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A Misty Christmas

By Charlie Hudson

“I don’t know if this is such a great idea after all.” Melissa swirled dregs of orange-spiced tea in the mug and glanced to the bay window as the middle ball of the wireframe snow man was carefully put into place. Jason waved to them triumphantly and nearly tripped over Muffin, their chocolate Labrador. Brad held the snowman’s head in one hand and a string of electric lights in the other. “Maybe we should have gone low key.”

“Don’t be silly,” Marilyn said, waving back in acknowledgement. “There was never a Christmas when Mom and Dad didn’t go all out. I agree with toning down the outside decorations, but other than that, let’s try and make it as normal as possible.”

“Did I tell you that she had a terrible crying jag when we were putting the nativity scene out?”

“Yes, and that’s to be expected. I went all weepy when I made fudge day before yesterday. You remember the year when I wanted to surprise them and made such a horrible mess?”

“That was pretty awful,” Melissa agreed. “I just…”

“Listen,” Marilyn interrupted. “It’s a big house and we don’t want Mom rattling around in it alone on the first Christmas without Dad. Having Melanie and Doug and the kids romping up and downstairs is going to be the best thing for her. Yeah okay, I’m sure she will get all teary — we probably all will, but so what? Getting ready for it helps keep her busy.  By the way, has she mentioned anything to you about joining the Silver Set at the community center? They’re lining up great activities for the year.”

Melissa sighed. “She said she’d think about it; that doing her crosswords, taking care of the African violets and going to church is enough. At least she’s having lunch once a month with Sarah and a monthly breakfast with Helen. I mean, between that and us, it’s not as if she’s isolated.”

“I still say she needs a pet around the house. A dog would require too much physical effort unless it was one of those little, yappy things. A cat, a nice rescue cat from the shelter.”

“I know the statistics about older people doing better if they have a pet,” Melissa said pursing her lips. “She’s never had one, so maybe a bird. She likes Sunny.”

“She likes him okay, but she needs something genuinely cuddly. Dad was the one with the bad allergies, not her,” Marilyn pointed out. “I’ll talk up a cat and we’ll make it a New Year’s resolution.”

Marilyn checked out the window and pushed back from the table when the timer on the stove beeped. “Looks like the snowman is complete and my guys will be ready for warm gingerbread and hot chocolate — how holiday is that?  Come on, why don’t you hang around for dinner? It’ll be meatloaf — old-fashioned comfort food for a cold winter evening.”

“No, thank you. The shop is really hectic with only four days until Christmas. I’m not complaining about the business, it’s just that I need a calm evening and maybe get to bed early.”

The front door opened with a shriek of Jason’s laughter and the sound of Muffin’s nails clicking on the tiled foyer. It was a cue to leave and Melissa gave a round of hugs and kisses, to include receiving a hand slurp from Muffin. The sun was low in the cloudy sky, the possibility of a white Christmas increasing according to the weatherman. The temperature had been steadily dropping at night to the high twenties and a front was moving down from the distant Great Lakes. At least it wasn’t threatening to be a massive storm, more a manageable few inches that shouldn’t cause too many traffic delays. Melissa had no particular desire for a white Christmas, but then she wasn’t seven years old.

The timer lights in her living room and bedroom had already switched on when she pulled into the garage. She heard a series of whistles as she opened the side door into the alcove too small to be a proper mudroom. “I’m coming, Sunny,” she called and was treated to squawks mixed with whistles. The cockatiel was sideways on the front of his over-sized cage, lightly pecking at the inside of the latch.

“Give me a second,” Melissa chided him and swung the door open, extending her hand to provide a perch. The grey bird carefully clung to her and then transferred to her shoulder, sending a softer whistle into her ear. “Hello to you, too,” she smiled. “It’s gotten colder outside. I think we should have lasagna for dinner, something that requires turning on the oven.”

Sunny launched from her shoulder and flitted through the wide arch that separated the living room from the kitchen He landed on the dark green wrought iron perch Melissa had installed between the antique maple round pedestal table and a large yellow pottery container that held an ivy covered trellis. Other plants filling the two top shelves of a wooden and wrought iron baker’s rack to the right of the table gave the dining nook a garden-like feel even when it was too cold to crank open the double casement window.

