This is the last chapter. Sorry to make you wait so long for it, but this chapter just didn't want to be written. I hope you liked it. As always, thank you for reading and reviewing!
(See the first chapter for disclaimer, notes, spoiler, etc.)
Chapter Six: "Songs of Joy and Peace"
Lexi ran into the living room, her shiny patent leather shoes slipping on the buffed wood floor. She reached for the remote control and turned the TV on, searching for the 24-hour Christmas music station. As a festive carol drifted out of the speakers, she turned in a slow circle and admired her handiwork. The meal that she and her mother had slaved over was arranged in silver dishes on the sidebar in the dining room, the table elegantly set. Candlelight flickered throughout the apartment, the golden light dancing on the walls. And in the corner of the living room stood the Balsam Fir, a full and beautiful tree. A rainbow of lights twinkled from the boughs, offset by the jewel-like ornaments.
She had to hand it to Nick. He really came through for her. She smoothed her curls down, checking her reflection in the gilded mirror. Her hands trembled nervously as she heard her mother's bedroom door open and her heels click their way down the hall. Now, it was up to her. She swallowed hard and squeezed her eyes shut as the heels stopped, a gasp filling the silence. "What is all this?"
Forcing her nerves down and smiling brightly, she spun around to face her mother. "Merry Christmas!" she exclaimed, her arms extended to showcase the tree.
Olivia's lips were a perfect O of surprise as she slowly raised her hand to her mouth. "How- Where-" She shook her head, trying a third time. "What did you do?"
"Well, I-" The hesitant explanation was interrupted by the doorbell, her mother's eyebrow arched questioningly. The child simply shrugged in reply and inched past her mother. "I should get that…"
"Lexi, who's at the door?" she asked sharply, following her daughter into the foyer. She watched with her arms folded against her chest as the child pulled the front door open, revealing Gregory Richards. Her stomach flipped, their eyes meeting as she whispered his name. In an instant, all of the pieces clicked into place and she turned to her daughter. "Alexia Julie Blake, what on earth were you thinking?"
Gregory's face wrinkled in confusion as he looked from Lexi, to Olivia and back again. The guilt on the child's face was unmistakable and he too had the same moment of clarity as Olivia. "You sent the invitation," he said softly, watching the little girl's face fall.
For the first time, Lexi looked all of her nearly ten years. She paled, nervously twirling one of her curls around her finger. The adults moved in on her with unplanned synchronicity, neither looking decidedly pleased. Sorrow rose within her as her eyes filled with tears. Her mother was the angriest she had ever seen her and the sentiment frightened Lexi. "Merry…Christmas?"
"Lexi, what were you thinking?" Olivia asked again. She looked at Gregory, shaking her head apologetically. "I'm so sorry she bothered you with all this."
He moved to reply when Lexi softly replied, "I was thinking that I wanted us, all of us, to have a nice Christmas this year." She looked up slowly, her blue eyes shiny with tears as she clasped her hands in front of her to keep them from trembling. "We're all so lonely. I thought it would be nice if we could spend the holiday together." Like a family, she thought to herself as Gregory sighed and her mother pinched the bridge of her nose.
"Lexi, I am so disappointed with you. You did all of this behind my back. You've never done anything like this before!" She sighed, exasperated as the beginning of a headache twisted her skull. "I just can't believe you did this."
"I'm sorry, Mommy," she murmured, staring down at her shoes with such intensity that she nearly made herself cross-eyed.
The sounds of the Christmas music filled the silence, before Gregory cleared his throat. "I should leave," he said quietly.
Olivia looked up, seemingly seeing him for the first time. He held a bottle of wine and two boxes wrapped in shiny paper. She noticed the concern on his face as he rested his hand on her daughter's shoulder and squeezed it gently. Like a fly on the wall, she watched in fascination as Lexi wiped a tear off her cheek and looked up at him. "Thanks for thinking of me, Kiddo." The child nodded tearfully, her face flushed as she held back the extent of her sorrow.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Richards," she said, choking on a sob. He chucked her chin affectionately and turned to leave.
