It was an unusually warm and sunny Saturday in late October. As Michael jogged along the trail that followed the river through the park, he took note of the brilliant reds, golds and yellows of the trees against the pure blue sky. It was truly a beautiful time of the year. A voice broke into his thoughts.
"Whoa! Maggie, that's too close!"
He saw a little girl, three or four years old, stop between the path and river farther down the way.
"Goothieth!" she called excitedly as she pointed toward the river. A boy a few years older ran up to the little girl, stopping beside her.
"Geese," corrected the boy in a slightly superior voice older brothers and sisters tend to use.
Michael, as the youngest of four, still recalled that tone. Well, that wasn't really so amazing as his eldest sister had used it just that morning when he talked to her on the telephone. He loved his family. He really did. Still, they were part of the reason he'd decided to apply for a position in this branch when it became available. Two hundred miles was not too far, but far enough, from his well intentioned but meddling older, married siblings.
The children were joined by a familiar woman as he neared them. She must have been the one to call out that warning. It seemed a good time to take a break from his run.
The young woman turned from the children to look at him. "Hello!"
Michael had taken notice of this woman with her bright smile when they'd shared an elevator his first day at his new job. She'd gotten off on the 4th floor while he'd continued up to the 7th floor where his new office was located. They exchanged 'good mornings' and the occasional remark on the weather while riding up in the elevator most mornings since then. He'd tried to think of something else to say. His usually excellent communication skills deserted him completely during their few minutes together. Her smile remained in his memory to brighten his entire day. How he missed seeing it when the weekends came around. Unlike many people, he looked forward to Mondays.
"It's a beautiful day."
"Yes, it is."
Now, he told himself, move beyond the weather. "It's a nice park." Like that was so much better.
"Yes, it is." She agreed again. He could tell from her grin that she wasn't going to help him out one bit. She was enjoying herself.
"Do you come here often?" he asked.
"Yes, the kids like it," she said.
He'd taken note of her bare ring finger the first day so wondered about the children with her.
The young boy interrupted their exchange. "Aunt Essie! Those people are feeding the geese."
Aunt? he thought to himself.
"I see that, Jamie," she said. "You do know why we don't, right?"
"Yeah. The signs say not to feed them."
"Yes, they do, because it's healthier for the birds. They need to learn to take care of themselves to stay wild."
"Aunt Ethie?" the little girl tugged on her aunt's arm.
Her aunt squatted down to the girl's level. "What is it, Maggie?"
"Who ith that?" she asked, pointing at Michael.
Michael smiled, watching the woman and little girl. "He works in the same office building that I do."
"Oh. He'th your friend?"
Michael decided to respond to the girl's question. "I hope so. My name is Michael Collins."
Essie looked up at him with that smile he had grown so attached to and simply said, "Mr. Collins, we've interrupted your run."
"Please, call me Michael."
"You really didn't interrupt anything," Michael reassured her. "I was just heading back to my car." He gestured toward the parking area.
"I see." Essie stood up.
"It was too nice a day to waste indoors on the treadmill."
"We're on our way to the playground," she explained as she started down the path in that direction.
"Do you mind if I walk with you ... Essie?" he asked.
"That's not really her name," piped up her nephew.
"It's not?" asked Michael at the same time.
"It is in a way. It's what my family calls me."
"But, not your friends?"
"No." He saw a sparkle in her eyes.
"And what do your friends call you?"
"What do you think they call me?"
"If you like."
Jamie looked from one adult to the other. His aunt was sure acting weird.
She broke out laughing, but shook her head. "You missed the turn off toward the parking lot."
"Yes. I'll see you Monday, Michael."
"Alright." Michael turned to head toward his car still puzzling over her name when he felt her hand on his arm. He turned toward her.
At his blank look, she added, "My name is Sarah."
"Yes. Sarah Elizabeth, actually. According to my brothers and sisters, I was always into some kind of trouble and had our mother resorting to calling me by both names. They started calling me by my initials, S. E."
"That's their story but I don't recall ever getting into trouble myself."
"Aunt Ethie, can I go on the thlide?"
"Just a minute, Maggie."
"Sarah ..." He hesitated. He thought of asking her out but decided to wait.
