Carnival Lights: Chapter Five
Crossing her legs carefully on the couch, Christina accepted her glass of scotch. Coming to sit down beside her, Mary swirled a glass of wine daintily in her hands. Outside the large bay window of the livingroom, the women had an all-encompassing view of the falling snow.
Though she wouldn’t admit it out loud, Christina found it oddly romantic. This was partly due to the fire that Matthew had just brought to life in the large brick fireplace; the spicy warmth of the alcohol playing against her tongue; and the knowledge that she didn’t have to brave the dangerous driving conditions.
Sinking a little further into the plush cushion of the massive furniture, she sighed. “Well, at least it’s a hell of a view.”
“Oh, don’t I know it,” Mary agreed, taking a sip of merlot. Smiling at Christina, she laughed. “I frequently find snowstorms to be more entertaining than the television.”
“Snug as a bug….”
Mary nodded. “With no place to go.”
“Or no way to get there,” Christina countered drily.
Mary snorted. “Well, yes, I suppose in your case.”
Sauntering over to the club lounger chair to the left of the window, Jason smirked. His hair was slightly spiking up at the front, as though he’d only just run his fingers through it. Christina tried not to notice. “I’d say it’s reminiscent to being grounded.”
“I bet that happened to you a lot as a child,” Christina said with a pointed raise of her eyebrows.
He made a disparaging sound. “Let me guess, you were the apple of your parent’s eye?”
At the words, innocent though they were, Christina’s smile faltered just the slightest bit. Without meaning to, she dropped her eyes down to her lap.
Yes. She supposed she had been the apple of their eye. Once upon a time. An old hat to the residual pain that crept up her throat at the thought, Christina’s forced out a laugh. It had a husky quality to it, but otherwise it sounded perfectly at ease.
Lifting her glass in a calculated salute, she agreed. “Let’s just say, my parents never had cause to ground me.” No, but they’d had cause to kick her out. And then had. In the most public way possible. Then again, that was another story. For another audience.
Jason didn’t bother to hide his distain. “Color me surprised.”
She bristled, her body pitching forward. “No, I’d rather color you—”
“How about we play a game?” At Matthew’s brisk redirection, Christina blinked. Turning her head slightly, she watched as her boss slowly stood up from his kneeling position before the fireplace. Tossing a lost log inside the growing lick of flames, he shut the glass screen with a firm hand.
Mary narrowed her eyes. Leaning just slightly forward, she placed her wine glass carefully on the coffee table. “What kind of game?” There was suspicion in her voice.
With a sly look at Jason, he shrugged.
Christina didn’t like that look. She had a terrible feeling she knew where this was going…
“Oh, I don’t know. Canasta?” The words were delivered just a touch too innocently.
As if on cue, Mary and Christina groaned in unison.
“We always play that game!”
“Can’t we play something else?”
Mary nodded eagerly. “Yeah. Something fun.”
“…that everyone’s good at,” Christina muttered quietly.
“Or, just nothing at all?”
Matthew waved their instantaneous grumblings aside with a flick of his wrist. “Oh, come on ladies. You only say that because you two always lose.”
Jason laughed into his glass.
“Well, yeah,” Mary nodded at Christina. “You wouldn’t like it so much either, if the roles were reversed.”
Matthew pursed his lips. Rubbing his hands together, he glanced down at his son. “What do you say, Jas? Up for a little challenge?”
“Switch up the teams, you mean?” Jason narrowed his eyes as he momentarily assessed the women perched on the couch. He seemed to be carefully considering this.
With a plop, Christina set her glass down. “Really, are we such a pathetic pair?”
Jason lifted up one shoulder. “Well…”
But alas, the boys finally consented—perhaps the girl’s weren’t completely hopeless. Perhaps they just needed mentoring. So they teams were switched, much to Christina’s chagrin. Because, as she’d somehow known it would be all along, Jason and she were put on one team and Mary and Matthew another.
Back in the kitchen, sitting across from each other, Christina’s hands trembled as she fanned out the cards in her hands. Her fingers shook so badly she could barely keep them from spilling all over the table.
She felt nervous. Jittery.
“Ready?” Jason asked, smiling across the expanse at Christina. He winked. “And don’t worry, you lucked out with the right partner. The best partner.”
“Hardly,” Matthew scoffed from behind his cards.
“My hero,” Christina breathed, batting her eyelashes outrageously.
“Stop flirting with me,” Jason said easily, which brought Christina up short. With a wink, he settled back in his chair. “I need to concentrate now.”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” she muttered darkly, her eyes staring fixedly at the cards in her hands. Flirting? Please.
All the same, she felt her skin break out as though it were alive, as though everyone in the family were watching her knowingly…
“My turn?” Mary asked, reaching forward to grab a card off the table of the deck. “Hah!” With a smile, she laid down a red three. She smiled at her husband as she grabbed for two more cards. “Now, how was that?”
“Beautifully done, darling,” he said drily. “I never doubted you for a second.”
“Mmhm,” she said, with a knowing glance at Christina.
And so, for the next hour they played, the team’s neck-and-neck as they each advanced points. It was a little after nine in the evening when they found themselves in the final round; both teams were within range of reaching the 5,000 points it took to win the game. It all boiled down to who went out first.
