The Christmas Party
Nervous excitement coursed through me as I left my hotel room, checking my hair and makeup for the umpteenth time in the hallway's large mirror while waiting for the elevator. Last year, I'd been a mere team member. This year I was returning as the first-ever woman to successfully manage the launch of a new product line. I couldn't wait to politely rub the good ol' boys noses in my success.
I'd fled to the Mid-West after I graduated college, never realizing how culturally “backward” it was from my West Coast upbringing. Once there, it didn't really matter. I was far away from the one person I hoped to never lay eyes on again, and if fighting the good ol' boy network was the price, I was willing to pay it.
The product launch and marketing campaign had been a huge success. I had vindicated my bosses decision to promote me to the spot, and even one of the Senior VP's had congratulated me for a job well done. With a final pat of my perfectly coiffed hair, I turned at the sound of the slow elevator's ding.
The doors opened, and my heart fell to my stomach, the self-satisfied smirk left my face as my jaw dropped. I quickly composed myself, hoping he hadn't looked up in time to catch my expression. Damn it! It was my own fault. I shouldn't have been thinking so highly of myself. I had jinxed my night.
I politely nodded as I entered the elevator, pressing the button for the floor where the party was already in full swing. Turning to face the doors, I acted as if I didn't remember him. Perhaps he wouldn't recognize me. After all, it'd been almost a decade since we'd last seen each other, and my style had changed dramatically. Gone were my usual ripped jeans and bare feet. Tonight I was wearing an elegant ballgown, with gorgeous strappy sandals, and I had gotten a fresh mani-pedi just a few hours earlier.
He cleared his throat. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a quick movement of his hand, as if he'd reached out to touch my shoulder but changed his mind. The elevator made another stop to pick up an adorable elderly couple, one with a walker. I stepped back to give them more room which put me shoulder to shoulder with the person I most loathed on the planet.
Oh, my lord, he smells just like he did in college. Not fair! My knees always grew weak at the smell of Stetson. And it didn't help any that he was even more gorgeous than he had been in college. I mentally slapped myself, fighting to focus on the evening ahead of me. After all, I had a speech to give. One I'd been rehearsing for days, and at the moment I couldn't remember a word of it.
The elderly couple exited the elevator a few floors above my destination. I took the opportunity to step forward. It was just us on the elevator again. I closed my eyes and started to run through my speech.
I heard him clear his throat. “Um, Darcy? Darcy Hollis? Is that you?” His voice was soft, that low timber made my resolve melt a bit.
I dropped me head a bit, took a deep breath, slapped on my best customer meeting face, and turned to face him. “Yes, that's me. I'm sorry, are you a client of Clovis Industries?”
“Um, no. Actually, I'm the new West Coast regional sales manager, not a customer. Darcy, it's me, Pete. Pete Dawson? We went to college together.”
I stifled a smirk. He sounded so wounded. I couldn't resist playing with his head a bit more, but the elevator doors opened, and my boss was on the other side, drink in hand, his pink cheeks proving this one wasn't his first, or fifth for that matter. Steeling myself for the inevitable grab, I exited the elevator trying to avoid his grasp. Bob was a bit of a letch when he had a few drinks in him.
“Darcy! We were wondering where you were! Hey, Petey boy, have you met Darcy? She's our newest rock star. She's the one who handled our latest product launch.” Bob slapped Pete's shoulder with his empty hand, before wrapping it around my waist and pulling me along.
Ugh! Just what I wanted for Christmas. A drunk, married boss trying to cop a feel. I fought the urge to look at Pete and mouth the words “help me” as I would have done during college. He'd bailed me out of several unwelcome clinches at drunken frat parties, I'd be damned if I'd be the damsel-in-distress at this one.
Bob hung on to me as he wove us drunkenly thru the crowd, introducing me and Pete to a variety of people, many of whom already knew me. A few of the women who knew about my history with Pete delicately raised a questioning eyebrow at me, signaling me to come back and chat as soon as I was free.
A microphone boomed at the front of the room, saving me from further embarrassment courtesy of Bob. The chairman of the board quickly called us to dinner, and in no time I was up front for my speech. Luckily my amazingly great assistant Lucy had placed a copy of my speech up at the podium for me. I managed to sail through my speech, thanking my entire team, while apparently flawlessly covering up any nervousness or overlooked pieces of my speech.
I sat at a table full of my product team members. I had insisted on being placed with my team, an unconventional choice for this particular company. The launch would not have gone as well without my team and I wanted to show my thanks.
“A toast. To my wonderful, amazing, hard-working, product launch team. Thank you all! Without you all this would never have gotten off of the ground. Cheers!” Glasses clinked, as congratulations went around the table. I smiled at my crew. I'd handpicked my team, taking many other manager's “rejects” that I could see had talent and drive. We'd really shown the old boys a thing or two and I was proud of all of us.
I clinked my glass with my knife and stood. “Due to the huge success of the product launch, I am pleased to announce that we are being kept together as the lead team for improvements to the line we just launched as well as any future products our brains may dream up.” The table cheered and high-fived each other. “Wait, there's more! I badgered management into giving the entire team a 5% raise, and, everyone gets from Christmas Eve Day through the day after New Year's off. Now, let's all go dance!”
