logo

Observing Christmas Traditions

The happy disaster of Christmas morning at the Anderson’s was almost over. Thank God. Wrapping paper lay bright and torn around the living room. The tree, still twinkling in the gray light of a rainy morning, had that empty, hollow feeling now that it had been looted and plundered. Laying about the tatters were the Mitchells and the Andersons, splayed like drunken revelers at the end of a particularly debaucherous night. And yet it wasn’t over.

“Who’s that one from, Claudie?” her mother asked as she turned the latest gift in her hands—her last gift.

“Charlie,” she said a bit sheepishly. She didn’t need to look for the card with his name on it. She knew it was from him based on the wrap-job: the comic section of a newspaper she didn’t even know was in print anymore. She turned it one last time, pushed her finger into the seam along the back, and split it open.

The ritual of opening had become a tradition in these two families—one of many. No one was quite sure when or why it had started, but each present was opened one at a time, with each member of the group looking on to watch the unveiling. Claudia figured it must have been fun, once upon a time, when the presents were limited to the two sets of parents and their two babies. Thing was, it didn’t scale. Like, at all. Now, between her parents, Charlie’s parents, their siblings, a boyfriend and a girlfriend, gift-opening had become an epic ordeal.

Charlie watched, feeling a nervous flutter trill in his stomach. He tried convincing himself that it was because of the gift and some kind of fear of rejection or disappointment. But that wasn’t it. He was confident that he had a sure-thing in that newsprint. No, the nervousness had been there since he’d arrived at the Andersons’ country home, Echo Creek Farm, and laid his eyes on Claudia for the first time in more than five years.

The creatively lazy part of him could have said that the awkward girl that he’d grown up with had become a true beauty, a butterfly emerging from her cocoon and all of that nonsense. But in fact, Claudia had always been stunning; Charlie had just forgotten it over the years. Even now, wearing no make-up and dressed down in flannel pajama pants and a gray, hooded sweatshirt, she was as perfect as a sketch of a princess from an child’s illustrated fantasy book.

“Is this…” Her sing-song voice tapered off as she realized what he’d given her. Claudia gingerly pulled back the hardback cover and ran her fingers across the words, “First Edition.” She looked up at him, her dark blond ponytail whipping over her shoulder.

Charlie stopped himself from looking too proud of himself. “I found it at a yard sale. The owner had no idea what he had.”

Claudia had always been a huge Alice in Wonderland fan. When the two of them were kids, they’d spent a lot of time in this house, pretending parts of it were the fantastical world that Lewis Carroll had envisioned. When he’d found the first edition of the children’s rendition of the book—the same one she’d read all those years ago—he’d bought it on the spot without thinking. That was three years ago and he’d all but forgotten about it until his mom told him that Claudia would be at Christmas, too.

Charlie watched her page through the volume. “That’s quite a gift, Charlie. Thank you,” said the man sitting next to Claudia; the only man not wearing some form of pajamas. Charlie cringed at the man’s assumption, suppressing a protective instinct in him that he hadn’t earned. It’s not for you, it’s for her, he wanted to say.

But he kept his cool. “You’re welcome, Robert.” The man’s name felt like gravel between his teeth. “She loved that book when we were kids.” Wonderland wasn’t real and their childhood was a long time ago.

“I am so glad we’re all together,” Charlie’s mom, Deana Mitchell, clapped. She’d made the observation at least a dozen times already, but this time felt more like she was trying to clear smoke from the air. Charlie’s dad picked up on it.

“And I’m glad we’re done with presents!” Andy Mitchell said. Everyone else groaned in agreement.

All of this was a tradition, even the joke made at Deana’s expense—even laughing at the joke made at Deana’s expense. It signified the end of this part of the day. Since Deana Mitchell befriended Carol Anderson in the maternity ward of St. Augustine Medical Center, the two of them pregnant with Charlie and Claudia respectively, they had been establishing traditions that would haunt the families for the next 23 years.

“I have one more gift I’d like to give,” Robert announced. Half the family was already on their feet, ready to move on. Claudia’s boyfriend’s words had the effect of dragging a needle across a record. Even she cringed.

The parents looked at one another in silence, settling back down. He pulled out a small box, wrapped in glossy red paper, and handed it to Claudia. She had large, expressive eyes to begin with, but when she accepted the little present, they were tea cup saucers. She could feel everyone watching her. She didn’t dare look at Charlie.

Her heart fluttered as she unwrapped the velvet box. Or maybe it was her stomach? Robert looked a lot like Charlie had moments ago: a man with the smug assurance that he’d found the perfect gift. Her fingers shook as she brushed her thumb across the fuzzy, black parcel. She took a deep breath before opening it.

For Charlie, he felt like someone had pulled a secret lever that opened the floor beneath him. And that someone was Robert. Who proposes on Christmas day, in front of an extended family he’d never met? Weren’t these things supposed to be done in a romantic setting, with candlelight and rings at the bottom of champagne glasses? Or at least, you know, in privacy?

“When I first met you, I honestly thought you were a little snobby…” As Robert began his trite and predictable tale, Charlie felt sick to his stomach. It was irrational and illogical—he hadn’t seen Claudia in five years, after all, and they were never more than close friends—but not completely invalid. At least not to him. “…Carol and Jack, I’m sorry I didn’t have a chance to ask your permission, but it just feels so… right…” The thing that killed Charlie more than anything was the way Claudia looked at the guy. Her beauty shined, bright and alive. Emotion threatened to overwhelm her svelte body.

It was the way he’d always fantasized she’d look at him some day.

“So, I guess I’m asking… will you spend your life with me, Claudia?”

Claudia opened her mouth, but no sound came out. Charlie didn’t know it, but she was right there with him, falling through a trap door that had opened up beneath her. This rabbit hole, however, felt more uncertain than wondrous.

She had been seeing Robert for nearly a year now. He’d be the perfect husband to her perfect life. A Yale grad just like her, already into his second year of med school. He had ambition, a great sense of humor. He was good looking, great in bed, and seemed to possess a never-ending pool of patience with her. He was the perfect…

So why was she hesitating?

“Yes,” she said at last, finding her voice. She felt tears stream down her cheeks and she threw her arms around him and kissed him softly on the lips. Watching Robert’s boyish face split into that so-familiar wide grin made it all worth it. Right?

When she looked up, Charlie was gone.

***

After the gluttony of gifts came the gluttony of food. Charlie decided to throw himself into the preparations of the feast. It was easier than thinking about what just happened.