Biting her lip, Christina surveyed the cards in her hands, her gaze flicking from them to the board she and Jason had accrued, and then back to the cards in her hands again. Her eyes were watchful, careful as she checked and double checked for a possible meld, her head quickly tallying up points to make quite certain…
“Yeah, any day now,” Jason drawled. She narrowed her eyes.
This is where she always got hung up. In the clutch, when the pressure was on. Christina ran her tongue of her lips, and then nodded her head. With a deliberate snap, she laid out each and every last card in her hand—and with it, won the game.
Jason’s eyes grew wide at the unexpected sight.
Matthew whistled. “I didn’t see that coming.” He shrugged at Mary. “Sorry sweetheart.”
“Well, I mean she deliberated so long,” Mary murmurred.
Christina smiled with delight at Jason. “Worth the wait, I hope?”
He grinned wider. “What the hell kept you…?”
She shrugged. “I just wanted to make sure I had it all correct….”
“Hah!” With a whoop of cheer, Jason slapped his palms down on the table. He laughed, sending his father a mischievous look. “What was that we wagered, dad? Oh yeah.” He snapped his fingers together with glee. “That’s right…”
“You wagered on us?” Mary asked Matthew.
He shrugged. “Just a friendly bet.”
“King of Canasta?” Christina scoffed. It was so like Matthew and Jason to do something like that.
“Well, this king just got himself a bottle of dad’s reserve whiskey.”
Mary laughed. “Oh Matthew, you idiot.”
He looked grumpily across the table at his wife. “Thanks for the input.”
“That stuff was expensive,” she reminded him.
“I’m well aware of that.”
“It’s what makes it all the sweeter,” Jason assured his mother. With that same infectious smirk, he turned back to Christina. “God, Chrissy you have no idea. I could just kiss you right now!”
At the unexpected outburst, Christina stilled. Before she could help herself, she felt her body reacting to the words—a weird sort of tension filling her person. Feeling her face flush, she quickly dropped her eyes. I could just kiss you right now. Battling back a strange sort of wantonness at the words, she swallowed with difficulty.
Grappling for a comeback, her neck throbbing as she tried to fight a sense of casualness to her expression, Christina reacted for her glass of scotch. Too late, she realized as she pressed it up against her lips, the glass was empty. She breathed in the heady smell linger against the glass before quickly dropping it back on the table. Only, it wasn’t quick enough to have escaped the notice of the people sitting around her.
Watching her, the table went uncomfortably silent. A stiff sort of discord seemed to permeate around her awkward movements.
Speak. Say something, for Christ’s sake. “God,” she muttered, finding her voice at last. Far too late. “You are such a Neanderthal.” But she was flustered, breathless.
And she was only too aware that everyone knew it.
Especially Jason. She’d watched his lips shift uncertainly, seen those hazel eyes grow cloudy as they observed her from across the table. She’d witnessed the expressions playing out across his face in those beats of time: puzzlement and confusion, something like amusement and then a quiet sort of questioning—
Years of careful bantering, of a perfectly crafted arm’s-length sort of friendliness, were quickly circling the proverbial drain. She didn’t know what the hell was wrong with her. She’d always been able to keep herself composed around Jason before. She’d always been able to shrug off his playfulness as though he were an annoyance to be endured…
What had changed?
Clearing her throat, Christina tried to hide beneath the cover of comedy. “Really Matthew—” she agonized artfully, turning towards her boss; only, whatever she’d been about to say died on her lips at the look she surprised on his countenance. He disguised it quickly enough, but not before she saw it: dawning realization.
Mixed with a certain amount of trepidation and, what was that, pity?
“Knock it off already,” Jason said, and for once she was glad for his incessant teasing. “It was just an expression. It’s not like I’m going to attack you.”
She tossed her hair over one shoulder, her eyes slithering back to his. Well, not quite. But she looked as closely as at his brow line. “As if.”
“Correct.” His voice practically oozed with condescension.
“Spare me your ego,” Christina chided, rolling her eyes; her shoulders relaxed a little on the words.
He made a tisk-tisk sound. “I think that’s actually my line.”
She grinned in an infuriating fashion, but her cheeks lost some of their color all the same. “Then quit requesting kisses.”
He leaned back in his chair. “Get over yourself.”
She leaned closer to the table. “You first.”
“I wish I had a whistle,” Mary complained to her husband.
“All right, kids,” he said then, placing both palms flat out on the table. “Let’s call it, huh? It’s past my bedtime as it is, and I don’t want to hear the two of you bickering all night.”
At the words, Mary turned her eyes on Christina. “Speaking of that,” she said, pushing back her chair. “Why don’t you come upstairs with me and let’s see if we can’t rustle you up a spare set of pajamas.”
Christina blanched. She hadn’t even thought about that. Though she desperately did not want to borrow sleepwear from her bosses wife (that felt way too many shades of inappropriate), Christina realized the impracticality of anything else. And so, she brought herself both gratefully and reluctantly to her feet. Without bothering to spare Jason a backward glance, she followed Mary out of the room and up the massive staircase at the front entrance.