“Yes, it is,” Kass said, humming to herself as she danced into the house.
With the kids jingle belling
And everyone telling you be of good cheer
“Be of good cheer,” she said with a mock-stern tone as she wiggled her finger at the two cats coming to greet her. “Where is everyone?”
It’s the most wonderful time of the year
“It smells amazing in here,” she said, bending to pick up Euphrates, and Tigris twirled around her ankles. “Whoa!” she laughed, trying to catch her balance as her teal colored heel caught a crack in the wood. “This house has character…” she remarked, sliding her hand across the wooden door frame.
There’ll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And caroling out in the snow
Kass sang along to the song, letting the kitten leap from her arms to the couch as she pulled a few boxes from the big bag she was carrying. Gage had told her not to worry about purchasing gifts for anyone given the lateness of the invitation, but she had managed to slip out when Gage was painting and Howard was cooking, picking up something small for Gage’s cousins and aunt, and his cousin’s girlfriend. Stationary, candles, and chocolates were generally a safe bet for anyone, plus she enjoyed the walk down the snow-covered streets of Riverview to the consignment store. She had found herself, skipping around through the powdery goodness. It wasn’t as if Kass had never seen snow before, but Sunset Valley didn’t get much in the winter, at sea level. Perhaps a little in the hills, but this was…magical.
Kass’s mouth spread into a wide smile as she tiptoed into the kitchen. The air even smelled like Christmas, with fragrant pine boughs, spices, flavored meats, and buttery goodness. Dad had spent most of the day in the kitchen, and refused to let anyone help, even though Gage had insisted he had already done enough with all his cooking in the last few days and catering his work party yesterday.
After shopping, Kass returned to the guest quarters in the detached barn and slipped into a new knitted teal party dress, freshened her makeup, and clipped her hair into a perfectly circular bun. Dabbing her mouth to avoid excess lipstick, she had examined herself in the mirror, feeling unsure about herself. Now that she was in the main house, she wondered if too much of her legs were exposed, or if she would grow too warm in the long-sleeved sweater dress, or if she should have worn pants and a blouse, or flats, or if she should have tried harder to find a green or red holiday dress. Gage had been flirty with her recently, and she surprisingly enjoyed the attention. A few months ago, she wouldn’t have given him the time of day… romantically that is…
Kass found herself opening the refrigerator and pulling out a bag of fresh coffee beans. Coffee always seemed to help her cut through the fog of indecisiveness. Now, she found herself wondering as she held the lid closed and ground the beans in the grinder. It was nice to be around someone who knew her for who she was… flaws and all… and accepted her anyway. It was nice to be around someone who didn’t play games and was clear about what he wanted.
But what do I want? she chewed her lower lip, and then realized she was probably messing up her gloss matte finish.
Tigris leaped up on the counter, and she petted the tabby as she poured the ground beans into a coffee filter. Walking to the sink, she filled the pot with water and returned, pouring the lukewarm liquid into the machine, replaced the pot on the burner, and pressed start.
“What should I do, Tigris?” she whispered as the cat rubbed itself against the back of her dress.
Tell him I’m not interested? Tell him I am interested? Tell him I care about him and I want to see where this goes? Flirt with him? Where can this go? I mean, he’s here in Riverview and I’m traveling the country with Dad.
Kass listened to the rhythmic plink-plink-plink, gurgle-gurgle-gurgle of the coffee as it began brewing, and wished she knew all the answers. She thought she loved Davis, and then he lied to her. In his defense, she was a crappy human being who overreacted, but she had felt so hurt when she learned he had already been with someone else. I want to be the first girl. It was so unrealistic to think that though, and she knew it, and admitted it, dejectedly. Everyone had been with someone. She couldn’t be the first at everything. She was the first daughter in her family, and the first in her high school class, and the captain of the soccer team, and the first one to leave home.
I wasn’t the first to get a boyfriend, she reminded herself, pulling a ceramic penguin mug from the cupboard. She smiled. I like this. Glancing at the bottom, she noted the name H. Clay and made a mental note to peruse S’moogle for a similar cup. Sighing, she waited impatiently for the coffee to finish brewing, and tapping her heel in time with the music playing in the living room. While she had been the first of her siblings to get her license and to get a job, her sister, Andi had a boyfriend first. Is it really so bad to be second? she lowered her head. Why do I always have to be first?
Kass thought about the day her dad came home with his lover, Kate, and how devastated her mother and siblings had been. She had promised herself that day that she would protect her sisters no matter the cost, and in the process, she had somehow gotten it into her head that in order to do that, she had to be the best at everything in order to give them a good example. When her mamma fell apart and wouldn’t get out of bed for days, Kass would pick her sisters up from school and walk or drive them to their activities. She would make sure food was on the table each night, and even sometimes used her paycheck from the bookstore to pay for extra things they might need that her mother forgot like a new toothbrush or hair ties because Andi lost her umpteenth one or extra niceties like snow cones in the park on Cari’s birthday. She would make sure there was breakfast in the morning, and Cari finished her cereal and Andi ate some fruit for her blood sugar.