"Nothing. I'll see you Monday."
Sarah knew as she went to her brother's to babysit that evening that her meeting with Michael in the park would be the story of the day for her family. She had barely removed her jacket before the inevitable question was out of her brother's mouth.
"When were you going to tell us about this Mr. Collins?" asked her younger brother, Richard.
"Give her a chance to get in the door," admonished his wife, Jessie, as she entered the hall carrying twenty month old Ricky on her hip.
"I see the family grapevine has been active," said Sarah. "He just works in my building. I barely know him."
"Maggie told her mom he was very 'handthome,' " teased Jessie.
"I'd say she got that right," said Sarah with a smile. "Richard, hurry or you'll be late for the movie."
Sarah took Ricky from Jessie.
"Lorie just started watching a video. She knows it's bedtime as soon as the video is done," instructed Jessie as she put on her jacket.
"Go and have some fun!" ordered Sarah. "I have done this before you know. In fact, it seems like it was only a couple of weeks ago."
"I'm being silly, I know," said Jessie.
"No. You're just a good mom," assured Sarah.
"It's really so good of you to watch the kids while we go out Sarah."
"I love spending time with them," said Sarah.
"I know you do and they love you."
"Do I detect a 'but' in there?"
"Jessie," warned Richard.
"No 'but,' " said Jessie "We'll be back in a few hours."
After Richard and Jessie left, Sarah headed to the family room with Ricky, to look in on five year old Lorie.
"Hello, Lorie," she said as she sat down beside her on the couch.
The little girl had paused the Disney movie as Sarah entered the room. With her aunt now beside her she knelt on the couch to give a big hug. "Aunt Essie!"
Sarah hugged her back. Looking toward the television, she said,"That's a good one, isn't it?"
"Yep. Gonna watch with me, Aunt Essie?"
"Ricky's looking pretty sleepy so I think I'll get him settled in his crib. Then I'm all yours."
While preparing Ricky for bed, Sarah thought about her big family. She knew her meeting in the park would be reported by the kids to their parents, Sarah's older sister, Hannah and her husband. Hannah, in turn, would pass the information on to her eldest brother, Edward, as well as younger brother, Richard, and younger sister, Dinah. With Dinah's marriage last spring, Sarah was the only one still unmarried. She knew the family's reaction would be a mixture of hope that she had found someone and the belief that no one was good enough for their sister. Of course, it was all very silly and premature, but she'd been down this road before. With the years, the 'hopeful' side was jumping in more quickly all the time. Thirty wasn't really that old, she thought. Besides, she enjoyed her role as the maiden aunt, as she'd often called herself.
"Shall I rock you a little?" she asked Ricky, now garbed in his blanket sleeper. He was so tired his eyelids were already drooping. She sat on the wooden rocker and rocked her nephew. She loved children. There were times still she'd ache to have a child of her own, but that had dulled with time. Besides the time she spent with her nieces and nephews she did volunteer work with children. It was enough, she firmly told herself.
In the weeks since he'd met Sarah at the park, Michael had gotten to know her a little better and they'd even gone to a nearby coffee shop together at lunch a few times. As much as he was drawn to her, he hesitated to ask her out. At thirty-four, he'd been through several relationships and felt he'd lost a piece of himself with each. He wasn't ready for another one yet. It felt good to be away from the pressure of his brother and sisters' matchmaking attempts. Not that they'd truly given up. Seems each of the three had someone waiting for him when he visited at Thanksgiving. Three lovely young women they were, too. None had interested him in the least.
