked simple questions: What kind of flowers are your favorites? What color is Liz’s dress? Do you mind getting married at Christmas Village?
With each response, she had offered to help more. He promised her he would handle it. This was surreal. She was getting married in just a few days and was doing little to plan it. Actually, that worked well since she had no idea what she wanted. If anything, she was happy to have this taken care of. Just the day she had spent shopping for her dress and Liz’s was stressful for her.
As agreed, Ryan met Abby at her office to go get the license. Eager to see him, she was surprised by how relaxed he seemed. Because of all he was planning last minute, she had expected to find him harried. Instead, he was smiling and laughing. No doubt, he was in his element in planning for an event.
While together, she tried to get some details out of him about what to expect. He wouldn’t tell her anything at all. He had come to like the idea of surprising her, saying it would only add to the romance of it. Most normal women would go crazy over that, but not Abby. Once again, having no big dreams in mind, she couldn’t possibly be disappointed. That was the difference between her and the average woman. This concept was only about a week old for her, where most dreamed for a lifetime.
Wednesday came and with it the dreaded meeting with Ryan’s pastor. She had been speed reading her Bible and found she had more questions than she could possibly have answers if the pastor had a pop quiz. Surely his agreeing to marry them didn’t rest on her Bible knowledge. But what if it did? She had asked herself so many times that she finally had to resort to antacid due to the stress of it.
This time she met Ryan there since he had some things to tend to for the wedding once he left. By the time she arrived, he was there waiting for her in the church lobby. When she saw him, right away she asked, “Is he going to ask me Bible trivia? I’m reading but not getting it.”
Ryan smiled and drew her into his arms. “No, of course not. He just wants to make sure we’re committed.” He tilted her face up to look at him. “Have you been worried about this?”
“Yes! I’ve been reading like crazy. What’s with Leviticus? What am I supposed to do with all that?”
“I take it you started at the beginning?”
“I did. Genesis and Exodus I like since they’re full of stories. Then I got totally lost.”
Chuckling softly, Ryan suggested, “How about we move to the New Testament. Let’s read Matthew together. Then we can discuss it. You can do the same thing with your dad.”
“I hope Matthew makes more sense than this. Why can’t you mix two kinds of material?”
Ryan looked at her, confused. “Huh?”
“It says not to wear clothing made with two kinds of material.”
He shook his head. “I have no idea.” He smiled at her. “Look, let’s just start with the Jesus stuff. If things like that need to make sense to you, God will show you why.”
Somewhat relieved, she followed Ryan into the pastor’s office where Abby found a much younger man than she had expected. He was no more than fifty. At her dad’s church, the pastor was ancient and had been there since the first time she visited her dad when she was an early teenager.
Ryan introduced the pastor. “This is Pastor Robert.”
Abby shook his hand, finding herself even more relieved by the warm smile on his face. This wouldn’t be nearly as bad as she had expected.
The next half hour passed quickly with a pleasant conversation ensuing. His questions were straightforward, a trait she admired in a man. He didn’t hide his concern over the brevity of time the couple had known one another but rather voiced it early on. By the time they were wrapping up the meeting, he seemed convinced that the couple was sincerely committed to one another. For some reason, that surprised Abby. She had anticipated that he wouldn’t buy into the love-at-nearly-first-sight argument since she was sure she wouldn’t if this was a friend of hers. From what she could tell, his belief stemmed more from the things Ryan said to him than what she said. It was clear that the two shared a mutual respect for one another that could only come from sharing a history together. That pleased Abby for some reason, that Ryan was a friend of his pastor. Before this day she couldn’t imagine having a pastor as an actual friend. They seemed above that, like they might only hang out with other pastors. Clearly, based on a few comments, these two had hung out, even played sports together.
Pastor Robert finally stood and extended his hand toward her.
“I look forward to seeing you here with Ryan on Sundays. I can’t wait to get to know you better.”
“Oh,” was all she said, surprised by his assumption that she would attend church there. For some reason that possibility hadn’t crossed her mind yet. “I’m not sure I will be coming here.”