He helped his mother baste the turkey. He hefted the 23-pound monstrosity from the oven. Already, it was a rich gold, the sizzling smell causing his mouth to water. That smell brought him back into his past. Even the kitchen felt frozen in time, an installation at a Julia Child’s museum. Sea-foam green and glossy white dominated the old era cook room. It hadn’t changed since he’d first started forming memories of it.

“Thanks, hon,” his mom said, then grabbed him for a tight hug. One thing felt different. His mother felt small against his six-foot frame now. He had to stoop a little into the embrace. “It’s so good to have everyone here.” This time, the phrase didn’t carry the rote delivery of tradition. It was genuine and as he squeezed her back, he echoed the same.

When she surveyed his face and asked, “Are you okay?” he almost broke down.

“Of course.”

She nodded skeptically, but let it go. “I heard my big boy was making pies? Should I be worried?”

“Mom!” Charlie laughed. “I’ll start after I change.”

Echo Creek Farm wasn’t a farm anymore and the over-sized farmhouse was now surrounded by a copse of trees where once, presumably, were worked fields. The encroachment had happened long before Charlie’s time. To him, this place was a diorama: a locale that meant nothing much beyond Christmas time. But during these few days of Yule, it was packed with meaning and memory. He felt like he could come up with a story for every dark floorboard in the place. He passed through the living room, where the dads were straightening up the gift-wrapped disaster, before taking a right for the stairs.

The estate had been in the Anderson’s family for generations—along with a few others scattered throughout the country—although they never let on that they were wealthy. Charlie didn’t even realize it until he was around seven and able to understand things like that. And by that time, he was so enamored with Claudia that he could have discovered that the Andersons were child-eating werewolves and it wouldn’t have mattered.

As he passed Claudia’s room, he heard the sound of the bath running. His room shared her washroom and he realized that he’d need to find somewhere else to brush his teeth and clean his face. He also realized that her door stood open a crack.

Charlie couldn’t resist. Glancing in, he caught her reflection in the cheval mirror in the corner. He froze. Her smooth back was turned to it, naked and ethereal like an adult version of that sketched illustration he’d thought of earlier, colored in with faded watercolor. She slid her thumbs into the waistband of her flannel pajama pants and eased them over her slender hips. Charlie blinked when he saw the plunge of her white thong.

He drank in her beauty. The length of her toned legs. The dimpled muscles of her lower back. The texture in her dark blond hair as it fell loosely across her bare shoulder blades. The sketch moved. The fantasy woman on the pages of his mind became real, and suddenly he realized she could catch him.

Claudia held up her hand and light caught in the diamond ring. “It’s beautiful,” she said.

A moment later, Robert’s tall stature invaded the frame, collecting Claudia’s slender body in his arms. Charlie heard them kiss as he skulked down the hall, remembering that not everything in this house was a storybook, and some things would now remain in the past.

***

“Not here,” Claudia said, pushing her boyfriend away. No, not boyfriend anymore. She brushed her thumb across the warm band of metal that now adorned her left hand and reminded herself that she was happy.

“Come on, baby, let’s celebrate,” Robert persisted, pushing his hands beneath the elastic of her thong. It felt good to be enveloped in his arms and she felt herself tingle. She’d been with her parents for the holidays and Robert had just come in this morning. It had been nearly two weeks since they’d be intimate and she felt her resolve begin to erode. A man’s lips kissing her neck tended to do that.

The sound of a door closing somewhere else in the house snapped her out of it. “No,” she said. “I can’t. Not here. Not in this house.”

Robert groped her one last time before surrendering. He kissed her softly on the lips. “Of course. Must be a little weird.”

Claudia nodded, ushering him to the door. It was weird, but not for the reasons he thought. She’d fooled around with past boyfriends out here—some of her craziest experiences were had when she’d driven out here to party. But Charlie had never been in the house during those times. And that was a secret she wasn’t about to share with her newly minted fiancé.

Alone, she stepped into the honeycomb-tiled bathroom, where steam sweated on the white subway tile and clouded the windowpanes, shutting out the gloomy day. This was a personal ritual of hers. Every Christmas, after gifts, she took a long hot bath. So much of this house was old and quaint and a younger, more spoiled Claudia had always whined when she had to leave the comforts of her family’s suburban home to come out here. But this tub always made up for it. Easily big enough for three and set against the wall like the stage of an off-Broadway show, it was glorious. She’d made a past time of lounging in it: soaking, reading, thinking. In the later years, her thoughts tended to center on one thing… Charles Clark Mitchell.

She thought of his broad shoulders and muscled body as she stepped into the tub. Those shoulders were part of the problem. He’d grown up in the past few years. Filled out. Let his chestnut curls grow long and shaggy. He’d become the man she’d always fantasized that he would be. But even that wasn’t the heart of it. His heart was the heart. His thoughtfulness. His kindness. She’d never met a boy—a man—like him and after being out of touch all these years, she’d begun thinking she’d made it up. Then he went ahead and got her that damn book.

Claudia ducked her long, wavy hair beneath the water and reached for the strawberry-smelling shampoo. She scrubbed it into the fine strands and felt the suds tickle her skin. It felt like a lover’s soft caress. She squeezed her eyes shut and forced that lover to be Robert, but her subconscious gave way by the time she squeezed body wash onto her sponge. It was part of the ritual, she reasoned; this was tradition, and Charlie had always been the one running his hands across her soapy body.

Claudia stood up in the tub to scrub her body, trailing the sponge around her breasts and down her flat stomach. How many times had she imagined him watching her like this? For him to be in the tub with her, looking up as she soaped her naked curves. She pushed the rough surface between her legs and stifled a moan. She glanced at the white, paneled door that led to Charlie’s room. Was he there now, getting dressed?

She finished scrubbing and lowered herself back into the tub, cringing a little as the water splashed about. She felt exposed by the sloshing. Could he hear it? Was he thinking about her? Her body tingled. Self-consciously, she cut on the whirlpool jets. Of course, that led to another distraction.

This was the other reason she loved this bath so much. Bracing her feet against the edge of the tub and leaning back, she let the firm current rush between her thighs. She closed her eyes and breathed through her nose, teasing herself with her hands. She allowed herself to think of Charlie for the first time in years as she tweaked her nipples. His image came to her, foggy and humid like this steam-choked room. His thick arms. His dimpled smile and squared off jaw. The only thing she could imagine clearly were his eyes, big caring brown ones that seemed to always be on her. She rocked her hips up, nearly getting swept away in the more direct contact of the jet.

He’d always accused her of being prim. What would he think now? She tickled the fingers of her right hand against her smooth sex and felt her muscles flex and tighten. Her arched body surfaced in the tub, buttressed between her folded legs and her shoulders. Was he still there, just on the other side of that door? She’d never once locked it; he’d never once accidentally walked in on her. What if he did? What if he did, right now?

