Boyfriend for Christmas
This is what REALLY happened between Hope's dad and Christie's mom at the latest Castellano's wedding reception...
A VERY COUNTRY CHRISTMAS WISH #4
Weddings were supposed to be joyous occasions. This particular wedding, however, was one that Dean Isaacson had been dreading for twenty-three years, four months, two weeks, and five days.
He paused to glance at the digital calendar on his smart watch in order to verify that his quick mental calculation was correct. The fact that it was made the self-pity in his throat swell to nearly the choking point.
“It gets easier.”
Though the words were gently spoken, they made Dean jolt. It was as if the woman who’d spoken them had read his thoughts. His head jerked to his immediate right to meet her gaze. He was unsurprised to find Ruby Hart standing there. Though he hadn’t heard her approach, he was pretty sure he’d recognized her voice. They’d met for the first time on Thanksgiving Day. He hadn’t seen her since then. They’d traded a few text messages in the interim, and he’d certainly done his share of thinking about her, but that was it. He had no idea why he’d been unable to get her out of his mind. They’d only traded numbers to discuss the purchase of a painting.
“Are my feelings that transparent?” He’d never been one to wear his emotions on his shirtsleeves. Or the arms of his dove gray tuxedo jacket, in today’s case. They were standing at the back of Castellano’s dinner theater. It was the perfect angle from which to witness the flurry of wedding reception festivities. Not that he felt much like taking part in them. He wasn’t in a celebratory mood.
“Probably not to the rest of the world,” Ruby assured in the same soft voice. “To someone else who recently married off her only daughter, however? It’s pretty obvious what you’re going through.” Like him, she was gazing across the vast dinner theater at the sprawl of round tables drenched in white linen and poinsettia plants. The pensive, faraway look in her eyes told him that she wasn’t really focused on what was happening inside the room. Her thoughts were miles away.
Since she wasn’t looking at him, he allowed his gaze to linger on her platinum blonde updo and the high curve of her cheekbones. His attention quickly zeroed in on her eyes. They were an unusual color. Hazel was probably what the rest of the world would catalogue them as. Up this close, though, he could see they were composed of a far more fascinating juxtaposition of blues, greens, browns, and golds. They’d be a challenge to paint, something the artist in him wouldn’t mind taking a stab at.
“How soon until it gets easier?” He waited impatiently for Ruby to elaborate, longing to know if the ache in his chest would ever ease, or if it was something he would have to learn to live with.
When she finally turned the full blast of her gaze on him, he was struck by the amount of emotion swirling through it — empathy, understanding, and a touch of sadness. The sadness seemed to emphasize the blue flecks in her eyes.
Unless it was his imagination, the color of Ruby Hart’s eyes was changing with her emotions. Or maybe it was the theater lighting, which someone had just finished turning down.
A faint smile made the corners of her eyes crinkle. “Something tells me it won’t take long in your case. Your daughter is in love. Happy. That’s all you’ve ever wanted, right?”
Yes and no. He huffed out a long-suffering breath. Yes, he wanted her to be happy. No, he hadn’t wanted her to grow up so quickly or stop needing him so soon.
Ruby reached out to touch his arm. “I think she needs you.”
He experienced another jolt at the realization that she’d read his thoughts to a T. Again. His gaze narrowed in astonishment on her. “How do you keep doing that?”
“Doing what?” Frowning slightly, she pointed to get his attention.
He followed the direction of her long, red-lacquered fingernail and found his daughter waving at him.
His heart melted at the sight of her. Though he wasn’t near ready to see Hope in a wedding dress, she made one heck of a beautiful bride. If only her mother had lived to see this day!
“Go,” Ruby urged, giving his arm a light squeeze. “They’re about to start the father-daughter dance.”
Ah. “Thanks.” He blinked as it dawned on him that was all she’d meant about his daughter needing him. He’d been reading something else entirely into her words.
“You’re welcome.” As his feet shuffled into motion, she dropped her hand to her side, looking as regal as a presidential first lady in an ice blue column dress. “And Dean?”
“Yeah?” He glanced back at her, inexplicably glad that she didn’t seem in a terrible hurry to end their conversation. Maybe she’d taken as much comfort in his presence as he’d taken in hers.
“She doesn’t just need you for the dance. She’ll always needs you.”
Whoa! Convinced more than ever that Ruby Hart truly was a mind-reader, he held her gaze longer than he intended and nearly stumbled into one of the other wedding guests.
“Oops! Sorry about that.” He performed a hasty two-step to dance around the woman.
Hope was chuckling when he reached her side. “I saw that.”
He rolled his eyes at her. “At least I didn’t face-plant in the middle of the dance floor.”
