The funeral plans were scheduled Dec 23, and Kate couldn’t have been more upset. Not only was it cutting into the usual Christmas merriment, but she would have to find something black to wear. That was out of context for Kate’s wardrobe of mostly blues, deep plums, rich beiges, browns, greys and the occasional deep pink. She had grown into a more feminine wardrobe, at the advice of her cousin, and found it worked better than those bygone days of being a tomboy at the farm. Men definitely noticed her when she updated her look, and that was how she’d landed the job at the newspaper.
Finally, she decided on a black silk shift dress, just above the knee, with a little black sparkly cardigan, and black heels. It was paired with her faur fux black plush coat, the one she wore to holiday parties and gala’s for the newspaper. She had a feeling it was not going to get much use this season, considering she was jobless, single, and in mourning.
At MacIntosh Funeral Home, the people paying their respects came in droves. There must have been a hundred and fifty, despite the heavy snow which made driving a real chore. Temperatures remained cold enough to sustain the amount of snow on the ground, and the wind chill had reached minus 15C.
Tom Shannon was a well-respected man in Hope Valley, and a long-standing business person. He had started the Shannon Lumber Company, and it had grown in leaps and bounds, both in size and profits over the past 30 years. He had supported the family on his income from the lumber yard and the farm, and that life had been a good one. It sent all four kids to college and set up a little nest egg for each of them. Kate was so grief-stricken, she did not want to think of the legal stuff, of the Will and Testament and mounds of paperwork. She sat there valiant, and vying to hold it together. If she could get through the tributes from the speakers, then she would be okay.
She sat in the front row of the room, seeing his open casket, and a Kleenex was constantly dabbing at her eyes. Her brothers all sat beside her in the front row, with their wives, and children, and Kate was extremely fragile. Finally, when they all paid homage to the beloved man, Kate read a small Irish blessing and a brief farewell. It was all she could do to keep from falling apart. She was devastated to be losing her dad, her lifelong best friend.
When the people finished gathering around to pay their respects, she felt her heart take wing like a hummingbird when Grant Michaels approached, looking handsome as ever in a black suit and grey tie and a dashing black overcoat. It was like he stepped off the cover of GQ, and her heart was having weird palpitations when he squeezed her hand. The warmth of his touch sent an electric shock traveling from her fingers to her wrist, then up her arm like a current of magnificent voltage.
“Kate, please accept my sincere condolences.” His blue eyes were tender and charismatic, sending her pulse into overload.
“Thank you, Grant.” She felt foolish for crying like a baby earlier, and she dabbed at her eyes.
“We’re all heading to Dad’s place across town for a reception. Miranda’s made some food and refreshments.”
“I’d like that, thanks.”
“Yeah?” Kate was shocked that he wanted to join them.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world. See you there.”
“Do you need directions?”
“No, I’ll just follow the long string of cars up Main Street.” He winked at her naivety.
Kate smiled. “Sorry. I’ve been in a daze all week. I sure hope this year ends on a good note.”
“Stay positive.” Grant smiled. “I’ll see you at the farm.”
Miranda was soon at her side, waving to Grant as he left the funeral home.
“Ready to go, Kitten?”
“Yep. Saddle the horses.”
Miranda raised a brow quizzically. “You feeling okay? I doubt they’d make it through six feet of heavy snow.”
“Nah, you’re right. We’d better take the car.”
Miranda linked her arm in Kate’s. “Let’s go sidekick.”
At the Shannon farm, Ronnie had the old stone fireplace roaring and hurricane lamps with festive red candles on the mantle and the main table in the den. The theme of candlelight had been stressed by Miranda, because she wanted to fully pay tribute to Uncle Tom, who loved Scotch and stories from the homeland by candlelight.
Miranda had set up all the food and the catering dishes hours before. She had her professional chafing dishes warming the hot appetizers. The rest of the buffet was mostly finger foods on trays, like fruit and veggie plates, and dips with assorted crackers, cheeses and meats for the non-vegetarians, and other hor’ deuvres. Miranda sure knew how to pull out the stops for a gourmet catering presentation. She’d been working in the industry since she was sixteen, and it showed. Elegant gold and red napkins with matching paper plates were on the tables with the cutlery, and on another table, two kinds of punch in elegant glass punch bowls. One was a green punch, the other a cranberry- spiced punch. Miranda always pleased the crowd, with ample beverages and food. She had still another table dedicated to all her home baking, which everyone raved about.
Wearing her special green Christmas apron and red Santa hat, she let the crowd know it was safe to “dig in.” She even rang her little gold bell, which got everyone laughing.
