It's a Wonderful Life

by Sue Meyer

"Look, I told the captain I'd work tomorrow, so just drop it, Peter. All right?" Skalany exploded.

Peter stepped back from her unexpected response, hurt and anger showing plainly on his expressive face. "Fine. Sorry I asked. Merry Christmas to you, too." Pivoting on his heel, he strode to his desk, whipped his jacket from the back of his chair, and shrugged into it.

"Where are you going?" she called after him.

"Out," he answered shortly. "Too damn cold in here for me." With a pointed look in her direction, he stalked away, injury evident in every line.

"Peter, wait."

"For what? Round two? Hell, no." He snorted indignantly. "I'm going out among the purse snatchers and muggers before I lose what's left of my holiday spirit." His long-legged stride took him out of sight in seconds.

Skalany flushed with embarrassment as she caught the startled looks of her co-workers. "What?" she snapped. "You guys have all your cases solved? Great. I'll give you some of mine." She sat glaring at them all until their eyes dropped down to the files before them or feet took them out of the room.

She thumped her elbows on her desk with a sigh of irritation and a muffled oath and rubbed the heels of her hands against her eyes. When she looked up again, she saw a large white handkerchief waving from Kermit's doorway. She laughed in spite of herself.

Kermit stepped from his office, still waving his white flag. "I come in peace," he declared solemnly. "Bearing gifts." He tossed a small bag of Gummi Bears onto her desk.

"Thanks." Skalany smiled ruefully at the colorful candies before her. "But I wouldn't blame you if those things were laced with arsenic."

"What makes you think they aren't?" Kermit joked, but instantly sobered at Skalany's unhappy face. Looking quickly around the room, he saw privacy was an impossibility. "Come join me in a cup of coffee, Mary Margaret."

"Aw-w-w, Kermit, I feel bad enough already. Now you're gonna force me to drink --"

"Ah, ah, ah-h." He interrupted her with a motion of his hand. "Would I do that to you? My sister, Marilyn, sent me my own coffeemaker for Christmas, along with a month supply of gourmet coffees. I'm talking the real deal here, Sweet Cakes. Now come on. You need a break."

Skalany obediently trailed after Kermit, who paused at the doorway of his office, allowing her to enter first, and then closed the door behind them both.

Once they were settled in chairs with their coffees, Kermit took a sip from his cup and asked, "What's up, Mary Margaret? Besides the fact that you have officially called off Christmas, that is."

"I don't know," she responded miserably. "Just all the holiday hoopla, I guess. All the little things I see this time of year to remind me that I'm another year older and still alone."

"What about your family in Minnesota? I thought you usually went there for a few days at Christmas."

"Can't swing it this year," she said glumly. "My stove and refrigerator decided to die at the same time, my credit cards are maxed out, and my car needs some major engine and transmission work. I need the overtime."


"And...I couldn't get a flight. The airlines have been booked for months." She took a swallow of her coffee. "Ah, maybe it's all for the best anyway."


She laughed hollowly. "My ma would only have grilled me about the men in my life, why I'm throwing away my life by concentrating on my career, when is it my turn to start providing grandchildren, yadda yadda yadda."


"But it is still Christmas, and she still is my ma, and this will be the first time ever that I haven't spent Christmas with my folks." She shrugged. "Guess it had to happen sooner or later. I should just be glad that they're well and still with me."

"The thing with Peter?"

"He was trying to be nice, and I couldn't handle it. Felt too much like he was feeling sorry for me, and I don't need anybody's sympathy."

"How about their friendship?" Kermit stared at her over the rim of his coffee cup.

Skalany studied the toes of her shoes. "I know," she reluctantly agreed. "When Peter comes back, I'll apologize." She glanced up at Kermit and softly admitted, "And I'm missing Blake like you can't imagine."

Kermit nodded and swallowed hard before taking another sip of coffee. "Oh, yes, Mary Margaret. I can well imagine."

Tears shimmered in her eyes. "But I do like the thought that he and his wife are together again for Christmas."

Not trusting his voice, Kermit nodded again, grateful for the colored lenses that shielded the dampness in his own eyes.

"Well." Skalany sat up straight and brushed the back of her hand across her eyes. "You were right, Kermit. This is real coffee. Thanks for the cup and the ear. I'd better get back to my desk before the captain comes looking for me." She saluted him with her mug and walked quickly out the door.

Skalany wandered listlessly around her living room, sipping a glass of eggnog and adjusting the ornaments on her small Christmas tree. The television was on, and the movie "It's a Wonderful Life" started to play. She ignored the cheerful overture and grumbled, "Merry Christmas. Bah, humbug."

She was startled from her reverie by a knock at the front door. "Unless you're Santa Claus, you're going to be wearing a bowlful of --." She flipped on the outside light and peered through the peek hole in her door. "Caine?" She flung open the door and stood staring at him in open-mouthed astonishment.

He calmly returned her stare, then removed his hat and bowed. "May I come in?"

"Oh. Oh. Um. Yeah," she stuttered, stepping back and gesturing toward the entryway. "Come in. Come in. You...caught me by surprise. I wasn't expecting anyone."

Caine smiled at her as he entered her apartment.

Shaking her head to clear the cobwebs, Skalany quickly closed the door against the cold. "Caine. What are you doing here?"

"I was in the neighborhood and decided to...drop by?" He watched her hesitantly, almost shyly. "Have I come at a bad time?"

