in Contemporary Romance, You're All That I Need

You’re All that I Need

1
***

Mrs. Charlotte Maple nearly died that morning when she fainted and fell out of her bed onto the hard marble floor of her luxury nursing home room. Ninety-two years is a long time to live on this Earth—alone.

The feisty, elegant lady cracked her eyes open and clung to her heavyset orderly, Luis, for support as he helped her back to her bed. Ignoring his questions of why she fell, Charlotte’s thoughts were on one thing, and one thing only.

“The letter—where’s the..?” she asked, leaning over to see the stack of mail on the floor. She’d thought nothing of the envelope at first, in the pile of useless flyers and other forgettable correspondence, until she recognized the familiar handwriting. Writing she hadn’t seen in over 67 years; writing that made her heart flutter—something that hadn’t happened in more years than she could count.

Like a tapestry of her memories, the envelopes were scattered and fragmented on the marble floor.

“We thought you was gone, Mrs. C.,” said the young man, his chubby and scruffy face etched with concern. He scooped up the envelopes, searching through each of them for what she wanted.

Mrs. Maple frowned at him. The bastardization of the English language was a particular annoyance to her, being a former educator. “Must you speak that… ghetto language? The letter, please,” she said, snatching the baby blue envelope from him.

She took a deep breath again, and caught her reflection in the window that overlooked the city below. Christmas decorations were already up in her room.

Maybe she ought to toss the letter away. Ghosts of the past should stay dead. Nothing good ever came from digging up regrets. Her once dark, silky hair now had streaks of silver. Her youthful, smooth, chocolate-colored skin had been replaced by rows of wrinkles.

Luis looked over her shoulder with interest. “Who’s it from, Mrs. C.?” He handed her the silver letter opener, knowing full well she hated when a person used their fingers to open any correspondence. That was just not how a civilized person opened mail.

Mrs. Maple sighed. The tearing sound of the envelope as she sliced through it echoed in the small, elegantly furnished room. Luis’s eyes watched her eagerly and she knew he would only keep asking until she told him. “Clark Peters, my… He was a gentleman I knew in my youth.”

She could still see the strapping man in her mind’s eye. The blond hair, always slicked back and dapper. His striking crystal blue eyes she would get lost in, and that smile—the one that made her heart skip a beat every time he bestowed it on her like a gift.

Luis’s eyes lit up as he sat on the edge of her bed. It creaked in protest under his weight. “Yeah?” he said, arching his eyebrows. “What kind of gentleman, Mrs. C.?”

Her fingertips traced the grooves and swoops of the penmanship, her memories floating back to that night when she was young and beautiful. That night when the world was her oyster. That night when she first met Clark.

2
***
Years Ago
1930s

There had to be more to life than this, the young Charlotte thought as she went out into the courtyard of the mansion for some air. She pat the perspiration from her brow with the lower end of her maid’s outfit and dumped the trash in the bin.

A noise from behind startled her. She took a deep breath—being alone with her mammoth boss was never a good idea, especially when he was drunk like he was from the loud party he held inside.

“Have a good night, sir,” she said, trying to squeeze past him as he staggered out. The chill in the air wasn’t only because of the nippy weather that swirled in the courtyard. She was scared. Fear swirled in her belly.

He lowered his voice, his wavering, almost angry eyes locked with hers. “Wait a minute now. Is that any way to show your gratitude?” he asked, blocking her passage. His massive size was no match for hers, but Charlotte was no timid wildflower either. Her momma had taught her how to stand up for herself.

Her nostrils flared but she tried to keep her temper in check. She needed this job, after all. “Gratitude?” She arched her eyebrow. Charlotte was one of the top students in her university, and yet, even with all her education, the only job she could manage to get was scrubbing toilets for white people.

“Mr. Baxter, I need to attend to your guests.” She hated drunks. His breath reeked of Scotch and sex and something more vile: bad intentions.

“I’d rather you attend to my needs first,” he said, cornering her against the brick wall. The wild crowd’s cheers were muffled from inside the lobby. Even if she screamed, they wouldn’t hear her. She swallowed, her eyes looking for the nearest exit.

There was none.

Charlotte tried to push him away, but Baxter only slammed her against the wall and gripped her thigh, pressing his fingers into her flesh. The violation made her angry.

Slavery had long since past in law, but many of these people still thought of blacks as property to be conquered. She was not property. And she would never be conquered. She’d not allow that tonight—not if she could help it.