“Okay, it’s frozen lasagna,” Melissa admitted to her pet, “but it comes from a family recipe and takes almost an hour to bake — that’s practically the same thing as homemade.” Like she had time to make it from scratch. “I’ve got real Italian bread from the bakery, the salad mix has radicchio in it and I have Chianti, so that counts,” she continued, wrinkling her brow at Marilyn’s comment about a bird not being cuddly. Maybe he wasn’t and true, she’d been a little concerned when she essentially inherited Sunny from an elderly neighbor. His soft gray crest, pale yellow face, and orange cheek patches intrigued her and it turned out that he was well-behaved and entertaining if not furry. She thought for a moment about her mother, sitting as she usually did in her upholstered chair with the foot stool and yes, it was easier to picture a cat curled up than it was to imagine a bird on her shoulder.

Melissa moved around the kitchen, the end product of an on-going remodel of her 1940s bungalow. She’d saved this room for last, wanting to make sure she had the right blend of modern convenience and period appeal. Painted cabinets with frosted glass for the uppers, glass knobs, and soapstone countertops in the U-shaped space. She’d considered stainless appliances, but opted instead for a vintage stove and refrigerator and masked the dishwasher with a wooden panel like the cabinetry. She was at a loss about the microwave until someone suggested an on-line source that provided the look she wanted. Melissa hadn’t let it dissuade her when a real estate agent who frequented the store explained she was narrowing the potential buying pool for resale with her choices. She loved the feel of the room and the palette of pale yellow, soft green, creams and pops of blue for accent.

It had taken her almost five years to complete the entire house using a combination of professional and do-it-yourself labor and her dad had been with her for most of the projects. She was glad he’d been able to be in on the kitchen, teasing her as he had about going retro.

She felt tears well and caught them with a damp paper towel. It had been a hard year for them all. The cancer, moving rapidly, was unexpected — her mother insisting that her father’s fatigue was not normal. Even if he’d listened to her and gone to the doctor earlier, it would not have changed the outcome. Pancreatic cancer had limited successful treatment options and within less than two months, they all understood there was no hope. The weeks immediately after her father’s death had been consumed with practical matters, so much to be dealt with. Her mother, who had stood unwavering vigil, was exhausted and seemed too dazed to want to make decisions alone.

“Sweetie, I understand you have a business to run, but I really can’t take off more time and bless Marilyn’s heart, you know she’s a ditz when it comes to these things.”  Melanie, the oldest of my M&Ms, as her father used to say, was irritatingly correct. Marilyn’s culinary skills and ability to shop for bargains did not extend to dealing with insurance claims and working through the financials that her father had always taken care of. Once Melissa had completed the most pressing issues, she was faced with the knowledge that while her parents had a fairly solid income foundation, the large 1970s house was another source of worry. Between the house and the one acre lot, it was simply too much for her mother to manage. Marilyn’s husband, Brad, was wonderful about helping except that his new promotion meant more travel. It was Melissa who found someone for the lawn and reliable repair services, and she’d recently begun to quietly check into the new active adult retirement communities around town. Downsizing was something that would make sense, but she had no idea how her mother would react to the idea and she wasn’t sure how long she could wait before raising the subject.

Now they were coming up on Christmas. Her mother had gone to Memphis for Thanksgiving to be with Melanie, and Melissa wasn’t certain how the plan for Christmas had been hatched.

“You aren’t going to have to do anything all that special,” Melanie had said in a long telephone call. “Mom wants us all there and Marilyn is making most of the meal. She’ll take Mom shopping for the turkey and we’ll come in early Christmas Eve afternoon. I can help with everything once I’m there. All you have to do is bring wine and beer.”

That was a good theory unless you counted the decorating that her mother wanted to do, shopping for presents, and the inescapable emotion surrounding the absence of her father. It was a strain even though she understood it was better to release emotions than bottle them up inside. Marilyn, who loved Christmas with a childlike enthusiasm, was of course thrilled with the thought of not breaking the family tradition and she was also member to what seemed like endless committees, all of which naturally had holiday events scheduled.

“I realize I haven’t been able to help Mom much yet, but I’ll be mostly available to starting tomorrow,” she had promised earlier that day. “I know this week will be difficult at the shop.”

The oven buzzed her away from making lists of more things that she needed to accomplish. Sunny glided to the back of one of the dining room chairs and Melissa smiled at him. “Okay boy, let’s have dinner and see if I can re-energize my Christmas spirit — I think Miracle on 34th Street is on tonight.”

