Rosa West hummed along with the radio as she drove to the mall for one last Christmas shopping trip. It was her first year to shop completely by herself, now that her brother and his family lived one state over. She used to shop with Steve and his wife Martha, counting on them to help her figure out gifts for parents, nieces and nephews, and assorted friends of the family. But Martha had a great chance at a promotion to senior management, so they jumped at the chance to move.
"...and you'll fall asleep, counting your blessings," Rosa sang along with Bing Crosby. She loved Christmas, but she was a little blue not having her niece, Anna, and nephew, David, to take to see Christmas lights shopping before they arrived for Christmas. Maybe it was just as well, Anna was a teenager now, and she wasn't sure about the whole idea of spending an entire day shopping for makeup. David still loved sports and model trains, but she was sure he would outgrow that by next year.
She turned into the mall parking lot, found a spot by the door of her favorite store (miracle!), and pulled out her list that Martha had sent her. Rosa took off her hat and shook out her dark curls before tossing the hat into the back seat of her car and locking up. She quickly walked through the brisk wind to the store, plunging into the madness of the ritual known as Christmas shopping.
An exhausting couple of hours later, and several trips to dump off bags in her car trunk, Rosa treated herself to white chocolate mocha at the coffee shop in the mall. The shop was crowded, so she took her drink to a bench in the middle of the wing, gratefully sinking down, taking a long sip. She closed her eyes a moment to savor the flavors of coffee, cream, and white chocolate when she heard a voice ask, "Is that you, Rosa?"
Rosa nearly spilled her drink as her dark eyes flew open at the voice. "Susan Warner?" she replied.
"Not Warner any longer, I'm Susan Woods again," the tall, vivacious redhead answered. "Mind if I sit a moment?"
"Please, sit. Oh my goodness, Susan, I haven't seen you since your wedding five years ago. What happened?"
Susan busied herself with arranging her shopping bags around her feet, then turned to her old high school friend. "Well, Bruce and I decided to part ways, I just woke up one day and realized that I wasn't happy being married. I still love Bruce as a friend, but as a husband? It just didn't jell like I thought we would."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Rosa sympathized. "Bruce was a very nice man."
"He'll make some woman very happy," Susan agreed, "just not me. So, are you still single?"
"Yes," Rosa said without further explanation.
"Still living in that little house with what's her name? Your college roommate?" Susan asked.
Rosa mentally batted away sad memories as she answered lightly, "No, I found a really nice loft apartment above one of the old stores downtown. I work from home, writing code for a software company. It's a great place, large living area, nice bedroom, cool book store underneath me, and several great restaurants and bars within walking distance."
"Oh, wasn't that the old family department store when we were in high school?"
"Yes, it was. My cat, Henry, and I love living there. So are you living here again, or just visiting your parents?"
Susan sighed. "Shortly after the divorce became final and we sold the house, I got laid off, so I'm temporarily living with my folks. It feels weird to be in my late 30's, living with mom and dad, but I'm doing some freelance medical transcription work. I'm hoping to get on with one of the hospitals around here. Say, do you want to get together after the holidays?"
"I'd love to," Rosa said, dark eyes lighting up.
Susan fished out a small notepad and pen, scribbling her contact information on it, then handing it to Rosa. "Call me, Rosa. I'm counting on you to get me out of the house for a night."
"I promise," Rosa said, tucking the paper in a pocket. She finished her drink quickly, tossing the cup into the trash can next to her so she could stand up. "It's good seeing you, Susan."
"It's great to see you, Rosa," Susan said, standing and pulling her old friend into a strong hug. "I've missed you."
"I've missed you too, Susan," Rosa mumbled into Susan's neck. "I've missed you too."
Rosa was swamped with last minute assignments, and wasn't able to do much more than send Susan a couple of quick texts before the holidays started. Finally, she turned in the last of her assignments Christmas Eve morning, then crashed until it was time to meet her family at the Christmas Eve service at church.
The 7:00 service was packed with families she knew, so she had to stop to chat several times before spotting her brother's family, who had saved a seat for her. Just as the service was about to begin, a beautiful alto voice asked, "Room for one more?"
She stared at Susan for a moment, then said, "I think so. Guys, could you scoot a little more?" They obliged, and her friend slipped in next to her, leaning over to whisper, "Thank you." Rosa shivered at the warm breath in her ear, chastising herself for reacting like that. She just nodded, then picked up the bulletin as the organist started the first chords of the processional.
