A/N: This is a Christmas o/s I submitted for the Broken Holiday Record contest. Contest is over, so I'm sharing it with you :) Just a cute little Christmas story. Enjoy!
I used to love the holiday season.
Every year until I went to college I went with my dad to pick out our tree. Two weekends before Christmas, we got up early and jumped into his dilapidated red Chevy, a beast of a thing made sometime in the 1950s which I would later inherit. We'd go from lot to lot, pulling back branches, inspecting shapes, debating over the finer points of fir trees versus spruces. It was our special thing, the one thing my dad and I shared just the two of us. One year, unsatisfied with the choices at the local tree marts that sprung up in parking lots around the small town where we lived, we drove an hour to the next town over just to find the perfect Douglas fir.
My mom started playing Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving. Bing and Frank were her favorites, but she had an artist and album for every occasion and mood. Dad preferred the classic Elvis Christmas album, and I was always sneaking John Denver and the Muppets into the CD changer.
And like clockwork, the Saturday before Christmas every year, my parents and I drove down to the Lutheran church and sang carols with the rest of the town. Reverend Weber and his wife would lead the townspeople in warbled and off-key variations of "Jingle Bells" and "O Come All Ye Faithful," simple harmonies blending together sentimentally.
Yes, I really used to love Christmastime. Then I got a job in retail, and all that changed.
Pages was a medium sized bookstore that catered to the yuppie crowd. It had a built in café in the back that served sugary caffeinated drinks bearing little resemblance to actual coffee, and all the employees wore the same nondescript blue polo tees. I started working there in the fall of my sophomore year at UW.
That year, the Christmas rush started about a week before Thanksgiving. Before then, my only jobs had been in food service, so I was a little overwhelmed by the crazy hours and demanding customers. I hadn't expected that from a job in a bookstore, but there was a lot of extra stocking and decorating that came hand in hand with the season. It was a relief when we were finally able to pack away the lights and the tinsel a couple of weeks after New Year's.
The next year, there was a Christmas tree in the front window and carols on the sound system by the first week in November. The manager, Eric, decided that getting an early jump on the season would set us apart from the other stores in the area. Unfortunately, there were only two holiday mix CDs that he felt were sufficiently welcoming and "able to be enjoyed by all." After two and a half solid months of the same thirty-odd songs, I was ready to put both those shiny silver discs on the asphalt in the parking lot and run over them with my truck. Unfortunately, at least five of those songs came right off my dad's favorite Elvis album, so when I went home for Christmas that year I had to explain why my right eye started twitching every time "Blue Christmas" came on.
I was stocking the shelves that night for what I hoped would be my very last last-minute door-buster sale. After this year, I would have a college degree and God willing, a real job. I would never have to work in retail again. Maybe someday I would be able to hear the opening strains to "O Christmas Tree" without also feeling the onset of a migraine.
Eric had me setting up displays of pulpy supernatural romance novels. I kept myself entertained by trying to determine what exactly they were about based solely on the cover art. Teenage boy bitten by radioactive dog, becomes crime fighting wolf-man in loin cloth? Or, scantily clad woman with inexplicable face tattoo stares longingly at shirtless elf with a long sword for pages on end? People bought them, even though most of them looked like crap to me. Turns out, women really will read just about anything if you promise them sex scenes with a dangerous, mysterious hero.
Suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder, and someone lightly yanked the cord on my ear bud, dislodging it and allowing the sounds of Barbara Streisand's "The Best Gift" to wash over me. Damn. In an effort to preserve my sanity and preserve some love for Christmas, I had started wearing my iPod when I knew someone was covering the floor and I was just stocking shelves. Technically speaking, anything that stops you from being able to hear a question being directed at you is probably against the rules.
I looked up into Eric's stern face. "Bella, may I ask you how you intend to be able to serve customers if you can't hear them?"
"I was stocking shelves?" I said weakly. Then I glanced around the store. It was empty. "There aren't any customers here for me to hear, anyway!"
"That's hardly the point," he continued, pulling my other ear bud out for good measure. "We have a reputation for quality customer service at Pages, Bella, and you've always been an excellent example of that. Don't you want to be proud of your work?"
I bit back a sarcastic retort, smiled brightly and nodded. I still needed the job until graduation, after all.