When Amy starting getting on her feet again, thanks to the assistance of her parents, Kass began trying to excel at everything. She joined the school newspaper, yearbook committee, and she was first chair flute for at least her sophomore year in the school orchestra, and placed every year for swim team. She started a creative writing club, and took trips to Sim City with the mock trial team. When she brought home a B- in her math class, she remembered the lecture her Nonna had given her… to try harder… to be better. Second place trophies were out of the question too. Maybe she just figured if she was the best, she wouldn’t have to stop and worry about her inadequacies or the things missing in her life… like her dad and a stable mom and grandparents who loved her no matter what grades she brought home.
I guess I expected the sun, and got a lump of moon dust instead, she sighed. Maybe her expectations were too high. Maybe she should stop trying so hard to be perfect… and to expect perfection from everyone. Yeah, look at what that got me… a break-up with a perfectly nice guy who had a troubled former marriage? It was still odd for her to think of Davis as a widower. A totally rushed turbulent relationship with a guy who used her and dumped her. The loss of an eight year friendship with a sweet guy who was totally head over heels for her.
Kass gasped as her hand touched the scorching hot pot of coffee. Is he head over heels for me? He has been incredibly nice the last couple days… nice… Kass? Nice? She groaned, looking around for a towel to dry her hand that had been under the cold sink water. I can’t even think of a good term… good? Flirty? Sexy? Her face flooded with color, and she was pretty sure her cheeks were as red as her hair. You idiot girl! She couldn’t even think the word “sexy” without blushing. Gage was decently attractive, and his smile was priceless when it was genuine. He’s kinda rocking the Jean-Luc Picard look from Star Trek, she nearly spit out the coffee she had just sipped at the thought. What is wrong with you, Kass?
She frowned. Apparently the radio station really liked the song It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
There’ll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And caroling out in the snow
There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of the
Christmases long, long ago
Kass found herself twirling about the kitchen with her coffee mug, much to the consternation of the cats who had apparently been sleeping on the kitchen floor.
“Opps, sorry,” she apologized, covering her mouth.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year
There’ll be much mistltoeing
And hearts will be glowing
When love ones are near
It’s the most wonderful time of the year
Mistletoe. She closed her eyes, swaying to the music, allowing her hands to be warmed by the mug and inhaling the delicious nutty scent of her drink. Her eyes popped open. Do I want to kiss him? Why am I thinking this? She set her cup on the counter. It’s not like I’ve never thought of it, but we haven’t been together before… not like that. Should I have worn the lower-cut dress? She leaned over the sink and held the side of her head, shaking the thoughts away. This is ridiculous. It’s not like he’s wearing an irresistible potion.
“Kass?” her father called out to her, walking through the dining room door from the outside, bringing in a blast of icy air.
She walked through the archway to greet her father. His skin looked paler than usual, and he was still wearing that ridiculous beanie on his head, but he had a pleasant smile on his face.
“You look beautiful, sweetheart,” he murmured.
“Thank you,” she instinctively did a little twirl, even though her dress didn’t have a full skirt. “Do you like it?”
“Like it?” he said. “Of course. I love the person in the clothes more.”
“Thanks Dad,” she smiled bashfully, her eyes sweeping to the buffet. “The food looks incredible. Tell me about it.”
“Well, I made oven-baked ribs braised with a raspberry chipotle sauce…”
“Mmm…” Kass shifted her weight to her inner leg and leaned against the counter. “I’m practically drooling, already.”
“Let me finish,” Howard said, teasingly. “I’ve got creamy garlic butter mashed potatoes, extra creamy… just like you like it.”
She sighed happily.
“I made a big bowl of spinach salad with dried cranberries, toasted almonds, and a raspberry vinaigrette, and mushroom popovers for appetizers. Apparently Gage’s cousin, Rhoda is bringing dessert though. Otherwise I would’ve made a pumpkin pie,” he explained.
“Sounds heavenly, oh Dad!” Kass laid her head on his shoulder. “I could die of happiness.”
“Why? Because my cooking isn’t that heavenly,” her father teased.
Instead of responding, she perked her head and smiled. “They’re here.”
“Hi, it’s nice to finally meet you,” Kass shook Gage’s cousin’s hand.
She felt dumb forgetting the man’s name. He and Gage shared remarkably similar features. The guy just stared at her, grinning rather foolishly. She tried to avoid feeling uncomfortable as he hung onto her hand a little too long.
“Forgive my boyfriend, Sam,” the other redhead in the room said. “…he’s a little star struck…we’ve heard a lot about you.”
