by Julian Keys
Noel Larkin’s hyper-holiday spirit is a mystery to both her boyfriend, Roland and her dour accountant, Benjamin. So when charming Hank, a non-profit organizer, re-appears in her life, Noel was delighted. At last she’d found romantic harmony, or so she thought. Then comes Christmas Eve and revelations that shake her faith in all three men. Can anyone restore her Christmas spirit to her before her birthday arrives the next morning? It would take an act of selfless charity to do so. (F/M)
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Chapter 2: Holly Jolly
Music was always playing in Noel’s head, even during sex. That evening she found herself lost in the Christmas lullaby “All Through the Night.” Inappropriate as it was, she couldn’t stop trying to make slow, sultry love to it. Roland, however, was moving to a different beat. He pushed deep inside her, then bucked his hips as if drumming, growling all the while, “Oh, yeah, fuck, yes!”
Noel rocked with languid eroticism in response, keeping to the cadence of the song. O’er thy spirit, gent-ly steal-ing, Her clit pulsed. Visions of de-light re-veal-ing… She gasped as Roland pinched her nipples. Shock and stimulation followed, but she wished he’d stroke her areolas instead, that he’d take the time to really tease her. She ground her hips, hoping to cue him. He missed the hint entirely and raced ahead. Noel finally surrendered to his rhythm and allowed herself to respond.
“Fuck yeah!” Roland shouted, leaving Noel drowning in white noise.
A while later, feasting on honey-glazed ham sandwiches, Noel forgave Roland for not being in tune with her. He was the manager of a store specializing in electric guitars, drums and amps; his beat, marked with unpredictable accelerandos, often ran counter to her own. As she had the wider musical range, from jazz and opera to rock and country, she felt it up to her to keep pace with him; but she wished he’d at least try to match her tempo now and then. She couldn’t help wondering what Hank’s musical tastes were like.
“It’s good to see you again,” she said to Roland. “I was beginning to doubt your existence.”
“Hey, I miss you, too, babe. I especially miss catching sight of you walking into the store, a basket of sandwiches like these,” he waved a half-eaten wedge, “over your arm. The food from the convenience store is shit.”
“That’s it? You miss me bringing you lunch?”
He grinned. “That and our strolls through the park, and hearing you talk about your day. How was your day?”
An awkward segue. They really weren’t harmonizing tonight. She told him of her students, her concern for Jill and her meeting with Hank and Mona. When she mentioned Benjamin’s antics, he stopped eating and frowned.
“He’s almost done, right? With all this inheritance stuff?”
“He’ll be finished once and for all by New Year’s. After that, I’ll only have to see him at tax time.”
“I wish you wouldn’t see him at all after that,” Roland asked. “I really don’t like him. I mean, I keep feeling like… I dunno, like he’s got dead girls in his basement and you’re going to be next.”
“What a thing to say,” she laughed. “He might be a bit of a pill, but he’s hardly that bad.”
Roland touched on her hand, his expression gone serious. “You’re too charitable; I mean, I love that about you, how you always want to believe the best about people. But sometimes you shouldn’t. For my sake, once things are settled, drop him. Better yet, let me introduce you to my accountant. He’s friendly and he never wears black.”
Noel laughed, though the idea unsettled her, as if she were being asked to give up the long, dark nights that made Christmas lights so bright. And that, if anything, made the point to her. Roland was right. Time to shoo away the bleak raven and find a cheery blue bird. “After New Year’s,” she agreed.
The day before Christmas dawned gray and overcast with a new blanket of snow on the ground. Noel, up at seven, sat at the kitchen table drinking down coffee and yawning.
“Did you stay up late watching another holiday movie?” Roland asked pouring java into one of her snowman mugs.
She yawned again and nodded.
He dropped toast into the toaster. “What was it this time? Another version of It’s a Wonderful Life? A modern remake of A Christmas Carol?”
She shook her head. “Good-hearted elves nearly mess up Christmas.”
“Ah. That one,” he said tolerantly, and Noel couldn’t help but compare his friendly acceptance to Benjamin’s scorn.
“Do you mind?” she found herself asking, “The way I indulge in Christmas, I mean.”
“You mean: candy cane hand towels, sugar-cookie scented shampoo, a poinsettia patterned welcome mat and that comforter on the bed with nutcrackers and ballerinas? Not at all.”
She laughed. “It’s a duvet, not a comforter. And I did warn you when we got together what you could expect.”
