Carnival Lights: Chapter One
The office was slowly clearing out. Looking up briefly from her computer screen, Christina canvassed the bullpen. Most of the desks were empty by now. It was coming on five thirty and business hours had ended half an hour ago. The weekend loomed enticingly.
Beside her, she felt rather than heard her boss’s door open. Hardly bothering to glance that way, Christina’s fingers moved rhythmically over her keyboard. She just had one more document to import and then her Friday night awaited.
“Still here?” Her boss, Mr. Gordman asked conversationally as he came into view, a briefcase held loosely in his left hand.
“Good.” He eyed her knowingly. “Don’t stay too late.”
Christina nodded absently. “I wouldn’t dare.”
“I mean it.”
She sighed theatrically, flicking her eyes up to his. “I know.”
He grimaced. “Don’t make me nag you.”
“It’s not very often that bosses reprimand employees for working too hard.” Christina’s drawl was deliberate.
He chuckled, his briefcase swaying absently in his grip. “I’ll see you Sunday?” It wasn’t a question.
Christina hunched up her shoulders. “About that—I’m not sure…” she stalled. Just thinking about Sunday was enough to make her drop her eyes.
He sighed. It had a weary sound. “Don’t make me sic Mary on you.”
He smiled in a predatory fashion. “I’ll take that as a yes, then. Remember, lunch is at one o’clock. Don’t be late.”
She gave her computer a hard stare, but her stomach was doing that weird thing again. Her fingers hit the wrong keys. “You know I’m not even religious,” she grumbled.
“Not that old argument again.”
“It’s kind of a crucial component…”
“We don’t plan to baptize you.”
Christina’s eyes narrowed.
“It’s just lunch.”
Mr. Gordman pursed his lips. “I can only assume you’re fighting me on this because you’ll be heading home for the holiday this year?”
Christina made a sound in her throat.
“I thought not.”
“I don’t want to impose.” That wasn’t quite true….
“I don’t have time for this,” Mr. Gordman assured her. “I’ll just tell Mary to give you a call this evening. You can convince her that you’re an imposition. My sympathies when she hears you say that.”
At the second mention of this threat, Christina laughingly shook her head. “Okay, okay,” she relented, as she’d known she would all along. She raised her hands. “I give! Lunch at one o’clock.”
“A sensible choice.”
Christina narrowed her eyes. “I didn’t know when I applied for this job it’d come equipped with a built-in family.”
But Mr. Gordman only laughed, shaking his head as he began walking toward the exit. “What can I say?” He called out over his shoulder, shooting her a mischievous smile. “I’m a generous employer.”
Christina didn’t say anything. Instead, she watched him walk out, her fingers unmoving on the keyboard now. Her thoughts spun furiously, mentally unpacking every scrap of clothing attire in her closet. Within seconds her bed was loaded with rubbish and not a scrap of fabric remained on her hangers.
At the mere thought of spending the afternoon at his home, she could feel her heart skidding in her chest, her breathing felt light. There was the finest of tremors in her hands. She balled them up.
“Calm down, Christina,” she scolded herself, forcing her mind back to work. “Don’t be a spaz. It’s one day. One afternoon. It’ll be fine.” Unfurling her fingers, she bent back over the computer screen, determinedly reminding herself that it would be fine.
“It’s not like he’s ever bothered to notice you before. Not in that way,” she hissed to herself and without quite noticing it, her eyes lifted, traveling toward the path her boss had just taken. “And it’s not like you care. It would be a terrible idea.”
And she knew all about terrible ideas.
But all the self pep-talks hadn’t helped. At approximately twelve-fifty Sunday afternoon, she brought her car to a quiet halt outside her bosses three story home. Hers was the only vehicle parked in the semi-circular drive.
Flipping down the visor to re-check her reflection in the small mirror attached there, Christina patted down her perfectly coiffed hair. Her lips were dusted a pale pink, and her eyes held just the slightest of smoky accents. Flawless. That’s how she looked.
