Jules stared at the damn mistletoe over her head. God, she hated Christmas! Her mother went nuts once a year, and the house began to resemble a kitschy Baptist church pageant. She stood in the hallway dripping from the rain and the mud outside the two story farm house out in the middle of nowhere.
That was when she heard the voice. THE voice.
“Little Jewel! You’re home.”
Two strong arms banded her side and swung her around. She hung on as she started to feel sick. “Doug, put me down. Put me down.” The last was said as she swatted at his hands holding on so tight she could barely breathe. He hefted her over a shoulder in a fireman’s carry. Aunt Margerie tottered through the hallway and hiccuped. Jules rolled her eyes. Margerie was a raging alcoholic with chronic arthritis pain. She had to be seventy five if she was a day. “Aunt Margie, make Doug put me down!”
She tittered and hiccuped. “Oh, you kids. Merry Christmas, Julie.” With that, she slowly tottered down the hall, probably in search of schnapps. Meanwhile, Jules was hauled down the back hallway and into the basement game room. He hit her head on the paneling as they went with a light thump.
“Ow!” She hit his ass hard.
“Mom! Mom!” She called down the hall, but no one came. “Doug, you freak. Put me down or so help me god, I will throw up on your shoes.”
He merely rumbled a laugh.
They made it to the far corner of the game room, past the large creche near the fireplace. Is that actual straw? She thought, alarmed. Doug dropped her to her unsteady, weary feet and spun her around to face him. Before she could shout obscenities, he dropped his mouth on hers like a New Year’s Eve ball. She pushed a little, but then the inevitable happened. She kissed him back.
Winding tongues and wandering hands explored territory they hadn’t been in for years. He was part of the reason she stayed away. Doug grabbed her rear and lifted her against the wall, pressing her between him and the plaster. She lost her mind when he hit that spot on her neck with hungry, searching lips, the one he always knew to hit. Her arm searched for something to hold onto. She groped for a hand hold on the wall, and knocked off a glass angel instead. The thing shattered, and all she could feel was Doug’s mouth and the damn wall.
“What was that?” It was her mother’s nasally voice. “Did you break something important?”
She hit his shoulder with the flat of her palm, tapping out of the kiss. “NO, Mom! It’s fine.”
Doug bit her ear, making her inhale sharply.
“You and Dougie need to stop roughhousin’.”
Dougie laughed into the next kiss and the next, until she finally got her mind back to forming thoughts and words. Thoughts like; Doug is a farm boy. He’s never leaving West Prairie, Missouri. Words like no.
She tapped out of the kiss one more time. “Doug, this never works.”
Short of breath and out of options, she pushed using her legs against the wall. Stumbling, he let go of her. “You can’t do that anymore”, she said stepping back and away. “And you better clean up Mama’s angel ‘fore she finds out.”
Her southern came out when she got upset. She cringed and tried to lower the hick factor.
He just stood there with those big, brown bedroom eyes, staring a sexy hole right through her designer clothes. “Merry Christmas, Jules.”
She faltered, glared at him uncertainly, and waving a hand low, said the only thing she could. “Merry Christmas”. She ran up the basement stairs two at a time.
Doug had grown up just down the road. They’d spent summers swimming in the creek and walking the dirt road to each other’s houses. They’d been dragged to the same church, gone to the same prom, and even lost their virginity in the same car. His daddy’s old Ford Ranger, and that wasn’t simple to do. He’d been her first everything since as far back as she could remember, and every time she came home it started again. She was a flame he just refused to put out.
Jules just wasn’t equipped for this. It had been one hell of a week already. She’d worked her last day with the firm as a legal assistant. They were downsizing, they said. It wouldn’t last long, they said. Jules did damn good work, and she should have been an associate by now. If the economy hadn’t tanked, again, she probably would be, instead of jobless. At Christmas.
The kitchen was warm and smelled of cinnamon and ham. Her mother wore an old apron with gingerbread men on it and her perpetual smile. She took a sheet of cookies out of the smallish oven and kissed her daughter on the cheek. “You look terrible”, she said.
“No, I mean it. What are you doing in St. Louis besides losing weight? You look like one of the anemic girls.”
