The smells and sounds of home cooking were alive in the sprawling Victorian home, and Kate was grateful to slump in the cozy oak chair at the kitchen table, watching her cousin make a gourmet vegetarian stew. In this home, there was no talk or deed that involved cruelty to animals, because Miranda was an animal rights activist and all her meals and daily activities were meat-free.
Neck and shoulders wrenched, and with a heavy heart, Kate moped at the table. The long, arduous day had taken its toll on her body.
“Cheer up, honey. We’re going to have some country biscuits, fresh from the oven, and your favourite stew.”
“Mmm…yes.” Kate sauntered to the stove, eyeing the huge stock pot and lifted the lid to peek inside. There was simmering red liquid, robust and hearty, with diced tomatoes, Italian seasoning, vegan sausages, corn, kidney beans, barley, celery, and green pepper. Kate heard her tummy rumble, and her mouth watered.
Miranda grabbed blue oven mitts with snowman motif, and pulled the cookie sheet of biscuits out of the oven. She placed them on the wide trivet on the counter, to cool down. Then she grabbed cocktail glasses and some liquor from the pantry.
One cup of pineapple juice went in the mix, along with 1/2 cup blue curacao, 1/2 cup of light rum, 1/2 cup cream of coconut, and 4 slices of pineapple. Miranda blended it all together and filled their cocktail glasses with the ice blue drink.
“Hitting the bottle already?”
“I promised you some Jack Frost, right?”
Kate nodded. “That’s right, you did. I was too busy feeling sorry for myself to remember.”
“Honey, you have to get that chip off your shoulder. For God’s sake, it’s Christmas.
“I know. I just don’t feel like celebrating this year.”
Miranda nudged her. “What you need is a man.” She delivered the line with special emphasis on the last word.
“Hell, no. I think I’m allergic to them.”
Miranda shook her head. “Nonsense. You’ve just had a bad apple, but things are going to change from here on in.”
“Cousin, please don’t wish that hell on me right now. I’m still having nightmares over the last one.”
“Yes, but no one is as heartless and weasel-like as Jimmy. Trust me, the best way to get over someone is to get under someone else.” She winked, raising her cocktail glass mid-air.
“A toast, to us.”
“What are we toasting to?”
“Beauty, serenity, and our kick-ass feminine power. Oh, let’s not forget the hunks that Santa is going to drop off on our doorstep.”
Kate took one sip, almost spraying it across the room. “Are you shitting me right now? Drop off to us? You make it sound like a fairy Godmother wish granted.”
Miranda grinned, eyes growing wide. “Granted”…. Her thoughts trailed off and she had a light bulb moment.
“What’s gotten into you?” Practical Kate stared at her like she had three heads.
“You said Granted, and I got to thinking...how the last few weeks I have been meaning to introduce you to him.”
“To who?” Dammit, Kate hated when she kept her in suspense.
“Grant Michaels, the Fed Ex man.”
“Are you pulling my leg? That’s insane.”
Miranda finished her drink and mixed another. “Nope. He’s exactly your type and I think you two should get better acquainted. All burn marks aside, that is.” She grinned evilly, and Kate wanted to box her ears.
“Miranda Shannon, you have gone off your rocker. That man is rude and condescending, not to mention he blamed me when I almost fell and broke my neck in your shop. I’d rather slit my wrists than go out with him.”
Kate chugged the cocktail, aiming the empty glass to Miranda for a refill.
“Slow down there, woman. We’ll both be smashed before the meal is even served.” She giggled, catching a buzz from drink number two. “Check on the stew for me, will you please?”
Kate obliged, serving up the stew on two white porcelain dinner plates that had candy cane decorations on the rim.