The next morning was decidedly colder with a high of thirty-seven predicted. Melissa came through the back of the store and gratefully smelled coffee. Evelyn, who owned the florist shop next door, was already in and had opened the set of French doors that divided their stores. The original layout had been built to accommodate a single establishment, then later offered for rent as two businesses. The owner said he would replace the doors with a wall, but Evelyn and Melissa discovered they had a lot personally in common as well as a similar customer base for The Gift Box and Roses and Wreaths. Having the two places flow seamlessly into each other was working well for them.

“Are you braced for the next four days?” Evelyn came through the French doors, a reindeer motive mug in each hand. She wore a headband with a pair of felt antlers in her stylishly short white hair, her blue eyes lively behind round gold wire rimmed glasses.

Her dark green slacks, green blouse and red vest with embroidered miniature wreaths broadcast the Happy Holiday spirit that Melissa wasn’t feeling yet. “As ready as I can be,” she said, taking the mug in both hands. “I’m not sure I can match your wardrobe, but Cheryl was talking about bringing Santa hats in today.”

“Oh before I forget, Peter called last night and he’ll be in tomorrow. It will be good to see him.”

Melissa inhaled the rich coffee aroma and realized that the older woman was giving her a look of affectionate exasperation. “You forgot, didn’t you? Peter, my nephew — the party on the 23rd?”

Melissa lowered the mug and pressed her fingertips of her left hand to her forehead. “Ah..”

Evelyn grinned. “Don’t start with excuses. I’m not going to say he’s the most handsome man in the world, but he is nice-looking, he’s one year older than you, he’s two inches taller, he is well past his divorce, and the job he’s going to at the plant is a good one. Some kind of industrial engineering thing.”

Melissa tried to divert the subject. “I don’t know how you can even think of doing a party on the 23rd.”

“Don’t change the subject,” Evelyn laughed. “It’s a neighborhood tradition. We rotate and it’s our turn. I’m having Norma come an extra time to clean, I finished decorating yesterday and Norma’s daughter is doing catering now.  Plenty of big black garbage bags for cleanup. Piece of cake. You don’t have to stay long and it will be good for you.”  She smiled gently. “I know it’s been tough on all of you, but you haven’t so much as had lunch with a man in months. By the way, what happened to that banker? He had some possibility.”

Melissa rolled her eyes. “Let’s say that the status of his divorce wasn’t quite as finalized as he led me to believe.”

“Ouch. Well, that’s definitely not the case with Peter, although he’s not hung up on it either — readjusted and all that.”

Melissa groped for a response. Evelyn, widowed for six years, had been wonderfully supportive and she meant well. “Maybe we can do it a little later.”

“He leaves the day after Christmas. He’ll be gone to this training and on a tour of other plants for a whole month. This way you can see how the first impression is and if I’m wrong and the two of you don’t hit it off, then you’re done with it.”

The sound of voices from the back meant their respective staffs of Cheryl, Wanda, and Paula were coming in together.

“I’ll do my best,” Melissa promised, more amenable to the idea of being introduced to the nephew than she wanted to let on. She trusted Evelyn and with the extra responsibilities she was shouldering added to her usual busy schedule, her limited chances for meeting men had shrunk to practically zero.

“Merry Christmas to all,” Cheryl chirped, swinging Santa hats from her hands as the three women bustled in from the cold. “Let’s get this place hopping.”

Hop was a good term for the next two days with a constant stream of customers, more buying than looking. Thankfully, Marilyn came through with her promise to help with final preparations for the big visit. It would be the first time since the funeral that they were all under one roof.  Melissa started to feel that things might be in control again.

It was not quite eleven o’clock on the 23rd when Cheryl answered the telephone with a cheery, “The Gift Box for all your holiday needs, how may I help you?”, when her face paled and she motioned for Melissa. “It’s Marilyn,” she said, handing her the phone and stepping around to take over the cash register.

“Lissy, Mom is okay, but we’re on the way to the hospital. There’s been a fire, but Mom’s okay,” she repeated. “The fire chief is at the house and you should probably get over there.”

Melissa was gripping the telephone so tightly, her fingers stung. “Wait Marilyn, what do you mean hospital? And fire?”

“The hospital is just a precaution, but they won’t let me use the cell in the ambulance. Get to the house, please and I’ll call soon.”

Cheryl had her cell out. “You go, I’ll get Susan to come in. I’ll tell Evelyn, too. Call us when you can.”

Melissa grabbed her coat and rushed from the store, her thoughts bouncing from the Mom’s okay relief to fire and house, and when she turned onto her mother’s street, she was almost speechless at the sight of a fire truck, two police cars and another sedan. Once the officer at the end of the street understood who she was, he allowed her to approach and she saw that Randy Polaski, the assistant fire chief and a member of their church, was at the sedan.