"Good girl," he said, giving me a grin right back. "I think you can handle things until closing, don't you? I'll see you for your next shift. Lock up when you leave."
With that he turned and walked out. I hadn't even noticed he was wearing his coat. Of all the sneaky tricks to pull: giving me a guilt trip for breaking the rules and then ducking out of his shift early. I wasn't technically supposed to be able to close the store, but I did it on a fairly regular basis these days. I wondered if the owners knew that their manager was slacking off during the holiday rush.
With a sour look on my face, I tossed the last couple of copies of I was a Teenage Vampire onto the stack in front of me and stomped up to the front desk. As I walked through the store, I could hear whoever was working at the café clanking around. If the right person was working, I could probably get away with turning off the Christmas music for the night. I craned my neck, trying to figure out who was hiding behind the counter. A flash of dark red caught my eye, and the rumble of a low voice singing quietly. I grinned. Edward was working tonight.
He was relatively new. Eric had hired him right after the school year started and one of the coffee girls quit because she got an internship somewhere. I liked closing with him because he was always done on time and never made annoying small talk. He was good looking to a ridiculous extent, but you'd never think he knew it by talking to him. He was casual, almost shy most days, and never responded to the flirtations of his female coworkers. Secretly, I wondered if he was gay. Or possibly asexual. At any rate, he wasn't going to tell on me to Eric if I changed the music.
I scrambled over to the CD changer and hit the eject button, sighing with relief when the sound cut off abruptly. Over in the café, Edward continued to sing unaccompanied for a few bars before stopping and popping his head up around the milk steamer. He wrinkled his perfect nose at me and quirked an eyebrow.
"What gives? You're not closing already are you?"
"Of course not," I said, bending over to grab my backpack from behind the counter. I was sure there were some CDs in the front pocket. I remembered slipping a Beatles album in there earlier in the semester, and definitely Gavin DeGraw. "I just can't take another second of the Christmas caroling. It's bad enough that we listen to the same songs over and over again, but any time I turn on the radio I get another earful. Commercials on TV make it worse. I'm suffering from an overdose of holiday spirit."
I heard the click of the little swinging door that separated the back of the café from the store, and then Edward was leaning on the counter, looking down at me with a crooked half smile.
"Yes, you seem positively brimming over with yuletide gaiety."
"Gaiety? Who says stuff like that?"
"Don't change the subject. What's your beef with Christmas music? Does it extend to all Christmas music, or just some of it? Do you have a problem with the whole holiday season?"
I shrugged uncomfortably and he laughed. I looked up at the sound. He was leaning on his elbows, peering down at me. I blushed, unused to his attention. These were the most words we had ever exchanged in one go, and it was making my heart beat just a little too fast.
"I don't know, I just hate these mixes," I said weakly. "This job has taken a serious chunk out of my...yuletide gaiety."
"You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch," Edward sang down at me, his deep voice wrapping around the tune. I rolled my eyes and turned my back on him, finally finding the CD I was looking for and popping it into the sound system. "You're as cuddly as a cactus, you're as charming as a—"
I turned around abruptly and slapped my hand over his mouth. He looked startled, and I tried not to think about how his lips were pushing against my palm.
"Don't finish that sentence. I am not an eel."
I could feel his lips lift into a smile. We stayed like that for a second, until I realized that my hand was still covering his mouth. His mouth and his soft, full lips. I withdrew my hand, wiping it on my jeans.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to give you cooties," he teased, turning around and heading back toward the café. Then he stopped and turned to face me.
"What are you doing tomorrow afternoon? I mean, do you have to study or something, or do you have some free time?"
I drew my eyebrows together and looked at him for a second, trying to figure out where he was going with his question.
"No, I only had the one test this semester and a bunch of papers that I've already turned in. Why?"
"I just wondered if you wanted a shot at reclaiming some of your holiday cheer," he said with a smile and a tiny shrug. "I've got a gig and I promise not to sing any Elvis or Streisand."
"Gig?" I snorted. "What kind of gig?"
"Um," he smiled and rubbed his neck awkwardly. "I mean, it's not an official paying gig or anything. I mean more of a volunteer thing, and it's kind of silly, but you might have a good time."
"What kind of a gig?" I asked again with a laugh.
