After a week of preparation, the hearing pertaining to the case of Commonwealth of Massachusetts vs. Scott Chambers was on the judge’s calendar. Lawyer and client had sat in the breezy conference room day after day, going over the information from the flash drive, as well as the reports Doug had gotten from his contacts at the police department. Smartly Scott had not said anything. It could work in his favor at the hearing, casting a wide web of suspicion on others. The police department would re-open the case. That would not drop the charges necessarily, but it would give them a better chance at an acquittal.
On Wednesday morning, all packed and ready, Larson and Lexie put their things in the car and headed for the airport. Lexie had packed the little music box, as she wanted to show it to her grandmother and Nikki.
She thought again of the story he had recounted, the dance at their wedding. The romantic in Lexie could close her eyes and see her parents, her mother in her wedding gown, her father handsome in his tuxedo, dancing slowly and staring into each other’s eyes. Maybe birthdays and Christmas were for wishes, but she made one anyway for Thanksgiving. ‘Please let my mom and dad find each other again,’ she prayed silently. That would give everyone something for which to be thankful.
Gail was gone. Her shop was dark, and had been since Monday, when the last of the orders came into the shop. Margo and Darcy spent the remainder of the weekend assembling displays and setting up corners for the after thanksgiving sales. There were festivals, football games, homecoming dances and all sorts of other holiday themed events coordinated around them, and the pair had been too busy to notice.
Now, standing at the front window on Tuesday morning, she could see that not only was Gail’s shop closed on a holiday weekday, but the lights were completely off. Margo mentioned it to Darcy.
“I hadn’t heard of her leaving. Shoot, she’d never leave this time of year. She loved the profit too much! No offense, of course,”
“None taken,” Margo said, her thoughts far away and troubled. She sipped her tea and took a few minutes, trying to remember if Gail had any family or friends around. Outside of their work, watering her plants one time when she’d been called away on an overseas buying trip, and the occasional shared lunch at the coffee shop, Margo had no idea what Gail’s personal life was like. She didn’t even know for sure what her last name was. While the worry about Gail was there, there wasn’t time to dwell on it. The tourists had begun to fill up the store, and her book club would be meeting in less than an hour.
That’s why she loved holidays. The twinkling lights and decorations filled the streets already, getting a jump on the upcoming season. It always seemed to start earlier, and with the lights, trees and Christmas music came the memories. It was supposed to be a happy time, but so often Margo was brought up short by the memory of that first Christmas as Larson’s wife.
They had spent the night in a hotel suite, nervously going through the motions of decorating a tree in the beautiful room, laughing at tinsel draping off each other’s hair. Later that night, after their first time of lovemaking, they had laid in each other’s arms, listening to the church bells chiming at midnight. “Merry Christmas, Mrs Evans,” he’d whispered in her ear.
Tears fell unchecked at the sweet memory, and she shook her head. No time for anymore reflection now. So much to do, so little time.
At five O’clock, it was time to close. There was still no sign of Gail, and it was becoming alarming, as everyone else in the neighborhood had passed through Margo’s shop at one point or the other and asked about it. She had no information; just that no one had been there since the weekend. It worried her that it had had something to do with the music box she had bought from her. However, no, this was not LA or New York for crying out loud. She was watching too many “Law and Order” shows making everything look like a detective novel. She turned the sign around in the door and put out the lights. She wondered what Larson was doing, were they home for the holidays? She had not heard from Nikki, as she had had to sprint over to Georgia for a mini music festival before coming home again. She would pick up a paper and see what was going on around her neighborhood for Thanksgiving. It would be another holiday spent alone. Just knowing there was a possibility of Larson and Lexie being in the area made her want to hide out in her apartment anyway, but they had never come to Seneca before, so why would they start now?
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Lexie was beside herself with excitement. They were in the air, on their way toward her grandparents. She loved the south, and the atmosphere. She bounced in her seat, talking about all the things she was planning to her father who barely listened. He sat in his seat next to her, his laptop open on the table in front of him, making notes on a pad that sat on his knee. Lexie decided there would be plenty of time to talk and plan after they landed. She pulled out a book from her bag from under the seat in front of her. “Willow Walk” was just another in the series of young summer romance written by her favorite author Richard Andrews. She loved to read and share books that she found intriguing. She had read all the “Twilight” books, several of the James Patterson “Women’s Murder Club” mysteries, and loved Nicolas Sparks as well. However, Richard Andrews wrote about the South, a place she considered part of her heritage. She stared out the window for a moment, watching the clouds slip by underneath her, and then turned her attention to her book. The flight continued silently for them both.
