|“I’m sorry, Rollie. I’m just not in the holiday spirit today,”
Angie said wearily, turning away from the tree the Aussie had just set up
in the loft. “I’ve got some work to do.” Not waiting for his
reply, she climbed the stairs to the cleanroom.
Rollie watched her disappear from view, feeling a heaviness fill his heart. “Damn you, Loubar. Damn you for doing this to her,” he cursed, impotent rage rising to choke him. He turned away from the cleanroom, blinking back the tears that stung his eyes. There was nothing he could do to satisfy his need for revenge, his desire to grind the man responsible for Angie’s pain into the dust. Victor Loubar was dead, killed by one of the bullets Angie had fired into the water that night two weeks ago. His body had been discovered when they dragged the lake the next morning. The Aussie didn’t know if it had made things better or worse for Angie to know that she’d taken the assassin’s life.
Rollie turned back to the tree and began the lonely task of decorating it by himself. He had hoped that the joy of the Christmas season would help ease the pain Angie was suffering, but it seemed to have made it even worse. Every time she’d seen happy couples in the stores, shopping for gifts for their loved ones, the Aussie had seen an inconsolable sadness well up in her eyes. He didn’t know what to do to make her feel better. He felt so helpless watching his best friend sink into depression.
Without Angie’s knowledge, Rollie had gone to a rape counselor to find out if there was anything he could do to help. All the counselor could tell him was to support and comfort her whenever she needed it, to be patient until she felt okay to talk about what happened. The problem was that Angie wouldn’t let him comfort her. He’d tried, several times, but she just pushed him away, claiming that she was fine. Well, she wasn’t fine. Anybody with eyes could see that.
Rollie set down the box of ornaments and went to the lounge. He sat on the couch, putting his face in his hands. For two weeks, he had been thinking about what happened. For fourteen agonizing days, his mind had run though it over and over again. And the thing that stuck in his mind the most was the fact that Angie had willingly made love to a man she thought was him. How had it happened? Why had it happened? Angie had told him that nothing had change, but how could that be possible? As far as he was concerned, everything had changed, and he didn’t know what to do about it.
If he was brutally honest with himself, Rollie would admit that he’d had certain . . . feelings from time to time toward Angie for years, feelings that were not what you were supposed to have for just a friend. Okay, so it had been a lot more than from time to time, but he had ignored those feelings, shoving them to the back of his mind, telling himself that it was a really bad idea to have them. His denial of those feelings had been pretty successful for the last few years. Well, he bloody well couldn’t deny them now. He desired Angie, desired to be more than friends with her, desired to know what it was like to be with her as a lover.
Those feelings were scary enough, but what absolutely terrified him was the emotion that was burning even deeper inside his heart. His mind skittered away from it, seeking to hide from the truth.
‘But there is no hiding from it, is there, mate,’ he said to himself. ‘You’re in love with her. You’re in love with Angie, and it took that bastard to show you how very much you do love her. And, now, you’ve lost her.’
Rollie closed his eyes tightly against the tears. Had he really lost her? Had Loubar’s unspeakable act of revenge cost him the most important person in his life? Every time he looked in her haunted eyes, every time she drew away from him when he tried to get close, he felt as if he had. Give her time, he kept telling himself. Give her time to heal. She’ll be okay. But would she?
Suddenly needing to be anywhere except the loft, Rollie got his coat and walked out the door. He hopped into the truck and went into town, having no real purpose in mind. Around a half-hour later, he was driving by a mall and pulled into the parking lot, not even knowing why he was there. By some miracle, he found an empty parking space after only five minutes of searching.
The place was packed with last minute shoppers, people scrambling to find that perfect gift for friends and loved ones. Rollie had gotten Angie’s gift weeks ago, but it seemed so trivial now. He couldn’t even bear the thought of giving it to her.
Rollie walked from shop to shop, staring sightlessly in the windows. For an hour he wandered aimlessly, feeling the cold hand of depression gripping his heart. How could he ever get Angie back? How could he make this pain inside her go away?
His eyes blurring with tears, Rollie stopped before one of the shops, closing his eyes as the anguish momentarily overwhelmed him. It took a good minute before he could open them again. When he did, a gold and white sign behind the window glass was the first thing he saw.
“The truest gift comes from the heart. Give her your heart, and your gift will last forever.”
Rollie stared at the sign. All around it were heart-shaped diamond pendants and earrings, but the jewelry might as well have not been there for all the attention he paid to it.
The answer Rollie had been seeking came to him like a flash of lightning in the darkness of night. Spinning on his heel, he headed back the way he’d come, a desperate hope growing inside him. He could only pray that what he was going to do would bring Angie back to him.
It was snowing Christmas morning when Rollie got up. He showered and dressed, managing to choke down a little breakfast even though his stomach felt like it was in a hundred knots. Angie was expecting him over at her place in a couple of hours. This would be the first Christmas morning that they hadn’t spent in the loft, but Rollie had sensed that, because of what happened there, Angie might feel more comfortable in her apartment. The relief he’d seen on her face when he suggested it confirmed that he was right.
The Aussie gathered all the presents that were under the tree and placed them in a canvas bag--with one exception. The final gift he slipped inside his inner coat pocket. Once that was done, he busied himself around the loft, trying to ease his nervousness.
At last, the time came to leave. He traveled the blocks to Angie’s apartment, seeking the courage that he’d had when he first decided what he was going to do. He had yet to find it when he knocked on Angie’s door.
“Hey, Rol,” Angie said quietly upon opening the door.
“Merry Christmas, sweetie,” Rollie said back, equally as quietly.
