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Authors: Elyse Douglas

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BOOK: Chistmas Ever After
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Mature Jennifer watched her “little self” and remembered exactly what was going on behind the depths of her green eyes. The little girl was retreating to safety inside herself. She was leaving the hellish world of betrayal and fleeing heartbreak. Her family deformity had been made public: it was an unrecoverable humiliation and little Jennifer was certain she was to blame. She found a safe place inside her heart and hid there.

Little Jennifer found Lance’s face near the Christmas tree. He smiled at her, a lopsided shy smile—a secret smile. She saw the Christmas tree lights dance in his boyish eyes. How she loved him.

 

The vision exploded like the snap of a flashbulb and Jennifer stumbled backwards, shading her damp eyes. She trembled and looked for Lance. He was there. “Let’s get away from here.”

CHAPTER 8

 

The minutes that followed were painfully silent. Jennifer knew Lance was holding secrets, through his lowered eyes; his sudden frown of concentration; his unspoken words that seemed to hang in the damp air. There was no longer any need for her to believe that she was dreaming or that she had lost her mind. She was in the grip of something fantastic, and she knew no words for it, only the feeling of being dangled over a precipice by some unseen force she could only hope wasn’t entirely malefic. Lance was the only reason she didn’t break into a sprint and run for her hotel. Good or evil, it didn’t matter what the outcome, as long as she could be with Lance, listen to his voice and feel the warmth of his body. That’s all that mattered.

Snow fell through a silky black sky, drifting near the golden park lights, creating a moody intimacy and a bizarre sense of timelessness. Although there was a cold wind, Jennifer wasn’t chilled; if fact, it was the warmest she’d felt in a long time.

With her arm intertwined with Lance’s, she pulled him even closer. “I’m not going to let you go this time.”

He seemed preoccupied and didn’t respond. “Remember our senior year in high school?”

“Of course I do.”

“That Christmas, just before school let out for vacation, the band played a concert at the mall.”

Jennifer remembered it pleasantly. “It was so cold that night… and snowing.”

“Remember my trumpet solo?”


The Christmas Song
! Of course. I could never forget it.”

“I hope you forgot that I cracked on the high note. My lips were so cold…”

“Nobody noticed.”

“Kathy Mason did.”

Jennifer dropped her pleasant face. “Don’t bring her up.”

“She was a great pianist.”

“I don’t want to talk about her!”

The light around them became softly radiant. A frail beam fell upon the path before them and they stopped. The beam expanded out and around them, and a scene slowly materialized: the mall as it was that night ten years before. The 12-piece band members stood stiffly in the winter chill, dressed in various jackets, caps and boots, clutching their trumpets, trombones and clarinets. A tall conductor cued them and they began to play
The Christmas Song
, their instruments swaying gently, Christmas lights reflecting off the brass. Jennifer watched as Lance took a few steps forward, wiped his mouthpiece nervously and began playing his solo. A crowd formed near a 6-foot Christmas tree, and they gazed on, with dreamy expressions and swaying bodies.

Lance’s face intensified as he approached the high note, his cheeks ballooned. Jennifer looked sideways and saw Kathy Mason standing alone, staring at him in glowing admiration. She was tall, sophisticated and pretty, with an elegant neck and expensive clothes. Her red lips were pursed as if she were kissing him, while he kissed the trumpet. Jennifer hated her.

 

She released Lance’s arm, pulling her attention from the vision. “I don’t want to see this!”

Lance spoke evenly. “You were jealous of Kathy, weren’t you?”

“You know I was!”

“Why? Because she was from a respected family of doctors and lawyers? Or was it because Kathy’s father loved her more than anything else? Or because the family was rich?”

“Because she was in love with you!”

“She encouraged me. She saw I had talent as a musician.”

“Like she really knew.”

“She became a concert pianist, Jennifer.”

“And you’re going to be a successful pediatrician. You’re going to be respected and make good money. How much money do you think you can make as a trumpet player, Lance?”

With a start, Jennifer suddenly realized what she’d just said, as if no time had passed, as if Lance had never been killed.

She turned back to the drama before her, just as Lance cracked on his high note.

Jennifer looked pointedly at the Lance standing next to her. “See what I mean?”

 

Suddenly, the scene changed, as though someone had changed film reels. She and Lance were in high school, standing near a row of lockers. She was reaching into her locker to take out some books, obviously upset and brooding. She wore a bulky white sweater and brown skirt, light makeup, long hair, and bangs that hid her forehead. There was a wilted droopiness to her posture and facial expression, almost as if she were afraid to show her attractiveness.

Lance was dressed smartly in a burgundy sweater, crisp white shirt and navy blue trousers. Under his left arm were books, and he was leaning against the lockers, looking pensive and distant.

“Jennifer, all I’m saying is that we should maybe think about it.”

“You just want to date her, don’t you? You want to date Kathy Mason! Just come out and say it!”

“All I’m saying is that maybe it would be better for both of us if we dated other people for a while. We’ve been seeing each other for eight years.”

Jennifer faced him, speaking forcefully. “No! Never!”

Kathy Mason approached from down the hallway. Her sexy walk suggested a bold belief in her powers of attraction. She ignored Jennifer and presented Lance a look of restless desire, backing it up with an alluring
smile. As he struggled not to melt, it was conspicuously evident that Lance was her chosen darling.

“Hi, Lance. See you at band practice,” Kathy said.

Jennifer eyed her darkly as she passed. “Little bitch!”

Lance quickly recovered. “Look, Jennifer, you need to get involved in some activity other than me. I mean, why don’t you join the school newspaper or the choir… something. All you ever do is just go to class, study and hang around with me. This is our senior year. You should enjoy it.”

Jennifer slammed her locker. “I hate this school. Everybody thinks they’re so special—so superior!”

