"Darling, I can't give you a mommy for Christmas," Joe explained for the hundredth time in the past two weeks. "What about this... I'll order a happy clown and throw you a whopper of a New Year's Eve party. You can invite all your friends for a sleep-over. We'll have fireworks and anything else you want."
"I don't wanna," Jenny persisted, crossing her arms. "Sides, clowns scare me."
That was it. Whenever Jenny crossed her arms, subject closed.
"Jenny, remember what your counselor told you?" Joe reminded, quirking one dark brow as he gazed down at his daughter.
"Yep. I member lots of things that she told me like... I just want a mommy because it's normal. Daddy, all my friends have mommies," she challenged, uncrossing her arms - obviously open to discussion again, he silently noted.
Joe took the opportunity to sit beside her on the sofa. It couldn't be easy for her - six years old and motherless.
In fact, she'd never known her mother. Not two months after Jenny had been born, Rhonda had taken off with the foreman of his ranch, Clyde Thompson.
Not twenty miles from home, the two had decided that some 'naughty-nice' was in order as they continued to head down the thin strip of road married to a mountain. They were discovered later that evening by the sheriff, the jeep wrapped around a tree at the base of the mountain - Rhonda's legs wrapped around Clyde, her high heels still in place. At least they'd both died with smiles on their faces, Joe silently mocked.
It hadn't been easy, raising Jenny on his own. But he had to admit that he thought he'd managed quite well. He could cook a mean grilled cheese sandwich, and with the aid of a few ribbons and bows, he was able to fix Jenny's hair so as it didn't resemble a total rat's nest.
On a scale of one to ten, he would give himself a high-five where domestic-related tasks were involved. But as far as fatherly love and affection, that number was off the scales - high off the scales.
"My sweet Jenny," he began, placing an arm around her and pulling her close.
How could he possibly explain that her dream of having a mommy would never come true? How did one go about breaking a little girl's heart? After his experience with the cheating Rhonda, he had made a personal commitment to place his focus on raising Jenny. Unfortunately, Rhonda had left him with a sour taste in his mouth that would probably never fade.
He had hoped that the counselor he had hired would have been able to make Jenny see reason, but the woman had appeared more interested in him than in Jenny. And it had been quite embarrassing when Jenny had told him the last time they had left the counselor's office, "Daddy, why did Counselor Murray hold your hand so long when we were leaving today? Was her hand cold?"
Actually, Counselor Murray's hand had felt like a wet fish, but he didn't tell the overly perceptive Jenny that. No mermaid quality there; Counselor Murray would always be a trout.
And when he didn't respond as quickly as she had wanted him to, Jenny told him, "She won't do at all for a mommy, daddy. She told me that she didn't like to bake - and I want a mommy who can bake cookies!"
Joe's thoughts tumbled back to the present as he struggled to explain the situation to Jenny.
"Why don't we unwrap your Christmas gifts and discuss the mommy factor later?" he suggested with a smile.
"Well, it depends."
"It depends on if there is a mommy wrapped up in one of my boxes," Jenny eased out, delivering an innocent blink in the process.
Skyler Anderson adjusted the elf suit, glad that the Seavers' residence was the last on her list. Although it would be nice to have an early end to her Christmas work day, there wasn't much awaiting her at home. Just a nice cup of hot cocoa topped with marshmallows, she silently contemplated. Perhaps a good romance book to accompany the cocoa, she added to her thoughts.
It wasn't so bad being single - and she knew it was her destiny. She hadn't been the prettiest apple in the basket - probably one reason why she had ended up in one foster home after another until she was eighteen. Tall and lanky with a nose that tilted a notch too much, Skyler had never felt pretty - much less, beautiful. Had never had a date. Probably never would have either. Nope, being single was her destiny.
At least she had a good group of close friends. Unfortunately, all were involved in holiday activities as was the case for most Christmases. No, it would not be the first that she'd spend by herself - nor the last. And after the busy Christmas Eve she'd had at work, a little r & r would be appreciated, she went on to acknowledge, trying to be positive about the situation. But the fact was, no one wanted to be alone during the holidays.
Her attention flew back to the task at hand. For the past seven years she had worked for "Making Your Dreams Come True" delivering gifts of great joy to doorsteps across the big city. Although the pay was poor, the tips she received more than made up the difference. And she adored the elf suit get-up during the Christmas holiday season that she was required to wear. Then again, she wasn't looking forward to her Baby New Year's outfit...
Yesterday had been quite busy - a typical Christmas Eve schedule. There had only been three deliveries scheduled for Christmas Day, and that was only due to the fact that they were located in the country.
