Cold, wet, hungry, and miserable, Curtis trudged through soggy streets for three blocks from the subway to Lita Cathey’s apartment. If Della’s directions were wrong, he planned to turn around and not even look for the right place. Much to his disgust, the directions were perfect. Even without checking the number, he knew exactly which house which one belonged to Lita and shook off his umbrella in the small foyer.
Climbing the stairs, he found her door and rang the old-fashioned bell. The building was exactly the kind of place he’d love to live in—if he could afford the rent. He couldn’t, however, so instead he waited at the door of a co-worker who made less money than he had for years, and envied her the apartment he couldn’t have. “Pathetic, Curt,” he muttered to himself, disgusted.
The look of surprise on Lita’s face shouldn’t have unnerved him, but it did. He mumbled something about the contracts and allowed her to drag him into the apartment and out of his coat. “Have you eaten?”
“No, but I—”
“Let me fix you a plate.” His face must have objected further, because she added hastily, “Please, I’ll feel less guilty if I don’t have to throw them out.”
Curtis resisted the impulse to ask why she’d throw out good food. It was none of his business. “May I wash my hands? The subway—”
Lita pointed down the hall to a door on the left. “The bathroom is in there. I’ll get you a drink. Coffee?”
“That’d be nice, thank you.”
Curtis found the room easily and locked the door behind him. He stared at himself in the mirror. The candle flickering on the sink made his overlarge nose seem more prominent than ever, especially now that it practically glowed red from the cold. He leaned against the pedestal sink, his hands gripping the sides as he stared at his—in his opinion—unsatisfactory reflection.
With one last glance to ensure his face was at least clean, he returned to Lita’s living room, wondering all the while, why he had to be the errand boy for Della’s latest project. It wasn’t his job. “Nice place. I like these old Victorian flats.”
Bite after agonizing bite, Curtis worked his way through the plate of food and tried not to stare at the woman across from him. Lita Cathey embodied everything he wasn’t and then some. From the way the others in the office spoke of her, she didn’t date company men often, had a dozen girlfriends that had frequent “girls’ nights,” and spent some of her weekends off modeling wedding gowns for local boutiques. Was any of it true? Curtis suspected so.
She did good work, on time, and was always pleasant. Like clockwork, she invited him to every office party, dinner, picnic, and gift exchange. If the office had a pool about the gender of someone’s unborn child or the Super Bowl, she asked if he wanted to join. In meetings, she treated everyone as if on level playing fields, from the office temps to their top agents. He liked her; he just didn’t know her. Then again, he didn’t know any of the office staff. Could they be more different? Why had she invited him to stay? What had prompted him to accept?
She asked questions and tried to draw him out, but Curtis couldn’t relax. He had to go home. With a bag full of take-out food containers that she foisted on him unexpectedly, he escaped her apartment with its sleek modern furniture and perfectly designed spaces into the sleet that now replaced the rain. Could it get any worse? He knew it could, sad as it may be. It could and likely would always be much worse.
The subway whizzed through dark tunnels to the other side of Rockland. In a part of the city that women like Lita had probably never seen, Curtis climbed up the stairs that led from the subway into the streets of his neighborhood. Graffiti decorated everything from the sides of buildings to lampposts and fire hydrants. The homeless shivered around fires in metal trashcans while Curtis shivered in his ineffective and nearly threadbare coat. Coming home in winter—an experiment in electric-free refrigeration.
As if destiny had determined to prevent even the small comfort of his miserable apartment, police lights flashed on his street, blocking access to his building. He walked around the block and down the alleyway to the back entrance. Dragging himself up the stairs, he let himself into his apartment and smiled for the first time that day.
“Hello, Lane. Is Mama beating you again?”
“I don’t understand how she remembers where every one of those cards is. I thought I was good at concentration, but she beats me every time.”
“Lane is too impatient.” Flora Brighton winked at her son and flipped two more cards. “See. It’s all in diversion and my secret weapon.”