He was nearly to the door when Olivia called out, "Gregory, wait." He turned back to her, watching her for a long moment. The red dress hugged her figure, intricate folds in the bodice that swept up to the shoulder. She shrugged and gestured to the interior of the apartment. "We made all this food…"
Lexi watched, sniffling as Gregory stepped closer to them. Her mother sighed and neared him as she said, "Now that I understand why, it would be a shame to let all of it go to waste on just Lexi and I." With a sigh, she met his eyes, an undeniable charge crackling between them. "Why don't you stay for dinner?"
It was then the child's heart thundered in her ears as she turned to him. He quickly masked his surprise, shifting the contents of his arm to hold out the bottle of wine. "I thought this would be a good choice," he explained, her fingers covering his to take the bottle. She graced him with a small smile, holding the bottle to her as she reached for her daughter's shoulder. "And, Lexi can take the presents," he said, passing her one.
She accepted it quietly, still in shock at the turn of events. Olivia cupped her head, brushing over her hair to reach down and squeeze her shoulder. "Go put it under the tree, Lex." She looked up at her mother, confused, but received only a comforting nod. "Go ahead."
Lexi nodded and slowly wandered into the living room, clutching the wrapped gift. It was heavy in her arms and she looked down, the shiny wrapping blurring through her still teary eyes. She sniffed and wiped them, reading the gift tag.
She sank to her knees, the full skirt of her dress blooming around her. The wood was unforgiving, but she didn't mind. She looked into one of the shiny ornaments, reflecting the activity behind her. Her mother and Gregory walked into the living room, chatting quietly. The breath caught in her throat as she secretly watched them for another moment before looking away. It might work.
It just might work.
They watched Lexi go into the living room, looking lost and confused as she clutched the gift to her chest. Gregory turned to Olivia, watching her quietly. Her brow was furrowed, the corner of her lip caught in her teeth as she watched her daughter. Her blue eyes were clear, like the seamless meeting of ocean and sky on the horizon. "She's always been imaginative," she said softly, watching her daughter. "Always reading, always dreaming."
"She's great," he said softly, her bare shoulder brushing his arm as they walked into the living room. "You should be very proud."
She turned to him with shining eyes, her brilliant smile bowling him over. "Oh, I am." She watched him for a long moment, the fine line of his jaw giving way to a full mouth and warm eyes of deep brown. "Very," she said softly, shivering as his eyes traveled the length of her, from her shoes up to her own eyes. "I'm just sorry that she got you involved in all of this."
He reached out, his hand brushing hers. She inhaled softly as he leaned in, his lips against her ear as he whispered, "I'm not." She watched as he smirked, his finger trailing a line on the back of her hand. He felt her tremble before she regained the upper hand, clearing her throat as she watched him stroll over to Lexi.
Nick stepped outside, inhaling deeply. He smiled, sucking the fresh scent of the cold and the newly fallen snow into his lungs. Fat wet snowflakes stuck to his beard and his bright red coat. He exhaled, his breath crystallized into white clouds as he glanced around the dark night.
Everything was set. He was ready to go.
He turned his face up to the sky, looking through the curtain of snow to the sparkling stars. One bright one in particular twinkled back at him and he winked at it. Turning slowly for the barn, he smiled again and whispered, "Merry Christmas, Lexi,"
Gregory put down his fork, sighing deeply. "And you really made all of this?"
Lexi grinned, nodding eagerly. "It took all day! I found the recipes but Mommy did all the work."
"Teamwork, Lex. Teamwork," Olivia interjected, smiling at Gregory over the rim of her wine glass. "Be happy nothing's burned."
He glanced down at his nearly empty plate and pushed it back slightly. "Well, my sincere compliments to the chefs," he said, raising his glass to them. "I doubt I'll find anything this good in Miami." He paused as two pairs of twin blue eyes turned up to him and he frowned. "What?"
"You're going to Miami?" Olivia asked softly. With a nod, his gaze bridged the other side of the table as she leaned in and whispered, "So are we."
Lexi watched mischievously from the sidelines, her eyes darting back and forth between her mother and Gregory. They chatted easily, their banter more suited to old friends than barely social neighbors. She used her fork to cut into one of the roast potatoes and smiled to herself.
