OUT OF THE ASHES

A Christmas Interlude PART III

Chapter 49

A.N. For the first time, I opted to publish a multi-day chapter. txm

December 24th

It had been a busy morning for Gold: an enormous buffet breakfast, the last touches on the tree, glancing over a couple of newspapers that he'd had forwarded up to the cabin, then a quick hike with all the children except the babies to the top of the mountain. He knew Belle was involved with the routine household chores that never went away even if it was almost Christmas, and, of course, there was all the last minute cooking.

"There's a problem," Belle announced to Jefferson whom she was helping with the cooking responsibilities.

"Please?" he asked.

"I wanted to do some more of those pumpkin oatmeal cookies and I wanted to do that vegan green bean casserole recipe you brought with you, but I'm out of some key ingredients."

"We must have someone who can go down the mountain to the IGA and get what we need. We'll need to send them off now because a lot of these stores are closing up early today," Jefferson told her.

"Everybody's got jobs. I'm not sure who we can send."

At that moment Bae wandered into the kitchen to get a soft drink. He had stuffed himself at breakfast, had hauled in more wood for the fire and had been about to settle himself in the living room to see if there was some Christmas version of something like Pum'kin Chunkin' available on the large screen set.

Jefferson and Belle looked at each other.

"What do you think?" Belle asked Jefferson.

"Well, he can read and drive a car and I'm pretty sure he has money in some form or another," Jefferson told her speculatively.

Bae caught on quickly that he was the topic of conversation. "What? Something I can do? I'm in, except for climbing onto the roof of this place. It's pretty high and steep."

"No roof top climbing," Belle promised him. "We need someone to run down to the grocery store and get a couple of things."

Bae looked concerned, "I'm fine with that, but you both know I'm not an experienced shopper, especially not grocery shopping. Can you give me a list?" he asked.

"Of course," Belle told him.

Just then, James strolled in. He had been blowing the leaves out of the garage that had followed all the cars into the building the previous day.

"Hey bud," Bae began. "You're coming with me to the grocery store. Belle's gonna give us a list."

"Fine," said James.

"You ever done this kind of thing?" Bae asked him.

"Picked up a couple of frozen meals, pizza, a whole barbequed chicken. Sure, I've been in a grocery store before."

Belle carefully wrote out the list, double-checked it with Jefferson and then handed it off. "Just a couple of things to make some more cookies and a casserole for Christmas dinner."

The two men took the list and headed out.

"Oh, they're not taking any bags," Belle said to herself as they set out. She calmed herself, "It'll be all right. We'll recycle the plastic bags."

Almost immediately after, Gold came back in herding the children. Their cheeks were all flushed and their eyes bright.

"We went to the top of the mountain," Dixie told her mother.

"We were on top of the world," Pixie confirmed.

"I cold," Hamish told his mother.

"Well, well. This sounds like we need something hot to drink," Belle observed. "How about hot apple cider?"

"Yah, hot apple cider!" the children were jumping up and down. Belle began to take scoops out of the crockpot she had going with the cider. She handed out hot spiced drinks all around.

Gold came and stood next to her. He looked in one of the upper cupboards and pulled out some Pernod and some blackcurrant cordial and added these to his drink.

"How was it?" she asked him.

"Hair-raising, I was afraid one of the kids would slide off the top, the rocks were slick. Henry takes after his mother and climbs. Our daughters are almost the same combination of fearlessness and stupidity. We kept losing Eva Ruth because she stops to look at the plant life. Grace is completely wonderful however and she helped me keep an eye on Hamish. She deserves an extra cookie or something."

Well, I've got them in their rooms for the rest of the morning playing paper dolls and Hamish will be setting up his Thomas the Train pieces. Henry's agreed to help him with that. And this afternoon they'll all be constructing cookie houses."

"Did I see Bae leave out?" he asked finishing up his second cup of augmented cider.

"Yeah, he and James have gone out to the grocery store for us."

"Really? You thought that was a good idea?"

"Yes. They're grown men. They have a list. They can read."

"But they don't do grocery stores," Gold told her.

"They'll be fine."

"Hey, you and Emma taught me how to shop in grocery stores. Watch out for the end caps – they are not sales. You don't have to get two if it's buy one get one. Look high. Look low. Don't get it if it's not on your list. Try house brands – they're often just as good as the name brands."

