Growing up in the mountains of Wyoming Trina and Dean had been childhood friends until the bitter feud between their families drove them apart. When the magic of Christmas Eve tips the star-crossed lovers together year after year, will they be able to make sure this holiday is not their last?
December 24, 2001
It was snowing. An icy, dry snow, and in the porch light the drifts on the steps in front of Trina Crawford looked like piles of diamonds.
Oh, if only…
Trina pulled her gloved hands into her pink coat and blew into the sleeves. The blast of heat from her breath was a quickly fading comfort. So was the thought of diamonds.
Nothing is going to help me. Nothing.
“Enjoying the view?”
The voice made her jump. It wasn’t her mom’s voice, which was the one she wanted to hear, but it was a really nice voice all the same.
“In the freezing flesh.”
Dean McKenzie came out of the dark at the edge of the house, wearing his serious snow gear. He must have driven an ATV the back way over the creek that ran along the border between their families’ properties.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, though she didn’t really care why he was here. It was like taking a sip of water only to realize how totally thirsty you are.
Seeing Dean was like that. She was never lonely until he showed up.
“My mom said your mom left. I figured you might want some company.” That was pity on his face. He tried to hide it, because he was her friend and he knew she hated pity, but she could still see it.
“She’s coming back.” Trina had to say that. She had to believe it. Otherwise it was just her and her dad forever, and she couldn’t wrap her head around a future so crappy.
“Totally.” He nodded, definitively on her side as he had been for the sixteen years they’d been friends. “But maybe…you want some company?”
“That’d be awesome.” She shifted over on the blanket she’d placed between her numb butt and the wooden porch.
“I brought you some supplies.”
“Yeah, you know. Stakeout supplies.”
“You think me sitting here is a stakeout?”
“Sit-in?” He collapsed next to her. “Strike?” Their arms touched for a moment, and even through the layers of their coats she could feel his arm—or thought she could—and that was enough to make her twitch away.
Jenny at school said that she and Dean broke up because Dean was secretly in love with Trina. Which was ridiculous. They were neighbors. Friends. And not at all into each other. Not like that.
And besides, their dads would KILL them. Like kill them dead. If they ever got together.
In fact, it would make her father so angry she actually considered dating Dean, just to watch Dad register any kind of emotion in her direction.
“Well,” Dean said. “Whatever it is. You need some food.” He handed her a plastic bag full of fancy party food: shrimp (gross!), olives (yay!), little cubes of cheese. Toothpicks sticking out of some of the stuff had pierced the bag, and olive juice was everywhere. “And I hope you’ll notice, I remembered you’re a vegetarian and didn’t bring you the elk sliders. Even though they were awesome.”
“This is so nice, thank you,” she said, ignoring the shrimp.
“And here’s something to drink.”
He opened the thermos in his hand and steam poured out. Hot chocolate and something minty. Probably schnapps.
“Thanks.” She took a sip, and the heat and the booze burned down her throat.
“Where’s your dad?” Dean asked, stretching his long legs out in front of him. He opened the neck of his snowmobile suit and she saw a glimpse of a black tie.
He’d come right from the party. With olives. It was such a nice thing. Like…maybe one of the nicest things anyone had ever done for her.
“Really?” For a second he looked panicked. Seriously, that’s how ridiculous it was between their fathers.
“Don’t worry, he’s passed out in the den. After he and Mom fought, he didn’t stay awake long enough to watch her go.”
“She’s left a lot of times before.”
She didn’t have to say that this one felt different. It was Christmas Eve, after all. What kind of mom would drive away on Christmas Eve unless she meant it?
More booze seemed in order. Lots more booze. The heat and alcohol didn’t burn this time. She could feel it spreading through her body, a stream of light warming her fingers and knees and the tip of her nose. “She told me I was old enough now. That when I graduate in May, I can leave. Just like her. And never come back.”
She laughed at his sarcasm. “Parents of the year, I tell you.” A coyote howled, and they both turned toward what was left of the McKenzie property, which ran on the other side of the creek.
“Your dad worried about that coyote?” he asked.
“I have no idea.” Her dad never told her anything. He used to talk to Dean about that stuff. Coyotes and high pastures and grazing yields. Dean had once been the son her father never had. “You know, I never told you how sorry I was that he fired you.”
“Sure you did. Like eight hundred times.”
“Well, I’m still sorry.”
“It was ages ago,” Dean said. Dean’s family had sold off most of their herd, and Dean had been working summers for Dad since the minute he’d been able to sit on a horse and drive an ATV. Which was roughly about five minutes after being born.
“It was two summers ago,” she reminded him. It had been during the bright white-hot months of the fight between their fathers. “And it sucked.”
“It did. I liked that job.”
“Sometimes I think you were born in the wrong century.” She was loose from the booze and no food.
He gave her side-eyes.
