Christmas Town Homecoming

Read the Excerpt

An excerpt from my short story, “Silver and Gold”:

Why hadn’t she stayed home? Instead, filled with dread, Dakota Moore was standing by a huge Christmas tree in the high school gymnasium. The tree dazzled with hundreds of lights and dozens of brightly colored ornaments.

Annie Maxwell, her best friend since fifth grade, peered around the branches.

“Dakota. Stop hiding.”

Tonight, their ten-year class reunion weekend would end with this ball. And as the event’s happy hour neared its close, the gym was overflowing. There was no way Dakota could leave without making a spectacle of herself.

Once, that wouldn’t have bothered her. In school, she’d been supremely self-confident. Now, and especially here, she felt self-conscious. Her own dreams of Olympic gold, if not her equally spectacular failure at love, were long behind her.

Wobbling on her too-high heels, she ducked away from the enormous spruce tree, plucking sharp needles from her hair, brushing off her sparkly gold gown. Before the night was over, she’d probably slip and fall in front of everyone who had once believed in her.

“Hiding?” she repeated. Had she been that obvious?

Annie rolled her eyes. “Pretty much sums up this whole weekend. For both of us.”

True, Dakota had attended the other events but with the same reluctance as Annie who was going through a messy divorce. It was Annie who’d insisted they attend the reunion. If she could put on her game face for one more night, so could Dakota. Make the best of things had become her motto, her mantra.

Besides, Christmas Town, Maine, must be the world’s happiest place, especially at holiday time. Here, in addition to the warmly lit tree, the gym’s other decorations looked enchanting. White fabric draped in lavish folds from the ceiling, and silver stars glittered above the dance floor and tables, transforming the space from a plain part of the school into a winter wonderland.

This wasn’t Dakota’s first visit to her former hometown, but she’d never found an opportunity before to see anyone except Annie. Dakota’s dad—and his constant disapproval—had been all she could handle. Certainly, she’d avoided one particular classmate.

“I told you,” Annie said, “stop worrying. I doubt he’ll even show up.”

Which should have eased Dakota’s mind.

“I hope you’re right.”

“Let’s circulate before dinner starts. You haven’t seen these other people in a long time. Everyone asks about you.”

But what did they ask? “I would have had bells on, Annie, if I’d won the 400-meter freestyle in London.” The words stuck in her throat. She’d been so proud to make Team USA.

“You’re too hard on yourself.” Annie flicked a strand of auburn hair away from her cheek. “Believe me, you’re not alone.”

Dakota heard the sad note in her friend’s voice. She saw it in her hazel eyes, yet Annie and her husband Joe had always seemed like a perfect match to Dakota. They’d had the kind of love she’d yearned for too. If that had also ended in a different, happier way, tonight they might have been two couples together.

“Are you sure about this divorce?”

Annie took her arm. “I’m not sure these days about anything.”

As they crossed the room, they were often stopped by other classmates. Phoebe Wright with Damon Harris. Marissa Lamb and Ryker Nowak. Sydney Atkins whose hand was tucked into some handsome man’s arm. Interesting matchups here. But when Toni Berridge, her rival on the swim team in their junior and senior years, waved at her as if to hail a taxi, Dakota veered off in the opposite direction. They’d already spoken at the Tea Pot that morning during breakfast. It seems I was closer than you to that gold medal after all, Toni had said. Which was exactly what Dakota expected to hear more of tonight.

Then, as she and Annie started toward the dinner tables, Dakota’s heart began to pound harder. Annie had been wrong. He was suddenly here in the crowd, coming toward them, and ten years seemed to pass again in the blink of an eye. The very sight of Kieran Gardner would always be a shock, his good looks, that dark hair and those teal blue eyes…yet something seemed different about him tonight. Well, why not after so many years?

And isn’t this awkward? He, like Annie, had been Dakota’s friend—until she’d rashly decided to ask more of their relationship, and Kieran had flatly rejected her. That humiliation still stung as much as it had then.

Dakota took another step, turned an ankle in her gold strappy sandals—and lurched right into him.

* * *

Kieran grasped her upper arms to prevent a fall.

“Dakota,” he said and almost leaned closer to kiss her cheek. Instead, already missing the warmth of their brief contact, he dropped his hands then stepped back.

Dakota didn’t look pleased. “Oh. Kieran. I didn’t expect to see you here.”

Annie nudged her. She’d always wanted their close trio to be reunited. “She’s joking.”

“No, I’m not. And I came tonight under duress.”

Probably sensing trouble ahead, Annie excused herself then walked over to another classmate. That left Kieran alone with Dakota. Something he’d dreamed of for years. He’d tried then to apologize for hurting her. She hadn’t talked to him since, but this might be his best chance to explain.

“Dakota, I—”

“You missed all the other events. You weren’t at the Friday welcome dinner,” she pointed out, which made him blink. “Or the bonfire afterward.”

Was she keeping score? Had Dakota—probably to her own irritation—kept an eye out for him? Hoping he wouldn’t turn up. “You didn’t go snowshoeing—”

Finally, he found his voice again. “You know I was never very athletic.” A mild understatement. In that, they were opposites. Kieran had been a classic nerd, president of the math club, Dakota the school’s top swimmer. She’d known exactly what she wanted while he’d been floundering to find some direction for his life. It had always amazed him that they’d become friends, and he wished he’d found a kinder way to say no to Dakota then; he needed to tell her now how he’d really felt. Still felt. The instant he’d seen her tonight he knew that hadn’t changed.

“You didn’t come to lunch at Posey’s either,” she went on. “Or help decorate the gym for tonight. Shame on you, Mr. Bueller.”

His mouth quirked at her surprising reference to the old movie whose teen hero had taken yet another day off from school. Maybe she didn’t hate Kieran that much after all. “I was in Boston. On business. Just got home in time for this, Champ.”

Kieran winced. He’d said exactly the wrong thing. She’d be thinking now about the gold medal she’d lost.

Dakota had turned pale. “Please don’t call me that.”

“Sorry, it just slipped out. I was remembering the first time I ever saw you, crossing the school lawn with Annie. You were wearing a sweatshirt with that writing on it.” Kieran had felt tongue-tied that day, transfixed by Dakota, her sleek brown hair and pretty gray eyes. He’d been smitten on the spot. And too socially clumsy to say the right thing. The nickname had later stuck, but apparently he hadn’t learned much in ten years.

“Champion was the brand name on that shirt.” She added, looking horrified, “Did you think I was boasting?”

“You were a champ. Everyone knew that.”

“Or thought I had a big ego.”

Dakota seemed shaken. Was she that sensitive? “Why would you care if they did? Or still do? You should be proud. You’re a great swimmer.”

“Past-tense. Then I just had to call attention to myself again tonight by nearly knocking you over in public.”

“I hear high heels are a pain,” he said with a glance at her metallic sandals. “Great shoes, by the way.”

Her lips twitched. “Ha-ha.”

Kieran laughed a little. “Made you smile.”

Which didn’t last long. This was the trouble with class reunions—they brought up the past, especially mistakes like his. Had he deliberately extended his time in Boston to avoid this weekend? Or because he had a big career decision to make and had stayed to weigh his options? It had been far easier to give his friend Alonzo advice earlier, and instead of apologizing to Dakota now, he’d made a blunder far worse than her bumping into him. He changed his mind. If she had any feelings for him, they were probably more along the line of wanting to stick a pin in Kieran as a voodoo doll.

“You know what,” she said. “I think I’ll look for my assigned seat for dinner.”

Apparently not open to his apology, she walked away.

Still, he’d never been a quitter. Kieran couldn’t let it go at that.