“Bulimic, Mom, and I don’t have that. It’s just been a hard few weeks.”
“So, you saw Dougie?”
“Yes,” she growled. “Where’s Daddy?”
“He’s got to see about that part for the gin before the workers are all dismissed for the season.”
Jules helped her mother pull the ham out of the oven. It was huge and smelled of pineapple and spices. Her stomach growled. Her mother flipped out like it was a four alarm fire, probably started by a creche with real straw by a fireplace.
“Why didn’t you get some food, Jules?” She scolded without asking what her daughter wanted. Like any true farm mama would do, she just filled a plate with everything handy.
“Probably because Doug can’t stop rough housing.”
He entered the kitchen door just then and shook a finger at her. “She knows she loves it. Hello again, Miss Norma. Hey, sweet thing.” He smirked. She glared.
Every Christmas was the same. It was an epic battle of wills, Thunder Dome. He pushed, and she pulled away.
“You’re going caroling tonight, right?” He snitched a bite of pineapple licking the juice off his thumb in that sexy way men have of doing something wrong and getting away with it so easily. She reached for one of the off limits pieces of pineapple and her mother swatted her hand.
“Git out of that. That’s for supper, Julie Anne, I swear.” Jules growled at Doug who stood blatantly laughing at her. She shot him the bird. He made the international symbol for “bring it” with two fingers.
She slid from the counter stool, uncertain again in the face of that sexy smirk.
“Your sister wanted you to go caroling with the girls, Julie”, her mother informed her. She sighed. Of course, she did. Janet was on Doug’s side.
“I’ll go, Mama. I just need to change.”
Her mother smiled beatifically. “That’s my good girl. You have a sweater in your closet. From Aunt Rachel.”
She groaned softly. Another ugly Christmas sweater. It was barely cold outside. Obediently, Jules went upstairs to change.
Somewhere between God rest ye merry gentlemen and Away in a Manger, Jules relaxed. Her sweater wasn’t the worst she’d had. It was a simple Christmas tree with 3D gifts under it. It had been much, much worse. She thought back to the Santa that looked like a leering perv with a shudder. Doug remained glued to her side. The girls remained glued to her other side.
She supposed there were worse things than being universally wanted, she thought, smugly.
Amy and May were tow-headed angels until Janet showed up and then they threw a fit at the Parkers. Janet packed up the two and four year old with little warning and giving Doug a conspiratorial wink, took off, leaving her alone to ride home with him.
The night had grown chillier in just the last hour or so, and Julie shivered in the wind as they rounded the church parking lot right next to the elementary school playground. The equipment had changed over the years, but the layout remained the same. Doug gently took her hand and tugged her toward the swings.
Pushing her into one, he walked behind her and lifted the seat to let it go. “You look beautiful, you know that?”
“I look like a Hallmark card gone wrong”, she retorted. He snorted.
“Your mama says the firm let you go”, he said quietly.
“Don’t get too excited. I’m interviewing in January.”
He tugged the swing to a stop. “Hey, you have a job, if you want it.”
“I don’t want it that way. I never have.”
“Even if it meant we could be together? You still wouldn’t do it.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“Well, how simple is it?” Hands on his hips, he challenged her, and she balked. This was new.
“I… I don’t know how to answer that.”
“You’re a lawyer. Give it a shot.”
He was pushing. He never pushed. She felt her mouth go dry just like it did before Judge Halstead, the hard ass. Every time she’d had to deal with him on a filing, he had made her life hell.
“Why are you doing this?”
“Because, I’m tired of waiting. I want to know what I’m being punished for.”
She shook her head. “You aren’t being punished. I just want to live in St. Louis. I want to make it on my own.”
“That’s crap and we both know it.”
She swallowed. Maybe it was crap. She wasn’t sure anymore.
“It was what your dad did.”
That got her attention. “NO!”
“Yes.” He grabbed each of the chains on the swing staring down at her. “You ran about the time you found out he’d cheated on your mom. I’m on the shit list with him.”
She did something she never did. She shrank a little and looked at the ground, her loafers, anywhere but at Doug. “You aren’t on a shit list.”
