A Dolly Xmas — Dolly’s First Christmas

1) Wednesday, December 22, mid-afternoon

Kenwood Towne Center’s public address system wound down the seventeenth playing of “Silver Bells” by the Undead Orchestra. The odors of compressed humanity, shuffling along the brick and terrazzo in dour lines, beat against the sense of smell like a tsunami on a rocky shore. There wasn’t a smile to be seen within a city block. The place was hot, muggy, and a definite drag on the spirit. It was, in short, two shopping days before Christmas.

On the hardscaped island in the middle of the mall concourse, a small boy sat on the edge of a brick planter near a fountain and cried his heart out. He looked to be somewhere south of eight years old. He might have been eight, but if so, he was small for his age. He was dressed warmly, too warmly for the interior of the mall, but in well-kept, if not entirely modish, clothing of good quality. He had his head in his hands and was crying and sniffing and wiping snot on the sleeves of his parka, and generally being miserably unhappy.

“Hey, little fella,” came a cheery greeting in a husky female voice.

He looked up and saw a tiny young woman, her face framed by a leonine mane of waist-length golden-red hair, a brilliant smile on her face and a naughty twinkle in her emerald green eyes. There was a spatter of freckles across her nose and upper cheeks that gave her a mischievous air. She was dressed all in white, white platform boots, skin-tight white leggings, and a short white jacket lined with ermine fur. The jacket was open to reveal a white tee shirt with a Swiss army crest, a white cross on a red shield, embroidered across her full breasts.

Standing next to her was another woman, somewhat taller, but slender like a willow branch. She looked a little like an elf, except she didn’t have pointy ears–but then again you couldn’t see them under her hair, so maybe she did. She was wearing a jeans jacket, an embroidered logo sweatshirt, and skin-tight Levi’s 504’s. On her feet were a pair of blue-gray slouch boots with soft, flat soles. Her hair was like spun cotton, pure white and so fine and soft. Her eyes were warm and brown, friendly–her skin a deep, tropical tan.

The red-haired lady dropped to one knee in front of him, setting her packages on the floor, while the other one sat next to him on the brick wall of the planter.

“You OK, Baby?” the red-haired lady said in her smoky voice, reaching out a hand and brushing the hair out of his eyes.

He jerked his head aside, resentful of her attentions. “‘M not a baby,” he muttered.

“She didn’t mean it like that,” said the other lady. Her voice was smooth and pretty, like his mother’s. “She calls everybody Baby.”

A look passed between the two women that the boy observed, but did not understand.

“What’s the matter?” said the red-haired lady, her rough voice beginning to sound to him more and more like comfort. “Did you lose your mom?”

He shook his head. “She told me to wait here. She’ll be back to get me. I was just getting tired and wanted to sit down.”

“Mm-hmm,” the red-haired lady prompted. She got up off her knee and sat down next to the boy, on the opposite side from her companion. “So what are you crying about?” she asked, leaning toward him as though to shelter him.

“‘M not crying!” he insisted, perhaps overloud. Several adults nearby glanced in his direction with knowing and sympathetic smiles.

“Oh, sorry,” said the white-haired lady. “Of course you’re not crying. Must be something in your eye, huh?” She produced a tissue from somewhere and wiped his nose, instructing him to blow, which he did without thinking. “Now, tell Auntie Callisto what the problem is,” she said quietly. He didn’t really notice that she held her hand out flat, palm-up, and the tissue went up in a flash and a puff of smoke.

But the instant he heard and comprehended the words “Auntie Callisto,” his head whipped around and he gaped at the white-haired lady. It was–it couldn’t be– “It’s you!” he said breathlessly. Then his head spun around and he pinned the red-haired lady with his gaze. “And you! You–you’re–Gabrielle!”

Dolly chuckled deep in her throat. She reached out and ruffled his hair.

“Wow!” he said, looking from one to the other. “Where’s Xena?”

“Oh, she’s around, somewhere,” Callisto said casually, pretending to search the crowd for the tall woman with raven hair.

“Wow!” the boy repeated. “Wait ’til Tommy Pilesko hears about this!”

“Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” Dolly protested. “Not so fast, little man. We’re kinda traveling in-cog-nito. Y’know?”

“Then where’s your sunglasses?” he asked smartly.

“Right here,” Dolly said with a grin. She whipped her mirror shades out of her jacket pocket and instantly the boy was looking at a reflection of himself in her eyes.

“Cool!” he said.

Dolly removed her shades. “So who’s this Tommy Pilesko?” she asked, folding the shades and sticking them back in their pocket. The boy had to agree that her green eyes were a lot prettier to look at that those old silver sunglasses.

“He’s a friend of mine. Well, not a friend. Not any more. He lied to me. He told me that there’s no such thing as Santa Claus!” He looked from one to the other of them, desperately searching their expressions for confirmation of his beliefs.

“I’d think old Saint Nick would be mighty surprised to hear that!” Callisto exclaimed. She gave Dolly a tight, pursed-lipped grin that was returned behind the boy’s back.

“You know,” Dolly said, “there’s something sad when a boy falls off the sleigh. When he doesn’t believe any more.”

“But it ain’t true, right? There is a Santa Claus… Right?”

“Oh, yeah,” said Dolly like she was singing the last line of a blues tune. “There is a Santa Claus.”

“Wow! I can’t wait to tell off that butthead Tommy Pilesko!”

“Wait a second, now!” Callisto cautioned. “What are you gonna tell him? That you know for a fact that Santa Claus exists?”

“Yeah,” Dolly chimed in. “Isn’t that what you told him before?”

“Oh, yeah.” The boy’s face dropped until he was back in the dumps again.

“But,” Dolly went on, “What if you could find somebody he would believe who could vouch for you? For Santa? Who knows Santa real well, ’cause he… works at the North Pole!?”

His hope and faith in the rightness of the world restored, the boy looked up at Dolly with a magical light in his eyes. “Could you do that?” he asked eagerly.

“Mmm maybe.”

“Wow! If I could show Tommy an elf…” then the crestfallen expression avalanched across his face again. “But I can’t leave here. If I do, then my Mom will get worried…”

“Mmm,” said Callisto, pondering the situation. “Where’s this Tommy guy now?”

“Oh, I don’t know. He just likes to–to–just run around the mall and hang out and pick on littler kids. Him and that gang of his friends.”

Callisto nodded wisely. “So he just told you there’s no Santa Claus and then went off somewhere?”

The boy nodded miserably.