Rosa had a hard time concentrating on the service with Susan sitting so close to her. The music was superb, as usual, and the candle lighting uplifting. She looked up at Susan's green eyes and fair skin bathed in candlelight and lost her heart. Susan was so breathtakingly beautiful, like a young Maureen O'Hara, Rosa stumbled over the first verse to "Silent Night". She quickly regained her place, her soaring soprano and Susan's lush alto blending effortlessly.
The service ended, and Rosa turned to Susan and blurted out, "What are you doing New Year's Eve?"
Susan smiled as she shrugged on her coat. "Nothing that I know of. Are you asking me out?"
"Um, yeah." Before Rosa could continue, Steve leaned over and said, "Our family is meeting early for dinner, then going to see 'Ice' at the Gaylord. We have an extra ticket since friend of Anna's had to back out. You're welcome to join us, Susan."
"I'd love to," Susan said, smiling brilliantly. Rosa found herself smiling back. "Just text me the info, or better yet, come pick up me. I think you still know the way."
"I guess I do," Rosa said happily. "The traffic can be pretty bad, should I pick you up at 4:00?"
"I'll be ready," Susan answered. "Steve, Martha, good to see you again. Let me know how much the ticket is."
"Our treat," Steve said, "so don't worry about it. See you Monday night."
New Year's Eve finally arrived, and Rosa agonized over what to wear. Henry, her big gray cat, wisely kept out of the discussion, simply watching her flipping through her clothes from his perch on her bed. "I'll be covered up with a huge parka during the trip through the ice sculptures," she explained to the cat, "but Susan will see me the rest of the time. It shouldn't be too cold outside, but I'll be with my family, so nothing too sexy. Not that this dumpy body can be sexy," she grumbled.
Rosa finally chose black jeans, white mock turtleneck, red v-neck sweater, and black boots. The outfit complimented her dark coloring, and the loose sweater hid the small love handles that stubbornly refused to melt away, despite the hours logged in the gym. "I'll be back late," she told the cat, kissing his head before making sure his food and water bowls were full. He merely flicked his tail, laying his head down for another catnap as she left the apartment.
"Oh, thank god you're here," Susan muttered in Rosa's ear as she hugged her hello. She pulled back, calling out to her parents, "Rosa's here to pick me up. See y'all much later." She hurriedly shut and locked the door before they could ask any questions. "Let's boogie!" Susan said happily, following her friend to her car.
Rosa floated down the walk, happy to be taking her friend out. She eyed Susan's outfit, approving how the camel corduroys followed her slender legs, and how the green sweater matched her eyes. She found herself blushing when Susan winked at her, then said, "Love the red on you, makes you look delicious."
"Thanks," Rosa stammered as she shut her door. Her mix CD of holiday songs pumped out tunes as she drove down the highway, shyness melting as Susan started singing along with the music. Soon, they were harmonizing like they did in high school, singing the old tunes beautifully. Mercifully, the traffic was cooperative, giving them plenty of time to find good parking behind the old downtown, where they met Rosa's family for dinner. Anna broke out of her teenage sulk to talk about the new Vera Bradley purse she received, while David bragged about the new video games he got. Martha asked about Susan's job prospects, and Steve said he thought an old buddy still worked at one of the hospitals, so he'd call to put in a good word for her.
"Your family is so nice to me," Susan commented as they drove over to the Gaylord for the main attraction. "You and Steve were alway so close, it made me jealous when we were younger."
"Really? I thought you and Sally were close," Rosa said, glancing over at her friend.
Susan shook her head. "Not any more. She's the golden child, married well, has perfect children, finds time to volunteer for worthy causes. 'Why can't you be more like Sally? Why did you and Bruce have to divorce?' Ugh, I hate living at home again, but I must until I find full time employment. Bruce offered to let me move back in with him, since he's still single, but it would be too weird to live with my ex-husband."
Rosa briefly wished she had a two bedroom apartment, so she could offer Susan a place to live. Instead, she said, "I think one of the apartments in my building is about to be ready to lease, so maybe you can get it. I'll speak to the owner this week when I take in my rent check."
"I'd love that. If you brother can get a good word in, maybe I can get on permanently with one of the hospitals. And here I thought nurses were in short supply," she commented. "Oh well, it's a beautiful night, I'm with you, and we're having fun. What more could I want?"
