Tanya Eby of my writing group challenged us to write a short story about a Christmas party. Here’s my entry, starring Gabe and Betty, from Tall, Dark and Slayer, available next week from champagne books.
The only Christmas cards that concerned me two nights before the big day were the queens of hearts, clubs and spades I gripped and the possible straight my ex-lover held. If he was bluffing, I’d win a pound of cashews. If he won, I’d have to sacrifice my Kona coffee. I’d be damned if that happened, so I didn’t have time for distractions like the dozen or so guests – half of them vampires – crammed into my Brooklyn apartment, the rapidly disappearing seven layer dip or Christmas cards.
Not true. One card preyed on me like a safari hunter on the Kenyan plains. It taunted me from where it lay, half propped against the toaster, oh so casually reminding me its sender.
Al Banks. My biological father, although I say it as if I had been adopted and had another dad waiting in the wings. No such luck. Al had brought me up on the road as he ran one scam after another, teaching me the tricks of the trade along the way. I could only imagine what scheme was tucked into the card along with the season’s greetings and pictures of snowmen.
“Your turn,” Vince reminded me. He snapped his fingers in front of my face. “Betty, are you with us?”
“Yeah, yeah, don’t get your panties in a bunch.” I laid the worthless three on the table and drew another card, hoping for the elusive queen of diamonds or another eight to make a full house. I hid my disappointment as a five showed up.
“Call, and raise you a vanilla scented candle.” I moved the gift bestowed on me earlier that evening to the center of the table. Hey, I was all about re-gifting.
As Vince drew his card, his face unreadable, the hand of my current lover settled on my shoulder. I didn’t turn around, but warm fuzzies settled over me. Gabe had that effect on me.
“You two about done? Rachel needs a ride home.”
He’d said the words too loud for a whisper as he leaned forward to kiss my neck. I glanced at Vince and caught the flash of excitement and the even briefer flash of resignation on his face. Excitement because, strange as it seemed, he’d honed in on Gabe’s sister the minute I’d broken up with him. All the better for him as she had a ready-made family, and I’d danced around commitment for months. Resignation – well, now I knew he didn’t hold a winning hand. Hello, cashews.
He didn’t even try to bluff further but laid down his cards, one short of the straight I thought he had. He pushed the cashews toward me even as he reached for his coat, slung over the kitchen chair.
“Nicely done,” I whispered to Gabe as I stood.
He placed a hand on my arm. “You okay? This party isn’t too much for you, is it?”
How had he picked up on my distraction? I’d admit I’m not the most social of creatures, but a Christmas party? Pffft. A call to the local deli and the help of my best friend, Darcy, who happened to be Vince’s sister and a Vamp, made things easy-peasy.
“Everything’s fine.” I dealt with vampires every day, but a harmless Christmas card spooked the beejesus out of me. I kept my gaze from the that portion of the countertop.
“If you’re sure.”
“No problem. Let me say good-bye to Rachel.” I loved Gabe, a new phenomenon for me, but I didn’t need him hovering over me like…like a father.
Don’t know what that’s like. Al hadn’t exactly been the poster boy of great dads. I couldn’t understand him sending me a card, unless he’d already embroiled me in another of his schemes. I hadn’t recovered from the con he’d tried to pull over Halloween. I didn’t know whether to admire or curse his gutsiness.
I found Rachel in the bedroom, extracting her coat from under a mound of others. I pushed aside a stray pillow and snagged her scarf.
“Thanks for doing this,” she said as I handed it over.
“What? You need a scarf. It’s colder than a witch’s – ” For once, I stopped my stream-of-conscious mouth. I really didn’t know her that well.
Her gray eyes, so like Gabe’s, locked on me. “Not for that. For hosting the party. We never had good Christmases growing up. He might not show it, but it does make a difference to Gabe.”
“Oh. Yeah, of course.” I recovered quickly. I’d agreed to a party for selfish reasons. I’d made it a point to celebrate the holidays since I’d established a permanent place. Fixing Gabe’s childhood trauma hadn’t occurred to me, but it should have.
“I knew you’d understand.” Unexpectedly, she hugged me. “I never had a sister.”
A sister? Until recently, she’d been a customer, ordering Heat-N-Go artificial blood from me. I guess it was time I started thinking of her as family. A disconcerting thought.
“Thanks. I never had a sister, either.” I extracted myself as diplomatically as possible and was saved from faking intimacy or saying something stupid by the entrance of two other guests.
