A Southern Christmas

“How do you do it?” Heather Lang asked pushing her dark red hair off her neck as White Christmas played over the store’s speakers.

“Do what?” Britany picked up another ornament and put it in her basket. Her attention divided between the colorful array of Christmas ornaments and her friend’s question.

The two women were neighbors having moved in across the hall from each other just a few short months ago. They’d become fast friends spending many evenings in each other’s apartments and weekends exploring the town and surrounding areas.

Heather toyed with the assortment of penguins on the corner display. “How do you get into the holiday spirit when it’s seventy degrees outside?” The two women were similarly dressed in their weekend attire of tee shirts and shorts, taking advantage of the warm November Saturday.

Britany laughed. “Just because we don’t have snow by Thanksgiving doesn’t mean we’re not filled with the holiday spirit.”

Heather tied up her hair and fanned herself with a colorful stack of cardstock. “I’m used to sledding and having snowball fights with my neighbors by now.”

“We do have to work a little harder to find our holiday spirit without the snow globe effect y’all have in New England. Maybe that’s why we go a little crazy for the holidays. You should come out to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving you’ll get a real taste of the way we do the holidays down south.” They carried their purchases to the check-out.

“Oh, I don’t know, I wouldn’t want to intrude.” Heather picked up a package of Christmas stickers adding them to her basket. She’d spent the past few years of high school feeling as if she were an intruder in everyone else’s holiday story. In college she began volunteering spending her holidays at hospitals or nursing homes to keep from being alone.

Britany laughed. “Oh no, you won’t be intruding, in fact, we could use a few extra hands. My parents put on a big dinner and invite the whole community. My brother and I help serve. We would appreciate another slave, I mean, extra helping hands.” She laughed. “My mother is ex-military. She would have no problem putting the governor to work if he showed up at the house.” They stepped out of the shop. Britany gasped and grabbed Heather’s hand pulling her back into the shadow of the store’s entry. “Oh jeez, there he is…”

Heather turned to look.

“No, don’t look,” Britany ordered through clenched teeth. “Aw man, why do I always see him when I’m looking like a troll?”

The beautiful, usually confident Britany Noel looked as if she would cry. Her reaction surprised Heather. “You’re beautiful, Brit. I’ve never known you to be insecure,” she scolded straining to see who she was freaking out over.

“I’m not in his league.” She leaned back against the storefront window, her head falling back against the glass, she let out a groan. “He’s so dreamy. I swear, I’ve been drooling over him for months, but he’s never noticed me.”

Heather shook her head. She’d never expected the vivacious woman to suffer any insecurities. Britany was the first friend she’d made after moving to North Carolina. They’d met when she was moving into the apartment across the hall. Britany had stepped from her apartment across the hall and greeted her like a long, lost friend. She gave her the history of the newly remodeled apartment building, explaining about the gentrification of the long vacant department store. She had also pointed out that it was right across the street from the newly restored theatre where she worked. She had dreams of becoming an actress but worked at the arts council as a jack-of-all-trades.

Britany, a local girl, knew nearly everyone in town and never seemed to meet a stranger. She could not imagine who had her in such a tailspin.

They stepped out of the doorway to the nearly empty sidewalk.

Britany sighed. “Oh good, he’s gone.”

Heather wanted to know who she was so crazy about but decided to let it go. “I want to stop by the green grocery. I’d like some of that pepper jelly you had last week.”

“I like to get both the red and green for my holiday parties…” Britany’s voice trailed off.

A familiar man stepped from the toy store in front of them carrying several colorful bags. He turned in their direction and seeing them smiled. “Heather, hello.”

Heather gave a teasing groan. “I can’t get away from you,” she said with a smile. “Hey, Mr. Pine, are you out Christmas shopping?”

“Birthday, my niece has a birthday next weekend and I’m struggling to come up with a gift for her that makes me her favorite uncle,” he said with a grin. “I take it you’re Christmas shopping?”

She smiled and shook her head. “No, my friend and I were looking for decorations. Oh, Britany, this is my boss, Mr. Jackson Pine, my friend Britany Noel.” She turned to Britany and saw the panic in her light green eyes. Oh crap, she’s in love with my boss.