Kass flushed, feeling overwhelmed by the attention. All good things, I hope. Gage shot a worried look in her direction, and she immediately relaxed. He was concerned, and it made her feel good.
Ruby chattered a little about her college experience in Bay City. Gage and Sam teased each other a bit, and Kass found herself instantly at ease with these two. They seemed down to earth, and it didn’t escape her notice that they stole a loving glance at one another when they thought no one was looking. Now who’s star struck, she smirked.
Gage’s aunt was a little less friendly, and Kass found herself wanting to impress the woman for some reason. There was little time to do so as Gage’s other cousin, Rhoda and her date for the evening arrived, creating a stir.
Kass couldn’t believe who it was. Don Lothario. She had met his fiance back in Califorsimia in the summer when she had crashed the Goth family party. Cassandra, the oldest Goth daughter, had been a little strange, but she seemed nice. Kass wondered what Don was doing here in Riverview, and why he was looking so cozy with Rhoda.
Too cozy, she narrowed her eyes. But the guy was nice on the eyes, she had to admit. She shot Gage a surprised and worried look, but he had turned to close the front door which was still partially open. Her dad walked in, rubbing his arms. Because of his condition, Howard did get colder more easily, but she was grateful he had made the trip north with her to spend it with her best friend and his family. But Don, how does he fit into the equation? she wondered as the man suavely seated himself on the couch.
Her dad lit a fire, and wandered over to introduce himself to Rhoda and Don. She smiled. Always putting people at ease.
“So are you in college?” Missy Bagley was asking.
“Um…no…” she swung her attention back to Gage’s late middle-aged aunt, dressed in a red, fur-trimmed coat that reminded Kass of mulberry cider. “I’m taking some time off for now, and doing some traveling with my dad.”
“Oh I see,” Missy said, her brow furrowing. “Gage is in school, and he’s doing well. Pursuing art history, if I remember correctly. And he’s getting good grades too. I think a college degree is paramount these days, don’t you agree?”
“Um… well… sure… I guess…” Kass shrugged. “I plan to go to university. I just wanted to see some of the country and spend some time with my dad. He wasn’t always in my life and all.”
“Ah yes, I can see that being a problem,” Missy glared over in the direction of her daughter’s direction and where Howard was seated on the couch. “Absentee fathers really damage a young woman’s psyche now, don’t they?”
“Tell me, my dear, did you feel like you have a damaged psyche?” Missy leaned in too close for Kass’ comfort. “Because if you didn’t… then maybe you can give my daughter some advice on how to recover from her daddy complex.”
Kass turned as red as the balls hanging on the Christmas tree. She stood there with her jaw slackened, pretty sure she would have to return all the way to Mexsimco to fetch the bottom of her mouth. She couldn’t believe how insensitive Gage’s aunt had been with her comment.
“Rhoda, can I see you in the kitchen?” the older woman demanded.
Kass tried not to listen, but it was hard not to hear their argument in the kitchen. The older Bagley woman was screaming at the younger one for bringing an engaged man to Christmas dinner with the family. She said Rhoda was “nothing better than a whore,” and when Don was done with her, he’d go back to that “Goth brat.” Kass almost felt sorry for Rhoda, but she had met Cassandra in Sunset Valley. Even if the Goth family was a little odd, she didn’t wish “cheating” on anyone, and if Don really was engaged to Cassandra, then he was having an affair with Gage’s cousin. Kass didn’t even really know Rhoda yet, but she had a feeling neither woman deserved the treatment they were getting from Don Lothario.
The family settled around the dining table, and Kass was surprised Missy Bagley took a seat next to her. She laid her hands in her lap, and tried not to think about the woman, even though the lady’s peppermint perfume was overpowering and her voice was grating on Kass’ nerves. The conversation grew awkward as Ruby asked about Don’s relationship status, and Kass tried to focus on the music in the background – All I Want for Christmas.
Peace, she thought, already feeling exhausted.
Rhoda returned dramatically waving her arms in the air, seemingly congratulating herself for remembering to bring the dessert. She passionately kissed and teased Don, out of spite to her mother, no doubt. Kass was grateful when her dad started praying for the Christmas meal. He started a conversation with Ruby,asking the young woman about her college experience. Kass felt increasingly out of place. Everyone, save the older adults, was in school, and here she was wasting her time, having turned down a perfectly good full scholarship to Edgewater Global Business College. She swallowed a large sip of wine, and shoved a huge spoonful of mashed potatoes into her mouth. Sam asked if she would pass the salad, and she smiled tight-lipped, her mouth full of food, and kindly obliged.
“Travel is great too,” Sam remarked, nodding in Kass’ direction. “I’ve been wanting to apply to the space program, but I think I’ll need to finish my degree first. However, I was thinking about taking some time off between college and the masters program for a bit of travel. Maybe the Sim Union? Say where in the Union is Anita?” the guy looked at Gage.
