River looks up at the house sitting in his car… this time without trepidation. For a long time after Bree and Raymond happened, he was paralysed with fear at the thought of walking through the door ad reliving that all over again, but not this time. And not lately… Ava Sinclair. He lowers the volume of Etta James, telling him about the hold love has on him right now. Christmas is finally in the air for him, the house is lit with a thousand lights, reindeers, Santa’s sleigh, a grotto, trees… he let Wyn and Ralph handle the decorations this year and boy did they go to town. Theirs is easily the most festive house in the cul de sac.
‘Welcome home dad.’ Ralph calls from the kitchen where he is with his grandmother. She is here for the holidays until the New Year.
‘Hi Dad.’ Wyn pokes her head out from the music room where she is having practise with her tutor. ‘What’s that?’
‘A present.’ After Ava ran away from him, he went into the office this morning and saw the package she was holding yesterday, when she came to see him, on his desk. It even came with a card, signed Ollie.
‘Ava Sinclair’s son.’ Wyn has that smile on her face.
River rolls his eyes, ‘go back to your lessons please.’
His daughter does a happy jig before heading back to the music room.
‘Hey man. How you doing?’ Clint West. River would know that voice from anywhere. Clint’s guffaw at that look on River’s face, reverberates around the house. He has not seen his friend in over a year; life and times get in the way.
‘Ayyy. My man.’ Anthony Davis, another of River’s mates pops his head round from the bar.
‘What… what is going on?’ River’s smile does little to mask his surprise.
‘We’re here for the holidays, it’s your turn to host this year or did you think we forgot.’
Clint, River and Anthony are the very best of friends, friends since their days in secondary school, besides Raymond who had his cluster of friends as well. Their parents used to call them the motley crew; most nights when his mother was working her cleaning job, River would eat dinner at one of their houses, sometimes spend the night there so they could go to school together the next day before his mother picked him up after an overnight job.
Every Christmas, in the years before Bree and Raymond, they would celebrate in each other’s homes. Clint lives in California and Anthony spends half the year in Japan so it always made for an eventful Christmas with their children and spouses. The last two years however have been different; the friends respected River’s need for space but were there for him in other ways. This year however, after a phone call with Wyn both men decided to make this Christmas the one where tradition is restored.
‘Good to see you both.’ The friends hug fondly with River’s mother looking on from the kitchen doorway; it has been a long time since she saw that smile return to her son’s face and it was more than seeing his childhood friends although that has a lot to do with it. Wyn was right.
‘What is this about a woman you’re supposedly in love with?’ Clint asks, that cheeky smile on his face.
‘What? What? Ava Sinclair.’ Anthony’s look is insinuating.
‘WYN! Come here! Now!’
‘Yes daddy.’ Wyn has that resident innocent look on her face; the only way she will win this battle.
‘What have you been telling everyone?’
River’s mother roars with laughter from where she stands in the kitchen doorway, ‘that is your daughter right there. That sweet River smile could always get you out of any trouble too. Apples and trees.’ She returns to the kitchen where Ralph is helping her prep for Christmas.
‘I just said you and Ava make a lovely couple and that you went to Paris together that’s all.’
‘Go finish your lessons.’ River shoos her away.
‘You boys freshen up dinner will be served in a half hour.’ Anita calls from the kitchen.
‘Where are your wives and children?’ River asks as they make their way to the den.
‘They fly in tomorrow evening, they let us out early.’ Anthony answers, ‘now what’s going on with you and this woman?’
River manages to starve off that conversation with his friends until after dinner when it is just the three of them having drinks in the back garden around the fire pit.
‘First we are going to address the elephant in the room, or garden.’ Clint says, ‘have you spoken to Raymond?’
‘I have actually.’ River tells them of the meeting with Raymond in his office.
‘You agreed to it?’
‘I own Huxley outright for now, so it worked out.’ He shrugs.
‘I asked Ava to come in with me split fifty-fifty.’
‘So, you do have a thing for your buying director.’ Anthony looks sides at his friend, call it whatever but something is different, River looks happier than the last time he saw him, just after the divorce.
‘I do.’ He might as well tell someone other than Ava’s cousin.
‘How long have you known?’ Clint leans back into his chair, this is a big thing for River to admit.
‘It’s new but it’s slowly been creeping up on me I guess.’
‘And does she? Have feelings for you?’
‘I think so. I hope so.’
‘You haven’t said anything to her?’
‘Even in Paris?’ Clint opens a bag of marshmallows to roast on the pit.
‘We were there for work.’ Ava on stage at Maison Martin, is a vision he never tires of seeing.
‘Shut up Tony.’
‘I didn’t say anything.’
‘You didn’t have to.’ River takes a sip of whisky.
‘So what are you gonna do about it River? What’s stopping you from telling her how you feel?’ Anthony knows, they both do.
‘She’s newly divorced, six months, she has the most adorable little boy. Her ex-husband wants to start something, but I don’t care much about that.’
‘All you’re giving us is reasons why you should tell her how you feel about her.’ Clint hands out the marshmallow sticks.
‘Are you listening to me?’
‘Yes. Ex-husband who is inconsequential. Divorced. Adorable kid you like by the sounds of it. I see no objections.’
‘She’s newly divorced.’
