Five years ago, I took my son to the Christmas tree lot and told him he could pick out whatever tree he wanted (while crossing my fingers he wouldn’t pick a six or seven footer because our ceilings just don’t go that high). He was five then, precocious as always, and very excited to see Santa and tell him what he wanted for Christmas.
It was a treat to watch him hop between the rows of trees, his little boots crunching the needles that covered the ground as he imagined himself tromping about in the forest with his little ax in search for the perfect tree to chop down and bring home. I held my breath when he announced from around the corner that he’d found the perfect tree.
Please, I prayed, let it not be a six-footer.
It wasn’t. It was just under four feet tall and he told me it was the perfect height – for him.
That evening, with the tree decked out to the max with all the ornaments and lights, I wrote a short story called The Accidental Christmas. It’s a reunion romance of sorts and it features a single mother and her son in search of a tree on Christmas Eve.
I’ve cleaned up the story since I first wrote it five years ago, expanded it and all that. But the essence is still there, inspired by a trip to the tree lot with my LilDude who, five years later, may not so little anymore but is still as precocious.
I hope you enjoy it.
And Merry Christmas!
By the way, because I can’t seem to do the Read More tag and split this post into separate pages per chapter, it’s a long one. You can also download the ebook and read it on your mobile device.
THE ACCIDENTAL CHRISTMAS
She was afraid they’d arrived too late but from the looks of it, she barely made it. The attendant was just about to hang a Closed sign on the gate when a Land Rover stopped right in front of him and a well-dressed couple jumped out.
“Got a Noble Fir?” the man asked. “We need a six-footer.”
The attendant set down the Closed sign on a rickety table next to him and dusted his hands against his parka. “Sure do. They’re in the back and there are a few beauties left.”
“Well, we want one,” the man said as Cameron slipped into the lot behind the couple now following the attendant.
As Cameron slowed her pace toward a row of shorter trees, a group of friends walked past the tree lot talking about the ugly sweater party they were attending despite the forecast of a snowstorm. Their laughter brought back memories of the. years when Cameron used to attend similar parties but she pushed the thought away. No use in dwelling on the past, she told herself. Tonight, she needed to find a tree.
She tightened her grip on her son’s hand and approached the attendant before he could follow the couple to the back of the lot.
“Excuse me, how much for that tree over there?” She pointed to a four-foot tree standing close to the counter, two of its branches hanging limply to one side. Sitting too close to the corner where an old-fashioned cash register was set up next to a credit card machine, it must have borne the brunt of many of the day’s customers.
“Forty bucks,” the attendant replied absently, pulling his knit cap over his head as he watched the couple browse through the row of trees behind him. When Cameron didn’t answer, he rubbed his gloved hands together and continued, “I ain’t got all day, lady. You want it or not?”
“Will you take twenty for it? It’s all I got and a few of its branches are already broken.” Cameron figured she could turn the side with the broken branches toward the wall. The rest of the tree was still good.
The man thought for a moment, exhaled and nodded as the couple indicated they found what they wanted. Cameron guessed it probably cost close to hundred dollars, certainly way more than the broken little tree she’d bargained for twenty dollars. But it was all she had.
“Twenty then. But, look, I can’t help you take it to your car until I help those other guys first,” he said. “But if you don’t mind waiting right here, I’ll come back and help you.”
But I want a big tree, like last Christmas, Jeremy signed to her and pointed to one of the bigger trees at the back lot.
We agreed that we’re getting one your size this year, remember? She signed back before handing a twenty-dollar bill to the attendant. “My son and I will take it to the car ourselves. Thanks.”
The man glanced at Jeremy. Seven-years-old and small for his age, he looked too slight to help her but Cameron couldn’t blame the attendant for needing to take care of a bigger sale first. She’d carry the tree to the car herself if she had to. She wasn’t as fragile as she looked.
“On second thought, lady, it’s free. That’s why it’s over on the corner anyway. Too many broken branches as it is but you can point that side to the wall.” He pushed away her money and smiled. “I’ll be back to help you when I’m done with–”
“No, no, go ahead and help those other people. My son and I will manage.” Cameron tucked the money back in her coat pocket. She should insist that he take the money but she’d learned in the past year to accept such small acts of kindness—or pity—with grace. Besides, she needed the money to buy their food for the week. She wouldn’t get paid for another week. “Thank you so much, sir.”
“Merry Christmas, Miss… and you, too, young man.” His face cracked a broad smile. “Stay warm.”
As the man walked away, Cameron led Jeremy to the four-foot tall tree that was really a three-footer up close. But it would still work since she didn’t really have the room for anything bigger anyway, the converted garage they called home barely big enough to fit both of them. With Jeremy taking over the bedroom, Cameron slept on the futon in the living room, which served as the couch during the day. They didn’t have much, but for now it was home. But just because it was small, it didn’t mean they couldn’t get a tree for Christmas.
Beggars can’t be choosers, Cameron, and this is what charity is, she told herself as she watched the man walk away. Maybe he recognized her, maybe he didn’t. But then, why wouldn’t he?
She was Cameron Thomas, after all, ex-wife of former city treasurer Edwin Thomas who fled the country after embezzling millions of dollars from the city coffers. Forget that he’d done it while the city was going through a tough time after a giant computer company who’d provided so many jobs moved their corporate offices to another state with better incentives to benefit their bottom line.
Worse, Edwin left her and Jeremy alone to face the Feds with their evidence, the District Attorney with the charges leveled against him and his assistant, and the condemnation from the public who believed that surely, being Edwin’s wife, she should have known what her husband was up to.
But she hadn’t known a thing, not when theirs had been a marriage of convenience—a marriage between two families that now turned their backs on her, refusing to be associated with someone whom they believed should have known what her own husband had been up to. But they couldn’t be any more wrong, Cameron thought. Her only crime was agreeing to the wedding in the first place, forgoing all reason and most of all, her heart.
Yet through it all, Cameron had kept it together for her son’s sake, even when the news reporters followed her as she picked up Jeremy from day care, leaving her alone only when she had her son with her. At least they granted her that, even though they still took pictures anyway, blurring Jeremy’s face for the final copy they’d plaster all over newspapers and social media.