“I know, right?” She leaned in to wrap her arms around his middle to deliver the most satisfying hug. “The cake didn’t fall, and I didn’t forget to throw my bouquet. It would be a shame to break our lucky streak by having you plow through a bunch of guests like a bowling ball, scattering them in all directions.”
“Well, when you put it that way…” He hugged her back, closing his eyes as he pressed his cheek to the top of her head. He heard a collective sigh rise around them as they swayed together to begin the sweetest dance on the planet. It was all he could do not to break down and start weeping in front of their many guests. Bittersweetness surged through him, making him long to roll back the years and experience one more ballet lesson with his little girl. Just one more.
“Dad,” Hope sighed, leaning back in his arms. The angsty note in her voice was his cue to open his eyes and practice his fatherly listening skills again.
“What is it, baby?” He tensed in anticipation. Though he was pushing fifty, he was still more than capable of pulling out the proverbial sword to slay her dragons.
“I saw you visiting with Ruby Hart again.”
He stared at her for a few seconds, not comprehending how that had anything to do with, well, anything.
“I think it’s nice,” she added, hugging him again.
“What’s nice?” A sense of overriding caution settled on his shoulders. After eighteen years of being a single dad, he was all too aware when his daughter was up to something.
“The fact that you’re getting out and making friends in Pinetop.” She shrugged, drenching him with one of her sunniest smiles. Yeah, she was definitely up to something.
He raised his eyebrows at her. “I had friends back in Phoenix, too. Still do,” he informed her loftily.
“You know what I mean.” Her voice was infused with mock severity.
“Clearly, I don’t.” He suspected he did, though, and really wished she’d change the subject.
“Lady friends.” She stressed the first word with a flutter of eyelashes.
That was what he was afraid she was going to say. He pretended to misunderstand, stooping a little to peer more closely at her face. “Do you have something stuck in your eye?”
“Oh, I get it.” She arched her eyebrows at him. “It’s a new development. You’re not ready to talk about it.”
He shook his head at her. “There’s nothing to talk about. Ruby Hart and I have met all of two times.” He couldn’t believe his daughter was trying to read something into it.
Hope looked disappointed for all of two seconds. Then she perked up. “I thought you said you got her phone number.”
“To advise her on a painting she wanted to purchase,” he retorted evenly. “Believe it or not, sweetie, I speak to women all the time in my line of work.” He was an artist with his own gallery — for a little longer, anyway. Now that he’d made the decision to move to Pinetop, it made no sense to hang on to his gallery in Phoenix. And since most of his prints sold online through his website, it made little sense to open a new gallery here. He was going to miss owning his own building, though. There was just something about sticking a key into the lock of one’s own front door. There was no other feeling like it.
“Touchy! Touchy!” His daughter’s voice grew teasing. “All I’m trying to say is that I’m happy you’ve found somebody special.”
Dean’s jaw dropped as his daughter’s words sank home. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Protest all you want, but I saw how you were looking at her.” Hope’s expression took on a sly, knowing glint. “I’ve seen the way you drool over beautiful paintings. That’s the way you were looking at her.”
“I don’t drool.” He wracked his brain, trying to figure out what his daughter thought she’d seen. “It was her eyes,” he heard himself saying. It was a dumb answer, but it was all he could come up with. “They’re an unusual color. Lots of colors, actually. It would be a challenge to paint them.” The moment he admitted that last bit of information, he wished he hadn’t.
“That!” Hope pounced on the words, totally mistaking what he’d meant. “That’s what I’m talking about.”
He grimaced. “Still not following you.”
“In all your years of dadding me, you’ve never once mentioned wanting to paint a woman’s eyes.”
“Dadding?” Anxious to change the subject, he latched on to her grammar error. “Pretty sure that’s not a word.”
“So? It’s still a thing.” She was undeterred. “The point is, I know you better than anyone else — well enough to recognize the fact that you’re interested in Ruby Hart.”
“That’s because she’s an interesting woman.”
“But that’s all.” He injected as much dismissiveness into his voice as he could. Though he didn’t intend to, he glanced toward the spot where he’d left Ruby standing. To his surprise, she was still there.
Catching his eye, she mimed the act of lifting and holding a phone to her ear. Call me. She mouthed the words.
He gave her the briefest of nods, not wanting to draw his daughter’s attention to the fact that he was silently communicating with the woman starring in her current accusations.
“Oh. My. Lands,” Hope breathed. She abruptly stopped moving.
Dean returned his gaze to his daughter. “Why’d you stop dancing?” Concern filled his chest.
“Because the music just ended, silly.” Hope sounded like she was barely listening to him. Her eyes were glued to the retreating figure of Ruby Hart. “That woman is totally flirting with you!”
He shook his head disparagingly. “You know what? I’m not going to even grace that with a response.” He dropped his arms and took a step back, treating her to a mock bow. “Thank you for the dance and for the best twenty-three years of my life. You grew up way too fast, kid.” He felt his eyes grow damp, but he plowed onward. “Long before I was ready.”
