Carnival Lights: Chapter Three
The soft knock on the other side of the bathroom door snapped Christina out of her reverie. Jerking upright over the sink, her eyes flickered toward the locked door.
“Christina?” At the sound of Mary’s soft question, Christina’s body slumped against the edge of the sink. “Honey, is everything all right?”
With something of surprise, Christina realized she’d been in the bathroom for a while now—probably over ten minutes. Blushing hotly, she pushed herself off the porcelain sink, gaining her feet. Grabbing for the door knob, she turned it in her hand. Swinging it open, her eyes met the quiet worry (and equal parts curiosity) mingled in the older woman’s gaze.
“Is everything okay?” Mary asked again, taking in Christina’s less than usually coiffed self.
“Yeah. Sorry about that,” Christina mumbled, batting a hand in front of her face emphatically. “I got really hot for a minute. I needed to cool down.”
“Oh,” Mary said, but it was obvious she didn’t truly understand. “Yes, well, it does get so awfully warm in that kitchen when I’m cooking that much food,” she offered anyway, kind soul that she was. The truth of the matter, Mary and Matthew’s kitchen was far too large to be bogged down by the warmth of a few pots on the stove and a bird in the oven.
Christina loved her for that generosity of spirit. “Yeah.”
“You’re feeling better now, though?” Mary asked anxiously.
Christina nodded curtly. “Much.” Not unless Jason had pulled a disappearing act….
“There they are!” Matthew smiled when Christina and Mary entered the kitchen. He and Jason (who had clearly not disappeared after all) were already seated at the table. “We were worried you got lost there for a minute.”
Jason made a choking sound that he valiantly attempted to turn into a cough. But it didn’t really work.
Christina’s face pinkened.
“Oh Matthew, sometimes I swear you are completely hopeless!” Mary cried, bringing her hands up in exasperation. With sure footsteps, she brought herself up to her chair, pulling it out to take her seat.
Christina, on the other hand, faltered, her eyes narrowing—Matthew was sitting in the seat she usually occupied. But before she could question his sudden change of place, her boss glanced up at her with a sanguine smile.
“Separating the enemy camps,” he said meaningfully, nodding across the table at his son. “I figure it’ll be better for my digestion.”
Christina clamped her jaw tightly, battling her second wave of humiliation in as many seconds, her fingers gripping roughly across the back of her chair. “Don’t complain to me,” she said as she plunked herself down.
Matthew raised an innocent eyebrow. “I don’t see anyone else who argues with him.” He pointed a fork at his son.
“I don’t argue. I defend myself,” she informed the table haughtily, crisply laying a napkin on her lap. “And besides,” she mumbled under her breath, “who invited who here?”
Matthew only laughed. In that way, he was so like his son. It was impossible to properly fight with someone when they just kept on joking about it.
Jason leered across the table at her mocking. “What do you say, Christina. Think the change in seating arrangements will make any difference?”
She smiled tightly. “It’s doing wonders for my appetite already.”
“All right, all right,” Mary said forcefully, her holding up a hand to stem whatever retort would surely closely follow. “New topic.”
Matthew looked from his son to his secretary. His eyebrows arched. “Yeah. Good idea.”
Mary turned to ask Jason something then. Christina wasn’t sure what, though—she’d stopped listening, her eyes carefully lowered. As the small family’s voices floated gently over her head, Christina considered that she’d lied earlier: she most certainly did to argue with Jason. Deliberately.
She provoked him. Prodded. Picked and picked…
It was the safest recourse, after all. Because, sometimes, there had been instances, brief but true, when she and Jason hadn’t found themselves sparring against one another. Times when they’d been almost friendly. Which had been far, far worse. Friends had a way of getting too comfortable with one another, too familiar. They were allowed to look at one another and smile, to grin at each other’s jokes, perhaps even touch one another. It was too easy for friends to slip.
It’s what had almost happened at the work Christmas party…. Matthew had, as usual, thrown a spectacular event for his employees. Held at his home, he’d hired in a string quartet, white-gloved waiters, and an open bar. That had been Christina’s downfall.
