A TALE OF TWO CHRISTMAS LETTERS
“Ho, ho, ho, and merry Christmas,” the low, sexy male voice murmured from the open doorway.
Bess Monroe looked up and saw Jack McCabe standing in the portal of her miniscule office, holding what looked to be a horrendously familiar piece of paper in his hand. As usual, on his surgery days, blue hospital scrubs cloaked his big, buff frame. A matching blue cap covered his cropped dark brown hair, and a mischievous grin tugged at the corners of his lips.
“Or should I say,” her longtime friend teased, bringing out a second page from behind his back, “bah humbug?”
Bess moaned and went back to hiding her face in her hands. This had to be one of the worst days of her life. Her humiliation increasing by leaps and bounds, she pleaded, “Go away.”
“Not until I hear the undoubtedly fascinating full story behind these two missives,” Jack said, stepping inside, shutting the door behind him and closing the distance between them in two laconic strides.
Bess pursed her lips in exasperation as he proceeded to sit on the side of her desk, his long legs stretched out in front of him.
“Hey,” he said, touching her shoulder and inundating her with his clean, manly scent, “you know you can talk to me.”
That was the problem, she thought, close enough to feel the heat emanating from him.
And she couldn’t.
With a sigh, she lifted her head, letting her gaze shift over him. At six feet four inches tall, with broad shoulders and a fit, athletic body, he had an admirable ability to exude both the top-notch confidence of an excellent orthopedic surgeon and the innate compassion of a natural born healer.
He had also never come close to humiliating himself the way she just had.
She pushed her chair all the way back and stood. “What do you want me to say?” She spread her hands wide. “My legendary tech skills get better by the day.”
Briefly, he seemed confused. He watched her move about the small space restlessly. “Okay, enough dodging. Are you going to tell me what happened or not?”
Figuring she might as well confess her sins to someone, she huffed out a breath. “You know how my nursing school graduating class has a tradition of sending out annual Christmas letters to each other?”
The corners of his lips curved up sympathetically. “I recall it’s never been your favorite thing.”
Mostly because it seemed like everyone else had everything she wanted. And it was getting increasingly difficult to deal with how far away she was from achieving any of her life goals except those regarding her career. Especially now that she was thirty-two…and getting older by the minute.
“Can you blame me?” Bess shrugged. “Given the fact I generally don’t have anything really worthwhile to report on the personal level. At least not to the level everyone else does.” With their gorgeous husbands, kids, pets, homes, she thought a little jealously.
Jack nodded, understanding. Life had given him unexpected heartache, too. Heartache that three years later, she knew he was still dealing with.
Aware the combination of nerves and stress was making her knees a little wobbly, she went back to her chair and sat down. “So, in order to give myself a break, I planned on skipping the written update altogether this year.” If only she had followed her instincts and done that! “But my twin, Bridgett, wouldn’t let it go. And she kept bugging me to get on it.”
Recognition gleamed in Jack’s cobalt blue eyes. He rubbed a hand over the beginnings of a five o’clock shadow on his chiseled jaw. “So you wrote two instead of just one?”
Bess winced, tingling everywhere his gaze had touched, as well as everywhere it hadn’t. “Um. Not intentionally.”
Again, he waited.
She gulped. “The first one…the Grinchy one…was written as sort of a way of thumbing my nose at the whole process.”
“And the second, extraordinarily cheery one?”
“Was written just as tongue in cheek,” she answered. “I actually didn’t intend to send either one of them. I left them both as drafts and forgot about them, figuring I would go back to the task when I was in a better mood.” Which she’d figured would be never.
She flushed. “The next time I went to open up my email, the draft file somehow got emptied, too, and both letters were accidentally sent to all my nursing school pals. Everyone thought it was a joke and couldn’t wait to share them. And now…well, even you’ve heard about that colossal mistake.”
“Everyone in the hospital has.”
Which was probably what she deserved for being such a smart aleck. And envious, to boot. When she knew darn well she shouldn’t be. After all, she had plenty to be happy about. Even if she didn’t have the husband or the children she had always wanted.
Figuring their intimate exchange had gone on long enough, she moved slowly to her feet once again. “Guess the joke is on me.”
Jack stood, too. “Except it wasn’t really a joke, was it?” he guessed with his trademark kindness. “That’s genuinely how you feel.”
Jack hadn’t come in here to make Bess feel worse. He’d intended to rescue her from whatever this was, the way she had rescued him and his three little girls so many times since his wife had died. But now that he was here, he saw she was in real trouble. Even if she didn’t want anyone to know how much.
Bess blushed. She stepped around him toward the door. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Figuring if someone had to confront her, it may as well be him, Jack eased behind her desk and took her chair. “No problem,” he countered cheerfully. “I can refresh your memory easily enough.” Waggling his brows at her, he shook out the first letter and read out loud:
“Dear friends and fellow nurses, what an incredibly sucky year this has been. The transmission on my beloved Volvo sedan died a week after the warranty expired. (You don’t want to know how many thousands of dollars it took to replace it.) Then I bought the house I’ve always wanted, only to have it turn into a total money pit, too. I’ve spent way too much on contractors and supplies, and a zillion hours working on it, and I still haven’t finished painting the interior! Which needs to be done before I bring my new puppy home. Because once that happens, I know I’ll have zero time to do anything house-related. At least for the first year or so.”