“I mean it in a good way,” she clarified. “Like you would have been so happy in the old west, where there were tons of jobs on the land and you could just ride your horse and sleep under the stars and eat beans.”
He laughed. “Well, I hate beans, but the rest of it sounds good. But there’s still plenty of work to do in this century.”
“What are you going to do this summer?”
“I have pre-acceptance at Laramie Tech. Land Management.”
“You didn’t tell me that!” she cried.
He could blame his pink cheeks on the wind or the cold, but she knew the truth. And the truth was that big, bad, tough guy Dean McKenzie—blushed. “Well, it’s not Stanford—”
“Stop,” she whispered. “Don’t do that. That’s exactly the program you wanted, and you worked hard to get there. It’s awesome. What did your dad say?”
“That it was a miracle.” Dean kicked snow off the toe of his boot. Trina’s Mom once said that Dean and his dad, Eugene, fought like cats in a bag. And it was true, they couldn’t be in the same room without turning on each other.
Dean didn’t want what his father had. Not the money or the power. None of it. And Eugene could not understand that and so the fights were epic.
Sometimes Trina didn’t know who had it worse, her with her father and their long icy silences or Dean and his dad who clashed and fought and exploded against each other all the time.
It was a crappy toss-up.
“I’ll drink to that.” Dean tipped the flask to his lips and took a long pull. “Luckily, Laramie is far away and I’ll never have to come back here if I don’t want to.”
“Hear, hear,” she said, and took a swig when he handed the flask back to her.
The wind blew past the porch, and she couldn’t control her full-body shiver.
“You’re freezing,” he said.
“I’m fine,” she lied. But Dean got up off the blanket and wrapped the part he’d been sitting on around her. And then he tugged her against his chest, her cheek against the scratchy fabric of his camouflage snowmobile suit.
Her eyes went wide. She held her breath, both trying and not trying to feel his body beneath the layers between them. But she felt stupid and awkward. Heavy and stiff, like she’d suddenly turned into a mannequin.
She tried to pull away, because she didn’t know how to do that—how to lean back against Dean like it meant nothing. Because she didn’t know what she wanted it to mean. Or if it meant something to him.
Basically, she just didn’t lean back against guys.
“Just…relax,” he muttered, pulling her close, holding her still.
She sighed and did as he asked. In stages, she just let him hold all her weight and all the worry on her back, and after a while, after all the awkwardness faded away, it just felt really good. To just let him hold her up. He was big. He was strong.
He could handle it.
Dean was the one person in her life with whom she didn’t have to hide all her garbage.
“It’s Christmas Eve,” she said, staring up at the snow falling from a coal-black sky.
“Won’t your family miss you? I mean the party?”
“The McKenzie Christmas Eve Extravaganza will go on just fine without me. Besides, Josh is home.”
“How is your brother?”
“Still managing to breathe despite having his head up Dad’s butt.”
It was almost impossible to believe that Dean and Josh were brothers, except they looked nearly identical. They were just so different. Dean lived in his body and in his smile, and he was a pretty decent guy. Josh lived in Skeletor’s Snake Mountain with the rest of the bad guys.
“Thanks for the food,” she said, holding up the little bag. An olive fell out of one of the holes from the toothpicks, and she put it in her mouth.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t score any of the yule log. It hadn’t gone out yet.”
Man, she did like the yule log.
“Did you play?” She wiggled a piece of cheese out of the bag.
“Yeah. Mom begged.” He sighed. “It’s not the same without you, though. ‘Silent Night’ just isn’t as pretty without the piano.”
“I miss that party.”
“No way,” he laughed. “It’s the one nice thing about our parents not being friends anymore. You don’t have to sit through that party.”
She glanced up at the black, black sky and kept her mouth shut. He just wouldn’t understand how much she used to look forward to Christmas Eve. She’d loved that party. Loved that little half hour in the middle when she and Dean would play Christmas carols.
“Can I ask you something, Trina?” he said after a while.
“If your mom doesn’t come back…what are you going to do?”
“Stay out of my dad’s way, not that that will be hard. And then, after I graduate, I’m going to leave and never come back.”
He was quiet for a long time, and Trina sat up to look at him. He gave her a quick smile, then looked back out over the glittering snowdrifts to the red lights of the cars on the highway in the far distance.
People leaving, going someplace else. Someplace better. That’s what she thought when she looked out at those lights.
I want to be there, she thought. Tires on the road, this town in her rearview mirror.
“You?” she asked.
“Same. We gotta get outta Dusk Falls, Trina. Or they’ll poison us.”
Their parents and this stupid feud between them. All over that patch of land at the boundary of their properties. The same patch of land Dean had ridden the ATV over to get here. The land with the coyotes.
“Tell me something good,” she said. Having pulled away from Dean, she now wanted nothing more than to lean back against him. But by shifting away she felt like she’d sort of given up her claim.