Kass whipped her attention to her best friend. Anita? Who was Anita?
“Simspania,” he remarked. “Um…” he reached out for another mushroom popover. “…my roommate… when she’s here.”
“Oh,” Kass said, taking a delicate bite of salad. “It’s a nice house.”
“It’s great,” he said, with a grin.
“So do you and Anita have a…um… a…uh…” she began, and then felt stupid and quickly shoved half a rib into her mouth.
“…history?” he quirked a brow. “Yes.”
Should I back off? she wondered. Maybe he was still into this Anita woman. There I go again… I guess it’s impossible to be the first in this department of my life.
“She’s taking care of her father-in-law,” Gage offered.
“Oh,” Kass breathed a sigh of relief.
This Anita woman was married.
“Her husband passed away a little while ago, but she’s trying to make amends with the family.”
A widow? Kass gulped her wine. Do I? Do I not make a move? Is it warm in here or what?
“Don’t worry, Kass. You’re here now,” Gage laid his hand reassuringly across her own, and she instinctively gave it a little squeeze.
Once dinner was over, and more drinking began, Kass joined her dad for a few dances. The party grew looser, and less awkward as everyone busted a move. The Christmas spirit was in the air. The most wonderful time of the year, she smiled, watching as even Gage’s aunt was grooving to the melody.
“Well, would you look at that?” her father pointed in her direction, possibly a bit tipsy from the evening’s drinks. “…my daughter’s got talent.”
“What? Dad? No!” Kass protested, and laughed. “I’m not a great dancer.”
“Well, look at that guy…” he pointed to Gage who had down an nearly perfect back bend. “…he’s got talent, too… oh I think I should go and do dishes.”
“Don’t you dare!”
“Yes… you go dance with your friend.”
Kass awkwardly tripped into the dining room after another hour or so had passed. The party had broken up, and she had exchanged numbers with Ruby and promised to look her up when she was back in Califorsimia, and take her to the best coffee on the Western sea board at Jade’s Java Jolt. Sam had offered to drive his drunk mother home, so Ruby climbed into Missy’s car to follow them, and Kass had caught an shy, but sweet kiss between the two.
I want that, she had thought.
Her dad had retired to bed after Gage insisted he would do the clean-up, and Rhoda and Don had left to return to Simcago. She had decided he seemed like an okay guy, and Rhoda was an adult woman. It wasn’t really her place to pry, was it? Kass hiccuped as Gage walked out of the kitchen and into the dining room.
“You okay, there?” he asked.
“Great party!” she exclaimed, a little too loudly, and then giggled.
She proceeded to hiccup and laugh as she thanked Gage for inviting them to Riverview for Christmas, and telling him how much fun she had. Wow! I sound like a babbling idiot! If Gage noticed, he didn’t mind. He just grinned and listened to her talk.
“You’re a good friend,” she poked him in the chest. “Opps… I meant to pat your heart… I mean… you’ve got a good one… still ticking… and it’s kind and good… and wow… I’m maybe wasted?”
“Possibly tipsy… you had what? Two glasses of wine and a mulled cider?” he asked.
“Yeah, but not the alcohol… I mean… no alcohol in the cider… I was careful…” she insisted.
“So you only had two glasses of wine, huh?” Gage smirked. “Interesting…”
“The evening was perfect,” she said.
Gage was smiling brightly as he leaned in, brushing her cheek with his breath, and she tingled at the sensation. “It’s not over yet.”
She couldn’t help but laugh, even if she sounded a little out of control. She felt safe with Gage. Safe to be herself. Safe to be with him. Safe to…
“I have something for you…” he said.
“I made it for you,” he said, beaming with pride.
“Thank you,” she said, feeling overwhelmed with excitement as she tore open the box.
She was unprepared for his thoughtful gift. It was amazing. It was the journey of their friendship, complete with photos, written memories, a poem she had written him once, and a number of sketches of her by him, of course. She flipped to the last page at his insistence, finding a birthday card attached with tape. Wrinkling her forehead, she opened the card. When she finished, she nearly dropped the scrapbook out of shock.
“Do you mean it?” Kass whispered, feeling her eyes moisten.
He loves me. He didn’t stop. Even after everything that has happened. He loves me. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, Kass felt an oddly peaceful feeling flood her heart. Maybe this is what she needed all along, to acknowledge the man right before her eyes. To come home to her heart.
“Every word…Kass?” he took her hand, standing dangerously close to her, and she felt her heart thudding like a freight train barreling down tracks. “All I want for Christmas… and for always… is you.”
With that, he leaned in and planted his lips on her own, and she accepted him with warmth, gratitude, and for the first time in their friendship, a budding sense of love. It really was the most wonderful time of the year.
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Next Chapter: 1.38 Singing Our Song