As I watched my team celebrate, I knew that giving up my own raise to give them that extra time off was well worth it. They had definitely earned it, and the board seemed to respect my decision to give credit where it was due. I just hoped it wasn't a career killer.
The board's chairman, John Thomas, approached me. He was in his late 80's, but didn't appear it. Still at the top of his game mentally, he walked tall and briskly, smiling greetings at the few willing to approach him. I had learned quickly that his gruff exterior was all show for business, in life he had a kind and generous heart.
“Darcy my dear, I've been looking for you. I've been meaning to introduce to one of our new sales managers. He'll be taking on your product line and I need you to get him up to speed on the marketing campaign.” He waved at someone over the back of my head as I inwardly groaned. Sales managers were typically male, egotistical, and chauvinistic pigs.
“Mr. Thomas, so nice to see you.” My stomach lurched, it was that voice, of course it would have to be that voice, and that man. Pete came from behind me to greet John, and I swore I felt his hand brush my waist.
“Pete, I'd like to introduce you to Darcy Hollis, the newly promoted Director for our product line, Darcy, this is Pete Dawson, the new sales manager I was telling your about.” My eyes grew big as I doubted my hearing. My confused expression made John laugh. “You heard right Darcy, I just finalized the paperwork. I didn't think Jim or Bob would do the job as well you, and I'd like to suggest Beth as your replacement. I think it's high time we move more women up.”
Stunned, I could only stand there trying to absorb it all. I had given up that promotion to get my team their time off. Both Bob and Jim, one of John's grandsons had jumped at the chance. I heard that low rumbling voice start up again.
“Congratulations Darcy. It sounds like John chose the perfect director. I can't wait to start working with you on the marketing campaign. I'm sure I will learn a lot.” Pete smiled down at me, his hand resting lightly on my back “How about a turn on the dance floor to celebrate?”
John congratulated me again, assuring me I'd earned the promotion, as he waved us off to the dance floor. The next thing I knew I was back in those familiar arms, spinning slowly around the room. How the hell had I gotten here? It took me a moment to realize that Pete had asked me a question.
“What? I'm sorry, I wasn't paying attention. It's been a crazy night.” I looked up at the familiar green eyes. My traitorous skin was singing at his familiar touch. Old crushes apparently never die.
“I was just wondering if you remembered the last time we danced like this. Please don't tell me you don't remember me, you never were all that great at lying – at least not to me.” His voice was teasing me.
I'd really wanted to play with his ego a bit, but the night was already too confusing. Fine, I'd cave, but only a little. “All right. Yes. I do remember you. How could I not? You broke my heart when you broke up with me right before graduation. I almost didn't attend my own graduation because of you. I'd hoped to never see you again, and now here I am stuck dancing with you on what should be one of the greatest nights of my life. I just broke the glass ceiling at a century-old, male dominated company and my team has the most successful product launch in the company's history. And I'm stuck celebrating that news with you.”
He looked down at me, frowning a bit. “I'm sorry about that. I didn't mean to ruin your night. I was just hoping...I dunno what I was hoping for. Look, I'm sorry for being a stupid kid. I hope it won't get in the way of our working together.”
Angry now, I broke away from him. “What? Do you think I am so unprofessional that I would let something so trivial as schoolgirl crush get in the way of my career? Tell you what, here's my card, call me or email me with your schedule. I'd like to get started on the marketing campaign for the West Coast as quickly as possible.” I spun on my heel and headed for the elevator.
Lucy stepped in beside me. “Darcy, are you okay? I didn't realize that was 'the' Pete. Is there anything I can do?” She stopped me, grabbing my shoulders to make me look at her.
I gave her a hug. “No, I'll be alright. I'm a big girl. Besides, do Product Directors cry at parties?” I laughed at her surprised look.
“They promoted you? Even though you gave it up for us?” Lucy had been in on the discussions regarding the bonuses and time off for my team. She'd known I'd given up the promotion to get my team their well deserved perks and she'd kept the secret safe.
“Yes, John just told me. I will be asking for you to be promoted as well, with a big raise. We've got a ton of work ahead of us and I can't do it without you.” Lucy jumped with delight, giving me a big hug. “Go on, go grab your boyfriend and enjoy yourselves.” I shooed her off and continued on my way.
My night was looking up a bit. If I could just avoid Pete for the rest of the night. I delayed my march to the elevator to chat with friends and teammates, accepting congratulations as word spread of my promotion. I managed to corner Beth and ask her if she'd consider being my replacement. She accepted, but only after asking if I was sure the board would approve. Like me, she was keenly aware of the ol' boys culture in our company.
“Sooooo, you're our new Product Director.” The slurred words were followed by a bourbon-laced belch aimed at my face. Bob was back and drunker than ever. Then it dawned on me, Bob would now be my equal. It must have stung his ego a bit.
“Hi Bob. Yes, John just told me about the promotion.” My mind whirled trying to find the right words to cool Bob off and not wound his ego at the same time. “You know, I wouldn't have been able to do it without your guidance. I learned a lot from you. Thank you.” I tried to sidle away, but he wasn't assuaged just yet.