Today, the first had been an all-expense-paid vacation to the tropics, a gift to an older couple's daughter and son-in-law. Just seeing the happy looks on their faces had brought a smile to Skyler's.
The next delivery had been 100 red roses to a beautiful young woman from her husband who was serving in the military overseas. And her teary eyes had brought tears to Skyler's.
The last delivery, she again noted as she scanned the property. No watchdog in sight.
The lawn was beautifully manicured, and it was odd seeing a hue of deep green this time of year. Obviously, rye.
The door was void of the typical elaborate holiday wreath that one would expect to find on such a house of great grandeur, a touch generally performed by a woman.
A nice barn stood in the distance, bright red in color. Beside the barn stood a small herd of cattle feasting on a roll of hay, their tails bobbing back and forth as they ate.
Skyler checked what was in store for the lucky recipient. Ah, a young girl. Apparently a doll from her uncle who lived out of state. She was momentarily tempted to lift the lid of the long box and peek inside, but didn't. As a young girl, she had not had access to many toys and there had never been a doll to call her own, thus her fascination she silently told herself.
Grasping the box she exited the colorful van decorated with huge gaudy flowers, making tracks to the front door, her elf suit jingling as she walked along.
Joe heard the front door bell as Jenny continued to argue with him.
At this point, the child was practically in tears, her longing for a mother almost too strong for him to contend with at the moment. He simply couldn't get her to understand that a new mommy would impact his life more than her own. A new mommy would be forever…..or should be, he swiftly amended, rising to answer the door and wondering who on earth could possibly be visiting today of all days.
As he made his way to the door, he felt Jenny rush up beside him and lock onto his hand, Joe's heart warming in the process. Obviously, she had forgiven him - at least for the moment.
"Merry Christmas to... you, Jenny!" Skyler said in a cheery voice as her eyes honed in on the little girl which of course, had to be Jenny.
"Oh daddy! You did get me a mommy!" Jenny screeched, happy tears springing to her eyes as she raced to Skyler and wrapped her arms around her skinny legs.
Skyler sent a confused look to Joe who looked a bit confused himself as Jenny continued to express her great joy.
Skyler knelt down to Jenny's level, the small child falling into her arms, the box containing the doll falling to one side.
Why didn't her father say something, she silently asked - thinking that the gentleman must be her father.
When he still didn't answer, Jenny looked up at her and said, "I've been waiting for you for so long, mommy. I didn't think I was ever going to get a mommy and that's an awful feeling."
It sure was, Skyler silently concurred, the child having no idea that she knew exactly how that felt.
She hugged the child out of a sense of common human understanding, then pulled her away to gaze into her tiny face.
A beautiful child with dark hair and dark eyes to match.
"Your Uncle Jess sent you a Christmas present," she told her, reaching over and collecting the box.
Jenny squealed with delight, rushing to open the box and when the pretty doll appeared, she gazed up to her still-silent father and told him, "Two Christmas presents! A mommy just like I wanted from you, daddy - and a dolly from Uncle Jess! I love you so much, daddy! Thank you for making my Christmas dream come true," she cried out, rushing to hug his legs as she had Skyler's.
Joe managed to come to life. Good gosh - what a mess. Jenny had mistaken the delivery lady for a Christmas present - a mommy to be exact. What now? Telling her otherwise would break her little heart, a heart that was currently on the edge.
Jenny's desires for a mommy ran deeper than just wanting to be like her friends who had mommies. She needed the love of a mommy - and so much more - things that only a woman could provide. Joe was wise enough to realize his limitations, even though he had done his damnedest.
Gazing at the lady in the elf suit, he wished he had an inkling of her thoughts. Perhaps…..just for today, he thought as he raked his brain for a solution - perhaps he could ask her to help him. What a mess!
Skyler delivered a trembling smile at Joe and he batted his eyes in response. She was a pretty elf he decided amid his troubling thoughts, her cute nose catching his interest. And she looked kind, as if she held a good heart. Then again, he knew that she did by the way she had responded to Jenny.
Through the silence, he suggested to his overwhelmed daughter, "Why don't you go get dolly situated, darling so I can talk with... mommy?" he managed, Skyler nodding positively in the process.
Skyler had a vague idea of their situation. Obviously, Jenny was in need of a mommy - and thought that she - Skyler was the 'mommy' she'd ordered for Christmas.
"Then we'll bake cookies?" Jenny asked, whirling to Skyler for a response.
Skyler looked at Joe who nodded discreetly so she told the child, "Oh yes we will, darling."
