Lorelai Gilmore Hayden was fed up. It was her first day of Christmas vacation from The Dragonfly, and she'd done nothing all day but wash laundry, fold laundry, iron laundry, and put away laundry. Her step-daughter Gigi seemed to have more clothes in her wardrobe than Lorelai herself, which shouldn't have been possible, given that Gigi was six. Her daughter Rory was home for Christmas, along with another formidable pile of laundry, but Lorelai had to admit that was possible. Still, Rory was an adult who could have washed her own clothes before coming home. Her husband Christopher was not only capable of washing his own laundry, but unlike Rory, he'd been home every day. And yet, this morning he had suddenly pulled several shirts and ties out of his closet and asked her casually if she could wash and iron them before his business meeting tonight, since he hadn't decided what he was going to wear yet.
For God's sake, she wasn't a full-time housewife. She was the owner of an inn. She couldn't afford to take much time off, not even at Christmas. In fact, she especially couldn't afford to take time off during Christmas, when people expected above-average customer service. If she were gone for more than a couple of days in a row, Sookie and Michel would get so entangled in their own squabbles that any guest who tried to get a word in edgewise might as well be speaking Swahili. By the time Lorelai got back to work, she'd most likely have to deal with a nut-allergic guest who'd been served a piping hot version of Sookie's Peanut Fudge Surprise for dessert, or a honeymooning couple who'd been mistaken for brother and sister and been given two rooms. It might take her until the next Christmas to mend the damage and recoup her losses. Lorelai had years ago made it a policy never to stay away from the inn for more than three days at a time, Christmas or not. She had Christmas, the day after Christmas and New Year's off each year, but Lorelai didn't count those days as vacation, because they always involved parties with her parents or her parents' wealthy acquaintances, which made work feel like a Caribbean vacation by comparison. And since she'd married Christopher, there were the Hayden gatherings, which had made Lorelai almost appreciate Gilmore get-togethers.
But today should have been special. It was supposed to have been the first of only two real Christmas holidays for Lorelai. She had even come up with a plan for the day. It involved unplugging her alarm the night before, spending the morning in her pyjamas leisurely eating cold pizza and pop-tarts, and whiling away the afternoon catching up on several hours of recorded TV shows. Instead, this morning Lorelai had dragged herself out of bed at six-thirty to make lunch for Gigi. She didn't understand why Chris couldn't do it, since he'd been doing it for years, but he'd muttered something about needing to get to work early. For breakfast, Lorelai had eaten old Cornflakes that tasted like cardboard, because Gigi wanted the last two pop-tarts in her lunch.
The rest of the day had been a blur. Since ten o'clock this morning, Lorelai had been up to her knees in laundry. Up to her neck in laundry. Up to her ears in laundry. Up to her eyes in laundry. She had been so submerged in laundry that now, when she closed her eyes, she saw shirts and blouses and underwear of every colour and size and pattern. She also smelled laundry detergent when she closed her eyes. Then again, maybe she smelled laundry detergent because even in the few minutes during the day when she'd had a chance to rest her eyes, she hadn't been more than five feet from a piece of laundry.
Lorelai wasn't meant to spend her day off doing laundry. She definitely wasn't meant for it at four months pregnant. Right now, she should be lying on the couch with her feet up, savoring her box of Christmas chocolates, or watching White Christmas for the hundredth time—or, for skating through a soft snowfall in a scene straight out of a sentimental Christmas card, while her husband skated alongside her.
Speaking of her husband…
Downstairs, the front door creaked open and then clicked shut. Someone jerked the closet door open, rattled a coat hanger noisily, and slammed the door. Then, two at a time, someone bounded up the stairs. Within seconds, Chris poked his head in the door of their bedroom.
She looked up from the ironing. "Well, look who's home."
"Hi," Christopher answered, his back already turned to her. He was scanning the dresser. "Have you seen my watch?"
Lorelai drove the iron hard across one of Rory's blouses. "No."
"Where did I put it?" Christopher muttered under his breath. He yanked open a dresser drawer, rifled through it, and shoved it shut it again. Then he pulled open the next one and proceeded to do the same thing. In a few seconds he straightened and, pushing the last drawer shut with his foot, began loosening his tie.
"Can you just check around here for it while I go change?" He glanced at Lorelai as he unbuttoned his shirt.
Lorelai, still ironing, waved at him with her free hand. "Go, go. Change while I say the magic words and pull your watch from thin air."
"Thanks, Lor," he said, tossing his shirt on a chair. Lorelai winced as she watched Christopher's back disappearing out the door. With a sigh, she walked to the dresser and studied it. Then she glanced at Christopher's shirt lying crumpled on the chair. Fifteen seconds later, with a look of mingled triumph and annoyance, she was clutching the watch that had been lying on the chair before the shirt was thrown unceremoniously on top of it. Christopher popped his head back in.
"Uh, have you ironed my blue shirt?"
"It's your lucky day. I ironed all the shirts in the laundry."
"Uh, and the shirt that wasn't in the laundry?" He pulled a shirt off a hanger in the closet and held it up to her sheepishly. Lorelai narrowed her eyes. Christopher gave her his most persuasive, innocent smile.
"Lor, I know you're tired, but if you could just iron this shirt…"
"No problem. I have all the time in the world to iron all the shirts in the universe."
Christopher, hastily brushing his hair in front of the mirror, didn't miss the sarcasm. "Look, I can't miss this dinner. I have to be there in ten minutes and you've been home all day."
"Yes, home all day lying around eating bonbons."
"So that's why you haven't ironed my shirt."
Lorelai's eyes widened. "I have been ironing clothes all day, buddy! I have been washing clothes, drying clothes, folding clothes, putting clothes away, ironing clothes. I am so sick of clothes I'm this close to tossing out my entire closet and heading to a beach in Miami where clothes are completely optional."
"Okay, that wouldn't explain why you haven't ironed my shirt."
Lorelai threw the shirt at him. "Iron your shirt yourself."
Chris turned and picked up his shirt. He glanced at her. "It was a joke." Lorelai wasn't smiling. With a sigh, he came over to her and held her, even though she was stiff in his arms. He kissed her on the cheek. "I can wear another shirt. You're right, you've been home all day working your feet off." He looked at her. Lorelai stared stiffly ahead, as unresponsive as a statue. Resignedly, Chris let go of her. "Don't worry about supper. I'll order something before I go."