“Ice breaker,” she said with a nod, winking at Kate who sat on a chair near the Christmas tree, admiring the lights in blue, orange, green and red.
“Thanks, Panda, for keeping the festive spirit alive in dad’s house. He would have been proud.”
“He is proud, Kitten, he is.” She hurried off to the kitchen, wearing red oven mitts, to get another tray of food from the oven.
“Do you need any help?” Kate poked her nose in the kitchen door.
“No, I’m fine sweetie. Everything was prepped hours ago. But thanks for the offer.”
From the front hall, Kate heard someone say “Hiya Grant,” and she grabbed her plastic cup with the punch, and hurried to the den for a refill. She didn’t want to look too anxious, but she needed to somehow be in the vicinity of him, to strike up conversation.
“Here,” Miranda whispered, pulling out a small flask of whiskey. She spiked the cup with the spirits, and Kate hissed at her. “What are you trying to do? Make me spill all my secrets to him? Bad girl!” She slapped her hand playfully, and Miranda wrinkled her nose and ran over to greet the handsome visitor.
While Miranda took his coat and put it in the spare room with the other coats, Kate watched him from the den, savouring the punch and the sudden strong taste, courtesy of her cousin. Chuckling, she raised a secret toast to her Dad. “To us, Daddy…” She could feel the emotion choking her, and she vied to remain calm, because Grant was coming across the room to see her. The creaky floor boards in the 1838 century home made him smile as he approached her. The Burl Ives Christmas LP was playing on the antique stereo, the one that dad loved the best this time of year. People were mingling, sampling the fine scotch and the two kinds of punch, and the Shannon kids were in the living room talking and eating Miranda’s Christmas treats, trying to stay out of their parents’ hair.
“Nice turnout,” Grant said with a sexy smile.
“Yes, it is.” Kate sipped her drink, feeling nervous that he was so close and she was so vulnerable.
The tree was alit and sparkly, and the angel at the top was a gold-ivory, with hands praying. That angel had been in the family for some twenty years, and Miranda did not want to throw it out. She thought it would be bad karma, considering Tom’s spirit was here tonight, and so they should honour him in every way possible.
“I’m very sorry for your loss, Kate. It’s a terrible thing to go through at Christmas, or any time for that matter.”
“Thanks, I appreciate that, Grant.”
He cast a knowing look at her cup, wondering how she remained somewhat calmer now than she had at the funeral home.
“Is that the red punch that everyone is raving about?”
“Yep,” Kate smiled. “With a little help from Miranda.”
“Oh, dear God….if I know what that means, I’d guess she spiked it with the good stuff.”
“Care for some punch?”
“I’m driving, so I should behave.”
“One little cup should be okay?”
“Alright, you twisted my arm.”
Grabbing the flask hidden in the cabinet, she put an ounce of whiskey in his cup. Kate noted how incredibly handsome he looked tonight, and it made the womanly desires in her somehow come to life once more. Since Jimmy had left, she hadn’t felt any attraction for another man, and she cursed their existence on this planet, because she’d been so wretchedly hurt from the aftermath.
What the hell was happening to her now? Grant Michaels came on the scene, carrying a huge parcel, and suddenly that cancelled out the asshole factor of these hated males?
She stifled a laugh, enjoying the punch, and holding the image of “big parcel” in her head.
“Now, what’s so funny? You can’t hold out on me tonight.”
Kate leaned forward and whispered in his ear, and he grinned, turning red. “That demon liquor is turning you into a wild woman.”
They shared a laugh, and he squeezed her shoulder gently, letting her know she was not alone in her grief.
“It’s going to be rough for a while, but I’m here if you need me,” Grant offered.
Finishing her drink, Kate grabbed the ladle for the green punch, getting her cup ready for a refill.
“You’re welcome.” His keen blue eyes were set on hers, and she looked incredibly beautiful in that black silk dress above the knee, with her shapely legs and black heels. It had been a while since Grant had even considered dating, but here tonight in the camaraderie and poignant setting, with the lights down low and the food and drink aplenty, he felt that old stirring in his heart again. Was he out of his mind to feel this way for Kate? Well, why not? She was a damn fine looking woman, and sexy as hell, and vulnerable to boot. Did that make him a predator then? Preying on the broken hearted woman whose father had just died?
Logic swirled in his head, along with various other emotions, and even still, the primal masculine need in him that was rearing its head.