Both men stood frozen, looking at one another. Seeing their confusion, she tried to explain. “I’m new at this, so my dad has warned me that I have to find the right church. He said he will get online and check out any church I’m interested in to see if the pastor is preaching what he needs to be preaching. I need his okay first.”
Robert broke out into laughter. “That’s the kind of dad every girl needs.” He reached for his card. “You give your dad my number and tell him to call me anytime. I’ll reassure him that his little girl is well cared for here. Then I’ll send him a link to past sermons.”
She took his card. “That’s a great idea. I’ll call him as soon as we leave.”
Ryan was smiling at her, so Abby presumed he was happy about this arrangement, too. He followed her into the lobby and then to her car. Once they reached her car, he took hold of her face and rested his forehead on hers.
“You are the most precious girl I have ever known.” He corrected himself. “Woman, that is.”
“I’m not sure why you say that, but I’m glad I am.” She grinned up at him. “And just so you know, I don’t mind being your girl. Just don’t ever say that in front of my mother.”
“I wouldn’t dare.” He kissed her softly.
“What you said in there, that was exactly what I meant about coming to God as a child. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a display of childlike faith in an adult.”
“In what way?”
“How you’ve listened to your dad’s warning. He was right, but I can promise you this is the right place. Robert is a fine shepherd.”
“Oh great! Now you’re calling me a sheep. Definitely don’t do that in front of my mother.”
Ryan only chuckled.
The countdown was on. In fewer than twenty-four hours, she would be walking down the aisle to marry Ryan. Oddly enough, she wasn’t nervous. All on her end had come together nicely with the exception of her father’s arrival. He had planned to arrive that night but had to change his flight to the following morning. Abby didn’t mind since the reason for the delay meant that Jeannie could come with him. After their time together this year, Abby found more than a new appreciation for Jeannie. She had come to respect her in a way she had never allowed herself before. Never was Jeannie not one to respect, but Abby had refused to see it in the past. Because of her closed mind, she had come to find that she had missed out on a relationship with a wonderful lady. She had much to make up for in the future and promised Jeannie she would.
Her phone rang – absolutely no surprise since it had rung, it seemed, a thousand times that day. Even before reaching for her phone, she knew it would be Ryan. He had called her at least twenty times. That was no exaggeration.
“Know what I’ve realized?”
She smiled at the soft tone of his voice. “What have you realized?”
“With all the craziness this week, we’ve hardly spent any time together.”
“I’ve noticed that.”
The knock on her door made her laugh. “Is that you?”
“Yes. Answer the door. I have a surprise for you.”
Her surprise, she found, was a pint of ice cream which they shared as they sat on the sofa together, a wonderfully romantic gesture. Not only because it reminded her of the night they had done so before, but it was more of a reassurance of what was to come. This would be their lives together. Yes, her days were hectic with so many demands placed on her, something that would only grow more so with her new position, but this was what she would soon come home to.
The same day that Ryan suggested they marry right away, Abby had gone into Joe’s office first thing and prepared him for the fact that she wouldn’t be burning the midnight oil and that she had every intention of spending her evenings with her husband. Joe didn’t bat an eye.
Now, catching a glimpse of what life would look like, their decision to marry so quickly was only confirmed. She didn’t want to waste even another day in living the life she once lived. This was living. Abby smiled at that, remembering Nanna Bertie’s words, how if you never love you never live. At the time those words meant little compared to how they spoke into her heart at this moment. Until Ryan, she had had no idea she wasn’t actually living. Upon knowing it now, though, she knew well she would never be able to live without it again.
“I keep thinking of your Nanna Bertie. I’m so glad she will be there to see us married.”
Ryan nodded, understanding her meaning after their earlier conversation about his nanna. If they had continued on with a longer engagement, there was no way to be certain she would be around.
“I’m glad, too. I can’t imagine taking this big of a step without her there.”
“This is a pretty big step all right.”
He took her hand. “But you’re sure, right?”
“Absolutely! That’s mostly what I was thinking about your nanna, what she said about how you only live if you love.”
“So you still love me, even after the craziness of this week? The new hasn’t worn off?”
“Not worn off at all.”
“Nice to hear since I’ve come bearing another gift.”
Because he didn’t bring anything in with him, she knew it wasn’t a tangible gift.