Lorelai didn't answer. Chris looked back at her as he buttoned another shirt in front of the mirror. "Okay?"
"Whatever you say," said Lorelai, slamming the iron down on the ironing board and wincing at the small burnt spot she'd inadvertently left on one of Chris' shirts. If she wasn't meant to do laundry, she definitely wasn't meant to iron shirts. Prior to marrying Chris, she could have probably counted on one hand the times she'd used an iron—and most of those times had ended with the clothes looking worse than they had pre-ironing. Out of the blue, it occurred to Lorelai that she was pretty sure flannel didn't need ironing.
Christopher, obviously completely unaware of her irritation, was grimacing as he buttoned his shirt in front of the mirror. He managed to force the top button through the buttonhole. "Oh, uh, Lor…"
Bitterly, Lorelai thought that she was one hundred percent sure the men who wore flannel also washed and ironed their own dress shirts when they needed them. She yanked another shirt off a hanger. "If this sentence includes the word 'laundry', don't even think about it."
"No laundry. The word laundry will not cross my lips again until 2009."
"Ha. Just so you know, that was a forced, un-funny ha."
"I noticed. Um—I just need to know again—my watch…"
Lorelai tossed it on the bed. "Your watch is here, your shirts are here, your jacket which you haven't mentioned yet but which you definitely will is here." She shoved the jacket at him. "Now go. Go, and don't come home tonight."
Standing in the doorway, jacket in hand, Christopher looked at her. "Lor…"
"'Cause if you do, I will kick you back out."
Chris cocked his head. "Lorelai…"
"I mean it."
She gave him a light push on the chest, at which Chris, startled, took two steps backwards and out of the room. Lorelai shut the door in his face, held the knob, and waited. After a minute, there was a knock. Lorelai opened the door. Chris, wearing a look of suppressed amusement despite his unsmiling face, was standing in the doorway. He opened his mouth, and she shut the door again, locking it. She waited another minute or two. Then, curious, she opened the door again. The hallway was empty.
Wearily, Lorelai sank down on the bed. Laundry, some ironed and some heaped in a laundry basket, was strewn everywhere around her. She didn't care. With Christopher she sometimes felt like she was dealing with a third child—or fourth, if she were going to count the one she'd been carrying around every day for months. It was too much. She wished she were married to a more compassionate husband--a strong, silent type who wouldn't make her lift a finger in her condition, and would immediately see that she was having a stressful day and console her. Instead, she was stuck with an overgrown child who apparently couldn't even dress himself.
Lorelai's thoughts turned to Luke, as they had more and more frequently over the past few weeks. Luke had always been patient, always attentive, had always thought of her before himself. She remembered. She remembered the Santa burger, the skating rink, the wonderful coffee every morning, the way he'd growled about the snow but still grudgingly obeyed when she'd told him to come out and watch it. Some of those memories always returned around this time of year. The bad times, the frustrations and tears and multiple break-ups, faded away, but the fond memories remained. She remembered how sweet Luke was, how he would dote on her without asking for anything in return. That was classic Luke: he had always been that way. And Christopher had always been—well, a little childish. Lorelai sighed and turned her head towards the window.
She was forty, a married woman. Since the events of a few years ago, she'd vowed to be more mature, more reasonable, less impulsive and self-centred. In her better mind, she knew thoughts like this weren't constructive. Pensively, Lorelai turned her wedding band around her finger. Sometimes, though she couldn't help wishing…
She swung her legs up to the bed and lay down, propping herself up on her arm to look out the window better—and think more clearly. As enticing as the fantasies were, she knew she didn't want Luke anymore. They hadn't worked the first time, or the second time—or the third. She didn't love him anymore, if she had ever loved him the way he deserved. If Luke ever came back to Stars Hollow in reality, she might give him a second glance, but it wouldn't be a serious one.
But did she want Christopher? Lorelai sniffled self-pityingly. Was this all she was meant to be—a wife and mother wading through mountains of laundry, while everyone else capered in and out of her life without a care in the world and without a thought for her? Sure, she loved Chris. She wasn't going to play games and deny that anymore. But did she love him enough? Sometimes she really felt that he was a child who wanted her to take care of him, rather than taking care of her the way she deserved. At times like this Lorelai couldn't help wondering if the way Christopher used to be in her life hadn't been better—here today, gone tomorrow, with no obligations on her side or his. Maybe she just liked Christopher best in small doses.
She turned her head back to the window. Outside it was a chilly grey day, yet the diluted light of a pale winter sun still shone through the heavy clouds. In frustration, she swiped the back of her hand across her damp eyes. Maybe she was being immature and spoiled and selfish, but she didn't care. What was so wrong with wanting someone who would love her unconditionally and without making demands of her—a handsome hero who would sweep in and rescue her, understand her, take care of her? Was Christopher really enough for her? She'd doubted that all along, and maybe she'd been right. What would it feel like if Christopher took her at her word and stayed away and didn't come back?
She watched the clouds, dark and heavy with snow, roll slowly by outside. The dim light of the sun, dropping near the horizon, still glowed through a crack in the clouds. Somehow the scene was vaguely familiar, not because it was a replica of a thousand other December scenes, but because the scene suddenly reminded her of one particular December afternoon…a long time ago. A grey sky and pale sun through the window…around Christmas time… Lorelai's thoughts ran together as she grew drowsy and inevitably, her eyes closed…
The winter sun broke weakly through the kitchen window, casting shadows on the kitchen floor, as the phone rang. A clatter from the other end of the house broke the late afternoon peace. Swearing under her breath, Lorelai Gilmore, half-dressed and holding a towel around her head, jerked the phone off the receiver.
"Lorelai, it's your mother. Don't hang up…"
Lorelai, holding her arm out to prevent a gooey mixture from sliding down her arm to the floor, gritted her teeth and sighed. "Mom, unless this is an emergency I don't have time."
"As in I really, truly do not have time. I just washed my hair and at this moment there is raw egg sliding down my arm…"
"Oh, for goodness' sake, Lorelai, haven't you ever heard of shampoo?"
"But it doesn't make your hair nice and shiny and squeaky clean," Lorelai answered, stretching the telephone cord and grabbing a paper towel to mop up her arm. "Plus, that is the least of my troubles. Either I bought milk past the expiry date this week, or the laundry in my hamper has fermented, because there is a very weird odor in this house, and until I track down the source of this smell I am not going to be in a conversational mood."
