December first and seventy-six degrees.
Calm gray-green waves slid up over the damp sand, up over Sandra’s bare feet. At least the water was chilled for the season. The seagulls yelling to each other up in the light blue cloud-streaked sky paid no attention to the fact they should have turned into calling birds or penguins or something more appropriate. How many Christmases now had Sandy spent in South Carolina rather than up in Connecticut where Christmas season looked and felt like Christmas? Where drinking hot chocolate, or hot toddies made sense? A hot toddy with peppermint and a sprinkle of cinnamon sounded perfect. Except that it was seventy-six degrees and she found not one ounce of actual Christmas spirit anywhere within or without.
Honing in on the music drifting across the sand from some young kid sitting on a beach chair playing on his phone while ignoring the girl beside him, Sandy closed her eyes and felt the music, the heavy raucous beat, a song she didn’t know and wouldn’t bother to try to find, and moved with it, there on the wet hard-packed sand of Folly Beach.
It was not ballet music, but she liked the dissonance of doing classical ballet to modern pop or rock. An arabesque was easy enough. Releveés were somewhat harder, since her toes sank into the sand with that much pinpointed weight. She was able to manage passable pique turns along the edge of the water, with it lapping up onto her feet, until she stepped on the wrong side of a shell, cursed, and picked it up to throw back in
“Hey, there are kids on the beach. Do you mind?”
Sandy swiveled to the deep male voice, ready to tell him to mind his own business, but there was a child beside him. A young child. Maybe five or six, the girl had a small pinched face and narrow eyes, made up for by bright red hair. Her long curls darn near glowed under the sun beneath a too-big Santa hat hanging down to the back of her knees that were bare under her red, green, and white plaid jumper dress. Finally, a sign of Christmas spirit.
She made herself apologize although it was never an easy thing for her to do. Too defensive, she’d been told. Protective, she always countered. But she spoke to the little Christmas elf, not to the man Sandy assumed was her father, or at least the baby daddy.
“It’s okay.” The girl threw a dazzling smile. “He says worse. He just doesn’t know I hear him.”
The man opened his mouth to speak and closed it again with a grimace. “Guess I’ll have to be more careful, too.”
“Don’t worry. I don’t tell Mom.”
“Well, thank you for that, but how about you don’t repeat it, either?”
“I don’t.” The girl shrugged and turned back to Sandy. “I’m Rosalyn, but I go by Rose. This is my uncle Ross. I’m named after him.”
Uncle, not father? Of course, that could still mean he was the partner of the girl’s mother. Sandy detested women who had their kids call their man of the moment “uncle,” but she knew it happened often. Curious, she studied the guy. By his voice, she would have guessed he was a much older man, but he looked not too much older than she was, maybe late twenties. He had the same tone of red in his blond hair as the girl, but more understated, with more brown thrown in. It tossed around
When his eyebrows rose, thick eyebrows that added to the lion effect, Sandy flushed. He’d caught her studying him too long. “Um, hi. Sandra Courey.” She offered her hand to the girl, unsure she’d do the same for Uncle Ross until he offered his first. He did, so she accepted. He had a nice, strong but easy grip.
“Ross Billings.” His eyes held hers. Blue-green eyes with brownish-yellow flecks. An odd color, as though they couldn’t decide which DNA strand to use. Or maybe it was the sun interfering. “You’re a dancer.”
Her stomach clenched. “Um.” She glanced at the girl but returned to those odd blue eyes. “You’ve seen me dance?”
“Uh, yeah. Just now. You were...”
“Oh. That.” Allowing her lungs to take in the breath she’d blocked, Sandy shrugged. “No, not really. I study on my own now and then, with videos, you know, but I’m not...”
“It was awesome!” The girl smiled again. “I take dance, too. I used to, not right now. Someday I’m going to be Marie in the Nutcracker.
Uncle Ross takes me to see it every year.”
“How nice.” Sandy focused on the water brushing against her feet.
“Do you like it, too? It’s my favorite story of all time.”
“I’ve heard it’s wonderful, and I do love the music. But isn’t the girl’s name Clara?”
“Sometimes it is. But Balanchine says it’s Marie, so it’s Marie.”
“The choreographer.” The man eyed her as though she was some kind of fake. He was a good people reader, Sandy supposed. “You’re a
“I know who he is. I’m surprised she does, that’s all, at her age. As I said, I’m not really a dancer, not that kind of dancer, anyway, and no, I haven’t seen it. Someday, I might.” She saw those eyebrows raise again at her ‘that kind’ comment. Maybe he was a very good people reader.
“You should come with us!” Rosalyn looked up at her uncle with wide eyes. “Ask her to come. She should see it, too. Everyone should see it.”
