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The mistletoe promise, p.1
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       The Mistletoe Promise, p.1

           Richard Paul Evans
 
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The Mistletoe Promise


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  To Gypsy da Silva

  Elise is a derivation of Elishaeva,

  a Hebrew name meaning God’s promise.

  PROLOGUE

  If you could erase just one day from your life, would you know the day? For some, a specific date comes to mind, one that lives in personal infamy. It may be the day you lost someone you love. Or it might be the time you did something you regret, a mistake you wish you could fix. It may be a combination of both.

  I am one of those people who would know the day. There is one day that has brought me unspeakable pain, and the effects of that day continue to cover and erode my world like rust. I suspect that someday the rust will eat through the joists and posts of my life and I will topple, literally as well as figuratively.

  I have punished myself for my mistake more times than I can remember. Each day I wake up in the court of conscience to be judged guilty and unworthy. In this sorry realm I am the judge, prosecutor, and jury, and, without defense, I accept the verdict and the sentence, a lifetime of regret and guilt to be administered by myself.

  I’m not the only one who has punished me for what I’ve done. Not by a long shot. The world has weighed in on my failure as well. Some people I know, more I don’t. And there are those who have learned to use my mistake against me—to punish or control me. My ex-husband was an expert on wielding my mistake against me, and for too long I offered up no defense.

  Then one day a man came along who was willing to plead my case. Not so ironically, he was an attorney. And, for the first time since that black day, I felt joy without the need to squash it. I met him around the holidays just a little more than a year ago. And that too is a day I’ll never forget.

  CHAPTER

  One

  I’m not ready for another Christmas. I haven’t been since 2007.

  Elise Dutton’s Diary

  NOVEMBER 1, 2012

  I hated the change; the commercial changing of the seasons was more obvious than nature’s. It was November first, the day after Halloween, when orange and black gives way to red and green. I didn’t always hate the change; I once looked forward to it. But that seemed like a lifetime ago.

  I watched as the maintenance staff of the office building where I worked transformed the food court. A large, synthetic Christmas tree was dragged out to the middle of the room, strung with white lights, and draped in blue and silver tinsel. Giant corrugated-styrene snowflakes were brought out of storage and hung from the ceiling, just as they had been every year for as long as I’d worked in downtown Salt Lake City.

  I was watching the transformation when I noticed him staring at me. Him—the stranger who would change everything. I didn’t know his name, but I had seen him before. I’d probably seen him a hundred times before, as we ate pretty much every day in the same food court: I near the Cafe Rio with my sweet pork salad and he, fifty yards away, over by the Japanese food emporium eating something with chopsticks. Why was he looking at me?

  He was handsome. Not in your Photoshopped Abercrombie & Fitch catalog way—women weren’t necessarily stopping midsentence when he walked into a room—but he certainly did catch their attention. He was about six feet tall, trim, narrow-hipped, athletically built. He was always dressed impeccably—in an expensive, custom-tailored suit, with a crisp white shirt and a silk tie.

  I guessed he was a lawyer and, from his accoutrements, one who made good money. I, on the other hand, worked as a hotel and venue coordinator at a midlevel travel wholesaler booking educational trips for high school students. The company I worked for was called the International Consortium of Education, but we all just called it by its acronym, ICE, which was appropriate as I felt pretty frozen in my job. I guess that was true of most of my life.

  The lawyer and I had had eye contact before. It was two or three weeks back when I had stepped on an elevator that he was already on. The button for the seventh floor was lit, which was further evidence that he was a lawyer, since the top two floors of the tower were occupied by law firms.

  He had smiled at me, and I’d given him an obligatory return smile. I remember his gaze had lingered on me a little longer than I’d expected, long enough to make me feel self-conscious. He’d looked at me as if he knew me, or wanted to say something, then he’d turned away. I thought he had stolen a glance at my bare ring finger, though later I decided that it had just been my imagination. I had gotten off the elevator on the third floor with another woman, who sighed, “He was gorgeous.” I had nodded in agreement.

  After that, the lawyer and I had run into each other dozens of times, each time offering the same obligatory smiles. But today he was staring at me. Then he got up and started across the room toward me, a violation of our unspoken relational agreement.

  At first I thought he was walking toward me, then I thought he wasn’t, which made me feel stupid, like when someone waves at you in a crowd and you’re not sure who they are, but you wave back before realizing that they were waving at someone behind you. But then there he was, this gorgeous man, standing five feet in front of me, staring at me with my mouth full of salad.

  “Hi,” he said.

  “Hi,” I returned, swallowing insufficiently chewed lettuce.

  “Do you mind if I join you?”

  I hesitated. “No, it’s okay.”

  As he sat down he reached across the table. “My name is Nicholas. Nicholas Derr. You can call me Nick.”