Jack looked at her, taking in her slender five-foot-seven-inch frame, glossy brown hair and soft pink lips. Maybe it was because she was smaller and so much more delicately built than him, but he always felt the need to protect her. At first, kind of like a cousin or a little sis. Now, it was something…different.
He wondered if she had any idea how vulnerable and pretty she looked standing there in the late afternoon November sunlight streaming through the hospital windows. Or how many men in Laramie County wanted to go after her, and would if they thought they’d have any hope of success.
But that wasn’t happening. Not with that barbed wire barrier she kept around her heart.
Working to keep his own feelings in check, he looked down at her. “You know you could ask for help with the house.”
“It’s my problem. I’ll handle it.”
That was just it, Jack thought, his gaze once again running over the taut, supple body encased in the black cotton scrubs the hospital’s rehabilitation staff wore. She didn’t have to handle any of this herself, not when he was standing by, but he would discuss that with her later.
He resumed reading.
“Of course it’s probably good I’ll be so busy and have a precious pet to love…and love me back…since the man I’m wildly in love with is in love with someone else and always will be.”
Jack paused. Aware for reasons he couldn’t quite understand that this part of her confession had really thrown him for a loop. Maybe because he’d never noticed her lusting after anyone in their orbit. He looked at her over the top of the paper, acutely aware it wasn’t like the oh-so-sweet and incredibly practical Bess to chase after lost causes. “Care to identify the object of your affection?” he asked mildly.
He caught the spark of temper in her dark green eyes. “Okay. Moving on.” Her mouth was kind of pouty, too. “Where were we? Oh, yeah.” He read on, “Sadly, as excited as I am to be getting a golden retriever, I haven’t had a decent date in forever and hence, am no closer to getting married and or having kids.”
Which would be a shame, he thought sympathetically. He knew from the way Bess interacted with his own daughters that she would be a great mother.
He cleared his throat, aware the next passage seemed even more unlike the coworker he thought he knew. “So, it looks as if I’ll spend the rest of my life, not to mention every Christmas from here on out, as the eternally single aunt and good friend who is lucky enough to have a gorgeous wonderful dog but is also hopelessly, permanently unattached. And that, dear friends, is all I’ve got to report. Sourly yours, Bess Monroe.’’
Jack put the paper aside. “Wow. Pretty dark, Nurse Bess. Except for the stuff about the puppy.”
Bess folded her arms, her expression defiant. “I wrote another one,” she pointed out with exaggerated pleasantness.
Appreciating the fire in her eyes, Jack turned to that missive. “I liked that e-mail, too.” He made a great show of holding it up. “Dear friends and family,” he began to read aloud.
She covered her ears and moaned again in a way that had his heart rate accelerating. “Please don’t.”
Undeterred, Jack continued, “I am ever so pleased to report that this has been the year of my dreams. My beloved Volvo sedan is not only completely paid off now, but running better than ever, thanks to the brand-new transmission I put into it! The shotgun house I bought gets more charming and cozy by the day. And all the hands-on work I’ve done has left me incredibly fit and lithe.”
Jack paused. “Have to agree with you there, pal.”
Another beat of silence fell. She made a face. “I can’t believe you just said that.”
He shrugged, glad to see some of her usual sass coming back. “What are friends for, if not to compliment you?”
She lifted a censuring brow, suggesting none-too-kindly, “They could be quiet.”
He knew what she wanted. To pretend this had never happened. That he, and everyone else in her world, had never had a glimpse into her wounded soul.
What he really wanted was to see her smile the way she did when she was really and truly happy. To hear her laugh again. Which, come to think of it, hadn’t been for a while now, he realized, disturbed by the revelation.
Frowning, he tore his gaze from the mesmerizing depths of her dark green eyes, and returned his attention to the printed page. “Hmm. Where were we?”
Bess harrumphed with Scroogey finesse. “Done,” she said.
No. They weren’t. And they wouldn’t be until she admitted what was really going on with her.
“Ah, yes, here we are,” he said, smugly reciting from her letter. “Which is great, because there’s no better time to be down an entire dress size than when you’re crazy in love with the man of your dreams, and he feels the same way about you…”
Again, with the object of her affection. Jack looked up, feeling a tinge of emotion he chose not to identify. “Do I know this guy?” he asked suspiciously. He couldn’t help wondering about the guy who seemed to be breaking Bess’s spirit, not to mention her heart.
She glared at him.
“`Cause I’d like to meet him,” Jack added before he could stop himself.
Bess released a mirthless laugh. “No way we’re going down that road, pardner.”
Not sure if her refusal to `fess up the identity of her secret crush made him happy or sad, Jack continued reading from her letter, “…and hope to one day soon have a family together.”