An answering sheen of tears formed over Hope’s eyes. “I’m just so glad you decided to move to Pinetop.” Her voice hitched. “I honestly couldn’t bear the thought of leaving you behind in Phoenix. I—” She broke off whatever she was about to say and came hurtling back into his arms. “I love you, Dad.” Her voice was muffled against the shoulder of his jacket.
“I love you, too, princess.” A tear or two or three streaked unashamedly down his cheeks. The fact that she still wanted him around meant the world to him. There was nothing else she could’ve said that would’ve made his day better.
Moments later, they were separated by a bevy of chattering bridesmaids. To his enormous gratitude, they soon had his daughter giggling and dry-eyed again.
He slipped away from them and headed for the exit, needing a breath of fresh air. He stopped by the coat check-in booth to retrieve his hat, gloves, and overcoat. On his way out the front door, he reached mechanically for his cell phone. He couldn’t have explained his actions if he’d tried, not even to himself.
Dialing Ruby Hart’s number, he lifted the phone to his ear.
She answered right away. “That was quick.” She sounded inexplicably pleased.
“You were right.” The words erupted from him on a geyser of pent-up emotions.
“About?” she pressed.
“Everything.” He was thankful to have a sympathetic ear to listen to him right now. Someone who’d walked this path before. “My daughter still needs me. She said it herself while we were dancing. In so many words.”
“Of course, she does!” Ruby sounded so emphatic that he smiled.
“If you don’t mind me asking, where’d you take off to?” He glanced up and down Main Street, half-hoping to catch sight of her. It had been nice visiting with her, and he wasn’t particularly in the mood to be alone right now. Not completely alone, at any rate. Just away from the crowd.
“I’m at the coffee shop across the street.” There was a melancholy edge to her voice that tugged at his heart. “Weddings make me sad. I’m drowning the feeling in a double mocha latte with extra everything.”
His smile widened at the description of her beverage. It made her sound like such a girl, albeit one that was roughly the same age as him. “Mind if I join you?”
“Not at all.” She sounded a little surprised, which only strengthened his conviction that Hope was dead wrong about Ruby Hart. She had no hidden agendas. No designs on his widower status. She was just being nice, and he was more than capable of returning the favor by doing a little listening in return. He sensed there was a story behind her sadness.
It took a minute or two to cross the crowded street. Main Street was always jam-packed with cars, especially on Saturdays. He stepped into the coffee shop behind a cluster of tourists and gazed around the room. Like most coffee shops, it had that small, cozy feel to it. Because it was located in the heart of Pinetop, Arizona, it was also decked out for Christmas.
Strands of twinkling multi-colored lights crisscrossed the ceiling. An upside-down tree was suspended against a side wall, with real candy canes hanging from it — too many to count. The owners had probably done it to conserve as much room for seating as possible.
Dean caught sight of Ruby in a back corner at a table for two. She’d tipped the empty chair forward to indicate it was already spoken for.
He nodded at her, and she fluttered her fingers back. Then she pointed at the line of customers, encouraging him to get in it. He chuckled to himself as he did so, bemused by how she continued to anticipate his thoughts. He could really use a shot of caffeine at the moment.
The line moved faster than he expected, and his straight black cup of coffee took almost no time to pour up. He stuffed his gloves in his pocket before picking it up and carrying it across the room, carefully weaving between the tables with the extra-large cup in hand. He’d paid to upsize it.
Ruby set the extra chair at her table back on all four legs and slid it out for him.
“Thanks.” He set his cup down so he could remove his coat first. Draping it over the back of his chair, he took a seat and faced her. “Does it make me a bad father to cut out on my own daughter’s wedding reception?”
Her smile was full of understanding. “Not if you make it back before you’re missed.” She nodded at his cup. “What’s your poison?”
He shrugged. “I told ‘em to surprise me, so long as it’s black with plenty of kick.”
To his amusement, she reached for his cup, removed the lid, and gave it a tentative sniff. “Hazelnut,” she informed him.
His brain barely registered the name of the flavor. He was too busy enjoying the sight of her holly berry red fingernails opening and closing the lid of his cup. It felt personal and intimate.
He yanked his thoughts back to the topic she’d introduced over the phone. “Why do weddings make you sad?”
Her smile faded, making him want to kick himself for jumping into such a morose topic without any preliminaries. “Because they remind me of mine.” She drew a deep breath. “Sadly, that’s something else we have in common, Dean Isaacson. I’m a widow.”
Sympathy shot through him. “How long?”
“Eight years. And you?”
“Eighteen. Nearly nineteen.”