Jack smiled and held out his hand. “Just call me Jack.” He stood there waiting with his hand held out.

Heather cringed and tried to think of something to say to make the situation less awkward. Britany was usually the one who handled these situations not the one making them. She froze, staring at her boss like a deer caught in headlights.

Britany’s smile was manic at best as she forced it on her unmade-up face. Oh god, kill me now, why did I leave the house without make-up on today. It took a prolonged moment before she took his hand and shook it. My hand is sweaty. Isn’t that charming? She showed her teeth but felt green to the gills as her grandmother would put it. She hoped she didn’t upchuck on the man. That would really earn her points. Realizing she’d been holding his hand an inappropriately long time, she abruptly dropped it. “I’m-it’s nice to meet you. I should go.” Clutching her bags, she took off across the street too embarrassed and frazzled to look where she was going. She only wanted to escape.

“Britany!” Heather screamed.

She turned back and waved, forcing a smile. It was only then that she saw the delivery truck heading her way. Momentarily stuck in place, she started to leap away only to be grabbed and rolled onto her back to the sidewalk. “What’s wrong with you? Didn’t you see that truck. Damn it. You need to look where you’re going.” He shifted his weight and groaned when he put his weight on his hand.

Britany eased up, blinking back tears.  She nodded. Her face burning. “Thank you,” she muttered pulling out of his embrace.

“Here let me help you,” he insisted but again, grumbled when he tried to use his hand to help himself up.

Brittany squatted and examined his hand. “You may have broken your wrist or at the very least, sprained it.” She helped him to his feet. “You should have it examined. Let me drive you to the ER.”

Laughing, he said, “If you drive like you walk, I’d rather not.”

Blushing she said, “I was embarrassed and distracted but I’m not now. You need an x-ray. If you won’t let me take you then maybe Heather should.”

“I can take myself to the hospital, it’s only a few blocks away.”

“I know where it is, I grew up here.”

“Yeah, so did I.”

“Being here on weekends and holidays is not the same as growing up here,” Brittany argued.

“How did you…” He studied her. “Ah, you’re Chad Noel’s sister.”

“Yeah, the pest. Come on or I’m calling the paramedics to come and take you to the hospital.”  

He moved his hand. “It’s not broken. I just jammed it. It’s not the first time.”

She raised a brow and crossed slim muscular arms over her chest. “Are you sure?”

He nodded. “I’m fine.”

“I’m sorry you had to rescue me from my own stupidity but don’t worry, I won’t make that mistake again. Good day, Mr. Pine.”

Heather took her hand and pulled her down the sidewalk. “It was nice seeing you Mr. Pine. I’ll see you Monday.”

He grunted some reply, but Brittany didn’t wait around to hear.

Jackson shoved his hand through his hair and watched them walk away. “Smooth move Jackson, could you have been any more of a jerk?” He picked up his packages and sighed.

“Talking to yourself mayor?”

He turned to smile at the new assistant fire chief. “Chad Noel, it must be my day for bumping into your family.”

The young man grinned. “Yeah? You must have seen my sister? I swear, that girl used to have the biggest crush on you…” He looked at the mayor and said, “Are you all right, man?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” He tried again to pick up his packages and winced.

Chad took his hand and examined his wrist. “Did you injure yourself?”

Jackson tried to pull away. He could just imagine what the good people of the town would say if they sold the firefighter holding his hand. “You need to get this x-rayed, it might be broken.”

The mayor nodded. “Fine, I’ll go. Just don’t tell your sister.”

Chad frowned. “What about my sister?”

“It’s nothing.”

Chad helped him with his bags. “You want me to take you…”

“I can drive myself.”

“Fine, it was nice seeing you again. I should try to catch up with my sister.”

“Hey, sis! Wait up.”

Britany turned to see her brother chasing her down the sidewalk. She could see the mayor still standing in front of The Christmas Shoppe watching them. She wished a crack in the sidewalk would open up and swallow her.

Heather stopped beside her and whispered, “That’s your brother?”

Chad swooped in and lifted her up off her feet. “Hey little sister, did you buy me anything?”

“Put me down buzzard breath,” she said. “You’ll break my Christmas ornaments.”

Setting her on her feet, he nodded to her friend. “Hey.”

