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Deck The Halls
By Arlene James
Steeple HillCopyright © 2005 Arlene James
All right reserved.
The voice on the answering machine, while obviously feminine, sounded curt and cheeky.
"Come to your old apartment and get your mail before I trash it. Never heard of mail forwarding?"
Vince smacked the heel of one hand against his forehead. Where was his brain? He hadn't given a single thought to having his personal mail forwarded. In the past few weeks he'd been too busy settling into the new house, replacing his business accountant and hiring enough mechanics to fulfill a city maintenance contract to think about his personal mail.
Just about everything important came to the offices of Cutler Automotive, but that was no excuse. He should've realized that the new tenant of his old apartment would have to deal with his share of circulars and the other junk that routinely clogged every mailbox in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Besides, something important did occasionally find its way into his residential mailbox. In fact, the materials he'd been expecting about the spring singles' retreat at his church would undoubtedly be among the papers waiting for him at the old apartment.
He hit a button and listened to the message again. Her irritation couldn't have been more obvious, but he found himself smiling at the huskiness of her voice melded with the tartness of her tone. He heard both strength and vulnerability there, an odd combination of toughness and femininity. Since he was still wearing his jacket over his work clothes, he decided that he might as well go at once, make his apologies and relieve her of the unwanted burden of his mail.
Picking up his keys from the counter, he jauntily tossed them into the air, snatched them back again and retraced his steps through the new, sparsely furnished house to the garage and the shiny, white, three-quarterton pickup truck waiting there. Glancing at the sign proudly painted on the door, he climbed inside and started it up. The powerful engine rumbled throatily for a moment before he backed the truck out onto the drive and in to the street.
As he shifted the transmission into a forward gear he tossed a wave at his next-door neighbor Steve, who was taking advantage of the clear, early-November weather in the last hour of daylight to walk his dog. The Boltons were nice people. Wendy, the missus, had been one of the first people to welcomeVince to the neighborhood. They were about his age and the proud parents of a sixteenmonth-old curly-top named Mandy, who took most of their time and attention, but Wendy seemed determined to "fix him up" with one of her single friends. Steve had confided that his wife foundVince too "tall, dark and delish" to be still single at twenty-nine, but that she'd have felt the same way if he'd been a "bald warthog."
Vince didn't know about being "tall, dark and delish," but he didn't think he was a "bald warthog," either. He'd happily give up the single state the moment that God brought the right woman into his life. So far he hadn't stumbled across her -- not that he'd exactly been out beating the bushes for the future Mrs. Cutler.
He was a busy man with a booming business, three garages and a large extended family, including his parents, four sisters and half a dozen nieces and nephews, with one more on the way, not to mention the brothersin-law and innumerable aunts, uncles and cousins. That, church and a few close friends was about all he could manage, frankly.
As he drove toward his old apartment building, a feeling of deja vu overcame him. He remembered well the day, almost a decade ago, when he'd first moved into the small, bland efficiency apartment. A heady feeling of liberation had suffused him then. He'd felt so proud to have left the home of his parents and struck out on his own, leaving behind two pesky younger sisters and two nosy older ones.
Of course, with more freedom had come greater responsibility. Then had come the hard-won understanding that responsibility itself could be counted even more of a joy than any foolish, youthful notions of "freedom" that he'd once entertained. A fellow could take pride in meeting his responsibilities and meeting them well, whereas freedom -- as he had learned -- could become an empty exercise in keeping loneliness at bay.
Other lessons had followed. He'd found his best friends in moments of difficulty rather than fun, though that was important, too. Most significant, Vince had learned that those who truly loved him -- his family, particularly his parents -- were bulwarks of support rather than burdens of bondage. The mature Vince possessed a keen awareness that not everyone was as richly blessed in that area.
For the life he had built and the man he had become, he had his parents, with their thoughtful guidance, patience, loving support and Christian examples, to thank. For his parents, he could only thank God, which was not to say that from time to time they did not make him wish that he lived on a different continent, particularly when it came to his single status.
By the time he pulled into the rutted parking lot of the small, dated, two-story apartment building, Vince was feeling pretty mellow with memories. He was by nature a fairly easygoing type, but he possessed a certain intensity, too, an innate drive that had served him well in building his business. Looking around the old place as he left the vehicle and moved onto the walkway, he saw that nothing whatsoever had changed, only his circumstances.
Onward and upward, he mused, setting foot on the bottom step of an all-too-familiar flight of stairs. His heavy, steel-toed boots rang hollowly against the open metal treads as he climbed. After passing three doors on the open landing, he stopped at the fourth and automatically reached for the doorknob. Only at the last moment did he derail his hand, lifting it and coiling it into a fist. Before his knuckles could make contact with the beige-painted wood, however, the door abruptly opened and a feminine face appeared. Obviously she had heard him coming.
"Who are you?"
Vince looked down into clear green eyes like pale jade marbles fringed with sandy-brown lashes. Large and almond-shaped, they literally challenged him. He backed up a step, lowering his hand and took in the whole of her oval face.
It was a bit too long to be labeled classically pretty, just as her nose seemed a bit too prominent to be called pert. But those eyes and the lush contours of a generous mouth, along with high, prominent cheekbones and the sultry sweep of eyebrows a shade darker than her golden-brown hair made a very striking, very feminine picture, indeed. The hair was the finishing touch, her "crowning glory," as the Scriptures said. Thick and straight with a healthy, satiny shine, it hung well past her shoulders, almost to her elbows.
Excerpted from Deck The Halls by Arlene James Copyright © 2005 by Arlene James.
Excerpted by permission.
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