Claudia pushed two fingers into her pussy. “Uh!” she groaned before she could squash it. She adjusted until the water pulsed directly across her clit. She writhed. Water sloshed over the lip of the tub. This time, she didn’t care. She rotated her hips against the spray as she fingered herself, thinking of Charlie. Thinking of his lips on her, not her fingers.

Holding her moans to a heavy sigh exhaled through her clenched teeth, Claudia rode her orgasm out in the roiling water. She twisted back, mercifully dipping beneath the effervescent spray. Her muscles unraveled as she melted into the bath. She let out a long, cleansing breath. This was by far one of her favorite Christmas traditions.

***

Charlie was with his mom, chopping carrots for their Christmas feast. He looked up as she entered, her feet creaking along the old floorboards of the house. She’d been beautiful in her pajamas and no make-up. She was breathtaking in her festive, maroon dress. He remembered it from the last Christmas they’d spent together, but he set about rememorizing it. Between the off-the-shoulder cowl neck and the flaring skirt, it was cinched around her narrow waist by a wide, decorative bow.

She pirouetted like a ballerina, smiling as she completed the spin. “Get enough?” Even her hair, tied up into a loose bun, fit the image.

Claudia liked to think she wasn’t the type of girl that wasted a lot of time deliberating on an outfit. She always had her trusty jeans and blouses—a sundress if it was warm and she needed to dress up—a cable-knit sweater when it was cold. And yet she’d done it just now. The most troubling thing was the question that kept repeating itself in her head, again and again: “Who are you dressing for, girl?”

Charlie regained control of his senses and hoped he hadn’t gawked too much. A quick glance at his mother told him that he had. “You must be lost. The living room’s off to your left.”

“Har, har. I’m here to help.”

Charlie’s eyebrows rose beyond the sweep of his long bangs. “An Anderson… cooking…?”

Anger rose in Claudia, but she let it pass. It was a joke that only Charlie could get away with. Growing up, she’d always had a cook or a nanny prepare foods. It was a very rare occasion for her mother to even enter the kitchen. What few culinary skills Claudia had came from the Food Network and watching the cook prepare things. That had changed in college, though. Well, a little.

“I’m full of surprises, aren’t I?” She stepped in and slipped her hands into hidden pockets in the voluminous skirts of her dress. “So, what can I help with?”

“Want to help me with my pies? Pecan and pumpkin. Pretty complicated…”

“You’re an ass…” Glancing at Charlie’s mom, she added, “Sorry Mrs. Mitchell.”

“It’s OK. Charlie can certainly be an ass sometimes.” She shut the sink off and dried her hands. Pulling off her apron, she handed it to her, saying, “You’ll want to wear this. Wouldn’t want to get that pretty dress messy. Why don’t you work on the pie crust while I check on the boys.”

“The pie crust is definitely the hardest—” He stopped, catching the dangerous look in Claudia’s face and the warning one in his mother’s. He shrugged. Worst case, he had a frozen one tucked away. “Ok, grab the dough out of the fridge…” Satisfied, Deana Mitchell left the room with a nod.

Claudia pulled the chilled blob from their industrial strength refrigerator, which may have looked vintage but certainly was not. She tossed it down with a satisfying plop and reached for the rolling pin. She’d show him— “Wait!”

Claudia jumped “What?”

“Contrary to what you may have seen on TV, rolling out a pie crust requires a light touch.” She stared at him over her shoulder, then at the dough, then at the marble pin.

Charlie watched her helplessly fumble about, finally realizing that he really was being an ass. “Here, like this,” he said, modulating his voice back down like he was talking to a child. He put his arms around her and gripped the outer part of the rolling pin’s handles.

The scent of lavender filled his nostrils. She still used the same shampoo as she had in high school and it filling him with nostalgia. And regret. Why hadn’t he said something then? He glanced down at her left hand, where his fingers were almost touching the diamond ring.

Before he could pull away though, Claudia whispered, “So you like a soft touch, huh?” Even through his thick sweater, she could feel his solid torso against her back. It felt good, to be enveloped. She wiggled her hips against his and felt him stir. Her breath caught. They shouldn’t be doing this.

“Sometimes,” he replied, wishing he could stay there forever. Instead, he did what was right. He backed away and went back to chopping pecans. “So once you have that rolled out, you’re going to stretch it into the pie plate. Then repeat for the other.”

They worked silently for a spell, although both stole secret glances at the other when they thought they could get away with it. Charlie loved the way Claudia furrowed her brow when she concentrated on spreading out the crust. Claudia just liked watching Charlie work.

“So, how long have you guys been dating?” It was the inevitable subject, but one both were kind of hoping to avoid.

“We met last year, at a New Year’s party.”

“He seems like a good guy.” Christ, this was awkward. “He’s going to be a doctor? Your dad must like that.”

She nodded, wanting this conversation to crawl back into whatever hole it had come from. “All done with the crusts.”

“Great!” Charlie said, happy for the short lifespan of the subject. He carried the sugary pecan mixture to her pie mold. “Let me,” she offered, reaching for a spatula and scrapping the thick filling out as Charlie held it. They glanced at one another, smiling. This was nice, they both thought. This was something they could get used to.

“Now we just let that bake for 50 minutes, serve with ice cream, and accept compliments at will.”

***

Charlie and Claudia were the last to join the family at the long table, which was already raucous with too much wine and too much holiday.

“Wait, wait!” someone cried as they passed under the arch of the dining room. “Mistletoe!” another laughed like they’d been caught in the most clever prank ever been visited in families.

Charlie felt himself redden. At first, he figured he’d ignore it. But as silence descended on the room, he realized that his hesitation had only fueled the teasing. They glanced at each other, sharing the embarrassment like a hug.

“Um…” Claudia was keenly aware of Robert out there, watching her. Studying her. Could he see how much she wanted to kiss her old friend? Did her blushing face betray her?

As much as Charlie wanted to sweep her into his arms and kiss her, a shaggy-haired Ret Butler to his blond Scarlet O’Hara, he resisted. He couldn’t play-kiss her because as soon as his lips touched hers, she’d know. “Merry Christmas,” he whispered, bending down and planting a soft kiss just behind her jaw.

“Awww…” The peanut gallery moaned when Charlie released Claudia with a soft kiss on the cheek. Red-faced and cringing, they joined the bunch at the table and the feast of Christmas past, present, and future was devoured.