“Marilyn called me and said Mom was okay,” she blurted out as she scrambled from the car. The house seemed to be intact and the men were preparing the fire truck for departure.

“It could have been a lot worse,” Randy said, reaching for her arm. “Marsha did exactly the right thing — oops, be careful.” 

Muddy streaks and shallow puddles of water made footing tricky from the covered entry way through the foyer into the kitchen, the acrid smell of smoke stinging her nose and eyes.

“Electrical, I’m sure,” Randy continued, “and it looks really bad, but professionals know how to clean up the damage. Marsha was upstairs when the fire alarm went off and she got out of the house to a neighbor. A little smoke inhalation and a hell of a scare.”

Melissa heard him as she surveyed the scene. The wall by the coffeemaker completely blackened, paint on the adjoining wall blistered and scorched, counters dripping from water, canisters, their contents and other items scattered from the pressurized water of the fire hoses. 

Randy’s voice was matter of fact. “I’m not trying to say this isn’t bad, but believe me, it can be fixed within a couple of weeks and no one got hurt.”

Melissa looked at him fully for the first time, his broad, lined face sympathetic. “I do understand,” she said, trying to match his tone. “It’s just….”

He passed a hand around the room. “Sure, especially with it being at Christmas. Listen, the insurance company will have a list of people they deal with for these things, but the odds are it will be a few days before they can get going on it. You and Marilyn can take care of your mom?”

Insurance company, repairs. “Uh yeah Randy, thanks. We’ll be all right. I’m just glad you got here as quickly as you did.”

“Okay then,” he said crisply. “You want to do anything here right now? We’ve done all we can as far as the fire goes.”

Melissa turned away from the mess — she would handle this part later. “No, I want to get to the hospital.”

She called Marilyn’s cell phone, got voice mail and left a message that she was on her way. By the time she arrived, the two women were in the small lobby of the emergency room, both looking calmer than she would have expected. Her mother’s wavy short hair was a little mussed, but the navy blue slacks and pale blue sweater with navy stripes weren’t rumpled or torn. It wasn’t until Melissa stepped closer that she smelled the smoke.

“I know dear,” her mom smiled, “it’s a good thing this is an old outfit because I don’t think the smell will come out.” She returned the fierce hug and then held up a slender, manicured hand. “It’s okay, really it is. Well, not the house, but the doctor said a cup of hot tea or something stronger if I’d like and a few hours’ rest and I’ll be fine.”

They maneuvered into a corner out of the way of nurses, technicians, and anxious people waiting. “It’s no problem, Mom. We’ll get your stuff and you can stay at my place. I’ll call the insurance company and I’m sure it will take a few days….,” Melissa trailed off, her mother and Marilyn exchanging glances that she knew from experience. “What’s going on with you two?”

“Thank you, dear,” her mother said in a surprisingly strong voice. “This is hardly the way we were planning the holiday, but Marilyn and I agree we shouldn’t let it disrupt everything.”

“What?!” Melissa swiveled her head from one to the other.

“We’ve already called Melanie and as long as I can stay with you, we’ll be fine.”

“They’re only going to be here for a day and a half anyway,” Marilyn interjected, a stubborn glint in her eyes. “Brittney can have Jason’s room and the boys can camp out in the basement — they’ll think it’s an adventure. We’ll just collect what we need from the house — clothes and things for staying with you and the food to take to my place.”

“Mom, with the…” Melissa stopped as her mother’s hazel eyes glistened, although tears didn’t spill.

“Lissy, I want to do this, I honestly do. If you can cope with having me underfoot, we can manage the rest.”

Guilt at her mother’s tone almost overrode Melissa’s sense of added complications. “Sure Mom, we’ll make it work.”

“Group hug before we get busy,” instructed Marilyn and they moved closer into an embrace.

Melissa edged away first, her mind adjusting to practical tasks. “Okay then, let’s go back to the house, load up what we need and Mom, I’ll take you to my place, then we’ll call the insurance company.”

The rest of the day dissolved in activity, although Cheryl called twice to let her know that everything was under control at the store. Melissa finally returned not long after closing and found a note from Evelyn. So sorry, but thank goodness it wasn’t worse. See you tomorrow and I guess you’ll have to wait until the New Year to meet Peter after all. Love to your mom.