Michael had had one more chance meeting with Sarah. Just this past Saturday, he'd come across her in the mall, sitting on a bench with a baby only a few months old sleeping in her arms. The image had nearly stolen his breath. She looked so right with the baby. He went over and talked with her softly so as not to wake the baby. Just about the time the baby started to stir, two women, along with Maggie and Jamie, whom he'd met in the park, joined them. The children held candy canes and were excited to tell their aunt about their visit with Santa Claus. Sarah introduced the women as her sisters. Hannah, the older of the two, was mother to Jamie, Maggie and baby, Nate. The younger woman, Dinah, proudly patted her slightly round stomach, saying next year she'd be a mom too. Sarah had smiled at her sisters, but Michael thought he detected a very brief touch of sadness in her expressive eyes instead of her usual sparkle. The baby had started to cry about then and Sarah had given him to his mother. Hannah said he was hungry, so she and Dinah would leave with the kids, but suggested Sarah stay and talk to him. Sarah and Michael had gotten coffees at the food court and talked for awhile. Sarah had apologized for her sisters' transparent matchmaking attempts, but he'd laughed, telling her they were amatuers compared to his sisters. It was almost a date and it had felt pretty good. He had even driven her home after as she had lost her ride when her sisters left.
Yesterday, Sarah had visited the seventh floor looking for volunteers from the different offices for some Christmas programs with which she was involved. Michael had noticed good-natured grumbling from his co-workers, who dubbed her the resident elf as she got each to commit either time or a donation to at least one of the projects. He found her enthusiasm contagious and signed up for each of them, causing a few looks from his co-workers. He explained that he was new to the community and without family close, so had extra free time. Only to himself did he admit he was also motivated by the time he would get to spend with Sarah. It was Tuesday and tonight he'd be helping her pack Christmas hampers for needy families; as he would for the next two Tuesdays. Thursday evenings till Christmas he'd be sorting toy donations into age appropriate categories. He was also going to be carolling the afternoon of Christmas Eve on the children's ward at the hospital. He looked forward to all of it.
Michael, having suggested he drive Sarah to work on the Christmas hampers, was returning her home. He walked her to her door.
"Would you like to come in for a coffee or hot chocolate?" Sarah asked.
"That would be nice," replied Michael.
After hanging their jackets in the closet, Sarah went in the kitchen, asking as she went. "Hot chocolate or coffee?"
Michael followed her in to the kitchen, noting that it, like the hallway was decorated for Christmas. He really should do something with his apartment, he thought to himself. "Hot chocolate."
"Little marshmallows?" she asked.
"Sure. Doesn't everyone?"
Sarah laughed. "You would think so wouldn't you? Some people just don't appreciate the finer things."
Michael liked her laugh as much as he liked her smile and laughed with her.
They took their mugs into the living room. Michael, having seen the decorations in the hall and kitchen, was still amazed by the living-dining room. A six foot tree in a bay window area was beautifully decorated and already had many presents beneath it. Evergreen swags ran along the top of every wall, as well as around windows and doors, and along the mantle on the fireplace. Along the mantle, Nativity figures portrayed the original Christmas story. Arrangements of candles occupied the ends of the mantle. To one side of the fireplace, there were Victorian carollers that were four feet tall . The other side had a similar sized Santa sitting in a sleigh. Behind the sofa a quilt hung on the wall. It was made of squares representing the Twelve Days of Christmas. In a corner of the dining room section was a display of various sized wooden nutcrackers. And that was just the highlights! Sarah saw the expression on Michael's face.
"I love Christmas," she said.
"I see that," responded Michael. Then he realized the various lights had already been on when they entered the room. "Do you leave the lights on all the time?"
"No, they are all on timers," explained Sarah. "I don't trust myself to remember to shut everything off at night.
Sarah sat in the rocking chair and Michael took a seat on the couch. After taking a few sips from her mug, Sarah spoke.
"Michael, I'm afraid I have to ask you a question."
She nodded. "I promised the family I'd ask."
"First I should warn you that you have been the centre of much speculation amongst the troops."
"Yep. Here goes." Sarah took a deep breath. "My oldest brother has a big family get together to find and decorate a Christmas tree. He lives in the country and has a woodlot where we get one. In the spring, he plants new seedlings so the selection keeps increasing. Here's the question I promised to ask. Would you like to join us?"
Michael was surprised at the invitation and didn't speak right away.
"You really don't have to. I understand. I have gotten the feeling you don't really enjoy large family gatherings."
"I would like to join you."
"I thought I detected a 'but' in your acceptance."
"No. When is it?"
"Sunday. We meet at his house around 10 am and fortify ourselves with brunch before we head out. When the tree is all up and trimmed we have a pot luck supper together."
"It sounds like fun."