Charlotte scratched his face, drawing blood. That would leave a nasty scar for months, but her defense was only to be met with a strong first across the face. The impact of his blow knocked her to the hard concrete. She landed on her knees. There’d be bruises there tomorrow to be sure, or worse if she couldn’t get away. Baxter staggered toward her, each heavy step pounding harder than the next, vibrating in her ears.

He towered over her. There was nowhere for her to hide. No one to scream for. He’d have his way with her whether she liked it or not. And she knew her protestations would only fuel his dark, filthy lust even more.

She closed her eyes, whispering words, praying for an angel. That’s when the silhouette of a man pushed Baxter away. The thump of his blow to the large man, followed by a kick square in the chest, ricocheted in the enclosed area. The violence of it shocked her, but she knew it was for her salvation.

The two men fought, each a blow harder than the next. She was too injured to get up and run away, too shocked by the miracle that came in the form of this mysterious man.

Then the silhouette gave Baxter an uppercut to the jaw strong enough to send his behemoth body flailing and he landed on the ground out cold.

Charlotte dabbed the blood that trickled from her nose as the silhouette emerged in the dim light. She grunted in pain, and her attempts to get up were in vain. She was too stiff and sore to move. Shock of the evening was starting to settle in.

The moonlight revealed Clark Peters—tall, debonair, tux and all. Ruggedly handsome enough to be a man’s man, but pretty enough to keep Charlotte mesmerized. He was a sight to see and she could fully admit it even in her shock.

Crouching down, he offered her a clean handkerchief. “Are you all right?” His voice was low and silky like freshly churned butter.

Charlotte knew better than to stare at a white man too long—there were consequences in this town. She was raised to be a proper lady—a good girl, as they called it—and she had no plans of changing that tonight. Besides, this particular man had a reputation with the ladies that she wanted nothing to do with.

Charlotte took the cloth from him, his hand grazing hers as she did, sending goose pimples over the skin of her arms, shoulders and chest. She tried to ignore them as she dabbed her nose. While he helped her to her feet, she could barely look at him. Usually, it was the gentlemen who became shy with her over her beauty. She wasn’t used to being at a loss for words. “I’m fine, thank you.”

“I’m Clark,” he said, his voice low and smooth like butter. She couldn’t help but give him a bashful smile as he took her hand into his.

“I’m Charlotte, but my friends call me Co-Co,” she said.

“Co-Co—I like that,” he said, offering her the warm smile she needed right now.

He opened the kitchen door for her, the light warming the two young people as he said, “I’m sorry he did that to you. I can call the police.” His sincerity and kindness almost made her cheer up. Being new to town, she hadn’t met many kind people. Especially not kind white people.

She looked away, stepping inside. The rush of music and laughing sobered her from the experience, reminding her where she was, and who she was. “And lose this job? I’ll manage.”

He raised his voice as she walked toward the the kitchen counter. She had to stay focused. There were drinks to refill, messes to clean. She couldn’t neglect her duties even if she’d been assaulted. “You could come work for me. Be my maid,” he said.

She stopped, turned toward Clark and glared at him. She was so much more than the way these Yankees saw her. But she spoke politely, when she wanted to rage. “No, thank you.”

A quick glance at him revealed his sincerity once again. The way his blond bangs fell over his forehead before he slicked it back again with his strong fingers was enough to make her heart flip like a schoolgirl’s.

“Did I say something wrong? We have other positions on my staff.”

She needed to get out of there before she fell for him.

“Are you good at accounting?” he asked.

She cleared her throat, telling herself not to accept. It wasn’t a good idea. Nothing good could come of it. “I appreciate the offer, but—”

He stepped into her eyeline, leaning over so she had no other choice but to look into his crystal blue eyes. Lowering his voice he said, “How about dinner tomorrow then? At least let me make it up to you.”

“No, I—” she started to say before he cut her off.

“”Drive you home?” he said. There was a slight smirk on his face that was alluring. She swallowed before her eyes met his and she gave him an answer.

3
***
Today

“So, then what happened? Did you let him drive you home?” asked Luis, breaking her from her fond memories.

The older woman smiled wistfully. She pulled a shawl around her neck and shoulders, reminding herself of how much time had past. She was not that young, eager woman anymore. She was old and had ought to forget about the past.

This was a bad idea, bringing up old memories, and as she pressed her thumbs into the letter. Mrs. Maple couldn’t bring herself to read the letter herself. Her hand trembled and Luis squeezed it to support her.