“No, Jennifer! That’s how
you
think they are! Most of the kids and teachers are okay, you know? You’ve just, like, closed off from everything and everybody.”

Jennifer cradled her books in her left arm, looking at him crossly. “I don’t need them—any of them! I don’t need anybody, but you. I love you, Lance. You’re all I’ve got, don’t you see that! I’m never going to let you go, Lance. Never! If you ever leave me, I’ll kill myself.”

Lance grabbed her by the shoulders. “Don’t say that! Don’t ever say that!”

 

The scene slowly dissolved into another series of flickering images. Jennifer saw herself in the front hallway of her home, surrounded by suitcases.

Her mother was standing like a quiet shadow, her hands folded, head down. Mr. Taylor approached the two of them, then stopped abruptly when Jennifer passed him an impatient, caustic glance. He accepted her punishment, shoving his hands deep into his pockets and hunching his shoulders forward.

Mrs. Taylor spoke in a quiet, hesitant voice. “You’ll call, won’t you, honey?”

Jennifer carefully avoided her mother’s eyes. “I doubt if I’ll have much time. College is very demanding.”

Mrs. Taylor nodded. “Well, we’ll go visit you. It’s only a couple of hours away.”

Mr. Taylor spoke up. “Yes, I can drive your mother there. I’m a good driver; I like to drive.”

Jennifer looked at him coldly. “Yes, dad, the police and most people in town know all about your drunken accidents.”

He moved forward in mild protest and hurt feelings. “That was years ago, Jennifer.”

“Two years ago, dad. It’s a wonder you still have a driver’s license.”

“You can’t forgive me, can you? You can’t let go of it.”

Jennifer didn’t honor him with an answer. He finally turned and shambled away.

With a sinister, triumphant expression, she looked at her mother. “Like I said, Lance and I are going to be pretty busy. I’m sure you’ll both have other things to do.”

Mrs. Taylor began to shiver. “Please, Jennifer, don’t shut us out of your life.”

Jennifer looked at her with disdain. “You shut me out years ago when you stayed with that man!”

“That man is your father.”

“No he isn’t. He stopped being my father a long time ago. And I lost all respect for you for staying with him.”

“Don’t say that… Please Jennifer…” she pleaded, fighting tears.

“Why did you stay? He embarrassed us constantly. He ruined your life. My life! He couldn’t hold a job, couldn’t provide anything except humiliation. Why? Why didn’t you leave him?!”

Mrs. Taylor straightened, defiant and proud. “Because he’s my husband! Because he was sick and needed help. I don’t have to defend his life or my life to anyone, especially not you! We did the best we could!”

“Forgive me, mother, but if that was your best, then God help you! Lance and I are going to make something of our lives. We’re going to be successful and respected and have money and friends, and nothing’s going to get in my way. When Lance and I finish college, we’re going to come back to this town and show these snobs—all of them—just what success really is! Lance is going to be a pediatrician, and I’m going to get my MBA and eat this town alive! Then they’ll stop looking at me like I’m some kind of freak to be ignored or pitied.”

Mrs. Taylor’s shoulders sank, as if drained of energy. When she spoke, her voice was barely audible. “Yes… Jennifer… I hope it will make you very happy.”

Outside, a horn blew. Jennifer spun toward it, excited. “It’s Lance!”

She grabbed her bags and fled the house, not turning back.

Outside, she scampered down the stairs and was met by Lance, who took her suitcases and swung them into the trunk. Jennifer got into the car and closed the door without looking back toward the house. After Lance closed the trunk and climbed in behind the wheel, he faced Jennifer.

“Aren’t you going to wave goodbye to your parents?”

Jennifer stared ahead, coldly. “Why? I’ve waited for this moment for years. I waved goodbye to them a long time ago. Let’s get out of here.”

After Jennifer left, Mr. Taylor returned to the hallway where his wife stood, trembling, still staring out at the empty street through the parted doorway window curtains. Her eyes were wet with tears and filled with remorse. He gathered her into his arms and rocked her gently.

“She’s gone…” Mrs. Taylor said.

“Yes… Give her time… she’ll come back to us someday.”

“No, John… I don’t think so. I don’t think I’ll ever see her again.”

“Where would I be without your love, Betty? Without your support and forgiveness? Where would I be?”

She looked at him lovingly and nestled her head into his shoulder.

 

As the images faded into the quiet snowfall, Jennifer slowly lowered her head, feeling a sickening regret. Lance wrapped a gentle arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. She refused to look at him.

“She died five months later,” Jennifer said.

“I remember,” Lance said.

“I didn’t know she was sick.”

“I know, Jen. I know.”

“She was right. I never saw her again… If I had known…if she had told me, I would have gone to see her. I didn’t know. I would have gone.”

“Of course.”

“I didn’t remember being so harsh… I didn’t remember that.”

They started down a footpath between quiet trees and snow-covered benches, and then advanced toward an arching stone bridge that overlooked a frozen pond. They started across and paused about halfway. Jennifer ran her hand over the stone railing, raking off snow.

“I never forgave my father,” Jennifer said, sorrowfully. “We said so little before he died.”

“Yes…”

Jennifer wiped her moist eyes. “I didn’t know what to say.”

“What would you say now?”

“I don’t know… Maybe I would have visited him more…Maybe I would have tried to find a conversation… I don’t know.”

“I saw him once before he died,” Lance said.

She looked up, surprised. “You did?”

“Yes... He told me he loved you and was proud of you. Very proud of you.” “Did he?”

“Yes…”

Jennifer shook away the thought, turned away from his eyes and stared into the darkness. She forced a blithe tone. “What New York spots were you going to show me on our honeymoon?”

BOOK: Chistmas Ever After
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