The whole ordeal was made tougher when she discovered too late who her real friends were and that just because one was considered ‘family’ didn’t mean they’d stand by her side at all. Who knew Cameron’s own mother would value her reputation more than her relationship with her daughter and her grandson? But she did and Cameron was left alone to weather the scandal.
But like everything, there was a silver lining. At least, Cameron grew stronger through it all. She stopped relying on others for help because there were no more ‘others’ to turn to. From the personal assistants who fled in droves to the servants who ran straight to the tabloids to report things they’d suspected about the marriage of the handsome Edwin Thomas and his stunning wife Cameron Blake. There were things that were strange, they said. Although the couple appeared so put together and perfect in public occasions, they slept in separate rooms.
Cameron could have countered each allegation of their sham marriage to save face. That’s what her mother had begged her to do, but she didn’t. What would it accomplish? Nothing that would help Cameron and Jeremy move on, that’s for sure. And so she left everything behind, from the fair weather friends to the old family connections that once granted her automatic access to the many parties she and Edwin had to attend for appearances’ sake, the handsome city treasurer and his shy and beautiful heiress of a wife even if there was nothing financial for her to inherit. The only things left of the Blake furniture empire were the pedigree and the political connections, the very things that Edwin needed to advance his own career.
And so with Jeremy by her side, she traveled by train all the way to the East Coast, to a small town where once she’d spent the happiest summer of her life. No longer having assistants to rely on, Cameron learned to do everything herself. She got Jeremy enrolled in school and got a job as a temporary caregiver to the elderly. She attended PTA meetings even when she knew that before long, the other parents would start to ask among themselves, wait, isn’t she the wife of…?
Cameron pushed the thoughts aside and letting go of Jeremy’s hand, she grabbed a roll of twine from the table.
Jeremy, can you help me with this please? she signed to him. You can push up the branches on one side while I tie the twine around it.
But this tree is too small, he signed back, lowering his chin before adding, why can’t we get a big tree like Daddy got last year?
Because Daddy bought it with stolen money, that’s why, she almost said out loud but Cameron bit her lip, her hands paused in mid-air.
Because it won’t fit in our house, love, she signed instead, sighing when she saw his expression grow sadder. It tugged at her heart but there was nothing she could do. Beggars can’t be choosers.
She tapped his shoulder, getting his attention again, before adjusting the hood of his jacket and his scarf. Remember when we talked about getting you a tree your size this year? You said you wanted a Charlie Brown tree.
Jeremy didn’t answer but he did as he asked her, lifting the nearest branches with his thin arms. Some days he understood what she was going through and other days, he was simply too young to understand any of it. And why should he? He was just a child, an innocent victim to Edwin’s greed and her naiveté.
What kind of a wife are you not to know what Edwin was doing all along? Her mother had asked the moment the news broke all over the big networks. This from the same woman who years earlier shut down Cameron’s first love so she could steer her only daughter to the wealthier, more dashing Edwin Thomas before turning her back on her daughter when things went south. Cameron had barely been able to get out of the house with Jeremy’s clothes and his favorite Legos before the Feds came in to lock the house up.
State evidence, ma’am, she remembered them saying. Is there any place you can go? Friends or relatives? Social services can also help you.
Cameron froze, her arms wrapped around the upturned branches of the tree. The voice was familiar, deep and warm, yet she knew it couldn’t possibly be true, not after eight years.
“Cam, it’s me, Talon,” the man continued as he stepped to her right side so she could see him. “Here, let me help you with that.”
“I’m okay. Really, I got it,” Cameron stammered as Jeremy took a step back, looking startled as the tall man entered his line of vision.
She let go of the tree to grab her son’s arm before he’d have the chance to run away. Ever since the scandal broke and the world descended on their doorstep with their cameras and bright lights, Jeremy had grown afraid of strangers. Once, he bolted away from her at the supermarket after spotting a reporter following them. Cameron had to chase after him through a parking lot, thoughts of losing Jeremy running through her mind as she swore never to let go of his hand again.
It’s okay, love, Cameron quickly signed. His name is Talon and he’s an old friend. We’ve known each other since we were your age.
Jeremy’s eyes narrowed, his gaze moving from her to the tall man standing behind her.
Would you like to meet him? she continued although she spoke the words, too, like she always did. Talon grew up with your daddy and me.
Then how come I’ve never met him before, if he’s daddy’s friend, too? Jeremy signed angrily, his movements brusque.
He’s– Cameron paused. How could she tell a 7-year old that sometimes grown-ups got themselves caught up in complicated situations?
“I’ve been out of the country,” Talon said in a deep voice, though his hands and fingers moved to sign the words he spoke as well. Cameron stared at him, her gaze following the deft movement of his hands as he signed in American Sign Language.
Jeremy moved to stand behind Cameron and peered at the tall man standing before them. His brow furrowed as if wondering how someone who was friends with his mother when he was the same age could end up looking as tall as Talon. Standing a head taller than Cameron, Talon slouched forward and grinned, revealing a row of white perfect teeth set against days old stubble and a firm jaw.
Though she hadn’t seen Talon Michaels in over eight years, Cameron would recognize him anywhere. He still had the same magnetic eyes, dark blue and beautiful. She wanted to run into his arms and feel him hold her there and keep her safe… but she didn’t. She couldn’t, not after the eight years that lay like an ocean between them. He had never even bothered to drop her a note.
So what was he doing in front of her now?
You know sign language! Jeremy signed excitedly before facing his mother. He knows how to sign like me.
“Is it all right for me to help your mother?” Talon asked as he signed the words. Jeremy grinned and nodded as Cameron found herself smiling. Apart from his aides at school, it wasn’t every day that Jeremy got to meet someone who signed as well as Talon was. It meant that as of that moment, Talon had become his best buddy.
Even Edwin hadn’t bothered, choosing instead to enunciate his words so that Jeremy could read his lips. Edwin had always been distant to Jeremy, blaming a busy work schedule for his lengthy absences from home. But Cameron couldn’t blame Edwin for acting that way. Such had been the price of their marriage: Edwin got the name and recognition he needed from her parents’ connections, and Jeremy got a father even if it was by name only.
Will you help us with the tree? Jeremy signed to Talon excitedly.
“Talon, you really don’t need to–”
“I got this,” Talon said as he took the ball of twine from her hands and set it on the table before tackling the tree that had now left pine needles stuck to Cameron’s parka. “I worked at a Christmas tree lot when I was high school, remember?”