"They'll be fine," Belle repeated herself. "They just have ten things to get."

"I'm betting they won't get half the stuff on the list and they'll bring home a bunch of strange stuff instead of what they were supposed to."

Belle looked at her husband. She considered, seriously considered, before responding, "No, I'm not taking that bet. There's a good chance you're right."

It was some time later when Bae and James finally pulled back in. They were laughing, apparently having experienced some male bonding, and began to bring in some bags of groceries. Bags and bags of groceries.

In the first bag they had one can of green beans and two boxes of baking powder. The second bag contained three jars of ground cinnamon and four jars of ground nutmeg. In the third bag there were five bottles of maple syrup.

Belle began to see a pattern.

In the fourth and fifth bags were a total of six large cylindrical boxes of rolled oats. Then there were four bags containing seven five-pound bags of whole wheat flour. There were also eight cans of pureed pumpkin and nine bottles of vanilla extract split between three other bags. And in the last five bags were ten four-pound bags of sugar.

Jefferson was looking at Belle completely puzzled. Emma and Mary Margaret had come in and were watching the odd progression of grocery items being revealed bag after bag. What the fu. . . ?

Gold watched the unpacking and then watched Belle profusely thank the two men. Neither Emma nor Mary Margaret commented. He, however, was barely containing his mirth. He had folded his arms watching the unpacking play out.

"I guess you should have taken the bet. They did bring home only the things on the list," he whispered to Belle.

"You be nice. They were in unfamiliar territory and they were doing their best to be helpful," she whispered back to him.

Bae and James finished unloading the cars leaving the bags for Belle and the other kitchen helpers to unpack. They went on back into the living room. Gold followed them.

"You guys have the nicest wives," he told them.

"We think so," James told him.

"And you're complete idiots," Gold also told them.

Bae looked a bit contrite. "Listen, Dad, we were already almost through checking out when we realized what we had done."

"Let me guess," Gold told them, "Belle numbered the list?"

"Yeah, so we got one can of green beans, two boxes of baking soda, three jars of cinnamon and so on," Bae confessed. "We figured we'd have to play it out and maybe the women would feel sorry for us and not razz us over it."

"Oh, the women do feel sorry for you and they won't be making fun of you." He grinned at them, "But I will. Every possible opportunity, I'll be bringing this up."

The women never mentioned the odd shopping trip. They continued to work on cooking and table preparation chores, taking on any child or stray adult who wandered in and professed any interest, setting them up as mini sous chefs.

It was after a quick lunch of chili and hot dogs that the children gathered in the afternoon to construct their cookie houses. They were all set up around one of the high counters in the kitchen sitting on bar stools. They were using tubed icing to 'glue' together the graham cracker walls, pretzel sticks to outline windows and doors, wafers for roof tiles and sugar wafers for chimneys along with a bunch of other crackers and cookies and candies. Some constructions did end up looking more like houses than others but all had fun, including some of the adults who stopped by to help.

Emma had been sat between Henry and Hamish. Henry had his father's spatial skills and needed no assistance, lining up the graham crackers, using just the right amount of icing, adding in details and, ultimately, landscaping.

Hamish, on Emma's other side, however was a different story. He struggled with the icing tube, either getting out too much or not enough and seemed grateful when Aunt Emma offered her assistance.

"What happened to your face?" she asked him.

Hamish considered, his little face drawn in concern. "I did it," he finally said.

"Well, I guessed that. What did you do?" Emma had a pretty good idea.

"I drawed on me."

"Seemed like a good idea at the time?"

"No, I just drawed," he told her.

She noticed something. "Hamish, sweetie, where are your pretzel sticks? Where are your wafers?" There were quite a few cookies missing from his work pile.

She looked down at Hamish. He opened his mouth to show what had happened to his cookies.

"Oh." She tried not to laugh. "Well, I did ask." She helped him put icing on his remaining cookies and called it a day.

The houses were set around the living area for all to admire including Hamish's effort which looked like was mainly icing on a few cookie parts. Work had stopped when the smell of homemade bread began to fill the room.

It was suppertime.

Jefferson had made some crusty whole grain bread and Gold cut it thick and added cheeses and a tomato slice, toasting things up for those who wanted the open-faced sandwiches. Jefferson had also prepped a terrific homemade vegetable soup for supper. It was set in a large stockpot and he would keep it going over the next several days for people to dip from when they wanted something warm and yummy.