“My butt is numb.”
“Mine too,” she laughed. “And I don’t think that’s good.”
“Remember the year the Christmas tree fell over at the party?”
“And smashed into the ice sculpture? Of course I remember. The look on your mom’s face…” She attempted to recreate it. A kind of slow motion horror/panic silent scream.
“That’s actually not too bad,” he said.
“Thank you. I’ve been working on impressions. Want to see my dad?” She dropped every ounce of expression from her face and stared out, unseeing, into the distance and pretended to drink a beer.
“Uncanny,” he breathed.
“Well if this law thing doesn’t work out, it’s good to know I have something I can fall back on.”
“You know what I remember?” he asked. “About that party?”
“That we were picking pine needles out of the cheese tray for like hours?”
“No. Though that was funny. I remember how you, like… spun my grandma around so she wouldn’t see it and then distracted her.”
“I asked her about how she ran the ranch during the war when your grandfather was overseas.”
Dean looked down at her, and for a long moment Trina wasn’t sure what was happening. It seemed, sort of, like he might…might be thinking about kissing her. Not that she was totally sure of what that looked like. Her track record would indicate that she was not a girl that guys tried to kiss. Brian Goser kissed her last year, but he’d looked like he had a stomachache.
And the kiss had kind of given her one.
Dean looked intense, and his bright blue eyes were dark, and he was breathing hard. Every exhale turned into a plume of smoke around his head.
And he looked like a man. And he made her feel—not at all like a kid. When he looked at her that way, she felt different.
Like a woman? Was that what this feeling was? Her skin felt too small to hold her. Her blood was hot in her veins and all she wanted, all she wanted in the world was to taste him.
His skin. His lips.
Just a little.
Just a lot.
But then he glanced away and the moment cracked like a thin layer of ice over the creek. “Well, Grandma loved to talk about that.”
“She would have lost her shit if she saw that tree down,” Trina said, totally discomfited by what she’d imagined on his face. Embarrassed by how badly she wanted…what she wanted. Ridiculous. The cold was getting to her.
“Luckily she’s deaf as a post and didn’t hear it fall.”
“And you and your mom—you were like, superhuman cleaning that up.”
“It’s what Mom and I are good at,” Dean agreed. “Cleaning stuff up.” He took a swig from the flask and then handed it back over to Trina. She took another sip. The flask was nearly empty, and she was much warmer. Because of the booze. Because he was here.
What would I do if he wasn’t here? she wondered. And the endlessness of her life here blended hard with the endlessness of Wyoming. With her father’s land. And for a minute she couldn’t breathe. It was as if all the space…the distance, it pulled at her, picking apart her seams. And if she didn’t leave—didn’t concentrate really hard on who she was and who she wanted to be—she’d lose herself here.
She’d just bleed into the air and the snow and mountains. The coyotes would take off with her.
“My mom’s not coming back.” There was no use in pretending. No point.
“No. She’s not.”
“It’s just me and Dad now,” she said, her throat tight.
“You got me,” he said. “I’m here, too.”
“Thank you.” The tears she wouldn’t let fall were blinding her. Burning her eyes. But she held onto them. Held onto the pain. Stitching it into her skin, another thing that would keep her from getting lost in all this space. She was the inverse of Virginia Woolf, loading her pockets with rocks so she’d sink.
Dean curled his hand around her shoulder and pulled her back into him.
And she was so happy to rest back against him. The scratchy camouflage snowmobile suit couldn’t totally hide his warmth, the sturdy, solid feel of him. And she relished it.
“You want to leave?” she asked. “We could go to Holly’s.” Holly’s was a bar on the edge of town that didn’t card, or at least didn’t card the two of them. And she was always open on Christmas Eve.
“No, I’m good.”
“Freezing your ass off on my porch?”
Oh, God, Dean.
“Tell me how you’re going to go to Stanford,” he said. “And law school, and save the world from the evil corporations.”
“Well, first I’m going to get a cape.”
“I might need a sidekick.”
“Like a trusty dog or something? A sassy gay best friend?”
“You’re not gay, are you?” she asked, shocked and tingly from the strange audacity of that question.
His body shook with a laugh. “Not gay.”
“Well, that rules you out, doesn’t it?”
He laughed, and there was a strange quick pressure on the top of her head that she barely registered through the thick yarn of her hat.
Did he… did he just kiss my head?
She wished for a moment she was another kind of girl, the kind that was brave and bold and could turn around and kiss him. Right here on her dad’s porch.
But in the end she was Trina Crawford, and so she just leaned against him and tried as hard as she could to soak up some of his strength.
To last her. Because they were both leaving Dusk Falls.
And they were never coming back.
“Merry Christmas, Dean,” she whispered.
“Merry Christmas, Trina.”