The clock was ticking down the final minutes. No, not the final minutes until a bomb exploded.
But close enough.
It was December twenty-third. Two days until Christmas.
Thirty minutes before winter break began and I could leave for my week of fun-in-the-snow at Lake Tahoe.
Maybe I’d meet a hot ski instructor looking for a fling. A fling with earth-shattering sex.
When was the last time I’d had sex like that?
Good question. Unfortunately, it was one I had no answer for—other than it had been a very, very, very long time.
No, I didn’t mean that I hadn’t had sex in an extremely long time…which was technically true. I just meant…well, I think you get the picture.
“Miss Versteeg,” Jessica said, bouncing in her seat, her arm stretched up as though she were trying to touch the classroom ceiling. “Will you read us a story?”
A symphony of excited voices filled the room—twenty-one first graders agreeing with Jessica’s request.
I smiled at their grinning faces. “All right. We have time for one book. What story would you like to hear?”
Maybe they would like to hear the one about the princess who could do no right by her family. No matter what she did, they were never happy.
She got engaged to the prince they didn’t approve of.
She became an elementary school teacher instead of following the family tradition of becoming a lawyer.
And then because her prince—her one true love—didn’t love her in return (yes, that was a shocker to her, too)…he dumped her.
She did eventually marry another prince—one her family did approve of. This meant their kingdoms would at last be united.
At least that was the case until he ran off (translation: had an illicit affair) with a witch.
Did her royal family send its knights to bestow vengeance on such wanton disregard of the poor princess’s feelings?
“Miss Versteeg,” Tommy said, waving a book at me with Jolly Old Saint Nick on the cover, and interrupting my not-so-pleasant stroll down memory lane. “Can you read ’Twas the Night Before Christmas to us?”
Smiling, I took the book from him. “Of course.”
I indicated for everyone to sit in the reading corner. The scraping of chairs against the tiled floor and loud voices clambered over each other in the air. Normally, I’d remind my students to use their indoor voices. This time I didn’t bother; I just absorbed their happiness. Everyone deserved to be happy, especially at this time of year.
Less than thirty minutes later, the story was read, everything was tidied away in preparation for the winter holiday, and twenty-two glowing faces were waiting by the classroom door.
“Does everyone have all their coats, mittens, hats, and boots?” I asked, loud enough to be heard over the chatter. It never failed—each day, at least one item was forgotten in my classroom. “Remember, you won’t be able to return for missing items until school starts in January.”
I glanced at the clock again. Ten. Nine. Eight.
Twenty-two little engines revved, unable to hold back much longer.
Five. Four. Three.
“Have a wonderful holiday break, everyone.”
The buzzer hummed loudly through the classroom.
And twenty-two eager students were out the door faster than Santa could say Ho, Ho, Ho.
And I was left standing in my empty classroom, with the same sense of emptiness gnawing at my bones.
I pushed the pity party aside. Who had time for that?
In less than twenty-four hours, I would be swoosh, swoosh, swooshing down the beginner ski run. While, I might add, looking sexy in my new winter gear.
Or at least I hoped I looked sexy.
Had I ever skied before?
Nope. Not at all. My family preferred to vacation in sunny locations. My ex-husband was allergic to the snow.
Well, not literally.
I began straightening up my desk.
“Are you ready for your big trip?” Zoe, my best friend, asked from the classroom door. I looked up. In her hand was a long, flat box wrapped in red paper.
“I just have to finish packing. Then I’m good to go.”
She rolled her eyes. “Right, as if you haven’t already packed. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if you were packed two weeks ago.”
There might be a chance that she was right.
“I have a few last minute things to add.”
“Have I told you I’m jealous?” She might’ve said it a few times, but I didn’t buy it for a second. How could she be jealous of me spending a week on my own in the mountains? She had a loving husband and two adorable kids to spend the holidays with. I would gladly trade in my trip for what she had.
My phone rang on the desk. I picked it up and checked the name on the screen. A shudder rolled through me like when the giant from Jack and the Beanstalk stomped around the earth. Fee-fi-fo-fum.