The children went through the ritual of leaving out cookies for Santa. There was a general debate as to what type of milk they should leave and eventually they opted to leave three glasses, one with cow's milk, one with almond and one with soymilk. Gold was again corralled into reading the bedtime story that evening and began

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

Gold had their attention and continued,

And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;

"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!

On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!

To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!

Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!

The children were piled on top of each other listening.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,

And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,

And laying his finger aside of his nose,

And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,

And away they all flew like the down of a thistle,

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,

"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night."

"Santa gone?" asked Hamish.

"Santa went to his next stop. To some house with good children who've all gone to sleep," Gold explained.

Hamish's eyes were large and he nodded with understanding.

0o0o0o0ooo0o0o0o0

It was later in their room that Belle decided to model her new golden confection of a dress for her husband.

"I just wanted you to see this before Christmas dinner," she told him, calling out from the bathroom. She had brushed out her hair and had put on some glossy red lipstick and black mascara.

She had turned down the lights so that the effect was nearly that of candlelight.

Their room had a large window that looked out down the mountain, an extraordinary view. It actually opened up to one of the balconies that they would sit on in better weather. He had drawn the curtains and was sitting in one of the chairs by the window when she came out.

His jaw dropped. He had thought that she could no longer surprise him, that he had seen her at her best at their marriage ceremony and she could only hope to equal but never surpass her wedding finery.

He had been wrong.

"Good lord, Belle. You look like a fairy princess."

She smiled at him. "Then I've got you under my spell."

"Completely," he told her.

"They why don't you take off that sweater for me," she told him. He immediately complied.

"And now unbutton the top four buttons on your shirt."

Again he did as he was told.

"Uh hum," she murmured. "Nice. Now the shoes and socks," she ordered.

Again he complied with her order.

His mouth was dry. This was certainly going in an interesting direction. His first thought had been to peel that amazing dress off of her, but this was turning out to be better. Much better.

"Let's drop the pants," she told him.

He dropped them. Gold was standing only in his shirt and boxers.

"Why don't you take out the cufflinks," she suggested.

He did and carefully placed them in bowl on the dresser. They were nice cufflinks.

By now they had switched positions and Belle had placed herself in one of the chairs by the large center window. Gold was standing in the center of the room.

"Turn around," she told him.

He did.

"Nice," she commented.

"Glad I'm still up to your standards," he told her dryly.

"Take off the shirt."

He stood a moment, considering. Belle was curious now if he would let her proceed or if he would decide he'd had enough.

The shirt came off.

Belle looked her husband over. He was slender but wiry and strong. She knew very well the strength in his muscles. His knee showed scar tissue and there were sundry scars over his body, most he was reluctant to talk about, usually alluding to his misspent youth.

His shorts were distended indicating his definite interest in Belle and her little scenario.

"Now the shorts," she told him looking his directly in the eye.

He stood in the center of the bedroom. Belle rose and she walked around him. Belle had a moment when she could readily imagine him as a dangerous animal that was just for this moment tamed and ameliorable to her touch. The beast was there, just under the surface. There was that sense that at any moment the predator would surface and have his teeth on her throat or at least his lips and tongue. She wasn't afraid that he would hurt her, but she knew if he turned on her she would quickly be overwhelmed. He didn't move.

"Lay on the bed, on your back. Put your hands under your rear," she directed him to mimick the posture he had put her in the night before.

"I'm not comfortable being unclothed while you're still dressed. I don't think I like it," he repeated her words to him.

She had to smile and she sat down on the bed next to him, running her hands along his torso, touching his shoulders, his chest, his stomach, his thighs, everywhere, except . . .

"You like it," she repeated his words back to him.

"I guess I can't really lie to you, can I?" he asked.

She shook her head and leaned over to kiss him right on the mouth. She pulled back and smiled down at him. She began to slowly kiss down his neck, his chest and his stomach.

"Uh, Belle, I'm not going to last very long. You, that dress. . . "

"I take it you like the dress," she draped some of the golden lace over his rock hard fully erect member and he twitched.

"I love the dress," he told her. "I love it so much I'm afraid I may not make it much longer and we'll have yet another dry cleaning bill."