“Razor-sharp mind, if you ask me.” Lane stood, conceding defeat, and grabbed her coat from the hooks by the door. “Did you get your work done?”
Curtis nodded and thanked Lane for staying with his mother. “She likes you. It’s good for her to have someone to break up the monotony of the evenings. I tend to get preoccupied with what I’m doing and forget about her.”
“She refused to eat.”
As the door closed behind their neighbor, Curtis set the locks and shook bags. “One of the women at work sent home dinner. Would you like some?”
“Woman?” Flora stood and wrapped a rubber band around the worn deck of cards, stashing them in her sweater pocket. “What woman?”
“Lita. Have I mentioned her?” Curtis knew it was possible, but not likely.
“I don’t think so. Who is she? Does she work in your office?”
“She sits across the desk from me. We have a half-wall that separates our spaces. Della sent me to her house tonight with some contracts, and Lita insisted we take her leftovers.” He spooned generous portions on both of their plates and as he did, wondered why Lita had ordered so much food for just one person. He wouldn’t eat again, but his mother wouldn’t notice he hardly touched the food.
After dinner, clean up, and watching the news, Flora kissed her son goodnight and disappeared into her bedroom. For the first time that day, Curtis fully relaxed. His muscles, taut with the stress of work and life, slackened with each passing minute until he felt like a mass of Jell-O. Curtis reached for his Bible and turned to Corinthians to read the day’s chapters.
His evening routine began once he closed his Bible and stood to ready himself for bed. He changed into pajamas, stain treated the cuffs and lower sleeves of his shirt, brushed his teeth, and then began his stretches. Each night he went to bed fully stretched and feeling as comfortable as possible.
The ritual of making his bed had become so automatic that he didn’t realize he’d done it until he snapped off the light and climbed onto the lumpy mattress of the sleeper sofa. If I get a Christmas bonus this year, I’m buying a more comfortable sofa bed—maybe one of those ones that just lay flat instead of folding out. As he pulled the heavy comforter over his shoulders, he thought of Lita and sighed. “Lord, please don’t let tonight’s meal prompt her to try to be friendlier. I don’t want to be rude…”
Lita cleaned her kitchen, humming along with the music on her CD changer. Not for the first time, she considered the space savings of switching to all digital, but her CD collection had taken a decade to acquire, and converting them to digital files would take forever. Music reminded her of Curtis’ visit. She’d asked him to name his favorite Christmas song. “Carol or just fun song, I don’t care. Just name your favorite.”
“I don’t listen much to music. I like Manheim Steamroller, though. Anything by them I guess.”
“Do you like Christmas, or are you a Scrooge?” she teased, desperately trying to keep the conversation going.
“I have a hard enough time keeping my head above water the rest of the year. Christmas for me is a time to avoid more guilt.”
He rose. “I have to go. Someone is expecting me, and I need to be on time.”
Even as tense and awkward as he had been, she couldn’t deny that he seemed more relaxed than she had ever seen him. He had even noticed that she didn’t have a tree yet. Just a bit too eager to leave. His ambiguity intrigued her, and now that they’d shared a meal and real conversation, she determined to get to know him better.
“Well, Curtis Brighton, I am in charge of the Secret Santa drawing, and you are participating this year if it kills me. I’m cheating too. I’m getting you a new briefcase. Merry Christmas, Mr. Mystery.”
Merry Christmas, Mr. Mystery.”
Sometimes your curiosity gets the better of you. Such is the case for Lita as she realizes she knows nothing about her coworker of three years. Will he let her in, and what will she find if he does?
Curtis Brighton is the enigma of Delta Advertising. Why is the highest paid, most successful man in the office not getting the promotions that he has earned? Why is his wallet worn out, his briefcase falling apart, and why doesn’t he at least participate in the office “Secret Santa?”
These are questions that plague Lita Cathey. After three years sitting across from him, she knows only his work ethic and strange propensity to disappear from the office in a rush.
As the month counts down, the most unlikely relationship builds until Lita’s heart is so entangled that she has to face her own fears.
Merry Christmas, Lita!
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