“And he hasn’t been back?”

Dolly was looking puzzled. She lifted an eyebrow at Callisto.

“We’re talking the gloat factor,” Callisto replied to the unspoken question. “He’s only made one pass. He’s little our young friend stew in his own misery for awhile, but he’ll be back to do some bomb damage assessment.”

Dolly nodded comprehension. “So what do you have in mind?”

“What’s your name, guy?” Callisto asked.

“Michael,” he replied.

“OK, Michael. Do you think Tommy will come back here sometime soon?”

“Oh, sure. Those kids all like to hang out at the Warner Brothers store. They’ll be here any minute now.”

“Alright. Suppose we leave you alone and wait–” Callisto looked around, “–over there, so nobody can see we’re with you. Then we’ll wait until Tommy shows up and we’ll prove to him that there’s a Santa Claus.”

“How are you gonna do that?” Michael asked.

In answer, Callisto held up her right forefinger. Floating in the air above the upraised tip was a tongue of flame. “I’m magic,” she said. “Remember?”

Michael’s widened and his mouth got very small. He nodded eagerly in agreement with the plan.

≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈

2) (continued…)

When she and Dolly were seated in the next area down from where Michael sat on the planter, Callisto pulled out her cell phone and placed a call to the Center van outside.

“Nasty, honey,” she said. “I need a favor. No, it’s not for me… NO! It’s not that. You wish, short boy. No. I’m sorry. Look, Nasty, it’s Christmas and there’s this kid. He’s just heartbroken. Could you come in and meet us in the concourse in front of the Warner Brothers store… Nasty! Look, I’m not responsible for all of the stereotypes. But you are an elf, and you look like a hip version of the elves on the kids’ shows about Santa Claus, and we need to… OK. Here she is.” She handed the phone to Dolly. “He wants to talk to you.”

Dolly’s skin flushed as she accepted the phone. She turned away from Callisto and murmured into the mouthpiece. After a lengthy exchange that grew quite heated at one point, Dolly closed up the phone and handed it back to Callisto.

“And?” Callisto demanded.

“Yeah. He’s coming in. You better hope this works and it’s worth it, ’cause you owe me big time for that, sister.”

“What? He just wanted to talk to you!”

“Ever hear of phone sex?”

Callisto’s jaw dropped and she started to laugh. “Ho-ho-ho! You didn’t!”

“It’s not anything I’m proud of. In fact, if it gets back to me, I’ll deny everything. But… yeah.”

Then Dolly grinned. “It’s kind of a neat feeling of control to know that, not only can I get men hot and horny and get them off in person, I can even phone it in!

The two sister dollies broke into merry peals of laughter.

“I can just picture him out in the parking lot,” Callisto giggled, “whacking off while he’s on the phone with you! Tee-hee! What a sight!”

“Hope he didn’t get caught by Mall Security,” Dolly put in. “Dunno how they’d explain that.”

“So what about Xe?”

“Do we need to…?”

“Well, if Gabrielle and Callisto and an elf are convincing, how much more convincing would it be to have Gabrielle, Callisto, an elf and Xena?”

“What if this kid doesn’t buy any of it?”

“Well then, that’s just too bad for him. He’s gonna grow up and be a bitter and disappointed man.”

“Thus speaks Auntie Callisto.”

“Knows all, sees all, tells all. I’m nothing but a big blabbermouth.”

The two of them put their foreheads together and clasped each other’s shoulders, rocking to and fro in their shared merriment.

In a few moments, Nasty showed up. He was dressed smartly, as always, in tight black chinos, a silver Tommy Hilfiger wind cheater, and black leather ankle boots. Pitifully inadequate in the chill winds of the season. But Gods forbid he should sublimate style for comfort. His long, jet black hair was slicked back into an Elvis pompadour, with locks of hair strategically placed to cover the tips of his pointed ears. He was short, something under four feet tall, but exuded such an air of confidence that nobody seemed to notice.

“OK,” he said truculently. “Let’s get this over with.”

“Not yet,” said Dolly. “We’ve got to wait for a couple more people.”

While they waited, Callisto filled Nasty in on the plan. The elf agreed only reluctantly until Dolly threatened to tell the Trolls what he’d done on the phone. Knowing their overprotective feelings toward the little doll, Nasty got smart fast and amended his attitude.

About fifteen minutes later, with Nasty getting more impatient by the second, Xe showed up, carrying a single store bag, but with tell-tale bulges as from small parcels in her coat pockets.

“What’s up?” she asked. Callisto explained. By the time she was finished, Xe’s expression had morphed from the suck-cheeked “Impress-me” scowl that was her weekday expression into the carnivorous, vulpine Sunday grin she got when she was contemplating the laying low of the ungodly. To her, it didn’t matter if the sinner was an adult or a child. It was the act of retribution that gave her such a thrill. She readily agreed to the plan and collared Nasty, telling him to behave or the Trolls couldn’t get there in time to save him from her.

Then a gang of kids sauntered up to Michael and began the same dominance dance that has gone on between and among pre-adolescents from time immemorial. One or the other would invade Michael’s space and poke at him, or give him a sucker punch on the shoulder. To his credit, Michael stood his ground. Finally, the group was done with that ritual and the apparent leader stepped in. This, the dollies agreed, would be Tommy.

“Time to do our thing,” Dolly said.

Xe, Callisto, and Dolly did their patented Dolly swirl, wherein the three of them surrounded Michael, doing a dance of attentiveness that was definitely too sexual for the young boy, but certainly got the attention of the kids in the gang. They kept up a running patter about all manner of things, including the agog and wonderstruck boy in the conversation, for all he could barely muster an “uh-huh” or “Yeah!”

One by one the dollies were recognized, and there were hushed whispers of “Xena!”, “Gabrielle!”, and “Callisto!” from the tiny mobsters.

Then Dolly said, “Oh, and Mickey baby–Guess who we found?”

One of the girls in the gang shrieked at that and whimpered, “Mickey?” like–a goddess just called this goober-worm by a totally cool name and she couldn’t believe it.

Just then, Nasty stepped around the corner of a planter into the midst of the crowd of children. “Hey, Mickey,” he said. “How’s it hanging?”

Somehow Dolly managed to smack him on the top of his head without anybody noticing. But it didn’t matter.

Michael took one look at Nasty, a genuine elf, and blurted out, “You came!”

“Sure enough,” said Nasty, pretending to a modesty he didn’t feel and speaking with a brogue he’d only heard on television. “All the way from the Pole. Busy time of year for us, but for a bud… Hey! What are friends for?”

