“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” came on the radio. Darren leaned over and turned it up. Then he turned to Liz and pulled her into his arms.
She squealed as he twirled her. “Can you jive?” he asked, with a grin.
Liz met his eyes. “You can dance?”
“Jiving is easy. If you have a touch of rhythm.” He pulled her close then pushed her away. Reeled her in, pushed her away before spinning her again.
She followed his lead, allowing herself to move with the rhythm of the song.
By the end of the song she was out of breath from giggling. But she was smiling. She’d done so much with her therapist in the past few weeks, he wasn’t surprised by her easy smile. But he had seen so many tears, he was thrilled when her smiles came easy and reached her eyes now days.
He kissed her forehead. They move into a slow dance. “I have a present for you,” he whispered.
“Another one?” she lifted her head to look at him. He pushed until her head laid against his shoulder.
He smiled again. Progress. “Eliza, I already explained that I will spoil you. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Liz shook her head against his shoulder. Darren squeezed her tighter.
“I love you,” he whispered.
Her tension faded and leaned on him. Reminding her he didn’t just like her, he didn’t just want her, that he cared about her, always circumvented her defenses.
A small solid object bumped into his leg. Darren pulled away from Liz took down. He kept them swaying. His daughter, Claire, tugged on Liz’s hand while she stared up at them.
He bent and picked her up. Liz wrapped her arm around Darren. Liz kissed Claire’s cheek. “And I love you.”
“I love her more,” Darren said.
“I have a present for both of you tonight.”
“Can we open them now?” Claire asked.
He felt Liz trying to pull away, so he pulled her closer. “After we eat. Go wash your hands.”
He set the girl on the floor and she ran to the bathroom, her kitten Wishes trailing behind.
“How am I going to live without her?” Liz said, curling into his shoulder. Claire’s mother completed her alcohol dependency program, returned to work and was ready to be a full-time parent again. They decided for Claire to go back, with regular visits to Darren.
Darren stroked his fiance’s hair. “One moment at a time. You’ll have school to keep you busy.”
“I‘ll find for a part-time job.”
“I don’t care if you work, babe.”
“I have to fill the time, when you’re both gone. I‘m not used to being idle.”
“Maybe you should take up a hobby. Or you could join my entourage.”
“You don’t have an entourage.”
“You can start one.” He grinned at her.
She stuck out her tongue.
“What about wedding planning? You said Tony wanted to help plan.”
“What if we go to Vegas?”
“You’d disappoint Tony and my mom.”
“Tony can’t really talk, she didn’t have much of a wedding. It’s not like we have many people to invite.” Liz had no family to invite and Tony was the first person she’d gotten close to in years. That left the bulk of the guests to be Darren’s family and friends.
“We can do it small if you want. We can just do it, you, me, and Claire. I think we’d both like her to be there.”
“And Tony and Chris.”
“And my parents and brother.”
She nodded, as her mouth quivered. Parents were a sore spot. Liz’s parents were abusive as she grew up, finally kicking her out at sixteen, forcing Liz to drop out of school to support herself.
Darren cradled her face in his hands. “They aren’t your family.” He had told his mom about Liz’s past, with her permission. He was certain as Liz got to know his mom, they would grow into a relationship that was similar to parent-child. Especially as his mom had two sons, and his brother wasn’t married. She loved her boys, but Darren knew a daughter was different. He hoped she and Liz could fill the void for each other.
They decided not to talk about their own future and children until after they delivered Claire to her mother. It weighed on his mind, and he saw Liz staring into space and wondered if she thought about it as well.
Claire came back. “Let’s eat!” She announced.
Darren let his attention be drawn away by Claire’s chattering and Liz responding. He wanted to soak it all in, so he would have the memories ready in his mind.
After supper was cleaned up, he shooed his girls to the living room. Christmas was three days past, but something he ordered had arrived late. He was just thankful it arrived before they took Claire to Ontario.
He retrieved the boxes from their room. He smiled, so thrilled that half his closet was filled with Liz’s clothes, most of which he bought, and her underwear was in the hamper with his. Her scent lingered in the bedroom.
“What are you smiling about?” Liz asked, looking up from where Claire had Wishes chasing a string across the floor.
The ball of fluff pounced on Claire’s hand. The girl giggled.
“Everything.” He took a seat next to Liz on the sofa.
He handed a box to Liz and another to Claire. He held one on his lap. “What is it?” Claire asked.
Inside was a necklace with a pendant. He had them custom engraved.
“What does your say Claire?” Liz asked.
“Mom, Dad, me, Liz, Wishes. And Love Forever.”
“Mine says Darren, Liz, Claire, and Wishes.” She smiled at him and he wanted to kiss away the tears in her eyes.
“Now, when we miss each other, we can hold our necklaces and think of each other. And we will all feel it.”
“What about Wishes? He doesn’t have one,” Claire said.
“I got a collar made for him,” Darren said, pulling out of his pocket.
Claire grabbed it. This pendant simply read “Claire” on it.
“I love it.” Liz wrapped her arms around him.
“Me too.” Claire joined in.
“I ordered them but they came late.”
“I’ll put yours on,” Liz said to Claire as they separated.
Darren watched with his heart while they adorned themselves. Then Liz gave him a kiss. Claire returned to playing with the kitten and he and Liz cuddled up to watch.
The phone rang and Claire snatched it before anyone else. “Mommy.” Usually, Claire was thrilled to talk to her mom, but this time it reminded them all their time was waning.
Liz closed her eyes, trying not to listen. “Really? Are you for real? Mommy.”
Was Monica getting a kitten as well? Liz looked at Darren.
“Daddy she wants to talk to you.” Claire held out the phone. Change of plans? With Monica anything was possible.
Darren’s face got more and more serious as he listened. He said little. “I guess that’s good. Uh, okay, I’ll talk to you soon.”
He handed Claire the phone. His jaw hung slack as he stared at Liz. “What? Is she in jail now?”
He shook his head. “No.”
“She’s moving out here,” Claire shouted.
“Monica is moving here?” Liz’s face now mirrored Darren’s. She understood his reaction.
“Isn’t that great? Now I don’t have to leave Wishes.” Claire grabbed the kitten and hugged her tight.
“It’s something, honey. Why don’t you get a snack,” Liz said.
Claire skipped off. Liz and Darren stared at each other. “Okay. I guess we don’t have to worry about Claire being across the country,” Darren said.
“No I suppose we don’t,” Liz replied.
Wow, of all the things she thought would happen with Monica, this was at the bottom of the list.
I know a lot of people wish Monica would disappear. But she deserves redemption. One of my best internet friends lost custody for a while due to alcoholism, so it’s near and dear to my heart.
This is my next planned project. It might be a shorter 99 cent story. But I wanted to tell it. And then one more planned hockey novel and for the 8th time, that is the last of them.