Jenny delivered one last hug to Skyler who was still planted to the ground on bended knee, then scampered happily away with her dolly carefully cradled in her arms.
Joe reached out a hand to assist her to a standing position, then stepped aside to allow her entrance to his home as he asked, "Do you have a moment? I-I realize how ridiculous and strange this might appear."
"In fact I do have a moment," she smiled, entering the house as she continued saying, "This was my last stop on this sunny Christmas day. However, I heard that we may have snow moving in. A white Christmas - can you imagine?"
"I don't think I've ever experienced one. Jenny would like that," he managed, still deciding how to approach the situation.
Joe led her to the den and as they both settled onto the sofa, he scanned her hands in search of a ring. Nothing there - a great sign.
He began, "It's probably obvious that Jenny wanted a mommy for Christmas and she thinks that you're it."
"Yes, I picked up on that," she assured with a smile, trying to get a bearing on her surroundings but the handsome man held her totally captivated.
"I was wondering...," he began, suddenly hesitant. The woman would think he was an idiot if he asked her what he had in mind, he realized.
"Well, it's - frankly, I don't' know where to begin," he admitted, drawing a hand to his forehead as he bent his head. He felt like he was at the bottom of the barrel. And now, well he had no choice except to break his daughter's heart.
"If you were going to ask me to stay a while, I can do that," Skyler told him, automatically reaching out and touching his arm - the one he held to his head. She didn't like his arm there as it made her feel sad for some reason.
"You would do that for me?" he asked, making eye connection with her. Such a pretty lady - such a compassionate lady, he thought.
"And for Jenny," she smiled, his heart melting in the process, deciding that this lady was a pure gem - a one of a kind gem.
"What's your name?" he had to know.
"Skyler Anderson - but you can call me mommy for today," she laughed lightly, the bells on her elf suit jingling in the process."
"I think I should call you an angel instead," he told her in a sincere tone, her face looking a bit confused for a moment.
"Did I say something wrong?" he asked, not wishing to frighten her off.
"No, you said something very wonderful," she assured with another warm smile. "It's just that no one has ever said such a nice thing to me before." Before he could respond she asked him, "And your name is?"
"Joe Seavers," he told her, feeling quite charmed - although she had done nothing knowingly to accomplish such. There was an innocence about her that he liked.
"Skyler - what a pretty name," he complimented, delivering a smile of his own, her heart ratcheting into her throat.
Now calm down, she told herself. He's not making a play for you - simply grateful that you're agreeing to help him out of his pickle.
"Tell me about Jenny before she returns," she asked, thinking it was a safe subject. Besides, she was truly curious.
"Jenny's mother died in a crash about two months after she was born," Joe divulged, deciding to leave out the painful details.
"Oh - that's terrifically sad. I lost my own parents in the same manner when I was in my infancy," she responded with sadness, thinking that her and Jenny had more in common that she'd first expected.
"I'm sorry," Joe offered, not quite certain what to say. How sad - how terrifically sad.
"Oh - it's okay," Skyler assured. "Even so, thank you. Now please tell me more about Jenny."
"Well... Jenny has been obsessed about having a mommy for the last year - so caught up that she has been going to counseling."
"Has that been helpful?"
"No. If anything, her desire has intensified," he realized, Skyler deciding that he was deep in thought. Then he asked, "What about you? How did you get through your childhood in one piece? And frankly, your situation was much worse, Skyler - with both parents out of the picture."
There was a short span of silence as she tried to think of a way to share her experience without gilding it with a negative edge as Joe sat considering her childhood.
She told him, "I had the advantage of spending my childhood in several foster homes."
"So you were never adopted?" he asked incredulously.
He gazed into her eyes feeling suddenly sad again. From what he'd seen, she reminded him of an oak living on an ugly parcel of land. Although the oak couldn't change its circumstances, it could still grow strong over time.
Given her explanation, obviously she didn't have a family per say. But what about a relationship? He had to know - and his desire was more than 'just about' Jenny.
He asked, "So if you spend the day here, will I be taking you away from anything else - more pointedly, anyone else? It's Christmas day and surely your husband or boyfriend-"
"If anything, your offer is a welcome reprieve," she smiled, reaching over and spontaneously touching his arm again. She continued with a smile, "This was one of those Christmases that I was going to spend alone - a lazy day. Although I have a strong circle of friends, Christmas tends to be a day for family, don't you think?"
He chose to ask her another question instead of providing an answer.
"I take it that you're not married?" the second time he'd attempted to determine such, he silently noted.