“We’ll eat it in the dining room, it’s nice and cozy in there, and I’ll get the stereo going.” Miranda followed her, placing the platter of biscuits on the huge cherry wood table and she snapped on the antique stereo. The local station was playing 24/7 Christmas tunes, and Burl Ives crooned “Holly Jolly Christmas” as they sat to eat. Miranda got the matches out, lighting some elegant gold tapers in crystal holders. The table runner was red and gold, and the candy cane plates and other décor lent a pretty festive theme. Miranda was cat-crazy and Christmas crazy, so that made her doubly gaga this time of year. Her cousin smiled, catching her buzz from the Jack Frost cocktail, and thinking how lucky they were to have one another, all joking aside. It was a truly special time of year, and the two single ladies did not need others to keep their lives fulfilled; they had grown up best friends, had seen each other through heart ache and happiness, and hear they were, first cousins and best buds.
A nostalgic tear welled up in Kate’s eye, and Miranda grabbed a napkin and handed it across the table.
“Oh, kitten, cheer up…”
Her nickname for her made her smile through her tears. “I can’t help it, Panda, it’s been a shitty year. I hate men.” Suddenly, she started crying, and Miranda rushed to her side, to hug her and grab her empty glass. “You just need a refill. Hang on honey, I’ll be right back.”
Kate dabbed at her eyes, and the streaking mascara, catching her reflection in the huge gold-rimmed mirror above the antique hutch. Stupid men and their asenine ways…I’ll throttle the next one who tries to give me grief.
Hurrying back, Miranda joined her at the table. “Here. I refilled both of ours, and I brought the bottles here so we don’t have to get up.”
Laughter erupted from Kate. “You’re insane, cousin. You do realize we’re going to be hammered soon, right?”
“Well, since it’s a snowstorm tonight, that suits me just fine. I have the food, booze and coffee stocked right up, and if you needed something at the store, then you’re shit out of luck.”
In unison, they howled with laughter, eating their stew and biscuits, and rocking to the Ronnettes “Sleigh Ride.”
They spent their evening recalling fond childhood memories and sitting by the stone fireplace in the cozy living room. Stockings were hung on the mantel, one with Miranda’s name and all five of her cats. She promised to add one for Kate tomorrow, as soon as she hit the dollar store in town. Crafty with a glue gun, Miranda would stick on silver sparkly letters to Kate’s stocking, and it would be hanging there along with the rest.
Totally content and full from their meal, they sipped the rest of the liquor and watched the flames leap and dance in the grate.
“Shall I make a stocking for Mister Fed Ex too?” She winked at Kate, who grabbed her in a playful headlock.
“Don’t you dare set me up with that cocky bastard!” Kate wailed. “I’m through with men.”
“Turning to the other team, are we? Tsk tsk, such a shame. You know, there’s plenty of worthwhile men out there just dying to meet a beautiful gal like you.”
Drunk and sleepy, Kate rested her head on the end of the sofa, pulling a fleece blanket over herself.
“Worthwhile? I beg to differ. They’re all cheating, lying scum bags who think with their other head.”
Miranda rolled her eyes. “You’ll be over him, soon enough. I just have to find you the right one.”
“And I’d like to know how Ms.-single-and-unlucky-in-love seems to have all the answers about meeting good men.”
It was a low blow, but Miranda always had a comeback. “That’s right, Kate. I do have all the answers. And when you get out of this sulking, self-centred pity party for one, you will wake up and realize that Mister Right is probably right under your nose.”
She got up from the sofa, heading out of the room.
“Wait, where are you going?”
“My head hurts, I have to crash. You can take the spare room if you like. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Good night. Thanks for dinner.”
“You’re welcome,” Miranda called from the stairs, and retreated to her room.
Though Kate was comfy on the sofa, watching the orange glow of the flames, she knew she’d better put the fire out and head to bed. There was a long work day ahead of her, and then she’d have to deal with the mechanic and the financials too. She swore she could hear her empty pocketbook groaning from the stress of it all. Merry Christmas? Nah, it was a bah humbug sort of season.
Kate washed her face, brushed her teeth and changed. She would shower first thing in the morning, but for now, she got into her PJ’s and crawled into bed. The drinks had made her super relaxed, and it had been a lovely night. Slipping into dreamland, she saw the image of a tall delivery man appear before her, smiling and handing her a red rose. On and on she dreamed, not waking once until 6 a.m., when the alarm sounded. She showered for ten minutes, dressed for work, and went to eat breakfast.