The Andersons and Mitchells talked about it all. The past—that snowstorm that had extended Christmas at Echo Creek Farm an extra week, or the time the Christmas lights had blown out the fuse box and they had their Christmas feast under candlelight. They talked about the present at great length, and how great it was to have everyone together for the first time. Charlie talked about his time with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia; Claudia talked about her post-grad classes at Yale. That, of course, led to talk of the future. And her husband-to-be, Robert.

Charlie excused himself to the kitchen, mouthing that he was getting the pies. It was too much to watch Claudia and Robert’s recount of how they first met on the New Haven Green. It felt like a story that he should have been telling with her and his worst fear was that she’d see that unmerited jealousy.

He should be happy for his long time friend, and he knew that one day, he would be, but right then it just felt so cruel. He was a treasure hunter who’d stumbled upon a cache of riches he’d forgotten he was even looking for, only to find it empty. So close, yet so very far.

“Need help?” It was Claudia’s sister, Maggie, pushing through swinging kitchen door.

“Um, sure…” he said as she sauntered across the black and white tiled floor to the ovens. He’d been so caught up in how much Claudia had grown up that he missed her spunky little sister’s transformation. If anything, it was even more dramatic.

Maggie possessed the same lithe athleticism with some added curves. Her hair was a few shades darker—pushing her into the brunette category—and she wore her make-up like a true college coed: a little too heavy around the eyes in a way that Charlie shouldn’t have liked, but did.

“Want to talk about it?” She pulled on a hand cozy and nudged Charlie aside as she bent to pull the pies out.

“What?” He tried, and failed, to keep his eyes off her ass. She wore a tight pair of skinny jeans tucked into her Uggs and a fuchsia, cashmere sweater that would be considered “snug” in even the loosest of definitions. As she leaned down, the hem of the sweater rose and the jeans pulled tight.

“How you’re in love with my sister,” she said cheerily, sliding a pie out and straightening.

“I’m not… in love…” He stumbled, tearing his eyes off her butt before she caught him looking.

Maggie rolled her eyes and went back for the other pie. “Sure you’re not.” When she set this one next to the first and slammed the oven shut, she didn’t move away. Instead, she rested a hand on her hip and leaned against the counter. “Guys are always like that. In denial.” She stared at him with the same sky blue eyes that Claudia had. For maybe the first time in his entire life, he saw her as more than the bratty younger sister of his crush. “Believe me, I know what it feels like to want something and not be noticed.”

Charlie blinked and Maggie giggled. Same laugh, too. “Close your mouth, dear. We have pies to deliver.”

Meanwhile, in the dining room, Claudia and Robert dutifully fielded questions from the Mitchells. Robert’s bright charisma had been what had first attracted her to him and it seemed to be working for Charlie’s family, too. She studied them, though, wondering if beneath it all, there was disappointment. Had they always imagined her with their son? Was that disappointment lurking beneath their smiles?

Or was she just projecting?

The pies, of course, were a success. When Charlie revealed that Claudia had helped, everyone—her parents in particular—didn’t believe it. “Our Claudia?” her mother asked skeptically.

After dinner, they scattered. Most filtered into the living room to play motion games on a Playstation owned by Charlie’s younger brother, Lucas. Unable to resist watching Claudia swing the baton like a golf-club or the way her face screwed up when she got competitive, Charlie hung out quietly as long as possible. On the other side of the room, however, Robert had engaged in some kind of medical banter with Claudia’s father—also a doctor—and couldn’t stay. OK, so the guy’s perfect for her, he granted, but he didn’t need to be happy about it.

“Look, a man leaves the video games!” Carol Anderson said, elbowing his own mother, who was washing dishes next to her.

“Look at that.”

“Oh, that’s just because he doesn’t like video games,” Maggie defended.

Charlie’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. How did she know that? “Watching them was fun, but it’s true. I was always the kid who wanted to play in the mud outside. I guess Lucas played enough for the both of us.” His mother smirked at that.

Carol looked outside, where the cold rain hadn’t let up. Night was falling. “Well, there’s plenty of that outside now, although I wouldn’t recommend it.” She set her last dinner plate in the dishwasher and turned to his mom. “Dee, want to play a few rounds of golf on Lucas’s new toy?”

Deana looked at Maggie and Charlie. “It’s why we had them, right? To clean up after our messes?” The mothers high-fived as they left the room.

“Come on, I think there are more dishes in the dining room,” Maggie said with an exaggerated eye-roll.

The two of then shuttled the rest of the plates into the kitchen and sorted the huge amount of leftovers into their appropriate sizes of Tupperware. Charlie became keenly aware of just how closely Maggie watched him, and how hard she pretended not to. He felt her eyes on him when he faced the sink to rinse dishes, and every time he reentered the kitchen, swinging that door before him, he’d watch her look up at him, flush a little, and quickly avert her eyes.

It was a funny feeling, really, to finally realize the crush. Now that he knew, it seemed so obvious. He began to look at her outside of the “sisterly schema.” She was now a young woman, and an attractive and fun one at that. He started imagining the potentials.

So on their last trip into the dining room to wipe down the long banquet table, what came next seemed natural, although Charlie cursed himself afterwards.

“Wait a minute, mister,” Maggie said as they returned to the kitchen. She held her arm out in front of him, blocking his path enough for him to look up. They were beneath the mistletoe. “I think we need to honor this tradition.” She sounded confident, but judging from the way her eyes kept darting away, Charlie guessed she’d been rehearsing this exchange since they’d gotten started. After all, this wasn’t the first time they’d passed beneath this spot.

Charlie smiled. It was cute. Turning to face the pretty coed, he nodded. “Tradition, of course.” He ran his fingers up along her cheek. Her face was soft and surprisingly hot. Pushing his fingertips beneath the silky curtain of her just-brunette hair, he drew her close. She stepped freely, pressing her lithe body into his.

The kiss didn’t feel awkward, or sisterly (whatever that was supposed to feel like). It was nice, and wet, and warm, and when Maggie pushed her tongue past his lips, it became arousing, too.

“You know, after all those times we’ve passed under the mistletoe, I think we owe tradition a bit more than a kiss.”

Charlie, still cupping Maggie’s face, wanted to entertain the offer. The twitching in his trousers was proof of that. But as he looked down into those bright blue eyes of hers, all he saw was her sister.

Before he could mouth his “I’m sorry,” he heard glass shatter to his right. Their heads wiped around to the noise and Charlie felt like he’d decided to jam a fork into the wall socket and hold on for dear life. Standing there, looking just as stunned as Charlie felt, was Claudia.

“I’m, um, sorry…” she stuttered, suddenly wanting to look everywhere but at the two of them. With Maggie’s curves against him, guilt rolled over Charlie in waves.