After spending the first part of the evening quietly but firmly rejecting the advances of colleagues who always seemed to figure that employee parties where gimmes for drunken mistakes, a more-or-less “what happens at the holiday party, stays at the holiday party” kind of mentality that she’d always found repulsive (especially considering how many of her female colleagues fell for it only to be found bawling their eyes out that next Monday morning in the women’s restroom, puking up their regrets…), Christina had planted herself firmly beside the makeshift bar and ordered herself one too many whiskeys—she figured that, if she had to sit through this mockery of decorum, she was going to need a salve.
An hour later, she realized her mistake. Ducking her head, to keep others from seeing her the vulnerability in her too bright cheeks, she kept her back firmly braced against the bar counter, her fingers now gripped tightly around a glass of water. But it wasn’t until Jason strolled up to her that she realized she had reason to panic.
Wait. What was he even doing here? She squinted. His outline was just the slightest bit blurry.
“Not dancing?” Jason asked casually, ordering himself a beer. A few couples were moving softly to the strains of music spilling out of the dance floor. She tilted her head: was that Bart Cooper whose arms were wrapped so tightly around the junior intern, Jessica?
She made a face. Married with young children, Bart’s hand was far too low on Jessica’s back…
Christina would have made a disparaging remark, but her tongue felt too thick in her mouth. So instead she shook her head.
“Tell me about it,” Jason said conversationally. “What’s the front receptionist’s name?”
Christina stared up at him groggily. Then she answered, slowly. “Grace.”
He nodded. “Yeah. I swear the woman doesn’t know the meaning of the word harassment.”
“But you—you don’t work for the company.” Some of Christina’s words ran together, but she pretended not to notice.
Jason grinned. “Good on you for noticing that.” He tipped the glass of beer to his mouth.
So…” she cleared her throat. Why are you then?” Not much of a filter but hey, at least the sentence was clearly enunciated.
He cocked an eyebrow. “With a welcome like that, it’s probably a good thing you’re not the first line of defense for clients at the office.”
She snorted. “I’m meant to play bulldog for your father.”
He grinned. “I see.” He looked absolutely devastating when he looked at her like that. Christina didn’t have the energy or the wits about her to fight the thought. She just grinned back at him playfully.
He looked nonplussed.
She tilted her head. Then she giggled.
His eyes widened just slightly.
At his look, Christina stilled. She’d regret this moment in the morning; she read that in his facial expression. Inking through the drunken orb was a backlash of embarrassment. “Excuse me,” she mumbled, dropped her eyes.
With a slightly shaking hand, she put her glass down on the countertop, pushing herself forward. Her movements were too quick, too hasty, so it wasn’t entirely unpredictable when she stumbled in her rush to getaway. It was nothing much, just a slight misstep but it was enough—
Jason’s hand grabbed for her elbow instinctively, steadying her. “Whoa. Hey there.”
Her mortification was complete. “Jason. Please.” Her eyes were wounded in her downcast face. “I-I, please don’t.”
“Don’t what?” His voice was confused. “Are you okay?”
She blinked rapidly. “I, no. No, I have to go.”
She lifted pleading eyes. “I think it’s altogether possible I’ve had too much to drink.”
His lips parted.
She held up a hand. “And before you start, please spare me your lectures.”
“No lecture here.”
“I have to go,” she reiterated, making to move away. His hand tightened around her arm.
“Wait. Just wait,” he said. “Or do you want to make a spectacle of yourself?”
She smashed her lips together. “I know. I have to go.”
“It’s okay. Just…”
“I can’t let them see me like this,” she whispered harshly.
“Who?” Jason laughed, his eyes taking in the people milling around. “I doubt anyone would notice. Most everyone here is drunk.”
She closed her eyes. “Oh God.”
“Chrissy, it’s no big deal.”
“Maybe not to you.”
“Can’t let them see you lose that precious control?” He guessed knowingly.