“A little kiss, maybe?”
“That, too.” He leaned in and kissed her then moved back to look at her again. “Speaking of Nanna Bertie, she went with me to pick this out for you.” Ryan dug into his pocket and pulled out something he kept hidden in his fist.
Grinning at him, she shook her head and made a tsking noise. “That Nanna Bertie has had a busy week.”
Abby suspected they had been ring shopping. Once the sprinkles began to fall off of her ring, she had put it away for safe keeping.
Ryan slid down onto one knee. “I want you to like this. If you don’t, we will go and pick out something together.”
As he slid the ring onto her finger, Abby sighed softly. “It’s gorgeous. Way to go, Nanna.”
It wasn’t at all a ring she would have even stopped to look at, but resting there on her finger, she couldn’t imagine any other suiting her as well. It was a surprisingly large stone encircled by smaller stones. There was a vintage feel about it that seemed like something Nanna Bertie would choose.
Sincerely admiring her ring, she began to shake her head. “It’s beautiful for sure, but for a guy who’s beginning a new business, it’s a little much. Don’t you think?”
“It’s just enough. As long as you like it, it’s not too much at all.”
With her hand in his, he sighed in regret. “I want to stay, but I need to run by The Village to handle a few last minute things. This, though,” he said as he lifted her hand to his lips, “was an errand I needed to make. I wanted you to have a real engagement before we’re actually married.”
She moved in and hugged him. For a while she held onto him, trying to remind herself this was all real. Moving back to look at him, she whispered, “Thank you for loving me.”
He shook his head. “No, thank you for loving me. It’s not every day the guy gets the girl. I’m so thankful that I’m the guy and you’re my girl.”
This was it, New Year’s Eve, her wedding day. After Ryan’s visit the night before, Abby found herself hardly able to wait even those hours more. This day, she was the one who called way too many times. By the sounds in the background while they talked, he had so much going on that he didn’t have time to talk. Still, with every call, he talked patiently with her. Her questions for him ranged from whether he still sure to what he had packed for their trip. They were going to Joe’s house in the Hamptons. Since it would be the off season, they would have a week away living at a leisurely pace, something they both looked forward to after this past week. Too, they would have seven days alone to simply get to know one another better, an amusing thought considering they would be on a honeymoon.
Abby was packed already for their trip and was now clearing drawers and closet space for Ryan’s things. They had agreed to live in her apartment until they found something more centrally located to each of their jobs. Her place was too far away from The Village. Already, she had been looking online at some possibilities and knew without question that this would be their first argument. He would want something more modestly priced, but that would never work. To get all that they wanted where they wanted it with room enough for her dad to stay when he came to visit, they would pay top dollar. She was taking over as CEO of Goodwin. They could afford it.
The money thing would most likely be an issue for as long as Ryan was growing his business. For any man it would likely be an issue. Ahead of them, they had several kinks to work out, but she felt confident that they would navigate the future well together. There weren’t many things that mattered to her, but where she lived was one.
Not that she had mentioned it to Ryan, but while looking at housing, she had begun to research school districts. After seeing him play with Jeannie’s grandchildren on Christmas Day, there wasn’t a doubt in her mind that they would have children someday. They hadn’t discussed it any more than what was said on Christmas Eve, but soon enough, she would tell him she had changed her mind. Being a mom someday gave her an unexpected level of excitement that quieted her fears that she wouldn’t be a good one. This shift in her heart after loving Ryan gave her the confidence that she would naturally love her children enough to put them before a career.
Joe had brought the topic up the day she told him she planned to be home with Ryan in the evenings. That was a sticking point for him, that she be more available for her children than he had been with Kimberly. It would be no easy task to run Goodwin while balancing a family, but Abby loved a challenge and was up for it, especially for Ryan’s sake.
At just after noon, her dad and Jeannie had arrived and were currently getting changed in the guest room. They would stay for a few days while Abby and Ryan were gone on their honeymoon. After a day of traveling, Jeannie would need some time to recuperate. The flight had so worn her out, the moment they arrived, her dad had insisted that Jeannie rest for a while. Now, they had less than an hour before it was time to leave and all were rushing around in a panic trying to get dressed.
