Molly checked the laundry hamper twice before she loaded it into her dad’s station wagon. A carton of raw cranberries, a paper bag of popcorn, thread and needle pinched from her mom’s sewing box, some bittersweet and holly from the wild tangle of shrubs on their property line, and a Bing Crosby Christmas record. Molly wasn’t sure how Walt felt about music, but you couldn’t go wrong with Bing Crosby.
The moon was a low, snow-white crescent in a deep sky over the valley as she drove west out of town. Darkness came early in December, but the radio station out of Plattsburg was playing Christmas carols, and Molly sang along with enough gusto to hide her lackluster singing voice—and her twanging nerves.
It was five-fifty-five on the dot when she turned into the driveway at the Fuller’s farm. The dairy barn hulked in its own shadow, and the pastures rolled away into the night, a study in lonesome moonlight and snow. The house, in contrast, was lit up from within with a warm, steady light that brought an involuntary smile to her face. She stopped the car on the gravel and cut the headlights—just in time to realize Walt was up a ladder, leaning into the front gable, long cords of colored lights dangling from the ladder and a hammer slung from his hammer loop.
“Be right down,” he hollered.
Molly stood in the driveway, arms wrapped around her chest against the cold, while Walt put a nail in the peak of the gable, and hauled the lights into place along the roofline.
He climbed down, leaving the ladder in place, and crossed the front yard, chafing his gloved hands together. “Want to help me light it up?”
He led her to the outlet on the outside of the wall, tucked behind a rhododendron in the front garden and handed her the plug. She wondered if he felt the zing of an altogether different kind of electricity when her mittened fingers touched his bare ones.
The lights brought the house to cheerful life, and Molly clapped. “It looks great.”
“So,” Walt said, face alight with pleasure, “what’s the big surprise?”
“We’re going to make a popcorn garland for your tree.”
Walt carried her laundry hamper of supplies inside. Molly followed, shucking her coat and shoes by the door. Walt glanced at her sock feet.
Molly wiggled her rag-toe. “Keeps the dirt out. I might be a messy packer, but I hate dirty floors.”
He was a tidy bachelor, she thought, but whether that was due to natural inclination or lack of opportunity to make a mess, she couldn’t be sure. The wood stove was going in the parlor, and Walt set her basket down by the sofa. “I don’t have much, but I’ve got some Schaefer in the fridge.”
Molly opened the gingham tablecloth she’d wrapped around her offerings. “That’s not very festive. I brought hot chocolate.” She pulled out a large green Thermos, set it down on the coffee table, then dug back into the basket. After a brief search, she brandished a fifth of peppermint schnapps. “With a kick.”
“You’ve got a regular picnic in there,” Walt remarked, looking over her shoulder at the cranberries, the popcorn, and a foil-wrapped baking dish. “Is that a lasagna?”
“It’s my specialty.” Molly pulled out the popcorn and cranberries, then tucked the tablecloth around the dish. “It just needs to warm up. We can put it in when we get hungry.”
“Or I can put it in now.” She pulled back one corner of the cloth.
Walt’s voice had gone hoarse. In the same motion she turned and began to stand while he clasped her arm and tugged. She stumbled into his embrace. He wasn’t too tall; she liked where she fit into his body. “I’d really like to kiss you.”
His arms snugged around her and she rested her forehead against his nose, their breath mingling. “You definitely should.”
As first kisses went, Molly thought, it wasn’t so bad. If their teeth clinked and she giggled, if she wasn’t sure what to do with her hands, it didn’t matter. He tasted like mint, and when she didn’t shy away, his lips slanted against hers, and the oxygen in the room went hot.
They kissed, openmouthed, unbothered by awkward hands, for a brief eternity. Full darkness filled in the shadows around the farmhouse, leaving them cocooned in warmth and light.
Molly caught her breath before it whooshed out in a nervous laugh. “We should heat up that lasagna.”
Walt pushed his hands into his pockets. “How ‘bout I go bring in the tree and the stand?”