“I do, yes.” Of course, she remembered. They’d been seeing each other then.
Why did she dump him again? Ah, yes, Cameron’s mother had decided that dating the mechanic’s son was a big mistake, not when she had Edwin, the son of the town’s richest man madly in love with her. Forget that the three of them had gone to school together, with Edwin and Talon one year ahead of her and good friends, but some decisions had to be made with the mind, not the heart. Besides, at sixteen, her mother had insisted, how could Cameron possibly know what was best for her?
“I really appreciate this, Talon. I mean, it’s been years since we’ve seen each other and the first thing you end up doing is this. It’s embarrassing–”
“What’s embarrassing about helping you with a tree? It’s Christmas.” He wrapped the twine around the tree branches, now all neatly swept upwards.
Just as the lot attendant was closing his big sale of a Noble Fir at the back of the lot, Talon hoisted the shorter bundled-up tree over his shoulder. Wearing a thick parka, he looked huge next to her petite frame, and she could tell that it wasn’t all just goose down underneath. There was some serious muscle to go with the perfect square jaw.
“Where’s your car?”
Oh, crap, her car. Cameron almost hesitated but she chided herself. It’s only a car, Cameron. It’s not like it’s going to change his perception of you, whatever it may be. At least you’ve got a car.
“It’s over there.” She pointed to a VW Beetle three car spaces away. Once, she drove a Mercedes Benz, complete with heated seats and a rear-view camera.
“Let me get it onto your roof then.”
Holding Jeremy’s hand, Cameron followed Talon towards the car, the ball of twine in his other hand. Five minutes later, he’d secured the tree to the roof of the car and Jeremy laughed at how Talon had to jerry-rig it by wrapping the rope through the windows so the tree would stay in place on the short drive home. It meant that Cameron would have to leave the rear car windows slightly open and not only that, but the rope could only be tightened once everyone was inside the car. At least, it was a short drive home so it didn’t matter. What mattered was that for the first time, she was seeing a smile on her son’s face.
Between the two of them working to secure the tree to the roof of the car, Talon had struck up a conversation with Jeremy about Legos. As Talon took a step back to make sure the tree was safely secured, Jeremy tugged the sleeve of his parka.
Can you help us take the tree to the house? I don’t think my mother can do it alone.
“Oh no! No!” Cameron exclaimed, embarrassed. “Talon probably has to go somewhere-“
“Oh, no problem at all. I don’t mind,” Talon said. “I’d love to get it into the house for you if you want.”
Afterwards, would you like to build a Lego airplane with me? Jeremy signed before Cameron could tell Talon—without having to sign the words—that he didn’t have to. She wasn’t quite sure about wanting him to know where she and Jeremy now lived.
“I’d love to,” Talon said as he signed, before glancing at her, “but only if your mother says yes.”
Jeremy tugged her arm. Please say yes. Please…
How could she say no to such a sweet face, her son’s deep blue eyes imploring her? Cameron sighed and turned to face Talon, the street light behind her making his own blue eyes sparkle. She couldn’t understand why she was making it so hard for herself.
“Yes, of course, he can come.”
She looked beautiful—stunning was more like it—and Talon couldn’t stop staring at her. Her blue eyes were just as magnetic as he remembered, and her long blonde hair, falling down her shoulders from beneath a knit cap, was straight and lustrous.
Her son, Jeremy, had her blue eyes though he had someone else’s Roman nose and broad lips. And as the boy excitedly glanced back at him as Cameron made her way out of the tree lot, Talon saw dark wavy hair sticking out from under the boy’s woolen cap. His throat tightened, the holiday greeting he’d wanted to say to them drying on his tongue. He was just as Talon’s sister had told him.
He looks just like you.
It was knowledge he kept with him through all the years he spent fighting the wars he’d signed on to fight, praying he’d return in one piece to see the boy for himself. When Adele told him that Jeremy was deaf, Talon asked her to send him educational materials so he could learn sign language on his own. He worked hard at it, dreaming of the day he’d one day be able to sign with Jeremy like it was the most natural thing to do.
And now he’d done just that. The boy couldn’t stop looking at him with his wide blue eyes, a broad grin on his lips.
Talon wanted to touch mother and son, just to make sure they were real. But of course, they were real. He wasn’t crazy enough to be seeing things, at least, not yet. He may have been damaged by the wars he’d fought on foreign lands, but as far as Talon knew, he was still sane. Distressed at times, and often plagued with nightmares—but still sane. Wasn’t that why he was back in the East Coast, fixing an old beach house that had long needed his attention while he was deployed so he could try to go back to the way he used to be?
But what was Cameron doing here?
Last he’d heard, she was somewhere in Arizona, not far from where she used to live with his former friend, Edwin.
Former friend. The thought made Talon scoff. Though Edwin hadn’t stolen Cameron from him for Talon had long believed that no one really steals someone’s affections from another—it’s a deliberate choice, he’d told himself—it was a much better excuse than what really happened: that Cameron had picked the rich kid over the mechanic’s son. Former friend, because the idiot then ran off with his lover after stealing all that money from the city coffers, leaving Cameron and Jeremy to weather the storm that followed.
According to an old news report he found online, she’d been last seen in a women’s shelter in Phoenix. It was where Talon had been searching for her until he decided to busy himself with something more familiar before he’d go crazy wondering where the hell they were, if they were safe, if they were even alive. Besides, with winter in full swing, the house needed his attention more than a woman who probably preferred not to be found. For why else would she disappear like she did with no forwarding address?
He might as well focus on something else, like the Ocean City beach house his grandmother had willed to him for just as his sister told him, he needed something that would root him to reality and keep him busy.
“Keep me out of trouble, you mean?” he’d asked her two weeks earlier when she’d come by the beach house to see the improvements he’d made in the two months since he moved in. With forecasts of winter storms approaching, Talon had a long list of things to fix around the house, a job that kept his mind occupied and nightmares at bay.
“There’s that. And this,” Adele had said, running her hand against the doorframe that had been so warped that Talon could barely open the door when he first arrived. It was a miracle the house was still standing after all the years of neglect. “You’ve done a lot since you got here, and you’ve only been here, what, a month?”