There was a brief pause, and Lorelai sensed that her mother was counting to ten before she said something that would definitely end the conversation. Emily spoke again, her voice carefully controlled this time. "Well, it won't be a long conversation. Lorelai, I know that things aren't good between us, but I'd like us to put our differences aside and invite you to the Christmas party this year."
"Oh, thanks for the invitation, Mom."
"Good. So you'll come?"
"Uh, I wish I could, but my teaspoons really need polishing."
"I mean, how can I entertain the DAR with black teaspoons? Even you have to admit Emily Post would have a fit."
"I don't expect any member of the Daughters of the American Revolution is likely to be visiting your little hamlet in the near future."
"Of course not, what was I thinking? That would be like Tony Bennett stooping to visit Kurt Cobain."
"Kurt Cobain. He's a, you know…"
"Lorelai, I just want an answer to my question. Can you come?"
"Mom, I have Rory. I can't just find a babysitter just like that. Oh, actually, I could drop her off with that lady who lives a few streets down, the one who's on her third husband. Or is it her fourth?"
"You're not leaving Rory with anyone."
"Well, I'm glad you see the wisdom of my ways, Mom. And therefore as much as I'd love to come, I'm going to have to give my regrets. Okay thank you have a nice day."
"Lorelai. I recognize that I don't have any claim to you as a mother anymore, but I am Rory's grandmother."
"Unfortunately yes, last time I checked."
"I'd like you to bring Rory along."
"Look, Mom, I'll bring Rory to see you some time, I promise. But an nine year-old at an adult party?"
"You and Christopher never complained about coming to our Christmas parties."
"Well, the spiked punch was a draw."
"I have no idea what you're talking about. Your father and I have never put alcohol in the punch. Now, you and Christopher did sneak away with our wine bottles on more than one occasion."
"Mom, if you think the mention of Christopher is going to put me in a better mood, think again."
"Lorelai, Christopher is going to be there and once in a while, it wouldn't hurt for Rory to see her father."
"Christopher is going to be at the party?"
"He's been invited."
"Well, Chris being invited and Chris being there are two different things."
"I'm sure if you called him and told him you were going to be there, he'd be there."
"I'm hanging up, Mom."
"I was about to hang up anyway. Make up your own mind, Lorelai."
Lorelai hung up the receiver and stared at for a few minutes warily, as though she expected it to jump out and bite her. Then she turned towards the window. Snow clouds were gathering, dimming the sun. Lorelai's eyes grew soft, pensive, no longer taking in the scene outside. On a whim, she headed to her room and shut the door. She faced the full-length mirror she'd bought at a garage sale recently. The frame was cracked and the mirror itself smudged, but it showed her what she wanted to see.
Lorelai turned in front of the mirror. The one advantage of being a young single mother with a busy, full-time job was that she didn't have time or opportunity to gain weight. Maybe her body was a couple of pounds heavier, a little more womanly: but by and large, it hadn't changed since she was sixteen. And, Lorelai thought with an inner sense of satisfaction, it had looked pretty good back then. She wondered how Chris looked now. She hadn't seen him in a year. Last year she had noticed little changes to his appearance—his jaw looked sharper, the stubble around his chin rougher, his body harder.
Lorelai looked absently at the mirror for a moment, no longer seeing herself, but picturing Christopher. She saw his smile, the sparkle in his eyes, the way he sometimes looked at her…Her heart thudded a little harder, jolting her from her reverie. In the mirror, she peered closer, checking her hair, her skin, smoothing her sweater and sucking her stomach in until she was satisfied. Yes, there was no doubt about it. The corner of her mouth curled up faintly in a self-satisfied smile. She still had what it took to make men look twice. She practiced a flirtatious expression in the mirror, arching her eyebrows, smiling suggestively.
Then abruptly, the smile vanished. Some part of her that was harder, older, re-awakened. Right now, she didn't have time to be going out on dates, and she didn't want to bring a new man into Rory's life, either. For God's sake, what had gotten into her? She glanced at the clock. It was almost three o'clock, past time to pick up Rory at school. It was definitely not the time to be thinking about men. She wondered if Christopher was looking for someone. Did he have a girlfriend? Lorelai shot one last glance at the mirror, smoothed her sweater for the sixth time in a row, snatched up her purse and hurried out of the room.
Lorelai turned her head away from the window. Slowly, she rolled off the bed. Her body felt stiff. She was only four-and-a-half months pregnant, and already she felt heavy and fat. She couldn't remember feeling this way so early with Rory. Then again, that had been almost twenty-five years ago. Lorelai shook her head and chuckled a little bitterly to herself. What kind of crazy woman had a second child when her oldest was twenty-four? She should be finished with this stuff. She stared at her body in the mirror. Not only did she feel fat and pregnant, but she looked fat and pregnant. Her hair was a mess, her face was tear-streaked, and her clothes were rumpled. She winced and averted her eyes. And this was just the beginning. At fifty, she'd still have a ten year-old. Trying not to see the unfinished piles of laundry all around her, Lorelai left the room, shutting the door purposefully behind her. If she left the laundry alone for a while, maybe it would grow legs and put itself away.
Lorelai was halfway to the stairs when she saw that Rory's door was half open. She tiptoed to the door and peeked inside. Rory was sitting at her desk, typing away furiously at her laptop.
Rory looked up, startled. She looked back at the computer and went red.
"Uh, no, just stuff."
Rory shrugged sheepishly. "I haven't talked to him in a while. He thinks he's going to get a promotion."
"Want me to tell him congratulations from you?"
"Sure. Hey, ask him if he likes Chinese food."
Rory began typing. "He says hi back…hey, why Chinese food?"
"Odds are 99 to 1 that your Dad just ordered Chinese."
Lorelai shrugged. "Babe, I've known your dad a long time."
Downstairs, the doorbell rang. Someone skittered across the floor.
"Gigi!" called Rory. "What did we tell you about opening the door to strangers!"
There was a pause. Then, "It's okay! It's Mr. Wong."
Rory looked at Lorelai. "Who's Mr. Wong?"
"There's the remote possibility she's talking about the paperboy, but eleven's a little young to be called Mister. Although it is a six-year old doing the talking."
Rory called, "Gigi! Who's Mr. Wong?"
"The man Daddy invites over every week!"
