A Cup of Crisp at Christmas

A Christian romance novella that will put a smile on your face, a thought in your mind, and a glow in your heart. Chapter 1 here for free. Available now on Amazon.

Chapter 1 – Friday Morning

Nicole Miller tossed and turned in the early morning, struggling with a dream that dwelt in the recesses of her heart.

A little girl in a faded calico dress sat alone on the front steps of her suburban house playing with dolls. She dressed the girl doll in a red skirt and frilly blue blouse. Then the boy doll came to the girl, took her in his arms, and they danced across the welcome mat. A young man stepped out of the house; bottle in hand. “Daddy, will you play with me?” The man turned and went back into the house.

A beautiful young woman in a tailored Navy business suit sat alone at an outdoor table in a coffee shop in the lobby of a building which housed her penthouse condominium. Her leather briefcase contained hours of work, her cell phone had hundreds of unaddressed messages, and her calendar left little time to breathe. A young man drove up in an old green pickup truck. “Nicole, would you like to talk?” The woman picked up her bag and went back into the building.  

The alarm buzzer jolted Nicole from sleep at 5 AM.

“Damn! I forgot to change the alarm to radio” she muttered, eyes riveted shut and left-hand groping for the snooze button. She hit snooze, but by then was too awake to enjoy five more minutes under her thick, white, down comforter. A single bedroom window cracked open admitted a frosty mid-December breeze.

Nicole rolled out of bed and stumbled in the darkness to her closet. She slipped out of her short, lavender, silk nightgown and donned royal blue shorts, a tight pink t-shirt, and white running shoes. “That is the third time I have had that dream this week…I hope he is not there,” Nicole whispered to herself as she brushed her long, thick, brown hair, put it into a ponytail, and rinsed her mouth. She checked her phone, stepped into the hall outside her condo, locked the deadbolt, and walked to the elevator. Lost in her thoughts, Nicole forgot to put in her ear buds.

The elevator was empty for most of Nicole’s 23-floor ride down to the first-floor gym, but as the doors opened on floor four, Mike’s smiling face appeared.

“Good morning, Nicole” Mike Morgan exclaimed with bright eyes and a cheerful voice. She gazed for a moment at his sandy brown hair, ruddy complexion, green USMC t-shirt and black shorts, which covered his athletic body. Nicole looked away.  After several seconds she stuttered, “Good morning, Mike, did you finish the bid analysis?”

“Starting work off early, eh” he answered. “I finished most of it, but I am waiting for the two vendor finalists, General Electric and Philips, to submit their final offers. Once I have that information, I will make a purchasing recommendation to Miguel.”

Recovering herself for the moment, Nicole replied, “Well, you two had better hurry, because I need to make a decision fast. We are way overspent on outside CT scans this year.”

Nicole looked down and away, well aware that Mike was still admiring her fair skin and fit feminine form. Mike’s gaze lingered long, and then he shook his head as if to shake off a forbidden thought. She put in her ear buds and turned on Journey’s Open Arms, her favorite song. The elevator doors opened on the second floor and an older couple walked in. Nicole stepped to the side, putting the grandmotherly-looking woman between her and Mike. Finally, on the ground floor, she hurried to the gym.

“See you at work…have a good day” Mike called, but there was no answer. Nicole grabbed a towel in the locker room and headed for the treadmill.

He makes me so mad, Nicole complained to herself, starting at a fast run. The first day Radhiya brought him into my office as her new emergency department administrator, I knew he would be trouble. I never would have hired him, he’s just so full of himself. Mike is so privileged he can’t even see it, though I could never say it.

Nicole turned up the speed, remembering their first encounter.

He looked at me with those deep green eyes, letting his gaze linger on my face until I couldn’t breathe. His smile sparkled. Thank god Radhiya noticed and took him away.

She turned up the speed again and pounded the belt with her feet. Her eyes squinted and face tensed as her inner dialogue went on.

Mike is everything that I detest. He comes from West Virginia, a loser state if ever there was one. He drives a gas guzzling, old, green F150 pickup truck. He was a Marine, a war-monger if ever I saw one, and he even goes to church. My sorority friends at Evergreen State would mock him, everyone like him, and everything he stands for. Dr. Svedlos warned us about people like that. 

Minutes passed. Panting painfully and dripping with sweat, she turned down the speed.

Nicole remembered Stan, the CEO (Chief Executive Officer), when she was the administrator for the department of surgery, who asked her to plan the new employee retreat three years ago. Her face softened.

When Stan asked for volunteers for the planning committee, Mike was the first. He had only been with Hillview Regional for four months. He never missed a meeting, never complained, and never ridiculed anyone else’ ideas – and we heard some doozies. The venue that Mike suggested was inspired, a large log cabin on a hilltop nestled in pines, firs, spruces, oaks regaining their leaves, and wildflowers starting to bloom. A creek tumbled over a waterfall just 100 yards away and the water flowed into a crystal lake.

