“Close the door, would you?” Chelsea’s internal voice called to her father. She slid the bag of groceries onto the counter and turned back to kick the front door closed. Much as she’d like to have given it a quick karate slam, she pushed it shut like a normal human being even though there was nothing normal about this Christmas Eve.
“He’s gone.” The voice of the E.R. doctor reverberated through her as though she were still standing on the stark linoleum of Mercy General.
An exaggerated shiver shook through her as she made way back to the kitchen. There she hunched over the grocery bag staring, not seeing its contents on the countertop of her father’s small beach bungalow. Pressed against the bluff of the Santa Monica shoreline, it provided much needed isolation in the midst of its neighbours and the midst of her grief. People who lived in this close proximity to the ocean seemed naturally to remain self-contained in their own little piece of seaside heaven.
Six weeks since his death. The condition of the house would have made her mother turn in her grave, or urn as the case may be.
“You’re an orphan now,” her internal monitor spoke again.
“Oh shut up.” Her voice filled the small kitchen like an unwelcome visitor. Chelsea no more wanted to see anyone than she wanted to return to her cold dreary flat. The house was hers now. Inheritance and the holidays just didn’t seem to jive.
She sent a fist to the counter, the impact pounding her pinky finger into the rest of her hand wiring a grimace. God, you can’t even display righteous indignation. A girl wasn’t supposed to be alone in the world at the age of thirty-two. She was supposed to be married and having babies. Her parents were supposed to be doting over a couple of cherubic faced grandchildren, opening a mountain of tinsel strewn presents under an Edwardian decorated tree set in a bay window overlooking some snow laden hill. Fire crackling in a perfect fireplace, mantel resplendent with overburdened stockings and hot chocolate in unending supply, Chelsea should be sitting in the lap of her perfect match.
She jumped at the soft brushing of fur against her ankle. “Pockets!” She admonished her father’s gray and white cat now playing circle eights about her feet. Hooking him under the belly she brought him to her face, noses touching in familiar display of joint affection.
A knock at the side door and she lowered him back to the floor. “Who is it?’
She tilted her head directing her attention to the side of the kitchen facing the neighbors. There was only a slim passageway between her and the trellised walkway of the next door property; one used seldom as it was well hidden from the street and any surfers or beachcombers seeking access to the sand.
She placed a hand against the jamb and leaned into the wood. “What kind of friend?”
A percussive chuckle followed by explanation laced in mirth, “The friendly sort, I should think.”
This further verbiage disclosed and accent. Scottish. Definitely.
Her mind raced through her Rolodex of friends and acquaintances, their faces flashing before her like some penny arcade machine.
“Gerry?” She almost couldn’t bring his name to her lips. They had after all parted on somewhat less than ideal terms. Before she could think it through one hand was at the lock the other turning the knob. Opening the door a broad crack, she placed her face in the slot.
In one arm he’d a small tree decorated to the nines with Christmas merriment. In the other a bottle of champagne and two tulip glass stems intersecting at the neck of the bottle like a skull and crossbones.
He lifted his eyes from their speculative stare at the peephole to her face wedged between jamb and door. He smiled.
Throwing the door open, she stepped back allowing him entrance. The resinous tang of pine swept past her as he entered. Placing the small tree on the window bench of the breakfast nook, he turned summarily shifting the glassware to his now unoccupied hand.
“A toast?” He leaned into her cheek imparting a kiss.
“I know we’re supposed to be enemies or ex’s or some such nonsense. But it’s Christmas Eve and I’m on break from filming and you are—” He looked about the adjoining rooms, a frown wrinkling his brow. “Living in squalour.”
Chelsea swept the MacDonald’s wrappers and cup from the edge of the counter and dropped them into the bin.