“Let me guess,” Zoe said, an extra dose of pity in her tone, “the Abominable Snow Monster herself?”
I nodded and answered the phone. Experience had taught me that when it came to my grandmother, it was better to yank off the Band-Aid right away. Because if she had to phone you back…
Another shudder rolled through me.
I pressed my finger against my lips to warn Zoe to be quiet, and I upped the volume, so she could also hear my grandmother. It would save time in the long run. Then I wouldn’t have to repeat the entire conversation to Zoe once it was over.
“Hello, Grandmother.” I didn’t bother to fake that I was happy to hear from her. Which was just as well since I wasn’t a good actress. Just ask my high school drama teacher.
“What is this nonsense that you’re not coming to the Bahamas for Chris and Gloria’s wedding?”
And hi to you too, Grandmother. “Because I don’t feel comfortable attending my ex-husband’s wedding.”
“Why on earth would you feel uncomfortable?” My grandmother’s go-to tone? Ticked off, with a side order of arrogance. She couldn’t look further down her nose at me than if she had been standing on top of the Empire State Building. “Their parents have been friends of our family for decades. And your grandfather and I have known their grandparents…”
Zoe mouthed, Since the dinosaurs walked the planet, distracting me from the rest of what Grandmother was saying.
A giggle bubbled deep in my belly, ready to shoot out like soda in a heavily shaken bottle. My hand shot to my mouth in a feeble attempt to contain it.
Zoe winked and mouthed, You’re welcome.
On a scale of one to ten, how successful was my scowl? Negative one to the power of some infinite number—thanks to my best friend’s ability to make me laugh.
Clearly my grandmother’s question had been rhetorical. She didn’t bother pausing her tirade long enough for me to answer.
I opened and shut my hand in a blah-blah-blah gesture. Zoe wasn’t so successful at containing her laughter. A loud giggle tore through the air.
“Young lady,” Grandmother said, even though I was thirty-one years old. “This is not something to laugh at.”
Zoe crossed her eyes and made a face.
I snorted and turned around so I couldn’t see her anymore. My Spidey senses warned me I was in for a lecture, and I didn’t want Zoe to see the impact it had on me.
This was why I never called my grandmother.
Now if only I was equally successful when it came to hanging up on her. It was just one of those things I’d never mastered—mostly because it had been drilled into me from a young age that you had to respect your elders. Even when you didn’t necessarily agree with them.
“You messed up your marriage,” Grandmother said, “and you dishonored our family with your behavior.”
“My behavior?” I said it slowly as if sounding out each word. “Chris was the one who cheated while we were married.”
“But if you had been a better wife to him, it would never have happened. You could have at least tried to look better for him. It wouldn’t have hurt you to lose some weight. That’s why he’s marrying Gloria.”
“He’s marrying her because she looks like a stick?” A stick that would easily snap in two if accidentally stepped on. “Maybe I don’t want to be a stick.”
The pout in my tone? Not a good thing.
It was a sign of weakness.
And my grandmother preyed on weakness. Whereas most people fueled up on food, she regularly sacrificed virgins and devoured their weakness like it was candy.
“I will not have you talking about my best friend’s granddaughter that way. I booked you a plane ticket to join us tomorrow, and you will be on that flight. You will attend the wedding, and you will be on your best behavior.”
Let me just note here that it wasn’t my fault I tripped on the hem of my wedding dress. And it was not my fault I stumbled into the table that held my wedding cake. Nor was it my fault I couldn’t save said cake and it landed not-so-gracefully on the floor.
Was that a sign that my marriage to Chris had been doomed to fail from the very beginning? Quite possibly.
Although looking back, it wouldn’t have been a big enough sign to warn me about the truth when it came to my ex-husband—which was revealed after I discovered him and Gloria in our bed. In leather.
Well, Gloria was in leather and slapping a whip against his bare ass.
What was he wearing?
A studded leather collar and a leash.
And nothing else.
