"Betty, I was wondering if you could help me with something."
Betty turned around in the chair at her desk, looking over at Daniel standing in the doorway. He was dressed in dark slacks and a deep red dress shirt, looking thoroughly into the Christmas spirit with the holiday looming only several days away. She set down the files she was sorting and took her pad of paper.
"What do you need, boss?" she asked chirpily, clicking open a pen to start writing, but Daniel beckoned her closer into his office. "Something wrong?" she asked gently and stepped into the room. He returned to his desk and sat down.
"Nothing's wrong, but I need a couple rather large favors."
"At least you're honest," she said gently and repositioned herself. "Slip it to me easy," she teased, crossing her arms.
"I have three women to shop for this season and I'm having a couple of guests over to my house for Christmas meal. What I need is you're help… with gift shopping, decorations, and cooking. I can manage some of this alone if you don't have that much time, but I would really appreciate your help. You're gifts are always very personal, your family's Christmas tree is beautiful and your father is a good cook, so I assume you're capable of teaching me how to cook a turkey."
She stared at him for a moment, rubbing her temples with her finger tips. His eyes pleaded silently with her and she tried to fight against its magnetic pull, but failed. She sighed and nodded her head.
"I can only help you pick out personal gifts if I know the people, too. Decorations will take a while and, if you want to help, we need to plan time together to do it. As for cooking a bird, the only things I know about the turkey meal are the bread and potato stuffings and cranberry sauce. The rest is basic potatoes and gravy, so I can ask my dad. Just tell me when."
"God, I love you! You always come through," he gushed, watching her face for any reaction to his words, but not seeing any. He sighed. "Okay, the gifts are for three people. I'm buying for my mother, my sister and a close friend."
"Yeah… I've, uh… been flirting with the idea of asking this woman I know if she would like to try… taking things a step further. I don't think I want to jump straight into marriage, but we're just friends right now and… I'd really like it to be more. I can see a future with her."
"Oh…" she muttered and smiled as brightly as she could manage, but Daniel's was wider when he saw the shimmer of disappointment in her eyes. She nodded her head. "Well, we usually put our Christmas tree up the weekend following Thanksgiving. It's already the nineteenth of December and trees are pretty scarce now. Good ones anyway," she commented, but Daniel gave her a pointed look. "Right… not for a Meade."
"Do you think I should get a big one or a small one? Real or fake?" he asked, getting instantly excited about his plans and Betty smiled.
"I think I just saw what you looked like as a little boy," she commented with a chuckle. "Well, do you plan on ever having Christmas at your place again? And are you prepared to clean up all the pine needles? As the tree starts to die, the pins fall off and leave a mess. A fake tree can be just as beautiful and a small air freshener gives the same scent as a real one. Plus, they're reusable. I know you can afford a new tree per year, but some people just hate the hassle."
"I think I rather have the fake tree. I'm messy enough for my poor housekeeper to have to deal with. I'll give her a break. As it is, she'll probably have a heart attack when she sees a tree in my apartment."
"True. Alright then, I'll meet you at the department store tomorrow morning."
"No need," he said quickly and she sent him a bizarre look. "I mean, there's no need for you to fight weekend traffic with the buses. I'll come by and pick you up," he explained and she began to protest. "You're doing this for me; I'm not about to make you fight the transport system to help me out. I'll be by to pick you up around ten Saturday morning. Just give me your address."
"Alright. Um… since we'll be using a car, would you mind if I do my shopping at the same time? If it's a problem, then–"
"It's fine, Betty. I'll see you tomorrow. We'll make a day of it, like the one we had that night a couple years ago."
Betty's heart gave a little flip; he remembered. She was glad as it was all she thought about as she fell asleep some nights. Her smile was now fully in place and completely genuine, the other woman forgotten as she left the office and returned to her desk as the clock buzzed five o'clock in the afternoon. She looked through the glass at Daniel who was pulling on his coat. His day was done, so she was, too. She pulled on her puffy blue jacket and grabbed her purse as she shut down her computer and walked towards the elevator, just missing it as the doors closed.
"Tough luck," he said softly, but she just smiled.
"It doesn't really bother me. The first load immediately after the clock chimes is the worst one. It's terribly packed and everyone is shoved in like sardines. I prefer the next one." She was babbling and she knew it, but this meant she would be in the elevator with Daniel and, once they were clocked out, he was much more easy going with his conversation.
"So, have you got any major plans for the holidays?" he asked casually as she pulled her purse up her arm.
"A couple. Dad mostly. We always celebrate Christmas together. Midnight mass, gift exchange when we get back with eggnog and White Christmas until we all fall asleep. My family is usually gone before they make it to Vermont," she said with a laugh and looked up to find Daniel's perplexed expression staring back at her. Her eyes slipped closed. "Please… Please don't tell me you've never seen White Christmas," she begged and he sighed.
"Alright, I won't tell you," he said quietly and watched her jaw drop to the ground. "What? My family's not exactly the 'chestnuts roasting on an open fire' type."
"Well, at least you know the lyrics to that song. It's a start. Alright," she said with a deep breath and Daniel knew that look. It was the one he loved: the 'let's-change-your-way-of-living' look. "From tomorrow morning until Sunday evening, we are going to live, eat and breath Christmas and we're going to get you in the mood and we'll see if we can get rid of Ebenezer."
"I resent that!" he cried out in outrage. "I'm not Scrooge! I've asked you to help with all these preparations, haven't I?" he asked, but the look on her face stopped his rant.
"You're buying gifts, but you need help because you don't know what to buy the people you're buying for. You're putting up a tree because you're receiving guests and they expect to see one in everyone's home at the holidays. The only thing remotely festive is that you want homemade decorations and, even then, you'll probably get bored or frustrated because yours won't come out as nice as ours, even though my family has practice where as you don't."
She had done it again. The little Latina firecracker had put Mr. Big-shot Daniel Meade in his place once again. He could not deny it even if he had wanted to get her going. She was absolutely right. He nodded.
"You're right, Betty."
"I know I am, Daniel, and I want to know that you're going to try this weekend to get into the mood. I want you to feel Christmas. It's not about giving for the sake of giving. It's about giving to make others feel happy. You'll see; when you find the perfect gift for someone and you give it to them and their face lights up when they open it… it's magic and it's beautiful to see."
"I wouldn't know. We gave our parents a list and the personal shopper's picked everything up that was on it."
"Merry Christmas to you," she groaned as the bell dinged and they stepped into the empty elevator.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Half the fun of Christmas is messing with people's minds!" she declared and he wanted to burst out laughing. "I'm serious. I tease the hell out of my sister and nephew. 'Would you rather this or that?' 'I saw this at the store the other day, but there was only one left.' It's what memories are made of."
"Alright. Would you rather a Swarovski butterfly pin or pearl earrings?" he asked with a grin and she laughed.
"Not that it matters because I don't expect you to spend that kind of money on your assistant, but I've always wanted a pair of pearl earrings to go with my necklace. Although I have to say, your mom loaned me a pair of earrings once and they were gorgeous."
"I was going out with Henry for my birthday and she saw me getting ready in the ladies' room. When I told her, she took off these beautiful clip-on earrings and handed them to me for the day. I gave them back the next time I saw her. I was so nervous I'd lose them."
"Well, it's nice that you worry about taking care of other people's belongings, but my mom has so many pairs of earrings I'm surprised she took them back and didn't tell you to keep them."
"She tried," Betty admitted. The doors dinged and slid open and they stepped out into the lobby towards the cold of the outdoors. "I told her that I wouldn't feel comfortable wearing jewelry like that, though. Let's face it; earrings like that in my neighborhood? I'd be a walking target for a mugging."
"That's true," he said softly and fell into deep thought until they stepped through the doors. He tried to offer her a ride home, but she declined and said she had things to do before their weekend of Christmas fun and she took off towards the corner and disappeared from sight, leaving Daniel to stare after her with a smile before ducking into his car and going home.
! MERRY CHRISTMAS ! MERRY CHRISTMAS ! MERRY CHRISTMAS !
"Are you ready?" she asked as she opened the door to find him in snug jeans and a dark green shirt with his black coat. He looked great and she felt horribly out of place with her bright red sweater and night watch skirt, but when she tried to go change, he took her hand.
"I'm ready and you look fine, Betty. Now, grab your things and pack for the night. It's not worth wasting time bringing you home and returning to get you in the morning. You can stay at my place."
"Betty, c'mon, this was your idea."
Although she would love nothing better than to spend the night with Daniel Meade, she was absolutely positive that she had never mentioned sleeping at his apartment. However, he did have a point and Betty rushed to her room to cram a pair of sweats and an oversized t-shirt into her bag before locking up and following him downstairs.
The car drove them to the large downtown mall and they began to browse the items in the aisles. People smiled at them as they passed, mostly recognizing Daniel and casting Betty a little glance every now and then. She felt more out of place than even and he seemed to realize it because he wrapped an arm around her shoulders and held her close, silently daring anyone to say a word.