“Everything OK in here?” Robert asked, running into the room to round out the most awkward foursome any of them had ever felt. He took in Maggie in Charlie’s arms. And Claudia’s thunderstruck expression. And the broken glass on the ground.

“I… shit…” With her eyes glistening, Claudia raced out of the room.

***

“I’m sorry, Maggie. We can’t. I can’t.” He felt bad for rebuffing the pretty young Anderson, but it was the right thing to do. He didn’t want her harboring all these feelings for him like he had for Claudia. It wasn’t fair.

“I know,” she said sadly, studying the floor. Her lip quivered a little, but she didn’t cry. Throwing on that brave smile he recognized when she’d bruise her knee as a kid, she added, “It was a nice thought though.”

He thought of saying something brotherly, like how she was going to make some boy really happy some day, but decided against it. The last thing he wanted to do was patronize.

“You know, I kind of lied earlier. When I said that thing about wanting something and not being noticed.” Maggie took a deep breath. “My sister notices. And she’s just as in love as you.”

“I know. But I can’t do that, either. She’s engaged—” He stopped when she rolled her eyes. “What? They’re probably upstairs right now… making up.”

Maggie was thoughtful. “I don’t know about that. I mean, Mr. Yale is a mistake and she knows it. Maybe this’ll help her realize it.” Charlie sighed, feeling skeptical, but held his tongue. “Thanks for helping me clean up,” she said, going up onto her tiptoes to kiss him one last time. “And don’t give up faith just yet.”

***

Shock fueled her flight until she’d made it to her room. It wrapped itself around her like a constrictor snake, squeezing her until she could hardly breath. Until she started seeing stars. She sucked shallow breathes, fighting for air that was never enough.

The squeeze didn’t release her until she hit the plush comforter of her bed. Next was a bitter cocktail of anger and sadness. Anger for her sister. Sadness that it hadn’t been her.

And that wasn’t fair. She’d never been an option. She was someone else’s now. It was the way it had to be, right? And if Charlie couldn’t be hers, why not her sister? Better Maggie than some skank he met somewhere else, right?

“Claudie, sweetheart, are you OK?” She felt Robert sink onto the bed next to her. Sweet, kind, perfect Robert.

Wiping tears from her eyes, she peeled herself off the mattress and glanced at him over her shoulder. His eyes were sad. Disappointed. She’d only seen that look once before: the very first time he’d asked her out and she’d said no. Back then, she’d done it for Charlie, as silly as that was. She saw the potential danger in this man; of getting close to him. She should have stuck to her resolution.

“No, I don’t think it is,” she said quietly. God, what was she doing? This wasn’t happening, was it? Reaching for the ring she’d so recently put on, she twisted it off and handed it back. “I’m sooo sorry…”

Robert didn’t make a move to reach for it. Not at first. In her gut, she felt the pain in his face. He’d been so good to her for so long. He’d done everything right.

But he wasn’t Charlie.

At last, Robert nodded. “I love you, Claudie, and I’m not going to pretend to like it, but… I’m glad you told me now, and not when it was too late.” He brushed her hair back one last time and for a weak moment, she wanted to grab him and kiss him and tell him it was all a giant mistake. But it wasn’t.

“I love you, too, Robert. And… thank you…”

Claudia sat on her bed for a long time. She felt like crying, but every time the tears started to develop, she thought of Charlie and found strength. Outside, she heard a car door shut and an engine begin to turn over. Standing, she went to the window just in time to see Robert’s car pull away from the house and wind its way down the lonely, tree-lined drive.

She felt terrible for him; terrible that she’d put him through that. They had some great times together and she’d miss that. Yet as sad as it was to watch the red tail lights disappear around a bend, the feeling of relief was overwhelming. No more excuses. No more games. At last, she was free.

***

Evening had arrived, and with it, the whistling of wind against the shutters outside. It was a sound Charlie associated with this place and the past, even when he heard it from his little New York studio. Now, the nostalgia made him sad.

He ascended the stairs to what was now the library, where his best memories resided. He felt like wallowing right now. He stood just inside the door and inhaled the inviting scent of books. When the families had first gotten together for Christmas, this had been the room they’d set up the tree and opened the presents. That was before Lucas and Maggie had come along and they’d run out of room.

It was back when they were kids that his favorite tradition had been borne. As Christmas came to an unwelcome end, he and Claudia used to fall asleep under the tree, hoping to wake up and relive the day all over again. Their parents had encouraged the “camp out,” saying that having the kids sleep under the tree was the best present they could get.

The tradition had stuck, even in the later years when Mr. Anderson had turned the space into a library to house his extensive book collection. He’d passed his love of books down to his daughter, who’d in turn passed it down to him. The smell of books and Christmas would always remind him of Claudia, and right now, he wanted to feel that pain.

Aside from the books, the room housed a great, stone hearth on the far side. It was drafty and cold right now, but that fit Charlie’s mood. He crossed the room, curling his toes in the thick carpet. The wind sounded louder up here, battering against the bay window that looked out over the farm. Rain dappled the double-paned glass. Without city lights to illuminate the stormy skies, all he could see was darkness beyond, and the reflection of the door to the stairs across the lightless room.

He set about building a fire. With care, he piled kindling on crumpled balls of newspaper before going for the larger logs. He thought of how he and Claudia used to do this, dressed in their pajamas, a makeshift bed of heavy down comforters all laid out before it. The last time they were up here, things had been said that Charlie masochistically brought back to memory.

They were in their last years of high school, just 18, and worried about what the future would hold. Charlie had gotten an early acceptance to Berkley and wasn’t sure about making the long trip across the country for the next Christmas. Claudia was afraid she’d never see him again. So they made a promise. It was one of those silly things kids did in hyper dramatic moments, but Charlie had been carrying it around ever since. If neither of them were married by the time they turned 35, they’d find one another and settle down.

What Charlie had come to realize as he went through college, then into the Peace Corps, then home for job hunting, was that he didn’t want to wait until he was 35. He wanted her now, and was tired of waiting.

Apparently, he’d waited too long.

On a table to the left of the window and chairs was an old record player. He thumbed the tops of the records that were lined up below, knowing exactly where the Christmas albums were stored. Breathing in the smell of books and vinyl, he selected his favorite: a compilation of Christmas carols. Fitting the record into place and gingerly setting the needle, he went back to the window as the chords of “White Christmas” began to play.

It was perfect except for one thing…

A shadow passed across the lighted reflection of the library’s pocket doors. Charlie smiled and looked up without turning his head. It was the silhouette of a woman, long and slender, her hair gathered in a loose coif. Right on cue.