"I would say, 'so,' but I did so want to wear this dress tomorrow." She sighed. "I guess I need to hurry things along," and she climbed on top of him and settled herself down onto him. Gold lifted himself to complete the connection and when he felt her clenching around him, he had to close his eyes and bite his lip to keep from spilling himself into her then and there. She was so warm, so tight, so inviting.

"Belle, I'm not going to last very long." It was his undoing when Belle leaned forward, her hair brushing his chest, and she shuddered.

"Neither am I," she managed to whisper and collapsed onto him.

He held onto her afterwards.

"You know I love you," he said to her, gently pulling the golden confection off of her.

"I do. You know I feel the same way. I love you."

They held onto each other, snuggling until Belle fell asleep. Gold pulled away for the moment and watched his wife while she slept. He gave her a simple kiss on the cheek and settled himself in for the night.

December 25

Hamish was first up and was knocking on his parents' door. "Mommy-Daddy! Mommy-Daddy! Mommy-Daddy!"

Gold managed to get up, pull on some pajama bottoms and threw a nightie at Belle before he opened the door and scooped up his young son. He brought Hamish into bed with himself and Belle who had managed to slip on a nightie.

"Santa come?" Hamish asked his parents.

"Pretty sure," Belle told him. "Give mommy and daddy a moment and we'll go see." Gold sighed and stretched before getting up for good. He washed his face and slipped on some casual black pants and a black Henley shirt. He supervised Hamish while Belle washed up and she slipped on one of her simple skirts and tank tops. She brushed out her hair and put on some powder and a lipgloss.

Too soon, Hamish got loose and was running through the house announcing that Santa had come.

"Get up! Get up! Santa brought presents!"

Jefferson had been before anyone else and put together another breakfast buffet so everyone could grab a plate of food if they were so inclined. He was already sitting in the living room when Hamish ran down the stairs, followed by his sisters and then all the other children. Since Grace was the youngest who could read, she was in charge of distributing presents. She did a great job passing gifts off to the other children and telling them who to take them to.

Once everything had been passed out, the carnage ensued.

Belle had set strict guidelines about too many presents. Gold would have bought his children everything they asked for, but Belle didn't think that too many things were good for children and she had insisted they keep to a limit. Belle got her way.

This year Hamish had gotten more for his Thomas the Train set and some Duplo. The girls had asked for Barbies and they were each given their own Barbie dream house. Henry got a bike with training wheels and Eva Ruth got a kitchen center complete with an Easybake Oven. Grace, who was into crafts, had gotten a rubber band loom, a number of books she had asked for and some clothes.

As customary, whether for Christmas, birthday or any other significant event, Belle gave each of the children a piece of Waterford Crystal. Gold had said that he didn't think children would possibly have any interest in getting the crystal and Belle had told him, "No, not now, but when it's time for them to get married, they'll have full sets and be very grateful to have them."

Gold had also given each child a plain golden envelope. He instructed them to give the envelope to their parents

James looked in the envelope and shook his head, "The same thing as last year?" he asked. "Not that it's not appreciated, but you don't need to keep doing this," he told Gold. "I think she's already got enough to pay her way through Harvard."

Gold shrugged. "It's just a couple of shares of preferred stock in Magicell. She can start working on her Master's degree. It's nice for a young person to have their own money."

Belle had been hesitant to open the small box that sat on the table in front of her. She knew that Gold could go over the top with his gifts. She caught his eye and he just smiled at her.

Slowly she opened the box.

A long silver chain of a necklace with a few odd charms hanging from it.

"From that artist you like so much. I commissioned a piece for you," he told her.

"It's beautiful,"Belle told him and slipped it on. She went over to her husband to give him a kiss. He was waiting to open her gift to him.

"I really had to compromise with myself on this one," she told him. "But I think this is a good use of the medium."

He opened it. An e-book reader.

"With subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Herald Scotland newspapers. I thought it would be an easier way for you to keep up with your newspaper reading with one of these," she told him.

"I love it," he told her. He plugged it into charge while he engaged with Hamish who was setting up his train set. Emma worked with the twins setting up their dreamhouses. Mary Margaret was working . . . uh . . . playing with Eva Ruth.

There were other presents all around and everyone settled into some relaxing, some nibbling on breakfast, some playing with the babies, some playing with the older children.