“And already the house looks amazing with all your impeccable handiwork. Now I wish Gran had willed it to me if I’d known I’d get free labor to go with it.”
“Shut up, and hand me the drill,” Talon had said then, shaking his head though he was smiling. Adele may be two years younger than him but she was smart as a tack. Smarter than him in many ways. Fresh out of law school and already working for a top law firm, she doted on him like he was her kid brother. And why shouldn’t she?
He’d been through hell and back, one of two men to survive a roadside bomb that killed seven of his men while on patrol in Afghanistan. At least, living in the beach house again, the sight of the Atlantic Ocean in the distance seemed to temper his nightmares somewhat, even if the only thing he yearned for was the warmth of the woman who’d made the wrong decision so long ago and paid dearly for it.
As Cameron started the engine and let it warm up for a few minutes, she told Talon that it had been her landlady’s old car, a VW Beetle she was too attached to get rid of because it was one of those rare automatic stick shift models but too lazy to have repaired. When Cameron asked if she could use it after noticing how grass was slowly growing around its wheels where it had been parked half on the lawn and half on the driveway, the older woman agreed, but only if Cameron shouldered all expenses to get it running.
You can have it if you can get it in running condition. Registration papers and all. That car’s a collectible, you know.
It cost Cameron over two thousand dollars to get it drive-worthy, the exact amount she got for selling the only jewelry she had left, a necklace and earring set that had belonged to her mother. But it got the car running even if she had to wait a few minutes for the engine to heat up in the winter months before they could actually go somewhere. It was better than nothing.
“Where’s the clutch?” Talon asked, his tall frame folded uncomfortably in the front passenger seat that it made them both laugh at how ridiculous he looked.
“There isn’t any,” she replied.
“So how do you shift gears then?” He leaned towards her to peer at the space below the steering wheel. Now that he’d taken off his knit cap and pulled down the zipper of his parka the moment the heater blasted hot air in his face, Cameron could see that he had that major stubble action going on, revealing an almost dangerous and reckless look about him. But then it was probably also pheromones, too, she thought as he drew away, as if suddenly aware of how close he was to her.
“It’s an electric clutch that senses the weight of my hand on the shifter,” she replied, resting her hand on the gear shift between them, “before it then engages the clutch and you shift it.”
Cameron eased on the brake and shifted the car into first gear, easing it away from the parking spot and into light traffic. If anyone who’d known her while she was married to Edwin heard the things she had just said about the gear shift and the clutch, they’d have insisted it wasn’t the same Cameron they knew. The old Cameron wouldn’t know how to work the clutch or how to open the hood of her Mercedes. The old Cameron charmed people with her smile and knowledgeable conversation about the latest trends in decor and fashion, who stood by her husband when the allegations first started trickling in about the missing millions and Edwin assured them that it was nothing but a huge mistake and that further investigation into the matter would prove his innocence. The old Cameron whom the world saw on their TV monitors as she answered the door blinded by camera lights and flashbulbs as reporters demanded to get a sound byte from her about Edwin being last seen in the Cayman Islands with his personal assistant Mark just hours earlier.
Cameron pushed the thoughts away and focused on the road in front of her, glad that the forecasted snowstorm hadn’t arrived yet. With the tree, they were ready for Christmas. She and Jeremy would make a popcorn garland and they’d decorate the tree with the ornaments she’d found in the dollar store along with the origami creations she’d made from an unopened set she found at the thrift shop. She’d already hung a mistletoe above the front door—just for fun. It had come with the turkey and fixings from the church food drive along with a leg of ham and other canned goods.
“I’m really glad to see you, Cameron,” Talon said, glancing at Jeremy in the back seat, “and Jeremy, too. You didn’t leave a forwarding address with anyone.”
“I’m sorry,” Cameron said. “It was just too crazy back then. I needed to go some where… well, some where safe. It’s too cold for paparazzi to hang out in the bushes around here.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Talon said as Jeremy tapped him on the shoulder and he turned his head to look at Jeremy. “Yeah, bud?” he signed.
Cameron wanted to ask Talon a million questions but with Jeremy in the back seat asking Talon what type of Lego plane they would be building after the tree would be set up, she knew her questions would have to wait.
What was he doing these days? And why was he in Ocean City of all places when last she’d heard, his grandmother had died and surely the beach house where she and Talon spent that last glorious summer together eight years ago must have sold to some developer by now? Was he married? Was that why he never bothered to find her the last eight years – not even a hello, how are things? Did he have a girlfriend? Was she wondering where he was right now? What about kids?
Cameron bit her lower lip, stealing a glance at him as she drove, the questions still coming.
Had it really been eight years since they’d last seen each other? Where had he been all his time? And why was her heart beating so fast at the mere sight of him, the scent of his cologne making her imagination run wild? And why was her heart beating so fast?
Did she still love him?
Cameron answered her own question after they set up the tree three hours later. They’d positioned the tree in the only free corner of the apartment and decorated it with whatever she had on hand including a bag of extra ornaments her landlady had left by the front door. By then, they’d also finished eating dinner of garlic herb chicken she’d prepared in the crockpot that morning, cooked to perfection by the time they opened the door, its aroma filling the whole apartment.
Cameron couldn’t help smiling as she watched Talon help Jeremy assemble a plane out of Legos. Normally, she’d help Jeremy build his creations but tonight, he was more excited to have his new friend help him. As they communicated in perfect sign language, Cameron tried her best not to eavesdrop but it was hard.
Do you live around here? Jeremy asked Talon who was sitting cross-legged on the floor, his thick parka and scarf hanging behind the door, and his boots sitting next to Cameron’s shoes by the entrance. He wore brown woolen socks with white and black stripes.
My grandmother has a house not far from here, Talon replied. She gave it to me and so I’m fixing it up.
Is it close to the beach? Jeremy signed.
Right on the beach.
Jeremy’s eyes widened in excitement. That must be awesome in the summer!
Talon glanced at her but he returned his attention to Jeremy before the boy would notice. Yes, it is. You and your mother should come by some time.
Jeremy paused, thinking for a few moments. Then his face lit up. Are you married?
Talon chuckled, shaking his head as he signed, No, I’m not.
Jeremy glanced at his mother but before she could tell him to stop, he signed, Are you seeing someone?