Claudia hesitated before joining him by the windows. She listened to Bing Crosby’s deep, soothing voice. I’m dreaming… She couldn’t agree more. This was their place. It had been for so many years, but… she was worried that maybe she was no longer allowed here. Just like the ones she knew before?

“Merry Christmas,” she said, kneeling down beside him and folding her hands in her lap.

“Merry Christmas.” They watched the rain for a moment. “Not very white though.”

Claudia laughed weakly. “Agreed.” She got up and lifted the needle onto the next track: “Let It Snow.” She laughed again. “Not much of an improvement, but I like this song.”

“That’s my Claudia, always concerned with what’s appropriate,” Charlie teased.

“About that…” she said a little testily.

“You don’t have to explain. I’m just being a little emo here. It’ll pass.”

“Robert’s gone.”

Charlie froze. Was his mind playing tricks on him? He didn’t even dare look at her. “What did you say?”

“I… I broke it off with him.” Her laugh teetered on wet emotion. “Shortest engagement ever, huh?”

“Claudie, why?” The empathetic part of him kicked in. At last, he turned and pulled her into a comforting hug. It felt good. It felt right.

“You know why.” She pulled back, blinking back the tears that were gathering in her lashes. Impulsively, she reached out to touch his face. Was he real? Was this happening? She felt his whiskers, a feeling new to her since they’d last been here.

“I need a shave.”

“I like it,” she said.

And then she was kissing him.

And then he was kissing her.

For Charlie, the kiss changed his conception of what a kiss could be. With Maggie, it had been wet and sexy and full of promise, like biting into a ripe peach. But to compare this kiss with something as earthly as fruit would have been unfair.

For Claudia, it was the kiss she had been waiting her entire life for. She just didn’t realize it until now.

Charlie felt Claudia’s fist tighten in the loose hairs at the base of his neck. They tilted their heads and the kiss deepened. He placed a hand on her hip, tracing the glossy satin of her maroon gown. Even through the bodice, he could feel her hot body.

“Wow…”

“Yeah. Wow…”

Claudia nuzzled her forehead along Charlie’s, twisting his wavy hair between her fingers. Slowly, she opened her eyes. He was right there, watching her. Staring at her. She shivered.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have—” Charlie began. Claudia cut him off with the shake of her head.

“Yes, you should have. You should have a long time ago.” She raked her nails across his scalp. “Besides, I kissed you.”

“I don’t think so.”

Claudia giggled. And then they were kissing again. This time, she made sure to be the one to initiate it. If their first kiss was the smoke billowing from the lip of the volcano, the second was the eruption. Lips and tongues crashed as their hands pulled and explored. The trapped heat beneath her dress was suddenly unbearable.

“I want you,” she hissed, reaching back and releasing her hair from its elastic. It pooled around her bare shoulders in loose ringlets.

“Claudia…” Charlie warned as she crossed her arms over her chest and took hold of the off-the-shoulder neckline.

“Yes?” she asked, batting her lashes demurely. With a push, the gown fell from her body, catching on the lace of her strapless red bra. “Why don’t you get that fire going? I have a feeling I’m going to get cold in a moment.”

Charlie shook his head, clearing it of those last few reservations. He’d been waiting for this moment for so long, he was having a hard time accepting it. But this wasn’t a dream, and he realized that she wasn’t going anywhere.

By the time he had the kindling blazing, the dress was completely gone. Shutting the pocket doors of the library behind her, she watched him from the shadows. The light of the flames flickered across her bare skin, casting it in deep orange, highlighted with dancing yellow.

“You’re so beautiful.”

It was an understatement. In the red lacy bra and panties, coupled with the firelight, she crossed the room like a lingerie model. Charlie didn’t know where to focus. Had her hips always been that wide? That feminine? Had her breasts always been so round?

He removed his sweater before she reached him, feeling overdressed. She sank to her knees and their lips met again. “You’re not so bad yourself,” Claudia whispered, touching the peaks of his hard muscles through his tight t-shirt. Together, they pulled it off. Where had all these muscles come from, she thought, still deeply tanned from his months in Africa. “Definitely not bad at all…”

He loved the way her flush spread up her neck, reaching the summits of her high cheekbones. He cradled her face in his hand. She nuzzled it as he left butterfly kisses down her neck.

Charlie pulled her back to him, feeling the soft lace of her bra against him. He wanted more. Kissing her neck, he found its clasp and twisted it open. Involuntarily, Claudia rolled her shoulders back, letting it pop free.

God, Charlie had grown since she’d last seen him, but she still felt like she was back in high school again. “Ohhh…” she moaned, feeling his whiskered mouth close around her nipple. She threaded her fingers through his hair, pulling him tighter to her.

He laid her back onto the shag rug, already warmed by the raging fire. His mouth founds hers again, reminding her just how good a kiss could be. She felt him press against her, hard and tempting. Her body ached for it.

Claudia stretched back as Charlie once again began kissing down her body. This time, he didn’t stop at her breasts. This time, his kisses worked across her stomach until he was settled between her toned thighs. This was luxury, she thought, staring at the fire as her one-time crush peeled her lacy thong over her hips.

Charlie feasted on her clean-shaven sex, glistening in the romantic lighting. He finished his journey, capturing her tender essence with the flourish of his tongue. She arched and groaned softly above him. Encouraged, he did it again, zig-zagging across her clit before veering away. He’d been waiting so long for this. A few more teasing moments wouldn’t hurt.

“Gah! Char… ahhh…”

Twisting and bobbing his head, he waited until she was bucking against his mouth before slicing two fingers into her. All it took was one more twist and she was coming. He’d listened to the familiar sounds through the bathroom door in the past—although she didn’t know it—but hearing it at his own hand was so much hotter.

“Very impressive,” she gasped when he finally drew away. She thought of her soak in the tub earlier; this was better than the fantasy. “I’ve been dreaming of feeling that for so many years.”

Unbuckling his pants and pulling them off as he climbed over, he said, “Hope I lived up to it.”

He felt her hand on his cock, mapping it, squeezing it. “Oh yeah,” she whispered, placing him against her smooth folds.

“Claudia?” he asked, staring deep into her eyes.

“Yeah?”

“I love you.”

“I love you, tooooo… ughh…” He sank in. Cinderella’s slipper didn’t fit this well.

She fought off her orgasm as long as she could, but as he swelled inside her, she didn’t last long. He propped himself up on either side of her, the thick muscles of his arms straining. His bronzed skin was shiny and hot. She raised her head and he kissed her. Hard. Her climax surged through her—another lava burst rising, desperate for escape. Charlie held her tightly as she came, fighting to keep up until she bit down on his lip.