Nicole grew wistful, and her run almost became a walk.

The day that Mike and I first looked at the cabin was glorious. We left at 7 AM for the three-hour drive and talked all the way up and all the way down. He treated me like a princess; better than any man has ever done before. Mike drove, opened my door, and paid for our coffee. He bought me a white chocolate truffle. How did he know that I love white chocolate? We stopped at a gorgeous river overlook with the sun still low in the morning sky. Mike listened to my favorite playlist, and told me that I was beautiful. I talked too much, but I couldn’t stop, and he hung on every word. I wanted… I needed him to know me. It was magic.

Alarmed at her thoughts, Nicole tried to change the subject, but she failed.  

When we finally arrived at the cabin, we wandered around like kids at a camp. Mike climbed a tree to get pictures from a different angle. Silly me. I wore a white skirt, pink blouse, and heels. He had to help me through the grass and mud. Even though I am an independent, self-made woman, I wasn’t angry. Mike’s kindness, his protection, made me feel more like a woman.

A bald, elderly man with a paunch stepped on the treadmill next to her. He began a slow walk.

When we walked on the old wooden dock on the lake, my heel caught a knot hole. I almost fell in, but he grabbed my waist and pulled me back against his powerful body. We both laughed. It was so embarrassing. Since that day, we have been together a thousand times at work – meetings, classes, and events. Mike has always respected me as a leader. We are a terrific business team.

An elderly woman pushing her walker came up to the man next to Nicole. She wore a small cross on a chain. His face lit up when he saw her. She smiled, he stopped, and he grasped her hand. Their wedding rings touched.

Even more, I have never felt so alive as when I was with him…and I never felt so alone as when I was without him.  

Mortified by that self-revelation, Nicole pushed it out of her mind. Her countenance darkened, and she turned up the speed again. Sweat poured from her chest and face.

But Mike was married. He kept talking about his wife, Kellie, and their four children. They were everything to him. I have never seen a man so devoted to his family, except for my own daddy, later in his life. Maybe Mike was trying to protect himself from me…and maybe he was trying to protect me from himself.

Six months after Mike joined Hillview, four months after their drive, and only two months after the employee retreat, Kellie was killed by a drunk driver. Mike had been crushed. Stan offered him 12 weeks of family medical leave, but Mike only took four – work numbed his pain. Mike’s cousin moved in to help with the kids until he could find a nanny. Nicole recalled the sadness on his face; for the first few months, life fled his body. Mike dragged along, with a gray in his countenance that matched the gray in his soul. He was weak, dry, and could barely manage a smile. It took months for Mike to become Mike again.

Even more, Nicole felt shame for her own indifference about the Kellie’s death. Her anger returned. The hurt from her childhood and the mental scripts from her college and more recent years came back. Her face flushed.

Kellie didn’t do much. She only stayed home raising their children, probably baking cookies. Like Hilary Rosen said of Ann Romney, Kellie didn’t work a day in her life. Mike behaved badly even with me, Nicole thought. All that driving, opening doors, and paying for coffee and snacks. Mike probably thought that I couldn’t to do it myself. He is such a jerk…the white chocolate truffle was awfully good, though.

The older man started walking again while his wife picked up a dumb bell and starting slow bicep curls.

I was furious with Stan for promoting Mike to deputy CFO last year. But then Stan died from a heart attack over the summer.

She turned up her music.

Fortunately, since I became acting CEO, I hardly see Mike. Until he rented a room in this building, my building, last summer.

Tiring of this mental debate, Nicole forced herself to focus on the music, and then let her thoughts drift. Kansas’ Dust in the Wind began from her playlist, and she pondered the words.  

Dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind
Dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind

I close my eyes
Only for a moment, then the moment’s gone
All my dreams
Pass before my eyes, a curiosity
Dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind

It’s the same old song
We’re just a drop of water, in an endless sea
All we do
Just crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see
Dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind

After another 20 minutes of running, Nicole slowed to a walk and stepped off the treadmill. She dried the sweat off her toned body, thinking of the elderly couple. After so many decades, they were still so in love.

Nicole heard the rain pounding on the pavement outside the door as she left the gym, delighted that Mike had gone outside to run this morning. She walked quickly towards the elevator, hoping to get on and get the doors closed before he came back.

Suddenly, Mike appeared outside the double doors of the tower, taking cover under the blue awning. Reflexively, Nicole hid, darting behind a Christmas tree in the lobby. She watched him through the green branches, white lights, gold garland, and red ornaments. Mike seemed to be talking with the crimson-uniformed doorman, and they both laughed. He walked in. Mike showed no sign of seeing her behind the tree as he dripped step by step towards the elevator. The elevator doors were closing as he turned and looked straight at the tree.