Angie forced a smile and stood aside to let him in. She had told herself that she was going to make every effort to put aside what she was feeling for the sake of Rollie, try to make Christmas as pleasant for him as she could, even though her heart wasn’t in it. It seemed that Victor Loubar had stolen from her any capacity to feel joy at the same time that he stole the hope she had that there would someday be more than friendship between her and Rollie. But she would survive. She just had to pick up the pieces of her shattered soul and put it back together.
“I see it’s snowing again,” she commented.
“Yeah, but it’s not too bad.” Rollie put the bag of gifts down. “So . . . shall we open these now or a little later?”
The thought of opening the presents and trying to put on a happy face was a little bit too much for Angie to face right now, so she suggested that they have some hot chocolate first. Rollie nodded, his deep, soft brown eyes searching hers. Angie turned away quickly and got busy with the cocoa.
Rollie pulled the gifts out of the bag one by one and set them under the tree. Checking to make sure Angie wasn’t watching, he hid the gift he’d put in his coat in the branches of the tree. He wanted to make sure that was the last one she opened.
Finished, the Aussie shed his coat and sat on the couch. Angie came out of the kitchen a minute later with the hot cocoa. She gave him a cup, then settled on the couch with hers. Rollie didn’t miss the fact that she’d sat on the opposite end of the couch from him, and, for a moment, he wondered if he was making a terrible mistake. What if she didn’t want what he was giving to her? Well, there was no turning back now. He had to see this through to the end, no matter what that end may be.
They sat quietly, sipping their hot chocolate. Occasionally, one of them would say something, but the attempts at conversation always fizzled out after a few sentences. Finally, with a sigh, Angie put down her cocoa.
“So, shall we get started on unwrapping those presents?” she asked, her tone falsely cheerful.
“Sure, Ange. You open the first one.”
The next hour was spent opening the gifts from their friends. Angie tried very hard to get into the spirit, laughing at the funny gifts, oohing in appreciation over the pretty ones, but she suspected that Rollie was seeing right through her act. It wasn’t until Rollie got to the gift from her that she didn’t have to pretend. She watched nervously as he opened the package.
Rollie stared down at the contents of the box, a smile of delight and wonder filling his face. His eyes went to Angie. “How did you do this?” he asked.
“There’s a glass shop that does custom orders. I just gave them a photograph.”
Rollie’s gaze returned to the object in his hands. Etched in a crystal plaque was a detailed image of him and Angie, happy smiles on their faces. They were close together, Angie’s head tucked underneath Rollie’s chin. He remembered the photo that had been used. It had been taken on his birthday a couple of years ago, a day full of happy memories.
Rollie blinked rapidly, swallowing the lump that had formed in his throat. “Thank you, Angie,” he whispered hoarsely. “It’s beautiful.”
Angie smiled, the first genuine smile she’d had all morning. “You like it?” she asked shyly.
“Angie, I love it. It’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten in my life.”
Angie’s eyes dropped to the carpet. “I’m glad.” She’d gotten the gift before the rape, and, for a while, she hadn’t thought that she could still give it to him. She was now glad that she’d decided to do so anyway.
Angie turned back to the tree, her eyes looking for Rollie’s gift to her. A frown came to her face when she didn’t see it. Just then, Rollie reached past her and pulled a narrow box out from its hiding place amidst the branches. He held the box for a long moment, then handed it to her. Angie was surprised to see that his hands were shaking. She looked at him, but he refused to meet her eyes, staring instead at the box in her hand. Angie kept looking at him, all at once realizing that the expression on Rollie’s face was fear. Her eyes dropped to the unopened gift, wondering what could inspire that emotion in him.
Her own hands now trembling, Angie unwrapped the box and opened it. She stared at the contents. A rolled up parchment tied with a ribbon was the only thing in the box. Angie picked it up, removed the ribbon, and unrolled it.
Angie stared at the parchment, stunned beyond words. The meaning of it spun around in her mind, making her feel dizzy and light-headed. Could it really mean what it seemed to be saying? Terrified to believe, Angie slowly lifted her eyes to Rollie’s.
Rollie gazed at her, trying to make her see the love he felt for her, how much he adored and wanted to be with her. He had stopped breathing when she read the parchment, and, now, his respiration was coming in short, tight breaths.
“R-Rollie? Wh-what does this mean?” Angie asked tremulously.
“You know what it means, Angie,” the Aussie replied, his voice rough with emotion. “It means that I love you. It means that my heart is yours for the rest of my life.”
All at once, Angie was crying. Rollie pulled her into his arms, holding her tightly as she wept. It was several minutes before she quieted.
“I thought that . . . that you didn’t feel the same,” she said against his shirt. “I thought we’d never. . . .”
Rollie’s heart started hammering against his chest as he realized what her words meant. “Angie?” he whispered, his voice a question.
She lifted her head and looked into his eyes. “I love you, Rollie,” she murmured.
Joy burst through Rollie, his spirit soaring. He brought his lips to Angie’s in a kiss that held all his love in it. Angie sighed against his lips and surrendered to him. Love and passion merged into a single entity as they searched each other’s mouths with both tenderness and fierceness. They clutched at each other’s bodies, trying to meld themselves into one being.
It was a long, long time before the need for oxygen finally forced them to separate.
“Oh, God, Angie. I’ve wanted this so badly,” Rollie said huskily.
“Me too, Rollie, for so long.”
“I want you to be mine, in every way.”
“I am yours, Rollie. I always have been.”
“And I’m yours, Angie. Forever.”
With a smile of pure happiness, the friends, soon to become lovers,
found each other’s mouths again, giving and receiving their hearts on
a Christmas lost to sorrow and found with love.