Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree
© 2011 Delia Latham
If she never heard "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" again, it would be too soon.
Jo Callihan eased her car into the narrow garage under her apartment and heaved a weary sigh. Christmas music had completely taken over the sound system at the department store where she worked. She'd lost track of the number of times she'd been subjected to Brenda Lee's slightly raspy version of that one song in the past eight hours.
Thank God for a quiet place to come in the evenings, and a reprieve from the frenzied rush of shoppers, each one determined to outshine, outsmile, and outspend the last.
She slid her key into the lock, eager to get inside, to a break from the constant assault of seasonal festivities. Pine trees loaded with hundreds of costly ornaments. Twinkling lights of every imaginable color, strung in the most unexpected places. Angels. Stars. Nativities. Santas and elves and reindeer galore.
To say nothing of the irritating onslaught of Christmas melodies taking the world by storm.
Well, not in her home. She'd written Christmas off a year ago, and had no plans to get caught up in it ever again. Watching the only man she could ever love walk away without a backward glance on Christmas eve had forever soured her outlook on the whole happy-happy-joy-joy Christmas thing.
She pushed the door open, reached in to flick on the light…and gasped.
The spicy aroma of hot apple cider permeated the apartment, along with a pungent pine smell that tickled her nostrils. Her breath caught in her throat as she silently took a backward step, pulling the door with her and closing it as silently as she could.
Had that been Christmas music playing softly from her living room?
No. Not her living room.
She was obviously more tired than she'd realized. Apparently she'd pulled into the wrong garage and walked into the wrong apartment.
Your key opened the door. It's your place, Jo.
Then she'd somehow stepped into an alternate universe. When she opened the door again, she'd be back in her own world, and her own rather austere apartment.
But she wasn't. A tentative push of the door released the same smells…and the same Christmas song slicing through the air. "Silver Bells", a la Vince Gill.
Oh, no. Not in my house!
She took a couple of determined steps into the kitchen and set her purse on a dining chair, then tiptoed to the arched doorway between the kitchen and living room. Beyond, she could see the flicker of candlelight. When she peeked around the edge of the doorframe, she gasped.
She hadn't put up a five-foot tree and hung at least a hundred ornaments on it.
Had she? Was she going stark, staring, certifiably looney tunes?
Before she could fully capture enough air into her lungs, a familiar voice from behind her stole it away again.
Her breath caught in her throat—possibly forever—and she swung slowly around to face her visitor.
Dean fought for breath as Jo turned those stunning green eyes on him. He'd always been hopeless and helpless against them, and nothing had changed.
A year away from this woman, and he still loved her. Adored her. Absolutely could not imagine living without her.
"D- Dean?" Jo took a backward step, felt for the armchair against the wall and sank into it without taking her shocked gaze off his face. "What—?" She pulled in a hitching breath and let it out slowly. "What are you doing here?"
" I don't intend to spend another Christmas without you, Jo Leigh Callihan. This has been the longest year of my life." He eased away from the wall. It had supported him while he absorbed the impact of seeing her for the first time in…well, it would be a year tomorrow. She had filled every waking moment and more sleeping ones than could possibly be healthy during the entirety of that time.
"I don't understand."
The hurt in her gaze tore at his insides like sharp talons. But didn't he also see something else…a tiny ray of hope? A hesitant, fearful hint of joy?
He crossed the room and knelt at her side. "I know you don't, darlin'. And it's going to take a bit of time to bring you up to date with what's been going on in my life since this time last year."
His hand covered hers before he knew he meant to touch her, and he held his breath, fully expecting her to snatch it away and tell him to hit the road. He wouldn't blame her if she did. He'd hurt her. Deeply.
But not as deeply as he loved her. Only because he loved Jo had he been able to stay away so long. To keep her safe. Alive.
She didn't pull her hand away. She didn't respond at all…just sat there with unshed tears making her eyes shine like great big, emerald pools of sadness.
"Jo? Are you okay?"
She drew a shuddering breath, and her body followed suit…shaking so hard he felt its vibration in the hand that still rested beneath his own.
Dean narrowed his eyes and studied her pale face and frozen gaze. The enormity of the shock he'd subjected her to began to register in his own mind.
He'd been so eager to see her, thrilled to be released from that interminable period of silence and seclusion, of staying far from Jo to ensure her safety while he tried to keep himself alive.
The hiding was over. He could return to his life.
To his Jo.
But looking at her now, he thought perhaps he should have handled their reunion with a little more finesse.
He placed a hand on each side of her face and forced her to look at him.
"Jo, I love you. I've always loved you, darlin'." He slid a thumb down her cheek and touched her trembling lips. He still remembered how soft they were. "Please…say something."
She blinked. Narrowed her eyes. Looked at him as if she couldn't figure out who he was.
Then her lips tightened and she pushed his hands away from her face.
"You left me, Dean Barrister. Just walked away and left me standing on the beach, crying. You never looked back, and you never called." Her voice rose, and he heard hysteria just below the surface. "Not one call, Dean. Not a single one."
She jumped to her feet, nearly knocking him backward. He grabbed hold of the armchair and managed not to fall flat on his behind.
Her eyes flashed like green lightning.
"How dare you say you love me now?" She strode through the small kitchen and jerked the door open. "Get out!"
Dazed, he managed to get his feet underneath him, turned and trudged through the kitchen while the deep, dulcet voice of "the King" filled the sudden silence. "I'll have a blue Christmas without you…"
Truer words had never been spoken.
To Be Continued....