She smiled at him. He really was a dear as much as she’d never admit it to him. She cleared her throat. “Well, if you must know… I did accept his apology… over lunch the next day at his home.”

Luis snickered with good humor. “Oooh, his home?”

She feigned offense at him as she pulled her shawl tighter. “It was only lunch. We both knew the consequences of a white man and a woman of color dining in public at that time so we both agreed it was the safest place to dine.”

She took a deep breath, letting the scent of fresh flowers placed around her room wash the pain of that time away. If only they hadn’t been an interracial couple. So much would have been different. So much could have been changed.

“So, then what happened?” asked Luis, leaning forward with interest.

She blushed. “Nothing. How dare you?” But it was of no use. He’d only keep pushing until she told him everything. Besides, she’d always wanted to tell someone the story of how the two fell in love. She pushed the letter at Luis and took her reading glasses off. “Anyway… My eyesight isn’t what it used to be. You’ll have to read it to me.”

He licked his lips in anticipation as his eyes floated down to the paper. “Yes, ma’am.”

She placed her hand over the letters and issued a warning first. “But if you speak a word of this to those… old bags in the center… I will never forgive you.”

Luis gave her that smirk again before flipping the paper up so he could read it. “No, ma’am… Here we go…”

4
***

September 5, 2010

Dearest Co-Co,

What do you say to someone you haven’t seen or spoken to in over 67 years?

I think about you and I think about so many fond times of what could have been and what was. A future we almost had but couldn’t, a past that almost never was.

You were my everything and, I’m not ashamed to admit it, you still are. Not a day has gone by that I don’t think about you. Not a moment has flickered without me wondering, “What if?”

What if we were born in another time? What if the things that we both know happened didn’t? What if we threw caution to the wind and followed our hearts back then instead of our heads, or listened to what others told us we should and shouldn’t do?

What if?

It seems foolish, I know. It was 1936. You’re probably married. I’m sure a beautiful woman like you doesn’t go unnoticed. And, if so, I don’t mean to offend you in anyway.

You probably don’t remember me anyway.

But if you do, and perhaps you want to reminisce about old times, I would be honored to take you to coffee; even if it’s as two old friends.

What I’m saying is, I’d really like to see you.

Please, give me a chance and, if you remember things as I do, forgive me.

I’ve never stopped thinking about you.

Love & Regards,
Clark Peters

5
***

Mrs. Maple’s heart stopped as Luis read the words drawn in Clark’s beautifully looped scrawl. Clark was the last person she expected to ever hear from again.

She would be lying to herself if she said that there wasn’t a part of her that was delighted to hear from him—more than delighted. Elated. Filled with more joy than she’d experienced in years.

As her hand came to her chest, her fingers tracing the shawl that encased her fragile body, the old woman’s heart warmed and glowed with the thought of it. She held the letter close to her heart and smelled the paper and envelope as if she could smell his scent.

But then, the history and the memories bubbled forth. He had left her so hurt, more deeply than she ever felt in her life, and suddenly any joy she had thinking about him dissipated, leaving her body like evaporated sweat.

She stared at the frosted ceiling, anything but Luis’s eyes. He wanted to know more. He wanted to know what she’d do next and, the truth was, Mrs. Maple didn’t know yet.

And although she was burning to tell Clark exactly what she thought of him, she had to admit, she had a lot of other questions as well. She wondered how he was doing, if he ever married and if he had all the children he’d wanted, just as they had planned.

She wanted him to feel the pain of heartbreak, betrayal and loneliness that she had the last 67 years. She wanted him to feel every bit of it.

Luis leaned in to lock eyes with her, the bed once again creaking in protest to his weight. “So, Mrs. C., you gonna write him back?”

6
***
Years ago

She never thought love could be this good. Charlotte had read about it novels, listened to it on radio shows, even heard tales about it passed along from her grandmother, but not like this.

Then again—it couldn’t last forever. Nothing good ever truly did.

She pushed those thoughts aside as she enjoyed his morning kisses, only the silk, baby blue sheets between them. Locked away in their secret bedroom, they were in a world all of their own.

No one to judge them. No one to tell them what they were doing was wrong. Not even any servants or employees of his running around. She did resent having to sneak in the back way so that no one would see. She resented having to pretend she worked for his house so that no one would suspect anything, and yet, she wondered if it was all worth it.