“Well, since it is two days ’til Christmas, and all,” young Tommy Pilesko said with all the youthful sarcasm he could muster, (which wasn’t much, but remember these are eight-year-olds we’re talking about), “What are you doing in Cincinnati?”

“Well, we’re takin’ a survey. Y’know? Makin’ a list and checkin’ it twice? This is part of the checking process. So tell me, lad–” he moved toward Tommy, boldly stepping into the boy’s personal space. “–what’s you’re name? Have you been good?”

“Thomas Pilesko, s-s-sir. And I’ve been good. Sir.” Nasty lifted a dubious eyebrow. There was a general titter from the boys and girls in the miniature gang. Dolly had a feeling that there would be a shift in the power structure of that little group sometime soon. Perhaps that very afternoon.

Then Callisto stepped in. She was standing behind Nasty. She cupped her hands together at her own waist level and about at Nasty’s shoulder blades. Very shortly, Nasty began to glow. Or that’s what it looked like. And little streamers of fire began to emanate from Callisto’s cupped hands–appearing to come from Nasty’s shoulders–and fly in sparkling arcs to touch the tops of the heads of the children.

And suddenly the dollies, the elf, and the boy were alone again. The fleeing backs of a gang of junior grade thugs could be seen weaving in and out of the adult foot traffic along the mall concourse.

Callisto started laughing so hard she had to sit down. “Well. That certainly wasn’t what I had in mind, but I think it will do.”

Dolly was down on one knee again in front of Michael. “Better now?” He nodded.

They were joined just then by a slender woman with light brown hair and a harried air about her. She was approximately somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-five and obviously somebody’s mother. Obviously Michael’s mother.

“Michael,” she said, pushing through the group of adults clustered between her and her child. Then she looked up at Xe and did a double-take. “You! You’re…”

“Yes, ma’am,” Xe drawled. “But we’d kinda prefer it didn’t get announced to everybody in the mall.”

Michael’s mother looked from one to the other of them, taking in Xe, Dolly, and Callisto and then settling her gaze at last on Nasty. Then she turned back to her son and noted the beatific expression on his wide-eyed face. “But what are you…?”

“Just talkin’ to a friend, ma’am,” Dolly said. “Just talkin’ to a friend.” She turned to Michael. “Well, Mickey–it’s been real. But we gotta go. Gimme a hug.” And he did. A very good and manly hug it was, too.

“You OK?” Dolly whispered. “Did that help?”

He nodded.

“Do you think he’ll believe?” Dolly asked.

“Nope. People like him, they never believe. But… Thank you anyway.”

“You’re welcome. Glad I could help you believe.” Dolly pinched his cheek and grinned when he rolled his eyes.

“That’s not it,” he whispered. Dolly raised an inquiring eyebrow.

He was quiet for a moment and the sounds of the mall intruded, the shuffling feet, the burruburrub of muted conversations, the announcements and alarms of the stores. Then he answered her question and the answer filled her heart with joy.

“I’m not afraid any more,” he said.

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3) Christmas Eve, approximately 11:05PM

Dolly crossed her wrists behind Drummond’s neck and chinned herself up his body, making sure to rub all her soft parts against him. When she was standing on one fully-extended toe, the other knee hooked around his hip, the heel pressed into his butt, she got to within reach of his mouth and put her face up to be kissed.

It was a demand no sane male could possibly deny. Drummond wrapped his arms around her ribs and lifted her off her feet. He bent his head and captured her sweet lips with his. Dolly felt a shudder run through his body as their lips met. A wave of heat rolled over her in response.

They stayed in the clinch for long moments, coming up for air several times, but diving right back into the warm salty ocean of each other.

Finally, Dolly let herself slide back to stand on her own feet. She looked up at her lover with a sleepy-eyed expression. “Mmm,” she purred. “I think that one works.”

“Good,” Drummond said. “That’s all of them then.” He craned his neck and did a final visual check on the sprig of mistletoe hanging in the center of the doorway.

As Dolly’d put it, they’d been field testing the installations. Had to be sure they all worked properly. There would be guests in the house and it would simply not do to have inoperative or faulty mistletoe.

Or so they told themselves. If pressed, they would have vehemently denied any contention that they were just using the excuse for a little snogging.

“OK,” he said, smacking her on the butt, eliciting a mock pout from Dolly that morphed into a naughty grin. “You’ve stalled long enough. Time to get ready for mass.” He put his hands on her shoulders and turned her around, giving her a gentle shove toward the stairs to the second floor.

She was wearing a sexy little La Perla number consisting of a strapless bra, spaghetti-strapped camisole, and loose under shorts, all in champagne silk. It was obviously not suited for outdoor wear. If they were to make it to midnight mass at La Immaculata, she’d have to get dressed and quick.

Dolly stumbled a bit, her bare feet slapping against the hardwood floor of the passage as she reluctantly headed for the stairs. Drummond paused for a moment to watch her go, the little jigglings of her well-muscled body being so enticing. He sighed and followed her.

“I don’t understand why we have to go,” Dolly was objecting. “I mean, it’s not like we’re Christians.”

“No, we’re not. But if we’re going to celebrate their second most important festival, then you, young lady, should have some understanding of what it’s all about.”

“I hate it when you call me young lady.” She stopped halfway up the stairs and started to turn to face him.

“Would you prefer,” he asked as he stepped up behind her and gathered her diminutive form in his arms, “I called you little girl?” He lifted her off her feet and carried her giggling, wiggling, and kicking the rest of the way up the stairs.

“No. I prefer you ask me before just assuming I want to go to this heathen ritual.”

“Why? Did you ask me if I wanted a Christmas tree or a house full of guests on the 25th?” He set her down on the floor in the upstairs hall and brushed past her into their bedroom suite.

“No. But that’s different,” she said, following.

“How’s that?” he asked from the bathroom, where he inspected his hair and beard then moved on to the closet.

She got into her closet before he got to his and her voice was muffled by all of the clothing close around her. As she selected a pair of white jeans and a cashmere sweater, she explained. “I’m a woman. I’m allowed to do things that don’t make sense.”

“Cheap shot!” he protested. “No fair playing the sex card.”

“Why not? You play it on me all the time!”

“Like when?”

“Like just now, when you carried me up the stairs.”

“That wasn’t about sex. It was about size. Besides, you were in the way.” Drummond was sure he’d scored a telling point on the little doll. He grinned to himself as he pulled a denim pullover on over his skivvy shirt and tucked it into the waistband of his jeans.