Gregory chuckled as Olivia finished a story about her job. "Well, at least you get to travel to interesting places for your work. The farthest I get is up river to Sing Sing."
She smiled into her wine glass and turned her eyes up slowly, watching him for a long moment. The candlelight flickered on his face, reflected in his dark brown eyes. He returned her smile, an easy grin that gave a youthful air to his usually stern expression. A pulse went through her as he continued on about his job and she sat back, listening partially. She looked down at her plate, feeling the way his eyes moved over her. An unusual heat warmed her cheeks and she cleared her throat, reaching for her crystal glass of ice water.
An amused smirk curled Gregory's mouth, watching the soft blush discolor Olivia's face. He reached for his own glass, swirling it lazily. To his left, Lexi was quiet, pushing around the remnants of her dinner. But across from him, all he saw was Olivia. Olivia, who's eyes flashed near violet as she stole a glance at him, their eyes meeting. She cocked her head, her attention slowly turning to her daughter. "What did you say, Lexi?"
"I asked about what we should do now?"
Their eyes met again and Olivia smiled shyly as Gregory suggested, "How about we open presents?"
"Yes! Presents!" Lexi jumped up, shaking the table as she dashed out of the room.
"I still can't believe she arranged all of this," Olivia confessed, coming around the table to meet Gregory.
He shrugged, extending his arm to her. "She just wants her mother to be happy."
Slowly and carefully, she linked her arm through his, letting him lead her through the open French doors. "I've never wanted to burden her with that. Taking care of me," she clarified, watching as Lexi knelt at the foot of the tree.
"I know that. And she does too." He turned to her, resisting the urge to reach out and tuck an unruly lock of hair behind her ear. "But she loves you." He glanced at Lexi for a long moment and smiled before he turned back to her mother. "You do anything you can for the people you love."
Her vision blurred and she blinked back tears, clearing her throat as she looked away. Her heart beat a quick staccato and she inhaled sharply, feeling in that moment that Gregory could see the exposed vein of her soul. She stepped closer to him, watching him quietly with wide eyes. "I'm sorry that we didn't get you anything for Christmas."
He shook his head as an amused half-smile curled his mouth. "Well," he began, his hand cupping her exposed elbow, "that's not quite right." Her eyes narrowed in confusion as his fingers danced over her bare flesh, skimming up to her sleeveless shoulder. "I finally got to have dinner with you."
She grinned, shaking her head disbelievingly as a slight blush crept up her throat. "Honestly," she sighed, one clouded with teasing reproach. "No one has ever demanded my company as fervently as you."
"I'm persistent," he deadpanned, causing her to chuckle.
"No, it's more than that." She met him with clear eyes, genuine curiosity shining forth. "I've declined your dinner invitations and avoided you since you moved in all those months ago. Why didn't you just give up?"
His face softened and he leaned in, his cheek brushing hers so his mouth lay even with her ear. He spoke softly, his words tickling her ear as he whispered, "Because settling is for losers." He felt her shiver against him, heard her soft intake of breath as he continued, "And because I've never wanted anyone more."
Her lips parted as he pulled away, her chest frozen as her breath came in shallow rasps. He smirked and winked knowingly, letting his hands trail down her arms to squeeze her hands gently. "Did you find your present, Lexi?" he asked grandly, turning away from the shocked woman before him.
"Of course! It's the heavy one!" she giggled, turning away from the tree to smile up at him.
Olivia turned slowly, managing to lean against the arm of the sofa. Her ears heard Lexi rip into the wrapping paper and her eyes saw her do it, but her mind was a thousand miles away. A thousand miles away to a moment ago, when his lips brushed her ear and his hands warmed her shoulders. She gripped the sofa as her legs turned to jelly, fully unable to support her. A lost spark reignited within her, slowly burning long and hard as she forced her attention back to Gregory and her daughter.