The morning light shone through the curtains of the grand master bedroom—one of several in the mansion—interrupting her dreams, but she didn’t care, so long as she was wrapped in her man’s dreams.

“Morning,” he said in his deep baritone voice which made her skin vibrate. A cool breeze floated inside, giving her chills which he rubbed up and down.

“Morning,” she smiled, wishing she could go to the bathroom and brush her teeth, but he didn’t care. He never did. He liked her like that, he’d said.

“I have to go into work this morning,” he said, taking a long, drawn out breath. The scent of him encased all of her body and she wanted to bathe in it all morning long.

Disappointment ran through her. They’d talked about taking a long drive to a secluded beach, but she sat up and forced a smile. “Okay.”

He turned her face toward him and kissed her lips. “I’m sorry, but I’ll make it up to you.”

“And how do you intend to do that,” she said with a mischievous smile.

“Oh, I have a few ideas,” he said, but their moment was interrupted by the clang of the telephone on his nightstand.

He sighed, “Co-Co, uh-uh… Um… One second.” He answered the phone and his body became rigid. His strong back flexed and he groaned before flashing her a smile as if to tell her that everything was all right, but he continued to talk to whoever was on the phone.

He got up, his body tight. He paused before asking her, “Would you hang up the phone when I ask you?”

His nude body as he rose was something she could drink in forever as he disappeared into the shadows. He hadn’t even wait for Charlotte to answer his question before he slipped into the hall and then yelled to her. “Okay!”

She should have did what he asked. She should have ignored that feeling in the pit of her stomach. Then, she wouldn’t have heard what she heard on the phone—a young woman’s voice.

7
***
Today

Mrs. Charlotte Maple must have written and rewritten the letter to Clark a hundred times. There were so many things she wanted to say to him but, in the end, she tossed each draft in the tin wastepaper basket.

Then, she picked them up and tore each page, not wanting Luis to find out.

The older woman walked to the window and stared out at the pink clouds. It’d snow soon. The first flurries in the city always brought such joy, but then it was followed by the dirty slush aftermath—just like first love.

Christmas would be in a few short weeks—another holiday without someone special. Charlotte wondered what her future would have been had things been different. Iron bars sealed her inside and, as decorative as they were, she couldn’t help but feel imprisoned, abandoned by her family after all these years.

They were waiting for her to die, of course, so they could inherit all her money. What a rude awakening they’d have when they discovered they weren’t in the will and all the money would be left to charity.

She sighed. Charlotte had been so angry with Clark for so many years. She told herself that she wasn’t angry, but she was. In fact, she was burning up inside. Mrs. Maple just needed to hear an explanation, one that was from his heart. Maybe it would hurt her again, but at least it would be the truth and the answer to the questions she’d had for so many years.

She decided to give it one last try, writing everything from her heart and her soul. This draft, she promised she’d send no matter what it might do to his heart.

8
***

Dear Mr. Peters,

My mother taught me that if I couldn’t say anything nice to not say anything at all. And although I found your letter entertaining, I cannot say my feelings are the same.

What happened so many years ago was nothing but a budding friendship—something young lovers, who do not know what true love is, imagine to be real.

Upon years of reflection, I realize that. I must say that I find it rather disingenuous that you would suggest that we were somehow long lost lovers.

Someone who cares about someone else would never have done what you did to me, and, for that, I must wish you all the best to you and your future endeavors.

Best Regards,
Mrs. Charlotte Maple

wife of the late Senator Matthew Maple

PS: Please, do not correspond with me again.

9
***
Years Ago

Clark paced back and forth in the lobby of his mansion, something she’d never seen him do before. For the months that she’d known him, he’d always been cool, calm and collected.
“What’s wrong?” she asked with a smile as she stepped in the home for the evening after the servants had left. “Ants in your pants?”
He put both hands on either side of shoulders and said, “You know that I love you, right?”
There was a flick of worry in his eyes that alarmed her and her smile faded. “Yes?”
His hands moved to either side of her shoulder, their grip tighter than what she was used to. “And I’d never let anything happen to you—ever.”
She stepped back—this was all a little too intense for her. “Yes, but—”
He took a deep breath and forced a smile, which didn’t make her feel any calmer. “Then, let’s runaway together. You and me. We can go somewhere where we can live freely be ourselves.”
The entire home was quiet only for the sound of crickets chirping from outside. She swallowed. “Clark, you’re scaring me. What’s wrong?”
She knew him well enough to tell if he was lying—something he’d never done. “Nothing, baby,” he said, pulling her into an embrace. “So long as we have each other, nothing’s wrong.”
The strength of him as she lay her head on his chest calmed her, but his heart beat fast. There were many questions running through her head, but she trusted that man more than she trusted anyone. Even after the occasional call from the female, she pushed it aside because he said it was only business.
His next words vibrated throughout her body. “Meet me tomorrow night at the Cedar Valley bridge, 11:15pm. Don’t be late. Bring only what you need. We’ll buy the rest when we get there.”
She broke away to look up at him. Even in this state, as the moonlight made his chiseled face grow, he was so handsome. “Get where?”
He looked at her square in the face and said, “Paris.”