You don’t want to know how much vodka I shot back to get that image out of my head.
“Sorry, but I have plans.” In my mind, I was swooshing down the mountain with my hot ski instructor. Don’t let her get to you.
“Then you will cancel your plans.”
Or what? The unspoken question hung out there like dirty laundry.
When I didn’t respond, my grandmother released a hard sigh. “Ava, I do understand that it will be mildly uncomfortable for you. But the women in our family always live up to their responsibilities. And attending the wedding is part of your responsibility.”
“Seriously, Grandmother, what are you going to do? Threaten to take away my trust fund if I don’t show up? Too late. You already did that when I decided to go into education instead of pursuing a law degree. I turned my back on the money years ago. Or have you forgotten that? Anyway, I need to go now. My…” I turned back to Zoe. “The school principal just stepped into the classroom…to…to talk to me.”
Zoe checked over her shoulder. At least I fooled one person.
“You will be on that plane, young lady,” my grandmother said.
I hung up and grinned at the phone. “Don’t hold your breath.”
“What will she do if you’re not on the plane?” Zoe asked.
“If I’m lucky, disown me. But so far that hasn’t happened.” I thought when I filed for divorce I had finally hit that point.
The Versteegs never filed for divorce.
Or so I was told.
It would explain why most of my wealthy relatives were grumpy. They were trapped in loveless marriages.
Only my parents’ marriage had been filled with love—and continued to be that way. They were the reason I still talked to my grandmother. They were the only reason I hadn’t completely turned my back on my family—even if my parents did side with them most of the time.
“Why do you put up with that BS?” Zoe asked.
“If I put up with it, do you really think I’d be driving to Lake Tahoe this afternoon? No, I’d be on that plane, contemplating the odds of it falling from the sky and sparing me the agony of attending the wedding.”
“I can’t believe your family expects you to attend, especially after what that asshole did to you.”
I let out a long-suffering sigh—faked, of course. Mostly. “It’s not like we get to pick our family.” If we could, I would’ve put in a request to be a member of Zoe’s. “And it’s not like my parents expect me to be there. They understand my reasons for not going.”
Did they know about Chris’s penchant for whips and leather and chains? I never told them. Telling them about it would’ve been mortifying beyond words. So I kept the words to myself. Even Zoe didn’t know about it.
“True, but it still doesn’t make it right.” She held out the gift to me. “Merry Christmas. This is exactly what the doctor ordered for your getaway.”
I took it from her. “Didn’t we already exchange gifts at your Christmas party last week?”
“Yes, but this is something I couldn’t give you in front of the kids.”
“Given that you gave me a vibrator for my birthday and it’s still in tip-top condition, I’m guessing that’s not what this is.” Plus it felt lighter.
I opened the box and peeled back the tissue paper. Inside were what looked like scraps of red and black and light pink satin and lace.
And a sprig of mistletoe.
I placed the box on the desk and removed the pink satin.
“I realize it’s been awhile since you bought yourself any sexy bras and panties, but I know this is it.” Zoe’s barely contained excitement was hard to miss.
“What do you mean ‘this is it’? And what’s the mistletoe for?”
“To kiss under, of course. I happen to know that you’re going to meet your Forever Love at Lake Tahoe. Because of the mistletoe.”
I chuckled. “What does mistletoe have to do with me finding my Mr. Right?”
“Because I believe in the power of it when it comes to love. My grandmother was at a military Christmas dance and kissed a handsome stranger under the mistletoe. A year later, they were married. My mother was at a friend’s Christmas party and she kissed a handsome stranger under the mistletoe. A year later, they were married. And then my sister—”
“Let me guess…she kissed a handsome stranger under the mistletoe, and a year later they were married.”
Zoe laughed. “No, that’s not what happened. Chloe already knew Tony. They were friends in college. But he kissed her under the mistletoe, and she fell in love with him right then and there. Eight months later, they were saying their I dos. And then there’s me…”
This story I did know. Evan had proposed to Zoe under the mistletoe.