"The trees are on the next floor," she said and they took the escalator to the second floor of the mall and hung a right to a small place located near the back of the building. Inside, trees sparkled all over, draped in tinsel and strung with ornaments in various shades, many decorated with themes like the white and blue tree, the traditional red and gold tree, and a few others. Daniel and Betty walked through the trees and smiled simultaneously when they spotted the fake blue spruce in the corner, standing six-feet-tall with a three foot diameter.
"Excuse me," Daniel said to the clerk who walked over, 'Jim' typed on his name tag. "How much is this one?" Daniel asked.
"Two hundred dollars. It comes with the tree, the stand and extra pieces of greenery to hide where the top two feet of the tree slides into the center rod of the base. You see?" he said, pulling the top twenty-four inches of tree off to show that the pipe center slid into the bottom part.
"What do you think, Betty?" he asked her softly and she smiled.
"It think it's perfect," she replied and Daniel grinned back before turning to the salesman once again.
"We'll take it," he said and they followed Jim to the counter.
"You're first tree?" he asked and Daniel chuckled.
"Is it that obvious?"
"Well, since I noticed the lady was the one to spot it and that you double checked with her, I'm guessing you know little to nothing of Christmas trees. You're lucky your girlfriend recognizes a good tree," he said and Betty felt heat rise in her cheeks, trying to find words to deny a relationship between them, but failing. She waited, hoping Daniel would say something, but he remained quiet and Betty wanted to scream.
"Daniel," she whispered when they got out, a receipt in hand and the delivery scheduled for later that afternoon. "He thought we were… you know, together?" she said gently and he grinned.
"Did you see the way he was looking at you?" he asked her and she grimaced. "He wanted to pull you into a dark corner, Betty. I recognize that look; I used to sport it quite often. Besides, being involved means you don't have dozens of lonely people hitting on you because they don't want to be alone for the holidays." She thought about it for second. "C'mon, want to be my girlfriend?" Her heart hammered in her chest. If only he could mean that.
"Yeah, sure," she shrugged, trying to sound as non-chalant as possible and Daniel tightened his arm around her shoulders. "So, what does your mom like to do?" she asked, forcing her mind back to the business at hand. He turned towards her. "Don't you know what your mom does in her free time?" she asked and watched as Daniel turned pensive.
"I don't know… She's on this logic problem kick. Something about not wanting to lose her faculties."
"Makes sense. I don't mean to say she's old, but keeping her brain sharp now could slow down the mental effects of aging. How about that Nintendo DS Brain Age game?" she suggested and Daniel smiled.
"That sounds promising," he said and they moved towards the electronics department of a large store, scanning through the aisles to locate the hand-held consoles. Selecting the sleek black one which could easily fold to fit in her purse, they moved on to locate the game that they wanted. After several minutes of searching, they found it and moved to the line-up at the cash. Daniel fidgeted anxiously, but Betty just chuckled.
"The waiting is part of the Christmas experience, Daniel. You've got to wait your turn. I think you need to listen to Christmas Shoes by Bob Carlisle. I'll pass it to you when we get out of here and go sit outside."
The neared the cash and each paid for the items they had found before moving to the small benches in the mezzanine of the mall. Betty set down her bags and pulled her small music player from her purse, getting the song cued up and passing it to Daniel once he was comfortably seated. He popped one ear bud in and offered the other to her to listen with him, but she shook her head.
"I can't listen to that song without crying," she admitted shyly and he grinned a little before the song started. As the lyrics progressed, his smile became less and less pronounced until it was almost non-existent, letting out a deep sigh as he plucked the speakers from his ears.
"Your mom?" he asked softly and Betty nodded her head a few times. "I take it you went through something similar in the last months with her."
"We didn't have months, Daniel. We had weeks. She was so far along that she just barely made it through the holiday season. Granted, I wasn't dirty or wearing old clothes and we weren't necessarily broke, but I… I do remember seeing this beautiful pair of earrings. I asked my dad if she would like them, but he said they were too much. They were these beautiful pink gems. My mom loved pink and red. Anyway, we couldn't afford them and a pair of hundred dollar earrings is not something the next person in line will help you with."
"Right…" he said as his head nodded up and down. "Well, time to shop," he declared and gathered all their bags in his hand. Betty tried to reclaim her bag, but he insisted on carrying it for her and put them in his left hand to wrap his right arm around her shoulder. More people mistook them for a couple, but they would just laugh and thank them for whatever kind words had accompanied the mistake. Then, one modestly good-looking guy who had been into the holiday spirit approached and everything went to hell in a hand basket.
"Hey! What are you doing, buddy?" the tall and trim man said, his words slurring slightly. "Are you seriously together?" he asked and Betty felt tension creep into Daniel's body. "What are you doing, man? Guys like us can do much better than something like that!" he declared a little too loudly, causing people to turn towards them. Daniel's arm left Betty's shoulders and she tried to stop him, but Daniel had already grabbed him by his collar and dragged him to the fountain to toss him in, wetting a few patrons of the mall at the same time.
"Sober up and stay the hell away from us, or I'll press harassment charges!" Daniel whispered furiously as the once drunk man stared at Daniel wide-eyed. He tried to pull himself out of the water as several men seated next to a pretty woman applauded Daniel who moved quickly back to Betty's side. "That guy was so slammed, I'm not even sure he'll remember this," he said, his teeth clenched.
"Daniel, he's not wrong. Are we really fooling anyone?" she asked, but as she went to take another step, a Christmas elf stepped into their path and stopped them. "Yes?"
The elf said nothing as he watched the pair, simply looking above their heads for a moment. Daniel and Betty lifted their gazes to the center of the archway and saw the small sprig of white flowers above their head. Betty's heart plummeted to her feet, shot into her throat and dropped back down again as Daniel chuckled beside her. This was some kind of dream; it had to be.
"Daniel," she said softly, lifting her face to his, but he shrugged and ignored her.
"Tradition is tradition," he said softly and pressed his lips to hers in the briefest of kisses, just enough to say he had observed tradition and no where near long enough for Betty's liking. Her mind spun in circles as she stared up at him in shock before pushing her glasses up her nose.
"I, uh… I wasn't expecting that," she admitted and continued to walk past the elf who smiled to himself in the corner. Daniel laughed that deep laugh that made her insides melt.
"We're supposed to be a couple. I couldn't very well walk out from under that mistletoe without kissing my girlfriend, could I? As it is, I kissed you so fast, I think I blew our cover anyway."
"At least we're done for the day. I'm pretty much finished. Are you?"
"Yeah, almost. Just have one more person to buy for."
"Right…" Betty sighed, her shoulders slouching as she plopped into her seat in the car, the packages safely in the trunk. Daniel climbed in beside her and she straightened up again. "Your friend," she said softly and Daniel chuckled.
"Yeah, my friend…"
The mood of the day was considerably darkened after being reminded that Daniel was looking to take a current friendship to another level with some woman, but she still had to get him in the Christmas mood and she was spending the night at his house. She dreaded to think of what she might do.
In truth, she did not have time to make a fool of herself. As they stepped through the door and unloaded the gifts in the living room, the doorbell rang. When they opened it, they were met with a big white rectangular box. In the rush of being kissed and the disappointment of remembering Daniel's intentions, she had completely forgotten that the tree was being delivered today.
They took in the box and, at Daniel's childlike insistence, they immediately began assembling the thick branches that would be the tree in his house this holiday season. It took very little time, the hardest part lowering all the branches to hang the ornaments on. Within twenty minutes, the tree was set up in the corner of his living room and Betty was fighting with the lights by an outlet.
"Why are you plugging them in?" he asked and she proceeded to put the plug into the outlet.
"First of all, to make sure it works before we put them on the tree for nothing. Second, they're easier to put up when they lit. And they're prettier," she added quickly, holding them up to her face, making him smile.
"So is that," he said, pointing to her face. "Your face lit up with all the different colors. You look like a little girl on Christmas morning," he told her and watched with unconcealed delight as she blushed darker than the red lights. "Now that was just priceless," he smirked until she gave him a playful, yet strong enough punch to the upper arm. "Ow!"
"Who's laughing now?" she said snidely before standing and beginning to drape the lights over the branches, pushing them back to leave room for the decorations to hang from the tips. Daniel plugged in another set and began to mimic her actions, succeeding surprisingly well for someone who had never done it before.
The tree was assembled, the lights strung and the tinsel hung within two hours of receiving it. Deciding it would be a spoiler to see the tree lit without the decorations on it, they turned off the lights once the tinsel was on it before even standing back to take a good look. Now, they sat at the table with a few containers of craft supplies and a couple boxes of fancy glass ornaments.
"I thought you wanted it to look more homemade," she said when she withdrew the box of multicolored spheres looking terribly fragile amid the plastic holder. He nodded.
"It will. I want the decorations like you make and the popcorn and cranberries on string and glitter period decorations, but I want more than that. I want your world to meet my world. I think some beautiful homemade decorations can look stunning next to fancy store-bought decorations."
Daniel had no idea how much Betty wanted to believe that the two opposites could co-exist and look right mingling with each other, but she very much doubted it would work. First class and coach just did not fit together.
"It could be nice," she bluffed and disappeared with the bag of kernels to pop for stringing. She listened as he bustled about the living room and, several minutes later, appeared at her side as the corn finished popping. "We're ready," she declared and took the bowl of popcorn out to the living room to find the table set up with the things for making ornaments.
