Hot Flash Holidays (8 page)

“I’ll help you put the food on,” Justin said.

She gave him the best smile she could conjure up. “Thanks.”

In the kitchen, she heated the creamed broccoli, the cauliflower au gratin, the marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes, the carrots simmered in brown sugar and butter. Justin’s kids all liked their veggies disguised by sauces, the sweeter the better. She dished them into serving bowls, and Justin carried them to the table.

“Okay!” Shirley said. “Now, Justin, if you’ll just hold the big platter, I’ll put the turkey on it.”

She pulled oven mitts on and lifted out the heavy pan.

“Hey!” Drawn by the aroma, Ben stood in the doorway to the kitchen. “That smells good.”

His half-sisters came to stand behind him, peering over his shoulder.

“Turkey. Cool,” Angel said. “We have to eat
goose
tonight. Ugh.”

“My mom’s fixing leg of lamb,” Ben said, making gagging noises.

“Ughghghgh!” both girls croaked.

Shirley’s cheeks were hot with happiness—she’d done something
right
! She’d cooked a Christmas turkey!

Carefully she cut open the brown paper bag. The turkey was gorgeous, golden brown, steaming with heat and flavor. Justin held the platter out.

Shirley put a long fork in each end of the turkey and lifted it away from the roasting pan toward the platter.

With a kind of mushy, squishing liquid sound, most of the meat fell away from the bones, splatting in greasy pieces on the floor.

“Oooh, gross!” Ben cried.

“I’m not eating that!” Spring exclaimed.

“Me, either!” Angel echoed.

Visions of a strong gin and tonic danced in Shirley’s head.

Fueled by Shirley’s optimistic energies, the day staggered on. Enough meat remained on the turkey to feed everyone. The kids even ate the vegetables. Justin went out to watch Ben on his skateboard while Shirley, on a whim, gave the girls a tour of The Haven. Then Justin drove the kids home, while Shirley gathered up the torn wrapping paper and bows and removed the various glasses, plates, and cups the kids had left around the place. She did the dishes and cleaned up the fallen turkey mess— what a literal pain in the back!

Now,
at last,
Christmas night was here. The condo was clean, the tree twinkled brightly, and Shirley had turned off all the other lights and set candles glowing around the room. Christmas music spilled softly from the CD player. Shirley redid her makeup and tousled her hair, wanting to look perfect for the coming perfect moment.

Justin came in, smelling of fresh air and snow. “Let me fix a drink, and we can open our presents.”

“Lovely,” Shirley said. “I’ve made myself a pot of tea.”

Justin sank down on the sofa next to her. “Cheers, Shirley,” he said, toasting her. “Thanks for making this such a wonderful day for all of us.”

His praise touched her deeply. “I loved every minute of it.”

He raised his eyebrows and grinned. “
Every
minute?”

She laughed. “The bit with the turkey was a little embarrassing.”

“We’ll all be laughing about it a few years from now,” Justin assured her.

Hey! There was a long-range plan if she’d ever heard one. Shirley’s heart swelled in her chest. She blinked back tears.

“I want to give you your present now.” She bent to retrieve the little red box left under the tree. It looked like a cuff link box. She hoped he would think it was cuff links.

Justin set his drink on the table and put the present on his lap. Carefully, he undid the ribbon and lifted the lid off the box.

Inside was a check. From Shirley to Justin. For ten thousand dollars.

Frowning, Justin looked at Shirley. “What’s this?”

Shirley was practically squirming all over, like a puppy who’d just dropped his bone at his master’s lap. “It’s money! So you can self-publish your novel! And pay for a graphic artist to give it a dynamite cover. And in a few more months, I’m going to give you another check, so you can hire someone to help you publicize your book.”

Justin looked dumbfounded. He shook his head. “Shirley, I can’t take this much money from you.”

“But that’s how much you need. You told me so, yourself.”

“Yes, but—”

“Justin, take it, please. I want to help you make your dream come true.”

He ran his hand over his head. “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

She waited, holding her breath.

When he looked at her, his eyes were shining. “Shirley, I’ve never had anyone love me this much. I don’t know what to say.” He stood up and paced the room, walking like a man in a dream.

Then he came back to the sofa, knelt in front of Shirley, and took her hands in his. “All right. I’ll do it. I’ll take your money and publish my novel. On one condition: every cent I make from it comes back to you, until I pay this debt off.”

“It’s not a debt, silly, it’s a present,” Shirley reminded him.