"I'm going to play my guitar and sing," he said, laughing back. "Christmas songs. Let's leave it at that for now. You in?"
"Can I think about it?" I asked, not really knowing why. Cute boy asks you to come to his "gig," whatever that means, you do not ask to think about it. Even if he's possibly gay.
"Sure, Scrooge. You think about it. Let me know. Here," he walked forward and grabbed a scrap of paper, scribbling a phone number on it. "If you decide you're interested, give me a call before three tomorrow. I can pick you up on my way."
He went back to the café, and he didn't make any more commentary on my music or my "gaiety" for the rest of the night, although I did hear him singing along to "Blackbird" near closing. He had a really nice voice, I decided, and a pretty good sense of pitch. I always wished I could sing. My middle school choir teacher told me I should probably just mouth the words at concerts. I stood in the middle next to Brian, the kid with the lisp, and tried to look like I was actually participating. Come to think of it, she was kind of a bitch. Who says that to a twelve year old girl? She probably scarred me for life.
I printed out the receipts for the day and locked everything up. At 10 p.m. exactly, I hit the button that dimmed the lights in the store to their "closed" settings. Edward came strolling out of the back in his coat, a snug grey winter hat pulled low over his ears. He smiled and nodded before walking past me to the front door without saying anything else about his invitation. I watched him leave and chewed on my lip, still undecided. For some reason, the casual invite had my insides in knots.
"Don't be stupid," I muttered quietly, and before I could rethink it, I yelled out to Edward, catching him right before he left the store.
"I'd love to come."
He turned slowly on the spot, a genuine smile on his face. "Really? You don't have to, like I said, it's kind of silly, but I do it every year and it helps me remember what Christmas is about. It might do something about that Grinchy thing you've got going on."
He looked so happy and excited that I didn't even glare at him for the Grinch reference. I just smiled back and nodded. "Yeah, sure. Sounds... fun."
He laughed a little under his breath and then walked back toward the counter where I was still standing, wrapped in my coat and clutching my purse in both hands.
"Don't sound so excited."
I shrugged and walked out to meet him halfway. We stood there awkwardly for a minute, facing each other, the difference in our heights made all the more obvious by the fact that my nose was only a couple of inches from his sternum. I took a step past him and he quickly fell into step next to me.
"So you should tell me where you live," he said, after another awkward beat. The happiness of his earlier expression had morphed into something more hesitant and muddled. He didn't quite meet my eye as he said it, looking just over my head and past me instead.
"Or I could just meet you there. Where is this... gig?"
"No way, it's a surprise. I don't want you to chicken out now that I've got you roped in." He smiled and met my eyes this time. My heart started to pound again. "So just stop being difficult and tell me where to pick you up. And give me your phone number."
"Demanding, aren't you?" I asked, locking the door behind us and striding out into the darkness of the parking lot toward my car. I always got a little paranoid at night in this parking lot. I had received one too many forwards from well-meaning friends about women who got abducted from parking lots. I heard him run to catch up.
"Hey, you have my phone number," he pointed out. I could see his breath coming in tiny, white clouds as he panted beside me. We reached my truck and I leaned against the driver's side door. He snorted. "You drive this piece of junk? I just assumed it had rusted out in the parking lot one day and nobody had ever gotten around to towing it."
I crossed my arms and glared up at him. "Excuse me, but this truck has been through a lot. She would never rust out on me in a parking lot. She's much too sturdy and dependable for that."
"Yes, I'm sure she has been through a lot. Like two world wars."
"Are you going to keep ripping on my truck or do you want my address?"
He cleared his throat and gave me what was clearly supposed to be a contrite look. "Your address, please."
"That's what I thought." It was mildly funny that this beautiful boy wanted my address so that he could pick me up and take me to some surprise holiday concert, but more than that, it was a little wonderful. I could count on two hands the times a boy had offered to take me anywhere in the last six months. Most of those had been drunken offers that no self-respecting woman, or at least no moderately tipsy woman with a good friend on her arm to talk some sense into her, would accept. Edward was sober, clean, and handsome, and he wanted to bring me along to participate in some kind of private Christmas tradition. It was incredibly sweet, and I didn't think that being forced to listen to Christmas carols would be so bad if Edward was the one singing them.