The door opened and the unmistakable smell of egg rolls and chow mein wafted up the stairs.
"Dad's friends with the Chinese food delivery man?" asked Rory.
Lorelai shrugged. "Anyway, who was right about supper?"
"Gotta hand it to you, Mom. Save some for me?"
Lorelai glanced at herself in the car window before heading up the steps, satisfying herself that every curl was under control. Beside her, Rory was trembling. "Mom, do we have to go to this party? Grandma doesn't like me."
Lorelai's lips tightened. "Grandma does like you. Besides, your dad's going to be here."
"My tights are itchy," sighed Rory, trying to keep pace with Lorelai as she strode purposefully towards the front door.
"I'm not a fan of itchy tights either," Lorelai answered, "but hon, Christmas is a special time. It means we have to put up with all kinds of painful things, like bad versions of 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' and your grandparents' parties."
They had reached the door. Lorelai looked down at Rory, whose expression was a combination of misery and worry. In a sudden wave of compassion, Lorelai pulled her close. "Cheer up. Aladdin on video just went on sale and as soon as we get home, we're watching it."
"Really?" said Rory, brightening slightly.
Her back straight and her head high, Lorelai kept an arm around Rory as she marched up to the door and pressed the doorbell. Within seconds, the door opened, and as they entered, Emily's latest maid wordlessly took their coats. Lorelai gave Rory an encouraging smile and bent to tug her boots off, trying desperately not to fall as she did so. The second boot removed without mishap, Lorelai straightened—only to see her mother approaching. Emily's expression was cool, impassive. She greeted them smoothly.
"Hello, Lorelai. Hello, Rory."
Rory, standing prim and polite in her burgundy dress with the wide white collar, mustered a smile, although her face was white from nerves. Who could blame her? Lorelai thought irritably. Rory only saw her grandmother once a year, which hardly made for easy familiarity, especially not with a figure as formidable as Emily. Emily stood an arms-length distance from Rory, eyeing her.
"Well, you've certainly grown since the last time I saw you," she remarked.
Richard appeared behind Emily, his smile amiable enough. "Hello, Lorelai. Rory, you're the image of your father at that age. Isn't she, Emily?"
Lorelai cast her eyes pointedly in the opposite direction, and then shot a glance back at her parents to see if they'd noticed. Apparently, they hadn't, since both pairs of eyes were still fixed on Rory. Lorelai exhaled loudly. Her parents didn't blink an eyelash.
"There's certainly a resemblance," Emily agreed, giving Rory the once-over approvingly, and then turning her eyes disapprovingly on Lorelai.
"So Rory, what good books have you read lately?" Richard asked.
"Last week I read The Lord of the Rings," Rory said. "This week my goal is three non-fiction books of at least two hundred pages each. I already finished Anne Frank."
Richard looked at Emily. "Did you hear that, Emily?"
"Yes. Thank goodness our granddaughter may have inherited her father's brains."
Lorelai rolled her eyes. "Oh, please. Christopher never read a book longer than the end of his finger when he was Rory's age."
"Lorelai, I think Christopher can speak for himself about these things," replied Emily.
Richard ignored both of them, turning back to Rory. "That's certainly rather grown-up reading material you're perusing there."
"I like to peruse," Rory nodded.
"I hope you're not too much of an adult to enjoy a good fudge brownie?"
Rory shook her head. "Not so far."
"Good, because I don't think I've passed the age of fudge brownies yet myself. Let's go to the kitchen and see what we can find."
Not unwillingly, Rory followed her grandfather, and they disappeared from view. Emily had disappeared in the opposite direction a few seconds earlier. Lorelai shrugged and smoothed her dress down again, privately hoping that her half-hearted attempt to diet in the last two weeks had removed any traces of the slight stomach bulge she'd noticed. She leaned into Emily's hall mirror, surveying herself. She had spent more money than she should have on the dress, but she thought it was worth it: a sleek sleeveless royal blue dress that stopped slightly above her knees, and a smart dark jacket on top with just enough padding to make her shoulders look square. Her hair was pulled back in a thick gold clip, but her brown curls still spilled out lavishly around her face and past her shoulders. She leaned closer to the mirror, tracing her lips with her finger to find any spot where the red lipstick ran slightly outside the outline of her lips, then batting her eyelashes and watching the rise and fall of her blue-tinged eyelids. Satisfied, Lorelai stepped back from the mirror. Tossing her curls, she wandered with studied aimlessness over to the room where the party was being held. Slowly her ears adjusted to the low roar and persistent tinkling of a Christmas party.
Entering, Lorelai saw a sea of salt-and-pepper heads, red clothing, and animated faces. Many were familiar; some weren't. She approached casually, making an effort not to appear as though she were looking for anyone in particular...which, of course, she wasn't.
"Lorelai, will you help me?" called Emily from a few feet to Lorelai's right. Lorelai turned. Her eyes travelled over the table, where a bowl of punch seemed to have tipped over. Miraculously, it was unbroken; but a crimson stain was spreading across the white tablecloth and carpet. Emily, a pile of cloth napkins under her arm, was frantically dabbing at the carpet. Lorelai watched, her eyes dancing in amusement.
"I thought I was coming as a guest, Mom, not your maid."
Emily ignored her. "Just grab some napkins and help me wipe this up. Goodness, this is why I chose not to serve alcohol at these functions. And then what does Jack Benson do but show up intoxicated anyway and knock over the punch bowl?"
Lorelai raised her eyebrows. "Mom. Jack Benson is never not drunk."
"You don't need to be so audible." Emily laid a wad of soaked napkins in the punch bowl and, hoisting it with a sour expression on her face, left for the kitchen. Lorelai knelt down and began slowly dabbing at the floor. She fingered a couple of fallen punch cups and rose to set them on the table.
"In trouble already, I see." said a voice behind her. Lorelai whirled around.
There, standing a few feet away from her, was Christopher, holding a half-empty glass of punch. "Hi," he said, smiling broadly.
She met his gaze. "Hi yourself."
Her eyes traveled over him. Her heart had leapt to her throat, and she could feel her pulse racing. The glass in her hands was suddenly slippery. She had forgotten what a trim figure Christopher cut. She had forgotten what a dazzling smile he had, or the way he was able to look at her as though she were the only person in the room. She thought she had been prepared to see him again, and as usual, she was completely wrong.
"You need some help there?" he asked, nodding towards the table.
