He stood on the terrace, leaning against the low wall, looking out at the city. The night was cloudy, with just a hint of moonlight shining through, and a few snowflakes idly drifting in the wind.
As if reading his thoughts, the wind chose that moment to send a gust blowing across the open space, creating small whirls of snow…
And making it quite clear that standing out here was probably not the smartest thing to be doing.
Still, after spending the last few Christmases in prison, it was nice to have some choices – even if he was making a foolish choice by standing outside in the wind.
Neal pulled his robe tighter around his shoulders, not quite ready to go in yet. Even in the winter cold, there was something magical about New York during the holidays, and he was grateful to be experiencing it again.
Even if he could only experience the magic within a two-mile radius.
Actually, having been out of prison for a little over two months now, he'd mostly come to terms with the limitation. Oh, not that it didn't chafe now and then – just like the tracking anklet physically chafed his leg. He'd much rather be unfettered, able to chase down every lead and rumor on Kate's whereabouts. But he'd definitely take the view from the top of June's house over prison bars any day.
The wind gusted again and he shivered. It shouldn't be long now…
The bells started to ring from churches across the city. Above the wind he could pick out the different sounds, from deep and majestic peals, to the smaller bells that almost sounded like fine glass tinkling.
It was officially Christmas day.
He listened for a few minutes, until some of the bells faded away. Then, satisfied with his vigil, he turned and went back inside. With the heavy French doors closed, the wind was locked outside, leaving him snug and warm – or at least warming up – inside.
His eyes were drawn to the fireplace, and the only holiday decoration he had put up in his apartment. The chain was draped over the mantle, made out of carefully glued strips of brightly colored paper. It was something he had learned as a child, back before life had become… complicated. And it was a memory he had recreated with Kate that first Christmas they had been together. They'd lost everything – except each other – not long before, and there were no lavish gifts to be had. But in that nearly bare apartment, over some cheap red wine, he had shared the secret of the chain, how it would link them together, the promises it stood for. They had huddled together for hours on end, rolling and gluing paper strips. And then Kate had draped the chains all over the apartment…
By the next Christmas he had amassed a sizeable bankroll again – but Kate was gone, the promises still unfulfilled.
Neal laid his fingers lightly on the chain, touching various links. It was a symbol of a new promise now – a vow that he would find her.
But he probably wouldn't find her tonight, and he definitely wasn't feeling like he could sleep. Instead, he headed for the door.
The house was quiet as he slowly went down the stairs. He'd heard June and the others come in a couple of hours earlier after their Christmas Eve service. Byron and June's youngest son, Robert, was there with his family; Robert's sisters, Esme and Lucy, were spending Christmas with their respective in-laws, but would be in New York by the end of the week.
For now though, he could almost imagine he was alone in the house. He made his way into the back parlor and stood there in the doorway for a moment, looking at the tree. It was huge – touching the ceiling, and probably a good ten or twelve feet around near the bottom. He'd helped Robert get it in the door a few days ago, and knew they had barely made it. Tinsel and ornaments sparkled in the pale moonlight showing through the window. A mountain of presents was piled underneath, waiting to surprise and delight the grandchildren in the morning.
Carefully skirting the gifts, Neal found the switch he was looking for nearly hidden behind the tree.
The room was instantly bathed in a rainbow of soft lights as hundreds of tiny bulbs adorning the tree came to life. Within seconds they were flashing and racing in different patterns, illuminating the tree and casting shadows on the walls.
Mesmerized, he lowered himself to the floor, leaning back against the sofa.
He wasn't really sure how long he sat there, just taking in the beauty of the tree, when he became aware that he was no longer alone. And he couldn't say that he had heard the soft footsteps, or had some mystical sense of someone being there. Rather, it was the enticing aroma of peppermint that made him look up, just in time to have a mug pressed into his hands.
"Hot cocoa," June said, sitting down on the sofa behind him. "Fortified with a bit of schnapps."
"Thanks." He wrapped both hands around the cup, breathing in deeply. The heady mint scent blended beautifully with the bright decorations.
They sat in silence for a minute or so before June finally spoke. "It is a beautiful tree, isn't it."
"Very," he agreed. "I hope you don't mind me coming down here."
"Of course not – as long as you weren't snooping in the presents."
He laughed softly. "I restrained myself. Besides, I don't think I'll find my name under there."
"Oh, you might be surprised. I'm sure Santa knows you're here."
Another laugh. "I'm not sure I'd be on his 'good' list. Does he count prison escapes?"
"I always thought he looked more into people's hearts, rather than considering individual deeds."
He didn't really have an answer for that, so he just sipped his cocoa and went back to studying the lights.
"Did you have a tree like that growing up?"
The question surprised him, and he felt his natural defenses going up at the personal question. But then he gave it a moment's thought – and it was June asking. It wasn't some interrogation, or a rival who might use the information to find a weakness. It wasn't even Peter with his persistent questions, trying to uncover Neal's past. "No," he admitted softly. "I lost my dad when I was two, so it was mostly just my mom and me, and there was never much money. Some years we didn't have a tree at all, and if we did get one, it was more of the Charlie Brown variety – small, scrawny, whatever could be had for very little cash."
"As I recall, Charlie's tree wound up representing the true spirit of Christmas."
"Yeah, and I didn't complain. If we did have a tree, mom would make a big bowl of popcorn. And there was this tree behind our apartment building. I don't know what kind it was, but it had these red berries. I'd go out and dig under the snow, try to find any the birds hadn't eaten. Then we'd sit together and string the popcorn and berries."
"I probably would have eaten more popcorn than I got strung," June admitted.
Neal looked up over his shoulder and grinned. "That's why she made a big bowl of it."
They both laughed softly and then sipped at their cocoa in silence as the lights glittered around them. "There was something we did every year, whether we had a tree or not," Neal finally said. "Mom usually worked two or three part-time jobs, and one was at this department store. She'd bring home scraps of wrapping paper, in all these fantastic colors. We'd cut strips, and make chains, hang them all over the apartment."
"Ah, like you taught Samantha and Jared," June said, pointing toward the fireplace, where several lengths of paper chains were draped over the mantle and the surrounding furniture.
"You asked me to keep them busy."
"That I did – and Santa thanks you for your help."
"My mom always told me the chains were like promises," Neal said softly. "They were a promise that bound us together – and a promise that would lead us to better things to come."
"Is your mother still alive?"
There was, suddenly, a lump in Neal's throat, and he had to swallow a couple of times before he could answer. "As far as I know," he finally whispered.
June laid a hand gently on his shoulder. "Maybe you should try to contact her."
Should he…? He shook his head. "I don't know how this is all going to work out. I mean, it seems like Peter still threatens to send me back to prison every other day." He paused, draining his cup. "Maybe next year."
"Maybe so." June pulled her hand away and got to her feet, then reached for Neal's empty mug. "Well, I think it's time for this Santa's helper to get some sleep. The grandkids will be up before I know it. Will you be all right?"
"I'm fine. Thanks for the cocoa, and the company."
"You're very welcome. Merry Christmas, Neal."
"Merry Christmas, June."
He turned and watched as she walked away, disappearing into the shadows. And then he looked back at the tree. Maybe he'd just watch the lights for a few minutes more.
Maybe by next year, he'd have found Kate, helped free her from whatever – whoever – was keeping her from him. And he'd find a way to work even harder this coming year to prove himself to Peter. Then he might be in a better position to revisit the past.
Yeah, maybe next year…
A/N: Happy Holidays!