"Is this okay?" he asked and she sat down cross-legged on one side of the table as he rounded and sat on the other side. They face each other. "So, what do I do?"
"Daniel, just relax. There's no right or wrong, regardless of what Justin says." She smiled and passed him a chenille pipe cleaner. While he worked on twisting something together, she painted glue onto a Styrofoam ball in twirls and swirls before dipping it into glitter, than repeating the process with another color. In the end, she had created a beautiful silver sparkled globe with a snowflake in royal blue sparkles. Daniel smiled.
"That's beautiful, Betty," he said softly and watched as she blushed again.
"My glitter period is looming in there somewhere. I've just learned to control it."
"This is what I want. Go crazy!"
She continued to cut and glue things together in beautiful and simply patterns, using pieces of felt, Styrofoam balls, glitter, thread and fabric paints. After only a few hours, she had made several more of the decorated ornaments as well as a couple of material stockings. There were lines of glitter running across the top like a cuff and she had used white material to make the puffy fur. One had 'Alexis' in a tidy print, the second 'Claire' in a neat and even scrawl and a third with 'Daniel' painted on in a simple calligraphy font. He admired them.
"These are beautiful, Betty. Really. I mean… Alexis and my mom are going to love these."
"I hope they like them. There's a fourth one… for the one you're planning on talking to," she said shyly and she managed to keep the melancholy from her voice and the pink from her cheeks. If you tell me her name–"
"I'm not talking to her until New Year's, remember? Why don't you put your name on it? You're the one that's here this holiday. Next year, we'll see what happens."
Betty fought down the pink from her cheeks. "Alright," she whispered before a yawn crept up on her.
"Actually, tomorrow's another day, right?"
"Yeah… sure. I'm getting a bit of a cramp anyway," she said, holding her right wrist in her hand for a few seconds, pressing into the sides with her fingertips, but, while her head was down, she never noticed Daniel reach across the table to take her hand in his. "Daniel…"
He was a genius with his hands, his talent wasted sitting behind a desk all day long. A moan passed over her lips and she wanted to hit herself for it, but the massage felt entirely too good for her to care anymore. What felt like only seconds later, he stopped and sat her hand on the tabletop. She swung her gaze over to him.
"Would you be mad if I said my other hand is jealous?" she asked softly, not believing her own ears at the words coming out of her mouth. He simply chuckled and held out his hand to take her other wrist between his nimble fingers. "Were you a masseuse in another life?" she asked breathlessly, her eyes having slipped closed a long time ago. They did not even open when he laughed.
"I wouldn't know. I don't believe in that stuff much. The only thing I believe is that, if there is such a thing as reincarnation, I think we'll keep winding up with the same person over and over again."
"That's a nice thought. I wonder who we were in a past life. Do you wanna bet I was something like your water girl in Ancient Egypt? I probably still worked for you in another life."
"Could be. Wouldn't you rather imagine yourself as the queen or something?" he asked in surprise. She shrugged.
"I don't know. I can't picture myself being on a throne, the center of attention."
"I can see it. You'd be the best thing for the land. You'd be fair and just. People would love you."
"I'd probably be reborn as the water girl, though."
"You could still be queen," he argued and she laughed.
"Daniel, that would mean that the king would have to climb off his thrown long enough to mingle and get to know me. The odds of that happening…"
"Hey, you got me a long way from where I was, and I'm very grateful."
"Oh?" she said with a smile, watching him blush himself. "Would you make me queen, Daniel?" she laughed, chuckling harder and harder until her sides hurt. "Please… don't insult my intelligence. This woman you're looking to have a relationship with… is she smart?" He nodded. "Famous?"
"For various reasons, but yes."
"Pretty?" she asked and his eyes rolled into his head.
"She's the most gorgeous woman I've ever met in my life," he declared and she felt a stab of pain.
"So you would let her go to make me queen?" she said and watched confusion furrow Daniel's brow. "See?" she said with a laugh. "That darned social ladder. It's a bitch." Daniel burst out laughing at that and fell onto his side, hugging them as they began to cramp. "What's so funny?"
"You said 'bitch'. You not rude very often and, when you are, it's all the more amusing. I'm sorry," he wheezed, sitting up and brushing away droplets from his eyes. "Anyway…"
"Yeah, it's getting late. I guess I'll get ready for bed," she said and snatched up her bag before disappearing to Daniel's bathroom. She pressed herself against the door and sank to the floor. Although she did not cry, she felt very close to a meltdown. Gathering herself together, she got off the floor and pulled on her sweat pants, t-shirt and zipper jacket before leaving the room with her clothes packed neatly into her bag.
"Here," Daniel said, popping out of his room wearing a tank shirt with his jeans. "You take the bed. After all your help, I refuse to let you take the couch."
"I wouldn't feel right," she said softly and it was the truth. The idea of sleeping in Daniel's bed sent chills up and down her spine and, although his scent on his sheets beneath and around her body would send her into the deepest sleep ever, it would be the most restless. Just falling asleep on the couch in the office with his scent gave her dreams she never dared to share with anyone. She did not know where they even came from since she had never done anything like that with Walter or Henry.
"Well, I won't let you take the couch while I'm in the bed."
"Here's an idea. I brought over 'Miracle on 34th Street' with Elizabeth Perkins and Dylan McDermott. We can pop it into the DVD player and sit and watch it and doze off. Neither of us will take the bed," she said very logically, even though her insides were shaking. She would technically be sleeping with Daniel in a way. She smiled.
"That sounds alright with me," he said and watched her put the movie into his machine while he placed blankets on the couch for them and they each sat down, a foot of space between them. The pillows at their backs were very comfortable, but something was causing a crick in Betty's neck and, when she lifted her hand to rub the back of her neck, Daniel saw her, scooted closer and began to massage the knot. Eventually, the warmth of their near bodies and the sweetness of the movie lulled them both off to sleep, snuggled together.
! MERRY CHRISTMAS ! MERRY CHRISTMAS ! MERRY CHRISTMAS !
A warm arm was wrapped securely around her body as she tried to move, but failed to, the grip on her too tight. Her mind tried to uncluttered itself and, after a few seconds, the familiar scent of Daniel's cologne caught her nostrils. She looked up and saw his eyes staring down at her, making her leap out of his arms instantly, the tight grip gone.
"Daniel, how long have you been awake?"
"A few seconds," he said gently, his voice thick with sleep. She sighed. He had unconsciously been holding her close. It was reflex. He was used to waking up with a woman in his arms. "The coffee machine works on a timer so there's fresh coffee if–" but she was gone to the kitchen already. Standing with her hands against the counter, she looked in two of Daniel's kitchen cabinets before finding the cups and pouring two mugs full of coffee for them, leaving it black for them both, just the way they took it in the morning.
"Perfect!" he hummed as he took a sip of the brew. So did she and instantly burned herself, making Daniel jump up to her side.
"How you drink this? Is so damn hot!" she whispered hoarsely, the scalding of the coffee and his proximity doing mean things to her vocal chords. He just shrugged and ran to the kitchen, returning with two slices of bread. "What's this?"
"A trick I heard of. If you burn your mouth or you eat something too spicy, take a slice of bread to eat. It helps apparently. Try it," he said and she took a bite, sighing and sitting down on the couch. "So, is there anything left to do besides hang the ornaments?"
"Not really. When are you having the Christmas meal?"
"Um, tomorrow?" he said gently, wincing as her eyes widened. "I know; not much time."
"Call in a favor with Butterball if you want a turkey. They're as good as sold out."
"Don't worry about that. I ordered the turkey several days ago. It's the rest I don't know about. The turkey's in the fridge thawing since yesterday morning."
"Oh… Alright… So we need…" The list seemed to go on forever, but Daniel just nodded and scrolled everything down on a pad of paper as she breezed through the grocery list. "You got it?" she asked and he nodded. "Perfect. I'll go get dressed, we'll go to the market and you'll give me half the list. We'll cover more territory and meet at the cash to pay for everything. We're going to need a big trunk for everything."
They got ready and were out the door by ten-thirty, en route to the store to buy everything they needed. With the list ripped down the halfway point after Betty rewrote it, pre-dividing it into items that anyone could select and those that required a certain knowledge of the item. Between the two of them, it took them only thirty minutes to find everything, which would have been twenty were it not for the fact that Daniel called Betty twice to ask what the difference was between sultana and dark raisins and if he needed to get skim, one percent, two percent or whole milk for the recipe.
Plastic bags littered the counter tops as they fought to get everything into the fridge, but it was relatively easy. His fridge was twice the size of hers and not nearly as full to begin with. As soon as everything had a place, she pulled the turkey from the sink where they had left it to finish thawing and placed it on the main counter.
"Okay, take off the wrapper." He did. "Slice open the bottom so it makes a kind of flap." He did. "Reach in and pull out the insides."
"What?!" he barked out, looking at her with huge bulging eyes.
"The gizzard, heart and a couple other things are in a little bag inside the turkey. Pull them out; we need them to get started. We're going to prepare everything tonight so all you need to do tomorrow is put it all in the oven and get it cooking."