“You got that rriigghht littllle la-la-lady.” Another belch. “You o-owe meee. How's 'bout showin a little thanks with a kiss?” He leaned forward drunkenly, and I jumped backwards into a firm, yet familiar body. A big hand appeared in front of me, catching Bob's face before reeling him backwards.
That low voice rumbled over my head. “You okay Bob? Looks like you lost your balance a bit.” Bob had lucked out and been caught by a few of the larger men on my team. “Guys, would you be so kind as to help Bob to table and get him some coffee?”
I mouthed the word "thanks" to my guys. It was nice to know that my team always had my back. They nodded as they landed several heavy slaps on Bob's back and steered him towards the coffee pots. I didn't thank Pete before I headed back towards the elevator.
The door was already open so I stepped on quickly, only to be joined by Pete. I glared up at him. I didn't need saving, I could have handled it myself. I'm sure I could have gotten out of it gracefully, somehow. I fumed a bit, which only made him laugh.
“Still stubborn to a fault, eh Darcy?” At my glare he held his hands up. “Sorry, I know you could have handled it just fine on your own. I just thought I'd lend a hand before your enforcers got into trouble. What is it about you and drunken men anyway? I'd of thought you'd had your fill of that at our frat parties.” His smile was warm and a bit contagious.
“Yeah, like it's my fault men get drunk and hit on me. Why were you following me anyway?” I glared up at him. I hate the fact that he's nearly a foot taller than me and was thankful I was wearing tall heels.
“I just wanted to make sure you got back to your room safe and sound.”
“I don't need an escort.” I crossed my arms and fumed some more. Pete remained quiet.
The doors opened at my floor and I exited, expecting Pete to stay behind. No such luck. He stayed by my side, quiet all the way to my door.
I looked up at him. “I'm not inviting you in. You can go now.” I made a shooing motion with my room card.
Instead of leaving, Pete moved in closer, wrapping his arms around my waist and drawing me tightly in. Damn that Stetson cologne! He smelled so good, I started to melt a bit in his arms, though I refused to look at his face.
“Look, Darcy. I'm sorry. Back in college, you were going on and on about graduation and the job offers you were getting, and it was driving me crazy.” At the start of my protest he put his finger on my lips and shushed me. I hate being shushed.
“Let me finish, please. What you didn't know was that I learned late into the semester that my final project wouldn’t be accepted. I was being allowed to walk at the same time as you, but I wouldn't be graduated until after I resubmitted my senior project during summer semester. I wasn't getting any job offers and I was mad. At myself, the world, and you. You were just so on point with everything. You had your life all figured out and I couldn't even tell you I wasn't graduating.” Pete's head hung with shame.
“So, you broke up with me because you were going to graduate a semester later? Did you really think that would've mattered to me? Even after I told you I loved you?” It still hurt, even all these years later, that memory of his rejection when I declared my long-standing love for him would be with me forever.
Pete reached in his pocket, pulling out a small, wrapped box. “Here, I was going to give this to you at graduation. I've kept it all these years in hopes I'd see you again and be able to give it to you. What better time than Christmas, right? Christmas is a time for miracles and forgiveness isn't it?”
I took the box, unsure of what to do or say. All I could croak out was a pathetic “ummm?”.
Pete lightly kissed me on my forehead and turned to leave. “I just wanted you to know that I still love you.”
I stood in shocked silence for a moment, and then unwrapped the box. Inside was a small diamond ring with a white card that simply asked, “Will you marry me?” Son-of-a-bitch! Had to wait nearly a decade to grow a pair and he still didn't ask me himself? Pissed off and ridiculously happy I couldn't decide what to do. Finally I kicked off my heels and began running, with the box firmly in my hand.
“Pete! Pete! Wait up, you lousy coward! Come back here and act like a man for once in your life.” I raced around the corner to the elevator and slammed right into a firm chest with enough force to land us both on the floor. God I really hope it was Pete I knocked down and not some poor innocent man.
I both felt and heard the low rumbling laugh. Brushing my hair out of my face I could finally see that, in fact, I had knocked Pete off his feet. Score one for the short girl!
Sitting up a bit, I began my rant. “How dare you hand me something like this!” I shook the box in his face. “And not have the balls to ask me in person? You don't ask a woman to marry you with a note written years ago! First you ask for forgiveness and then you ask her to marry you. You dolt! What? Did you think I would've have said no back then? I'd been in love with you for years you moron. How could you not know that when everyone else did?”
Pete laughed, then roughly pulled me to him for a long kiss. I melted. All the years of anger washed away as the realization that the person I loved the most, and hated the most, had never really wanted me out of his life.
We broke for air and sat up a bit. Pete took my hand and looked into my eyes. “So, will your forgive me? And then will you marry me?” I laughed, and punched him on the arm.
“Well, it is Christmas, I guess I can throw you a bone. Sure, I guess I'll marry you.” I laughed as Pete pulled me onto his lap for a soft kiss.
Christmas is a time for miracles and forgiveness after all, and this one was turning out to a doozy!