“Rosie, she doesn’t even know us. You can’t ask a stranger to go do something with you. How often have I told you?” With a shrug, he met Sandy’s eyes. “She’s ridiculously friendly, and no matter how often I explain what stranger means, she doesn’t get it.”
“Yes, that, too. I’m sure.” Sandy couldn’t help a grin at his expression that said the girl exasperated him but he was also fully enamored of her.
“Thank you, Rose, but I wouldn’t dare. Your uncle is right, you know.”
“It’s okay. He looks gruff when he wants to, but he’s really nice. He’d never bother you.”
Ross rolled his eyes. “Rose. Stop now, please.”
Sandy chuckled. “Gruff? Is that a word kids know?”
“She’s a big reader, and she hears everything.”
“And I’m older than I look. Everyone thinks I’m like five years old, but I’m nearly eight. I’m just short and I have a baby face, like my mom.
I’m smart, too. I understand things, even if people think I don’t.”
“I bet you do, and I bet everyone treats you way too young, right?”
Sandy was too entirely charmed by the girl.
“I understand. I’m the baby of six kids, all boys except me. I never got to do anything while they ran wild and did whatever they pleased.”
“That’s not fair.”
“No, it wasn’t fair, but now I do what I please and take care of myself just fine. Someday, you’ll show them. Right?” Fine was maybe not quite accurate. For nearly seven years, she’d been working a job that made her have to shower in near-scalding water every night when she got home just to wash off the idea of it before she could fitfully sleep.
She had her own place, paid her own bills, and didn’t have to rely on anyone, though. And she was tough. She’d made herself tough after a childhood of being too sheltered on one hand and too much left to fend for herself against her rowdy brothers on the other hand. So she was fine enough.
Ross’s expression now told her she’d said something she shouldn’t have, but Sandy couldn’t figure out what it might be. Little ones needed to understand things changed as they got older, that eventually, their lives and choices would be their own. More of them needed to know as much. She wish she’d been told as much.
“Okay, Rose. Let her be now. Come on...” Ross took the girl’s hand to try to lead her away.
She didn’t budge. Instead, she tilted her head. “You don’t have a husband or a boyfriend?”
“Rose, mind your own business. If you plan to build a snowman, you better get to it before we have to go.”
“A snowman?” Sandy looked around at the sand and water and sunbathers laid out enjoying the December heat.
“Technically, a sand man, but she insists it can still be called a
snowman.” He held up a bag and opened it to show a red and green scarf, some rocks and sticks, plus a carrot. “This is her own Christmas tradition. She insists someday, she’ll spend Christmas in the snow, although her mother, my sister, absolutely refuses. She hates cold. She doesn’t even go outside in the evenings here during the winter because it’s too cold.”
“But you can take me someday.” The child pleaded with her uncle and Sandy wondered how on earth he could ever say no to that look.
“I can’t take you from your mom on Christmas. You’re all she has.”
“She needs a boyfriend or a husband so she doesn’t only have me.
And you. She has you, too.”
“Yes, she has me, too. And no matter how old you think you are already, you have no need to be thinking about such things.” Ross rubbed the girl’s shoulder. “Go on now and get your snowman built. I’ll have to take you home soon so I can get to work.”
“Do you want to help?” Rose grabbed Sandy’s hand and looked up at her with that same ‘you can’t deny me’ expression.
“Rosalyn. Stop now and let go of her. I’m sure she has better things to do than build a snowman out of sand.” Those eyes caught hers. “I’m so sorry. We’ll leave you alone now.”
“No, it’s fine. And... well, if you’re sure and it won’t bother your uncle, I would love to help. It’s been years since I built sand castles, but I might remember the technique enough to help with your snowman.”
Ross glanced at her, then away, at his niece. “You don’t have to give in to the child just because she asked. She understands no very well and she’ll be fine with it.”
“If you’d rather I didn’t, I understand. I understand no well, also.”
“No. No, it’s...” A flash of embarrassment covered his face and he
For some reason, his embarrassment tempered her normal wariness, and the likelihood that she’d be sarcastic, one of her best protective instincts. “I’d love to help. If you’re sure it’s okay.” Sandy caught the question in his eyes, but Rose was tugging her hand, so she followed, whether or not he actually wanted her to help.
With Rose running back and forth to get water to wet down the sand, Sandy helped her shape it into a large ball. Ross was given the job of packing it tight enough to hold together and, while doing so, he often reached over Sandy’s arms, nearly touching his body against hers. He kept his gaze on his work, but the scent of warm male and some kind of sensual masculine aftershave she couldn’t place infused her senses. Was he noticing her scent? Would it be as appealing as his was? She never added scent when going to the beach, since she didn’t want to attract insects, or male attention, for that matter. So if he smelled her, it would be however she naturally smelled ... or body odor.