Cameron held her breath. She should really put a stop to all the probing questions but she wanted to know the answer to that last one, too.
No, I’m single.
Do you have plans for Christmas? Jeremy asked.
Cameron sighed. One thing about her son, he was persistent.
Jeremy tugged Talon’s sleeve. Would you like to spend Christmas with us? It’s just mom and me-
“Jeremy!” Cameron tapped him on the shoulder, her cheeks burning in embarrassment. “You can’t ask Talon such things.”
“It’s okay,” Talon said, signing the words so Jeremy could understand, too. But Jeremy was no longer paying attention to them, his attention now focused on his newly built plane. He got up, holding the plane up over his head as if it were in flight and began to run around the room.
“I’m so sorry about his line of questioning, Talon.”
Talon shrugged. “Kids don’t beat around the bush. It’s refreshing.”
“It’s still embarrassing,” Cameron said, still blushing.
He didn’t answer right away, his eyes meeting hers. “How’ve you been, Cam?”
The sudden change of topic caught her by surprise, the tone of his voice lower now. Cameron cleared her throat. “I’ve been better, but it’s all good. I don’t have to go to parties anymore and pretend I’m having fun.”
“You attended quite a few through the years,” he said. “That’s what Adele told me while I was overseas.”
“Overseas? Where?” Cameron remembered Adele, his younger sister. They ran into each other once, just after the charges had been filed against Edwin. Adele worked for the District Attorney and Cameron could still remember how she expected harsh judgment from Talon’s younger sister just as she’d seen from everyone else. But there was none. Instead, Adele had asked her how she and Jeremy were coping and if ever she needed any help, to ask. But of course, Cameron never asked.
“The Marines,” Talon replied. “I’ve been a civilian roughly three months now and I’ve been busy fixing up Gram’s old place.”
“I didn’t even know you enlisted. But then we haven’t kept in touch since…” Cameron’s voice faded and she glanced at Jeremy who was now sitting on his bean bag chair immersed in a game of Minecraft.
“–since that night, yes.” He nodded slowly. “But then you’ve been busy with Edwin.”
Cameron fought the urge to touch him, as if to remind herself that Talon was real, and that he really was there sitting on the floor in front of her. He’d filled out since the last time she saw him. His neck was thicker, broader, his shoulders wider, and his forearms more defined. There was a firmness to his jaw that hadn’t been there before, and his eyes seemed more haunted, like he’d seen many lifetimes since he they’d parted. But then, a lot had happened in the last eight years, with Cameron getting herself into a marriage of convenience before having Jeremy and Edwin running off with his lover of five years and ten million dollars.
“And now here we are,” Cameron said, shrugging as he looked at her, his blue eyes just as magnetic as she remembered them. “I assumed your mother would have sold the beach house after your grandmother died.”
“Probably, but Grams willed it to me and so I’ve been fixing it up since I’ve been back. It hasn’t changed much since I was last there…” his Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed, “with you.”
A choked sob escaped Cameron’s lips. Why did he have to remind her of their last night together? Whether she’d been too young then or not, she shouldn’t have been too quick to agree to her mother’s plans, too eager to please her family and do what they told her to do, even if it meant abandoning her heart. While Cameron’s family had the name but no longer the money that had been squandered on bad investments and expensive shopping sprees, Edwin’s family was wealthy—the nouveau riche, as her mother used to say, their wealth coming from real estate when the markets went south.
Marry Edwin and you’ll be set for life, dear. He’s way better than that mechanic’s son… what’s his name? Even his name is strange. Who names their son Talon, like he’s an animal or something?
So, she told Talon that night that it was going to be their last night together in that beach house, before she’d become another man’s wife in a few weeks. She knew it hurt Talon more since he and Edwin had been friends. Worse, Cameron hadn’t stood up for Talon at all, too scared to go against her family’s wishes and disappoint them.
And so, she spent the next eight years in misery, pretending to be happy in front of parties and public appearances, learning how to act a certain way, smile a certain way, to gain the public’s trust. She was the wife of the city treasurer after all, and Edwin had far to go. If she’d known he intended to go as far as the Cayman Islands with stolen money, she’d never have played the part of the perfect wife at all. She’d have traded it all to live a simple life instead.
At least, she now slept well at night even if it was on a futon in the living room and not a king-sized bed that she had all to herself for Edwin always slept in a separate room. His pretense lasted only for as long as they were in public, nothing more.
I’ll give Jeremy my name, Cameron, and that’s as far as I’ll go with our arrangement. Your family gets to use my money and I get to use your family connections. You’ll even get to keep your reputation intact. No one needs to know that Jeremy isn’t mine.
Cameron gathered the dinner bowls and utensils, her fingers brushing against Talon’s hand as they both reached for Jeremy’s bowl. She quickly pulled back her hand, startled by the static electricity that had somehow built up between them from sitting on the carpet for so long.
But she also knew it was more than that. It made her heart ache for him and she wondered how it would feel to be in his arms again. Talon helped her up from the floor, taking the bowls and the utensils from her hands and bringing them to the sink.
“You don’t have to clean up.” She reached for the bowls but Talon playfully brushed her hand away.
“I’m just putting them in the sink, Cam, nothing more. You did all the cooking–”
“I just threw the chicken in the crockpot.”
“That’s still cooking in my book,” he said as a strong wind rattled the windows.
“The storm,” she whispered, her heart sinking that their time together was coming to an end. Behind her, Jeremy was still playing with his Lego plane.
“I better get going before it starts to snow.”
“I can drive you–”
“You don’t have to do that, not in this storm. I can call a cab,” Talon said, pulling out his phone from his jeans pocket and dialing a number. In a low voice, he ordered a cab to come pick him up, asking Cameron what her address was. Reluctantly, she told him and he relayed it to the dispatcher before hanging up. “They’ll be here in ten… twenty minutes, maybe longer.”
Cameron followed him to the door where his boots were. As he bent down to slip them on, she touched his thick dark hair. It made her chest tighten as Talon looked up at her in surprise, one foot halfway into his boot. Then his expression changed just before he glanced at Jeremy. Hurt and confusion flitted across his face before he straightened and towered over her.
God, they had so much to say to each other, she thought then and she cleared her throat. “I wrote you a letter eight years ago, but you never answered, so I thought–”
“I joined the Marines the day after you left, and shortly after boot camp, I shipped out to San Diego. I chose infantry of all things,” he replied, chuckling dryly.