"Not if you don't count a cup of homemade cocoa topped with marshmallows," she giggled, Joe smiling and a bit surprised to find her answer relieved him.
"I haven't had a cup of homemade cocoa in years," he mulled, "in fact, not since I was a kid. Think we can make some to go with those cookies?"
"You bet - and speaking of cookies, here comes your little Jenny now," she laughed again, the child running into Skyler's open arms.
Joe watched her drop a kiss onto his little girl's cheek, deciding that he had never seen anything so beautiful in his entire life. The fact that Skyler and Jenny had so much in common wrenched at his heart.
As a father, he held the common feeling that he never wanted to let Jenny go. And now, for the first time in his life, he felt the same about a woman - about Skyler, a perfect stranger more or less. And on top of these disturbing feelings, he wanted to protect her.
It was all crazy, he decided as he continued to watch the two interact. No doubt, Skyler was the most genuine woman he'd ever met. Who else would have agreed to such a kooky scheme? And she wasn't doing it solely for him, rather for Jenny too. She understood his daughter perfectly. So much for the overpaid counselor.
Skyler held Jenny from her and nodded towards the Christmas tree, one that appeared as if it had been decorated by a child.
"Should we open gifts first?" she asked.
"No - let's do the cookies! Please?" Jenny begged, Skyler unable to refuse her. "Besides, I already got everything that I wanted for Christmas."
She sent a grateful smile to Joe who worked to swallow the lump that had formed in his throat.
"Okay - and perhaps some Christmas lunch. We're almost there," Skyler decided.
As the day progressed, for the first time since Joe could remember, he felt human. He'd smiled so much that he was certain that tomorrow his face would be sore. But he couldn't help himself. Fact was, Skyler was a delight - a total delight and he couldn't help smiling when he was around her.
And he had to admit that he'd enjoyed calling her mommy throughout the day, as well as hearing her call him daddy for Jenny's benefit.
But as they were sitting in front of the fireplace enjoying the delicious homemade cookies and hot cocoa topped with marshmallows, he was gripped with a helpless feeling. What would Jenny say when she learned that Skyler wasn't indeed her new mommy? Although the day had been intended to placate the child, the truth could prove devastating - worsening the original issue.
"Can we go for a drive?" Jenny wanted to know, offering a bite of her cookie to her new dolly. "Me and Miranda would love a drive in the snow."
"Who is Miranda?" Joe asked, picking up his cocoa.
"Her dolly," Skyler explained with a smile, her heart breaking in the process.
It had been silly to stay here today and she'd fallen for the handsome Joe Seavers. Handsomeness aside, she adored him - his laugh, the way that he walked, his human kindness, the way he loved his little daughter - all the good things that made up Joe.
And when Jenny was told that she wasn't her mommy, well... Skyler didn't even want to think about that right now.
"Want to take a ride, mommy?" Joe asked, deciding that he liked the three of them by the fire. Add one fuzzy dog and the family-portrait would be complete.
"Why, I would love a ride!" she answered in a cheery voice, tweaking Jenny's nose in the process.
But when the child peered into her face and uttered, "I love you, mommy," her mood instantly changed and it was difficult to spar off the tears that suddenly threatened.
Immediately, Joe picked up on the situation and sprang into action, quickly loading them into the car.
Jenny had suggested that they listen to her favorite Christmas CD, so they drove through the flickering flakes of snow as the Chipmunks chattered out, "Christmas, Christmas don't be late."
About fifteen minutes into their drive, the snow became so thick they could barely see through the window.
"We better turn back while we still can," Joe decided, the streets becoming quickly wrapped in white.
Jenny was occupied in telling Miranda such when Skyler leaned over and in a soft tone told him, "Joe, if I go back home with you, I could become stranded. Doesn't look like the snow will fade anytime soon."
"Then you'll stay the night," he told her in an offhanded tone, deciding that he loved snow. "Always wondered what it would be like to have an elf sleep over," he laughed in a light tone.
"But-but, I don't have any spare clothes - and there's the business about my job and returning the van to the company. I must do such before the morning," she told him, her face looking worried.
Joe found that he didn't like her looking stressful, and realized that he'd placed her in a tricky predicament. In fact, she could lose her job because of him.
As things turned out, they barely made it back to the house - the roads banked so thickly in snow that it was almost impossible to tell the roads from the ditches. And they had been the only ones foolish enough to brave the snowstorm.
As Jenny took her evening bath, Joe sat with Skyler in the den enjoying yet another cup of her delicious cocoa.
"Look, I must apologize for putting you in this position," he began. "Obviously, we can't get the van back to your work place."