“Babe, there was no warning you could have given me back in August that could’ve prepared me for this—this transformation of your home into Santa’s Village.”
“It’s not that bad!”
“Close enough.” The toast popped and Roland brought it over. “But hey, it’s all very you: sweet and charming. I get it. All except watching every single holiday movie no matter how awful.”
She smiled and reached for the apple-cranberry jam. “All year long we’re bombarded with the message that we need to be ruthless. To always want our side to win, even if it means destroying the opposition. If someone hurts us, we’re supposed to bring out big guns and start shooting.” She shook her head. “It’s like, if you’re kind or giving, you’re an idiot. In December, however, the world changes its mind. For only twenty-five days, but still. Everything you see or hear reminds you to care about others, to think about them and not yourself.”
She took a nibble of toast and jam, enjoying the tart-sweet flavor. “That’s why I try to catch all the Capraesque movies… and listen to all the Christmas carols and display every holiday card. Because I don’t want to miss a minute of those precious, twenty-five days. When else is the world in sync with me?”
“That’s very nice, but you’ve got a brunch to perform at and those movies have left you half-asleep.”
“I can play any Christmas song you’d care to name with my eyes closed.”
“The way you’re yawning, you may have to. Speaking of which, I’m really sorry, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to watch you play today.”
She sighed. “You said you could get a few hours.”
“I know, I know, but one of the part-time salesgirls came down with the flu yesterday, and, well, I’ve some last minute shopping to do myself.” He wagged his brows. “See you tonight? My place? I’ll be picking up that dinner you ordered; all you have to do is remember the wine.”
Noel forced away her disappointment and smiled. He was right. They were going to have all night together and all tomorrow: her birthday and favorite day of the year. What else mattered? “Tonight’s movie features a wayward angel who saves a family’s Christmas. I’ll keep a spot open on the couch.”
Noel sat on the red velvet divan, eating her brunch and listening to the shrieks and laughter of children. So far, the party had proved an unqualified success. It had started at nine in the morning on a steep, snowy hillside. Armed with a dozen donated sleds, the kids had taken to that hill, racing each other on down, sometimes tumbling off, sometimes crashing.
Noel had watched with the other adults, cheering them on, until, of course, gloved hands had grabbed hold of hers. “Come on, Miss Larkin! You have to give it a try—”
So up the hill she’d trudged. Flat on her stomach, clinging to the sides of the sled, she’d had second thoughts until someone had given her a push. Snow had spit up, pelting her in the face, and she’d screamed as she hit the bumps. At last, she’d reached the bottom, gliding to a stop. She’d dragged the sled back up and done it again, and again. She would have kept doing it, but the whiny kids had demanded their sled back. Spoil sports!
Hungry and frozen, the party had retired to the farmhouse for brunch. Owned by a retired author of children’s books, it was a wonderful place, filled with a mix of rustic furniture and eccentric pieces like the divan. Divested of jackets and galoshes, the kids had grabbed hold of TV trays with Christmas-tree-shaped waffles in the largest area. The adults had been treated to crepes stuffed with caramelized pears and pecans. There were maple sausages, orange slices and hot chocolate or coffee to round it out.
This, Noel thought, as she forked up bites of crepe, was heaven. Exactly what a holiday home ought to be like, the fire blazing, toy trains zipping about the tree, a gingerbread house detailed with marzipan wreaths and gumdrop cobblestones. And guests. A great many guests all warming themselves in each other’s company.
Christmas had been like this when Noel was little, a big gathering of family and friends, noisy and lively. She remembered tearing about the house with other children, new toys in her hands, parents picking up torn wrapping paper and discarded ribbons. Her birthday had been the best day of the year back then. As the years passed, however, so did the friends and relatives. Some left due to age or illness, others moved away or married and started spending Christmas with their new families.
By the time Noel’s father died, only she and her mother had been left to sit around the tree opening presents. These last two Christmases there’d been only Noel.
Well, she reflected, this year I’ll have Roland. Oddly, however, that thought didn’t warm her in quite the way it should. Why was that?
“I saw you racing down the hill,” a charming voice said, and she felt her heart jump like a spark from a fireplace log. Hank was smiling down at her. “I had no idea you were into extreme sports.”
Her pulse sped up. “There are a lot of things you don’t know about me,” she said, which was deliberate flirting and so what? She glanced about. “Where’s Mona?”
His face darkened and his eyes slid away. “She had to stay behind and take care of some business. In fact, I need to talk to you about that. Not now, but maybe later?”