"You're sure? You will likely get grilled by my family."
"I can handle that if you can."
"I'm used to it and give as good as I get."
"How many will be there?"
"Hmmm. Let's see. My mother, my oldest brother, Edward, his wife and 4 kids, Hannah, whom you've met and her husband and 3 kids, my younger brother, Richard, with his wife and 2 little ones, and Dinah and her husband. That's the minimum. Sometimes there's friends as well."
"Wow! I thought my family had big gatherings."
"How many are there in your family?"
"I've two older sisters and an older brother, eight nieces and nephews from 6 to 21 years of age."
"Does it? I suppose it is in some ways."
Michael finished his drink. "I should be going."
"Yes, I guess so."
They got up and as they went down the hall, Michael spied a mistletoe ball hanging from the ceiling. As Sarah stepped under it he said "Stop!"
Sarah stopped and looked at him puzzled.
"You are under the mistletoe."
Sarah smiled and looked up. "So I am. I don't think about it being there."
"May I?" asked Michael.
"Collect a kiss?"
"Oh! Of course."
Michael came up to her and bent his head toward her. Sarah stood on tiptoe and reached her arms around his neck to steady herself. It was just a Christmas kiss, one that lasted longer than any other Christmas kisses she could recall receiving. When Michael broke the kiss, he retrieved his own jacket from the hall closet he had seen Sarah hang it in. Sarah still stood under the mistletoe, looking a bit dazed, but smiling. Michael decided this smile was even better than her good morning smiles. After donning his jacket, he gave her a brief kiss on the cheek.
"Good night, Sarah."
Sarah shook her head as if she was clearing it. "Um. Good night Michael. I'll see you in the morning."
"I look forward to it."
Sunday morning Michael picked up Sarah to take her to her brother's house. He looked forward to this, but dreaded it a bit too. He hoped his being along didn't cause too much trouble for Sarah. He once made the mistake of taking a girlfriend to a holiday family gathering. His sisters were talking of a wedding by the time the day was done. He worried for Sarah's sake, but she had assured him she could handle them. They'd had lunch together everyday since she had invited him. She'd told him all about the various members of her family during those meals, so he felt he knew them all. He'd surprised himself by telling her of his family, too. The surprise was that there were actually a lot of good times. How had he forgotten those? Why had only the stressful times been there colouring his feelings toward his family? He found he was actually missing them a bit with Christmas approaching.
Michael rang Sarah's doorbell. She opened the door, then immediately hurried away into the kitchen. He heard a microwave beeping and followed her.
"Sorry to be so disorganized," Sarah said. "Susan, Edward's wife, just phoned a few minutes ago asking me to bring some of my zucchini bread and I had to thaw it out."
"Uh huh. It's just a quickbread. Sort of like muffins in disguise as a bread. I make it when the zucchinis are overtaking the garden and freeze it."
"I never thought to ask. Should I be taking something?"
Sarah smiled at him. "Just me ... and my stuff."
"While I pack these loaves you can take out that box on the table with the crockpot in it. There's a bag beside it to go, too."
"Do I get to ask what it is I'm taking?"
"Sure you do. In the crockpot is vegetable soup as my contribution toward dinner. In the bag are some tree decorations."
"Does everyone bring decorations?"
"No. Years ago, I started making a special decoration for each family every year. Edward and Susan will put theirs on the tree, but the others will take them home to their own trees."
"OK. I'll get these in the car and be right back."
When Michael re-entered the house, Sarah was putting a plastic container down on the hall table, placing her right under the mistletoe. He seized the opportunity to kiss her before they left.
"That was lovely," said Sarah. "I think I'll leave that up all year."
Michael laughed as he took the container from the table. "I'd like that."
Sarah got her coat from the closet. As she put it on, she said, "Of course we don't really need to have mistletoe to kiss."
"You mean I can kiss you anytime I like?"
"Pretty much. I think we best not in the elevator."
"Aw. I was looking forward to that."
Sarah smiled at him. He stepped up closer to her.
"I think now is a good time," he said as he bent his head toward her.
This was not a Christmas kiss, thought Sarah, as Michael deepened the kiss. She loved it. A persistent little voice in the back of her head said they better get going, so she broke the kiss.