Rosa smiled as she pulled into the parking garage. "I hope you have fun."
"Oh, I'm sure I will," Susan laughed as they pulled into a parking place. "We always had fun in high school, didn't we?"
"We sure did," Rosa agreed.
"That was butt freezing cold, but beautiful," Susan said as they exited the last of the exhibits. "The characters were beautiful, but the nativity scene in ice at the end was positively gorgeous."
"It was," Rosa agreed as she handed her parka to one of the workers, then helped Susan take her coat off. She was rewarded with a huge smile before they hurried to catch up with the rest of their party.
"Steve, Martha, thanks for the ticket," Susan said when they caught up to Rosa's brother and sister-in-law. "I enjoyed my evening with you." She walked over to the kids, adding, "Anna, David, I appreciate you letting me butt in on your family outing."
"Sure thing," David answered eagerly, puppy love shining in his dark eyes. Susan laughed, then kissed his cheek. He blushed and hid behind his sister, who rolled her eyes in perfect teenage fashion.
The friends strolled back to Rosa's car, discussing the evening. "It was grand, I really do appreciate your family letting me horn in."
"I am glad as well," Rosa said, unlocking the car. "So cold, but you looked so cute going down the slide. I got pictures."
"I saw you taking a lot of pictures. I didn't even think to bring a camera," Susan said as she slid into her seat.
Rosa smiled, turning on the car. Diana Krall's smoky rendition of "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" came up on the CD. The two friends looked at each other, listening to the jazz singer crooning. Rosa finally asked, quietly, "What do you want to do on this New Year's Eve?"
"Spend it with you," Susan purred as she reached for Rosa's hand. Rosa blushed, but didn't pull away as she pulled into traffic. "Let's go back to your apartment."
"Okay," Rosa agreed, dazzled by how well the evening was going.
Rosa didn't remember much about the drive, except for the warmth of Susan's hand in hers as they zoomed up the highway. The miles melted away, and they arrived back at Rosa's apartment close to ten, after a stop for wine and snacks along the way.
"Here we are," Rosa said as she unlocked her door. "Make yourself at home while I get these goodies on a tray."
"I will," Susan said. She waited until Rosa disappeared into the kitchen, then roamed the room, looking at the elegant decorations. The Christmas decorations were mostly silver and gold, with a little green and red tossed in as accents. One wall was devoted to a floor to ceiling bookcase, nearly full of books. A small TV stand was against another wall, with a medium flat screen TV on it, with various electronics under it on the shelves of the stand.
Susan decided that she liked the cool medium gray walls, with dramatic red curtains covering the large picture window. She wondered if the landlord had done it, or if Rosa had painted and hung the curtains. She heard something, and turned as as her friend approaching across the old hardwood floor. "Hey," she said softly.
"Hey," Rosa said, "won't you have a seat?"
They sank down on the dark brown leather sofa, facing each other, suddenly at a loss for words. Rosa finally broke the silence, reaching for the wine glasses. "A toast?"
"To?" Susan asked playfully.
Rosa smiled. "To taking chances, and new beginnings."
"Ah, to chances, and new beginnings," Susan echoed, clinking her glass against her friend's. They sipped the wine, watching each other, not quite sure how to proceed. Finally, Rosa broke the spell by turning on her stereo and turning down the lights. Diana Krall came on again with the evening's song. "Dance?" Rosa asked boldly.
"Definitely," Susan agreed. They stood, facing each other, tentatively reaching out, slowly finding their rhythm, moving together as Diana Krall crooned about chances taken for the holiday.
Rosa sang the last line to Susan, then whispered, 'I know what I want to do."
"So do I," Susan agreed, running her hands up and down Rosa's back. She leaned down, kissing Rosa's dark red lips, savoring the first taste of her oldest friend.
Rosa boldly returned the kiss, running her hands under Susan's sweater, senses rapidly overwhelmed. She'd been with a few women, but never dreamed she'd be kissing her friend, the one she'd had such a huge crush on in high school.
Susan finally broke the kiss. "I know it's early in the game," she said, echoing the lyrics, "but here comes the jackpot question: is it too early to celebrate the new year?"
Rosa grinned. "It's midnight somewhere," she answered before capturing Susan's lips again. "Ding dong merrily on high," she quoted after a searing kiss.
"It felt right to me," Rosa said, leading Susan to her bedroom, "let's ring those silver bells."
And so began a new year, rung in with grand fireworks.