Another car drove up and out got Ruby and Archie.

Ruby ran in to hug Belle, "We didn't think we'd make it! The weather got so horrible."

Archie shook hands with Gold and settled into the living room chaos.

Belle's sharp eyes saw it first.

"A ring?! Oh Ruby, this is wonderful!" and it was her turn to hug Ruby.

"I should be defending my dissertation this spring, so we're thinking of sometime late summer," Ruby told her. "That is, assuming I pass."

"Of course you'll pass. You're brilliant."

By late morning Jefferson had recruited several people into cooking chores, including Belle and Gold. It was three when the Christmas meal was ready and, in accordance with a Spinner family tradition, everyone took a moment to put on their very best clothes. The girls got to wear their new simple empire gowns and, this time, Belle, put Hamish in some dark pants and a plain white shirt (not the scritchy pants). The adults were able to sit at one table and the children gathered around another. Everyone at the adult table went around the table sharing one thing they hoped to accomplish this coming year.

The Nolans were hoping for a baby, getting all around 'ohhh's.'

Jefferson spoke up next, "Mine's always the same, continued good health for my daughter."

Everyone murmured their agreement and best wishes to him.

Regina and Daniel wanted to expand the horse farm so they could get more kids in their riding program; they were already working with troubled teens, Regina was wondering if they might want to expand the program to some children with other challenges.

Bae shared that he'd been offered an opportunity to expand into some Asian markets and he was trying to work things out. "I might need some advice from you, dad," he told the older man. Bae had made the Top 400 for the first time since he had taken over a substantial block of his father's empire, but he was still not sure of himself in the business world and often consulted with his father.

"Bae you're sounding like a businessman," Gold commented. He had plenty of ideas. "There are some things you have to look out for when you go into that market. First. . . " he looked around. "Later, we'll make time later to talk about it later."

Emma shared that she'd been offered a position with the FBI but wasn't sure what she wanted to do.

Gold told her it was an easy decision, "Go with the one that can pay you more. How much are you making now?" he then asked her.

"Money isn't everything," she informed him shortly.

He put his hand over his heart in mock dismay. "What kind of woman did you marry, Bae?" he asked.

"One who knows the true value of things. Just like you did, dad," Bae quickly came back.

Gold sighed. "Yeah, I guess you're right."

"You happy?" Bae asked him.

Gold considered all the ways that he was happy. His wife, his children, his health, his work, his leisure. "Couldn't be happier."

"So what are you hoping for?" Bae asked him.

"More of the same. Continued health and safety for my family and employees, if I have to say one thing."

"That's more than one thing," James pointed out, "But no one would argue with you."

Last came Belle, "I want good sense. Good sense to enjoy what I have and not spend time regretting things I didn't do and things I can't do or things I just won't get around to doing. No regrets."

"Excellent," said Mary Margaret and all the adults toasted Belle.

Later that evening, Gold and Belle sat in their spacious bedroom, sitting in front of the large windows that opened out onto a balcony. They had glasses of red wine and were sipping them.

"Nice Christmas," Gold told his wife.

"Very nice," she agreed.

"Love that dress," he told her.

"Thought you might," she told him.

"We are blessed, aren't we?" he asked.

"We are," she agreed.

He finished his wine with every intention of taking his beautiful wife into his arms when . . .

"Mommy-Daddy! Mommy-Daddy! Mommy-Daddy! Mommy-Daddy!"

They could hear their youngest from down the hallway.

Gold held his hand out to Belle. "Let me go, darling. I have a plan."

"What are you going to do?"

He grinned at her. "What else? I'm gonna make a deal with the little guy."

A.N. I've been familiar with the grocery story for awhile now; one of my reviewers shared that it originated with Jeanne Robertson - would certainly like to give her credit.

A.N. Special thanks to all those reviewers who found the time to send me a kind comment (I'm so impressed as I'm so behind in reading and reviewing all the stories that have come in from many of you): Aletta-Feather, CharlotteAshmore, LMAO (Guest), Grace5231973, crystalelkin, EevyLynn, BellyDancingDiva, DruidKitty, crazykat77, spacecats, cynicsquest, Chaos Queen (Guest), jewel415, RoxyMoron, MyraValhallah, and Erik'sTrueAngel