“Yeah, but,” Dolly would not give up. “The difference in our size has to do with the different sexes being bred for thousands of generations to be the size we are.”

“And your buddy Xe is….” six feet tall, But then again…

“Well, we don’t count, ’cause we’re all artificial people. But you aren’t. You’re a natural-born and you’re humongous.”

“Naw. Shaquile O’Neil. Now he’s humongous. I’m merely above average.” He padded barefoot around the doors and into her closet, a piece of fabric held behind his back in one hand.

“How’s it coming?” he asked, grateful that Dolly was one of those women who could dress quickly and looked like a million bucks no matter what her condition.

She smoothed the sweater down her body and inspected the effect in the full-length triple mirror mounted on an amoire in the middle of the closet. “Just finishing up,” she said, leaning in toward the mirror and picking at loose threads and bits of fluff–both real and imaginary.

“Not quite,” he said, bringing his hidden hand out from behind his back. “As a woman, it’s customary for you to keep your head covered in church.

“What?” Dolly leaned back and glared at his reflection in the mirror. Then he smiled and melted her heart. He did that kind of thing, she thought, never realizing that she did the same to him.

“Oh, let it go,” Drummond scolded gently. “It’s harmless and it’s a chance to wear a showy scarf.”

Dolly goggled at him. He wasn’t one to bow to convention like this. He must have some other motive. Then she felt a feather light touch on her hair and a confection of white lace appeared on top of her head.

“Most of the women there will be wearing wool scarves and suchlike. But you, my dear, are so angelic that I thought only a mantilla made of the finest white Irish lace would do.” He settled the lace on her golden-red hair, arranging it and pinning it in place with hairpins he must have filched from her dressing table. They had little diamond chips mounted on them and they glistened like starlight where they clung to her hair.

She had to agree that it not only looked angelic and fetching and all that, but it was cute. She would wear it. But he would not get away with this shameless manipulation of her. She’d have to figure out some retribution for his sins. Meantime, she smiled and road-tested the mantilla, making sure it would stay in place by wrapping her arms around his neck and climbing up him for another kiss.

Suddenly inspiration struck. Breaking away from Drummond, she hurried to her dressing table and picked up a spray bottle. She sent a cloud of its contents into the air and stood in it, until droplets of the mist collected on her hair and skin. Then she picked up a small glass vial and poured some of its contents into her hands. She stoppered the vial and threw her hand up into the air. Like a cloud of fairy dust, little specks of glitter drifted toward the floor. Dolly ducked in under them and caught the cloud on her face and hair. Where the glitter met the water it stuck to her.

She turned to face him, eyebrows lifted in question. His appraisal was positive; he stood there admiring her, slowly clapping his hands together. She looked like a fairy-angel from some children’s story. The very essence of the moment.

“Shoes,” he pointed out. “Then we have to go.” Dolly already had heavy white woolly socks and white leggings on. She pulled on a pair of white and silver slouch boots and grabbed her white rabbit-lined jacket from the coat tree. She pronounced herself ready to go.

Drummond stomped his foot the rest of the way into his boot and bent to smooth the leg of his jeans down to above his ankle. Then he straightened and lifted his leather bomber jacket down from the same coat tree and gestured for Dolly to proceed him out the door.

≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈

4) En route between Hyde Park and Mt. Adams, approx. 11:35PM

Cincinnati’s December weather is deceptively mild. Later in the winter would come the bitterly cold, subzero, biting wind, blowing drifting snow of a real winter. That Christmas Eve, however, there was only an inch of snow on the grass–streets were for the most part clear. When Drummond backed the Cherokee out of the garage and thumbed the garage door remote, their brick-paved drive was only slightly damp.

“I still don’t understand why we’re attending this ritual,” Dolly protested on the ride to the church. “I mean, these guys are a bunch of fanatics.”

“Some Christians are fanatics. Drummond is a Christian. Ipso facto, Drummond is a fanatic. Name that fallacy.”

“Reasoning from the particular to the general. But…”

“No buts about it, my dear, darling girl. I will grant you: there have been fanatic Christians. Even those who perverted their religion for temporal power–an egregious sin in the eyes of the early Christians.

“Exactly…”

“And, of course, we don’t have our own fanatics. Men who openly moved against their neighbors and sought to extend the influence of the Olympians by force of arms. None of that in our home camp. We pagans are pure of heart and…”

“OK, OK! I get the point. But that stuff happened a long time ago.”

“So there’s a statute of limitations on venality? If you’re going to excuse barbarism on the part of one, you have to excuse it for all.”

“Even for communism?” She had him there.

“OK. Granted that… I will contend that Marxism does not deserve the same consideration. However, that argument will get long and boring real quick if you insist on having it. And since you,” he glanced over at her and smiled, “oh Best Beloved, are anything but boring, I foresee that you will not insist on having it.”

“Not fair!” she protested.

“Why? Baby Doll, you’re the one with all the degrees in history, archaeology, anthropology. I’m just a bit jockey. Emeritus at that. My degree is in electrical engineering, not computer science.”

“But I didn’t grow up in a religion…”

“Exactly, my dear. I did. So will you trust me that this is an important thing for you to know–to experience? Nobody’s trying to get you to convert to Catholicism. Hell, even I would have a problem with that. But the service is open to all, and it would be a good thing for you to learn to respect the beliefs of others. To experience their rituals in their time and place and maybe–just maybe–begin to understand what drives them.”

Dolly was silent for a bit.

“Listen, Gabrielle. I don’t mean to lam into you. It’s not your fault. You are as you are because of choices that were made. The best choices, we thought. Except for that thing with your limbic system going out of whack (not your fault), everything’s worked out pretty well so far. But this is something I think you should do. And if I can get this word in edgewise, I think you’ll enjoy it.”

“OK,” she conceded.

“Can you agree that all people who do not share your beliefs are not fanatics?”

“Hmm. Yeah.”

“That’s not to say, however, that none of them are.”

She turned and looked at him. His face was lit from below by the dashboard lights and the headlights of oncoming cars. “I think I knew all of that. So why this…?”

“Why are you resisting it so much?”

“Because everything I know about Christianity…”

“Is probably wrong. Not to fault the Center faculty, but the deconstruction of Christianity began long before any of them were born. It takes a particularly strong mind or a devoted heart to overcome that kind of perversion of the truth. And you have to know that the truth is being twisted in order to resist.