Miranda was buzzing about in the kitchen, making gourmet coffee and some homemade cinnamon-brown sugar oatmeal.
“Mornin’ kitten. Did you sleep well?”
Yawning, Kate stretched almost-catlike, living up to her nickname. “I slept like a log. And some damned Fed Ex man haunted my dream.”
“Uh-oh.” Miranda smiled slyly. “What was that all about, or dare I ask for juicy details?”
Kate wrinkled her nose, eating the oatmeal her cousin served up. “Oh, it wasn’t a sex dream, if that’s what you’re insinuating.”
“Dammit, then why even bother telling me?” She stuck out her tongue, hanging Kate a mug of coffee with cream and sugar.
“No candy cane hot chocolate today?”
“That is what you will get at the bake shop. Don’t worry, we’ll stop there before you go to work.”
“How am I getting to work? There’s no car.”
“I’ve already got that covered. You can take my car to cover your news stories and what not, and if you could stop by the supermarket before you come to pick me up at five, that would be superb.”
“Fantastic. Can I have your shopping list?”
Miranda grabbed her purse, pulling a wallpaper length of a list out, and handing them to Kate at the table.
“You sure drive a hard bargain.” Rolling her eyes, Kate laughed, digging into the oatmeal.
The sweet, aromatic flavour hit her taste buds, sending warmth to her tummy, and for once this week, she felt a rush of satisfaction.
“Sorry, Kate, I have a few extra Christmas things to stock up on before this blast of snow we’re getting.”
“I thought we got the brunt of it last night? Weatherman said 15 cm.”
“Nope, that’s just a teaser. We’re getting 90 cm in the next 48 hrs.”
“You’re shitting me.” Kate paused, spoon in mid-air.
“I wish I was. But I have some vegan baking for the girls at the Vegan Circle I run, so I’d better get on that tonight.”
“Geezus, woman, when do you ever stop? You’re going to be dead from exhaustion before the fat man arrives.”
“Commitments, Kate. They are the bane of my life.” Miranda pulled on two layers of sweaters and headed for the front hall.
“Where are you going? Sit down and enjoy your oatmeal, cousin.”
“Did you see that driveway? We’ll never get the car out if I don’t shovel.”
“Let me help you.”
“No, sit down and eat. I’m going to shovel a small laneway so we can drive out, but I hired old Mister Mitchell with his plow and tractor.”
“Are you sure?” Kate watched her put on thigh-high winter boots, hat, scarf, heavy mitts and a coat.
“Oh, hell, just come with me. We’d better hustle, because I open the bakery at seven.”
Kate grabbed two sturdy shovels from the shed in the backyard, climbing through a mountain of snow, and getting some in her boot. Shivering from the icy tingle, she grumbled under her breath. It was under these circumstances that she agreed with her cousin; a man around the house would be useful, to handle the dirty work. Kate despised shoveling snow, and she definitely hated her morning routine of breakfast and coffee being interrupted.
They were done in fifteen minutes, and hurried back in to wolf down the remains of oatmeal and took their coffee in tumblers to go.
Luckily, the sanders and plows had done their morning rounds by then, and the snowfall had let up for a bit. Miranda had the news on as they drove, and sure enough, the weather man predicted close to 90 cm of snow over the next two days. Panic rose in Kate’s throat, and she dreaded the last minute Christmas gifts she had to buy for her three brothers and their small children. Kate was the only single sibling in the family, without kids and a spouse, so she always procrastinated till the last few days before Christmas. It was a royal pain in the arse, but this year, since Jimmy left her high and dry with the bills and the house, she was strapped.
“Cheer up, sweetie. You’re going to get through this. I promise.” Miranda in the passenger seat, rubbed her shoulder, noting it was tense. “For Christmas, I’m getting you a man who knows how to massage stiff shoulders.” She winked, and Kate groaned.
“Just get me a tall bottle of Jack Daniels and a case of Coke, and I’ll be happy as a pig in manure.”
“Silly girl, you know that’s not all you need.” Miranda’s wheels were turning again; it was a dangerous moment indeed. When Kate saw her secretly conspiring, she knew it meant big business, and it always, nine times out of ten, included her.