“I’m serious, Shirley. I’m going to put it in writing. Any profit from my novel goes to you.”

God, she loved this man! He had such integrity! “All right,” she agreed.

He pulled her down to him and kissed her passionately. “I love you, Shirley. I love you so much.”

“I love you.”

Rising, he said, “God, this is so exciting! I’ve already investigated several self-publishing presses, but now
I get to choose.
I’ve got to make a list, and actually, I’d better get some information off the Net. I’ll want to go to their offices, meet these people, see what they propose to give me for my money.”

Shirley pulled her knees up and hugged them against her, watching Justin in his excitement.

“Oh!” Justin said, stopping midpace. “I haven’t given you your present yet.”

Justin reached into his pocket and brought out the small black velvet box. Returning to the sofa, he sat next to Shirley and put the box in her hand.

“This is nothing compared to what you’ve given me,” he told her somberly. “I’m sorry I couldn’t afford something bigger. I’d like to give you a diamond as big as the Ritz.”

“Silly,” Shirley said, kissing him lightly on the lips. It was, after all, the thought that counted. She didn’t care if the diamond was the size of a grape seed; it was still an engagement ring.

She opened the box.

And gasped.

Inside, tucked into a slot in the black velvet, lay two tiny diamond ear studs.

She couldn’t help it. Tears leapt into her eyes. Ear studs, and she’d thought it was an engagement ring! For a moment, a terrible bitterness filled her mouth like an acid. She felt like such a fool for assuming it was a ring!

“Don’t cry, darling,” Justin said. “You’re worth it.”

7

COOL, ELEGANT CAROLYN’S CHRISTMAS DECORATIONS were all silver and white.

“It’s rather like entering a spaceship,” Hugh remarked, as he and Polly went into the house.

“Polly, Hugh, lovely to see you! Merry Christmas!” Carolyn, elegant in a red cashmere dress, air kissed them both before pulling them into the living room, where a bartender offered them flutes of Champagne.

The large, airy rooms were already crowded. Hank’s aristocratic and rather daffy mother, Daisy, was there, carrying her pet Shih Tzu, Clock, everywhere in her arms and talking to the dog more than to the human beings. One of Hank’s sisters, Evelyn, was there, with her husband and their three young children. Ingrid, Carolyn’s new au pair, drifted through the room with baby Elizabeth in her arms.

Faye was ensconced on the sofa, her legs stretched out and one ankle elevated on a cushion. Her neck brace made it difficult for her to turn her head easily, so anyone talking with her had to sit on the coffee table facing her.

Polly made a beeline for Faye. “Merry Christmas, Faye! How do you feel?”

Faye managed a smile. “Awful, to tell the truth. If I don’t use painkillers, I’m in agony, and if I do use them, I’m in the Twilight Zone.”

Now that she was close to her, Polly could see how pale Faye was. Wanting to cheer her up, she said, “Well, you
look
gorgeous!”

A chiming noise vibrated the air.

Carolyn tapped a glass with a knife until she had everyone’s attention. “Dinner’s served!”

Aubrey leaned over the back of the sofa, placing an affectionate hand on Faye’s shoulder. “I’ll bring you a plate.”

“Thanks, Aubrey.” Faye made a little shooing gesture. “Go on, Polly, fix your own plate. I’ll be fine.”

Polly, Hugh, and Aubrey joined the line at the table. It was set buffet style, with the food served by a smiling young caterer. Suddenly, Carolyn materialized out of thin air.

“Here, Hugh.” Carolyn handed him a plate heaped with food. “Take this to Faye, will you?” Deftly she turned to Aubrey. “Father, why don’t you sit at the little table by the tree with Elizabeth? And Polly, could you hold Elizabeth for me? She knows you and Father, she won’t fuss with you two.” Before Polly could object, Carolyn lifted her baby out of Ingrid’s arms and plunked her into Polly’s.

So, smoothly Carolyn paired off her father with Polly. Of course, Polly loved holding the little girl. At eight months, Elizabeth was only seven months younger than Polly’s grandson, still cuddly and full of bubbles and baby babble. Aubrey clearly adored his granddaughter, holding her while Polly ate. Then Polly returned the favor, and she couldn’t help it; she enjoyed talking with Aubrey, no doubt about that. He was a handsome, charming man. She told him about setting her house on fire. He laughed heartily.

