Jack reached over and felt for her, as if to reassure himself that she was all right. Claire had struck the steering wheel, but it didn't seem a deep cut. The emergency lights had come on and in the glow, he saw the blood coating his fingertips. "Are you all right?" he demanded when she remained silent, stunned by what had happened.
Shaking off her daze, Claire replied that she thought so. There was no use in trying to get out of the ditch, for the wheels only spun when she pressed the gas. The sound was full of hopelessness. She knew where they were; about two miles from the house, but no lights shone out in the night, and her cell phone would not get reception in the hollow. "I don't know what else to do but walk," she confessed, misery in her voice. It was shameful for her to arrive on her parents' doorstep, having crashed the car. Her numerous accidents as a teenager were something of a family joke, but that was not something she had confided to Jack.
"Let's make sure you're all right first," came the response, and Jack opened his car door into the storm. It was bitterly cold and the air stung his face as he stepped out. Claire attempted to get out her door, but it refused to open, pressed against a snow bank. She unhooked her seat belt and crawled through, feeling the warmth of his hands as he pulled her out. Jack could not see well in the faint glow of the lights, but ascertained that while she was slightly unsteady on her feet, most of her injuries were nerves. He helped her into her warmer coat and turned off the engine, extinguishing the light. It was not completely dark, and once her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she could see him unloading their bags from the trunk.
His gray hair tousled by the wind, Jack put one strap over his shoulder and lifted the other, until she took it from him. "Which direction?" he asked, and she looked around for a landmark and then pointed. She had played in these woods as a child, and most of the property remained the same. Wearing her sensible shoes, Claire did not have as difficult a time of it as she thought. She did sink down into the snow, and after awhile as they trudged uphill, became winded. Jack reached out and took the bag back, bearing the burden without complaint as he encouraged her to stop and rest. They could no longer see the car, but were surrounded by the wood. It was an eerie feeling, as though they were the only two human beings left on earth.
"Claire, why do you fear going home so much?"
She wished that she could have seen his expression just then, for it was a peculiar question. Opening her mouth slightly, she didn't know how to respond. Jack had put down their bags and was resting against the bark of a near tree, its branches naked except for a faint powdering of snow. "I…" What was there to say, that she felt as though she had failed to live up to her father's expectations? That he wanted her to go into private practice and instead she had chosen one of the most thankless, difficult, tedious jobs in the business? That his daughter was not known in public circles like he'd wanted, or lived in the Hamptons?
"Your dad wanted you to make something of yourself," she said after a significant pause, "to be 'better' than he was. You did it. I didn't."
Jack knew it was the darkness, and the situation, that prompted her to be so honest with him. Even though she shared everything else, she was never completely willing to let him in. Not when it came to her parents. "Which of us had the most courage?" he asked. "I did it because I was scared of my father. I became a district attorney because it's what he wanted of me. I stopped doing it for him a long time ago. I realized it is what I want to do, because I'm good at it, but what about you, Claire? You chose this not because it was popular, or would make you successful, but because you have passion for it. If anything, I would think your father would be proud of you for knowing your own mind, and making your own decision. It's not his life you should be living, but yours."
The shadow of her face turned away and he stepped nearer to her, placing his hands on her shoulders. "I admire you, Claire. I respect who you are, and what enthusiasm you have for the law. I have never known anyone as hard working and determined as you are, and coming from me, that's a lot. You have nothing to be ashamed of." He saw the glimmer of her eyes as they lifted beneath the fringe of snow coating her eyelashes, and she witnessed the corresponding smile that touched his lips. "I love you, you do realize that?" he asked.
Claire nodded and rested her head against his for a moment, before they picked up their things and resumed their climb. She was tired but determined, and knew her way. Just when frustration was about to set in, they saw a glimmer of light through the trees. It danced down the path that became visible beneath the trees, and wound up over a split-rail fence to the magnificent country house where she had spent so few Christmases. Satisfaction entered her voice as she beheld it, realizing that she had found her way in the darkness. Christmas lights twinkled on all the windows and in the arches, the warmth of the interior beckoning to them.
Before she could move over the fence onto the stretch of lawn, Jack caught her arm. Claire turned into his kiss, warmth spreading through her with his silent reassurance that it would all be okay. Tossing her bag over the split rails, she clambered over it, most of her apprehension melting away. They were midway across the lawn when her mother spotted them from an upper window. Claire paused, gazing up at the reflection that turned into the house, no doubt making a beeline for the front door, and alerting all of her cousins that Claire had arrived. There would be introductions and singing, glasses of eggnog and last-minute tree trimming, but all that existed in that moment was the two of them; Claire, bathed in candlelight, and Jack with delicate snowflakes coming to rest in his hair.
"I think I have a new favorite Christmas memory," Jack remarked, and she looked at him, quizzically. The snow crunched underfoot as he approached, looking down into her eyes. "You," he said simply, and led her into the house.