“Come on, love. Don’t clean on my account.” He placed the glasses and bottle next to a sink full of dishes. “You’ve got more reason than most to be behind in the washing up.” The expression on his face morphed to compassion and he stepped to her wrapping an arm about her shoulder. His warmth did not feel foreign as all human contact had since the funeral. Rather the familiar scent of him sent a torch ablaze in her heart. It exploded into flame as he drew her closer.
“God I’ve missed you.” He whispered into her hair.
She pulled from him sending a hand to the center of his chest. “You don’t have to play consoler or mourner or whatever it is that brought you here.” The green blue of his intense gaze sent a brick splashing into her stomach.
His chin arched as he jutted his jaw infinitesimally forward. “Was I really that bad?”
“Only if you consider three hundred days a year on the road ‘bad’.”
“Through the years we all will be together. If the fates allow.” He broke into baritone song, eyes telegraphing apology steeped in sadness. Palms forward, arms at his side he stood as in submission. A long pause ensued as he remained motionless in front of her.
“Guilty.” The tone of his voice encompassed a myriad of emotions.
“And what makes this time any different than the others?” She forced words of reprimand out of her mouth even though they were about as natural as a blizzard in L.A.
The act of contrition in his eyes was so wrenchingly sincere she couldn’t help but allow the starch to seep from her posture.
Stepping to his chest the tears flowed down her cheeks as she pressed her face into the cotton of his shirt. His hand cradled her head, the other pressed into the middle of her back holding her against his beating heart. As the wave of grief subsided she felt his embrace loosen, hands coming round to cradle her face. Gentle kisses at her cheek, on closed lids and so tenderly on her lips, she felt every fibre of his empathetic display.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. She opened her eyes to engage his. Tears reddened his eyes too set under arching brows.
“He’s with Mom now.”
“And still with his daughter.” He stroked the back of two fingers across the apple of her cheek.
“He’ll always be.”
He kissed her so lovingly she thought what fragments remained of her heart would shatter. Another river of silent tears coursed down her cheeks.
“You know I meant coming here to be of help.”
She hugged him. “It is.” Looking up into his eyes she added. “More than you know.”
He slid his hands from her face and took hers into his grasp at his sides. “You go take a shower and I’ll tidy up.”
She sent a questioning look into his eyes.
“No complaints now.”
Chelsea turned down the hall to the bath.
A half hour later she emerged, cloud of steam wafting from the bathroom as she opened the door. Her hair damp at her shoulders, she pulled the soft terry robe about her, tightening the tie in a haphazard knot. Feet scuffing against the smooth wood of the floor, her head filled with the cinnamon spice of something baking as she made her way to the kitchen nook.
Fire ablaze in the hearth, the tree set on the bench at the window, his back to her as he glanced out onto the surf. He turned slowly; grin spreading across his face as he beheld her in all her freshly bathed glory.
“You’re the only man I know that can smile at my drowned rat-ed-ness.”
“It’s not that love. It’s you.”
She sent her eyes scrolling down to her feet. “Oh, yeah. I look the right—”
He grasped her arm and drew her into a kiss that made her knees nearly disintegrate beneath her. As the kiss ended breath mingling he whispered, “Angel.”
He opened his eyes connecting with hers. “You know I’ve always loved you in a robe.”
She laughed. “That’s not how we spent most of our time.”
His eyes turned sober. “That is not why I am here either.”
She tilted her forehead to his. “I know.”
“We can be together,” he said.
“Do you remember that time… I always will. That time in December along the loch when we walked through the snow and I told you I couldna possibly consider havin’ you along on my promotional tours?”
“Or on location.”
A pang of regret pierced the intensity of his gaze. “Yes.”
“And through a dark and frosted window that evening you left. I saw you walk out of my life.”
“You didn’t stop me.”
“I was a fool.”
“We’re both here in L.A.”
“And you’re spending more time on your career now than ever.”
“Aye.” He took her hand and squeezed. “With the exception of one thing.”
She looked into his open book expression, the vulnerability raw as wind off a wintry sea.