"Nah, there'll be reinforcements any second." Out of the corner of her eye, Lorelai caught a glimpse of a prim figure in a spotless maid's uniform striding efficiently towards the table, a bowl of cleaning supplies in her arms.
"Excuse me," said an accented voice, as she brushed past Lorelai. Lorelai grinned.
"Impressive," said Christopher, downing his glass of punch. "You sure you don't want to apply for a career in fortune telling?"
"Not fortune telling, just knowing Emily Gilmore really well."
"She doesn't trust me with anything more complicated than napkins," Lorelai explained.
"Dish detergent, hazardous stuff," Christopher agreed. His eyes were fixed on her again. Lorelai felt uncomfortable and warm. She liked being in control, and she didn't feel in control right now at all. Her heart rate, her temperature, and the expressions on her face all seemed to have suddenly acquired minds of their own, to Lorelai's vexation. But she did feel suddenly very alive, charged with a heady rush of something vaguely resembling intoxication. Unlike Jack Benson, however, she hadn't drunk a drop before coming to the party.
"Um, so," she said, not liking the silence, "Rory is here. Dad has her somewhere, but I'm not sure where."
"Your dad brought her to me right away. Now I think she's in the kitchen getting fed by three cooks."
"In other words, she's in good hands."
"Seems like it."
"You look good."
"You look like you could use a few shots of gin."
"Is my lack of desire to be here that obvious?"
"Let's just say I've seen Oscar the Grouch look happier."
"You still watch Sesame Street, don't you?"
"Only when I'm home sick."
"To be home sick implies that you have somewhere to be home from?"
"I got a job. I start after Christmas. It's only thirty hours a week right now, but I'm hoping they'll be impressed by my stellar powers of responsibility and up it to forty hours in a few weeks."
"So what is this job? Where is this job? Is it the kind of you can tell the parents about, or is it the kind of job where you have to, you know, cover your mouth when you say the name and hope everyone heard Bank of America?"
"Believe it or not, it's a valuation analyst at a municipal property assessment organization."
"Hey, well, you know what they say, the longer the job description, the less work involved."
"Don't mock. You always knew I was destined for greatness. Plus, I'll be a lot closer to you and Rory."
"Why, where is it?"
"An hour away in Bridgetown."
"You're living in Bridgetown?"
"I moved into an apartment there this month. I can show you and Rory around tomorrow if you're free."
"Without going home beforehand to chuck all the beer bottles out of the window?"
"That's my offer."
Lorelai looked impressed. "I gotta think about this one."
Suddenly, something caught her eye. At the other end of the room, a petite woman with thick shiny dark hair and wide, luminous dark eyes was waving excitedly and approaching Lorelai.
"Uh-oh," Lorelai muttered. She leaned into Chris. "Do you think I can still squeeze out the bathroom window?"
Chris eyed her. "It's an option, if you want the fire department to cut you out."
"Damn." Lorelai checked back behind her at the rapidly approaching woman. She gave her glass to Chris. "If I'm gone more than twenty minutes, you know what to do."
Chris took the glass. "Call the police?"
"That's the second step."
"Distract and deflect. Absolutely."
"I love you, you know that?"
Christopher grinned boyishly as Lorelai, plastering a false smile on her face, sidled over to Jenny Alevado and allowed herself to be dragged to a corner of the room. There, Jenny proceeded to tell Lorelai all about her latest trials and tribulations with men. None of those troubles, apparently, had stopped her from running to another man whenever she found one available. Lorelai was bored within two minutes. After five minutes, she stopped listening at all and let her thoughts run along pleasant Christopher-related themes, such as the faint but familiar wave of aftershave she'd smelled when standing close to him, and the way her fingers had tingled when she had handed the glass to him and his fingers had accidentally touched hers...
Suddenly, Lorelai felt a hand lightly touch her back. "And here I am, the cause of all Lorelai's heartaches for the past decade."
Lorelai glanced up at him, her heart skipping in relief—or something. She tried to hide a pleased smile. Jenny stared at him. "Well, if it isn't Christopher Hayden!"
"The one and only," said Lorelai.
Jenny's expression oozed fascination as she locked her eyes on Chris. "My mom told me you were back in the area," she said.
"I bet she also told you he was going to be here tonight," Lorelai said sweetly.
"A little birdy told me somebody lives in Bridgetown," Jenny cooed, her voice softening into a feminine purr.
"News travels fast," said Lorelai.
"As of last week," Chris answered.
"Isn't that a coincidence?" Jenny gushed. "My friend's uncle lives in Bridgetown. We're like, best friends forever, so I'm like, always there?"
"What's your friend's address?" asked Christopher.
Jenny beamed. "It's—oh, dammit, I don't have a pen."
"I'll get one for you," said Chris. "Where do we find pens around here?" he asked Lorelai. Lorelai took the lead, and Chris followed close behind.
When they were out of earshot, Lorelai said. "Thank you."
"Hey, how do you know I'm not just enlisting your help to find a pen?"
He shrugged. "Well, I might get lonely tomorrow."
"That's it, buddy. I'm coming over tomorrow."
"I thought protecting me from the clutches of Jenny Alevado would motivate you."
Lorelai smiled at him. Chris smiled back. They stood there for a moment.
"Tell me again, how old is she?" asked Chris.
"She was in our grade, but I bet she failed a couple before that."
"She looks like she's thirty."
"Now that's cruel."
"Admit it, you were thinking the same thing."
They were in a small hallway, out of both sight and earshot. The noise of the party was a distant hum. "So, I've got to apologize," Lorelai said. "I shouldn't have assumed you weren't interested."
"No, next time, please assume."
Lorelai fiddled with a napkin in her hands. "So, you, ah, seeing anybody?"
"That thing with the biker chick didn't pan out?" Lorelai remembered the girl at the Christmas party two years ago who'd seemed overtly interested in Christopher—and definitely not his type.
"Not quite," agreed Chris. "How about you? Is there anyone?"
"Well, it's not like I'm lacking in offers."
"I wouldn't doubt it."
"But none of them have met my standards."
"You have high standards."
"Maybe," Lorelai returned archly.
Christopher, standing across from her, braced his hand on the wall behind her. "I should just tell them to give you a couple of quarts of coffee. The first guy who figures that out is going to be a lucky guy." He gave her a smile, but there was something wistful in his[R16] eyes.
"You know me too well," Lorelai answered.