They arrived at the bake shop just before 7, and outside was the white Fed Ex van, faithfully waiting for the store to open.
“Well, I’ll be damned.” Miranda gasped, tickled pink. “Looks like Prince Charming came back for seconds.”
“Huh?” Kate was dazed.
Miranda hurried to unlock the store, get the pastries ready and put on some fresh espresso for Grant.
From the driver’s wheel, Kate felt her stomach sink with dread. He was back, and she was trying her best to hide from him. Dear God, please make him go away. I can’t face him, not in this mood.
Kate watched him go into the bake shop, oblivious that she was in the driver’s seat. He was smiling and checking his cell phone, probably texting some girlfriend. Well, lucky girl, because she was stuck with a nasty, self-centred son of a hag.
“Kate, come in for a latte. It’s too cold out there,” Miranda hollered from the door.
Rolling down the car window, she hissed at her cousin for drawing attention to her. “Have you lost your mind? I’m not going in there. I’ll pick you up at five sharp, unless you want me to grab the groceries and then get you?”
“Whatever works best. I have cleaning and inventory, so take your time.”
“Okay, have a good day. Thanks for the car.”
“No problem!” She turned and hurried back into the shop. From her spot in the car, Kate could see Miranda laughing and flirting with Grant, and a pang of jealousy knifed her in the chest.
It’s always the other girls who get the men…
What was she saying? Her newfound motto was to steer clear of men, and run she did.
She gassed the car and did a U-turn in the middle of Main Street. Screw you, Mister Fed Ex. I’d rather choke on fiery coals than face you.
The rage and bitterness over Jimmy’s departure was still fresh in her mind. He’d left her in September, right before the romantic leaves of Autumn started to fall, during Kate’s favourite season. The bastard had the nerve to leave her destitute and heartbroken in her otherwise happy time of year. She cursed the day she met him, and the four mostly blissful years they had spent together. One day he was buying her flowers and taking her to fancy dinners, and the next, he called to say they were not compatible and he was no longer “into” her. She heard through the grapevine he’d been seen with Ashley Britton, the town floozy, at a local watering hole.
Kate had smashed the phone and drove over it when she got the cold-hearted news. Though she normally hid her Irish temper, that day was the grandmother of all days. Only Satan could have been angrier and hotter with fury. Being betrayed by the one man she'd invested so much time and love into...made her want to drive him off a cliff.
“I’ll be back for my things at the end of the week,” he'd said into the phone.
“Don’t bother,” Kate screamed. At the back of the property was a shed with a gas tank, and a huge barrel. One day after work, she took all his clothes, Maxim magazines and Marilyn Manson CD’s and torched them. The bonfire grew sky-high, and its flames licked and leaped the smoky autumn air. It was a chilly night, and Kate had been grateful for the heat on her body. It was the only heat she would ever experience again, or so she thought. Men, she learned, were not worth the fleeting moments of physical pleasure, just to endure a shattered heart and a web of lies.
Tears stung her eyes and she broke down, watching his belongings go up in smoke. There were no neighbours for a half mile, it was a quaint country property with five acres and a small white bungalow, so Kate was alone to fully grieve and pour her soul out. Normally spiritual, she grew especially angry at God and begged and pleaded that he would take the pain away.
“Why did you let this happen, God? How could you let me get used and abandoned this way? It doesn’t make sense, I’m a good woman, and I was faithful all along.”
The answers did not come, there was only a spiral of smoke and flames, reaching to the sky, dancing on the cool breeze, and her tears rolled down heavily. That first night, she cried herself to sleep, and Miranda came to sleep over. She called in sick to work, because she was like a zombie and could not function. It was much-needed time away from the job, she affirmed, and Miranda agreed.
“Give yourself a few days to recover. I know it will take longer, but the initial shock will hit you and it’s going to be rough.”
“I want to die,” Kate murmured, hiding in her bed. “How could that bastard pull such a stunt?”
“I know, it’s awful.” Miranda felt her pain. “It happened to me half a dozen times, cousin, and I know it’s horrible. But one day, you will wake up and the ache will subside, and you will be happy again. I promise you.”