I agonized over what to wear for a good hour before finally settling on a sparkly red shirt that my friend Alice had given me for my birthday. It was a little flashy and clung to my body nicely, but had a conservative boat neck, just in case we were going to be somewhere a little more high class. I couldn't tell if Edward was the type of guy who played to grungy coffee houses or on street corners, or if this thing he was taking me would be a little more high class.
He had been really tight lipped about it, refusing to give me any hints. I think if I hadn't made such a big deal about not liking secrets he probably would have just told me, but my theatrics seemed to amuse him, and he insisted that I would just have to wait and see.
After a little more thought, I slid on my nice dark jeans and pulled my hair into a pony tail. With minutes to spare, I declared myself good enough and grabbed my purse and jacket just as my buzzer rang. I didn't bother to buzz him in. I locked my door behind me and hurried down the steps, pulling on my coat and smiling when I saw him waiting outside the glass doors at the front entrance to my apartment building. He smiled back and gave me a little wave.
"Hey," I said once I had the door open.
"Hey, yourself. Ready to go?"
I nodded and gave him a surreptitious once over. He was dressed casually, as far as I could tell. The collar of a green shirt peeked out from under his jacket, and he was wearing his usual beaten up Converses and a pair of blue jeans.
"Are you going to tell me where we're going yet?"
He laughed and pulled his fingers across his lips, like he was zipping them shut. "Nope. You can hold out a few more minutes, I'm sure."
I growled a little under my breath, which only made him laugh again. He jogged down the steps and down the front walk toward the street, and I followed him, sighing loudly. He walked straight to a newer looking silver car and aimed a little keypad at it, presumably unlocking the doors.
"If you're interested, I can give you the name of the place where I got my car," he said, completely straight-faced. "It's not too expensive, and they generally sell cars that were manufactured after the Great Depression."
"What did I tell you about mocking my truck? Have some respect for the elderly, you whippersnapper!"
I slid into the front seat and watched him start the car and pull into traffic, still laughing. Edward and I didn't really interact at work, and I had decided that that was a real shame. The boy had a beautiful smile for one, and his laugh gave me tingles from my cheeks to my knees.
His radio was tuned to some nondescript classical station, pumping soothing melodies through the cab and blending into the low hum of his engine. I watched him as he pulled into traffic and started to drive toward the bay, his eyebrows set in a straight line, as if he needed all his concentration to drive. I didn't mind; watching him seemed like a good way to pass the time.
"Are you ready for some holiday cheer?" he asked after a few silent minutes.
"Eh," I said, purposefully keeping my tone disinterested. "I guess. I mean, it might be okay."
He gave me a sideways glance, and the frown on his face was enough to make me soften the sarcasm. I gave him a tiny smile and shrugged. "Yes, okay? You've got me dying of curiosity over here. If nothing else, I want to know what you've been so mysterious about."
"You'll know soon enough," he said. "We're here."
I looked up, startled. We hadn't been driving toward anything in particular as far as I had noticed, and now we were parked in a large parking lot. I glanced out the window, and finally recognized the hospital.
"Your gig is here?" I asked.
"Yep. I've volunteered at the hospital since I was 16. My dad's a surgeon there, it seemed like a good way to get my community service hours in during high school. When I graduated, I just kept coming."
He popped open his trunk and turned the car off. I followed him out into the cold, watching as he pulled a battered guitar case out and slammed the trunk back down. He nodded in the direction of the front doors, and I jogged to catch up with him.
"A few years ago I started playing Christmas songs for the kids in pediatrics. I always liked hanging out with the kids there, and I noticed that the ones who were stuck there for the long haul really liked any kind of extra effort to make it more like home. Being away from home is hard when you're little like that, and being sick on top of it? I don't know... it made me want to do something for them. So I started playing these little concerts. I go once a week in December and play their favorite Christmas songs."
He gave a little shrug and a sideways grin before pulling his guitar case more firmly up around his shoulders.
"That's really sweet, Edward," I said, surprised and a little embarrassed now that I knew where we were going today. I had gotten myself so worked up about watching my hunky coworker play his guitar, possibly in some dark venue where I could drool properly, and he was taking me to a children's hospital ward. I was grateful for the demure cut of my shirt now, even though the sparkles seemed totally out of place for where we were.