Britany rolled her eyes. “This smooth-talker is my baby brother, Chadwick. Chad, my friend and neighbor Heather Lang.”

Chad winked at Heather. “I’m five minutes younger but bossy pants over here has never let me forget it.”

Heather blushed and nodded. “She is a force to be reckoned with.”

“Hey, whose side are you on?” Britany demanded with her hands on her hips.

Chad tucked her into his side and kissed the top of her head. “Yours sis, always yours. Mom wanted me to stop by and see if you were still baking the pies for Thanksgiving. She said Mr. O’Pharroh requested your cherry cobbler if you have time to bake it. I’ve got the fire department doing the turkeys.”

Heather looked from one to the other. “Uh, how many people attend this dinner?”

Chad shrugged. “I think we served close to two hundred last year.”

“Two hundred?”

“We deliver part of the meals to shut-ins, and my parents assist St. Bart’s Church with feeding the homeless.”

Chad nodded. “Yes, and some of the people take their meals to go but about fifty or sixty crowd into the old barn and have dinner with our family.”

Heather nodded. “That sounds wonderful.”

“After dinner we start decorating for Christmas and many of those who dine stay and help,” Britany explained.

“Which is really good because our parents have never met a holiday decoration they didn’t like,” Chad said shaking his head.

“So, what can I do to help?”

The twins grinned at each other glad to have another set of hands.

***

Heather set the papers on her boss’ desk. “Oh my god, Jack! Did that happen Saturday when you rescued Brittany?” She stared at the cast on his wrist.

Jack shrugged, he hated having to wear the damned thing, but the surgeon had insisted. “It’s nothing. I just rebroke an old injury.” The old embarrassment welled up. No one suspected the broken wrist he’d received at ten hadn’t happened because he was playing and fell. He’d never told anyone about that fun Christmas after his dad lost his job or that this was the same wrist his father had broken that same Christmas after he’d discovered Jack and his sister, Trixie had gone to the church party to receive gifts. At ten, he’d tried to stand up to his drunk of a father and he’d paid the price with a trip to the emergency room. The only good thing that had come out of it is he’d managed to save Trixie’s doll. His dad, once sober had been contrite and left them alone giving them a reprieve from his anger and hate. Shoving old memories away, he asked, “How’s your friend? I hope she’s not running out in front of truck and disrupting traffic.”

Heather shook her head and sighed. “That girl, I don’t know what’s wrong with her. I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but I don’t want you to think Britany is a nut case. She has a bit of a crush on you. I think seeing you Saturday put her in a bit of a tailspin.” She said, “It’s funny, Britany is always so together and confident. I can’t understand why she’d get so crazy at seeing you. I mean, it’s not like you’re all that.” Her lips quirked up in a side-smile.

“Well thank you very much.” He laughed. “So, the pretty lady has a crush on me. At least she has good taste.” Heat spread out across his chest and he fought the urge to puff up and preen like some young rooster in the hen house. He’d had girlfriends but he couldn’t remember ever hearing anyone had a crush on him. Most of the women he dated were more business associates, not love interests. Returning to Riverton after making his money with a computer start-up, Jackson Pine had opened a small tech firm that helped underprivileged kids get started in the tech industry.

Heather crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him. “If you tell her I told you I will stain all of your ties.”

He snorted. “Okay, I do that enough on my own. I don’t need your help.” He was the newly elected mayor and had taken office early only because the previous mayor had had a heart attack. He was feeling much like a fish out of water. Jackson had always been more comfortable behind a computer than dealing with people in person. “Truth is, I’ve been trying to get up the courage to meet Ms. Britany Noel ever since I saw her in the production of “The Women” this summer. She’s a very talented actress.”

Heather grinned. “And quite beautiful too.”

Jackson cursed the heat that suffused his cheeks but nodded his agreement. “Yes, out of my league.”

“Funny, that’s the same thing she said about you.”

Jack raised a brow and smiled.

“She is practicing for a new play. I can’t wait to see her in it. “The Southern Christmas Carol,” Brittany tells me it’s a southern spoof on the traditional story.”

“Do you think you could arrange for another meeting?” Jack asked.

Heather told him about the Noel’s family Thanksgiving dinner. “I’m looking forward to it, Britany says it’s the beginning of the holidays for her.”