“And to be fair, it isn’t just Christianity, it’s all religions. What would you do if Prof. Clotho tried to tell you that Rama or Krishna didn’t exist. Or Nana or Hephaestus.”

“Well, that’s ridiculous. I know those people.”

“Are you sure? You could be the victim of an elaborate hoax. I could be in on it.”

“But me. I mean–my very existence proves that the gods…”

“Not to bust your bubble, Baby, but it proves bupkis. It proves that you believe what people have told you happened–how they said you came into existence. That has about as much evidentiary value as the stories about the stork’s bringing babies.”

Drummond couldn’t believe that Dolly hadn’t considered all this long ago. But it made it easier to credit her resistance to attending Midnight Mass.

“OK, so there’s some things you can’t see or touch or feel and you have to accept what people tell you–you just have to take them on faith.”

“Exactly, my dear. And you are about to participate in a ritual–a celebration of transcendent faith with a capital ‘T F’.”

≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈

5) Mt. Adams, approximately 11:47 PM

Dolly was silent and thoughtful for the remainder of the trip to Mt. Adams where the Church of La Immaculata stood on a height overlooking the River. Drummond found a parking space on St. Gregory Street–no mean feat, considering how much of the on-street parking had been eliminated by development on The Hill over the years. They walked the last couple of blocks arm-in-arm, Drummond slowing his steps for her sake, she stretching her strides to the limit for his.

They came to the corner of St. Gregory and Pavilion, and Dolly stopped him when he would have gone on across the street. Foot traffic was heavy, all heading toward the church. She pulled him out of the flow with a tug on his hand and backed him up against the wooden fence that surrounded a beer garden. In his day, the place had been called Yesterdays. It had a different name, now.

“I’m sorry, Babe,” she said. When he began to protest, she held up a hand to forestall him. “I’m not saying you’re right, but you do want the best for me, and I should remember that. If you say you think I should do something, then… I probably should. At least–” she grinned at him. “You’ve never steered me wrong, yet.”

He gazed at her with tears in his eyes that threatened to freeze in the cold air. “I love you, Gabrielle Dolly.”

“And I love you, Mitchell Cary Drummond.”

“Come on, or we’ll end up in the first pew.”

“And the downside of this is…?”

“Yeah, well,” he gave a rueful grin. “People don’t like to sit down front in church for some reason. I guess they feel guilty so close to the preacher.”

She got the joke immediately and chuckled, a rich, throaty sound that made his heart skip a beat. “I guess that’s an acknowledgment of the truth, then, when those Baptists say that we’re all sinners. People know it and don’t want to be reminded of it.”

“And the little lady is right in one!”

Dolly dropped his hand and did a Gene Kelly number around the street sign at Pavilion and Belvedere. The effect of the mantilla, the diamonds, and the glitter on her golden-red hair in the glow of the gas-burning street lights was nothing short of numinous.

They crossed Pavilion Street in the middle of the block between St. Gregory and Guido, past Pia’s Sandwich Shoppe opposite the end of Fuller and the short row of private houses, then into Guido Street, the narrow cul de sac that led to the church.

One side of Immaculata’s sanctuary faced Guido Street, and the lights from inside backlit the stained glass windows. The sound of the high, piping voices of a boys’ choir and a stirring organ reverberated through the old stone wall, setting up a rumbling sympathetic vibration in Dolly’s chest. An excitement began to build in her that she could neither define nor determine its cause, although she was sure it had something to do with the music.

They reached the turnaround at the end of Guido and, when she would have gone straight to the church door, he pulled her aside to the top of a set of steps. There was a waist-high steel railing around the landing and down either side of the steps, which stretched away out of sight down the hillside.

Drummond struggled to say something. Dolly had the sense to simply wait.

“What there is. No.” He sighed, impatient with his inarticulateness. “What you are about to experience is something numinous. Do you know what numinous is?”

“Sure. Carl Sagan said it was like, what you feel when you contemplate the universe in all its grandeur.”

“Right. Except that that’s not what he meant. He borrowed the term from religion. Numinous is what you feel when you contemplate God.”

“Why are you doing this? You know better. You’ve talked with Jesus–excuse me–Eliahu. You of all people…”

“Two reasons. First, my lack of faith is no reason to denigrate the faith of others. Second, even absent the faith, the contemplation is still numinous. Just because we know that Jehovah is a hairy thunderer whose worshippers had delusions of grandeur, just because we know the man called Hephaestus or Vulcan and his wife Aphrodite, a.k.a. Venus on a personal basis, does not give us the right to diminish or talk down the faiths of people who don’t have our special advantages. It is, I think, in the manner of a sin. A very big sin.”

“But aren’t Christians supposed to prospect–er–what’s that word?”

“Proselytize. Evangelize.”

“Right. Them. Isn’t that a way of talking down somebody’s religion? I mean, if you think they’d should convert to yours…?”

“Yes. You’re right. I said it was my belief, not theirs. I figure, so long as they don’t use force, then they can try to convert the heathens all they want. And they know that forced conversions are meaningless.

“But you’ve gotten me off-track again. You’re good at doing that, you know?” He smiled gently at her.

He noticed that she was beginning to vibrate. And for once, he welcomed it. For the first time in over half a year, he didn’t shiver with fear for her when she started dancing in place, jogging one knee, making subtle little shifts in her stance, tiny swaying movements of her hips, dancer-like postures of her hands, the expressions on her face like poses. It was palpably obvious that she was happy, whereas before, it had always manifested fear or anger or frustration or rage. He stretched out an arm across her shoulders and pulled her to him.

“Settle down, little one. The service will take over an hour. Pace yourself or you’ll wear out.”

“OK.” With a conscious effort of will, she damped her oscillations until she was almost still. “Numinous.”

“Right. Numinous. You understand the word or the concept within your own frame of reference. What I want you to try to do tonight is try to see this ceremony from the frame of reference of the celebrants in the congregation.”

“Wow! All these new words.”

“I know. And I won’t be able to explain them to you as we go. You’re going to have to trust me on some stuff, but remember your questions for afterward. OK?”

“OK,” she said. If it had been anyone other than Dolly, he would have sworn she said it shyly. But Dolly was never shy.

≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈

6) (Continued…)

He crooked a finger under her chin and bent to kiss her. When she realized what he was about, she closed her eyes and parted her lips a little.

“Ah-ah-aah!” came the admonition in a friendly feminine voice. “None of that here!”