Since Liz would be meeting them at The Village, her dad and Jeannie had helped her into her dress. They both cried, which made her cry, too. This was the most emotional Abby had ever been in her life. After nearly a lifetime of thinking she would never be married, now it was all she wanted and couldn’t envision life any other way. No doubt, she owed a lot of apologies to her friends. This feeling, this sense of loving someone enough to share your lives together was like nothing she had ever known. No business deal compared to the high she was on. Finally, she got it, why her friends had been willing to make such sacrifices in the wake of knowing such love.
Not that she planned to trade in her car for a minivan, but she was definitely open to some changes. As a matter of fact, she looked forward to whatever came along as long as she was sharing what came with Ryan.
The car Ryan had hired dropped them off in front of The Village near a large tent in the parking lot. Because of the cold, Ryan had the tent prepared for her to use until it was time to enter the building. With plenty of heat and a surprisingly plush setting considering they were standing on asphalt, it had all she needed to finish getting ready. Once her father got Jeannie seated, he returned with a broad smile on his face.
“I like this son-in-law of mine. Knows how to treat my little girl.”
Abby sighed softly. “Is it beautiful? What does it look like?”
“It’s beyond beautiful, and I promised I wouldn’t tell. Just know that you’re about to enter every little girl’s dream.” He paused. “That’s how Jeannie described it when she walked in.”
“How much longer, Daddy?”
“Not so long now, maybe half an hour.”
Wade moved to sit next to her. “Your mother’s here and asking to come in to see you.”
When he was about to stand, she grabbed his arm. “How was it, seeing her after all this time?”
“Not easy knowing what she stole from me.” He shook his head. “I’ll forgive her eventually.”
She leaned into him. “You’re a good man.”
“I’m not that good. Honestly, I don’t want to forgive, but I’ve got no choice.” He kissed his little girl’s nose. “That’s a lesson in walking with Jesus. We’re commanded to forgive.”
Grinning at him, she only nodded. Every time they spoke, he would give her a little nugget. Once, he told her that he was doing a dad’s job by teaching her how to walk with Jesus. He said it would make him walk straighter in case she was watching him like little girls do. What a sweet thought that she could watch her dad and learn how to be more like Jesus.
When her mother stepped into the tent, she stood there tentatively before approaching. As usual, she looked like a million dollars in her designer suit. Abby smiled at her hoping to ease the tension of the moment.
“You look beautiful in your dress. This is all spectacular.” She grimaced and looked around. “Considering we are in a tent.”
When Abby’s smile faded at her mother’s slight, Christine quickly added, “I can’t imagine a more beautiful wedding. This man of yours sure knows how to impress.”
“I’m glad you think so.”
“I do. He’s a good man, Abby. You’ve done well for yourself.”
“I can’t wait for you to get to know him better. I think you will come to understand why I love him.”
“I’m well on my way. We’ve had dinner twice this week.”
Christine nodded. “He contacted me and asked me to dinner. Of course I had to check out the young man who’s captured my daughter’s heart.”
Abby smiled again. “He sure does have my heart.”
“I can see that.”
She moved to sit next to Abby. “I’m sorry.” She looked away. “For everything. I truly am.”
“I believe you.”
She looked back at her daughter. “So we will get past this?”
Nodding and leaning in to hug her mom, Abby whispered, “Of course we will. I forgive you, Mother.”
Her mother left the tent crying. As near as she could recall, Abby had never once witnessed her mother cry. Today gave her hope for her mother and confirmed that she at least had some small fragment of heart there beneath that stony exterior.
Her dad entered again, looking solemn. He was holding out a bouquet filled with tiny red and white roses. “I’m supposed to tell you he plans to always be charming.”
Abby smiled at that, took her flowers from him, and smelled the sweet aroma. “I have no doubt about that.”
“I don’t either. That’s the only reason I’m able to hand you off to him today, especially now that I’ve just gotten you back.”
“You still have me back. I promise.”
Blinking away tears, he smiled and whispered, “It’s time.”
Suddenly, a day that had been creeping slowly by was now moving so fast. This was really the moment. Abby took her father’s hand. “I can’t imagine this day without you walking me down the aisle.”