Two hours later the plane touched down at the airport in Columbia. Larson had put away his laptop and had drifted off to sleep during the flight. Lexie just sat next to her father, content to read her book and listen to her IPOD. It did not take long for them to be through baggage claim and on to the rental car desk where the car that Larson had already arranged for was waiting just outside the terminal.
An attendant outside escorted them to a black Escalade with tinted windows. “Way to go Dad,” exclaimed the happy teenager beside him, bumping him with her shoulder and winking. Larson just chuckled and slid in the front seat adjusting the mirrors. He wanted to be responsible as well as a little showy. Moreover, with the fact he had to investigate that shop in Seneca, he would probably need the included GPS system. Nothing but the best, he mused, handing the attendant a folded bill.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The Evans clan had assembled for the holidays. The house was happy again with every member of the house, except for the middle sister Macy, who would be there the following evening with her husband and their boys. Lexie sat on a stool in the kitchen, peeling carrots for a vegetable tray. Her aunt Nikki stood across from her, getting all the juicy details of the teenager’s somewhat busy life in Boston. Adriana kept wandering into the kitchen chewing on a pencil, adding to the list she had in her hand for last minute shopping for the weekend. Larson stood at the back door to the kitchen, the same spot where he had gotten that phone call from Prescott so many years before and watched, happy. So many years he spent growing up in this very room, and so many years it seemed he had spent away; yet the moment he entered it was as though he had never left. His sisters were still the same, his parents even more doting with grandchildren in their lives. It was a happy life.
His father, Clyde Evans came through the back door from outside and put a hand on his shoulder. “Son, daydreaming is for women…our job is to taste-test the pies, and watch football.”
“Try it dear,” Sylvia called in a lilting sweet voice, “You so much as break the crust off those pies in the back and I’ll make sure you never see your precious team play…ever!”
“Woman…those are fighting words.” Clyde went after his wife of forty years and Larson could only smile. Truth told, there was probably a Clemson Tigers cake somewhere at the shop for the orange fans as well as the signature Gamecock red velvet cake for Clyde. Football Saturdays, even during a festival, seemed to bring the customers in droves.
The rival game, between the University of South Carolina and Clemson University was as much a tradition in the Evans home as Thanksgiving. The men and women shared the ritual equally. Nikki could yell at a television louder than anyone. The food was always stupendous, and the cakes and pastries laid out among the dishes of meat and vegetables made young and old appreciate the excitement of the day. While routing for your favorite team was exciting, being among family, friends and good food sharing laughter also had its merit.
That evening, sitting on the front porch of his family home, Larson sat in the old rocking chair, just smiling. While the calmness of the night soothed him, his mind found itself running back to their familiar haunts. No matter how many times he came back home, he always seemed to feel his wife’s absence strongest at this time. They had had holidays together. He had spent some time in Hyannis with her parents, while her grand-parents had been on an extended European trip. He had no idea what a gift that time had been; his soon to be father-in-law had taken him golfing. There was a party at the country club where they had danced alongside her parents. He was lulled into believing that he was accepted.
He had been brought up to believe that people were people. No matter how successful his parent’s business had gotten, they were more concerned with the hearts of the people rather than their wallets. Young and old, rich and poor, everyone was accepted into the Evans homestead. Margo had said it was he that stole her heart, but his family that had brought her home.
Throughout the last sixteen years, despite his wondering, and the first few years of steadfast investigation, he had only moments of anger over the whole abandonment situation. For the hundredth time he wondered to himself, if he saw her, after all these years...what would he do? And he knew...more than anything, that he would do everything in his power to never let her go again.
His sister Adriana, the youngest, came out of the house with a cup of coffee in each hand. Handing it to him, she sat in the matching rocking chair beside him and sighed as she settled in the chair.
“Gorgeous night,” she smiled, sipping her coffee.
“Beautiful,” he agreed, his wayward thoughts betraying themselves in his voice.
“Big brother, how are you doing....really?”
His first instinct was to play the strong big brother and role model but, for Adriana, that wasn’t really an option. Nikki was smart and full of energy and Macy was a wife and mother now, but Adriana was the more serious one of his sisters. She lived in her own apartment just up from the family business, and she had known her own share of heartache, only recently breaking off her engagement to a junior partner in an accounting firm in Atlanta. Nobody knew why except that she’d had thrown away the bridal magazines and spent a good few weeks in a depression, throwing herself into her work.