"I know what you like."
Lorelai's heart beat faster. "Yeah?"
His eyes softening, Chris took a step closer. Lorelai felt the blood rushing in her ears, the nervous rush of adrenaline through her veins, her muscles tensing. She felt the odd sensation of preparing to run away from something she desperately wanted. Suddenly they both heard the patter of feet coming around the corner. Both Lorelai and Christopher turned at the same time to see Rory running up, holding a sparkly bracelet.
"Mom, Dad, look what Grandpa gave me!"
"Lorelai," said Gigi, "you're just sitting there."
Lorelai was staring vacantly at the wall, fork poised in mid-air, a half-smile on her face. At the sound of Gigi's voice, the fork clattered to the table.
"Oh," said Lorelai, picking up the fork. "No, I'm eating."
"You're not eating." Gigi looked at Lorelai's unfinished plate of Chinese food.
"I'm thinking," admitted Lorelai.
"Oh," said Gigi, nodding sagely. "I can't think and eat at the same time, either."
Lorelai returned to picking at her food…and thinking.
The morning after the party, Lorelai was tired. She and Rory had stayed the night at the Gilmore residence, and Lorelai hadn't slept well, although she wasn't sure why. Maybe it had been the sweet desserts, or maybe it had been the fact that she was in an unfamiliar bed, or the fact that Christopher had been sleeping in a bed across the hall from the room she'd shared with Rory. No, that shouldn't have had anything to do with it. Lorelai decided Rory must have been thrashing around in the night and kept her awake. She hadn't felt anything, but maybe it had happened while she was asleep.
Halfway to Christopher's ancient Volkswagen Rabbit, Lorelai started suspecting there was a hole in her logic somewhere, but her brain was too foggy to sort it out. Outside, the air was chilly, but not frigid. High above, the sun gleamed thinly above a rough crust of snow, sprinkled here and there with dull green grass. Christopher put their bags in the truck, while she and Rory climbed into the car.
"Where to?" asked Christopher, sliding, as they buckled themselves in.
"Ooh, are we going on a road trip?" Lorelai squealed.
Christopher checked his gas gauge. "We're going on a road trip as far this quarter-full tank of gas takes us."
"I should have brought my sunglasses," said Lorelai, squinting at the glare from the snow.
"I should have brought my All the President's Men to finish," piped up Rory from the backseat.
Chris looked at Lorelai. "They read that in third grade now?"
"Yeah, it's all the fluoride," Lorelai answered. Turning to Rory, she said, "'Cause that is totally what you need, honey, is more useless facts in your head on a holiday."
"Spare her, Lor, maybe she'll avoid my fate."
"Oh, Daddy, you're smart."
"See? Out of the mouth of babes. How is Daddy smart?"
"He gave me a description of all the VJs on MTV since 1981."
"There you go, who needs to know the current president of the U.S.? You watch enough MTV and you're an Ivy League scholar right there."
"Haven't lost your sarcasm, I see."
"Anyone want lunch?" said Christopher.
Lorelai looked at him. "We spent six straight hours eating last night, pancakes this morning, and you want lunch?"
"I thought you were the one with the bottomless stomach."
"Oh, it has a bottom. Just takes a while to get there."
"You got room for a hamburger and fries?"
"Yeah!" Rory piped up from the backseat
Chris chuckled. "Because clearly," said Lorelai, "we don't get fast food enough at home."
"It's comfort food," said Rory seriously. "We're not at home, so I need food that reminds me of home."
"McDonald's it is," said Chris, pulling into the parking lot.
"I wonder if they have new toys with the Happy Meal?" Rory commented as she hopped out.
Chris looked at Lorelai over the hood of the car as they both climbed out. "She seems to know what she's talking about."
"Hey, I'm just trying to cultivate good American taste," Lorelai answered. They were walking up to the building together.
"Well, this is about as All-American as it gets," agreed Chris. He placed a hand on her back and gestured with his other hand. "After you."
"Ooh, someone's remembered his debutante ball training."
"Say that word again and I'm not paying for your meal," Christopher answered, keeping the hand on her back as entered the foyer. Little shivers were running up and down Lorelai's spine, even though the restaurant was definitely warmer than it was outside. Chris looked down at her, and Lorelai's eyes met his. She gave him an innocent look. "Cotillion?"
"Don't," groaned Chris.
Lorelai just smiled.
Almost an hour later, Lorelai had found room in her stomach for a large Coke and French fries with lots of ketchup, and Rory was inspecting the puzzle book from her happy meal. As they were driving, Lorelai occasionally cast furtive glances at Christopher. Finally, he returned a glance.
"Tell me I don't have crumbs on my face."
"No, just making sure you're awake."
"I look asleep?"
"No, but I just heard this story on the news about this guy. He gets up in the middle of the night, dresses in a suit and tie and drives across two states. Then he goes into the river and when the water hits his neck, he wakes up."
"If I fall asleep at the wheel, you have my permission to steer us away from the river."
"Thanks, I'll keep that in mind."
Christopher looked at her. "Just so you know, I'm not sleeping. And on the off chance that you get ideas into your head, I'm not letting you wreck this car before its time."
"Hon, glad as I am that you have a car to drive us around, this Rabbit's been living on borrowed time for five years."
"Hey Dad," said Rory, suddenly looking up from her toy, "is that a library?"
Lorelai leaned across Chris to look. "Well, it says Bridgetown Library on the sign. I'm thinking there's a 50-50 chance."
"I'm going for 60-40."
"Is it open?" asked Rory, her nose pressed to the window. "Can we check out their books?"
"You have books at home. Remember? Who had to help you carry half of them in the door?"
"I know, but I've never been to this library before."
Lorelai looked at Chris. "Libraries to our daughter are like restaurants for the true gourmand. She has to try each one."
"I don't know, honey," said Chris, "I'm not sure we have time to stop off here."
"Oh, all right," said Chris, grinning as he made a sudden turn into the library parking lot.
Inside the library, Rory's eyes widened. She walked rapidly over to the children's section and stopped in the middle of the aisle, gazing around her in awe. She pulled a book from a shelf, opened it, and sniffed it reverently. Chris and Lorelai wandered slowly behind, gazing around aimlessly. Lorelai paused to look at a rack of magazines. Then she felt it again—the hand on her back. It rested there for a couple of seconds; when Lorelai moved slightly, it followed her. A tingle went up and down Lorelai's spine. Giddily, she picked up a magazine at random. She stared at the Archie comic in her hand.