Doug sighed and crouched next to the swing. He ran his hands up her thighs comfortingly, using her for balance. “Please, baby, tell me what it is so I can fix it.”
“It’s not anything”, she whispered.
“Why can’t you just take no for an answer, Doug? Why do you always have to push?”
“Because I love you. Because I think I can make this better, if you’ll let me.”
“For now, Doug. Nothing is forever.”
“Is that what this is? You don’t think it will last?”
“I have good source material on it.”
“No, you don’t”, he growled. He clutched her legs. “I’m not your dad, okay? I mean, I love your parents, but let’s not be blind to their faults. Your mom is on the shallow side, and your dad has an ego the size of the Empire State.”
She wanted to protest, but she couldn’t. He’d only told the truth. But, she hadn’t believed her father capable of it. She didn’t believe Doug was capable of disloyalty like that, but what if she was wrong?
He stood slowly. “Come on. It’s getting too cold.”
He walked her to his truck and opened the passenger door,. Lifting her into the seat, he plopped a chaste kiss on her lips. “Listen, I’m not going anywhere just at the moment.” He reached into his thermal shirt and pulled out a long chain. The ring he’d tried to propose with hung from the center.
“You’re wearing that?”
“Have for years”, he answered. “You want me. Take me. Okay,” He spread his arms. “Here I am. You want me to prove it a little more. I can do that. I’ve been waiting on you all my life, woman. I’m not going to stop now, but you should know something. It hurts like hell.”
She didn’t mean to hurt him. Swallowing back tears, she turned into the truck seat and sat back. How long had he been hurting? How much had she hurt him? He didn’t say anything else as he dropped her off, only kissed her goodnight and took off.
The following night was Christmas Eve. She and her mother and sister baked all day, and, at ten, the whole family prepared for Mass. Just like clockwork, Doug showed up around eleven to drive in with her. It was the tradition.
She’d spent every minute of the night last night and today distracted by thoughts of their conversation in the playground. Truth was, she loved him. He wasn’t just extended family. He wasn’t just her friend. He was a lover, a best friend, a soul mate, if such a thing existed. That’s why she feared him.
She’d seen her mother destroyed by infidelity, and she’d seen her struggle to forgive it, forget it and be the proper kind of wife. She’d never be that. Jules would tear down the town. She would implode if Doug rejected her love. It would be a spectacle the likes of which West Prairie had never seen.
They rode to the church and filed past the Father together. They listened to the mass with his arm around her neck and playing with her hair. It was familiar. It was intimate. Several times, she’d turned to see that smirk like he knew he’d gotten to her.
The two of them mingled after midnight mass and meandered out with the rest of the congregation. Young families hurried home first to prepare for Santa, then the Grandma’s and Grandpa’s. They all drifted away, until finally it was just Doug laughing with Father Micheal about a football game. Jules stood looking out into the cemetery yard. The gravestones made stark shadows in the bright moonlight combined with the street light from the corner. She heard the Father say, “Good night, you two”,
“Good night, Father”, she replied. Doug walked up behind her, softly touching her shoulder.
“Graveyard looks lonely on Christmas, don’t you think?”
“No,” She shook her head. “We knew about fifty percent of the occupants at one time or another. It looks lonely.”
“I’ve been thinking about what you said. And there are a few things you should know too.”
Looking over her shoulder, his face looked more than a little wary. “Okay”.
“I’m not mom.”
“That I know.”
“What I mean by that is? Should a man ever cheat on me, I won’t be long suffering or forgiving. I will be looking for payback. It should also be noted that I will be a lawyer in the near future.”
“Noted”, he said.
“Also, I love you, too.”
“I know. What do you mean, Jules? Spell it out for me here.” She loosened his Santa tie and wriggled a finger in to find the chain. Pulling it out, she toyed with it, watched the light bounce off the diamonds. “Jules, I’m dying here.”
“I’m taking you”, she said. His mouth dropped onto hers again, just like it had only a couple days before. He pulled back.
“Seriously? No take backs.”
She held out her pinky in a hook. “Pinky swear.” Instead of the pinky swear, he pushed her back against the cold cemetery gate making it rattle loud enough to wake the dead and kissed her senseless.
Merry Christmas to all, and, to all, a good night!