  “Hi, Nicholas,” I said, subtly refusing his offer of titular intimacy. “I’m Elise.”

  “Elise,” he echoed. “That’s a pretty name.”

  “Thank you.”

  “Want to see something funny?”

  Before I could answer, he unfolded a piece of paper from his coat pocket, then set it on the table in front of me. “A colleague of mine just showed these to me.”

  I know a guy who’s addicted to brake fluid. He says he can stop anytime.

  I didn’t like my beard at first. Then it grew on me.

  He pointed to the last one. “This is my favorite.”

  I stayed up all night to see where the sun went. Then it dawned on me.

  “Is that what you do at work?” I asked.

  “Pretty much. That and computer solitaire,” he said, folding the paper back into his pocket. “How about you?”

  “Candy Crush.”

  “I mean, where do you work?”

  “On the third floor of the tower. It’s a travel company.”

  “What’s it called?”

  “I.C.E.”

  “Ice?”

  “It stands for International Consortium of Education.”

  “What kind of travel do you do?”

  “We arrange educational tours for high school students to historic sites, like Colonial Williamsburg or Philadelphia or New York. Teachers sign up their classes.”

  “I wouldn’t think there was a lot of travel on a teacher’s salary.”

  “That’s the point,” I said. “If they get enough of their students signed up, they come along free as chaperones.”

  “Ah, it’s a racket.”

  “Basically. Let me guess, you’re a lawyer.”

  “How could you tell?”

  “You look like one. What’s your firm?”
<
br />   “Derr, Nelson and McKay.”

  “That’s a mouthful,” I said. “Speaking of which, do you mind if I finish eating before my salad gets cold?”

  He cocked his head. “Isn’t salad supposed to be cold?”

  “Not the meat. It’s sweet pork.”

  “No, please eat.” He leaned back a little while I ate, surveying the room. “Looks like the holiday assault force has landed. I wish they would take a break this year. The holidays depress me.”

  “Why is that?”

  “Because it’s lonely just watching others celebrate.”

  It was exactly how I felt. “I know what you mean.”

  “I thought you might.”

  “Why do you say that?”

  “I just noticed that you usually eat alone.”

  I immediately went on the defensive. “It’s only because my workmates and I take different lunchtimes to watch the phones.”

  He frowned. “I didn’t mean to offend you. I’m just saying that I’ve noticed we’ve both spent a lot of time down here alone.”

  “I didn’t notice,” I lied.

  He looked into my eyes. “So you’re probably wondering what I want.”

  “It’s crossed my mind.”

  “It’s taken me a few days to get up the courage to come over here and talk to you, which is saying something, since I’m not afraid of much.” He hesitated for a moment, as if gathering his thoughts. “The first time I saw you I thought, Why is such a beautiful woman sitting there alone? Then I saw you the next day, and the next day . . .”

  “Your point?” I said.

  “My point is, I’m tired of being alone during the holidays. I’m tired of walking through holiday crowds of humanity feeling like a social leper.” He looked into my eyes. “Are you?”

  “Am I what?”

  “Tired of being alone during the holidays.”

  I shook my head. “No, I’m good.”

  He looked surprised. “Really?”

  “Really.”

  He looked surprised and a little deflated. “Oh,” he said, looking down as if thinking. Then he looked back up at me and forced a smile. “Good, then. That’s good for you. I’m glad you’re happy.” He stood. “Well, Elise, it was a pleasure to finally meet you. I’m sorry to bother you. Enjoy your salad and have a nice holiday.” He turned to leave.

  “Wait a second,” I said. “Where are you going?”

  “Back to work.”

  “Why did you come over here?”

  “It’s not important.”

  “It was important enough for you to cross the food court.”

  “It was important. Now it’s moot.”

  “Moot?” I said. “Sit down. Tell me what’s moot.”

  He looked at me for a moment, then sat back down. “I just thought that maybe you felt the same way about the holidays as I do, but since you’re good, you clearly don’t. So what I was going to say is now moot.”

  I looked at him a moment, then said, “I might have exaggerated my contentment. So what were you going to say that is now moot?”

  “I had a proposition to make.”

  “Right here in the food court?”

  “We could go to my office if you prefer.”

  “No, here in public is good.”

  “I’ll cut to the chase. Socially, this is a busy time of year for me. And, like I said, I’m tired of being alone during the holidays, going to all my company and client dinners and parties alone, enduring everyone’s sympathy and answering everyone’s questions about why a successful, nice-looking attorney is still single. And, for the sake of argument, we’ll say that you’re also tired of doing the holidays solo.”

  “Go on,” I said.

  “As one who would rather light a candle than curse the darkness, I say that we do something about it. What I’m proposing is a mutually beneficial holiday arrangement. For the next eight weeks we are, for all intents and purposes, a couple.”

  I looked at him blankly. “Are you kidding me?”