“You don’t have to. I’m right here with you.”
“I’m sorry we’ve missed so much together.”
“Me, too. But no more. We’ll get Jeannie back in shape so that we can fly out more often. You know we will, right?”
“I know, Daddy.”
Wade sighed and held his arm out. “Okay, so this is it.”
Abby’s entry into the large warehouse nearly took her breath away. She actually gasped at the loveliness of the scene before her, a winter wonderland with dozens and dozens of trees covered in thousands of lights and white snowflake ornaments. Accents of various red and white flowers were scatted about. There in the midst of her enchanted forest were chairs draped with white linen and an aisle leading to a simple white arbor adorned in lights. Ryan was there waiting for her beneath a large cluster of mistletoe. Quite literally, she was breathless as she and her father took their first steps forward.
Oblivious to anything from that point on, Abby focused entirely on Ryan and the tender expression on his face. Those eyes, the ones that had captured her heart from the beginning, were nearly dancing in excitement over her reaction. It occurred to her, she would see those eyes every day for the rest of her life, a thought that caused her first tear to fall.
At that, her dad leaned down and whispered, “I’m not going to make it through without crying if you start that.”
They came to a stop before Ryan and the pastor, her father holding onto her even tighter. She sensed his hesitation and leaned into him a little closer.
Pastor Robert smiled at Abby and then turned to her father. “Who gives this woman to be wed today?”
Wade had to clear his throat twice before he could answer. He looked directly at Ryan rather than the pastor. “I’ll never give this girl away, but I’ll trust you to take care of her for me.”
At that he broke down crying and leaned down to whisper into his daughter’s ear. “This moment is a gift. Every moment with you is a gift. Abby, you are your father’s joy.”
That was it, the final straw that caused the flood gates to burst wide open. Abby began to cry as she reached up to hug her father’s neck. “I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you, Abby. You’ll always be my little girl.”
She nodded up at him.
Wade took her hand and moved it toward Ryan. When Ryan held out his hand, Wade took hold of it and wrapped it around Abby’s. “Promise me again.”
“I will always take care of your little girl.”
Taking her place next to Ryan, with tears streaming down her cheeks, Abby looked up to find he had tears in his eyes as well. How could any of this be possible, such emotion and love overtaking them both? This was a whirlwind romance that no movie could ever capture in its depth and entirety. She thought of Ryan’s words, that he never actually fell in love with her but found he loved her as if he had all along. She understood those words. There were moments all along where she became more and more aware of her feelings for him but, as he had said, love was just suddenly there as if it always was supposed to be.
Their vows were spoken as the two held each other’s hands and gazed into the other’s eyes. It was a traditional ceremony where the pastor included the part about her obeying Ryan. Abby smiled at that, knowing her mother had likely just had a mini-stroke when she so easily said she would obey. There was no hesitation in that, especially when Ryan vowed to love her as Christ loved the church, giving even his life for her if required of him. What a sacrificial love that was.
They conclude the ceremony with a kiss beneath the mistletoe, and then the pastor announced them as Mr. and Mrs. Ryan Weston. Abby glanced at her mom, who was only then realizing Abby was taking Ryan’s last name. All color drained from her cheeks, a sight that caused Abby to grin and wink at her playfully. Her mom smiled softly and winked back.
Dinner was extravagant, the food excellent, and the background music soft and romantic. No way could Abby have planned her own wedding to be so much to her liking. That was an amusing but true thought. Ryan had given her a dream she didn’t even know she had dreamed.
After dinner, she discovered that cutting the cake was merely symbolic. Rather than feeding her cake, Ryan fed her mint chocolate chip ice cream and she did the same, laughing all the while. Next, they, along with all the guests, toasted one another with hot cocoa. Nearly every moment of the evening she was laughing or crying or sometimes a combination of both. The word joy stayed ever on her mind – that she was her father’s joy. Until that night, she wasn’t so certain she understood the depth of the meaning of joy. This was it, though.
The moment finally came when Ryan led her out onto the dance floor. When he took her into his arms, she only then recognized the song playing, “I Love You Just the Way You Are.”
Tears stung her eyes.
Ryan softly caressed her cheek. “I promise I won’t try to change you except for the better. I want you to do the same for me.”