For now, he would behave himself and enjoy the company of a beautiful woman, extending his condolences in her time of need. If it was friendship Kate was after, he would be satisfied with that.
From her stance in the living room, where she mingled with guests, Miranda studied the two of them conversing in the corner by themselves. It warmed her heart no end, to see Grant and Kate falling into her well-devised trap to get them together. She’d had her eye on this partnership since Grant was first given the Fed Ex route in Hope Valley for the holidays. Big parcels, indeed... Miranda chuckled at the irony of Grant’s job description and the way in which he’d collided with her cousin at the bakery. The playful, persistent matchmaker in her just glowed with anticipation for those two lonely souls. It was just like doctor’s orders, she pondered, taking a sip of her famous spiced cider. Everything was falling into place, just as she’d planned, and she wondered if dear Uncle Tom had anything to do with it.
On the stereo, a new record was playing, Christmas In My Heart, Connie Francis. Kate was overcome by emotion at the nostalgia in one of Dad’s favourite records; Connie was his teen queen of the ‘50s and she’d caught the love of her music too, at an early age. Her eyes grew misty, knowing Ronnie must have put it on to commemorate Dad.
“There you are, sis.” Ronnie had a full punch glass and hugged her warmly, near the tree.
“Ronnie, this is Grant Michaels, our regional manager for Fed Ex.”
Ron lifted a brow in amusement. “Our regional manager?” He shook his hand. “I trust you will get all my Christmas parcels delivered on time, then?” He nudged Grant playfully, letting out a boisterous laugh.
Grant shot Kate a look that said you know this guy?
“Just teasing,” Ronnie said. “Hey Kate, did you want to make a toast to dad?”
He clearly looked half in the bag, because his face was flushed and he was far happier and outspoken than he normally was.
“Sure,” Kate said firmly, embarrassed that he was drunk.
“Alrighty. Give it a refill, please.” Ron aimed his empty cup near Kate, who poured some in. “Attention, everybody. We’d like to give a toast to our dearly departed father, Tom Shannon. We salute his wonderful memory, and thank all for coming to join us this evening.”
Ron clinked cups with Kate and Grant, then they all drank their fill.
“Good to meet you, Grant.” He nodded, walking back into the crowd.
Turning red, Kate apologized. “Sorry about that. He gets like that when he’s had a few too many.”
“Don’t mention it, I understand.” Grant was pensive, studying her pretty face and the sadness she was hiding. “I bet he expresses his grief differently.”
“Yes, that’s exactly it.” Kate marvelled at how observant Grant was. He was not only handsome, but charming and insightful too. Soon, her defenses against men were wearing thin, and the drinks were to blame. She felt a foolish, giddy school girl coming out of her. Kate smiled over the privilege of having him here tonight. It was a blessing, and she watched the crowd from her place in the den.
People went outside to have a cigarette and some had cigars, which was a tradition in the Shannon family during births and deaths, and the children were still roaming around, chatting and playing. For a long time, it seemed it was just Grant and Kate there together by the tree, in that dim, romantic light, with Connie Francis singing White Christmas, lending the retro holiday mood to the coziness of that century home.
Together, they sat on the antique velvet chairs by the tree, sharing a drink and some stories of Christmas past. Grant was trying to keep her mind off sadness for tonight, and he was doing a great job, she noted. So far, she had only cried once, and when he refilled her drink a couple times, she felt warm, happy and content to have the company of a dashing man like Grant.
“You know, Kate, it’s okay to feel sad, if all you want to do is cry. I lost my best friend, Mike, in a snowmobiling accident a few years ago, and trust me, all I did was cry, drink and sleep.”
Touched by his story, Kate placed her hand on his. “Thank you for sharing that story with me.”
He nodded, eyes lit up, admiring her so pretty beside him. He wanted to kiss her so bad, but it just wouldn’t be right, considering the context of the moment, with her father’s funeral and all.
“You look beautiful tonight.” He blurted it out. No shame.
“Thanks.” She squeezed his hand, and marvelled at how warm and strong it was. A thrill passed through them both, an ethereal calm, like a divine peace from the heavens.
In the glow of that tree, with its multi-coloured strands of lights, Grant threw caution to the wind, claiming her lips with his. He decided there was nothing else she needed more in this fragile moment than his kiss.
And she responded, with warm, tender lips, tasting so sweet from that red Christmas punch. It lingered on both of their lips for a while. They smiled at one another, blissful and content, and wishing this night would never end.
Somewhere from his perch in the heavens, Tom Shannon was smiling his approval. And the whole world seemed at peace, for just a moment.