"We better get going," she said, shakily.
"I suppose we should," said Michael. "We can finish this later."
"Maybe," said Sarah, smiling at him.
That evening, Sarah and Michael sat side by side, sipping eggnog on the sofa in Sarah's living room. The sound of Christmas carols filled the room. The only light came from the Christmas tree and fireplace.
Sarah placed her mug on the coffeetable and turned to Michael.
"I was a little worried when I asked you to join my family today."
"I had the impression you didn't like family gatherings."
"Well, this was your family, not mine. I enjoyed myself. Your family is great."
"You don't like your family?"
"At times. Don't get me wrong. I love them."
"But they don't seem to realize I'm an adult. Your older siblings don't treat you as if you were still a kid. I'm youngest and I don't think any of them realize I'm no longer a child."
"I see. Have you told them how you feel?"
"I can't honestly say I have. I don't want to hurt their feelings. Especially Christine."
"She's the oldest?"
"Yes. I was 15 when our mother died. Our father had died several years earlier, so she became my legal guardian. She was 26 and married."
"So, she likely sees herself in the role of mother instead of sister."
"Sometimes you have to clarify things for family; explain how you feel and make them understand."
"Have you had to do that?"
"Yes. Especially with Edward. Older brothers sometimes set themselves up as protectors and stick their nose in where it's not wanted or needed."
"Sounds like you speak from experience."
"Oh, yes. It seemed, when I started to date, every boy that took me out was tense and jumpy. I found out that after anyone asked me out, Edward phoned them. He warned them how to behave. After I found out, I let Edward know in no uncertain terms that if I ever needed his help, I'd let him know, and, until then, to butt out."
"Did he butt out?"
"I don't think he did completely. I think he made inquiries about the guys instead of speaking to them directly. My dates didn't shake anymore, but they were well behaved."
"I bet," laughed Michael. "I would have been."
Sarah smiled. "Sometimes brothers and sisters can be a bother, but they do love you."
"I know. You love being with your big family, don't you?"
"You are making me see my family from a different perspective, too."
"Does everyone go to Edward's on Christmas, too?" Michael asked Sarah.
"No. We each host something over the holidays. Edward always has a tree party to start things off, but the rest varies. This year Hannah is having everyone over the Saturday before Christmas to watch favourite Christmas shows with the kids. Our main Christmas gathering is Christmas Eve for a turkey supper and present exchange. This year Dinah wished to have it, as she got married this past year and they bought their first home. Boxing Day, Richard will host us all for an afternoon of games."
"And what about you?"
"I'm having a family New Year's Day buffet."
"Is Christmas Day at your mother's?"
"No. Mom decided with us all old enough to host something she'll just be a guest at all the gatherings."
"What about Christmas Day then?"
"Well ... Christmas mornings are for the families and their kids. A private celebration. Later in the day, they go to their various in-laws or have their in-laws over."
"I see. What about your mother and you?"
"We'd be welcome at any of the dinners, but Mom has taken to celebrating with some other single seniors she is friends with. I ... well I don't really have any plans yet."
"How about you? Are you going back home?"
"I don't know. I had told Christine I wouldn't be there. Everyone goes to her home for Christmas dinner."
"But now you think you might?"
"Good! You should see your family, Michael."
"If I stayed here, could I spend the day with you?"
"Oh, Michael, of course you could, but I really think you should see your family."
"I'll think about that."
Sarah smiled at him.
"Sarah, this room is beautiful, but I think it needs one more decoration."
"Some mistletoe above the couch."
Sarah shifted so that she faced Michael, glanced at the ceiling, then looked back at him. She rubbed her chin as she considered this.
"Hmmm. Well, we could pretend there is some ... but after this morning's kiss, I thought we decided we didn't we need mistletoe any more."
"You're right! We don't!"
Sarah started to laugh. Michael smiled at her just before drawing her to him for a long, deep, bone-melting kiss. Eventually, Michael ended the kiss and stood up. He reached a hand to help Sarah from the couch, for which she was grateful, as she wasn't at all sure she could stand by herself. Michael took a deep breath.
"Sarah ... I think I'd better go."