10
***
Today

She never should have written Clark back. It was a bad idea, Charlotte thought as she stared out the window, waiting for Luis to bring her breakfast.

There was a good six inches of snow outside right now. It wouldn’t be long before the snow trucks started clearing the roads; it wouldn’t be long before the Christmas hustle became the only thing people talked about.

She sighed. Luis knew how much she disliked dining with the others. It was as if being around them made her older than she was already.

Panic struck through her. Maybe something had happened to Clark before he could write back. As much as she wanted to tell herself she felt as young as she had in her 40s, it was a lie, and each day that passed meant another day someone she’d known had probably passed away—she hoped Clark wasn’t one of them.

Luis burst in, kicking the door closed as he placed the tray of breakfast on her lap.

“Well, it’s about time,” she said. He placed down her newspaper, opened to the Art section, and the latest mail on her bed before she could request it.

She tried not to look at the mail stack first so as not to appear desperate, but Mrs. Maple couldn’t help herself. She sighed, having flipped through them all and finding nothing.

He offered her a smile. “Nothing yet?” he asked.

She narrowed her eyes at him. What a ridiculous question. “You go through my mail, you know whether or not he has,” she said, pursing her lips in displeasure.

His smile faded. “Sorry. Maybe he—”

“Maybe nothing. You shouldn’t have talked me into writing him back. Shame on you.” She crossed her arms.

He sat on the edge of her bed and she gave him a miffed expression. He knew better than to do that.

His hand reached out to hers and he squeezed. “You still love him, don’t you?”

She turned away, staring out the window. She didn’t want him to see how hurt she was. She had too much pride. “I don’t—I hardly know the man. Hardly did then and I don’t anymore.”

“He’ll write back,” Luis said, kissing the top of her forehead before he exited.

She pretended to be offended by the display of affection but, in truth, it’d been years since she’d received any, and she longed for Clark’s touch once again.

Once again, Clark had disappointed her. Maybe she never should have said those things to him and, most importantly, maybe she never should have opened her heart to him again.

11
***
Years Ago

The fog swept in that night across the bridge and Charlotte could hardly see two feet in front of her, let alone across it to see if he was coming.

It was dangerous to be out here this late, not just due to criminals, but people could have bumped into her and knocked her hundreds of feet below into the ice cold water.

She pulled her jacket tighter, the scarf around her head flapping in the wind. She looked at her watch, 11:23pm. He was late—something she’d never known him to be.

Just as she was beginning to wonder if she should take the long bus ride back home, she saw a figure running through the fog and smiled. It had to be Clark.

But it wasn’t. It was a little boy instead who ran up to her and said, “Are you Co-Co?”

“Yes,” she said, furrowing her eyebrows in confusion. No one called her that but her close friends.

“Here,” the child said, handing her a note, and he ran off before she could ask any questions.

Co-Co had been written on the outside of the folded paper. The street light which filtered through the fog lit up the note.
Her heart beat faster as if she anticipated what was to come. Maybe it was an explanation as to why he was late or directions to a different location. Opening it, the words written in Clark’s handwriting stopped her heart:

‘I don’t love you anymore, Co-Co. It’s time to move on. —Clark.’

12
***
Today

Mrs. Maple was like a schoolgirl again. As she folded and unfolded the letter she got from Clark, she tried to hide her smile from Luis.

“So, what did he say?” asked the younger man, his eyes wide with anticipation as he cleaned up her breakfast tray.

“He would like to meet,” she said calmly as she sipped the rest of her tea as if she didn’t have a care in the world.

As much as she told herself that her scathing letter was meant to end any possibilities of her ever meeting Clark, after the letter was sent, she was left with emptiness. She was left with a yearning feeling of what could have been.