Daniel looked at Betty, then to the turkey and back to Betty again. He shook his head, but she pushed him on, reaching out and removing his watch, putting it in his pocket, and placing his hand at the turkey's bottom end. He reached in with a look of pure mortification on his face and she laughed.
"It's not a big deal. It all washes off, Daniel, and you get a manicure anyway."
"You're right. I'm a man; I can reach inside a turkey and pull out its heart. Here we go…" With that, he withdrew the small package and dropped it on the counter. "Now what?"
"Open the bag, take the pieces out and I'm going to boil them. This is what you use for the stuffing."
The preparation went really well. The organs got boiled, strained, chopped up and mixed into the bread and raisin stuffing. While she made it, Daniel peeled the potatoes on the island. Together, they weaved in and out, getting from one place to the next until the bread stuffing, potato stuffing and sliced potatoes were ready.
"Right. Now we put the stuffings into the bird to cook, one stuffing at each end. You stuff the neck with the bread. I'll take care of the potato."
The bird was stuffed, sewn up and greased within minutes and was placed into the fridge to be popped into the oven first thing in the morning. The next thing Betty made was the cranberries, wearing a little apron to protect her good clothes before deciding the berries were bursting too much and she left Daniel to stir while she pulled her pajamas back on. When she return, he was stirring at arm's length.
"That's okay; I'm back now, Daniel."
The cranberries were cooked, cooled and placed into a bowl and into the fridge they went for storage until tomorrow. After the bird, stuffing, potatoes, and cranberries were done, Betty announced they were almost done. All that remained was to make dessert. That had taken a few minutes to decide on before they had chosen to forgo pumpkin pie since none of the Meades ate pumpkin and instead made a chocolate mousse.
"Pass the cream, Daniel," she said, holding on as she poured the thick cream into the stainless steel bowl so as not to spill any. She added sugar, chocolate syrup and a touch of vanilla extract before putting the ingredients away. With her back turned to him, she never noticed Daniel approach the bowl and take the egg beater into his hand.
"I can mix it," he said, pressing it on and lowering it to the bowl as Betty turned around, the 'NO!' just short of time to escape before the beater hit the surface, sending the cream and chocolate all over Daniel. He dropped the beater and it splashed up more liquid all over him while Betty ducked behind the counter, coming up only once the sound of the beater died to silence. He was a sight.
Betty laughed so hard she began to tear up, wiping at her eyes beneath her glasses. Daniel spun towards her with a glare, trying to keep the smile from his face, but failing. Then he got an idea and the smile changed. While she was doubled over, he took the bowl in his hand and, as she stood up, tilted it over her head, shocking her system with its cold temperature. She squeaked and stared at him in stunned silence.
"That's funny," he said with a grin, biting his lower lip to keep from bursting out like she had. Her eyes glared at him from behind white and brown stained bangs for several seconds before she gave up and fell into a helpless heap of giggles on the floor, laughing even as previously clear areas of her clothing now got stained as she rolled over in a puddle of syrup. They laughed harder and harder until it was a struggle to breath at all. Finally, they laughter died away and she pushed herself up. She slipped a little and landed with her arm draped over Daniel. The slippery feel of her arm over his slimed shirt sent little ripples of pleasure through her body, but she ignored them.
"I'm sure glad I changed," she mumbled as she hoisted herself up. "Um… do you want to use the shower first, or…"
"Go for it. I'll try and clean some of this up," he said and smiled as she tried to tiptoe across the floor to the bathroom, her bag still there from when she changed.
She showered as quickly as possible, his smell clinging to her since she was forced to use his shampoo and soap to get the sticky out of her hair. No wonder he smelled so good all the time! Just his soaps without his own natural infusion smelled great. She stepped out of the shower, dried her hair in a big towel and pulled on her clothes quickly, getting out of the bathroom to let Daniel in. Betty found him in the kitchen with a large rag from under the sink, soaking up the mess on the floor and he was almost done, too.
"I think I'll just call my housekeeper and see if she could swing by here while I take you home later."
"I know; not necessary. I know… but if she can come by, I rather be out of the house anyway. I'll be out of the shower in ten minutes."
He dashed past her and closed the door behind him, the spray of water starting almost immediately. She sat in the living room with the radio on, listening to Christmas songs as she swayed by herself in the middle of the room. She never even heard the shower turn off and, as she turned along the hallway, it was Daniel's little yelp that stopped Betty from crashing into him. Then she looked up and nearly fell over at the sight of his bare chest.
"I'm so sorry!" she screeched, dashing towards the living room to sit on the couch while Daniel laughed his way into the bedroom. When he emerged, she bit her lip. "I'm not a prude, Daniel, but I don't make a habit of almost colliding with my half-dressed boss," she said in defense, crossing her arms over her chest. Now, with his wet hair combed back and his jeans and t-shirt, he looked like the average guy. He looked perfect.
"Betty, it's not a problem. I'm sorry I've made you nervous, but I'm about to make it a little worse. I wasn't watching where I was going because I was thinking… would you please have dinner with me and my family tomorrow?" he asked softly, watching her eyes widen.
"Yeah, I want you here tomorrow night. You've done so much for my family over the last few years and I would really love for you to have dinner with us." He looked at her with his big blue eyes and slightly pouting lower lip and she felt herself weakening slowly.
"I wouldn't feel right, like I was intruding."
"Trust me, my family loves you. They won't mind, not at all."
His lower lip puffed out a little bit more and curved into his telltale smile, reserved for when he knew a victory was only seconds away. She wanted to say she would not be able to make it just to see the smile fade instantly from his face, but could not bring herself to disappoint him even for a second. She sighed and smiled up at him.
"I'll be here. Is it formal?" she asked gently and watched him punch the air.
"Betty, it's me, my mom, sister and D.J. It's hardly a state dinner," he teased and watched her grin. "Don't worry. All you have to do is be here."
"Right… What about dessert?" she asked quickly as he took a step towards her. She still was not comfortable after brushing up against him twice in a ten minute span, circumstances making it very much different from when she hugged him, she reminded her subconscious.
"Crap! That's true! I forgot," he said, a string of curses breezing past his lips, making her chuckle. "It's not funny!"
"Just a little. Anyway, do you know something in particular that your family likes?" she asked and watched him scratch his head. "How about an ice cream log?" she prodded and he stared at her blankly, making her sigh. "It's a narrow layer of chocolate cake with ice cream spread on it, usually vanilla. There's a layer of jam on it and then it's rolled up like you would roll up a newspaper."
"Sounds like a plan," he said softly. "Can I order it and have it sent here?" he asked and she considered it for a moment.
"Maybe?" she said, although her tone of voice let him know quite clearly that is was a guess. "You'd have to call and ask at the supermarket. I don't think it would be a problem. The desserts are usually the responsibility of the bread and bakery area, so ask for them and see. You area a Meade, after all. I doubt they'll give you any trouble. In fact, they'll probably make one fresh for you if they think they can get something in return."
"Good to know," he said before collecting her bag. "Shall we?"
"My pajamas…" she said, but he shook his head.
"I'll take care of it. I'll throw them into the washer and you can pick them up tomorrow when you come for supper."
"Oh… alright then."
They made their way out of the apartment after Daniel made a quick phone call to his housekeeper and, after agreeing to pay her double time for the imposition, he hung up with a smile. Taking her bag and helping her into her coat, they made their way downstairs to his car and were on the road within minutes, talking throughout the drive to her apartment. He pulled the car into the empty place and walked her to her door, up the stairs and dropped the bag on the floor of her small living room.
"Do you want a cup of coffee before you go?" she asked, but he shook his head a little too quickly for his taste. He wanted out.
"I hate to just leave," he said, closing up his jacket once more, "but I did forget a couple of gifts yesterday and I need to get to the store before it's too late. I'm also going to let mom and Alexis know you're going to be there tomorrow. And, once the housekeeper is done, I have a few things to do around the place for tomorrow. I'm thinking of buying a wreath or some Christmas candles or something. I've really got to go," he said and took a step forward to press a quick little kiss to her cheek. "Sorry…" he whispered, leaning back awkwardly. "So used to you as my girlfriend," he teased, but she was not convinced. He had reacted as a reflex and he hadn't wanted to. He needed an excuse.
"Right… I guess I'll see you tomorrow," she said, stepping towards her door and waiting for him to step through. At the stairs, he turned back to her and waved one last time before descending two at a time. With that, she swung the door closed and locked it before collapsing on her couch and falling asleep.
! MERRY CHRISTMAS ! MERRY CHRISTMAS ! MERRY CHRISTMAS !
The meal went well. Daniel had put the turkey in at the right time and it had turned out well-cooked and perfectly moist. She had helped him in the kitchen to remove the stuffing from the bird and mix the gravy in the little pot. They prepared everything and got the platters ready, parading them out to the table around five o'clock for supper.
The food was delicious and the praises flew around the room for the first five minutes of the meal. Betty tried to shrink away and let Daniel take the praise. He had helped a lot, but his family was not stupid. Although they loved Daniel, they knew what he was and was not capable of and making a meal this ornate by himself fell into the latter category.
When the meal was over, Daniel, D.J. and Alexis made their way to the living room to talk and exchange stories from the past few months since D.J. and Alexis had both left the United States. Betty began to clear the table and, as she passed through the doors into the kitchen, she noticed Claire Meade was following her with an armload of dishes.