"Because we both need to get up for work in the morning."
"Oh. Right. I wasn't thinking about that."
"Walk me to the door?"
"I'm not sure I can."
Sarah looked at him through half-closed eyes and touched a finger to her lips. "My legs are too weak."
"Oh, Sarah. Don't look at me like that!"
Sarah couldn't resist the impulse to run her tongue over her lips.
"Sarah!" Michael hugged her close. Just so that he couldn't see her teasing face. Or so he told himself. He heard a muffled giggle and felt her shoulders start to shake.
"Sarah, Sarah, Sarah."
She drew back so that she could look up at him, grinning. "What, Michael, Michael, Michael?"
He laughed. "You are a tease!"
"Maybe. Just a little."
"I really do need to leave."
"I know. I'll be good."
"That's the problem."
As Michael prepared for Christmas Eve dinner with Sarah and her family, he thought back over the time since he'd met her. It was rather ironic that before he'd gotten to know her, at least half the time they had ridden the elevator, there was just the two of them. Now they never seemed to get that opportunity. There'd only been two chances, but they'd used them well, he recalled with a smile. They met every lunch now and spent every evening together. He wanted to be with her every minute he could. He and Sarah would exchange presents back at her house after the family gathering. He had two gifts for her and hoped he'd have the courage to give them both. The second one depended on how things went. He had some questions to ask her first.
Sarah was thinking along similar lines as she got ready. She, too, had two gifts for Michael. Several months ago, on her thirtieth birthday, she had resigned herself to being single, thinking love had passed her by. Now she realized how wrong she had been. She had been in a couple of relationships where she thought she might have been in love. Now she knew the difference. Now she knew without a doubt that she was in love. Michael was the man she'd been waiting for. She was going to miss him dreadfully on Christmas Day. Although he hadn't said he was going to his sister's home, he had asked Sarah to help him shop for his nieces and nephews. She'd enjoyed it tremendously and felt she got to know his family through the experience. Her thoughts were interrupted by the doorbell. Michael was here to get her a half hour ahead of time. That was good because it took them a long time to get past the mistletoe.
The evening seemed to pass both too quickly and too slowly for Michael and Sarah. When they were back at Sarah's, sitting on her sofa as they had so many times now, with the Christmas music playing, they handed each other a gift. Michael opened his to find DVDs of his favourite Christmas movies. He'd told Sarah how much he loved them after the gathering at Hannah's. Sarah was thrilled with the musical nutcracker Michael gave her. After thank you kisses, Sarah went to the tree and got a small present that was sitting on a bough. She brought it back to the couch and handed it to Michael.
He opened it to find a small, crystal heart and a note that said,"You have my heart. I love you."
Michael nearly cried when he saw the heart. He was so overwhelmed.
"Oh, Sarah," he whispered and kissed her, briefly. He took a small gift from his pocket and handed it to her.
Sarah opened it. Inside was a silver heart shaped locket. She opened the locket to see Michael's picture.
"You've stolen my heart, Sarah," he whispered. "I love you, too."
This he followed with a light kiss. Sarah tried to pull him closer for a deeper kiss but Michael had more to say.
"I'm going to Christine's tomorrow."
"Oh," said Sarah. "I'm glad."
"It's a lot of driving for one day."
"It is," agreed Sarah.
"If you came along, we could split the driving," said Michael.
"You want me to go along?" asked Sarah.
"You did say your family visit their in-laws on Christmas Day and my family could be your in-laws soon."
"All you'd have to do is marry me."
Sarah put her arms around Michael's neck and started to kiss him. Much too soon from Michael's point of view, she withdrew.
"But ..." started Sarah.
"We can't tell your family tomorrow."
"Hannah and Dinah would never forgive me if someone knew before them."
"Michael, do you think your family would come to my, or our, New Year's Day dinner?"
"I think they might."
"We could tell both families at the same time then."
"We've got a long day tomorrow."
"We really should get to bed."
"I know, but I don't want to leave yet, Sarah."
"I didn't say anything about you leaving."
"Oh, Sarah, sweetheart," said Michael as he drew her into a kiss. "Merry Christmas."
"The very merriest, Michael. The very merriest."
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