"No!" Skalany denied loudly, then in quieter tones went on as a smile crept over her face. "Not at all. I've just been such a Scrooge lately that I figured I'd driven away most of humanity."

"Scrooge?" He raised an eyebrow at her. "As in Dickens?"

"As in royal b --" She stopped herself and set down her glass of eggnog. "Never mind. Let's just say I haven't been very good company lately. Here. Let me take your coat." She paused and looked at him hopefully. "You can stay for a while, can't you?"

Caine's eyes twinkled at her. "I had hoped to."

Skalany helped him off with his coat and hung it in the hallway closet. Linking an arm with his, she retrieved her eggnog and escorted him into her living room. "Um, can I get you something? A glass of water?"

He nodded toward the drink in her hand. "I would like to try some of that."

"Eggnog? You drink eggnog?"

Caine threw back his head and laughed. "I partake in some of the various holiday traditions of the world. I especially like rum in this particular drink."

"Me, too. I just didn't know that you, um..."

He took her free hand in his and squeezed it. "Mary Margaret, why are you so nervous? We have become friends, have we not?"

She relaxed and laughed. "Yes, we have. I don't know why I'm acting this way. I guess I'd made up my mind I'd be alone on Christmas, and being shaken out of my curmudgeonly behavior takes a little mental adjustment."

"Perhaps you could adjust while serving your eggnog. Might I help you?"

"No, thank you. You sit here by the fire and start watching the movie. I'll bring in the bowl and some glasses. Oh, wait. You don't watch television, do you?"

He winked at her. "When in Rome..."

Skalany fairly danced from the room, a lightness in her step that had been missing for days. She returned with a punchbowl in her arms and two punch cups dangling from her pinky fingers.

Caine swiftly rose to his feet and took the bowl from her arms, setting it carefully on the coffee table. He laid a restraining hand on her arm when she turned to go back into the kitchen. "I am not hungry. Please. Do not go to any trouble for me."

"Why, Caine, you are never any trouble."

"Then, please, let us sit and enjoy your eggnog and your movie."

Skalany sniffed and accepted the handkerchief that Caine offered. "I'm sorry. I always cry at the end of this movie."

"Why?" Caine cocked his head to one side and waited for her response.

"I don't know. I guess it's because this poor schmuck spends his whole life doing unselfish things for other people, and it seems like he'll never get what he really wants. Nothing ever works out for him."

"Sometimes a man spends so much time wanting, he fails to spend time having."

"What do you mean?"

"This man thought he wanted travel, yet his roots grew deep in his home town. He thought to do great things in far away lands, but instead --" Caine shrugged. "-- He did great things where he was."

"But what about those grand buildings and bridges he was going to design?"

Caine tucked a stray lock of hair behind Mary Margaret's ear. "He built homes for those could never afford them before. He built bridges of hope over waters of despair." Lifting her hand to his lips, he gently said, "I, too, think him the richest man in town."

Skalany scowled. "There's still one thing that's always bugged the hell out of me about this movie."

He raised an eyebrow at her.

"That skunky banker never got caught stealing the poor guy's money. I can think of a dozen charges he should have been brought up on. He should have --"

"Mary Margaret." Caine held up a hand to stop her flood of words. "It was only a movie."

Several glasses of eggnog had helped to lower Skalany's inhibitions, and she leaned forward to rest her head on Caine's chest and nestle in his arms. "You're absolutely right. It was only a movie. But I still think the guy should have been locked up."

He held her wordlessly for several moments, stroking his fingers through her hair.

"Um. That feels so nice," Skalany murmured. "You feel so nice."

"You do not seem as...stressed out? you did when I first came to your door."

She sighed and snuggled closer. "I'm not. I was just sitting here feeling sorry for myself. Then you came and helped me to see life wasn't so bad." Rubbing her cheek against his collarbone, she said, "I thought you'd be spending Christmas with Peter."

"No. He is with his other family."

Skalany sat up abruptly and stared at him. "But I heard him tell Kermit that you were invited, too."

Hazel eyes were carefully hooded. "I have seen how Peter is torn when his family and I are together. This is their holiday, their tradition." He shrugged. "My son and I will spend time together tomorrow night. I felt he would be more at ease this way."

"This has been really hard on you, hasn't it? Being reunited with Peter after all those years. Trying to understand the man he's become. Accepting the fact he'd become a part of another family."

"Every relationship has its sorrows and its joys. The joy over finding my son again, alive, far outweighs any sorrows." He smiled at her and rose to his feet. "It is late, and I understand that you must work tomorrow."

Skalany got to her feet with Caine, taking his hand in hers. "Do you have to go?" she asked in a wistful voice.

"You wish me to stay?"

"Well, only if you...I mean...I don't have to get up all that early...I mean..." She stopped and lowered her eyes in confusion, before giving herself a shake and raising her head. "I mean, yes. I want you to stay. All night."

Caine took her arm and led her over to the entryway.

"What are you doing?" she asked with a frown.

Smiling at her, he pointed at the green plant with white waxy berries that hung over her head. "Mistletoe. Another of your holiday customs that I have come to enjoy."

"Oh, really?" Her eyes narrowed jealously. "Just when and where was this?"

He gathered her into his arms and briefly nuzzled her neck and nipped at her earlobe before finding her lips with his. Within seconds, she was past remembering her questions or caring about the answers.

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