“I realize I—dinna have to do all this alone.” He shot a glance about the room, returning his focus to her.
“The paparazzi aren’t going to–”
“Dictate my life or who I choose to spend my time with. You know I’d never allow that. It was fear for you and your safety that–”
“Kept you away from me for weeks at a time?” She had a difficulty editing the bitterness from her voice.
“Please, Chels.” He entwined his fingers with hers. “We’ve made mistakes…I’ve made mistakes. Can’t we start again?”
“It’s just another end of a year. It’s just another auld lang syne. We’re not alone. We’ve got the world at our door you see.”
“Screw the world. It’s you and I that are important.”
“That’s exactly what the paparazzi think too.”
“I doen’t care.” He turned from her and looked out the window. “They can all go to the devil.”
“They’re not going anywhere, Ger.”
“That’s why it is high time they know I’m not for sale and neither are you.”
She walked up behind him, placing her cheek against his shoulder blade. “I can handle it.”
He turned. “I dinna want you to have to–”
She sent two fingers to his lips. “It is not up to you. It is part of who you are.” She curled a hand about his forearm. “And I love who you are.”
“I don’t deserve your loyalty.”
“You do.” She stared into him eyes burning with withheld tears.
He drew her to him bodies pressing together in wordless sanctuary. Kissing the crown of her head he said, “ I’ve always thought you smarter than me. We can make it work.”
“I’m dreaming tonight of a place I love even more than I usually do. And although I know it’s a long road back… I promise you.” She recited the words form the old song with meaning.
“You’ll stay safely tucked out of sight so as not to be maligned by the press?”
“I can do that.”
“And we can spend New Years Eve in Scotland?”
“If only in my dreams.”
“No, Chels. We can do it. I’ve two weeks break and mum will be expecting to see me. She’d be elated to see us for a few days between.”
“I can do that.” The tone of her voice reflected all sincerity.
“I know yoo can.” Hope sparked in his burr.
“I don’t mean deal with your crazy life. Although I know I could do that. I mean live my life without my family.”
“You’ll never be without them, love. They live in you.” He touched three fingers to her heart. “Your Dad would be so proud of you he’d burst.”
“I’m not quite sure.”
“You have more talent in you little toe than—”
“In the entire body of literary fiction. I know you’ve said.”
“And so have the critics.”
She sent a hand to his, “Let’s walk,” and tugged, pulling him toward the side door.
“I thought you never used this.”
“You didn’t seem to listen.”
He chuckled and followed along as they made their way down to water’s edge. The beach was deserted, great gray clouds hanging ominously above the waves. Faces turned to the sea, the breeze swept across their cheeks.
“Do you think we could ever live a normal life?”
“If you mean the house in the suburbs and work a day world, I–”
“No I mean being together like normal people.”
He turned his head to look at her, eyes full of remorse.
“You don’t have to be sorry.” She took his hand and squeezed it. “I’m not. You’re doing exactly what is right for you and the world is a better place for it.”
“But are we better?”
“Sometimes when I’m all alone when I’m feeling sad and sorry for myself I think of you and all the gifts you’ve been given. To suppress those in any way would be an affront to you, to your audience and yes…to me.”
Chelsea took his face in her hands. “Honor your gift.”
He covered her hands with his and turned to one side kissing her palm.
“To do any less is to deprive not only the world of your talents but yourself and the fabulous man you have become.”
“And you really dinna mind?”
“Will you come along with me then?”
“And not let the world take advantage.”
“They can only do that if I let them. For me to work and write while you do what you do…now that is my idea of heavenly isolation.”
“Just we two.” He dropped the last of his masks showing her the depths of himself and the wounds of his soul.
They walked along the chilly sand, toes sinking into the glassy surface. A gull soared overhead, an arrow of pelicans skimmed the face of the waves and a foghorn blew its mournful song.
“Merry Christmas, darlin’” He glanced to her, fingers carefully weaving through hers.