‘Six months is not new, and you are not asking for her hand in marriage, you want to lay your cards on the table with her is all. What’s wrong with that?’
‘We are going to become partners in business-’
‘Separate business from pleasure then.’ Anthony continues to see no problems in this situation.
‘River you sound like you’re talking yourself out of a situation you want to be involved in.’
River looks sides at his friends.
‘This is the first time since the divorce I have seen you look this happy, and I don’t doubt it has something to do with Ms Sinclair.’ Anthony observes.
‘I fucked up after the kiss in Paris.’
‘Haaaaaaaa!!’ Clint slapped his thigh with a loud guffaw.
Anthony kicks Clint for his adolescent behaviour. ‘Chuck it up to nerves why don’t you. Next?’
River sighs. ‘She makes me happy. Like really happy. She’s super cool you wouldn’t even know her mother is this global superstar soprano, she’s smart, intimidatingly smart and totally besotted with her son who is seriously the sweetest kid.’
‘Again, why are you sitting here telling us and not her?’
‘And please don’t tell us about divorces or ex-husbands, both things are firmly in the past and have no bearing on the present.’
‘I need to talk to Wyn and Ralph first.’
‘No you don’t.’ The other two say in unison.
‘River, as Clint said, this is the first time in a really long time you have looked this happy. Lean into it.’
Clint raises a brow looking at his friend, ‘lean into it? What are you a self-help guru now?’
‘Shut up.’ Anthony collapses into his chair laughing, ‘you know what I mean.’
‘And you do not need Ralph or Wyn’s permission, but by all means talk to them about it if you must. If it’s that serious for you, then that’s a good thing.’
River drains the rest of his whisky, crushes the ice, ‘I’m going to get myself a girlfriend.’
‘Yeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah Man!!’ Clint and Anthony high five each other, cheering him on.
‘Mummy, please may I open one present?’ Oliver asks his mother for the hundredth time.
The tree is stacked with gifts, mostly for Oliver from everyone it seems. Yes, even River, he sent three big boxes so well wrapped. They are busy building their gingerbread house, a bit of a tradition; last year it was the two of them because AJ was working so much. Or was he? Ava dismisses the thought, she waits for the twinge of heartbreak to set upon her but it doesn’t. She smiles to herself.
‘Oliver, we are going to wait until tomorrow.’
‘That’s not fair mummy.’ Oliver puts three pastilles on the mad gingerbread house.
‘My darling why is it not fair?’ Ava carefully pipes the roof of the house but it is not looking good.
‘I just want to open one.’
‘How do you think the person whose gift you open will feel that you could not even wait for Christmas day?’ Ava spares him a look over the roof of their masterpieces which looks wonkier by the second. That is an awful stance to take on the present opening.
Oliver gives it a thought. ‘I think they’ll be happy that I could not wait.’
Damnit, they probably will be. ‘Okay. ONE but be after dinner, and you have to promise to eat all your broccoli.’
‘And brush your teeth and go to bed in time for Santa and Rudolph to stop by.’
‘Promise. I even pinkie swear.’ Oliver wiggles his pinkie finger and his mum hooks it with hers. ‘Did River get my present?’
‘I put it on his desk at work before I left for the holidays. That was very nice of you to buy him a present. Why did you want to do it?’
‘Because I like him. He makes you happy.’
‘How do you know that?’
Ding! Dong! The bell goes.
‘Who is that?’ Ava thinks out loud.
Oliver shakes his head, ‘did you order Chinese?’
‘Nope.’ She looks out the window but the porch is obscured however there is a Maserati parked outside her house. ‘Stay here.’ The staff are off for the holidays so it’s just the two of them and she intends to make it the best Christmas for him. But first, she needs to answer her door. She should have checked the ring camera, she never did know how to set that damn thing, not that she ever needed to. Oh well.
Standing outside her door, is River Huxley.
‘I’m sorry about yesterday. In my office with my ex-wife.’
‘You came all this way to say that?’
‘Yeah. I needed to see you. I fucked up on the kiss too I’m sorry and if you’d allow me I would like a do-over.’
Whatever she was going to say, Ava did not get a chance to because River did the one thing he’s wanted to do long before she did it to him. He kisses her.
His lips on hers, Ava melts into the kiss, a delicious sensation that tingles her body entirely, from her soul that melts into her heart. It is unreal that a kiss be this complete, but it is.
‘I love you Ava Sinclair. I’m crazy about you and your beautiful little boy of yours. I want you to know that.’
Ava pulls him in for another kiss and it feels even better. ‘I love you too.’ It feels even better to say it. This kiss… this beautiful kiss, it feels like she has been waiting all her life to be kissed like that.
‘Mummy.’ Out of nowhere Oliver’s sweet voice punctuates the moment. How long has he been standing there? What did he see? ‘Can I open more than one present?’
That cheeky smile says he’d seen more than enough.
‘Of course, you can.’ River did not let go of holding her close to him and it feels good to be there.
‘Hey buddy, how are you?’
‘Fine thank you. I’m a big boy.’
‘Noted for next time.’
‘Can River build a Gingerbread house too?’
‘Would you like to? It’s a bit of tradition.’
‘I’d love to.’ New traditions… how about that.