From time to time, Polly glanced over at Faye, reclining on the sofa, with Hugh close by. The two were talking and laughing quite happily, Polly thought. It’s just a party, she reassured herself. We’re supposed to talk to everyone at parties.

After dinner, everyone settled in the living room around the Christmas tree and the fire. Aubrey stationed himself next to Faye, sitting on the edge of the sofa, occasionally touching her lightly with his hand or leaning down to whisper something that made her smile.

Hugh returned to Polly’s side, his jovial face flushed and bright. “What a feast! And such fascinating people.”

So everything was all right, Polly thought, with relief.

Then Carolyn and Hank brought out the Perrier Jouët Champagne. Since Elizabeth’s premature birth in April, Carolyn had lost her baby weight and regained her strong, healthy blond beauty. Her father had handed over control of the Sperry Paper Company to her, they’d moved into this new house, and Carolyn was thriving. She radiated confidence and well-being. Polly felt a moment of almost maternal pride as she watched the lovely young woman.

Carolyn’s mother had died when she was young, and because of Carolyn’s dedication to the company, handed down matrilineally through the generations, she hadn’t had a chance to keep up old friendships or develop new ones. When Polly met her last year at The Haven, Carolyn was a very isolated woman. Polly, who was cold-shouldered by her own daughter-in-law, had loved the opportunity to talk about all the things women over the ages discussed: the eccentric physical problems of pregnancy, the doubts about being a good mother. Gradually, they’d become such close friends that when Carolyn went into premature labor while Hank was out of town, she had called Polly for help.

Polly alone had been privy to Carolyn’s fears and struggles. She’d helped her uncover Aubrey’s new wife’s devious, money-grubbing scheme. Polly had been there when Elizabeth was born. She’d spent hours helping Carolyn adjust to the demands of motherhood. She’d become a kind of second mother to the young woman.

But that didn’t mean Polly should pair off with Carolyn’s father, even though that seemed to be what Carolyn wanted.

Now Carolyn raised her glass in a toast. “Merry Christmas, everyone!”

They all cheered and drank.

“I want to thank my mother-in-law and sister-in-law and brother-in-law for coming to spend this Christmas with us.” Carolyn looked very beautiful as one of her great-grandmother’s magnificent ruby-and-diamond necklaces sparkled around her throat. “This has been a year of many changes.”

“You had a baby!” chirped her five-year-old niece, and everyone laughed.

“Indeed, I did.” Carolyn looked at her daughter, nestled now in her husband’s arms. Leaning forward, she kissed Elizabeth’s nose. “And my father and I moved from the family home, which is being converted into a museum for the town. Hank and I have turned this new house into a comfortable home, we’ve hired Ingrid as our housekeeper/nanny, and the Sperry Paper Company has had the best year in a decade.”

More cheers.

When the noise died down, Carolyn spoke again. “And I couldn’t have done it all without you, Polly.” She flushed as she spoke. Carolyn was always uneasy with emotion. “You were like the mother I never had. You’ve taught me so much, and you’ve helped me so much. I wish I could adopt you as my mother, but since I can’t, Hank and I would like to ask you to be Elizabeth’s godmother.”

It should have been a poignant moment. Instead, Polly felt like an onion dropped into an emotional Cuisinart, sliced and diced by the various needs of the others in the room. Carolyn’s request made Polly’s heart swell with love and sympathy—she knew how hard it was for Carolyn to show affection. She knew how much Carolyn needed a mother. And baby Elizabeth was adorable.

But if Polly agreed to be Elizabeth’s godmother, that would tie her in even closer to Carolyn’s family. Would it drive a wedge between Polly and Faye?

Of all the Hot Flash Club, Faye was the one Polly liked the best. She was the one with whom Polly had the most in common. They were both widowed by men they had loved. They each had one child: Faye, a daughter; Polly, a son. They wanted to be grandmothers more than Marilyn, who was obsessed with her ancient fossils, or Shirley, who had never had children and was focused on running The Haven, or professional, no-nonsense Alice.

A volcanic blast of heat exploded through Polly. She couldn’t think—she wanted to pour her Champagne right down the front of her dress,
anything
to cool off!

“Polly?”

Polly blinked.

Carolyn and all the others in the room were smiling at her, waiting for her reply. What could she say?

“I—I—Why, Carolyn, it’s an
honor
to be asked to be Elizabeth’s godmother.”

Carolyn was never shy about closing a deal. “So you accept?”

What else could she say? “I accept!”

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