Watching Luis’s anxious face for her response, Charlotte couldn’t hold it anymore. She set the tea cup down on the tray and let out a little squeal as she glanced at Clark’s letter.

Luis ran up to her and squeezed her tight—maybe a little too tight, but she didn’t care.

“What should I wear?” she asked, glancing at the snow flurries which filled her window.

He gave her a smirk, setting the tray down and opening her closet. “It’s almost Christmas, after all. Maybe something red and festive. Nothing too trampy. You don’t want to give him the wrong idea.”

She pursed her lips and said, “What idea would that be?”

He chuckled a low, gravelly chuckle, laying a few elegant dresses on her bed and said, “Mrs. C…?”

“Well, I have it in me to just let him sit there and wait for me like I waited for him all those years.” She crossed her arms and watched the people scraping snow off their windshields. Immature as it was, it was how she felt.

Luis groaned. “You wouldn’t do that, would you?”

“I’ll have to give it some thought,” said Mrs. Maple, placing her hands in her lap.

The truth was she couldn’t think of any place she’d rather be, but her heart pitter-pattered like a little birds, wondering if meeting up with Clark would be the right decision.

13
***
Years Ago

They say time heals all wounds, but it’s a lie.

Not when Charlotte was more in love with Clark than she’d ever been—even after all these years. Not when she saw her future with him and had trusted him and was tossed aside.

The young woman had hoped that, when she married another man—a senator at that—and had had a child, that the feeling would go away, but it didn’t. It only got worse.

She couldn’t keep thoughts of what life would have been like had they run off together into the great unknown.

She kept thinking about that note Clark gave her which she kept hidden in her undergarment drawer for years as a reminder of why she needed to move on, but she couldn’t.

It was beginning to get a little bit easier until that day when Charlotte saw Clark in the grocery market, and she almost screamed from surprise.

He stood in front of her as she looked up from her grocery cart as if he’d been waiting to speak to her. She pushed her cart past him, looking away.

He stepped in front of her again, his face sincere. “Please, I… need to explain.”

She pretended to be more interested in choosing the freshest orange as he stepped in front of her again, but the truth was he made her heart stop. It’d been almost ten years since she’d seen him. The War was gone and she’d often looked in the newspapers to make sure there was no report of him dying in battle.

As hurt as she was, it was so good seeing his face, but she didn’t know whether to stay or leave.

He smiled at her, his blue eyes lighting up. A gust of wind came through the open doors of the market, teasing his hair. “Goodness, you’ve gotten even more beautiful,” said Clark in his velvety voice.

So many happy memories flooded her, and she had to force them aside as she nearly ran him over with her car and said, “I’m not interested in speaking to you. I’m married now.”

“I’m not. I couldn’t do that to her—not when I’m still in love with you,” he yelled from the other end of the grocery aisle in front of all the onlookers.

She was mortified. These were her neighbors. The last thing she needed was gossip reaching the senator. She rushed up to him and said under gritted breath, “What do you want, Clark?”

He pulled her aside where only she could hear and they could not be seen. The touch of his skin against hers made her hold her breath as he said, “You have to understand. They were going to hurt you. Once they found out I was seeing a colored—”

She snatched her arm away. She couldn’t risk being seen with him and, more importantly, having her heart ripped out again. “Lies and excuses. I don’t want to hear it anymore. Goodbye, Clark. Goodbye.”

“Please, Co-Co. I never stopped loving you.”

His words clung to her, words she needed to hear, but words that she hated herself for wanting so much. Charlotte grabbed her cart and pushed it around the corner, not only to get away from him, but so that he wouldn’t see the tears streaming down her face.

14
***
Today

“Mrs. C., why aren’t you dressed?” Luis asked, stepping inside her bedroom wearing a Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer hat. He was to meet her promptly at 7:35pm, as instructed, and his smile faded as his eyes met hers.

Mrs. C. was still tucked in her bedroom with her nightgown on. She’d even put her hair in curlers and a head wrap. “I’m not going,” she said, turning her back to him. “I’d much rather watch my program on television.”

With that, she flipped the channel on the remote even though there was nothing particularly interested in television.

He frowned at her and snatched the remote out of her hand. “You would not,” he said.

She gasped. How dare he turn the television off. He worked for her, not the other way around. “I say what I mean and I mean what I say.”

She’d never seen Luis more frustrated with her. Most of the time, when she’d had her diva antics he’d been patient with her. Now, obviously, she’d gotten on his last straw. “It’s Christmas, Mrs. C. It’s about forgiveness. It’s all about—”

“I don’t care!” she said, her nostrils flaring.