"Hey, Sue," Edward said, giving the nurse at the front desk an easy smile.
"Edward! Here for your weekly concert? Sammy was asking about you this morning. She wanted to know when her boyfriend was coming back to play for her."
He laughed and gave me a slightly sheepish smile. "Sammy is eight," he explained. "She's one of my adoring fans."
"And who is this?" Sue asked, with a pleasant smile. "Edward, don't tell me you went and got yourself a real girlfriend! Does your father know? If he knew and didn't tell me I swear, he'll never hear the end of it."
I stared at my shoes for a second before Edward saved me. "Bella's just a friend, Sue. She came to help me out today. I hope that's okay."
"Of course!" she said, after giving the two of us a look that said she didn't believe a word of it. "Any friend of Edward's is welcome here. Just sign the log book and I'll buzz you in."
We signed in, and Edward led the way through the hospital's hallways to a set of elevators.
"Sorry about her," he mumbled as we waited. "She's a little enthusiastic. She and my mom are pretty close, and she likes to tease me about... well, about pretty much everything."
"That's okay," I said. For some reason the idea that Edward was sorry some woman thought we were dating struck me as hysterically funny. I started to giggle helplessly. My cheeks got warm, and I'm sure I was flushed all the way down my neck.
We got into the empty elevator. He was standing close to me, closer than normal elevator etiquette would dictate. I could feel his body heat, hear his quiet breathing. I was still trying to get a handle on the giggling thing. He would never ask me to hang out with him again at this rate. I was acting like an idiot, worse than any of the coffee girls who flirted with him. That thought sobered me a little, and with a few deep breaths I was able to calm down.
"So there are a couple of ground rules," Edward said when the doors dinged open. I nodded, thinking he was about to address hospital policies on volunteering. I followed him into a brightly painted waiting area. A nurse in hot pink scrubs sat scribbling away at a chart behind the desk.
"Number one: you have to smile." I looked up at him, a little thrown by his first rule.
"Smile. These kids need some happy vibes in their lives, and you've got a good smile. Use it."
His compliment threw me off even more, but I smiled in spite of myself.
"There you go," he said with a satisfied nod. "Just like that."
"Okay, so what's number two?"
"I'm glad you asked." He knelt down and set his case carefully on the floor. "Rule number two is very important as well." Cracking open the case, he pulled out a couple of scraps of felt. "Your uniform. Pick one."
"You've got to be kidding me." He was holding out two green hats, one with a giant pair of elf ears coming out of the sides and one with antlers.
"I would never kid about the uniform."
"Do you... do you have a favorite?" I looked at the hats skeptically, but Edward just grinned and pulled the elf ears down on his head.
"Well if you're not going to pick, yes, I'm rather partial to the elf ears. Here you go, Rudolph."
I pulled the antlers and gave him my best candy striper smile. "Ta da!"
"Atta girl! Come on, let's go sing some carols."
I followed him past the front desk without more than a cursory nod to the nurse. He seemed to know exactly where he was headed, and, I realized, he probably did. He had been doing this for years.
We stopped at a big open space somewhere near the middle of the ward. It looked like a playroom of some kind. There were bean bag chairs scattered around on the floor and bookcases lining one wall. The other wall was covered with artwork that was clearly made by the patients in the ward. There was a small group of children sitting there when we arrived, and one little boy jumped to his feet as soon as we walked in. If it weren't for the fact that his skin had a sickly yellow pallor and his limbs were spindly and slightly shaky, he would have looked like any other excited little boy.
"Edward! I've been waiting ALL DAY. They said you were coming and I came out to wait and the nurse said I had to go back to bed until you got here and then I got up again and came back and now you're here!" He said it all without taking one breath, and it was clear the effort had taken something out of him. He gasped, and while he was catching his breath, Edward squatted down so they were face to face.
"But you're here now," the boy said once he was recovered. "Are you gonna play the guitar now? Are you? Please?"
"Of course, Alex," Edward said, ruffling the boy's hair with his large hand. "How about you go sit down with the other kids and I'll let you pick the first song."
You would have thought that he had just promised to take the kid to the moon. Alex's grin split his face, and he hurried back to the red bean bag he had been sitting in when we arrived.