“Ow!” he cried, pulling away. He tongued his mouth, tasting the metallic tang of blood.

“Oh, God, I’m so sorry…” Claudia apologized, worry furrowing her brow. She reached out to touch it. Charlie flinched.

“I didn’t realize you liked it rough.”

“It’s not that—” she started to say, but Charlie was already rising onto his knees, cradling her ass in his hands. She squealed at the feeling of being so easily manipulated, picked up and positioned like a doll. She stretched away from him, throwing her arms back to support her like a suspension bridge grown taut.

“I can show you rough,” Charlie said with a grin, flaring his eyes, sucking air in through his nostrils. Drawing her butt up off the ground, he held her pelvis against him and started to swing his hips into her.

“Ohhhh, Char…” she gasped as they began rocking their hips. He felt her muscles shift and contract beneath his fingers as they worked together. She bowed out, splaying her nudity for his hungry gaze. His adrenaline surged. He squeezed her butt hard. Claudia only moaned more, reaching up to follow his flexing biceps with her fingertips.

“Claudie, baby, you feel so good,” he breathed as he took complete control of her. She felt feather-light as he lifted her into him with each hard drive. His arms screamed at him, burning with exertion. He ignored it, fucking her harder. Manhandling her. Sliding her up and down his cock like a rag doll.

She pincered his body with her legs, helping him. Helping her. She undulated her hips each time he thrust. The angle had him slithering across her g-spot; had her orgasm once again crawling up the insides of her skin. Digging her heels into his back and doing everything in her power to keep her cries at a minimum, she let herself be fucked until the world went red.

In the fog of her orgasm, she felt Charlie release himself inside her. One orgasm tumbled into the next. Merging. Overwhelming. Become so much fucking stronger. Charlie dug into her ass cheeks, burying himself inside this beautiful, amazing, wonderful, fantastic creature. He saw stars as he finally reached the end of this long, long race—a marathon run at a sprint’s pace.

Collapsing in a breathless heap, his sweaty brow resting on her sweaty shoulder, they floated down from their lofty high together. Claudia held Charlie as they caught their breath, their damp bodies warmed by the still burning fire. The record player had long run its course, filling the room with its skipping static.

“What just happened?” Charlie asked, finding his voice at last.

“Whatever it was, I don’t want it to be over.”

“Me either.”

“Hold that thought,” Claudia said, jumping up. “Get this fire going. We’re not going to sleep just yet.”

***

Claudia pulled on her dress without bothering with her underwear and slipped back into the hallway, tip-toeing to her room. It was late enough that most of the family members were asleep. A combination of getting up early, eating too much, and drinking to excess tended to have that effect.

Unfortunately, she ran into her sister on her way to collect provisions for their “camp out.”

“Maggie!”

“Hey, Claud. Everything OK?” She didn’t like that knowing smile on her sister’s face.

“Robert say anything?”

“Like what?” Maggie batted her eyelashes.

“Shit, you know.”

“Hey said goodbye before he left.” She shrugged. “It was kind of awkward…”

“Mom and Dad…?” Robert was the perfect match for her… in the eyes of her family. She may have realized that he wasn’t perfect for her, but how could her family know?

“They’re cool with it.” She leaned in. “Honestly, I think they’ve always hoped you’d end up with…” She trailed off, glancing at the closed library doors. Claudia blushed. “Was he good?”

“Maggie!”

The younger brunette rolled her eyes. “OK, OK. But I’m like super jealous of you.”

Claudia shook her head, changing the subject. “So they’re not mad? Or disappointed? Or… I don’t know… going to kick me out? Dad seemed to really like Robert.”

Maggie shook her head. “They’re weird, you know? But seriously, sis, they just want you to be happy.” She smiled mischievously before adding, “He wasn’t your type, anyway.”

“I thought he was.”

“That’s because, for such a smart girl, you can be pretty dumb sometimes.”

“Thanks!”

“Always a pleasure.” Maggie curtsied. When she glanced at the closed library doors, she said slyly, “Well, I don’t want to keep you from… tradition.” And with that, Maggie walked down the hall, laughing all the way.

In her bedroom, Claudia made quick work of her dress, sliding into her much more comfortable pajama pants and top. Then she pulled her comforter cover off and dragged it through the shared bathroom into Charlie’s room. Folding his blanket atop it, she added their pillows and tossed his own pajamas in before folding it up at the corners. She dragged it along the floor, Santa Claus with a sack of plush toes. It barely fit through the doorframe.

Charlie was still in the library when she returned. She hadn’t realized how scared she was that he’d be gone until she found that he wasn’t. The Christmas music was back, this time a Frank Sinatra record that had seen a lot of play. His back was to her and he was facing the fire. At first, she thought that he was thinking. Then, she saw the photo albums spread out around him.

“I brought provisions,” she said, dragging the contents of the comforters before the fire.

He looked up at her, the warm firelight outlining his face and neck. “Look, you did help cook one time,” he said, holding up the album he was on. She remembered that Christmas. She was seven and had gotten into the pantry to “help” them cook. Flour was everywhere. Her mother, behind her out just out of focus, looked furious. Young Claudia didn’t care, though. She had that smile that lit up the room, just like the one she wore now.

“Oh, Charlie,” she said, practically sobbing as she crouched down beside him.

Charlie’s faced darkened. The book fell at his side. “If you want to go back to him, I understand,” Charlie said quietly, misinterpreting the raw emotion in her face.

Her laugh tore through her wetly. Boys can be such idiots some time. “No. I don’t. I’m just realizing how huge a mistake I almost made. I… Charlie, I love you.” A tear formed on at the corner of her eye and skirted its way along her lashes. “I’m such an idiot for not waiting.” She nuzzled into his hand as he touched her cheek, brushing it away.

“I love you, too, Claudia.” She felt his soft lips on hers. She returned the kiss with equal tenderness. She wrapped her arms around his neck and drew him closer, deeper. They weren’t volcanic explosions of emotion like they’d shared before, but these seemed to touch her more. She felt warm between her legs as she drew up to a kneel and nudged her nose against his.

They spread out the blankets in front of the fiery hearth, creating a bed of down pillows and heavy duvets. Claudia checked that the library doors were locked as Charlie sprawled out on their make shift bed and watched her. He’d never seen flannel PJs so sexy. The top was held shut by only a couple of buttons, and when she slipped the pants off, his breath caught. The outfit was just modest enough to tantalize.

“Soft touch, right?” she asked as she crawled down between her legs.

“Uh…”

“In the kitchen. You said you like a soft touch.” She reached into his jeans. His belt clanked as she opened it.