"Mrs. Meade, that's not necessary," she insisted, but the woman closed her eyes and shook her head.
"Aside from wanting to give Daniel, Alexis and D.J. a few minutes alone, I can't imagine what you would think of this family if someone didn't at least offer to help with the dishes. You don't need to say anything, but I think I already know who did most of the work in preparing this meal."
Betty smiled and nodded her head a couple times before placing her items in the sink. Then, she took the plates and cutlery from Claire and rinsed everything off. As she worked, Daniel's mother disappeared through the door and returned with another small load of things that needed rinsing before being put into the washing machine. Once everything was done, Betty loaded the machine and made sure the weight was distributed evenly before closing it up and pressing the start button.
"What about what's left?" Claire asked and Betty rummaged through the cupboards and fridge for a moment, withdrawing several containers and a roll of plastic wrap. "Do you want me to bring out the platters of leftover food?"
"Sure. It would be a help. Less trips."
They both stepped quietly out of the kitchen and into the dining room, casting a brief glance to Daniel and D.J. before each grabbing two or three plates and clearing off the table in one trip. They moved swiftly and discreetly and were back in the kitchen before the trio noticed a thing.
"They interact so well. I'm happy for Alexis, but I know Daniel would have been a wonderful father to D.J.," Betty said softly and Claire nodded her head. "Mrs. Meade, do you think Daniel is looking to have children of his own?" she asked, a little nervous to be discussing such a topic with his mother, but the older woman chuckled warmly.
"First of all, I wish you would call me 'Claire' instead. I feel ancient when someone calls me 'Mrs. Meade'. We've known each other long enough and you've helped my family enough that it wouldn't be wrong of you to address me by my first name," she explained with a calm voice as she used the fork to transfer the turkey meat from the platter to a smaller, fridge-friendly container.
"Oh… alright, Claire," she said, testing it out. She cringed. "I promise I'll make the effort in one-on-one circumstances, but do you mind if I stick to Mrs. Meade when we run into each other in public?"
"Fine by me," she said happily. "Second of all, you spend a lot of time with Daniel. You probably know him better than me right now. Why ask me if he wants children?"
"Because he gets weird when I ask him things like if he's lonely or if he misses having D.J. in the house or if he's thinking about the future. He applied to a matchmaking service a while back and he never even told me how that went. Now…" she trailed off, wondering if Daniel wanted his mother to know about a woman he planned of dating seriously. Claire, however, caught on to her apprehension right away.
"What is it? Is there a new flavor of the month?" she asked with a smirk and Betty cringed. She should have censored herself, but now that his mother had a clue, she was not about to let Daniel off the hook. "Betty, after Sofia and Renee – yes, I heard about Renee – I would love to know who Daniel is with, especially if I know something about them."
"See, that's the thing,; he hasn't told me. He told me that there's a woman that he's known for a while that he plans on seeing come the new year, but he won't tell me anything about her. When I bring her up, he dodges the questions and he wouldn't even tell me her name to put on the stockings I made for the tree this weekend."
"Really?" Claire sighed, setting her food down and turning her undivided attention to Betty.
"Yeah… I don't get it. Besides, he usually tells me his girlfriend or one-night-stand's name in case he forgets it."
"Betty, don't you find it weird that you're Daniel's secretary and you keep track of his dates?" Claire asked, resting her elbows on the counter to observe Betty's reaction.
"Well…" she mumbled, fidgeting uncomfortably and making Mrs. Meade burst into laughter. "What's so funny?"
"Do you know you fidget exactly like Daniel when you're uncomfortable?" she asked through her chuckles, holding her sides as she tried to regain control of her breathing. Betty, on the other hand, tried to regain control of her cheeks' pigmentation.
"Nothing… I just thought it was kind of cute. He's rubbing off on you a little. And you are on him," she pointed out, watching Betty's brows knit in confusion. "Do you think Daniel from several years ago would have bothered with Christmas decorations, whether store-bought or homemade? Would he have gone through the trouble to prepare this evening's meal? Hell, even a caterer would have been an improvement on dinner at the restaurant! Instead, he asked you to come over, share your family's recipes and help him make it. I assume you made him get his hands dirty?" she asked gently and Betty nodded her head, her cheeks warming a little.
"He's grown. Getting older does bring maturity," Betty pointed out, but she knew it was a losing fight. Claire was right; she was responsible for a large part of his transformation from irresponsible, immature playboy Daniel Meade to responsible, family-oriented, semi-playboy Daniel Meade. She had tamed his ways a little and was a big influence in learning right from wrong. She was good for him.
"Yes, he has, but if no one had helped guide him in the right direction at crucial times, he would probably be out of the will, out of cash and have several different strains of sexually transmitted infections."
Mrs. Meade's bluntness made Betty both chuckle and blush as she thought about it, the images popping into her head making the rising pink of her cheeks get worse and worse which fueled Claire's laughter. The woman certainly seemed to know what was going through Betty's mind, yet to be so calm – amused even – by the fact seemed a little out of character for a mother.
"Betty, I'm not blind; I know that Daniel has women drooling all over him. I may be his mother, but I still know that by almost any woman's standards, my son is very handsome. I'm not talking like a mother; I'm talking like a woman. I want you to talk to me like a woman and not his mother," she said, looking Betty directly in the eye. "Has the thought crossed your mind that the reason Daniel isn't telling you the name of the friend that he would like to date is because that friend is you?" she asked ever-so-matter-of-factly. Betty nearly fell over and it took all her willpower not to shout at the top of her lungs.
"No!" she whispered harshly. She swung her head away from Daniel's mother and returned to her task of putting away the leftover food. "No, I certainly haven't," she said, her voice a little stronger. "Daniel is my boss. There are boundaries and… it's just not possible," she babbled, stilling for a moment before casting a glance over her shoulder at the smiling matriarch. "Why are you so amused?" Betty let out in a harsh whisper, wiping the smile from her face.
"Do you think it's funny? Do you think it's funny being the little Latina that everyone picks on? Do you think it's funny that I sit there and do crappy little tasks while I could be writing, which is my passion? Do you think it's funny that I know I'm never going to be with the one person who is almost always there for me?" she barked in a whisper and Claire looked at her, all humor washed from her face and Betty grunted and turned back to her task.
"Betty… why not?" she asked and the young woman spun back towards the elder.
"Because I am Betty Suarez, the Queens girl who had no idea what she was doing when she first arrived and only has an inkling more of an idea now. I still don't like going to the big parties. I feel so uncomfortable and I stick out like a sore thumb. If it weren't for the fact that I'm Daniel's walking memory card, I would never be caught dead at one of those gatherings because I still would feel uncomfortable.
"We're not from the same world and I know that and I've accepted that. And I'm speaking as a woman to another woman. I've stopped waiting for the fairly tale, Claire. Please don't go putting new ones in my head that will only hurt me. I've had enough trouble and I don't need it again," she said to Mrs. Meade before excusing herself and going to the bathroom for a few moments to herself.
Once safe behind a locked door, she stared at herself in the mirror and willed her tears back, not wanting the telltale redness that would give her away to Daniel who would not leave her alone until she had confessed the reason for her tears. He had gotten far too good at reading her and it was both a blessing and a curse. She no longer needed to ask him to leave or excuse herself; he knew when she wanted out and made an excuse for her. On the flip side, he knew when she was lying and there was no way she could look him in the face and tell him everything was alright.
When she emerged, everyone was gathered around the tree opening their gifts, D.J. looking through the pile to find the ones with his name on it. Daniel was not much of a help either, doing much the same thing, but it was Alexis who was crouched down, looking at the tags and swatting away the boys' hands from the mountains of parcels as she handed them out one at a time. Her modest little knick-knacks were among the massive boxes and she felt a little embarrassed, but she knew she had found good gifts. A thick, wool scarf for D.J., a silk scarf holder for Claire Meade and homemade creams with natural ingredients for Alexis.
Along the way, several parcels with her name on them had found their way under the tree. She received a gift certificate from Claire to the spa they had gone to a few years ago when Daniel and Alexis were trying to keep their mother distracted and busy. Alexis gave her a beautiful French silk scarf in vivid colors much like the shades she tended to wear. D.J. got her a crystal statue of a butterfly.
"I remember seeing them around your apartment that day that you had me over after school. I just wanted to say merci. Mes grandparents explained that you were trying to help mon oncle Daniel."
"That's beautiful, D.J. Merci beaucoup," she said in broken, but well-pronounced French. Then, Claire spun towards Daniel.
"Daniel, didn't you get her anything?" she said sharply, forcing D.J. and Alexis's gaze up to Daniel while Betty looked to Claire.
"Mrs. Meade, really…"
"I told you to call me 'Claire', Betty and it does matter. She has bent over backwards for you, Daniel. Tell me I raised you better than that!" she said, melodramatically putting her hand to her chest. He sighed.
"Yes, mom, I did, and it was supposed to be a surprise on Christmas Eve," he said, turning to Betty who looked up in mild shock. "I was going to show up around eleven-ish on the twenty-fourth to drop it off for you to open on Christmas Day," he explained, sending a pinning glance that would have chilled most people, but not his mother or sister.