"Why don't you go over and sit with the kids?" Edward said, glancing up at me from his place on the floor. "You can sing along to your favorites if you want." He gave me a wink and I couldn't help but laugh at him. "You won't be alone. The kids all sing."
"I'll only sing if you play my absolute favorite."
"The Grinch has an absolute favorite? Now this I have to hear."
"Nope, you have to guess. You kept your secret, now I'm keeping mine. If you guess, I'll sing."
He scrunched up his nose. "Is it a traditional carol?"
"That's for me to know and you to find out," I teased, secretly quite sure he'd never guess. "If you'll excuse me, I see a pink bean bag with my name on it. I'll be over there with the kids, smiling and wearing my uniform."
He sighed heavily, and I laughed again, making my way over to the small herd of children who were squirming around in a semi circle. Arranging myself on the pink bean bag I had spotted earlier, I looked at the little girl on my left. She was staring at my pony tail in open fascination. I felt a little pang when I saw that all her hair was gone.
"You have very pretty hair," she said, giving me a sweet, toothy smile.
"Thank you," I said, smiling back at her. "My name is Bella. What's your name?"
"Annalisa," she said. "Can I touch your hair?"
I laughed at her single-mindedness. Glancing toward the front of the group, I could see that Edward was still setting up. His ridiculous elf ears made me giggle a little, but I put a damper on that before it could get away from me again.
"Sure." I pulled out my elastic band and shook out my hair, throwing it over the shoulder closest to Annalisa.
"Can I braid it?" she asked, stretching out a white hand and touching it tentatively. "My sister lets me braid her hair, but she can't come and visit a lot. She's at school far away. She said she'd come for Christmas, but that's not 'til next week."
"Of course." I started to pull off my antler hat, but I looked up and saw Edward staring at me. He was tuning his guitar, but all of his attention was focused on me. He raised his eyebrow and shook his head slightly. I rolled my eyes.
"Can you braid my hair if I keep the hat on?"
"Oh yes," she said, eyeing my waist length hair in an almost businesslike manner. "I'm very good at braiding."
I scooted down to the floor and sat cross-legged in front of her, shifting my hair so it flowed down my back. Immediately, I felt her tiny hands weave into my hair and start dividing it into pieces. I handed her the elastic I had just pulled from my pony tail as well as the one that kept permanent residence around my wrist. She hummed happily as she braided.
Edward strummed his guitar experimentally and the children got really quiet. Even Annalisa stopped humming, her attention clearly split between my hair and Edward's guitar.
"Hey guys!" Edward called, his voice enthusiastic and a little goofy. A girl in the front giggled. "Are you ready to have some fun today?"
"Yeah!" A chorus of little voices answered him immediately.
"All right! Well I already promised Alex that he got to pick out the first song. Did you decide what you want to hear buddy?"
Alex leapt to his feet and ran up to Edward, cupping his hand to Edward's ear and whispering quickly. Edward grinned and nodded quickly.
"Can do, buddy. Have a seat."
Alex giggled crazily and sat down right in front of Edward, not even a foot from his knees. Edward started to strum. The chords were slightly familiar, but I couldn't quite place the song. Edward cleared his throat lightly, then looked up at me and grinned brightly.
"Grandma got run over by a reindeer," he crooned. "Coming home from our house Christmas Eve."
I started to laugh, and the kids around me joined in.
"You can say there's no such thing as Santa...but as for me and Grandpa, we believe."
It continued like that for the next half hour or so. The kids would call out a song and Edward would play it, never hesitating. He knew every chord, every word. He would alternate singing in goofy voices and finding silly ways to play his guitar. The kids did indeed sing along, and I noticed that after about ten minutes Annalisa's hands dropped, leaving my hair half braided and mostly loose down my back. I scooted back and shared her bean bag.
"Why don't you sing?" she asked after a couple more songs. "Don't you like to sing?"
"Well," I started, not quite sure how to explain the flirting exchange Edward and I had had earlier to a little girl. "I told Edward I wouldn't sing unless he guessed my favorite Christmas song."
"You're having a guessing game?" she asked, smiling brightly. "Will you tell me? I won't tell him, cross my heart."
She nodded solemnly. "Pinky swear."