Drummond straightened and Dolly opened her eyes. “If not here, then where?” Drummond asked.

“Why in one of my temples!” Aphrodite quipped in answer to Drummond.

Dolly gasped in surprise and blurted out, “Nana! Papa!”

And, of course, it was. Aphrodite and Hephaestus, dressed a tad formally, but appropriately nonetheless.

“What are you doing here?” Dolly asked.

“Here in Cincinnati, or here at a Christian festival celebration?” Hephaestus answered Dolly’s question with another.

“Yes,” Dolly answered. Drummond just smirked at his god mother.

“Well, we’re in Cincinnati for the festival and we’re at the festival for you, my little munchkin.”

“Pour moi?” Dolly said, pressing her fingertips to her chest in mock-surprise.

“Pour vous,” Aphrodite replied.

“But won’t Jehovah, like, strike us dead or something?”

“Why,” Drummond interrupted. “Because we know for a fact what most Christians take on faith? I don’t think so.” He turned back to Aphrodite and Hephaestus. “Could you two go on in and find us a pew?”

Taking the hint, Aphrodite nodded, a mischievous glint in her eye, and dragged Hephaestus off into the church.

“OK. Real quick, ’cause it’s getting close to time. You’re gonna be expected to kneel and cross yourself, and sing along with hymns and participate in call-and-response prayers and catechisms.”

Dolly’s jaw dropped. “I don’t even know what half of that stuff is.”

“It’s OK,” Drummond said. “I don’t either. I was raised a Protestant. But the form of the service is pretty similar across sects. What I was gonna say is just watch everybody else and follow their lead. Since you can sight read music and have perfect pitch, you’re light years ahead of the rest of us, who can only mumble the words and sing the tune really bad whilst trying to fake it. Don’t worry. The important stuff is in the hands of the pros.

“But before we go in, I want to try to get you into an open frame of mind. Try to empty yourself. Let it wash over you.”

“Uncritical acceptance.”

“Not in your case,” he said dryly. “But do try to keep yourself open to the experience. It won’t hurt you.”

“OK.” She centered herself remarkably quickly. Within a minute or two, she was breathing lightly and evenly and her vibrations had damped to nil. “Let’s go,” she said.

And then Drummond had to spoil it by keeping up a running commentary all the way into the church.

“I picked this church because they’re doing an all-Bach service. This should be great. The music Bach wrote is mathematically precise, but is nevertheless some of the most spiritually moving music ever written. The boys’ choir is going to do a special arrangement of “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring.”

They got inside the door and had to wait at the rear of a crowd backed up trying to get into the sanctuary from the hallway. Dolly was entranced by the tiers of votive candles, each in its own tiny glass cup. Drummond made a way for her through the crowd and showed her the tapers and the collection box.

He put a bill in the box and whispered to her, “Think of a prayer.”

“Like what?” she whispered back.

“Oh, blessings for the soul of a departed loved one are really common. Good fortune for some endeavor, like a new business or a charitable organization.”

“What about that clone that the aliens killed and you thought it was me?”

That, as Dolly was able to do to Drummond several times daily, rocked Drummond back on his heels. The theological arguments about whether the clone possessed a soul aside, it was… “A very good idea. For the girl we never knew.” And he handed her a taper, then took her hand in his as he helped her light two candles.

“So, Jehovah watches all the candles and filters the requests and like that?”

“Well, no. Not exactly. There are a lot of reasons for this. Some of it is seeking help from God; although direct intervention is never seen as likely, it’s believed that God can influence events in ways that a perceptive person can take advantage of. There’s also the aspect of sharing the emotional burden…

“But you, you little scamp! No more questions until after. Understand?”

She tried to pull off a pout, but couldn’t. She stuck out her tongue in a saucy gesture admitting defeat and then blessed him with her megawatt smile.

As they were waiting to go in, Dolly was watching those ahead of them in the crowd at the door. Genuflecting, crossing themselves, dipping fingers in the font.

“What’s all that?” she asked.

“You genuflect as a gesture of respect. That’s the kneeling thing. You cross yourself or not, according to your own beliefs. It marks you as a non-Catholic if you don’t, but nobody really cares, especially if you leave money in the collection basket. You do not touch the holy water unless you are eligible for communion, which you are not. I’ll explain later. Trust me.”

Dolly nodded confirmation. She genuflected at the door, but did not cross herself. As Drummond, who was behind her, went through his own ritual, she located Aphrodite and Hephaestus and waved to them. Drummond stood and she took his hand and pulled him along in that direction.

Now it came to pass in those days, there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment made when Quirnius was governor of Syria. And all went to enroll themselves, every one to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to enroll himself with Mary, who was betrothed to him, being great with child. And it came to pass while they were there, the days were fulfilled that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son; and she wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were shepherds in the same country, abiding in the field and keeping watch by night over their flocks. And an angel of the Lord stood by them and the glory of the Lord shone round about them and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good tidings of joy which shall be to all the people; for there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord. And this is the sign unto you; you shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest. And on earth, peace among men in whom he is well pleased.

Dolly didn’t understand it all intellectually. It would be years before she did. But that night, she finally understood the simple truth of faith. It is noteworthy that she became a more tolerant individual thereafter.

Love and Peace from both of us.

Merry Christmas to you and yours.

Drummond and Dolly, 12/24/99

≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈

7) Christmas morning, first light

Even though she was not a morning person, Dolly was up at dawn, showered and snug in her footy bunny rabbit pajamas and pink quilted bathrobe. She entered the kitchen from the back stairs, the non-skid soles of her PJ feet scuffing on the warm vinyl-tiled floor.

She went to the pantry and took down several foil packets. She stood by the junk drawer under the counter next to the fridge and cut the packets open with a pair of orange-handled Fiskars.

As she worked, she inhaled deeply of the rich aroma of Arabica beans being brewed in the under-counter pot. She knew by that that her lover had been through and started the coffee brewing for her. (He didn’t drink coffee, but was always looking for ways to pamper her, so customarily made her a pot of coffee on his way out for his run.)

On the counter near the coffee maker, there was a small silver tray laid out holding her favorite cold-weather mug, a pitcher of condensed milk and a crystal cup holding packets of aspartame sweetener.

Once she got the foil packets all cut up, she raised her voice to call, “Kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty,” in a falsetto trill that drove Drummond nuts because he couldn’t emulate it. There was a thud of a small, four-legged body hitting the floor upstairs and the drumming pitter-patter of little cat’s feet racing down the stairs. In short order, a furry flood of feline flesh was pouring through the kitchen door. Six cats magnified in size and number by their eager movement.