Lexi set the paper aside, turning over the set of leather bound books. The silence grew as she stared down at the gift, unmoving as Gregory began, "I wasn't sure if you had already read the series, but the woman at the store said that any little girl who-"
Olivia watched as Lexi jumped up and threw her arms around him. She watched the surprise on his face, the way he sat unmoving for a long moment before he gently returned the child's thankful embrace. A lump rose in Olivia's throat and she swallowed hard, watching the pair of them stand quietly in the glowing light of the Christmas tree.
"She was asleep before her head touched the pillow," Olivia announced, coming back into the living room. Gregory turned away from the fireplace, returning a photo of the mother and her child to the mantle. He watched, seemingly fascinated as she removed the pins from her hair, ribbons of chestnut falling to her shoulders. She smiled up at him, padding across the floor in her bare feet. "Thank you for carrying her to bed."
He shrugged, watching as she combed through her hair with her fingers, sighing as she massaged her scalp and kicked off her Italian pumps. "It's funny- she seems so much smaller when she's asleep."
She laughed, sinking to the sofa and crossing one leg over the other. "Doesn't she?" She waited until he had removed his suit jacket and sat next to her before she continued, "I think it's because she's quiet. Still."
He smiled, glancing at the floor before he turned to her. "Yes, it's hard to imagine her being anything than what she is: lively, adventurous-"
"But then we wouldn't have had this evening." He sat back, angling his body so he could face her evenly. "Engaging," he continued. "Sweet." She lowered her eyes and he reached out, his palm waltzing closer to her face. "Lovely. Mysterious. Sometimes infuriating."
She looked up slowly, turning to face him as the warmth of his palm met her cheek. "You aren't talking about Lexi anymore," she said, his fingers inching to grasp a lock of her hair for a moment before falling away again.
"No." He watched as she twisted her hands anxiously in her lap and he reached out again, stilling them. "I'm talking about Lexi's mother."
"What do you like about Lexi's mother?" she asked softly, looking down at her lap.
"Oh…many things," he sighed. Soft carols drifted around them, the twinkling lights from the tree sealing them in a private world known only to them. "She has the potential to drive me insane, but that only makes me want to get to know her better."
"Perhaps you're just a glutton for punishment?"
"Nah." He reached over, cupping her chin and gently turning her face to him. "Just bewitched."
"Bothered and bewildered?" she asked with a smile.
"Something like that." He reached for the ornately wrapped gift sitting on the coffee table and passed it to her. "This is for you."
"You didn't need to get me anything," she insisted, sitting up to unwrap the present.
"Don't be ridiculous. Everyone needs something to open on Christmas." He watched with a smile as she unwrapped it quickly, anxious to get to the gift inside. She gently lifted out the ornate frame, barely flinching at the heft of it as she stared through the glass. He sat up when she raised her hand to her mouth, leaning forward to closely examine the picture. "Olivia, what's wrong?" he asked as a silent tear rolled down her cheek.
She shook her head, leaving the picture frame in her lap as she wiped her face dry. "Oh, nothing." Her voice shook, convincing him that nothing could be further from the truth.
"I didn't think this would upset you."
She looked up suddenly, her eyes bright as she shook her head. "I'm not upset. Really." She picked up the frame, her eyes moving over the photo taken during their afternoon at the ice rink. A happy moment, captured in time for all eternity. Lexi crouched in the middle with an arm around each of them, a toothless grin on her face. "I just can't remember a time when I've ever seen Lexi this happy."
"It was a nice day," he agreed, pleased with his decision to order a copy of the image as she turned back to the photo.
"Seeing her like this," she murmured, tracing the outline of her daughter's happy face with her fingertip, "makes me wonder if I've been wrong."
She sighed, leaning forward to display the frame on the coffee table. "Everything." She stood slowly, wringing her hands as she turned her back on him. For this confession, she wouldn't be able to look at him. She drifted over to the tree, fingering one of the crystal ornaments, she continued, "I've kept her- I've kept myself- away from any personal relationships." With a sigh, she turned away from her reflection in one of the shiny balls and turned to the fireplace. "People leave. People hurt can hurt you. I never wanted her to know that pain."
"You once trusted the wrong person," he said quietly, watching as she nodded.