It was a solid promise, because Miranda never lied to her. And now three months later, Kate felt that pain growing dimmer. It was true, the days got easier to handle, but she still felt angry towards him. She was only grateful she never ran into him all this time. When he found out she’d torched his stuff, he fled town and was not seen again.
A low chuckle rose in her throat, and she recalled the scene in her favorite movie Waiting To Exhale, where Angela Bassett torched her cheating husband’s car and clothes. Unconsciously, she had re-enacted that scene, and it thrilled her no end, as she drove through the Tim Horton's drive through to get a gingerbread white hot chocolate. The local station was playing Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, “The Bells of St. Mary’s”…one of her all-time favorite Phil Spector-produced holiday tunes. Childhood yearning and nostalgia crept up on her, and she felt the tears sting her eyes again. Please, God, just let me be happy one day again…that’s all I want.
Grabbing her pumpkin spice muffin and gingerbread drink from the window, Kate thanked the Tim’s employee and drove off. Her thoughts were heavy with memories, of Christmases past, when Mom was with them, God rest her soul. She had passed from colon cancer four years earlier, and that’s when Jimmy had entered her life. It was an ironic twist of fate; God stealing her mother and replacing her with evil Jimmy. It was clear that Kate had been drowning in grief over her mom’s death, and she had latched on to the closest person she knew, an attractive male whom flattered her and took her drinking and dancing. They’d had a good run, in the first few years, but looking back with an objective point of view, Kate started to realize that things were beginning to unravel in that fourth year. Little discrepancies with his bank account, times he came home late with no legit alibi, when she was fast asleep, and receipts in his jeans pockets when she did the laundry. She had denied things all along, and had been adamant that her Jimmy would never do that to her. How wrong she had been. How very wrong.
Her knuckles were white against the steering wheel as she drove on, to the newspaper offices. It would all be a distance memory one day, she assured herself. Just wait and see, Kate…her inner voice coached. You will be stronger and wiser than ever.
Locking the car, carrying her handbag and drink into the office, she noticed there was no warm welcome from the receptionist Amy as usual. She smiled at her, but the perky blonde just looked down at her stack of papers and continued to work.
It was quiet, and the usual murmur of editor and writers abuzz were nowhere to be found. She looked for her boss, John Marshall, and he was in his office, deep at work on a piece. He spied her from behind his Mac, gesturing her to come in and close the door.
“Come in, Kate. I have some important things to discuss with you.”
Kate swallowed, taking a seat across from him at the desk. “What is it?” She felt dread take residence in her stomach; Kate always sensed things before they happened. It was a gift, a sort of sixth sense she’d had her whole life. And now was no different. Her radar was going off big time.
“Kate, I have done my annual review of all my employees and somehow, you have fallen short.”
“I beg your pardon?” She stared at him, as if he’d slapped her across the face.
“You haven’t performed quite as well this season, and the stories lack the real depth that is needed for our readers here.”
“What are you saying?”
He heaved a sigh, folding his hands on the desk. “I won’t mince words. We’re making cutbacks here at the paper, and I’m afraid you’re one of them.”
It was six days before Christmas, and Kate had a ton of things to buy…she felt the knife of reality stab her in the heart, and her legs turned to Jell-O when she tried to stand up.
“You have got to be the most cold-hearted man I know.”
“Kate, please understand…it’s just the newspaper business. We have lost a lot of money this quarter.”
She wanted to take her clenched fist and slam it down his throat. “You disgust me.”
John stood. “Don’t you want your final paycheque?”
She was halfway out the door, and turned on her heeled boot. “I guess that might be a good idea, considering I have a mortgage to pay soon.”
Scowling, she snatched the slim paper and stomped away.
“I’m sorry, Kate...”
“Save your speech. It’s not necessary.”
She hurried out of the building, feeling angrier than a hornet doused with water. Goddamn men, she cursed. Always the reason for every problem on this planet. Always the problems, the headaches, the ass pains…
Kate got in the car, cranked the heat and the Christmas tunes, and sped away. Tears coursed down her cheeks, and she could barely see, she was crying so hard.