He looked at her and smiled. “Really, I’m okay Addy. I just can’t stop thinking about her. But the memories bring me happiness.”
“Yeah, I get that,” his sister said, playing with an imaginary piece of lint on her black pants. “I wonder sometimes if maybe I wasn’t even in love with Brian, giving him up as quickly as I did. But, well, that’s in the past now.”
“Do you want him back?” Larson asked, concerned about the look in his baby sister’s eyes.
Adriana was quiet for a minute, then half smiled.
“No,” she said, somewhat surprised.
Before he had a chance to respond, Nikki emerged from inside the house, carrying a tray of cheese straws and pinwheels.
“Snacks?” She offered, holding the tray out for them.
Larson and Adriana looked at each other and laughed.
“Sure,” Larson agreed, reaching his hand forward to grab a treat.
Nikki put the tray on the table in front of the chairs and pulled a bottle of water out of her pocket.
“Where’s Lexie?” Larson asked, his mouth full.
“Mom’s got her in the living room, sorting through pictures for the Sanders’ Anniversary party. They’ve been married fifty years, and Tony and his wife dropped off about a hundred pictures they want displayed.”
“That’s right,” Adriana said, getting up, “I need some for the cake I’m doing too. Guess I’ll join them.” She paused beside Larson and touched his shoulder gently. “It’s not the same for you Lars...I didn’t love Brian. You love Margo. It will be okay.”
After Adriana went back inside, Nikki took a moment to size up the serious look on her brother’s face.
“What’s got you down bro? Talk to me.”
“Same old thing I guess. I keep remembering back when Margo and I first started dating. I thought everything was going to be great. Especially after that holiday we had with her parents. I still have a hard time believing that she really left me for them.”
“Oh Larson, she didn’t leave you for them, she left with them. There’s a difference you know. I know something about Margo’s grand-father that you don’t. Maybe I should tell you. Ease your mind perhaps?”
“Go ahead, but I doubt I’ll understand anything any better.”
Nikki leaned back in her chair.
“I too have had those memories, but I had dealings with the grand-father. I remember, during sophomore year I went home with her on Easter break. Not to the South Carolina house, but the one on the Cape.
“I felt like I was in one of those movies. The house was massive and full with lush green grass and the stables; they were huge and just full of horses. I thought, how wonderful to be able to just pick a horse and ride, you know? But Margo seemed to just take it all in stride, that is until we walked into the stable that first afternoon. She walked right up to one of the horses and introduced me.”
Larson smiled. “Vincent?”
“Yes, Vincent De Milo. The most beautiful Appaloosa stallion I’d ever seen. She was rubbing his nose and loving on him, you know? And then she told me the funniest thing. She pulled out a dog biscuit and told him she’d bring him back a pear later, and the horse just loved that biscuit! I thought that was amazing, and she smiled, this quiet little smile. She said, “He just loves these things. Our cook, Estrella makes them fresh for the dogs, and he’ll just wander out of his paddock, right up to the window and help himself whenever she makes them. I guess he still does.’”
“Wanders out?” Larson said, questioning.
“That’s what I mean,” Nikki said, “I asked her about that, and she said the trainer would always hook a line to his bridal so he’d stay in the stall, but after he’d gone home for the day, Margo would take it off. She said she couldn’t stand seeing anyone else chained up somewhere they didn’t want to be. Sound familiar?”
“Wow,” Larson whistled. “I never saw any of that.”
“There’s something else,” Nikki continued. “That evening we came down for dinner. I had to borrow a dress from her closet, because the grand-father insisted people dress for dinner. The table was so elaborately decorated it looked like a State Dinner for a President or something. Margo looked so different. Her hair was styled away from her face, she had just a touch of make-up and her voice was so soft-spoken I hardly recognized her. Her grand-father was seated at the head of the table. He just looked up and smiled at me, but it was an empty smile. He paused, and it looked like he was searching for a nice word to say, but was having trouble finding one. Obviously he found the whole ‘college’ experience disdainful, because he had this thoughtless look on his face when he started talking to me.”
Nikki put herself back there for a moment, recounting every detail.
It wasn’t just the way Margo’s family acted; it was so stiff and unsettling, especially after she’d been rooming with the girl for over a year. At the house in Savannah, where her parents lived most of the time, things were relaxed and easy, there was even laughter. But here in the New England home, things were so formal. It’s like even dust itself was banished from their world. Nikki found herself afraid to use the wrong fork, looking at the elaborately decorated table, and was caught off guard when the distinguished man fixed his eyes on her and spoke.