"Oh… Well, it's kind of a good thing you told me; our family goes to midnight Christmas mass. The church near our house starts at eleven so it finishes at midnight and everyone sticks around for almost an hour afterwards. If you were to just shown up at our house around eleven, we wouldn't be there."
"Oh…" he said, unconsciously mimicking Betty's earlier response to his speech. This did not go unnoticed by Claire, whose little all-knowing smile did not go unnoticed by Betty. She cleared her throat. "Well, I guess I'll give it to you on Christmas Day?" he said and Alexis and Claire immediately began to protest.
"You would deny us the pleasure of seeing Betty's face when you give her your gift, whatever it may be and whatever her reaction may be?" Alexis shouted and Daniel grinned sheepishly.
"Yeah, I guess I am."
"You're so mean!" Alexis hollered as Daniel walked away to get a coffee pot from the kitchen and returned with a full service for all four of them and cocoa for D.J. Daniel reached for the pot, but Betty got there first, her fingers brushing his and pulling away as if he were a live wire.
'Damn it, Claire!' Betty swore to herself as she reached out again and took the pot before Daniel could touch her. She served a cup for everyone and took her own serving last. Everyone chattered amicably, enjoying the evening together for the holidays. The Meades got caught up on each other's lives and enjoyed sharing silly little stories from the last few months they had gone in slightly different directions.
As the night drew to its close, the gifts that had been exchanged were piled into a town car downstairs waiting to take Alexis and D.J. back to France in time for the actual holiday and, while Claire and Daniel saw them off, Betty bustled around the kitchen, clearing the cups from the living room area. She had no idea how long she had been moving around tidying up when Daniel returned to the door of the kitchen, his mother behind him, wearing her coat.
"You're leaving already?" she asked in surprise and Claire nodded.
"It's time for us old folk to be getting home to bed. We need our rest," she teased, her smile wide across her face as she spoke. "Anyway, I think you and Daniel probably both need a little time to unwind. After all, you two were our hosts and it would be impolite to leave before us, so if we had stayed, you wouldn't be getting home until about two in the morning," she pointed out to Betty who nodded her head in agreement. "So, have a lovely evening," she said and gave Betty a hug, leaning in to her ear. "Don't forget our chat," she whispered and it took all of Betty's strength not to hit the woman.
"Thank you, Claire," Betty said through her teeth and the woman smiled knowingly before hugging her son and disappearing out the front door. Betty turned to her boss. "I think tonight was a big success," she said proudly and, when Daniel turned back to her from the door, he had a smile that nearly knocked her over. He was positively beaming.
"It was and it's all thanks to you!" he shouted happily and wrapped his arms around her, twirling her in the air for a brief moment.
'Good Lord, he's strong,' her mind reeled for a minute afterwards, watching him grin and punch the air, extending his hands for a high five. She grinned on, responding on autopilot to his actions, but her mind was still lost in space.
"So," she said, regaining her voice and wits. "I guess I should be going," she said softly, looking at the clock that read a quarter after ten. He returned her grin and nodded his head. "I guess I'll be seeing you when we get back from the holidays?" she asked him and his brows dipped in a 'V' of confusion.
"I told you; I'm coming over to give you your gift on Christmas Day," he reminded her. She sighed.
"I did forget; I'm sorry, Daniel. I just have a couple things on my mind. Christmas is only three days away. The day after tomorrow is Christmas Eve." Her mind spun and she tried to stop the words about to leave her mouth, but her heart stomped all over her sensible side, telling her it was the perfect excuse to be with him at Christmas. "I have an idea," she said before she could stop herself.
"I was thinking… would you like to come over to our house for Christmas? I can't imagine you being alone. Your sister and D.J. will be back in France and your mom's going on her ski trip."
"Isn't it a family thing?" he asked and she gave a half nod.
"So was today with your family. Besides, Daniel, you've helped me and my family just as much as I have yours. I know my family wouldn't mind. My dad would love to have more people to cook for and Justin would love to have the Editor-in-chief of MODE magazine at his house for Christmas. He still goes on about that Thanksgiving weekend with Baby Chutney."
Daniel laughed and she thought back to that day. She had delivered him into Sofia's hands that night, encouraging him to try and persuade her to stay with him instead of run off with Hunter the Stripper. She wanted to cringe, but she also did not want Daniel to know she was thinking of anything in particular, so she held her face in a neutral expression.
"I remember that. If you're sure it's not a problem, fine. When should I get there?"
"Well, we go to sleep pretty late on Christmas Eve after mass and gifts, so I guess–"
"Oh," he muttered. "Never mind…"
"What? Wait, do you want to come to mass with us?" she asked in surprise and he nodded his head as he shrugged his shoulders. "Oh! I didn't realize. Alright, well, we go to mass at eleven, but we leave around ten-thirty to get good spots. They have a live Nativity each year and someone from the crowd is asked as they go in if they want to do it. There's a… The details aren't important; you'll see for yourself. Anyway, I guess you should get to our house between ten and ten-twenty and we can all leave together. If you bring your stuff, you can stay the night. The church is a block and a half away. We always walk. "
"Thanks for the heads up; I'll wear my boots. I guess I'll be seeing you in a few days, then."
"I guess so," she mumbled as he slid her coat onto her arms. He made a quick call downstairs and asked if there were any cars available. He told the person to hold it for Betty and he would take care of the bill. Betty tried to protest, but Daniel shushed her and asked if the vehicle had winter tires. Once it was confirmed, he thanked the person and hung up.
"Your chariot awaits," he teased and opened the door, stopping when bells tinkled above it.
They both looked up as the door swung open to reveal a small bundle of familiar white flowers with a little bell attached in ribbon. Betty squinted and forced down the grunt of frustration. She knew it was not there when the Meades had arrived. If she ever found out who did it, although she had a suspicion she already knew, she would be taking another Meade off the family tree.
"I didn't put that up there," Betty said softly as she turned to Daniel to find him inches away with a lopsided, teasing grin.
"Because I need an excuse to kiss a beautiful girl goodnight," he said before briefly pressing his lips against hers. It was a touch deeper than that at the store earlier that weekend, but it did nothing to lessen its impressive impact. She felt the floor quake beneath her and thought she would fall over until she remembered she was already leaning against the wall for support. All too quickly, Daniel removed his lips from Betty's and she felt positively frozen without his warmth.
He smiled as if he had patted her head and wished her a good evening. Then, with a nod and a return of his salutation, she stepped past him, trying not to brush against him, and took the elevator down to the lobby to the car waiting outside, still in a mild stupor as she crawled in, unaware of Daniel's laughing eyes watching her from his window.
! MERRY CHRISTMAS ! MERRY CHRISTMAS ! MERRY CHRISTMAS !
Betty paced upstairs, looking in the mirror of her old room. Her father had not moved a thing and she was very grateful. She had somewhere to be alone with her frayed nerves. Looking into the mirror again, she frowned at her black skirt and white blouse with scarlet red vest decorated with a little Rudolph silhouette. This was the kind of thing she always wore and no one would ever change her she had vowed when she started working at MODE.
The doorbell rang and she went down the steps of the house to the front door to answer it. Behind it stood Daniel in a pair of black slacks and a similar red top, although it was iridescent and shiny where hers was fleece. She smiled and looked over at the clock, willing her voice to work.
"Perfect, you're right on time. What's all that?" she asked quickly as her eyes fell on the red velvet bag in his hand. He grinned sheepishly and brought the bag forward from behind his back.
"You got my family a couple little things and they loved them. Besides, I'm pretty sure I did a good job on making them personal," he said, his chest expanding with pride as he looked down at her. She chuckled and took the bag to the living room while Daniel stood in the doorway. "I guess we'll be leaving soon, so should I just keep my coat on?" he asked and she shouted out as she walked back into the entrance that it was a good idea while she grabbed her puffy blue jacket.
"Papi! Hilda? Justin?" she hollered up the staircase to her dawdling family. They all moved to the stairs at the same time and fell in behind Ignacio who got there first. He took Daniel's hand and gave it a quick, firm shake. Hilda smiled and gave him a little hug while Justin stumbled down the stairs to shake Daniel's hand.
"Are we all ready?" Ignacio asked as he looked around him. Everyone was in their coat and boots and ready to go. So, with a thumbs up, they passed through the door, Ignacio locked it up and they made their way through the little streets to the church only a ten minute walk away. Ignacio was walking at the head of the group, Hilda with Justin alongside and, at the back, Daniel draped an arm around Betty's shoulders when she shivered. Hilda said nothing when she noticed and Betty thanked her lucky stars.
"Excuse me?" someone said to them as they walked into the church. They had just slipped their coats off within the doors when a older gentleman dressed in a white robe approached them. He looked them all over and welcomed them before stepping closer to Betty and Daniel. "The church would like to ask you to be our Holy Family," he said gently as Betty and Daniel's eyes shot open wide. They exchanged a little look.
"What exactly do we have to do?" Daniel asked softly while the rest of the family made their way to a pew at the front of the one hundred or so seat church. The man looked up at Daniel.