  “Think about it,” he said. “It’s the perfect solution. We don’t know each other, so there’s no deep stuff, no pain, no bickering. The only commitment is to be good to each other and to be good company.”

  “And being good company means ending up back at your place?”

  “No, I’m proposing a purely platonic relationship. Maybe we publicly hold hands now and then to sell the facade, but that’s the extent of our physicality.”

  I shook my head skeptically. “Men can’t have platonic relationships.”

  “In real life, you’re probably right. But this isn’t real life. It’s fiction. And it’s just until Christmas.”

  “How do I know you’re not a serial killer?”

  He laughed. “You don’t. You could ask my ex, but no one’s found the body.”

  “What?”

  “Just kidding. I’ve never been married.”

  “You’re serious about this?”

  He nodded. “Completely.”

  “I think you’re crazy.”

  “Maybe. Or maybe I’m a genius and everyone will be doing this in the future.”

  I slowly shook my head, not sure of what to think of the proposal or the proposer.

  “Look, I know it’s unconventional, but oftentimes the best solutions are. Will you at least consider it?”

  I looked at him for a moment, then said, “All right. I’ll think about it. No guarantees. Probably not.”

  “Fair enough,” he said, standing. “I’m leaving town tonight, but I’ll be back Monday.”

  “That will give me some time to think about it,” I said.

  “I eagerly await your response.”

  “Don’t be too eager,” I said.

  “It’s been a pleasure, Elise.” He smiled as he turned and walked away.

  CHAPTER

  Two

  Often what we see clearest in others is what we most avoid seeing in ourselves.

  Elise Dutton’s Diary

  The encounter left me a little dazed. I didn’t tell anyone about it. Actually, I didn’t really have anyone to tell. The person at work I spent the most time with was my colleague Zoey, and I definitely wouldn’t be telling her. You don’t know Zoey, but you do. Every company, every school in the world has a Zoey—the kind of girl who attracts male attention like a porch light attracts moths. She was naturally beautiful, skinny without starving or Zumba, born with a body that designers design for. She even looked good without makeup, which I knew for a fact since she usually spent the first hour at work applying it.

  Even worse than being beautiful was that she knew it. A few months after I started at ICE, before I really even knew her, she offered to give me some makeup, which sounded like her saying that I could be pretty if I tried. I think what hurt the most about her offer was that, whether she meant to convey that message or not, it was true. I didn’t take care of myself. After Dan, my ex-husband, divorced me, I just sort of let things slide. Not completely, but enough to change. I put on a little weight, and stopped spending time at the mirror or buying clothes. I guess I was treating myself the way I felt—undesirable.

  At the opposite extreme, Zoey was in her prime with a perpetually full roster of men, with someone always up to bat and someone always on deck, ready to fill in when she tired of the current player. She was the one our company’s airline and hotel reps, mostly balding, middle-aged men, would plan their office visits around. I worked a trade show with her once, and the whole time men circled our booth like vultures over carrion. Zoey ate it up. Why wouldn’t she?

  What I had said to the lawyer about eating alone at lunch was true, mostly. One of us was supposed to watch the phones, but that’s what voice mail is for, right? The real reason I hated to eat lunch with Zoey was because all I ended up doing was politel
y listening to her myriad stories of affairs and conquests while I sat there feeling frumpy and old. It’s easy to hate the game when you’re losing.

  CHAPTER

  Three

  I can’t believe that I’m actually considering this man’s proposal. Am I crazy, desperate or just really lonely? Probably all of the above.

  Elise Dutton’s Diary

  That weekend, all I could think about was the proposition. Who was this guy and what did he want? What was his motive? I suppose, on a deeper level, the bigger question (considering how lonely I was) was Why was I even questioning his motive? Why couldn’t he be exactly what he claimed to be? Was that really so hard to accept?

  My father used to say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it—but if it’s already broke, it don’t matter what you do.” My life was definitely broken. So why not? Really, what did I have to lose? I even asked myself, What would Zoey do? I knew what she’d do. She’d say, “You only live once, girl,” and she’d buckle up for the ride. I suppose that my mind was probably somewhere in Zoeyland when I decided to say yes.

  The next Monday, Nicholas arrived in the food court about a half hour after I’d started eating.

  “Hi, Elise,” he said. “How’s your salad?”

  “Good.”

  “How was your weekend?”

  “The usual,” I said, even though it was definitely anything but.

  He sat down across from me. “Did you come to a decision?”

  “Right to the point,” I said. I set down my plastic fork. “So, hypothetically, let’s say that I said yes. What would this arrangement look like?”

  He smiled. “First, we write up a contract.”

  “Why, you don’t trust me?”

  “Contracts are not always so much a matter of trust as they are a matter of understanding. This way we’ll be more likely to meet each other’s expectations.”

 
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