Dolly emptied the opened foil packets one at a time into her palm and deposited a small mound of the moist treats in front of each of the cats. She worked quickly to make sure everybody got some right away and the slow ones didn’t get into fights with the more forward ones, who got theirs first.

By the time the first ones were looking around for seconds, Dolly was ready and doled out the remainder of the treats with a quick, sure hand, all the while singing, “Merry Christmas, kitties!” in her own inimitable voice, with its husky tone and its unerring pitch.

She stopped to stroke each one and assure him that he was loved and was the most charming fellow, (or the sexiest lady), on the planet, and she made those disgusting baby noises that people will make with pursed lips when they think they’re alone with their pets. Her best bud, Orange Jell-O (a.k.a. Jelly), of course came in for the most loving. He fell over on his back and miaowed for a belly rub, which Dolly indulged him in.

She straightened and brushed a wisp of her burnished copper hair out of her face with her hand, then puffed air out of her mouth to try to blow it aside, and finally gave it up. She’d have to go brush her hair again and put it up properly, instead of the half-assed job she’d done of it on finishing with the hair dryer.

“So whattaya think, guys,” she said, addressing the assembled cats, who continued daintily powering down the moist kibble treats while no doubt hanging on her every word–because cats are like that. “Is Mommy gonna get lucky again today? Think I’m gonna have to jump Daddy’s bones if I wanna get some before everybody shows up? He’s awful thick that way, sometimes. Like this morning. I practically had to shove my… well. You guys are too young for the gory details. Anyway: trust me, it worked. But Mama Dolly is feeling randy today. Must be all that fine winter air, or the snow outside and the fire, or somethin’. Cause I wanna fuck something.” The last was spoken with a heavy TV-western prospector’s accent and punctuated with a loogie shot at an imaginary spittoon. But then she ruined the effect by giggling.

She poured herself a cup of coffee and carried the tray to the table in the breakfast nook and sat at “her” place. There was an envelope with her name written on it propped up against the centerpiece. Dolly contemplated it while she mixed white and sweet into her coffee. When the mixture was seasoned to her taste, she picked up the card and slid a thumbnail under the flap to open it.

Then she noticed the flat black velvet jeweler’s box that had been hidden behind the card. Ever the acquisitive sort, she widened her eyes and reached for the box, which had a bow of gold satin ribbon tied around it.

She got the ribbon off and, trembling in anticipation, flipped open the lid. She gasped and set the box down, holding her other hand weakly over her fluttering heart. Her greedy, jewel-loving heart whose favorite colors were platinum and emeralds from Tiffany’s.

At least the box said Tiffany’s and New York. And if she knew Drummond, he wouldn’t cheat on something like that. He’d consider it beneath him. If he bought her a gift from the orange kiosk in the mall, he’d present it in the orange kiosk gift box.

When had he found the time to fly to New York? Even though there was a Tiffany’s in Cincinnati, it was also like him to go to the source, to interview a top jewelry designer, possibly have the thing custom-made.

And they were so exquisite! Perfect dangles, each made of three absolutely huge emeralds in the traditional rectangular cut, set in platinum, (it said so on the backs), hanging side-by-side, with white gold wires. She got teary-eyed as she inserted them in her earlobes and stroked them against her neck for an instant. Then she tore open the envelope and extracted the card.

The outside was a traditional-looking Christmas card that said simply, “Merry Christmas, My Love.” There was a snow scene on the front that, even though this was her first Christmas and she didn’t understand much of what was going on, made Dolly wax nostalgic. She opened the card. The inside was blank except for a note in Drummond’s hand… neater than usual, obviously written with great care. It said:

“Merry Christmas, Gabrielle. I love you more than life itself. I pray that we will have many Christmases together, and that we can grow old and naughty together. Go ahead, put them on.”

And she knew it was going to be a great day.

#

They were expecting a large contingent of loved ones later on that morning, and had agreed to exchange some gifts that morning with others to come that night after the others had gone home. The expected guests included Drummond’s ex, stepdaughter, and grandson, his mother, Aphrodite and Hephaestus teleporting in from Greece (air Olympus, of course), all of Dolly’s sister and brother dollies–Xe, Cally, Vel, Ma, and Auto. And Terry and Maxie were coming down from Groveport in a caravan with the dollies. It promised to be a crazy and hectic–yet hopefully joyous–occasion.

When Drummond got back from his run, he headed upstairs to take a shower. Dolly, having already showered, stayed downstairs and prepared them a simple breakfast that they could eat casually in the living room. She didn’t want to wait to open presents any longer than she had to.

Drummond, although he masked his anticipation better, was also eager. He was very much looking forward to seeing Dolly’s reactions to certain gifts and he hurried through his shower.

By the time he was back downstairs, dressed in soft tan slacks, a sky blue pullover, and loafers without socks, Dolly was just getting into the second stage of breakfast preparation. She demanded–and got–a kiss, then shooed him off to the living room.

She saw him filch a strip of bacon but said nothing about it. She smiled softly as he padded through the swinging door to the dining room and then down the steps into the living room.

Once Dolly had joined him in the living room, Drummond began playing Santa, picking out presents for her from the pile under the tree, while she played elf, looking particularly elfin in her green vest, shorts, and stocking cap, although had Santa had such skin-baring minxes around him at the North Pole, he would have been divorced from Mrs. Claus and probably not gotten much work done, either. Every time they brushed past each other, their hands roamed over each other, touching, stroking, teasing. They stopped for kisses many times, each time reminding each other that they had to finish before the others got there.

Dolly was as excited as a kid. Her acquisitive nature was encouraged and inflamed by the rich haul of presents, some opened and played with, some yet to be opened. She vibrated like a tuning fork with unconcealed and infectious joy.

Finally things wound down to two packages. Both for Dolly. Bits of ribbon and wrapping paper littered the huge living room and the cats were having a field day executing rustling hunting maneuvers through the underbrush of foil wrapping papers and boxes.

One of the packages was huge. Eighteen inches thick and almost four feet long. Dolly had prodded it and shaken it and could not figure out what it was. She took it up several times, could not suss it out, and had set it aside to come back to later. Now she was down to the end and had to admit defeat. She could not guess what was in the big box.

The other present felt suspiciously like another jewelry box. She was so obviously torn between the two that Drummond told her:

“Do the big one first.”

She looked at him quizzically.