Jack rubbed his chin. “I think I remember seeing something on the calendar about that. I’ll check with the fire chief and see if there’s anything I can do. Thanks Heather.”

She smiled. “You’re going to have a lot to do with the holidays and taking office early.”

He nodded. He’d hoped for a couple of months to shadow the former mayor and learn his duties as well as get his own business concerns in order. At least the school would be closing soon for the winter break and his staff really did need him on a daily basis. After getting the school started and running smoothly it had been boredom and a desire to help the town he’d always thought of as home even if it was only his part-time growing up. He’d loved his visits with his grandparents. They were the only ones who made his life bearable. When Trixie had run away and moved in with them he’d been tempted to do the same but he’d thought his staying with their father would protect his sister from his wrath and he was harder to throw around at sixteen than he’d been at ten.  

The week of Thanksgiving was filled with late nights in the kitchen. Heather had to admit the holidays with Britany were turning into something more than she could have ever imagined. Baking cookies, pies, and fresh bread in the evenings after work and unwinding in front of the television with a basket of beads, ribbon and wire to make ornaments while watching holiday movies.

It was very different than her holidays as a child. She missed the New England winter wonderland, but the holidays had never been very happy. She’d had no time for sledding or ice skating. Her mother, a single parent had to work most holidays. Some of the jobs had allowed her to bring her little daughter. She’d learned to bake from one of her mother’s co-workers who kept her entertained in the kitchen while her mother waited tables. Another coworker taught her to make bows and ornaments.

Her mother did the best she could but there was never any money or time left for fun. When her mother died, Heather had gone into foster care and she’d had her first real Christmas. Her foster mom had been a holiday wizard baking cookies, decorating and buying gifts but when she had the opportunity to adopt an infant, she’d sent Heather back into foster care. She’d learned a hard truth about life, love and fairness.

Turning to Britany sniffling beside her on the couch over their recent holiday movie, Heather said, “This is turning out to be the best holiday I’ve ever had.”

Britany shook her head and wiped her nose. “What about sledding and snowball fights?”

Heather shook her head. “I never got to do those things.” She told her the story of her life and soon the two of them were crying.

“This calls for wine.” Britany got up and brought back wine and cookies. “Then this year we really have to make Christmas special.”

Thanksgiving morning dawned bright and early. Heather and Brittany packed up their old cars and drove out to the edge of town where the Noel Inn sat on the Pamlico river. It was a little chilly as the sun peaked above the pines. Heather followed Brittan around the side of the inn to an old, weathered barn already filled with people and bustling with activity.

“You’re late,” an older woman kissed Brittany’s cheek. It was obvious just by looking at the two women that they were mother and daughter.

“Mom, this is Heather Lang. Heather, my mom, Christy Noel.”

“It’s so lovely to meet you.” Heather held out her hand but was pulled into a hug.

“You too, darling, I’ve heard so much about you from both my children.” She waggled her finely arched brows.

Heather blushed and Brittany laughed. “I knew Chad was interested. Send him over to help us get these pies and cakes out.”

Heather understood how Brittany had felt seeing Jackson the other week. She did not want to see Chad Noel in her faded jeans and flannel shirt but when he appeared with a group of firefighters, smiling and teasing, she relaxed. They were all dressed similarly.

Brittany nearly tripped over her own feet when she saw Jackson Pine standing in the doorway of the barn. He smiled at her and she realized he was sporting a cast on his wrist. She shot a glare to Heather for not telling her, but Heather just shrugged.

Jackson joined her at the dessert table where she was cutting and packaging desserts for the take-out plates. “How are you doing?” He asked catching a stack of plastic containers before they could slide off the table.

Brittany blushed and shook her head. “Better than you it appears. I’m so sorry…”

He held up his good hand. “You have nothing to apologize for. It was an old injury that didn’t get fixed correctly the first time. According to the orthopedic surgeon, you did me a favor.”

“Some favor.” She rolled her eyes. “I’m such an idiot.”

“I hear you have a crush on me?”

She blushed and turned to glare at her friend.

“I have a confession. I’ve had a crush on you since we met at my grandparents’ as children. I think I was in a cast then as well.”