“So what are you studying, Miss Evans?”
“Business Management,” Nikki replied, still fingering the silverware in front of her. “With a minor in Marketing.”
“Really,” he seemed surprised, “and what are you planning to do with your education?”
Forgetting herself, Nikki launched into her animated speech, the question had been asked to her several times and she had her answer memorized.
“Well, I have been in theater for quite some time. I love music, and I seem to be pretty good at it. What I plan to do is open my own production company. That way I can find and guide artists and musicians toward their own success.”
“Nikki was offered the lead for a traveling summer company in Atlanta.” Margo offered.
“What show?” Bethany, Margo’s mother asked.
“Pirates of Penzance,” Nikki answered, “but it was only because I talk so fast.”
The two girls laughed and the tension at the table eased for just a moment, but then the grand-father cleared his throat loudly and sounded the bell for dinner to begin. Dinner was a quiet affair. All attempts at conversation were abandoned after that. It was as though the whole thing was dismissed.
But Nikki had never gotten an invitation back to the mansion on Cape Cod, and it was rumored that Mr. Grenaldi had even tried to get Nikki moved out of Margo’s room.
“I never knew that either!” Larson said, somewhat upset by this news.
“Mr. Grenaldi really thought highly of himself. So highly in fact he tried his best to get me out of his grand-daughter’s life. Unworthy working type I think he called me. I don’t think you were any higher. The point is, Brother dear, Margo didn’t leave you because she was done with you. She’d tried so hard to get away from that family; they must have pulled her back in using the only way they could. Using you.”
“Oh I know that. I had a little taste of Senor’s temper, when I announced at their country club that I was marrying Margo. But he’d stopped. I thought he’d changed his mind about me.”
“Not a chance. That man just laid in wait until he knew he could do his worst. So, take heart, because I have a feeling she’s feeling the same way you do. That love you shared was once in a lifetime; the kind that fairy tales are made of.”
Nikki got up then and left Larson to his own, sipping the lukewarm coffee and thinking a bit better about himself. He hated it when his sister was right.
His own mind was wandering back in reflection a few moments later, watching the cars going by the old brick house. It was a Christmas tree tied atop a small compact that had his mind drifting backward in time to that year right before Lexie was born.
Margo was nearly nine months pregnant. She was struggling with a bag, her purse and her keys, entering their apartment in Spartanburg, her face was flushed but her eyes were dancing.
“Hold on,” he admonished, jumping up from his place on the floor to take the bag from her.
“What’s all this?” he asked, kissing his wife on the cheek, his hand resting lightly on the large mound that was his daughter, still growing inside her.
“I saw it and just had to get it. This will be her first Christmas, we have to make it special.”
She lowered herself into the soft cushioned chair in the living room. Larson knelt beside her, putting her feet up on the ottoman, removing her shoes, pausing to rub them.
“Darling, while that feels awesome, I have to show you this! Hand me that bag won’t you?”
Larson reached forward grasping the shopping bag with one hand, handing it to her.
She rummaged amongst the tissue paper, and withdrew two boxes. One smaller than the other. Inside the small box was a rocking horse with “Lexie” written on it, under it read, “Baby’s First Christmas”.
“It’s beautiful,” he agreed, smiling at his wife.
“Open the other one.”
He opened the larger box and gasped at the intricate designed star shaped tree topper. In the middle was a small angel, holding a baby. There were gold and silver beads encrusted on the points of the star, and when Larson pulled it from it’s bed of tissue paper he noticed the cord. He stood and walked to the wall outlet, and when he plugged it in he smiled, watching the glowing twinkling lights shine around the baby. Then he realized it was playing, “What Child is This”, one of their favorite Christmas songs.
“Perfect,” he said, then smiled indulgently at his wife, who was sound asleep in the chair, the baby ornament resting gently in her upturned hand.
Brought back to the present, he noticed that the tears from his memory were fresh in his eyes. A few weeks later, she was gone. He remembered watching the star in his newly decorated penthouse apartment that Christmas, alone but determined still that his wife would return. He had gazed at the lights of the star, twinkling at the top of the large spruce tree, while it played the beautiful music, and his newborn daughter slept in his arms. The tears ran down his cheeks unchecked, for he had cried that night as well, and he put away the memory for another day.
Love, pure and simple, with pain like a knife, but still so sweet, made him wonder how much more his heart could take.