"Okay, whatever anti-aging cream Veronica uses, I'm using it when I'm her age."
"These cartoons were around when my parents were sixteen."
"I'm betting they'll be around when Rory is sixteen."
"Okay, next topic."
"Hey, sixteen's a great age for girls."
"Oh, you'd know from personal experience?"
Lorelai's eyes met his, and she felt herself growing warm. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of a round-faced librarian with long brown hair and wide, bespectacled eyes. She was watching them from a distance as she shelved books, her lips pursed tightly. Suddenly, Lorelai wished she and Chris were far from the library. Chris' eyes were still fixed on her.
Lorelai jumped, and Chris' gaze was broken. They turned to look at Rory. "Hon," said Lorelai, "warn us before you come along like that. People get heart attacks from shock, you know."
"Sorry, but look what I found?"
Rory held up a thick volume. Lorelai squinted at it, followed by Chris.
"The History of the British Empire?" She turned to Chris.
He shrugged, obviously proud, even though he was shaking his head in bewilderment. "That's what you do when you start reading Danielle Steel to them when they're three. It turns them off age-appropriate stuff for life."
"I was poor, I couldn't help it that I didn't have any other books in the house."
Rory gave Christopher's sleeve a polite tug. "Dad, can we check it out?"
"I think you have to have a membership here to check out books," said Lorelai. She looked at Chris questioningly. "Honey?"
Christopher just smiled. He was fiddling with his wallet. "I've been in this town for all of two weeks. Cut me some slack. How's your library card membership in Stars Hollow?"
"Just fine, thank you."
"Mom doesn't have a library card," Rory piped up. "I do."
"Touché," said Chris.
"Hey, I can't help it that those things cost fifteen bucks. You better have some money on you."
Chris was fishing in his back pocket. "Damn, I left my money in the drawer."
"I was in a hurry this morning and I…"
"You leave your credit card lying around, too?"
"I had the good sense to cut up the last one when they started giving me these crank phone calls."
"I'm sorry, but we don't accept credit here," said the librarian, whose name tag read Elisabeth Peters. She was standing a few feet away from them at the children's book display, looking at Lorelai and Christopher disapprovingly.
"So let's go to your apartment and get some cash?" said Lorelai.
Chris took a step towards the door. "Okay. You stay here with Rory and I'll go home and get it."
Lorelai stuck beside him. "Do I look like the type of person who can sit in a library for an hour?"
"I'm not getting Rory back in the car for a half hour trip there and a half hour back when she obviously just wants to read that book."
Rory, rooted to the ground, lifted her head from page five. "Yeah, Mom, Dad, you go. I'll read."
"See," said Lorelai, taking another step towards the door.
"No, we shouldn't…" began Chris, looking back at Lorelai.
"Chris. It's a library. People who come here are thinking about Tolstoy and Joyce and the latest Baby-sitters Club book, not kidnapping little girls."
Chris turned to Rory. "You sure you're going to be okay, kiddo?"
"Uh-huh. Did you know that King Henry the Eighth killed his wife?"
"See, what did I tell you?" said Lorelai, gesturing to Rory.
"He chopped her head off," continued Rory.
"Thanks, hon. The French fries are settling so much better now."
"Any time," answered Rory, reading.
Lorelai turned to Chris. "You want me to stay here?"
Chris gave Lorelai a resigned grin. "Come on." He waved at Rory. "We'll be back in less than an hour and then you will have your card."
"And you can read about decapitated queens all you want," Lorelai added.
Chris looked at her. "Decapitated?"
"What? It's an English word."
Chris shook his head. "She's influencing you."
Christopher unlocked the door of his apartment and strode inside, with Lorelai following close on his heels, sniffing.
"This place smells good," she said. "For an apartment. It doesn't have that apartmenty smell."
Chris didn't answer. He was rummaging through a kitchen drawer. After a minute he slammed it shut. "Damn."
"Strike one," said Lorelai.
"It's a small apartment. There's only a few places I put these things."
Lorelai waited, not impatiently, as she looked around the place. It was small, the walls badly needed a new coat of paint, and it was a bit messy, but not as messy as she'd expected. For some reason she found it touching that Chris had a wilted poinsettia on his kitchen table.
Chris was looking underneath a stack of papers. Triumphantly, he pulled out a twenty dollar bill.
"What did I tell you? And just when you were about to say strike two."
Lorelai looked indignant. "I was not about to say any such thing."
"What was the word forming on your lips, then?"
Chris looked bewildered. "Isn't that what they say to call cows?"
"No, did I ever tell you about Sookie, this girl I met in Stars Hollow?"
"No. Provided you didn't just create her out of your active imagination, what about Sookie was so pressing that you had to tell me right now?"
"She, uh, she makes coffee. Great coffee. Coffee that can keep me going from six a.m. to midnight."
"It wouldn't take much."
"So, you got your money?"
"I do. You want to get going so we can see Rory's face light up?"
"We don't have to rush. You could show me around."
"Well, there's not much to see, but here you go. Kitchen." He gestured with a sweep of his arm around the room.
"I gathered that from the fridge and the thing with the burners."
Chris led her through a doorway. "Living room."
"The opposite of dying room."
"Still have your interesting way with words," Chris commented.
"I swear they shouldn't have passed me up as the writer for Page Six. I would have added something to their bland reporting."
"That would have required you to actually apply."
"I was fifteen, I thought they'd probably tell me to go back to school."
Chris ushered her through the living room and switched on a light in a small room to the left. "Bedroom."
"My sixth sense told me to make up the bed before I left."
"You ever think about a career as a psychic?"
Lorelai noted the way the toilet, vanity and shower were wedged close together. "With no bath."
"Just the way I like it."
Chris switched off the light, and they returned to the living room. "Nice place," Lorelai remarked.
"Yeah. It's exactly the way we always planned. Minimum of furniture, and enough rooms to count on one hand."
"The opposite of the Hayden and Gilmore residences."
"Seriously, I'm impressed."
"Better Homes and Gardens would probably toss out everything including the kitchen sink, but I like it."
"It's comfortable. Homey."
"You have your own adult life in Stars Hollow and here I am, like a kid with his first apartment."
"You are a kid. More or less. You're twenty-five."
"You have your own place with Rory."