"Okay." I whispered my favorite song in her ear, and she started to giggle.
"I love that song!" she squealed, and Edward looked over to where we were sitting. He got a devious smile on his face as he finished singing "Up on the Housetop."
"Annalisa, do you have a song you want me to play?"
Her eyes got large and she looked from Edward to me, and back to Edward, her lips pressed in a thin line.
"Ummmm," she said. I laughed a little and nudged her with my elbow. She looked back at me, eyes full of apologies.
"Go ahead," I said.
"The Chipmunk song!" she burst out.
Something twinkled in Edward's eyes for a second as he looked at her, then me.
"You mean... this Chipmunk song?"
I had never heard any version of the song but the tinny, old school version on the radio, but Edward was undoubtedly playing my favorite song on his guitar. It was the one Christmas song that never got old. I used to listen to it on a constant loop as a child. More than the Muppets, more than Elvis, more than Frank and Bing, "Christmas Don't Be Late" meant Christmas to me.
And when he got to my favorite line, I couldn't hold back.
"Me, I want a huuuuula hoooooop!" I was swaying from side to side, surrounded by laughing, singing children, and for a minute I felt like a kid myself. Most of the kids knew the words, and we were starting to get really loud. Annalisa and I were howling to be heard over one another.
"Christmas don't be laaaaate!" we screamed.
The song cut off and I looked up at Edward, a genuine smile on my face. I could see why he thought this would help me get over my Christmas blues. These kids were sick, some of them so sick they may never see another Christmas, but they were having a blast just singing some simple songs and spending time together.
When my eyes met Edward's I felt a now familiar tingle; my face flushed and my smile grew. We stared at each other for a minute, although I wasn't quite sure what he was looking at.
"My, my, your concert is getting a tad loud this week, isn't it?"
A handsome blonde doctor had approached our little group, and he was smiling down at Edward. He didn't look older than 50, and that was being generous. The only indication of his age at all was the fine shoots of silver in his hair.
Edward shot to his feet. "Sorry, Dad," he said quickly. "We got a little carried away. Did we bother anyone?"
"Nah, don't worry about it," Edward's father said. He looked over at the group of kids and his eyes settled on me. "Sue said you brought a friend. Who's this?"
I stood up, brushing my pants off and picking my way through the kids till I was standing next to Edward. I extended my hand. "Hi, I'm Bella Swan. I work with Edward."
"Do you, now?" he asked, giving Edward a piercing stare. Edward shifted uncomfortably, but I just smiled pleasantly, hand still extended. He shook it firmly, practically beaming at me. "Nice to meet you, Bella Swan. I'm Dr. Cullen, Edward's dad. It's nice of you to come and help out."
"I'm having a great time," I said earnestly. "It was wonderful of Edward to invite me."
"Well you'll have to join him again," he said firmly. He clapped a hand on Edward's shoulder and nodded briskly. "I'll, er, leave you two to it then."
Edward snorted and seemed to choke, staring up at his father with wide eyes. "Okay, thanks, Dad. I'll see you and mom later. Take care."
I looked between Dr. Cullen and Edward, unable to quite understand what was going on. They seemed to be having a silent conversation of sorts. After a series of meaningful looks on both sides, Dr. Cullen shook his head and chuckled.
"Okay. So. Nice meeting you, Bella. Edward, see you later."
He waved to the kids and walked back into the ward, presumably to go back to work. Edward and I looked at each other for a second before he smiled and turned back to the kids.
"We have time for one more song! What do you guys want to hear?"
After a rousing round of "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," Edward packed up his guitar, promising the kids that he'd see them soon. It seemed like his little Christmas concerts were in addition to his regular volunteer hours. The kids really loved him, hugging him around his waist and begging him to bring his guitar when he came back. It took us almost 15 minutes to dislodge ourselves from the crowd of munchkins.
Sue gave us a cheery wave on the way out and we made our way back to Edward's car.
"So, what do you think?"
I smiled and elbowed him, squealing a little when he reacted quickly by poking me in the side. It seemed odd that we were only newly friendly: the afternoon had left me feeling like I had always known Edward. He was so open and honest, and he had taken me into this private experience solely because he thought I needed it. He was selfless. I wanted to know him better, and I didn't think I would be satisfied returning to our distant and casual greetings at work.