Noel was taken aback. This sounded serious. “Of course,” she said, and was about to say more when Mrs. Rothmore, the organizer of the party, rang a bell.
“Welcome, foster parents, to our annual party,” she said once everyone had quieted down. “I don’t know if the children have managed to keep it a secret from you, but they’ve got some special presentations.”
The adults reacted with an “Ohhhh,” as if surprised and applauded as the first child was introduced. A series of vignettes followed: a girl in pink tights dancing to the Waltz of the Snowflakes; a boy performing a couple of magic tricks; another reciting a portion of “Visit from St. Nick.” In between were the musical performances. Hank’s quartet of choir kids sung a lovely rendition of “Oh, Holy Night.” Then there were Noel’s students: Tom strumming out “Jingle Bell Rock” on guitar; Debra picking out “Sleigh Ride” on banjo.
Jill’s turn and Noel held her breath as the girl settled onto the bench, pushed up her glasses and bravely set her fingers on the keys. Deck the hall with boughs of holly… the notes diligently marched along, then, Fa-la-la-la-la… hesitation so brief only Noel noticed it, La-la-la-la. Perfect! Noel silently cheered. Go Jill!
The girl got through the second set of “fa-la-las,” her tempo picking up. There were stumbles, but Noel couldn’t have been more proud. The final “La!” note played, Jill stood and basked in her achievement. And Benjamin said these kids wouldn’t remember this, Noel reflected, as she joined in on the applause.
“Fantastic!” she mouthed to the girl.
The last child performed and now it was Noel’s turn. She brought forward her harp and everyone in the room stilled as her fingers dropped that first glorious note. People so rarely heard harp music that they forgot how beautiful it was, the instrument of angels. Sensing that she had them, she started in on “Bring a Torch,” using those strings and the carol’s novel, 3/8 time to take everyone back to early yuletides. From there Noel melted seamlessly into “Merrily on High,” with all its tingling notes. Smiles appeared and the kids bounced along, like raindrops on a sidewalk.
“A Holly Jolly Christmas” was her finale. A jazzy, laughing tempo that allowed her to surrender to that melodic current. She felt the stings under her fingers, the vibrations through the frame of the harp, the rapt attention of the audience. There was no more intimate connection for Noel than this, as she gifted herself to people with the music she loved. Finished, she accepted the applause. Then, calling the children forward, she led the room in a rousing if off-tune rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
“And a Happy New Year!” rang to the rafters. Everyone cheered and hugged and then the kids were urged to look under the tree. They excitedly pounced on the gifts, searching for and finding books, candy, and secret-Santa presents. Paper was torn, boxes opened, and the prizes within shown off.
“We should talk now,” Hank reappeared at Noel’s side.
“Yes, certainly,” Noel said, and they retired down the hall to an empty sewing room.
“Nice playing, by the way,” Hank said, shutting the door behind them. It wasn’t the response she’d hoped from him, especially in regards to her music, but he obviously had other things on his mind.
“Thank you.” She nervously tugged at her sweater. “Um… has there been a problem?”
He looked very grave, as if the light within him had been doused. “I… have to give you back the checks,” he admitted, pulling them from his pocket.
Noel’s stomach dropped and she felt her cheeks go hot. The first thing that popped to her mind was that Benjamin had made a mistake, fouled things up. “Didn’t they go through?”
“It isn’t that,” Hank said, running a hand through his blond hair. “We’re being investigated.”
Hank shrugged and tried to smile. “Mona and I have been accused of siphoning off funds, child exploitation and well, fraud.” He offered a half-hearted laugh.
“I just wish the accuser, whoever they are, had waited till after the holidays,” he said sadly. “We learned this morning that our assets have been frozen. There are a lot of things we bought on credit that we’ll have to return.”
“You don’t… know who filed these charges?” Noel murmured. The crepes she’d eaten were threatening to come back up. No, no. He wouldn’t.
“Not a clue.”
He wouldn’t, Noel insisted. But in her gut, she knew he had.
“On the day before Christmas,” Hank sighed. “Can you believe it?”
No. she couldn’t. “I’ll take back the checks,” she said, “And see about getting you some cash to tide you over.”
“That’s beyond the call of duty, Noel,” Hank said, gazing at her with warmth and relief. “Even for a saint like you. But thank you. I knew you’d understand.”
She understood all right. And her charitable thoughts toward Benjamin finally reached their limit.
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