"I call it the Crap Shack."
"Hey, if you ever wanted me to redecorate for you…"
"I don't trust your taste."
"Does painting my Fisher Price people pink mean anything to you?"
"Come on, it took years off them!"
"They were male."
"Pink was in for men back then."
"All right, you can decorate. Just go easy on the feminine colors."
"Oh, you're gonna love it."
Chris was looking at his watch. "Okay, we should get going."
"Yeah." Chris was near the door, but Lorelai was hanging a few feet back, apparently in no hurry to leave. She fingered the coffee maker on the counter approvingly. "Unless you want to show off this baby for me?"
"You like it? Shiny, yellow, makes eight cups at a time?"
"For the true caffeine addict."
"Made especially for someone like you."
"Is that an invitation?"
"You want some coffee?"
"Now that you mention it…"
"You've been ogling that machine ever since we walked in the door," said Chris, opening a cupboard door.
"I need coffee after yesterday," Lorelai replied, a whine in her voice. Chris, scooping coffee from a tin, didn't answer. She paused, leaning against the counter, watching him. "At least you were there," she said more gratefully.
"I wouldn't have been anywhere else. You and Rory afterwards made up for it."
"You think she had fun?"
"She looked like she did."
Lorelai studied him. "She looks more and more like you all the time, you know?"
"She's got your brains."
"I never read All the President's Men when I was her age. I never got beyond Archie."
"Well, you're doing something right, because she's got brains."
Lorelai played with a slightly dirty dishrag hanging over the sink, studying it. "It's nice, being together, the three of us. We should do it more often."
"I definitely wouldn't say no to that," said Chris, pouring water into the machine.
"If you ever get tired of just traveling around, you could stop in some time."
Chris faced her. "What would you say if I told you I'm tired of it now?"
"I'd tell you to go get that problem with your head checked out."
"The first few years it's kind of fun. After a while, it wears off."
"Yeah, well, being an adult's not exactly Disneyland."
"Lor, I'm sorry. I know I haven't been there for you. I wish you didn't have to work so hard."
"No. It's just how things have to be."
"You know, I'm serious about this job."
She looked at him. "You really want to be settled down in one place, doing one thing the rest of your life?"
He shrugged. "It's like winter, it's got to come sooner or later. After a while you realize it's not so bad."
"Winter's not bad, at least if there's snow."
Chris chuckled and leaned back against the sink beside her, studying her face. "You still love snow."
"Snow and I, we've got a bond." Lorelai sighed, her eyes blinking wearily for a minute. Chris chuckled and opened his arms, and she willingly leaned against him, resting her head on his shoulder. "God, I wish it was Christmas for another week and I wouldn't have to work for a couple of days."
"You need a break," said Chris, gently wrapping his arms around her.
"Just standing here like this with you is a break."
She relaxed against him as he held her. Chris began rubbing her back gently.
"That feels nice. Don't stop," she sighed. Chris continued stroking her back, and with another sigh of pleasure, she closed her eyes.
After a minute, Lorelai shifted, and Chris' hands stopped. Lorelai opened her eyes to find him looking at her, and her heart began beating faster in expectation. She tried to think of Rory, the coffee, the apartment, Rory—but her mind couldn't concentrate on anything except Christopher in front of her, his arms around her, the heat of his body near her. Dimly, she realized that he was also looking at her as though there was nothing else in the room. She closed her eyes again and tilted her head upwards. In a second, she felt Christopher's lips on hers, kissing her softly, tentatively, making her lips tingle. Yearning for more, Lorelai caught his mouth as it withdrew, and his mouth crushed against hers hungrily. Lorelai moaned slightly, pressing her body into his, feeling his hand tighten around her back. The room seemed to recede around her until she couldn't see or hear or feel anything except Christopher, couldn't think of anything except how close she was to him. She ran her hand up and down the back of his neck and his head, feeling the soft waviness of his hair, answering his kisses with more urgent kisses. This felt so good, so familiar, so right, that she couldn't understand how she could possibly have gone years without him. Dimly, Lorelai thought there was a good reason why she shouldn't be here in Christopher's arms right now, but she couldn't remember it. After a long kiss so intense neither of them could breathe, they broke apart, their hearts racing. Chris looked at Lorelai uncertainly.
"Turn off the coffee," she said.
His expression relaxing, Chris reached over and flicked the switch to the off position, and then, with a smile, he took her back into his arms. He kissed her deeply, his hands running up and down the sides of her body, then moving upwards to the front of her sweater, sending a shudder of electricity through her. Impatiently she found the front of his shirt, quickly undoing the buttons. Christopher's left hand slid down to the bottom of her sweater and slipped underneath, sliding over her stomach and gliding enticingly higher. Unable to stand it anymore, Lorelai turned in his arms and leaned back against him.
"I've been thinking about this," she said breathlessly, arching her back in response to the nuzzling pressure of his mouth at the base of her neck and the sensation of his fingers on her bare back. "Me too," he managed as he pushed her sweater upwards with one hand and unzipped her skirt with the other. The skirt slid easily down, and Lorelai raised her arms, letting Chris pull her sweater up over her head before she turned back around. His eyes widened when he saw her, but she barely paused, helping him shrug out of his own shirt. He yanked his undershirt off and looked at her briefly, hungrily, before pulling her close to him. Lorelai gasped at the contact of his skin on hers.
"Chris," she moaned. In response, he kissed her so passionately that she could barely breathe.
"Come on," he grinned, when they came up for air. Her face breaking into a smile, Lorelai let Chris steer her to the doorway of his bedroom. They stumbled through the doorway, kissing and touching. Lorelai's heart was pounding in her ears, her body aching for closer contact as her hands slid impatiently around his neck and down his bare back. She fell back on his bed, her long legs dangling over the edges, waiting for Christopher to join her. He knelt down, facing her, and looked at her for a minute with a new expression she couldn't read. Then he bent and kissed her. The kiss was long, lingering, full of a tenderness she hadn't anticipated. When he leaned back, she reached eagerly for the zipper of his pants. Chris' hand suddenly closed around hers.
"Lor," he said, his face troubled, "What about Rory?"
She ran her free hand down his chest. "She'll be fine. We could leave her there for two hours and she wouldn't know the difference."
Chris' worried expression broke into a slow smile, and quickly unbuckling his belt, he pulled his pants off and climbed on to the bed beside her, watching her smile mirror his.