Vince’s eagerness to take Rachel home had signaled the breakup of the party. I spent the next few minutes retrieving coats and wrapping leftovers. Saying good-bye, surprisingly, hit me harder than I’d thought. I’d grown to like these people – my lawyer and his wife, Rachel, even Marcus, Gabe’s enigmatic ex-boss.
Gabe closed and locked the door behind the last guest. I’d switched off most of the lights, only the tree remained on, its twinkling not enough to hide snowflakes swirling outside the window.
He enveloped me in his arms, and his familiar scent of cloves and leather drifted to me. We stood in the darkness for several moments, enjoying the quiet and each other’s company. We hadn’t been alone all day.
“You gave a great party, Betty. Everyone enjoyed themselves. Thank you.” He snuggled me closer.
“Hey, Mercer, you’re not going all sentimental on me, are you?” The party had been a little stressful, the arrival of Al’s card even more. I didn’t need a lover with shaky emotions to round off the evening.
He chuckled, and I felt the vibration. “I’m a vampire slayer. Nerves of steel, remember?”
Right. Mr. Tall, dark and slayer, international man of mystery. “I’ve seen your softer side.”
He grunted in a macho, you-are-so-wrong way. “Don’t blow my cover, okay?” He nuzzled my neck, and my knees threatened to give way. “Good party. Good food. Good friends. Thank you.”
“’Twarn’t nothing, sheriff.” I tried to keep the tone light. A lump of emotion clogged my throat.
“Uh-huh. I know you’ve been distracted.”
His hand under my sweater distracted me. The rasp of his beard against my neck distracted me. Anything else? Pffft. “I can think of one or two ways to make me focus.”
Gabe moved, drawing me with him. But instead of heading toward the bedroom, he led me into the kitchen.
“I think the whipped cream is gone. Unless you want to do something kinky with the leftover cranberry sauce, but I’m warning you, that stuff stains like crazy.”
“Betty, you’re a nut.” He stopped and reached across me. A moment later, he held up the Christmas card.
Thoughts of romance crashed around me like broken crystal. “Oh.”
“Time to face the truth.”
“Gabe – ” I couldn’t understand his motive. He’d seen the destructive side of my father.
“It’s like pulling off a Band-Aid. The quicker you do it, the sooner you can heal.”
“I don’t need him. You’re my family now. You and Rachel. Vince, in a weird way sometime in the future. Darcy and probably Marcus, though I’ll never understand that attraction.”
“Stop babbling and open the card. It can’t be as bad as your imagination thinks it is.” He waved the card under my nose.
“Oh, I’ve got a pretty vivid imagination.” His gray eyes showed no mercy. I snatched the envelope from him. “All right. Al Banks didn’t raise a coward.”
Gabe leaned against the counter, smugness showing in every pore. He snapped on the light over the stove.
I ripped open the envelope and pulled out the card. The front pictured two teams of snowmen playing hockey. I flipped it open to read the message.
A smaller envelope dropped out. I grabbed it before it hit the floor.
“More trouble.” It had the weight of an anvil. Or sword. Or bomb.
“Maybe not. Did he write anything on the card?”
“’Sorry I couldn’t be there to help celebrate your first Christmas together.’ A good thing if you ask me. Not a sentimental man, Al Banks. We probably won’t see him for a couple of years, or whenever his luck runs out.”
“Such a cynic on Christmas Eve Eve.”
He enjoyed this too much. I glanced at the stove clock. “Christmas Eve now. I suppose I can’t put this off any longer.”
I unfolded the packet and froze.
“Betty?” Gabe surged toward me.
My hand shook as I held out the contents.
Gabe held them up to the light. I watched his face change from suspicion to awe.
“Open ended tickets to Hawaii?”
“He does have a lot of air miles.” I couldn’t believe the old man had coughed up such an expensive present, but he’d always treated me like a princess when he’d been flush. “I hope he didn’t scam anyone to get them. They are in our names, right?”
Gabe glanced at them again, then he froze.
“Gabe?” What had he seen?
I snatched the tickets from him. The first read Gabriel Hawk Mercer. The second –
A smile transformed his face. I’d never seen him look so pleased. “I like the sound of that. A lot.”
Our relationship had never been traditional, why should his proposal be ordinary? I’d expected panic, but this felt natural and right.
I let the cards and tickets drift to the floor. I’d pick them up later. “I do, too. A lot.”
Family is where you find it, and I’d finally found mine.
(to read how Betty and Gabe met and their adventures to this point, purchase Tall, Dark and Slayer from Champagne Books after 1-2-12.)