He paused, feeling an unexpected surge of jealousy. “I really do need to meet this guy,” he muttered. Especially if this fella was making her so unhappy.
“I have two brothers who can do the potential screening, thanks.”
Nick and Gavin Monroe were protective of family, but would they be as discerning as Jack would be in vetting Bess’s potential boyfriends? He thought not.
Scowling, he went back to reading the last of her letter, “So, along with the gorgeous little golden retriever puppy I will soon bring home, I will therefore spend every year…from here on out…with the man of my dreams…living out all my wildest fantasies…”
Jack realized he would like to know what those fantasies were, too. Not that he should be letting his imagination go there.
He cleared his throat. “So merry Christmas, everyone! I hope you all have had the absolutely incredible twelve months I have. Cheerfully yours, Bess Monroe.”
Jack set the letter down, on top of the first. “That’s definitely a better ending.” Although he wasn’t sure he bought either version. Never mind the parts about her secret love.
Wouldn’t he have known if she’d been seeing someone? Especially given how much time she spent with him and his girls on the weekends? Just hanging out, and filling in when Mrs. D was either off duty or away?
Bess snatched the pages from his hands. “I hope you feel better now. Because I sure don’t!” she fumed.
“Hey,” he said softly. “I wasn’t trying to upset you.”
“Then what was the point of that humiliating recitation?” She slapped the papers in her desk drawer and slammed it shut, appearing ready to both scream in outrage and burst into sobs simultaneously.
Guilt flowed through him. “The point was to get you to talk to me.” He rose, crossed the distance between them and put his hands on her shoulders. “And let me know how I can help,” he countered, able to see how badly she needed comforting. Even if touching each other wasn’t something they usually did.
Except by accident.
Tensing, she buried her face in her hands. “You can’t,” she choked out, sounding even more miserable. “No one can.”
“I don’t believe that,” he said quietly. Then his next idea hit. “Do you want me to talk to this guy…whoever he is?”
“Absolutely not!” she replied, horrified, stiffening all the more.
She had helped him out so much over the past few years, he knew he owed her. “Sure?” he persisted, reluctantly letting go of her and stepping back.
Bess composed herself with her usual grace. “Yes. What I feel… Let’s just say it’s destined to be an unrequited love.”
He gave her another reassuring touch on her forearm. “You’re certain?”
Bess’s chin trembled. “Yes.” She swallowed. “I just need to get over it. Find a way to move on. Which, in all honesty, is the real reason I wrote those letters. So I would get it all out and see how foolish I’m being, even thinking about him, when I know there’s no real interest on the other side, at least not the kind I want and need,” she concluded, matter-of-fact.
Jack understood wishing for the impossible, as well as the comfort that could be gleaned from a close and lasting friendship. The kind he wished they had, because up to now, it had been mostly one of utility, centered around the needs of his kids, rather than their own.
Aware this was the first time she’d let him in, he did the same for her, confessing quietly, “The holidays are hard for me, too.” There were times when he was overcome with grief. And guilt…
Her slender shoulders relaxed, ever so slightly. “I know.”
He frowned, thinking about his late wife. It had been three years since she died, but it felt like forever. “I miss Gayle.” And feel desperately lonely. Ready to move on. “I worry I’m not doing enough for the girls.”
Her breath hitching, Bess lifted her gaze to his. Their shared sorrow shone in her eyes. Acceptance, too. She regarded him fiercely. “You do plenty for Lindsay, Nicole and Chloe, Jack.”
He sure as hell tried. It wasn’t enough.
And never would be.
“Except I can’t bring their mother back,” he said tersely. “So every year for me, I feel like I’m Charlie Brown at Christmas time.”
“Privately depressed,” she guessed. “Even though you know that, given everything you do still have, you should be happy.”
Bess reached over and covered his hand with hers. “I never realized that you were feeling that way.”
With a rueful smile, he looked down at their casually linked fingers. “I put on a good show. I have to. Otherwise, the entire McCabe clan would descend on me in force.”
Understanding lit her eyes. “Same here with the Monroes.”
“And I don’t want to let my daughters down. They deserve to have the best Christmas possible. Despite not having a mom around to enjoy it with us.”
She paused as if to weigh their situations. Then brought him close for a warm, companionable hug. “I’m sorry if my pity party brought you down.”
He gave her a supportive squeeze, too. “You didn’t.” They stepped back. “We’re pals. Pals help each other out. And that being the case…” He looked her in the eye, not bothering to disguise his hope she would rush to his aid once again.
She shook her head, her mood turning wry. “You really have something else to ask me, Doc? After all those really nosy questions?”
The kind they had never asked each other before this. In fact, it was their mutual lack of prying and giving each other plenty of emotional space while still spending time together that had helped them stay friends since his wife had died. They’d kept up the same pattern later when Bess’s engagement had ended.
But now that he was here…why not solve two problems at once? Ease Bess’s melancholy and solve his much thornier problem?
He grinned and asked, “Want to have dinner with me and the girls tonight?”