He lowered his voice and said in a calm manner, “Mrs. C., you’ve waited all these years to see him and now you’re not going to?”

She had to hold back the tears. The truth was, she was scared to death and she wasn’t about to let anyone see her crying. So, instead, she raised her chin in defiance. “It’s much too cold outside anyway. And I’d have to call a driver and everything and I just don’t have the energy.”

He kneeled next to her and took her hand in his. As mean as she could be to him, Luis was like the great grandson she’d wished she’d had. “Mrs. C., he’s in the lobby waiting for you.”

She gasped. They’d talked about meeting up at a restaurant, not at her home. “He’s in the what?”

“Merry Christmas,” Luis said, and Mrs. C. had a decision to make.

15
***
Years Ago

She wasn’t in love with him. As much as Charlotte had tried and as much as her husband was in love with her, she felt nothing for him.

She sighed, looking at herself in the bathroom mirror as she put on an extra layer of lipstick. The years had been kind to her even though she was in her late 40s. She’d had a good life on the surface: the finest homes, food, cars.

Senator Maple was a good man and he tried. He was kind, a hard worker, a great father, but deep inside she wanted to feel the things she felt with Clark.

As she opened her Chanel purse and sprayed her wrists with an extra coat of perfume, Charlotte knew she was stalling having to see her husband again.

As much as she’d told herself that she was over Clark—decades had past, after all—she wondered what would have happened had she forgiven the man those years ago in the market and ran off with him.

She sighed, smiling at the socialite who came into the restaurant’s bathroom and greeted her. Her ramblings about the charity benefit they were to be a part of only went in one ear and out the other.

Charlotte’s mind was too full and her heart was shattered. She couldn’t find Clark if she’d wanted to. He wasn’t in the phone book; she was ashamed to admit, but she’d tried to look him up a number of times only to run into a dead end.

She excused herself, cutting the socialite off mid-sentence as she made her way toward the bathroom exit. It was irresponsible to leave this good man for a fantasy, to disrupt her family. So, instead of walking into the room and telling her husband that she was leaving him, she stepped out into the Italian restaurant, past the city’s most powerful, each greeting her, and she kissed Senator Maple on the side of the head and wished him a happy anniversary.

He pulled out a chair for her and she forced a smile, sipping a glass of white wine. Maybe this was God’s punishment for loving someone so hard and deep and allowing them to be her everything.

16
***
Today

She was more nervous than she’d been in her entire life. As Mrs. C. sat in the dining area of the nursing home, she clasped her shaking hands together.

Soft Christmas music echoed and she wondered what Clark would look like after all these decades.

Luis said that Clark was waiting in the lobby and he would run and get him. It was a good thing because she needed extra time to prepare—having to decide and re-decide what she was going to wear wasn’t easy.

She watched the twinkling lights blink on and off along the Christmas tree and hoped she wasn’t wearing too much perfume, but just enough. Her hair was up the way he’d always had enjoyed it.

What if they didn’t have the connection that she remembered? Their affair was only for a few months after all, and it’d been so long ago. Then again, it’d been so long since she’d truly been in love with someone, she didn’t know if she knew how to love anymore.

She sighed, looking across the dining room at all the old, lonely people chatting around her. In all these years she’d been abandoned in this grand hall, she’d refuse to be like them, and in her heart of hearts she believed that there was someone out there for her. She just knew she wouldn’t die old and lonely.

“There you are,” said a voice behind her—a voice she recognized. She turned around and saw him. It was as if no time had been lost between them. “Merry Christmas.”

Sure, Clark was older than she’d remembered, but his build was the same. His cranberry colored sweater nearly covered his silk tie, and that broad smile and those sparkling eyes hadn’t been dimmed in all these years.

“My love,” said Clark, stretching out his arms as she got up. Though she told herself that she would keep herself composed and even cold and distant, her body had another idea.

Tears streamed as she lunged herself toward him, wrapping her arms around him and he pulled her tight. It was like coming home to a warm safety blanket. “Merry Christmas.”

“I never stopped loving you,” said Clark, and she believed every word because she’d never stopped loving him either.

There was so much to talk about, so many memories to share that they couldn’t before. But love—true love—is also true forgiveness.

And they had more of that between them than anyone else Mrs. C. knew. They had one last Christmas.

THE END