"Not much. The priest leads us all up the aisle and you'll be following directly behind him. We have the robes in back and there's a small doll wrapped in cloth for Mary to carry up to the front. You'll be sitting by the manger at the front of the church just beside the alter. The doll gets placed in the manger and all you have to do is appear to coddle it all through the mass."
Betty and Daniel exchanged another brief glance. Betty worried her lower lip and Daniel grinned and nodded his head a couple time. Her eyebrows shot up and she was almost positive she had imagined it when he wrapped an arm around Betty and pulled her against him. She melted instantly.
"We would be honored," Daniel said and the man told them to follow him quickly into the back to get ready. They were shown into a little changing room and were given their outfits. In side-by-side stalls, they put on their clothes and stepped back out again, smiling at the sight of each other. The simple blue gown and white veil looked striking against Betty's complexion and the deep green and rich brown robe and cloak gave Daniel a very laid back appearance, surprising Betty.
"Very nice," she said with a smile and he reached into the stall to take the staff he had been given. "Perfect. Not exactly your thousand dollar suits, but…" she teased as he looked her over.
"I like your dress," he said, not a hint of irony in his voice and Betty blushed. "I'm serious. The color looks good on you. It's cute. You're a great Mary," he said softly and held out his hand to her to lead her back to the area where the priest and brothers and sisters were. They all agreed that they made a good Mary and Joseph and a silver-haired woman stepped forward with a bundle of white. Betty expected it to sit in her arm, but was surprised by the weight of it. The skin was rubber-like and the hands were curled into little fists.
"We're about to begin."
The mass started and they went to the front of the church, watching her family as they went by, a smile and tear on Ignacio's face. As they arrived at the alter, they bowed and stepped off to the side, sitting on the little chairs on either side of the hay-pile where they were told to place the child. Daniel sat opposite her and rested his arm on the bale just above the doll's head while he slipped his finger into the clutch of the doll, appearing to anyone else that the baby was holding his finger. Betty smiled and smoothed over the head of the doll.
The priest delivered a nice mass and he reached out to the young children, talking to them about how much fun tomorrow would be and asking them if they were enjoying their time off school. Betty thought back to previous years and she understood why the priest had not seemed familiar to her; it was not the traditional priest. He was younger and a touch taller. Betty tore her attention away from the priest and focused on her 'child' once more.
Daniel smiled up at her and held his hand out to hers as she returned his warm grin. She accepted his outstretched hand and he gave it a reassuring squeeze in a hopefully Joseph-like manner. Betty smiled and looked back down at the doll as the priest got to communion. She was unsure of what they were supposed to do, but one of the other gentleman approached with a chalice and offered them both communion at the Nativity scene. They took it and returned to their seats.
"Amen," everyone said together and the mass ended, people getting up to mingle for a little while before disappearing back to their houses. The Suarez family stood off to the side and waited for Betty and Daniel to return from the dressing rooms in their normal clothes again. Then, after thanking the priest and the other people who had been at the front of the church with them, they all left the church and headed home. The snow had started and was falling softly to the ground around them as they walked through the streets back to the Suarez household.
As soon as they were through the door, they all shook the snow from their coats, slipping them off gently to avoid having snow slide down their backs. Once they were hung up, they removed their boots and stepped into the warm house. Justin immediately ran to the tree, looking under it to spot his gifts. Ignacio made his way to the kitchen and unwrapped the platters of snacks he had prepared earlier in the day for their evening together. Hilda smiled up at Daniel before scampering off to try and reign in Justin while Betty and Daniel stood in the entrance for a few more minutes.
"That was interesting," Daniel said, breaking the silence that had settled around them. Betty looked up with a wide smile and nodded her head a couple times before bending over to place the wet boots on the mat. She would have sworn she heard Daniel clear his throat behind her, but she dismissed it and finished fixing the things to dry in the entrance before standing up again to find Daniel staring at where her backside had been a split second ago.
"Something got your interest?" she asked teasingly and watched Daniel's cheeks turn a shade of red darker than his shirt, making her blush in return. He had grunted when she had bent over and he had found something that interested him: her behind! "Excuse me," she grumbled and jogged up the stairs two at a time, desperate for a minute away from him. Typically, her father dozed off shortly after the gifts were opened and Justin barely made it more than a half-hour after the gifts were opened before running up to bed, Hilda following to be nearby. That meant they would be alone downstairs most of the evening if they stayed up to watch White Christmas together.
She sighed and rested her head against the cool wall in her room as she fought to control her breathing before returning downstairs to Daniel. Her mind raced along with her heartbeat, but after a few deep breaths, both returned to normal and she looked in the mirror. She ran a comb through her hair a couple of times and, with a thin shine of lip gloss, she decided it was time to return downstairs.
In the living room, Justin had chosen himself a spot on the floor in front of the tree, handing out parcels. Ignacio was in his chair and Hilda was on the end of the sofa beside the tree, leaving the center and other end for Daniel and Betty who sat down as Justin passed the first parcel to Ignacio.
The night lasted well into the morning hours and, at half past one in the morning, the last gift was unwrapped and Hilda and Betty were busy tidying up. Hilda shoved all the wrapping paper into a plastic bag while Betty brought the plates out the kitchen. Daniel moved to pick up the glasses and follow her, but she insisted he stay put while the two girls took care of the mess. Within ten minutes, everything was away and Justin was yawning at the base of the staircase.
"Goodnight, Aunt Betty, Grandpa, Daniel," Justin muttered as he pulled himself up the stairs, his mother following close behind, a little yawn escaping her own lips. Daniel chuckled and watched Ignacio wander towards the stairs as well.
"Well, I think this is as late as I go. I have to be up tomorrow morning to make Christmas breakfast. Feliz Navidad, mija," Ignacio whispered, pressing a kiss to Betty's temple before making his way to the stairs. Halfway up, he turned back to them, his expressions dead serious. "You better not hurt my little girl, Mr. Meade. Have her back at a decent time," he warned and Betty lifted her hand to shield her reddening face as Daniel nodded sharply.
"I promise to behave in nothing less than a gentlemanly manner, Mr. Suarez."
"You know, Daniel, that's one thing I like about you; you were taught manners. Even if you weren't planning on doing so, no one would know any different by your answer. So diplomatic," he said with a smile before ascending the stairs and going to his room, the door clicking closed behind him.
"C'mon," Daniel said, pulling her to the door and shoving his feet into his boots.
"What are you talking about? This is not the best neighborhood, Daniel."
"We won't go far. I just want to go out in the snow for a little while. It's nice," he said as he held out her coat for her to slip into. She sighed and slid her hands into the sleeves. Then, with her boots on and a scarf around her neck and one for Daniel, they made their way into the snow, locking the door behind them.
He walked as far as the corner and turned into the park halfway along the next block, dusting off one of the swings and taking a seat on it. Betty smiled and followed him over to sit on the swing next to him. They moved back and forth for a few minutes before Daniel stood up and stretched, looking up at the falling snow.
"It's not exactly the bridge at five in the morning, but it's still nice," he said with a wide smile which Betty return. She stood up and walked towards him as he turned around, but he slipped and landed on his back in the foot-tall snow. Betty immediately began to laugh at her fallen boss who struggled to get up from the slippery snow and failed.
Her laughter bubbled stronger with each botched attempt until a small ball of white compact flurries landed in her face. It stuck between her glasses and her face, chilling her cheekbones as she stood in shock, listening to Daniel begin to laugh like she had only moments ago. She removed her glasses and wiped off the snow quickly before reaching for a handful of the stuff herself.
Daniel was already up and on the move before Betty could take aim. She tried her best to throw it in his general direction, but it moved too slowly so he had time to sidestep each lob. Her hands grew numb with each new snowball, yet she kept at it, hopeful that one would eventually hit him. He, on the other hand, took the fight to her, forming one large ball and rushing towards her. Once directly in front of her, he took the ball and smashed it in her face. What he had failed to count on was that his proximity meant she could reach out and cling to him long enough to shove her own snowball down his back.
He danced a Highland fling in the snow and he tried to shake the loosely packed flakes from inside his shirt, reaching under his jacket to pull his shirt from his pants and let the wet out the bottom at the back. Once he had finally dislodged the icy snow from within his clothes, he looked to Betty, who was just setting her glasses back on her nose when he charged her and pulled her down on top of him in the snow, flipping them to lean over her.
"You got me," she gasped up at him, her breath coming out of her mouth in a puff of white. He stared down at her for a moment, looking into her eyes. He let his fingers run through her damp hair, which grew damper as she lay with the back of her head in the snow. His breath was coming out in similar little puffs, yet his chest rose and fell with deeper pulls of air than hers. "Daniel…"
"Betty," he murmured as his face came a little closer to hers. Her mouth snapped shut and she looked up at him with slightly glazed eyes. He smiled. "You talk too much," he whispered and with that, he rested his lips against hers. Warm and pliable, she felt heat spread throughout her entire body despite the bed of cold snow she was now laying on. She sighed and accepted his embrace for the briefest moment before he lifted his head away. Her eyes widened.
"I don't understand," she whispered to be greeted by another kiss, this one deeper and more passionate. When he lifted his head away this time, she stayed quiet, but her eyes were still wide open, watching his every move. He laughed and pulled her on top of him as he rolled over, cradling her face in his hands.