Her expressive eyes widened. “You raised your daughter all by yourself!” It wasn’t a question. It was a statement infused with both admiration and wonder.
A warm feeling spread through him. “Yep. I was mom and dad all wrapped into one struggling painter.”
Her gaze latched on to his. “You’re not struggling anymore.”
“No.” It sounded like she’d looked up the reviews on his website. He liked the fact that she’d gone to that kind of trouble on his behalf.
Ruby lifted her coffee and took a sip. A pink semi-circle had formed around the white cardboard rim from her lipstick. Setting the cup down, she studied him with an expression that was hard to read. “It seems to me that your art would’ve taken off a lot quicker if you’d displayed it at more shows and exhibitions over the years.”
“Probably, but I couldn’t do that to Hope. I wouldn’t. Every artist has a masterpiece they pour their life into. She’s mine.”
“Well stated.” A sigh escaped his lovely companion. “Knowing the kind of father you are makes the newest painting in my collection worth all the more.”
The fact that he’d been advising her on a purchase of one of his own paintings was information his daughter was not yet privy to. He planned to keep it that way as long as he could.
“Thanks.” A one-syllable response hardly seemed adequate for such a heartfelt compliment, but a sudden wave of shyness made it harder to think. He ultimately settled for his usual brand of candidness. “What do you like the most about it?”
Ruby idly twirled her coffee cup. “When I first saw the painting, I was drawn to the sweet innocence of the girl’s expression. It reminded me of my daughter when she was small.” It depicted a scene of a child practicing ballet. “But when I took a closer look at the painting, I could see hopefulness in her face, too, and the teensiest bit of anxiousness. The same look every child gets when they ask someone to watch them do something. That’s when I realized she was looking for approval. From a parent or a grandparent, maybe. I’m not sure it matters exactly who. The point is,” she laid down her coffee cup and spread her hands, “you captured all of that on canvas. Something every parent can relate to. That’s why I had to have it.”
In a rare move, he'd sold her the original. After hearing her speak of the piece so lovingly, he was glad he’d made an exception for her. Just this once.
“You get it.” He spoke the words quietly, more to himself than to her. A lot of people looked at paintings for the mere aesthetic beauty of the colors or style of workmanship. Ruby was one of those rare creatures who took a deeper look at the meaning and essence of the piece. She seemed to understand that he’d painted a piece of his soul into it.
More importantly, she got him. He glanced down at his coffee, then back up at her. “I’d like to paint you sometime.” He wasn’t sure what made him say it aloud, but it was too late to un-say it now.
Her lips parted. “Why?”
It was a simple question, but it felt like the air between them took on an extra electrical charge as he pondered how to answer it. He decided to spring for the truth. “It’s your eyes. They challenge me.”
Her smile was back. “The windows to the soul. Or so I’ve heard.”
“Your eyes are so many shades that I’d have to really study them to get them right.” He gazed deeper into them, assessing their ever-changing colors. “They reflect your emotions and seem to change colors depending on what you’re feeling.”
She leaned closer to him, still not breaking eye contact. “What does the artist in you say that I’m feeling right now?”
Though the coffee shop was still packed with people, it suddenly felt like they were alone.
“This.” He could’ve lied about it or simply changed the subject, but he didn’t want to. Instead, he slowly dipped his head closer, eyes wide open as he gently brushed his mouth against hers. “The artist in me says you want this.” And so do I. He touched his lips to hers again.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, it occurred to him that he owed his daughter an apology. She’d been right about the way he’d been looking at Ruby Hart, probably a little like the way he was looking at her right now.
He drew back a few inches to assess her reaction to his kiss. Technically, it was two kisses. “If you want an apology for what just happened, I’ll give it to you.” The last thing he wanted to do was offend her.
Ruby’s eyes were misty and full of too many emotions to name. “If you apologize, it’ll hurt my feelings.”
“Good.” Relief made his chest feel lighter. He reached out to caress her chin with the pad of his thumb. “Because the idea was to make you less sad.”
“I think it’s working.” She sounded breathless.
“You think?” He raised his eyebrows at her. It wasn’t the answer he’d been expecting.
“Maybe you should do it again.” She wrinkled her nose playfully at him. “Just to be sure.”
Okay. Yeah, she was totally flirting with him. For an answer, he scooted his chair closer to hers, slid an arm around her delicate shoulders, and hitched her closer. “It’s a small town,” he warned as his head descended over hers. He was quickly learning just how fast gossip traveled down Main Street.
“Then I guess we’d better give them something good to talk about.” Ruby tipped her face up to his, meeting him halfway.
Their next kiss felt like a thousand answered prayers. It chased away years of loneliness and the final traces of heartache he’d been holding on to for so long. It left like hope and new beginnings. Like the sweetness and joy of Christmas.
It was a gift he was finally ready to accept.