Soon, she was at the bank to cash her cheque, and then the supermarket, to utilize the list Miranda had given her. She tossed a box of Turtles into the cart, because they were her favourite chocolate treasures this time of year, and she was on a massive pity party now. Anger and sadness mingled in one, she grabbed fresh organic veggies, and all the ingredients Miranda wanted on her list. At the floral department, she picked out a pretty bouquet of white lilies and red roses and ferns, with a gold bow, perfect for a table centrepiece. She knew her cousin adored flowers, and she needed to thank her for letting her cry on her shoulder and for the comfort of a place to spend the holidays.
Kate decided she was going to get some nice things for herself, so after shopping, she went to the mall half an hour away, and got a sparkly silver cardigan and matching tank, just for Christmas. Screw you, John Marshall and your firing. I’m not going to let you ruin my Christmas spirit. I deserve to look good and feel good. You can’t take my power away.
Retail therapy was truly the best, she mused, and she planned to show up very early at the bake shop to help Miranda and return the car. The mechanic called and said the car was ready, so she was going to get it at five, when the bake shop closed.
First, Kate drove to Miranda’s to feed the cats and to get the crockpot on with the dinner, and she put some laundry in the washer.
There was a knock at the door around noon, and Kate hurried to see who it was. Startled, she opened the door to see Grant Michaels, with the first of five huge boxes that Miranda had ordered. Kate wondered why she didn’t just have them delivered to the shop.
“So we meet again,” he said with a wry grin.
Kate was taken back with those blue eyes, and her heart did a flip-flop. What the hell had gotten into her?
“Yes, so we do…”
“I guess you’re taking care of the house while Miranda is at work.”
“I’m spending the holidays with her, yes.”
“Sounds like fun.” He didn’t know what to say, it was extremely awkward, considering their bad first impression of one another.
“Look, Grant…I’m sorry about yesterday…I feel awful.”
“Oh, don’t mention it. Accidents happen.” He smiled at her, studying her lovely face and full lips, and huge hazel eyes. “Trust me, this is not my normal route. I’m corporate, but we’re short staffed since Jimmy fell and dislocated his shoulder two weeks ago. I’m stuck doing his route.”
Her eyes grew wide. “Jimmy? He wouldn’t be Jimmy Collins, would he?”
Grant smiled. “Why, do you know him?”
“Yeah…kind of…” She hid her satisfaction at finding out he was off work injured. Pride comes before the fall, her Bible said.
“Lucky girl, he is a hard worker. One of the best in our region.”
“Not lucky at all,” she snapped. “I never want to see him again.”
Grant was stunned at her curt remark. “Look, I don’t need to know the gory details behind it all.” He placed one box on the verandah. “I have to get a few more boxes for your cousin.” He turned to go down the stairs, and Kate followed him.
“He’s my ex.”
The confession slammed him. “I’m sorry.”
“Good riddance,” Kate said sharply. “Anyways, can I help you carry something?”
“How’s your arm? Did the burn end up taking a lot of skin?”
She was touched over his concern. “Nah, it’s okay. I iced it most of the night.”
“Good, I’m glad you’re okay.” Those blue eyes peered into her soul, and she felt a warm fluttery feeling in her midsection.
“Lift this one, it’s a little lighter. I’ll grab the rest.”
“Why is she shipping all this stuff here, anyways? I would have thought she would have it sent to the bakery.”
“From what I understand, she mentioned some eBay Christmas gifts were coming.”
Kate shrugged, heading up the steps to the house. She placed the box on the verandah and helped him lift some other boxes into the front hall.
“Well, that’s all of them,” he announced, standing in the doorway.
There was a long pause, and for a second, Kate was caught speechless.
“Would you like a cup of tea or do you have to head out?”
“Sorry, I have half my route still to do, but thanks for the offer. Maybe some other time.”
He hurried away, and the white van disappeared into the snowy afternoon. Feeling foolish and embarrassed for offering him the tea, Kate watched from the front picture window. Despite her embarrassment over him, she secretly hoped those sultry blue eyes would brighten her day again soon.