She struggled with the temptation to sink into the throes of Charles Dickens’ Bah, humbug, as she made her way back home. She cognitively understood it was a combination of dread at the thought of the first Christmas without her father, worry about her mother, the usual stresses of running a small business, a dozen other irritants, and then the fire. Of course she was grateful that it hadn’t been tragic and she was genuinely trying to keep that in mind.

The fragrances when she entered the house took her by surprise. “A well stocked freezer and pantry always come in handy,” her mother said, standing by the stove, hands encased in oven mitts, Sunny observing from his perch. “Chicken divan, rice pilaf, and honey mustard glazed carrots. A homemade meal will do us both good,” she said as Sunny whistled approval.          Melissa opened a bottle of wine and they shared the meal, slipping into memories of past Christmases. Laughter interspersed tears as they recounted events Melissa had barely remembered and she slept better that night than she had in a long time.

True to predictions, snow moved in around midnight, fat flakes that had thankfully stopped in time for the major roads to be cleared before morning traffic, the frigid temperature expected to linger for a few days, but no more precipitation. The parking lot had mercifully been plowed and Melissa spent the first several minutes assuring everyone that things were fine despite the scare. Evelyn gave her a hard hug, told her she missed a great party and that Peter was looking good with a new hairstyle and he had finally gotten rid of his thick glasses in favor of contact lens. A description of his other good attributes was put on hold while they each accommodated shoppers that came and went until well into the afternoon. Evelyn had thoughtfully brought in delicious one-bite leftovers — perfect for a day when no one was going to manage a lunch break.

Customers tapered to a trickle not long before their planned closing time and Melissa sent Cheryl on her way to a house full of relatives.

Evelyn did the same with Wanda and Paula, except not long after they left with Have a Merry Christmas, Melissa heard the telephone ring on Evelyn’s side.

She appeared ten minutes later, carrying a box with red candles protruding from a mass of greenery. “Mabel Billington,” she said mildly with a shrug. “She miscounted on table arrangements and simply must have another one or the sky will fall and oh, while I’m at it, could I please, please bring an extra wreath.” She tilted her head toward the store. “Got to keep your best customer happy, though. Listen, there shouldn’t be any other crisis and I’d already cashed out. I’ll go home from Mabel’s, so you have a Merry Christmas and I’ll see you day after tomorrow.”

“You too,” Melissa said and blew a kiss as her telephone rang.  Yes, they would be open the day after Christmas and yes, the coupon in the paper was good for everything in the store, and yes, they would have some unadvertised specials.

When she heard noise from the shared back entrance, she assumed Evelyn had forgotten something and was puzzled to see a man come through, a Wild Turkey bourbon box in his gloved hands.

“Excuse me, I’m looking for Evelyn,” he said, glancing at the darkened florist shop.

He was about her age, a little taller, light brown hair trimmed just above his ears. A deep red V-neck sweater and forest green turtleneck topping a pair of black slacks showed underneath his open black overcoat.

“She had to leave a little early, but I don’t think she was expecting any deliveries.”

“Ah shoot,” he said unexpectedly and stepped toward the counter. “Oh, I’m Peter Hartwell, her nephew,” he continued, “I must have startled you — I apologize.”

She extended her hand as he placed the box on the counter and took off his gloves. “Uh that’s okay, I’m Melissa Nelson. Evelyn didn’t say anything about you coming by.” His brown eyes were set beneath pale eyebrows and his chin slightly receded, although not in an unattractive way.

“Pleased to meet you, oh wait — Melissa. I guess you and I were supposed to meet last night. Aunt Evelyn told me about your mother’s house. Is everything okay?”

A mewing sound interrupted her response and Peter motioned to the box. “Aunt Evelyn wasn’t expecting me. I’m supposed to be at a party at my new boss’s house shortly and when I came out of the hotel this afternoon, this kitten was huddled under my car.” He opened the flaps of the box and Melissa peered in with him.

“Hey little girl, it’s okay,” he said softly.

A fluff of grayish fur and round blue eyes looked up, one paw pressed against the side of the box.

“Oh my, what a sweet little thing,” Melissa said.

“Yeah, can you believe someone dumped her out in this kind of weather? I took her to the front desk and they all swore they didn’t see anyone. I called the animal shelter, but they’re filled to capacity. I know Aunt Evelyn already has two cats, but I was thinking she could probably find a home for it. Is she coming back soon? I called her house and didn’t get an answer.”

“Uh no, no, she had to make an emergency house call so to speak.” The kitten mewed again, now with both front paws resting against the side.