"I agree," she eased out, not blaming Joe one bit. With her apprehensions concerning Jenny aside, this had been the most enjoyable day of her life.
She was a bit stunned as Joe rose and joined her on the sofa, and when he took her into his strong arms, she completely quit breathing.
"W-what are you doing?" she asked, feeling as if she were going to pass out.
Joe gazed into her flush face and asked, "You've never been kissed before, have you?"
Skyler managed to shake her head, another mistake for she was certain that she was going to faint now.
But before she could pass out, she felt Joe's warm lips latching onto her own shocked ones, and she wasn't quite sure what she should do.
Why was he kissing her? Out of appreciation? To smooth over the van issue?
Frankly, she found that she didn't care as her senses totally shattered and she surrendered to sweet bliss.
Joe felt dazzled - totally dazzled by Skyler's passionate response. He had to know what it was like to kiss her, but this was totally unexpected. And now that he'd kissed her, he didn't want to stop.
And he might not have if Jenny hadn't commented from the other side of the room, "I like it when mommy and daddy kiss, don't you Miranda?"
As Skyler jerked away from Joe's warm embrace, she blushed as he commented in a deep tone, "Me too, Jenny."
To cover her apprehensions, Skyler suggested, "Jenny, would you like to open your presents now? It's getting dark and we'll need to turn in soon."
"Can I wait till morning, mommy? I like to open my gifts in the morning," she said. "And besides, I already said that I got everything I wanted."
"Then I suppose I should return that tea set," Joe teased, Jenny's mouth forming a perfect O.
Joe laughed, sharing a glance with Skyler, his eyes lingering on the swollen lips.
"Sweetheart, you can wait until morning," Skyler managed, trying not to obsess about Joe. That kiss hadn't meant anything to him, she silently fretted. He was so handsome that he could have any woman that he wanted. In fact, there might be a reason why Jenny was still mommy-less.
To squash her troubling thoughts, she asked Jenny, "Would you like to make a holiday wreath for the front door?"
"Oh yes! And it will look pretty until the New Year gets here," Jenny decided with a bright smile, Skyler thinking she looked cute as a button in the gown stamped with penguins. "Can we make it now? I don't' have to go to bed this early."
"Sure we can," Joe eased out, Skyler looking at him and delivering a trembling smile.
Joe went out in the sifting snow to collect a few cedar branches, for the first time understanding the famous childhood poem - The Night Before Christmas - the part of the "snow on the breast of the new fallen snow giving a luster of midday to objects below". It was so bright out that it appeared as if it were still daylight.
In a matter of minutes, the three of them had created a beautiful wreath. Joe wasted no time in hanging it on the front door and when he returned, Jenny held out her hand to him.
She had something in it, though Joe didn't know what. And as she deposited it into his hand, she told him, "Mommy needed a ring. This will have to do for now, daddy. And we should get mommy the biggest and shiniest ring in the store, don't you think? All my friend's mommy's have really pretty rings."
And then she kissed both him and Skyler and headed off to bed with her new best friend, a lifeless Miranda.
Joe glanced at the tiny rope of cedar that rested in his palm which Jenny had crafted with her two little hands and her wise little brain.
Skyler held her hand over her mouth, both touched and concerned.
"Joe, what are we going to tell her? And-and how?"
He immediately closed the distance between them. There were times in life for everything - and right now, it was a time to love.
Taking her hand and slipping the cedar-woven ring around her left ring finger, he told her, "That kiss that we just shared - I've never experienced anything in my life like that with another woman. And I assure you that in my day, I've had many opportunities to do such."
Skyler batted her eyes, not knowing what to say as he continued, "Fact is, my Jenny needs a mother - and I need you, Skyler. This 'ring' doesn't mean that you have to agree to anything tonight, but it does mean that I would like you to accept it - and to ask you to consider becoming a part of our lives."
"Oh Joe - you don't know anything about me. Why-why we just met," she tried to reason, certain that she was going to faint now.
"Doesn't matter, Skyler," he assured with a wan smile. "This has been the happiest day of my life, outside of the day that Jenny was born. And I've been so unhappy for so long now. And... I suspect that you have, too."
"Oh Joe," she eased out, tears springing to her eyes.
"I love you, Skyler - everything about you," he went on to express, Skyler silencing him with a kiss.
When she finally pulled away, he teased, "You'll have to get rid of the elf suit, of course."
She giggled and told him, "Merry Christmas, my darling..."
And Joe knew that this was the first Christmas they would share of many, many, many more to come...