She could only nod for fear of crying again and ruining the magic of the moment.
As they swayed slowly, he leaned down and whispered, “I’m a terrible dancer.”
“I’ve heard that somewhere before, but me too, so it’s okay,” she whispered in return.
“Let’s just hold on tight and pretend we know what we’re doing.”
Sighing softly, she felt awestruck by it all, especially the thought that this man was her future. “I think those are words we can live by. Let’s just hold on tight for the rest of our lives.”
Ryan chuckled softly. “Why, Abby, that was a romantic statement.”
“Purely an accident.”
“That’s okay. I’m plenty romantic enough for both of us.”
She glanced around. “Clearly you are.”
“You don’t mind?”
“Not at all. I’ll try to get better at being romantic.”
“Just do the best you can.” After that comment he began to sing the words to her, “I love you just the way you are.” Then quickly he apologized. “Sorry, but I don’t think I’ll ever get any better at singing.”
“And you snore. I have a lot to get used to.”
“You do. This is going to be an amazing adventure, Abby. I promise you that.”
From then on, they simply danced in silence, both lost in the idea of their new adventure and all that implied.
Abby was the first to speak again. “I do want kids someday – especially since you’ll be the dad.”
Ryan grinned. “That’s a big change of heart from the girl at her friend’s Christmas party. Maybe we need to pray on that for a while.”
“No. I know it’s what I want. I can’t imagine a future where you’re not a dad.”
“I won’t argue with that. And you don’t have to worry, I’ll really step it up as a dad. I have my own business, so our kids will able to be with me there – like I was with my mom when I was a kid.”
“They can be with me, too, since I’ll be running the place. Who’s going to say no?”
“It is a family business after all. You’re family now, Joe’s niece, practically a Goodwin.”
“I like the sound of that, a family business. I’ve lived most of my life without much of a family.”
“You have a family now.” He pointed over at Nanna Bertie. “Some of your family can be quite a handful.”
“I’m looking forward to that especially.” She laughed softly. “Looks as if she got exactly what she asked for at Kimberly’s wedding: sitting at ours next.”
“She sure did, but you’ll find she very often gets what she wants.”
When their song began to wind down, Abby knew it was the second moment she had been waiting for. An unfamiliar song began to play as she watched her dad make his way toward them.
Quickly, Abby whispered, “Thank you for loving me.”
“No, thank you for loving me.” He moved in and kissed her.
With a sigh, Ryan warned, “He picked this song. It’s going to knock you over.” With that, he moved aside and allowed Wade to take her from him.
With tear-filled eyes, Wade smiled at her, kissed her cheek, and drew her into his arms.
The song was called “Daddy’s Little Girl,” and in the song Michael Bublé cooed, “You’re the spirit of Christmas, a star on the tree…” and went on to say, “And you’re Daddy’s little girl.” At that, Abby began to cry so hard that all she could do was lean into her father’s chest.
Neither spoke for a moment but just held on tightly. As much as she had enjoyed her dance with Ryan, this dance was sweeter by far. She had a lifetime ahead of dances with her husband, but this was her one and only father-daughter dance.
Eventually, Wade whispered, “This was some wedding.”
“It sure was.” She looked up at her dad. “He did an amazing job.”
“You deserve amazing.”
“I have an amazing dad.”
He traced his finger along her small cross. “More so than you know.” When she looked down at the cross, he added, “I’ll devote myself to helping you get to know God as your heavenly Father. That matters, that you know Him that way. He is supposed to take my place.”
“I’m not ready for that, for Him to take your place.”
“You will be someday. And I’ll help you get to know your Groom. You’ll be surprised to find that you’re stepping into the greatest love story ever told – the real Christmas miracle.”
She knew he meant Jesus. Just that afternoon as Jeannie rested, he had told her about Jesus as the Groom and how the church was the bride. Much of it still made little sense to her, but for the first time, she was eager to learn. Because her dad and Ryan both believed so fully, she had to consider that there was something more to this Jesus than she had ever suspected. If He had set the stage for her very own Christmas movie Christmas just to get her attention, that’s the kind of Groom she definitely wanted to know.