"I can see why you go so often. Those kids are wonderful."
"They're a ton of fun," he agreed as we drove off. "Although this was a relatively calm week. You forget they're sick sometimes; they've got so much energy. When I go back in a few days I'll visit the sicker ones that can't leave their beds. I usually bring my guitar with me."
"How do you find the time?" I asked. "Between volunteering and work and school, how do you do it?"
He shrugged. "You find time for the things you really care about, don't you?"
He had me there. I smiled and nodded, leaning back into my seat and closing my eyes.
"Do you...would you... I mean..."
I laughed and looked over at him. "What, Edward? Spit it out."
"Would you like to come back with me next week?"
The question was so unexpected that I just stared at him. He took my silence as a negative.
"Of course you don't," he said quickly. "I'm sure you're busy."
"Edward," I interrupted. "I'd love to come back with you. I had a great time."
"I think the kids really liked you," he said immediately. "Annalisa loved you, and she hardly talks to anyone, even me. Today was the first time she ever requested a song."
"I already said I'd go," I laughed. "You don't have to keep selling it."
"Okay, well, great then!" he said, laughing with me. "I've never volunteered with a friend before, but you did really great with them in there. I had fun with you."
He said the last part quietly, but my heart picked up when I heard it.
"I had fun with you too," I answered, just as quietly.
We pulled up outside of my apartment building and he let the car idle there, neither of us moving. The tingle was back in full force, racing through my blood and making my skin feel hot in the cool of the car. My stomach swooped when he turned to face me.
"I'm glad you came today," he said. He stared at me intently. "I've wanted to hang out with you ever since I started at Pages, but you always seemed kind of ... I don't know, aloof? I didn't think you'd be into spending time with anyone outside of work."
"I'm glad you asked me," I said, breathing a little heavier as he leaned toward me. "I get a little single-minded at work, I don't really pay attention to what's going on around me."
"I've watched you stocking shelves with those ear buds in for weeks," he admitted, leaning closer. "You do seem rather focused."
"I listen to you sing when you're closing," I whispered, meeting his movement with one of my own. "I like closing with you."
"I liked having you along today." He reached up and tucked a piece of hair behind my ear. "I'm looking forward to doing it again."
"Mmhmm," I murmured, closing my eyes.
"I'm going to kiss you now."
I started to nod, but I was stopped by the soft pressure of his lips on mine. My heart took off like a shot, and the tingle turned into an all out burn. I gasped and kissed him back, clutching at his forearms tightly. His hands cradled my face, holding me tightly to him.
After a few moments, we broke apart. I closed my eyes and sighed happily. I only opened them again when Edward started to laugh.
"You're still wearing your antlers."
I laughed loudly and reached up to touch my head. Sure enough, the reindeer antlers were still firmly planted on my head. I tugged them off and tossed them into his face. He caught them deftly.
"I've never kissed a reindeer before."
"Good. If you had, I'd be worried."
We grinned stupidly at each other for a minute, and then he said, "So is it safe to say you and Christmas are on better terms now?"
"Hmmmm," I said, tapping my fingers to my chin. "Think an awful lot of yourself, don't you?"
"I was referring, of course, to the children and the singing of the carols."
I leaned in and kissed him again, lightly, before sitting back and sighing. "I'd say you definitely reminded me of some of the things I love about Christmas. And you've given me something new to look forward to."
"I'm just glad you started singing. I wanted to hug Annalisa for selling you out."
I laughed. "I have to admit, I was impressed you knew how to play that one."
"Any musician worth his salt knows The Chipmunks, Bella."
"Well, you had me at hula hoop. I was officially a goner in that moment."
"Who knew? All those months, all I had to do was serenade you with Alvin."
"It would have saved us a lot of trouble."
"I suppose I should get out of the car now," I sighed, not really wanting to leave.
"I suppose," he agreed, looking equally unconvinced.
"You could come in. I have a sudden urge to bake Christmas cookies."
He grinned. "I'm a sucker for a girl who bakes. Lead on."
We got out of the car and walked toward up the sidewalk toward my door. We were only a few steps away when I stopped, tugging on his hand.
He looked at me, eyebrows raised.
"Bring your guitar."