“Sorry.” And, for once, he sounded it. His hand was still on hers. “What are you so afraid of?”
Him. Falling apart. Losing that hard won composure…
“Please, your father. I couldn’t stand to embarrass him.”
Jason nodded. “Okay. Let me help you.”
She lifted her eyes. “How?”
“Follow my lead,” was all he said. With that, he brought his hand down to the small of her back and with a terse nod, took her forward. When they got the dance floor, he turned her firmly into his arms.
“Don’t fight me,” he said in her ear when Christina was about to do just that. His left hand, pressing against her back, guided her feet into his embrace. “Dance with me?”
“Trust me, okay.” He asked, looking down at her.
“I guess, I’ll have to.” Bringing her arms up and around the back of his neck, Christina allowed herself to be swung slowly across the dance floor. Her fingers shook against the nape of his neck and she had to bite down against her back teeth to keep from letting them graze against his hair.
He laughed softly in her ear. “That’s as close to an endorsement as I wager I’ll get.”
She felt his breath whisper across her cheeks and her stomach jerked inside her body—a delicious sort of zip and tingle running across the band of her waist… Closing her eyes, she let her body sway, let her mind absorb the sensation of his fingers curving around her waist.
Jason glided her expertly across the dance floor, his steps masking her fumbling footfalls. It wasn’t until the song ended that Christina realized what he’d done. He’d seamlessly brought them to the other end of the room, where the doors to her exit awaited.
He led gently off the dance floor, his hand moving once again to the small of her back, balancing her movements until they’d reached the foyer outside.
“I think I’ll be fine now,” she tried to tell him then. “Please, go back inside. I’ll just call myself a cab.”
“And blow my perfectly executed cover?” Jason only shook his head. “I don’t think so. I’ll take you home.”
Panic invaded her person. Half an hour stuck alone in a car with him, her senses dulled by alcohol. “You don’t need to do that—”
But he wasn’t listening. “It’s no big deal.”
“But the party?” Christina waved vaguely behind her. “By the time you get back, everyone will be gone.”
He shrugged. “As you said, it’s not like I’m an employee anyway.”
“Chrissy,” Jason told her, taking her arm and steering her towards the massive double door entrance. “It’s me or my dad, which would you prefer?”
So he’d taken her home. She never had found out why he’d been at that party in the first place though, which was too bad…. Of course, the next time they met, it was like nothing had transpired. He’d gone on teasing her as usual and she’d continued to bristle at him.
But for all that, she lived on that memory.
“…what do you say, Christina?”
Once again, Christina found herself hurled back to the present moment at the sound of Mary’s voice. Lifting her face at the question, Christina saw three pairs of eyes staring back at her. She blinked—it wasn’t Christmas and she wasn’t seated in Jason’s car. She was sitting around the Gordman’s table on Easter Sunday, supposedly enjoying lunch. “What was that?”
Mary laughed. “Well, you say I don’t have any faith in your baking. Then prove me wrong.”
Christina nodded slowly, desperate not to get caught out unawares. Her fork played absently with the turkey on her plate. “Oh. Yeah. Sure, okay.”
Jason grinned at her knowingly.
“What?” She asked him, setting her fork down sharply. She hated that grin.
“You have no idea what you’ve just agreed to, do you?”
Christina sputtered. “I’m sure I don’t—”
“Don’t tell me we caught you daydreaming again, have we?” Mary asked.
Mary nodded, buttering her bun. “She was doing it earlier too, when she first got here.”
Jason leaned back in his chair. “Wonder what about.”
Christina’s face froze. Her fingers fell to her lap, clenching there at his patently amused stare and Mary’s curious gaze.
“All right,” Matthew said then, coming to her rescue. “Leave poor Christina alone—”
“Oh dear!” Mary cried suddenly, her gaze looking out the window behind where Matthew and Christina sat. She frowned. “It’s snowing.”
“Damn Minnesota weather,” Matthew murmured turning to look over his shoulder at the fat flakes falling heavily from the sky… and just like that, much to Christina’s relief, the conversation shifted.