"I've been waiting to do that since the miserable excuse of a kiss I gave you at the mall. It was worth the wait," he said, his eyes beaming brightly as he held her gaze. She let a little smile grace her lips, but she was too terrified to let euphoria consume her; she needed to be sure of what he was saying before she allowed herself to hope.
"Thank you," she said, although it had a distinct questioning sound to it. He chuckled softly and tugged her face down to his, removing her glasses for a moment to press kisses to her cheeks, eyelids, forehead and temples. Then, he replaced the lenses and held her face in his hands, setting his scorching lips against hers one more time and she felt her bones turn molten.
"I'm saying," he whispered, "that I think I've fallen in love with you, Betty Suarez, and that the last several days has been nothing short of absolutely wonderful. It came to a head tonight at mass. Granted, the circumstances were a little bizarre and I should have been struck by lightening for the thoughts I was having, but being up there with you and that little doll… It felt like we were some kind of family and, I swear, in that second, that doll had my eyes and your smile, Betty."
Tears trickled down her cheeks and he thumbed them away as his fingertips reached into her hair before pulling her flush against him, hugging her tightly against his body. The heat that passed between them was almost an inferno and they felt the warmth flush their faces as he lifted her eyes back to his once more.
"I'm in love with you, Betty."
"Am I the friend?" she asked suddenly, watching his brows knit together for a couple of seconds. "The one you planned on talking to? Asking for more?" she pressed and his eyes softened in understanding.
"Yes," he whispered, the one word hanging between them as tangible as each other. She smiled and the puffs of air returned, large and broken as she began to chuckle to herself. "What's so funny?" he asked in concern, but she continued to laugh. A look of fear flittered across his face and, when she saw it, she laughed even harder although she tried to control it.
"Not… at you… at me!" she wheezed, holding her sides as she fell on back. Daniel stretched out beside her and rested his head in his hand propped up by his elbow. "Your mom… when we were clearing the table…" she gasped, her breathing becoming less labored. She sighed and took a deep breath. "Your mom guessed that you might have feelings for me. I told her I was concerned about your rushing into something with a woman whose name you wouldn't tell me and she got the idea in my head that you wouldn't tell me her name because it was me."
"She hung the mistletoe!" Daniel barked out, now collapsing into another fit of giggles all his own. Betty joined in.
"Who did you think it was?" she asked quickly and Daniel had to turn his head away quickly as a blush rose in his cheeks. "You thought it was me?!" she laughed.
"I hoped it was you," he corrected, watching her sober up like he just had. "If it was you, it meant that there was a hope you felt about me like I felt about you." he explained and watched her nod in understanding. His eyes grew hooded. "I love you, Betty Suarez," he whispered.
"I love you, too, Daniel." She smiled warmly and rested her head against his chest for a minute, listening to his heartbeat through his jacket. The steady rhythm would have made her doze off if he had not pushed himself up and got to his feet, offering her his hand for help. With a grin, he pulled her up and pressed another brief kiss to her lips.
"C'mon," he whispered, pulling her into his arms and hugging her to him. He kissed her temple. "Let's get you home; it's getting cold."
They retraced their steps to her father's house and quietly entered, shaking off their coats at the threshold of the entrance. Large clumps of snow fell out of their jackets and they clapped a hand over their mouths to keep from laughing. Once they were hung up and their boots placed to dry, they tip-toed inside and stood in the hallway for a moment.
"Do you have your travel bag?" she asked, her voice barely above a whisper. He nodded. "Good. Come with me to the bathroom and you can change out of those wet clothes into your pajamas," she said and led the way up the stairs as he grabbed the duffel from the floor and followed her up. "That door right there."
She watched him step in and tried not to think about the fact that he was stripping down to his boxers in one of the rooms of her father's house as she did the same in her room, taking off her skirt, top and vest and changing into a pair of black sweats with a deep green long-sleeved shirt and navy blue hoodie. When she came out of her room, the door to the bathroom was still closed and she was unsure if she should knock or just wait patiently.
"Betty?" Daniel called out from behind the wooden door and she backed away a couple of steps so it did not sound like she had been waiting outside the door.
"What is it?" she asked back and listened as Daniel approached the door and leapt back when it clicked open suddenly. Daniel stood there in a similar pair of sweat pants with a gray wife beater and Betty swallowed hard.
"I was wondering if you had a hanger for my shirt. It's soaked," he said, smiling when he noticed her eyes wandering over the wide expanses of skin the little top showed off. "Earth to Betty!" he said and her eyes snapped back up to his face, her cheeks turning a gorgeous shade of red. He smiled and pulled her into the bathroom with him, giving her a quick, but deep kiss. She gasped.
"I have a hanger. I'll, um… I'll be back in a second." She tried to step out of his arms, but failed the first attempt, smothering the little squeak of surprise when he tugged her back against him. "Daniel, your shirt," she reminded him and he let her go. She went to her room and pulled out a plastic hanger. Then, she returned to his side and placed the wet shirt on the support, hanging it on the shower curtain rod near the heater.
"Thank you," he mumbled and, together, they made their way back downstairs. At the base, he took her hand and they moved towards the couch, Betty stopping to pop in the DVD. Daniel smiled and sat beside her, silent for a moment, before reaching down and pulling a small box out from under the tree, turning back towards her holding it out to her.
"Daniel…" she said softly, her hands trembling as she reached out to take the tiny package. She slipped the paper off the little cube to reveal a royal blue velvet box. Her fingers shook so badly that getting the box open was almost impossible. Finally, after much effort, the lid clicked open to reveal a set of pearl earrings, small jeweled studs with teardrop-shaped pearls attached just like her necklace. She looked up.
"You told me you always wanted a pair of earrings to go with your necklace. I went out early Monday morning to do a little shopping on my own. I was looking for simple pearl studs, but when I saw these… I knew I had the gift that would make your eyes light up the way you told me about. And I was right. So were you. It feels incredible to see the joy in your eyes," he said softly before cupping her face in his hands.
"Thank you, Daniel," she whispered and quickly slipped the earrings into her ears, rushing over to a mirror to look at herself. "They're stunning," she gushed as he came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist.
"They look better on you," he whispered into her ear and her cheeks flamed red as he kissed the shell of her ear.
With a warm glow on her face, they made their way back to the couch and sat down, pressing the button to start the movie. They watched the whole things and Betty grinned whenever Daniel would give a little chuckle, usually to something Bing Crosby's goofy friend did. When it ended, she leaned back against him, clicked the television to a Christmas music channel, pulled a blanket off the back of the couch over them and nuzzled her face against his chest until he looked down to find her fast asleep. A glance at the clock read quarter after four in the morning and, sighing, his head lowered to rest on top of Betty's and, spooned together, he fell asleep.
! MERRY CHRISTMAS ! MERRY CHRISTMAS ! MERRY CHRISTMAS !
When the sun rose in the sky outside, it flitted through the slanted shades of the Suarez living room to shine on Daniel and Betty, still curved against each other, deep asleep. Hilda, Justin and Ignacio stood staring at them for a few minutes as the two stirred awake.
Betty's eyes stung from the brilliance of the light in her face, but she forced her eyes open anyway. She looked up and saw her family standing in front of her and her mind was muddled for a second as to why they were staring at her. She tried to move to stand up and felt the grip around her stomach tighten and she squeaked, waking her pillow with a start. Betty grabbed the edge of the blanket and yanked it up over he head while Daniel chuckled sheepishly. She gave him a little elbow in the ribs, but it did nothing to quench his laughter.
"Daniel!" she said sharply and tried to hide her face, but he took the blanket from over her head and lowered it, leaving her rose-face exposed to everyone. "Daniel, for God's sake!" she gasped and tried to slip out of his grasp, but failed, making her squeak again. He stood up and held her against him as he looked at her father.
"Mr. Suarez, I'm in love with your daughter and your approval would mean a lot to both of us," he said respectfully as he stared the man in the face. Ignacio smiled and nodded his head.
"I trust my daughter with you, Daniel. I know what you were like, but I know you would never intentionally hurt Betty," Ignacio said with a smile. Then, he stepped closer to his daughter. "I also know that if you do anything stupid, my daughter won't let you ignore it!" he said and they all laughed as Betty turned pink yet again. "Now, who wants breakfast?" he asked and disappeared into the kitchen at the applause of the others. Hilda and Justin followed. Betty went to move towards the table as well, but Daniel stopped her.
"Feliz Navidad, mi Corazon," he whispered softly and Betty felt tears well in her eyes as he pulled her into a wonderfully passionate kiss. She chuckled against his mouth at the feel of the stubble on his cheeks before pressing her hand against it.
"Keep it for the bedroom and come eat," Hilda barked from the door and Daniel and Betty broke apart with wide, guilty smiles.
"Do you think you can handle my family, Mr. Meade?" she whispered and he nodded.
"If you can handle mine, I can handle yours. Besides, I love your family because they love you. I'd like a family like yours."
"Well, consider yourself adopted," she said happily as she moved away from him to help her sister set the table, leaving Daniel to smile and slip his hands into his pockets.
"Not yet…" he whispered and moved to join the Suarezes in every sense.