“I’m so sorry for everything that happened.”
“When I heard about your grand wedding, all I could do was hope that you were happy.” He frowned as he paused. “Were you happy, Cam?”
She swallowed nervously, not wanting to give him an answer. “I guess you never got my letter.”
He sighed. “I did get to read it… but not when you sent it eight years ago.”
“What do you mean, not when I sent it eight years ago? Where was it the whole time?”
“My sister found it wedged behind one of the boards by the back door of the beach house six months ago. She never really checked up on the place, not when she was too busy studying for her law degree elsewhere,” he replied. “Your letter must have fallen between the boards when you slipped it through the door and that’s where it stayed for years. It’s weathered, barely legible but I scanned it on my computer and read it.” He paused again, a pained expression on his face. “I never knew, Cam.”
“When I didn’t get an answer from you and you disappeared, I thought you didn’t want me. Not that I could blame you, Talon. I should have fought for us harder,” Cameron said, remembering the words she’d written to him eight years ago.
Say the word and I’m yours. The world can disappear, Talon, but so long as I have your love, you—and our future baby—are my world.
He exhaled. “Adele had always suspected Jeremy was mine but there was nothing I could do while I was deployed. I completed my contract the same time Edwin ran off but by the time I made it to Arizona, you were gone. No one knew where you’d gone and your mother refused to talk to me. Even Adele tried looking for you using the last address you listed with the DA, but the landlady said you moved away without a forwarding address.”
“The reporters would show up anywhere,” Cameron whispered. “Jeremy was having panic attacks every time he’d see someone with a camera. I had to figure something out.”
“If I’d known you were here all along–”
“Just the last three months,” Cameron said. “I didn’t think you’d still be here, but it was the only place I remember feeling the happiest even if the place is pretty much deserted during the winter. But the landlady is really nice.”
“Cam, all you had to do was call me–”
“I didn’t think you’d want to talk to me after I chose to be with Edwin,” she stammered.
“Oh, Cam,” Talon said as he tilted her chin up with his finger. “Why would I want nothing to do with you… or our son?”
“He doesn’t know the truth yet… I haven’t told him anything,” she stammered. “As far as he knows, Edwin is his dad, but…they never got along. He was distant–”
“He was an ass, but that’s a story for another day,” Talon said through gritted teeth. He didn’t have to tell Cameron what he’d heard, not when she’d overheard the stories people said behind her back, how Edwin was perfect on the outside, thinking only of the perfect photo opportunity to present his family to the public, made even more perfect because of Jeremy’s disability which endeared him to his constituents. But behind closed doors, he barely spoke to Jeremy, choosing instead to speak in a loud voice, almost yelling as if the boy was hard of hearing instead of deaf. Cameron had played the mediator in almost every encounter, more so after overhearing Edwin call him “a dumb idiot, just like your real dad” two years earlier, and hoping that Jeremy hadn’t read his lips.
She should have left him then, but she’d been too scared, too caught up in the image Edwin had presented their family to the world that she couldn’t bear to tear it down. In the end, it would take a scandal but she did it. She left that world and here she was.
“It will take some time before we can tell Jeremy the truth,” Talon continued. “But what matters now is that we’re together again… even if it took eight years to get here. That counts for something, right? That’s a start.”
She nodded, the words caught in her throat.
He took a deep breath and exhaled. “But I mean it, Cam. I’ve been looking all over for you and Jeremy. Tonight, something told me to take a walk to clear my head and I’m glad I did, because here you are, you and Jeremy. You were right here all along.”
“All I wanted was the perfect Christmas for him, small tree and all,” she whispered. “I just wish–”
Cameron paused when she heard Jeremy jumping off the futon and running towards them, as if he’d just looked up from whatever game he was playing and realized that Talon was leaving.
You can’t be leaving yet! It’s Christmas eve. Please stay with us! It’s snowing outside, and the car needs to warm up and sometimes it won’t even run when it’s this cold! Jeremy’s hands moved fast and with purpose, the sound of his hands slapping against each other with his words echoing in the room. Please ask him to stay, Mom.
“Jeremy, Talon needs to leave before the storm–” Cameron began to sign but stopped when Jeremy’s eyes grew wide as he glanced up.
Look! You’re both standing under the mistletoe.
Cameron froze, looking up just as Talon did the same. She’d forgotten all about the darn mistletoe. At best, she had hoped to dream of kissing the man standing in front of her, even though she knew he wasn’t a dream anymore.
Jeremy tugged Talon’s arm. Aren’t you supposed to kiss her under the mistletoe?
Cameron swore she saw Talon’s cheeks color beneath his stubble, his gaze lowering to her lips.
Only if she wants me to, he signed as Jeremy turned to face her, a broad grin on his face. She laughed, feeling her cheeks turn warm as Talon dipped his head toward her.
Cameron closed her eyes. She felt his lips touch hers, a soft kiss that warmed her all over like an embrace in the darkest of night when all she dreamed of was Talon coming back for her and his son, just as he had come back to them now.
Then with a choked sob, Talon pulled her in a deep embrace, reaching for Jeremy with his other arm and pulling him between them. As he held them tightly, Cameron felt hot tears flow down her face and she hastily wiped them away as Jeremy squeezed between them to open the front door.
Snow! Now you can’t leave, he signed excitedly as he turned to look at them. Will you be able to spend Christmas with us now? Please say yes. I know Mom keeps saying our house is small but–
“–it’s still home,” Talon said, signing the words to Jeremy.
As Cameron looked up at him, something inside her lifted, as if all the regrets from the last eight years took flight. It no longer mattered that once upon a time she and Jeremy had lived in a grand house, or that she drove a gorgeous car, or that the Christmas tree they once had was over seven feet tall and that underneath were all the presents any boy could want. But even without all those, Cameron saw the look of happiness and excitement on her son’s face and she knew then that right now, she had everything she needed around her… and that Jeremy did, too.
“Please say yes,” she whispered as Jeremy pulled Talon back into the living room, toward the small Christmas tree. Laughing, Talon really didn’t need to say the word, but he did anyway, the one word Cameron had waited eight long years to hear.