Sandy hoped she did not smell of body odor. Of course, with as close as he kept getting, she had to assume she didn’t.
When they had a second medium-sized ball and a third small ball formed, Rose stood back and looked at it. “This is the tricky part.
Sometimes we have to do it over and over until it doesn’t break. This one goes on first, then the little one on top.” She bent down on one side of the medium ball while Ross crouched on the other side.
“Maybe six hands would work better than four?” Sandy positioned herself between the two of them and they moved to even it out. Rose counted to three and said, “Now,” and slowly, they lifted the thing and shuffled over to set it atop the other, releasing it gently. Surprisingly, it
“Okay. Time for the big test.” Ross started to pick up the smallest one and Sandy jumped in to help, for stability of the sand. Together, they managed to get it propped on top with no cracks anywhere.
“One time! Look, Uncle Ross! Just one time and we did it!” Rose jumped up and down at a safe distance from the creation in progress.
He gave the girl a smile and looked over at Sandy. “Guess you were right. Six hands is a good number. Here you go, Rosie.” He pulled three white rocks from the bag and Rose put them along the front of the middle ball as buttons. With a boost from Ross, she added the small, thin carrot for a nose, and pressed macaroni painted white in a curve for the mouth. “Can Sandy do the hat this year since she helped us?” Rose took the Santa hat from her head.
With Ross’s agreement, Sandy accepted the thing and carefully propped it on the sand snowman’s head. “Tada. I didn’t even break it.
Knock on wood.”
Ross gave her a smile and handed Rose a pair of broken sunglasses.
“Here you go. One more pair put to good use.” Explaining that he always went through sunglasses like crazy, losing, dropping, or sitting on them, and Rose always saved them for “a good use,” he helped move the sand around to hold them where the eyes would be.
Rose fished long sticks out of the bag and stuck them in the sides for arms, and then pulled out the red and green plaid scarf.
“You don’t think Mr. Snowman will be hot enough in this South Carolina weather without a scarf?” Sandy accepted one side of it to help wrap it around the large neck.
“He has to wear a scarf because someday he’ll be up in the snow where it’s cold.”
“Well, I have news for you. If you go out in nothing but a scarf and a hat in a northern winter, Mr. Sand Snowman would freeze stiff.” With a bit of a throaty chuckle coming from Ross, Sandy rolled her eyes. “So to speak.” She returned her attention to Rose. “In case you didn’t know.”
Her eyes got wide. “You’ve been in the snow for Christmas?”
“Often. I was raised in Connecticut. It was ridiculously cold in the winter. Some days, it wasn’t safe to even step outside without every part of you well covered.” She glanced at Ross, a warning, or a return private adult joke. Sandy wasn’t sure how she meant it.
“Even your face?”
“Even your face. So really, this isn’t so bad, even if it’s not really snowman weather and doesn’t feel too much like Christmas.”
Rose frowned slightly as she studied her sand snowman. “I could still look at it through the window without freezing, though.”
“Yes, you could do that, especially if you have a big fire roaring in the fireplace.” Sandy smiled and wanted to hug her, but she wouldn’t dare.
“Someday I’m building a real snowman, even if I have to go by myself when I’m older.”
Ross’s eyes, those odd blue-green eyes, shifted from humor to withheld pain. “Okay, sweetie. We need to go. Tell Ms. Courey bye for now and maybe we’ll run into her again.”
Rose sighed a big sigh. “Okay. Will you be here again?”
“I’m here a lot. Folly Beach is my recharge place.”
“Like a tablet battery?”
“Yeah, like that. Anyway, I hope I’ll see you again.”
“Me, too.” Rose accepted her uncle’s hand, but kept her feet planted.
“We’re going to the Sunday show of the Nutcracker. It’s at two o’clock.
If you go, maybe we’ll see you. You should go.”
“Uncle Ross can get you one. Can’t you?” She looked up at him.
Before Sandy could object, he shrugged. “I can, if you’re actually interested. But again, if you’re busy or don’t want to, say so.”
“I um...” Sandy badly wanted to accept, but it was Rose asking, not Ross, and she didn’t want him to feel like he had to agree to help her with a ticket just because the adorable little cherub was still looking at her like her heart would break if she refused. Still, she was a stranger and if Ross knew what she did for a living, he wouldn’t be offering...
“You know Marie’s parents thought she was only dreaming about the Nutcracker Prince turning real, but it wasn’t a dream. It was real. And she went to live in a big beautiful palace, although they thought she just disappeared. She didn’t disappear. She was happy and she danced every day and she had delicious food every day and she had snow when she wanted it and warm sun when she wanted it. Someday, I’ll be Marie.”
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