“So act like it,” she reprimanded herself as she slowly alit from her vehicle. Reaching into the back seat, she grabbed for the covered pie-pan. “And for God’s sake, smile.”
But each step she took toward the double-door entrance proved a challenge. Her stomach clenched, her knees shook—and she was breathing far too quickly. These sensations were far from unfamiliar. They assaulted her every time she advanced toward those stately doors. She should have been used to it by now. No matter how many times she told herself it was due to a feeling of dread she knew that was lie—it was pure, unadulterated anticipation.
Without thinking, she turned her head back toward the driveway. Her car remained the sole occupant on the cobbled pavement.
Gaining the front at last, she wasn’t even allowed to ring the doorbell before the door was flung open, Mr. Gordman already waving her inside.
“Ah. Right on time,” he announced warmly.
“When have I been anything else, Mr. Gordman?” She teased him, but her eyes wouldn’t quite meet his.
“Hey.” He frowned. “How many times have I told you? Around here, it’s Matthew.”
She rolled her eyes. “Right.”
“House rules. Only first names are allowed.”
Christina smiled slightly and, still cradling the covered dish, nodded toward the kitchen. “Mary in there?”
He made an exaggerated face. “Where else?”
“I’ll go see if she needs anything.” And with that, Christina turned smartly to the left, her feet taking her through the large dining room and into the kitchen. The back wall was floor-to-ceiling windows, and as it always seemed to do, sunlight shone brilliant through the paneled glass. And there, standing at the kitchen sink, her peppered hair slightly askew, an apron tied anyhow around her waist, stood Mary.
“You’re here!” The older woman exclaimed, turning at the sound of Christina’s entrance. Rounding the island, she rushed toward the younger woman. In one seamless move, she snatched the pie out of her hands and grabbed her for a big hug.
Laughing softly, Christina let herself be embraced.
“My God, I think you’re even thinner than last time,” Mary exclaimed, letting her go.
“Measuring me again?”
“You’re taking all the leftovers home. I can’t have you wasting away on me,” Mary tut-tutted.
Christine only shook her head. “Unlikely.”
“Matt would be lost without you.”
Christina smirked. “One that point, I’ll agree with you.”
Laughing, Mary turned back to her oven. “I hope you’re hungry. I’ve gone all out today. Of course, Matthew bought the wrong style of gravy for my famous…”
But Christina wasn’t listening. Her ears pinned to any outside sounds, she tried to calm her nerves. If her stomach bound itself any tighter she wouldn’t be able to eat. And then Mary would probably start force-feeding her.
But there was no crunch of tires on the gravel driveway. There was no accompanying shrill of the doorbell. (You idiot, she scolded herself on the thought, of course the doorbell wouldn’t go off. He isn’t a damned guest…) Smoothing her wet palms down the side of her black wool skirt, she fought for composure. Her mouth felt dry. Her palms sticky. And her breath shallow.
God, would this never end? How many dinners had she shared with this family? Far too many. And still, she acted like it was the first time—
“….but I think I can make do—hey,” the sound of a palm slapping against the counter brought Christina’s eyes up. “Are you even listening to me?”
“You’re just as bad as the boys,” Mary grumbled, shaking her head. “Here I am, having a great conversation, only to realize that I’m having it with myself.”
“Sorry Mary,” Christina confessed with a lopsided grin.
“Well. At least I keep myself entertained,” Mary huffed, but the smile she shot at Christina let the younger woman know she wasn’t upset.
“Can I help with anything?” Christina asked belatedly, taking in the copious bowls and spoons, pots and whatnot.
“Well, as to that…” Mary canvassed the kitchen, as well. Her eyes lit up when they landed on a glass dish. “Would you set up the relish tray, my dear?”
Christina laughed. It had a rich sound. “You know Mar,” she insisted, opening the fridge to pull out the pickles and olives. “I can actually cook.”
“And who said you couldn’t?”
“In all the years I’ve worked for Matthew, this is the only thing you’ve ever let me touch.”
Mary grimaced. “I’m not very good at relinquishing control of my kitchen.”