“So you’re saying I should spend my holiday at Lake Tahoe kissing all the available men under the mistletoe, just to find this magical guy?” Yes, because that was exactly what the shy girl inside of me wanted to do. Right along with getting all my teeth pulled without any anesthesia.
“Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. I swear it, Ava. You’re going to find Mr. Right while you’re away. And you’ll have me and the mistletoe to thank for it.”
Mentally shaking my head, I returned the lid to the box.
“Promise me you’ll do it, Ava. You owe yourself this. Consider it your birthday present to me.”
I rolled my eyes. “Your birthday isn’t until June.”
“So it will be my early birthday present. Just promise me.”
“Okay, I promise.” Guess it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try. Maybe there was something to her family legend…even if I wasn’t a member of her family. Maybe just knowing Zoe was enough for it to work for me.
“And you’re also going to promise me that you won’t spend your vacation working on your next novel.”
My next novel being the third one in my middle-grade Greek mythology series. That’s right. By day I was an elementary school teacher. By night, an author. “I promise. This trip is about restoring my creative juices. And with that, I should get going if I want to make it to the resort in good time.”
“Especially since it sounds like a storm will be hitting the area later tonight.”
She nodded. “Evan called earlier and told me to let you know. He said you should be fine, just as long as you don’t get delayed leaving on time.” She gave me a big hug. “Remember your promise. Kiss every available man you see.”
“I promise.” Not to make a fool of myself.
Where’s your spirit of adventure? the know-it-all voice inside my head asked. And what’s the big deal? It could be a lot of fun. You’ve always wanted to be an actress.
I have? I must have missed that memo back in private school.
As I drove closer to Lake Tahoe, thick snowflakes obscured my vision, even with the windshield wipers on. And the defogger was doing a crappy job defogging the window. But at least my radio hadn’t failed me. Cheery Christmas tunes continued to fill the small space.
“You do realize you’re supposed to make it easier for me to see, right?” I asked. And no—I wasn’t actually expecting the defogger to answer me.
I glanced at the speedometer. My car was traveling forty miles per hour under the speed limit. But no way did I want to play risk-taker and go faster. I could see it now: I’d hit a patch of ice, spin wildly out of control, and end up in a ravine.
Wasn’t that what happened to Paul Sheldon, the protagonist in Stephen King’s Misery? He ended up in a ditch, and that crazed fan happened upon him. She got all uppity because he had killed off her favorite heroine…and then the next thing he knew, the fan turned into a psycho bitch.
Did I mention Paul Sheldon was a bestselling author in the novel?
I might have been a New York Times bestselling author for a middle-grade fantasy series, but at least I didn’t have to worry about a kid going psycho on me for killing off his favorite character.
Or maybe instead of a psycho fan finding me in the ditch, the Minotaur—the giant beast from Greek mythology—would come across my wrecked vehicle and make a meal out of me.
To distract myself from thoughts of winding up in a ditch and my remains not being found until spring, I sang along with the Christmas music.
The good news? No one was around to hear me. Yes, I’ll admit it—I was gifted with the creative gene when it came to my vivid imagination, but I fell short on the ability to sing in tune.
“Not much longer till we’re at the resort,” I said to either my car or myself or us both. “And then I can hang out in the hot tub. And maybe I’ll get lucky and some sexy, single guy will join me.” And then I can put Zoe’s mistletoe to the test.
A sudden thump was the first warning I got that something was wrong. Followed by vibrations rattling me to the core and the steering wheel pulling to the right. I turned off the music and my worst fear was confirmed as a loud flap-flap-flap noise taunted me.
My heart picked up its pace, mirroring the flapping of the flat tire. I tightened my grip on the steering wheel.
And because fate clearly hadn’t paid attention to my plans for the holidays, my tires hit ice and my car slid toward—just my luck—a ditch.
“Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God.”
Sad to say, that really wasn’t how I had envisioned using those words while on this trip.
That was my last thought before my front tires skidded off the embankment.
© Stina Lindenblatt 2018