“Right…” Charlie’s heart raced. He lifted his hips up as Claudia dragged his jeans and boxer-briefs down his legs. Her hand was warm as it wrapped around his firm flesh. Raking the fingers of her left hand up his muscular upper body, she steadied his cock with the other, bent forward, and drew her tongue from base to crown. Every muscle in Charlie’s body tightened. He arched back, groaning as she did it again. Her slick, warm mouth closed around him, swiftly bobbing along the length once before settling into a much more teasing stroke.

Claudia had never done this before: go down on a lover after they’d already had sex. She could taste the salty-tangy mixture from earlier and wasn’t sure what she thought about it. And then Charlie groaned above her and she stopped analyzing. She wasn’t one of those girls who necessarily loved giving blowjobs. What she did love was the effect they had on the guy. Hearing the groans and feeling the little throbs against her tongue sent zips of electricity through her body. Hearing Charlie—her Charlie—make those sounds ratcheted up the voltage ten fold. She traced the tight knots of his abdominal muscles up to his impressive pecs. Not the boy she knew at all…

“Claudia…” he groaned as she pinched a nipple. His eyes were closed and he was pushing his head into the back of the chair. Was he close? She twisted her mouth up and off his beautiful cock, criss-crossing her tongue one last time along the soft skin.

“Yes, dear?” she asked sweetly, stroking his with her free hand.

“You feel so… good…”

“Mmm…” she thanked him, humming along his length as she swallowed him to the root. Charlie felt him enter her throat. He would have lost it were this not round two, and even still, he felt his balls tighten. He looked at the beautiful girl, her cheeks caving around his cock, her sky-blue eyes watching him through heavy lids.

“Claudia, I need you,” he grunted.

She slurped free and smiled. “I’ll never grow tired of hearing that.”

Straddling him, she held his hot and hard flesh against her and lowered. “Ahh…” the sighed together, reuniting. This was right. This felt so right.

Charlie watched her above him. Her hair was loose, cascading around her shoulders and lit up by the fire. He undid the two, over-sized buttons that held her pajama top in place. She knew the effect her ripe breasts had on Charlie, particularly when she slid the top off her shoulders and thrust forward. She posed like that for him, running her fingers through her hair as she rocked along his prone form. He touched her softly: up her hip, across the gentle ripples of her rib cage, tickling across her nipples. Never lingering long. Never clutching. It was maddening.

“Oh, Claudie…” Charlie groaned. She leaned back further, grasping his meaty thighs for support as she rode him. The sight of her splayed out like that was nearly enough. Her fire-tinged skin glistened as she undulated. He traced his hands down her sides, feeling her abs tighten under his thumbs. He circled his right hand inward, dancing across her smooth rise. As soon as he tickled her clit, she folded forward, curling against him. It was like flipping a switch. She retracted until they were face to face once again.

They kissed. Harder than before. A little more out of breath. A little more desperate.

The slow ride grew faster. Charlie helped her, collecting her hips in his hands. She rose and fell along his cock harder. Somehow, they maintained the kiss. Even as Charlie pushed up onto his hands, straining to get his ass higher. She braced herself on his shoulders and really started to ride him. He thrust up as she grinded down, her warmth rocking his world. They broke into a gallop.

“Claudia, I’m close,” he grunted.

She didn’t even reply. Throwing her head back, she squeezed her eyes shut and came. He felt her pussy contract around his girth, urging him to join her. He let himself be urged.

“Yes, honey… yesss…” he whisper-shouted as he emptied himself inside his love for the second time in his life. “I… I… love you so much, Clau–DEEE!!!”

Charlie collapsed onto the make shift bed, and Claudia collapsed on him. It felt like every muscle in his body had been soaked in gasoline and lit on fire, but it was a good kind of burn. The kind you love to complain about. He held Claudia’s body close, feeling her heart pitter-patter against his bare chest. Sinatra’s crooning voice launched into a string-filled “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Charlie looked around the room, thinking of all the memories it held. “Remember when we were little and imagined turning this room into the master bedroom?”

Claudia giggled softly. “Yeah. We were going to put a four poster bed over there, so it faced the fireplace…”

“…and I think you wanted to turn my room into a walk-in closet?”

Charlie laughed as he watched Claudia’s face darken in the fading gloom of the fire. “It’s the best way to get access to the bath!”

“I see you’ve worked it all out.”

“Charlie, I’ve spent so long planning a future with you.” She brushed a hand through her silky hair. “I can’t believe I almost gave it all up.”

“Well, stop fretting. And stop planning. I think that we can start experiencing that future. Together this time.” They stared at one another in silence before Charlie added, “Did that sound as cheesy as I think it did?”

Claudia tittered. “I wasn’t going to say anything.”

“Well, my point is, I love you, Claudia, and I want to spend my life with you.”

“You’re not proposing, are you?”

“I figure we’d try dating first.” They laughed, kissing.

“Sounds reasonable. But do me a favor. If and when it comes time… Don’t do it in front of our families!”

“If and when, I promise that no family members will be present.”

They snuggled together in the final moments of the hearth, watching the glowing embers fade. “You know, I usually fall asleep on Christmas night wishing to do it all over again. But tonight, I’m glad tomorrow will be a new day.”

Charlie smiled at her. “Me too.”

“Good night, Charlie Mitchell.”

“Good night, Claudia Anderson.”

And with that, they observed their last tradition of Christmas.

***

Carol Anderson came back downstairs, the plate of chocolate chip cookies still in her hands. She had the silliest grin on her face. “What?” Deana Mitchell, her friend of 23 years, asked as the blond set the plate on the kitchen’s island counter and leaned against it.

She opened her mouth to respond, paused, and close it, shaking her head. “This is something you need to see.”

“Ooookay,” Deana said slowly, following Carol back towards the stairs.

Carefully, the women opened the door to the library and slipped in. The fire had burned down to its embers, casting a dull orange glow around the room. Just enough light for Deana to see.

“At last…” she whispered to her friend as they huddled together, watching their children slumber on the floor. Charlie was on his back, his head propped up on a pillow and half a comforter covering his body. He was shirtless, but Deana was a little relieved to see his boxers on. Curled up on his chest was Claudia. Like she belonged.

The girl stirred. The mothers froze, but she didn’t wake up. “We should leave them.” Carol nodded and they retreated. Outside, Deana remembered the Yale fiancé and his promising career. She hadn’t cared much for him, but had Carol? A thunderbolt of fear struck her.

Before she could say anything, her old friend released her. “I don’t think I could have asked for a better present on Christmas.”

Deana nodded. “Merry Christmas to that.”

“Come on, let’s go eat Santa’s leftovers…”