The bright full moon looked like a shiny new dime on a bed of black velvet. A sprinkle of stars surrounded it like diamonds. Brody hitched his skates over his shoulder and navigated the small patch of woods that separated his family’s backyard from the pond they kept for skating.
When he reached it, he saw Stella sitting on an old wooden bench. Her skates lay drunkenly beside her, forgotten as she stared up at the silvery moon.
“If you’re looking to make a wish, I’m told you should be touching trees, not staring at the moon. No matter how pretty.”
She turned, gave him a sad smile. “Yeah, I know. Already tried that.”
He walked over and plopped down beside her on the bench. “Are you gonna tell me what’s wrong or keep pretending you’re fine?”
She reached for her skates. “Let’s keep pretending I’m fine, please.”
Shaking his head, he toed his first foot out of its boot. “Okay, whatever. But you’ve gotta give me a story to take back to my family for why you’re so upset.”
She shrugged. “Just normal girl stuff.”
He paused, peered over. “Got your heart broken, did ya?”
She laughed. “I wish.” She pressed a mittened hand to her mouth. “Not that I want my heart broken. Or never have boyfriends who could break my heart.” She sighed gustily. “I say the stupidest things around you.” She sighed again. “And now would be as good of a time as any to apologize for always seeming like I’m mad at you.”
She peeked over. “I’m not, you know.”
His skates on, he rose, then stooped in front of her. With one hand he slipped off her well worn boot, as he grabbed one of her skates with the other. Sliding it on, he said, “I never thought you were mad. Just figured you didn’t like me.”
She laughed. He snagged her second skate and slid it on. Grabbing both of her hands, he lifted her from the bench. They wobbled over to the pond. He glided on first, then eased her on. She wobbled again, but he caught her. She felt like moonlight in his hands. Sort of wistful, sort of sorrowful, and maybe too beautiful to hold for long. He gazed down. She glanced up. The desire to kiss her pulsed through his veins.
Shaking his head, he stepped back a bit. She’d probably deck him if he tried.
They skated a while and when she got her legs, she slid away from him, her hand releasing his inch by inch as she eased away.
She turned, her arms spread, as if she were taking it all in. “It’s a pretty night.”
He skated around her. “Yeah. It is.”
“And you don’t have to stay. You can tell your family I just wanted some time alone.”
“What if I want to stay?”
She laughed softy, throatily, and Brody’s heart did a funny leap in his chest. “You’re as tired and hungry as I am. Why would you want to stay?”
“So you admit you’re hungry.”
She shook her head.
“There’ll be plenty of chicken and dumplings left.”
Her chin rose. “Don’t want any.”
“I think Sunny would be offended to hear that.”
She sighed, skated away, then faced him again. “I don’t eat what my family can’t have.”
With that she skated over to the edge of the pond. Back to the path that had brought them to the ice. “But you’re right. I am tired. And hungry. I should go home.”
Brody watched her as she quickly divested herself of her skates, put on her boots and hurried off.
He had the feeling he was watching Cinderella leave the ball and shook his head. She was pretty. Sweet, too, when she was being honest with him. But she was also upset. In high school she’d never been angry or angst-ridden over her station in life. Yet tonight for some reason she was.
The next morning, Stella made a concerted effort to be cheerful. To prove to the Teaberries she was fine, she brought a dish of homemade chocolate oatmeal no-bake cookies, so fudgy and sweet the customers drooled over them.
Brody caught the last one before his dad could snag it. He bit in and groaned. “You are an excellent cook.”
She laughed. “Not really. That’s the only thing I can make.”
Brody’s dad stepped in front of him and caught Stella’s attention. “Can we have a minute to talk?”
Fear gripped her. The night before Brody had all but said his family had shipped him outside to see what was wrong with her. What if he’d told them?
Still, she cheerfully said, “Sure.”
He guided her inside the weathered shed where Mary Alice sat at a table in the back creating one of her holiday wreaths.
“I had a minute to look over the books for the tree business and we’re doing about ten times better this year than we have in the past.” He reached into his jacket and pulled out a check. “So, this is a bonus.”
Her heart stopped. A million potential happy Christmas scenes – scenes where she bought her sisters much needed shoes and coats, dresses and dolls – danced through her head like sugarplum fairies. Then she remembered that Brody’s entire family had suspected something was wrong the night before and pride tightened her chest, clogged her throat with tears.
This was charity. They knew her family was broke and they felt sorry for her.
Licking her lips, she took the check, swallowed the lump in her throat, then cleared it. “I can’t take this.”
Drew laughed. “Of course you can. It’s a bonus. Found money for all of us.”
He walked away as if there was nothing wrong, but fury with Brody burned in her veins. She racked her brain trying to think of what she could have said to him the night before that would have clued him in on the fact that she needed money and she realized she’d told him she never ate what her family couldn’t.
When the crowd thinned and closing time approached, Max turned out the lights as Stella balanced out the cash register. She handed him the bag of money, which he took inside as she headed for her car. Once again, she didn’t want to go home quite yet, but skating was out. What she really wanted was to give Brody a piece of her mind. She knew he hadn’t gone in. So she waited, leaning against her old rattle trap car for him.
When he walked out of the shed, he smiled, ambling over to her. “Hey, are we going to skate again?”
“Not hardly.” She took the check from her coat pocket and shoved it at him. “What I told you last night was personal, private!” Tears burned her vision but she plugged on. “I’m pissed that you talked to your dad, that he’d give me five hundred dollars—"
He didn’t catch the check she’d all but thrown at him and it drifted to the snow between their feet.
He caught her by the shoulders. “You little snot.” From the fury in his eyes, it was clear it was everything he could do not to shake her silly. “I didn’t tell my family anything about what we discussed yesterday. Mostly because we didn’t really discuss anything. And even if we had, do you think my dad could generate a check overnight from a business account? There are procedures we have to go through. That check,” he said, glancing at the green slip between their feet, “Was generated a week ago. It’s a bonus. Unbristle your pride and take what you’ve earned.”
With that he released her and stormed off to the house.
Stella bent, picked up the check. Biting her lower lip, she fought back tears. A bonus.
The trees around her rustled in the wind. “Yeah. I get it. You guys went to work for me and I didn’t appreciate it.” She sniffed back her tears. “I’m sorry.”