“Yes, I do have an ulterior motive.”

“And that would be… ?”

“Open the package and find out.”

“OK,” she said happily and set about destroying the wrappings that concealed a box from: “Kotsovos?” A furrier in a northeastern suburb.

“Open it,” Drummond prompted her impatiently.

“Omigod!” she gasped when she lifted the lid. “A–a–” she lifted out of the box and held it up. “What is that? It’s not mink, right?”

“No. It’s ermine. A relative of the mink. A winter coat, if I’m not mistaken.”

“Wow! And it’s full-length, too!”

“Now there’s two rules that go with this,” Drummond intoned.

“Yeah?” Dolly’s lips twisted into a now-what expression. He always did this.

“Yeah. First, you’re not allow to wear it out of the house. Second, you’re not allowed to wear anything under it.”

Dolly’s sudden grin washed out the Christmas tree, the candles, the fireplace, and the sun outside. “Now, that I can get behind. I just love getting’ nekkid.” And in less time than it takes to tell, she shucked out of her clothes and was eagerly holding the coat preparatory to putting it on.

“Stop!” Drummond commanded.

“What?” Dolly asked, puzzled.

“I just want to look at you.”

Dolly smiled at that and did a slow little dance for him. All the different parts of her jiggled, bobbled, flexed, flowed or swayed according to their individual nature, and yet they all worked together into a movement that was pure poetry.

Then Drummond stood up and helped her put the coat on, and she snugged it around her, luxuriating in the feel of the smooth lining against her body, the tickling of the fur on her soft skin.

“Wow!” she enthused. “This is mucho sexy!”

“Muy,” Drummond corrected absent-mindedly. There were tears in his eyes, but he had no trouble seeing her. “God, I love you, Dolly. And yes, I know it’s a lot physical, but–Geeze–how can I help myself?”

She dimpled at that and took him by the upper arms and walked him over to the padded piano stool that stood by the white Baldwin in the bay window. “Sit down,” she instructed him, lifting her hands to his shoulders and pressing down on them. Then she opened the ermine coat, accepting as her due the sharp intake of breath that betrayed Drummond’s reaction to the sight of her naked body.

“So. What do you think of your coat?” he murmured as he dived into the valley between her breasts, bestowing the soft, firm flesh to either side with lingering kisses and teasing nibbles.

“I love it,” she said, kicking one leg free of the encumbrance of the fur and lifting it to rest her knee next to Drummond’s hip on the piano stool.

Drummond shuddered and ran a hand up her thigh to tease at her snatch with his fingers.

“Mm!” he grunted, pulling away from her.

“Hey!” she protested. Her mood evaporated suddenly, and she began to pout.

“You have another present,” he said with a husky rasp in his voice. “I want to see… I want you to open it. Now. Please.”

He stood up and made as if to step over to pick up the last present, but she stopped him.

“Only if you apologize for what you just did.”

“I’m sorry,” he said instantly and without prevarication.

“Kiss me, dammit!” She actually stamped her foot and pouted. He leaned down to kiss her, but she turned her face away from him. He drew back an inch, hurt, unsure…

But she couldn’t maintain her mask of disapproval. She laughed and pulled him to her, devouring his mouth in hers, draping her body against his in a manner calculated to arouse–and it did.

He took two quick steps to where the box lay on the floor and snatched it up, thrusting it at Dolly and hoarsely ordering her to open it.

Dolly suppressed her smile and meekly unwrapped the present. She had an idea it was jewelry from the shape of the box, but even so, she was almost totally unprepared for the positively decadent necklace she found therein.

It was clearly a one-of-a-kind designer piece. It matched the earrings she’d put on earlier. Or rather, they matched it. The workmanship was clearly superior, the design exquisite, the effect of the piece en large and in detail was simply stunning. It was large enough to cover her entire upper chest and yet was surprisingly lightweight for the quantities of emeralds, diamonds, platinum, and gold that went into its construction. It was the kind of things that kings and queens might envy. That a billionaire’s wife or daughter might expect as a gift.

But… She looked up at Drummond from under her bangs. “This is a kind of a wifey gift. Are you sure you want to give this to your doxy girl?”

“That’s redundant,” he said with a chuckle. “A doxy is a girl. And as for you, miss hot pants nineteen ninety-nine, the only reason I haven’t made an honest woman of you is because you won’t let me. Any time you want to get married, just say the word and we’ll look up a Justice of the Peace or something. Heck, Xe is ordinate in the Universal Life Church. She could do the dirty deed. At least then we’d be keeping it in the family.”

She looked up from the box with tears of joy in her eyes. Now she had some inkling of what it was that made Drummond liken loving her to a religious experience.

The prettiness of the bauble wasn’t in it. The high cost of it wasn’t either. It was that he placed that much value on her as to–just–give to her a pretty thing that cost as much as or more than his house.

At that level of things, it didn’t matter that the cost was nothing–pennies, one might say dismissively. What mattered was why he did it. Truly, is was the thought that counted.

“Let’s put it on you,” he said softly, picking up the necklace from the box. “Turn around.”

She did as he instructed and stood quietly while he lovingly arranged the necklace on her chest and fastened the clasp at the nape of her neck. Then he bent and kissed her there, tickling the flyaway hairs that had escaped the scrunchie around her ponytail.

She could feel the shudders that ran through him as he handled her, tasted her. The power of her sex flowed through her, a heady mixture of ecstatic madness and joy with abject surrender and self-abnegation.

He slid the coat down her arms and planted kisses on her collarbone and shoulders. He slid his hands up her body, spreading the front of the coat open and stroking her belly. His big hands cupped her heavy breasts, and she felt a tremor run through her that started in her lower belly and shook her entire body, making her muscles watery weak. She melted into his arms with a moaning sigh and reached up to guide his lips to hers.

Drummond caught sight of Dolly in the glass of a picture frame, naked in all her glory, clothed in barbaric splendor of jewels and furs, though none of it could match, let alone surpass, the natural radiance that was the bare fact of Dolly herself.

It made Drummond feel all primitive in wanting her, needing to plunder her, to take her and wholly own her, and yet to worship the occupant of this temple–this perfect vessel of naked girl flesh in his arms. The spirit within.

Stop thinking, Drummond. You’re not making sense. Just deal with loving her.

The coat hit the floor and Dolly’s eager fingers began tugging at Drummond’s belt. She bounced a little on her toes and wrinkled her nose in a smile. The girl was happy. She was going to get lucky.

Merry Christmas, Dolly.

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