That evening, they sat around the tree with its broken branches that faced the wall. Talon and Cameron watched as Jeremy excitedly opened his presents, forgoing the cookies-and-milk routine for as far as Jeremy was concerned, Santa had already arrived in the form of a new friend.
There were presents from the shelter where she and Jeremy stayed when they first arrived in Atlantic City, and a few from the nearby church that included two gift cards. Cameron had bought him a Lego set he’d put down on his Christmas list, and the moment Jeremy tore open the wrapper, he excused himself and went into his room to start building it, leaving them alone in the living room.
From the folded-up futon couch, Talon watched her put away the discarded wrapping paper in the recycling bin. He would have helped but Cameron had ordered him to stay where he was and he wasn’t about to argue with her. He was happy just being around her and his son. Besides, what could he say that would tell her just how he was really feeling, that after so many years spent in the darkness of the ward he fought, mired in questions about decisions one made when one was too young to know better, his world had grown brighter in a matter of minutes?
“Thank you for staying,” Cameron said as she squeezed his hand. Her fingers felt soft and warm against his callused palm, and as she brought his hand to her lips, Talon caught his breath. “I’m glad I wasn’t dreaming when I thought I heard you call my name tonight. You’ve made Jeremy and me so happy, more than you’ll ever know.”
Her voice faded and she took a deep breath and sighed, lowering his hand back on his thigh.
“Why did you come back here?” he asked. “I would never have thought to look for you right under my nose.”
“I wanted to show Jeremy the place where I’d been happiest… before I made that terrible decision–“
“Please don’t blame yourself, Cam.” Talon stroked her cheek with the back of his fingers. “If anyone should be blaming someone, it’s me. Instead of staying one more day to learn that you’d chosen me over Edgar, I ran away to a life that I thought would help me forget you. Only I couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried. And then Adele told me about how Jeremy looked just like I did when I was his age, only I couldn’t do anything, not when anything I’d say would have humiliated you. Certainly, not in the middle of Edgar’s campaign for Treasurer and he busy flaunting his perfect family.”
She lowered her gaze as Talon continued. “And so I told myself I was fighting for a bigger cause—for my country—when all I was really doing was running away from the truth until I couldn’t run anymore, not even from myself.”
Talon could tell her about the IED but he didn’t. Now was not the time. How could he let her know that upon seeing his friends dead and dying around him amidst the crumpled remains of their vehicle was like pushing the Reset button in his life? How could he tell her that it was the reality check that made him realize it was time to stop running and start fighting for them… for his family?
No, he told himself. He’d save that for another day, another time. For now, there was only Cameron and Jeremy.
“Neither of us are running now,” she whispered. “We’re both where we’re supposed to be.”
Talon nodded. “I guess you could say that.”
They didn’t speak for a few moments, the feel of Cameron’s soft fingers tracing the line of his jaw soothing him.
“Kiss me, Talon,” she whispered and that was all he needed to hear.
He pulled her to him and kissed her, the feel of her body filling him with a warm and heady sensation he hadn’t felt in a long time. It told him that she was in his arms and that she was real, just as the little apartment with its drab beige walls was real. She tasted of laughter and smiles, of a love lost but now found again. She tasted of family… and home.
Talon pulled away a few moments later and gazed at her. “I want us to start over but I can’t guarantee you the same things Edwin gave you–”
Cameron placed her finger against his lips and smiled. “Oh, Talon, the only life I ever wanted was with you. We’ll just have to take things one day at a time. It won’t be easy, not when we’ve got eight years of catching up to do, and… and there’s Edwin, too. If he’s caught and brought back to face trial, it’ll be a nightmare.”
Talon caught her hand and brought it to his lips. “A nightmare we’ll both face together. I promise. For now, one day at a time sounds good.”
They both leaned back on the couch, and for the next few minutes, Talon held her in his arms in silence. What else was there to say that their hearts hadn’t already said without the need for words?
Minutes later, Jeremy emerged from his bedroom to show them what he’d built with his brand-new Lego set. Cameron and Talon scooted away from each other, beckoning for him to sit between them.
So, what did you build, young man? she asked him as Jeremy proudly held up his latest creation before he handed it to Talon.
I built us a house. It’s small, like this one, and it only has two rooms because that’s all I had to make it with, he signed, beaming as he gazed at his Lego house and then at both of them.
But it’s a home, he added. Our home.
The tree lot was full when they arrived and in the back seat, nine-year-old Jeremy was excited. He was getting to pick the tree again this year like he did the year before, giving his mother the scare of her life when he pointed to a seven-foot Noble Fir tree that she knew wouldn’t fit in the beach house they now called home. But then with a mischievous grin, his hand drifted to the right and he pointed to the six-foot Fraser Fir beside it instead.
Almost got you, didn’t I? he’d signed to her and she nodded, laughing as Talon left her side to inspect the tree their son had picked out.
This year, Jeremy knew what he wanted. He knew where it would go, right by the bay window that faced the Boardwalk and beyond it, the ocean. He’d browse the rows of trees, looking for the perfect tree while Cameron and Talon would follow right behind him, never rushing him. Once decked with lights and ornaments, this tree would make it on all the Christmas cards they’d mail out the old-fashioned way to family and friends beyond the boundaries of Ocean City, New Jersey. It was their home now and had been for the last two years.
Ever since that first Christmas when she and Jeremy ran into Talon at the same tree lot, the three of them had become inseparable. Mother and son moved in with Talon a week later and a month after that, Talon got the results of the paternity test. Jeremy was 99.999 percent his. Not that there’d been any doubt about that for he’d known it the moment he first laid eyes on the boy just as his sister had known the moment she saw a newspaper clipping. Jeremy looked just like his father, with his bright blue eyes and broad grin, waves of dark hair peeking out from under his wool cap.
I like this one, he signed before pointing to a Noble fir that seemed to stand out on its own in the far row. Do you think it will fit?
Why don’t we measure it? Talon pulled out a measuring tape from his jacket and handed it to him. With his sister Adele joining them for Christmas in a few days, Jeremy wanted a tree to rival all trees. He also couldn’t wait to see what presents his Aunt Adele would bring him from New York City, where she now lived and worked. Lately, he’d been obsessed about the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island and they’d all arranged to spend the New Year’s break in the city and spend time seeing the sights together.