Peter flinched. “Shoot, I went and got a litter box, a water bowl and some kitty food. I thought maybe she could stay in Aunt Evelyn’s garage for a couple of days. I don’t want to just drop her off outside in this cold and like I said, I’m on my way to this party. I’d keep her in the room, but the people at the desk made it pretty clear that I wasn’t supposed to do that. I’m not sure if I have Aunt Evelyn’s cell number and Uncle Nolan doesn’t carry a cell if you can believe it.”

“Well uh, I might have her number,” Melissa said, the front door chiming. She looked over instinctively. “Mom, what on earth are you doing here? I mean, hi.”

Her mother loosened a blue printed wool scarf from her neck. “Well, Melanie and everyone got in and she needed a last minute gift for Doug from the smoke shop across the street. I told her I’d come in here and let you know they were in.  Oh, hello.”

Peter had his hand out. “I’m Peter Hartwell, Evelyn’s nephew. I heard about the fire yesterday. You’re okay, though?”

She returned his greeting. “Marsha Nelson, and yes, thank you. We’re a little flustered, but coming through quite well. What is this?”

Mewing joined soft scratching and Peter lifted the kitten into the palm of one hand. “An unexpected occurrence that I was depending on Aunt Evelyn to help me solve.”

“My Lord, what an adorable little powder puff, she is. Or is it he?” Melissa was stunned when her mother held out both hands and Peter gently deposited the kitten.

“She’s a she. I was explaining to Melissa that I need to get in touch with Aunt Evelyn, so we can get her — the kitten, I mean — in a warm place for the evening.”

Melissa’s mother held the kitten to her chest where it immediately stuck a paw into the dangling scarf. “You’re not a cat person?”

Peter smiled. “It isn’t that so much as I’m in a very transient state at the moment and especially at this moment…”

Melissa was staring at her mother, at the softness of her face, a smile hovering around her lips. “Uh Peter, I imagine we can keep the kitten here in the store and put up a note — I’m sure someone will want her.  I’ve got a garage where she can spend the next two days.”

Her mother looked up, one finger stroking the kitten’s head. “The garage? Will Sunny really mind if she comes into the house? I mean she’s such a tiny thing.”

“Oh, you have a cat already,” Peter said. “Or is Sunny a dog?”

“A bird, a cockatiel,” Melissa answered automatically. “I don’t know, Mom, we could give it a try, I suppose.”

“A cockatiel, that’s cool,” Peter said and then cleared his throat. “I, look, if you could, that would be great. I’ll get everything from the car for you.  If you’re sure about this.”

“Of course she is,” her mother said quickly. “Aren’t you, dear?”

Melissa tried to keep a straight face as the kitten now had both front paws clinging to the scarf, her back feet supported by her mother’s hands. “Uh certainly, no problem. In fact, my car is the silver Camry next to the door. Let me get you my keys and you can put everything in the trunk. “Mom, I’m going to the back of the store. Yell if anyone comes in.”

“Yes dear, we’re just fine,” she said, her eyes on the kitten.

Peter made the swap within minutes and lowered his voice as they stood in the short hallway that opened into Melissa’s office. “Listen, I don’t know how to thank you for this. Aunt Evelyn thinks a lot of you and I really was looking forward to meeting you.”  His eyes had flecks of green that she hadn’t noticed before.  He hesitated and then smiled shyly. “I’ll be back around the end of January. Could we maybe get together for lunch or a cup of coffee then?”

Nothing too rushed, no pressure. She liked that approach. “Yes, that would be nice, and unless I’m reading my mother all wrong, I imagine I’ll be able to give you a report on the kitten.”

His smile widened and he stepped into the shop again. “A pleasure meeting you, Marsha, but I’ve got to run. Thanks for your help.”

“Not at all and Merry Christmas,” floated through to them.

Peter touched his hand to his eyebrow in a farewell gesture and Melissa smelled his musky cologne. “Okay then, I’m off and I’ll see you in about a month. Merry Christmas, Melissa.”

“You too,” she said as he slipped out the door.  Her mother walked toward her, the kitten contentedly curled in the crook of her arm.

“Melanie should be here in a few minutes. What time do you close?”

Melissa let a full smile cross her face and she moved to her mother’s side. “If you don’t mind waiting, it won’t take long for me to finish here. Melanie can go on to Marilyn’s and you can ride home with me and fur ball and we’ll see how Sunny reacts.”

Her mother laughed. “Fur ball? I think we should call her Misty — you see how her coloring is like mist that rises off the lake.”

“That’s a lovely name,” Melissa agreed. “It suits her.”

The End