“Admit it, you don’t think I can boil water,” Christina teased with a mock show of sorrow. “I get it.”
Mary banged the side of her spoon against the counter. “That’s not true.”
Christina wailed pathetically. “Don’t bother denying it.” She wagged a finger at Mary. “I’ll bet you’re terrified to try some of my pie.”
Mary pulled up her chin. “Am not.”
Mary shook her head. “I am not.”
“No?” Christina looked over at the dessert in question. “Are you sure?”
Mary smiled devilishly. “Of course I’m sure.” She turned back toward the stove. “I love Carmen’s bakery.”
Christina’s smile fell. “How did you know?” Her eyes flicked to the pie. She’d even taken the time to transfer it to the metal pan she’d bought at a rummage sale a few years back—just to give a look of authenticity.
Mary winked. “The nose knows.”
“But let’s get serious—were sensory glands even necessary? I’ve seen the girl try to make a PB&J sandwich before…the bread looked like it’d been savaged!”
Christina stilled, her hands gripping the pickle jar too tightly as soft male laughter followed this question.
“Jason!” Turning sharply, Mary eyed her son, who was standing just inside the kitchen.
Christina felt him step into the room. Her back toward him, she was glad for the moment’s reprieve.
“Hey mom,” he said warmly, his arms already opening as Mary moved out from behind the stove to hug him. He coughed as her arms squeezed around his back. “A little tighter,” he teased. “I can still breathe.”
“Oh.” She took a step back, letting her arms fall at her sides. A large smile melted her features. “Sorry.”
“Coupe of cracked ribs,” he assured her with a wink. “Don’t worry about it.”
Christina could hardly hold the thread of conversation. Letting her eyes quickly roam over the white veins intersected throughout the countertop, she tried to focus her breathing, to clear her thoughts.
She could feel a muscle in her jaw spasm.
He was here.
Her face felt hot. Uncomfortably hot. Her fingers itched to press against her cheeks, cool them. Oh God—was she turning red? Taking a half-step backward, Christina was overcome with the need to check her reflection in the mirror.
Mary swatted at Jason’s wrist. “And don’t go teasing Christina.”
And the mention of her name, Christina knew his eyes were on her. Turning slowly (what else could she do?) Christina leveled him an even glance.
“Hey Chrissy,” Jason offered easily. His right arm he kept slung over his mother’s shoulder. “Kill any slices of bread lately?”
“Jason,” she acknowledged. Her voice felt flat. Flicking a strand of hair behind her shoulder, she frowned. “And it’s Christina,” she reminded him for what must have been the twentieth time.
He smiled, showing large white teeth. “Right. Sorry.” He didn’t look the least repentant.
“And the jelly was cold. It wasn’t my fault it pulled the bread apart,” she insisted.
“Of course not,” he soothed.
“Oh shut up,” she threw at him.
“Bickering all ready?” Mr. Gordman, coming into the kitchen, sent his wife a knowing look. “Is that a record?”
Mary grinned. “It’s got to be.”
“I’m not bickering,” Christina insisted. “He is.”
“You’re face is getting a bit red there, Chrissy.”
“It’s Christina,” she told him forcibly. “And if it’s red—” dammit why did it have to be red?—“it’s only because you’re so infuriating.”
“Easy Christina,” he enunciated carefully. “Or I might think you’re being serious.”
“That’ll be the day.” Pushing herself off the island, Christina turned pointedly toward Mary. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to, ah—” faulting, she felt the room’s eyes on her. Her blush worsened. “Bathroom,” she fumbled. Ducking her head, without another word she stalked away.
“Pull yourself together, you raving idiot,” she muttered to herself once she was safely locked inside the downstairs powder room. She took a peek at her face. Damn him. It was red. Patting her hands against the flushed skin, she tried to cool it down. “Just be cool,” she hissed. “Act nonchalant.”
That was easier said than done of course.
Because she didn’t like Jason Gordman.
No, the stupid fool, Christina was in love with him.