Nicole stepped back and knocked a red glass ball off the tree. It shattered into a thousand shards. She looked up to find the doorman frowning at her.

“Sorry, just admiring the…decorations” Nicole stumbled. Realizing how silly she had been, the high-powered CEO rebuked herself. The housekeeper came with a broom and dustpan.

After a hot shower, Nicole put on a white blouse, navy blue jacket and skirt, and navy heels. She walked into her dining room and sat down at her glass-topped table for a cinnamon bagel with strawberry cream cheese. She made herself a cup of Honey Crisp apple tea with a dash of lemon and a touch of cinnamon. Growing up, her mother made this tea for her almost every morning.

Nicole checked her schedule. Tonight at 8 PM is the Hillview Hospital Holiday party at Ricardo’s. Tomorrow morning at 9 AM I am hosting a Saturday breakfast for the president of the university and his senior leadership team. I’ve got to double check the menu – breads, fruits, and other healthy fare – with our event planner. The university is looking for a new employee health care contract. I’m sure that we can get it.

At noon Radhiya and I are getting our hair and nails done, she said to herself. We have to look great for Joanna’s campaign fund raiser Saturday night for the state senate. The primaries are in June, but Joanna has those sewn up. The general election will be tight, and we need to win this seat. Her opponent is a religious fanatic. Why don’t these stupid conservatives get it? History is not moving in their direction. The world is passing them by.

Nicole finished thinking about politics.  Her parents never really talked about it – they were too busy making a living and raising her and her brother. And then there was her dad’s alcohol; too much alcohol. Way too much. Nicole joined the Democrats in high school, looking to pad her resume for college. She immersed herself in politics in college. Nicole had been a local leader in the left wing of the Democratic party for almost 20 years. There were victories, but Nicole still questioned herself:

I wonder how much all this money and political activity actually make a difference. During the last presidential election, I spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to elect the right woman, finally. And a jerk still won.

Moving on, Nicole concluded, Sunday, I’ll sleep all day.

After letting her mind relax for a few minutes, Nicole perused the internet news on her phone. The local headline read “Riverside General Hospital fires its Chief Operations Officer.”

It will be a good day, thought Nicole to herself.

***

“Good morning” Mike whispered to Mike Jr, “I love you.”

His sleepy fourth grader pulled the covers over his head. “Go away.”

“This is the last day of school before Christmas vacation, but you can’t be late.”

Mike Jr. rolled a little more, pushed the covers down, and sat up.

“Dad, is my first basketball game tomorrow?”

“Yep, it is.”

“Thanks for coaching, dad.”

“I wouldn’t miss it, Mike, I love you.”

He looked over at Matt, sleeping soundly, and decided not to awaken him. The doting dad left his boys’ room and crept across the hall into Kerri and Kristen’s room.

“Good morning, pumpkin.”

“Good morning, daddy.”

“Time to get up for school. The first grade Christmas party is this afternoon.”

“OK. Do we have the Nutcracker today?”

“No sweetheart, it’s tomorrow night.”

“I am so excited. I am going to dance like a princess.”

“You certainly will. And I will be so proud of you that my buttons will pop off my shirt.”

Kerri was impressed. “Wow, daddy, really?”

“Really” Mike replied. “Now get dressed for school.”

“What should I wear? Will you pick out my clothes?”

“How about the Calico dress?”

“Great!”

Mike looked across the room at his sleeping daughter, Matt’s twin. No point in waking Kristen up, he thought to himself. Mike heard a knock on the front door of his apartment, climbed over piles of toys in the hall, walked through the living room, and opened it.

“Susan, thanks again for coming.”

“Mike, I’ve come to your house almost every morning for nearly three years to take care of your home and your children. Why do you keep thanking me?”

“Because I’m still grateful for you.”

“But you pay me.”

“That doesn’t mean that I can’t be grateful for you. Look at this place – it is a mess. But by the time I come home from work tonight, it will be beautiful.” Mike concluded, “I couldn’t do all this work by myself.”

Changing the subject, Susan asked “Are we still going to the church at noon tomorrow to cook Christmas dinner for the hungry?”

“Yes, absolutely. We do it every year.”

“And you want the children to come this year?”

“Yes, it will be a good experience. But I’ll need you there to look after them” Mike requested.

Susan inspected Mike’s dark brown tweed sport coat, tan slacks, white shirt, and a red tie with bright green Christmas trees.

“You need a woman,” Susan chided Mike, “that combination is atrocious.” “Agreed,” Mike replied with a grin, but I’m late. I was distracted by a woman who ran into the Christmas tree in the lobby.”

“OK.” Susan smiled. “Nicole again?” Mike’s face flushed. Susan went to the kitchen to make breakfast for the children.

Mike grabbed his briefcase, closed the condo door behind him, and left for work.

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