Cameron watched father and son walk toward the tree and measure it as best they could. While Talon held the tape above the boy’s head to mark the top of the tree, Jeremy brought the end down to the ground, stepped on the metal tab and stood up to see the numbers on the tape.
Seventy-two inches and a half, he signed. It will fit?
Talon nodded, pressing the button on the tape and it rolled back into its holder. It was a game they played as Jeremy learned about geometric shapes and surface areas, fractions and decimals in school. While Cameron took care of any writing and reading homework, the math and sciences were Talon’s fields of expertise. While he served as a scout sniper in Afghanistan for over four deployments, handling long-range rifles for days on end, Talon returned home wanting nothing to do with guns. Instead, he learned all he could about carpentry while renovating his beach house, his skills growing with each project he tackled until neighbors, mostly those who lived in Manhattan and came up to Ocean City only during the summer months, asked him to maintain their homes, too. Now it was a year-long venture, one that kept him busy and gave him a good income, one that allowed Cameron to stay home and be with Jeremy.
She volunteered at his school and got to know the teachers and other parents. No one asked about Edgar and if they ever talked behind her back, it didn’t last long for what was there to talk about, really? She didn’t steal the money; Edgar did. She didn’t know and even if she did, it was none of their business.
It was a life she wouldn’t trade for the world, not even for her old life with expensive cars, glamorous parties, and servants at her beck and call. This was the life she wanted to live, with Talon and Jeremy and the small beach community that took her in as their own, even if it took some time.
“Have you found a tree, Miss?” asked the attendant and as Cameron turned to face him, she recognized him as the same man from two years earlier. Bob, that was his name. “I saw you guys walk in but I was with a customer. Always nice to do business with you.”
“Merry Christmas, Bob.” She shook his hand. “I think they found the perfect tree over there but there’s someone helping them already.”
“One of my sons, yes. They usually help me out during the day.” He paused, his expression turning serious. “I’m glad they finally got him back stateside, Miss…” Bob’s voice faded, as if he were searching for something.
“Miss Blake,” she said and he nodded. “I’m back to being Miss Blake again.” And boy, was she glad. It had taken a lot of legal paperwork to untangle herself from Edwin and take her own name back but she did it. His extradition back to the US six months ago made it a lot easier for he signed the divorce papers right away. Edwin had bigger problems than having to fight her request for a divorce.
“Miss Blake, I’m glad they got Edgar Thomas finally and his assistant. Took awhile but they did it.”
“I’m sorry you had to go through so much on your own, you and your son.”
Cameron smiled. “But then, I wouldn’t have found my way back here if it didn’t happen.”
“Funny how life works sometimes.”
“Yeah,” he said. “If anything, it showed the world who they really were inside. But that’s life, isn’t it? Some of us turn out rotten all the way to the core and others–”
“-learn to be strong for their own sake and come out stronger than they ever thought possible in the end,” Cameron said before a customer caught Bob’s attention. “Merry Christmas, Bob. And Happy New Year.”
“Same to you, too, Miss Blake. Give my regards to your man and your little boy for me.”
* * *
Later that evening, with the tree set up by the window and halfway decorated with strings of blinking lights and a popcorn garland before they all decided to resume the next evening, Jeremy excused himself so he could go into his room and play with his Legos, leaving Cameron and Talon alone in the living room. Dinner was cooking in the oven, the aroma of roast mingling with the strong scent of fir.
“Everything okay? You got quiet there all of a sudden,” Talon murmured from behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist and resting his chin on her shoulder. They’d had to wrangle four long strings of tree lights that somehow got all tangled up in the storage box and if they only stopped laughing for once, they’d probably have had the tree decorated by now. But it was all good. For now, the tree was aglow with many twinkling white lights and Cameron loved it.
“More than okay,” she replied. “Everything’s perfect.”
“That makes me one happy and lucky man.”
“You make me one happy woman, Talon. You always have” She turned her head to kiss his cheek. “I couldn’t ask for more than the life you’ve given me. Jeremy and this.”
He let go of her waist and turned her around to face him. “You took the words right out of my mouth. Do you know this will be our third Christmas together?”
“Yes, I do, but I didn’t realize you were counting.”
“Oh, I keep track.” He grinned before his expression turned serious. “Can I ask you a question?”
Talon took a deep breath. “Will you marry me?”
The question came so fast it caught Cameron by surprise and she wondered if she misheard him. “What did you say?”
This time Talon got down on one knee before holding up a ring between his fingers, one that used to belong to his mother. The only reason she knew this was because Talon’s mother had shown it to her so many years ago, before they spent that fateful night in the same beach house they now called home.
“Will you marry me, Cam?” Talon asked, his voice almost hoarse. “Will you be my wife?”
There was no hesitation in her answer. Of course, she’d marry him. He was her heart and soul, the part of her that had been missing for so long when he’d gone away to fight in foreign lands. He completed her just as much as he told her she completed him, too.
“Yes,” she whispered, taking his face in her hands. “Yes, I’ll marry you, Talon Michaels. It’s always been you.”
“Merry Christmas, love,” he murmured, slipping the ring around her finger. “I love you more than the world.”
She giggled, loving how the ring felt around her finger. It simply felt so right, like it had been made just for her. “And I love you right back.”
Talon got up and gathered her in his arms and for the next few minutes, they looked at the tree with its blinking lights. Beyond the window, they could hear the surf crashing into the shore and somewhere in the neighborhood, someone was playing Christmas music.
Cameron felt a soft tap on her shoulder and she turned to see Jeremy looking up at her.
Did he ask you?
Ask me what? Her engagement ring reflected the glittering tree lights as she signed.
Did he ask you to marry him?
She turned to look at Talon quizzically but Jeremy continued to sign. I hope you said yes.
I did. Look! She showed him the ring and Jeremy’s face brightened in a wide grin before he wrapped his arms around both of them in a hug.
Cameron lost track of how long they stood embracing in the living room for in the end, it didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that they were all together now.
They were a family.
* * *
Thank you so much for reading!
If you’ve read Breaking the Rules, Talon was supposed to be one of two men who survived an IED blast in Afghanistan, the other being Sawyer Villier. But characters often decide their stories and Cam and Talon remain a standalone short story just for the holidays, inspired by a quick trip to the tree lot with my little boy.
* * *