"Lexi's father-" she began before abruptly shaking her head as her hands balled into fists. "No, he's not her father. He signed her away the day she was born. AJ never wanted any responsibility. He much preferred living off his trust fund and jetting around the world."
"And you were-"
"Just a pretty thing he could dangle on his arm," she muttered, glaring into the crackling flames of the fire. "A pretty thing he dropped the moment I told him I was pregnant."
Gregory stood, angered on her behalf as shoved his hands deep in his pockets. "When was the last time you saw him?"
She closed her eyes, remembering that sunny spring day. "The day Lexi was born. He came to the hospital to sign the paperwork to give her up." Her nails dug into her palm, leaving angry red crescent imprints as she spat out, "He didn't even look at her. And that's when I decided that I would never let anyone treat her the way he did. From then on, it was just her and I."
He came to stand beside her, the fire light dancing on her face. "You and Lexi against the world," he stated and she looked over at him, nodding slowly. He reached for her hand, and brought it to his lips, placing a soft kiss on it. "Don't you think you've been fighting by yourself long enough?"
With the slightest of nods, Olivia turned to him as he used her hand to pull her closer. "I don't know-"
He hushed her, wrapping his arms around her waist as they stood chest-to-chest. "I do," he whispered, his eyes moving over her face. "We can take this as slow as you want. I'm not used to not being in control of things, but I'm willing to make an exception," he joked, causing her to smile. "At the end of the day, I just want you."
"You don't even know me," she whispered, leaning into his touch as he cupped her face.
"I know," he admitted, his heart skipping a beat as she looked up at him with such a sincere gaze that it nearly took his breath away. "But when I look into your eyes, I just know that you're the one."
She nodded slowly, surrendering to his embrace. As her head found his shoulder, she closed her eyes, content in the shelter of his arms.
The faint sounds of jingle bells echoed in the darkness, waking Lexi. She rolled over slowly, squinting into the shadows of her bedroom but finding nothing. With a yawn, she sat up and rubbed her eyes awake. Something was different. She didn't know what, but something had changed. A feeling tingled her spine, the same feeling one gets when they feel the first blush of spring after a long cold winter.
She pushed back the covers and jumped out of her bed, finding her fuzzy slippers. The soles squeaked against the wood floor in the hall as she was drawn to the golden light in the living room. She turned the corner, stopping short at the head of the shallow steps.
The lamps were off, the candles extinguished. Yet, the room glowed with the flickering light from the fireplace and the twinkling Christmas tree. She came down the three steps, creeping across the room, a grin curled on her mouth. Gregory was asleep on the sofa, his head resting against the leather cushion. Curled up in the nook between him and the back of the sofa was her mother, her arm stretched across his chest.
"It's coming on Christmas, they're cutting down trees. They're putting up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace. Oh, I wish-"
The quiet song drifted out of the speakers, giving words to the feelings coursing through the child. She knew in an instant that everything would be alright. From the shadows, she again heard the sound of jingle bells and she smiled. "Thank you, Mr. Klaas," she whispered to the room, somehow confident that he heard her, wherever he was. "For everything."
She reached for Gregory's discarded suit coat and laid it over the sleeping couple. She smoothed the fabric, watching them for a long moment before she turned away. Slowly, she made her way to the window, wrapping her arms around herself. The snowfall had lessened, but everything was still a blanket of white no matter where she looked.
Out of the corner of her eye, a bright light streaked across the sky. Tears came to her eyes and she watched the light until it disappeared. "And I heard him exclaim," she recited, "as he drove out of sight, 'Merry Christmas to all and to all, a good night!'"
A/N: The following songs were used as inspiration for the titles of the story and the chapters: "All I Want for Christmas is You" (written by Mariah Carey and Walter Afanasieff) story title and Chapter Two, "The Christmas Song" (written by Mel Torme and Bob Wells) for Chapter One, "Someday at Christmas" (written by Ron Miller and Brian Wells) for Chapter Three, "White Christmas" (written by Irving Berlin) for Chapter Four, "Good King Wenceslas" (written by John Mason Neale) for Chapter Five and "River" (written by Joni Mitchell) for Chapter Six.