Brittany studied him. “I never knew. I thought I was the pest you tolerated.”

He shrugged. “I wasn’t very good at expressing my feelings back then.”

“And now?”

“I’m worse.” He grinned. “But I’d like to try to improve, do you have any suggestions?”

They chatted as he helped her prepare the plates for delivery. He was a little awkward with only one hand, but he labeled the boxes and did what he could.

When all the food had been delivered to the shut-ins and to Saint Bart’s Homeless Shelter, the exhausted workers sat down to rest and the next group of helpers served them. Christmas carols played on an old stereo until one of the firefighters pulled out a guitar, soon several instruments were out. One end of the barn became their stage, and they led the group in old favorite carols. Solo or in groups, different ones would get up to entertain from singing, to reciting poetry and even acting out bits from plays. While some entertained and others relaxed and listened another group got up and started cleaning.

“Does everyone have a job?” Jack asked.

Brittany smiled. “My parents have been doing this since we were kids. They have groups who volunteer to help with different things. They’ll start decorating soon. The house, the bar and the whole yard will be turned into a holiday wonderland without the snow,” she said with a grin at Heather.

Heather blushed. “But why do all of this? It’s so much.”

“Those who have much have the responsibility to take care of those who don’t. We team up with the hospital and social services to set up a toy drive with boxes set up all over town. The hospital hosts an angel tree, and we raise money for the homeless with our decorations,” Christy Noel spoke from behind the young people. “People come from all over to visit our decorations and we set up donation boxes in several strategic places to encourage donations.”

“We even have donations set up online,” Brittany said.

“Really?” Jackson asked. He learned one of his students set up a donation page online for the Noel Inn Holiday Wonderland.

“Hmm, you know, we could probably do something more, let me think about it.” Jackson took Christy over to speak to her husband Arturo.

“He put up photos from past holidays showing our Thanksgiving dinners, the light shows, decorations and even the toy drive.”

Brittany and Heather watched. “What do you think he’s up to?”

“Knowing Jack, he’s got some idea of how to use computers for something,” Heather said.

“Come on you two, we have decorations to set up and half the day is gone already,” Chad scolded.

Brittany was exhausted but she had to admit the decorations had never looked better and Jack’s idea of putting some of the displays online to music was ingenus, they were already getting hits to the sight from all over the world and they weren’t even promoting it yet.

Jack had a couple of his students setting up computer grids for the light shows and Christmas music.

“You are going to have to be a part of our Christmas group every year,” Christy Noel said giving Jack a hug. “You have been a fantastic asset, thank you.”

Jack hadn’t known this kind of happiness since his grandparents died. He was close to his sister, Trixie but she was busy with her own family, she didn’t have time for him, and he didn’t want to intrude. He met Brittany’s eyes and smiled, “I’d like that.”

She blushed but didn’t look away.

For the second time in his life, he felt he’d found a place where he belonged. He smiled remembering how he’d felt the first time he’d come to Riverton, North Carolina. He’d known even then that this was home and the girl with the green eyes was the girl he’d love forever. This would be his first real Christmas. He walked over to where Brittany stood with her brother and Heather. “Hey, shall we do a walk through?” He offered her his arm.

Brittany accepted his arm, sliding her hand through the crook and leaning against him. “It looks amazing, doesn’t it?”

The lights twinkled on when the entered the arch over the tiny bridge separating the street from the inn’s property. As they strolled through the wonderland of decorations Brittany marveled at the addition Jack and his students implemented from the “Remembering our Military” display with each branch represented and “I’ll be home for Christmas” playing in the background to the flashing lights on Santa’s sleigh as it landed on a gingerbread house to “Up on the roof top.”

“Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your holiday tradition,” Jack began.

Brittany touched his lips. “Oh, you’re not getting away that fast Mr. Mayor, the holidays have just begun, and I hope, so have we.”

He sighed and nodded. “I was hoping you’d say that.” He kissed her under the flashing mistletoe to “I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus.”   

Heather and Chad followed behind lost in their own thoughts, their hands brushing each other as they walked through the narrow entryway. Heather blushed and glanced up at Chad who smiled and gave her a wink. “I think it’s going to be a wonderful Christmas, if you’ll share it with me?”

Heather simply smiled and slipped her hand in his.