65, 60, 50, 40, 30, 20….gradually Steve returned to a normal speed on the treadmill. This was the final test on his last physical of the year before leaving for Ojai to spend the holidays with his father. He stepped off the carpet and accepted the towel Rudy handed over to him to wipe the tiny beads of perspiration pearling down his forehead.
“How did I do?” Steve calmly asked his physician standing to his left with his nose buried in his medical chart.
Rudy unfastened his eyes from Steve’s test results and gave him a reassuring pat on the back. “You passed with flying colours. I’m giving you a clean bill of health.”
“I take it I’m free to go?”
“Yes.” Rudy snapped the chart close and ambled over to the counter. “Just want to ask you one more question before you leave.”
“Do you wish to discuss it?”
“Whatever is bothering you? Lately you’ve bee moping around, wandering like a lost soul. Now what is it?”
Steve hooked the towel around his neck and heaved out a long shuddering breath. “It dawned on me that this will be the first Christmas without my mother.” He inhaled deeply to curb the wave of emotions rushing to his throat. “I don’t know how my dad and I will cope. It won’t be a MERRY Christmas this I can say,” he said on a resentful tone. He turned away from Rudy as tears threatened to sting his eyes.
Rudy’s eyes dropped at the pain he felt for his bereaved friend. Heartfelt sympathies were all he could offer but refrained from expressing them for fear of doing more harm than good. “You and your father will be all alone?” Steve nodded to Rudy’s question. “What about Andrea? She’s not joining you on this trip?”
“She’s spending Christmas in Vermont with her folks. Besides she and I aren’t serious enough for me to bring her home to meet the father.”
“What about Cassandra? I’m sure your father will approve of having her for Christmas.”
“He would. In fact he suggested I ask her.”
“She’s going to spend the holidays at her parents’ house. Rudy I appreciate your concern but really, we’ll be fine. It’ll take us just a bit of getting used to, that’s all.” Steve’s assurance managed to wring a fleeting half-hearted smile out of Rudy. “Well, if you don’t need me anymore I think I’ll go home and finish packing. I’m flying to Ojai late this afternoon.”
“Have a good trip, Steve. I’ll see you back in January.” He laid a hand on Steve’s shoulder and conveyed his deepest sympathies through a light squeeze. “I’ll be thinking of you.”
A heavy-hearted Rudy watched his friend exit the lab. He chided himself inwardly for not being able to do more for this aching soul.
“That’s wonderful mom! I’m sure you and dad will have a great time. (…) No I’m sorry I’m not much into skiing. I wouldn’t feel comfortable with all those people around. You know how I hate crowds, especially with folks I am barely acquainted with. (…) I’ll see you on December thirty-first and we’ll ring in the New Year together. (…) Alright well then you take care and don’t break anything. Bye mom.” I hung up the phone and signed woefully at the thought of having to spend Christmas alone in my apartment. I perked myself up and stood from the couch to go fix myself a cup of steamy hot coffee. Halfway to the kitchen a rap at the door forced me to retrace my steps to the living room and to the door.
“Blue Eyes!” I exclaimed in surprise. “Come in,” I invited with a wave of the hand.
“I’m not staying long. Just dropped by to give you your Christmas gift.” He produced a small gift-wrapped rectangular box from his shopping bag.
Like a shy teenager I giggled excitedly, my eyes widening in eagerness at the present he was handing over to me.
“You don’t mind if I wait to Christmas to open it?”
“Of course not.”
“I’m very old-fashioned about these things.”
“I just hope you like it.”
“I know I will. And just to prove it, I’m going to show you my appreciation right now.” I ecstatically flung my arms around his neck and smacked a huge kiss on his cheek. “Thank you 34.”
He recoiled in pleasant shock at my sudden ebullience. “You’re very welcomed 35.”
“Yours couldn’t fit under my tree so I’m having it delivered to Ojai on Christmas Eve.”
“Cassie I hope you didn’t go overboard?” he scolded with eyes narrowed in contempt.
“Of course not! I assure you it didn’t cost that much. It just takes a lot of room.”
He waltzed up to me and brushed his arm against mine. “What is it?” he cajoled with a wicked grin.
“I’m not going to tell you now. You’ll find out in three days.” I winked seductively before sidling away to the kitchen.
“You are so cruel to me,” he teased.
“I know and I love it. Say I was going to fix myself a cup of coffee. Care to join me?”
He thought for a moment and glanced down at his watch to catch the time. “I guess I have time for a small one.”
“Make yourself comfy on the couch. It’ll be ready in a jiffy.”
Steve removed his light jacket and draped it on the back of an armchair before he sat on the sofa where he kicked off his shoes and lay back against the cushions. He briefly rested his eyes while wiggling his toes.
“I take it you’re catching a flight to Ojai this afternoon?”
“Yes in three hours. Guess you’ll be going to your folks as well?” He replied without disrupting his relaxed poise.
“Ah not this year. I was just on the phone with mom. She and dad are spending Christmas in Aspen, Colorado, with some friends.”
“Aren’t you going with them?” he asked quizzically.
“Nah! I’m not much for skiing. Besides I loathe my parents’ professional acquaintances. They are haughty and full of themselves. I understand that mom and dad often have to suck up to those turkeys in order to keep their businesses but I don’t.”
“You mean to tell me you’re going to be all alone this Christmas?”
“I won’t be alone,” I assured him while pouring the coffee into cups. “I’ll have Bing Crosby and Jimmy Stewart to keep me company.” I picked up the cups and walked to the living room. “Here you go.”
I removed my shoes and settled next to Steve on the sofa.
“If you don’t have anywhere to go perhaps you’d like to come with me to Ojai?”
I placed a hand on his arm and gave it a grateful squeeze. “Thanks for the offer, Blue Eyes. I’ll be all right. It won’t be the first time.”
“I asked you mostly out of selfishness,” he said, cringing embarrassingly before taking a sip of coffee.
He sighed and turned to stare me in the eyes. “My dad wanted me to ask you long ago. He’s very fond of you, Cassie, and…well…I guess he figured if you were there it would somehow filled the void left by my mother.”
My heart quailed and my eyes dropped at the mention of his late mother. I inhaled a silent breath to collect my thoughts before smiling my answer. “Say no more. When do we leave?”
Steve broke into a wide blissful grin. “In three hours.”
“We have time to finish our coffee?”
“Certainly.” He reached out to clasp my hand and with bleary eyes glinting with utter gratefulness, he murmured quaveringly “Thank you.”
I squeezed back his hand. “No, Thank YOU for inviting me.” I clung my cup with his. “This means I kissed you for nothing.”
“I gave you a sample of my reaction to your present since you weren’t going to be here to witness it. Now you will.”
Steve flashed a mischievous lopsided grin. “I’ll get another one, won’t I?”
It was a bumpy ride to Ojai but we made it in one piece. Before leaving I confirmed with the hardware store for Steve’s gift to be delivered to the Elgins house tomorrow. I could hardly contain my enthusiasm at the expected reaction to the sizable toolbox that 34 had been coveted for quite some time. He was quite the craftsman and missed indulging in his favourite pastime. After narrowing escaping death following a suicide mission abroad, Oscar had managed to pull strings and grant Steve a six-month hiatus.
Jim met us at the airport and following warm hugs and kisses we drove to the farm. Although Jim strove to sound cheery he could not fool me. His haggard expression, strained smile and fake laugh were dead giveaway that the grieving man was still agonizing over his wife’s death. I glanced over at Steve who was taciturn; no doubt was he feeling a renewed burden from the memory of the car crash.
I had to tread very carefully in this awkward situation. I knew I’d be walking on eggshells during this emotional period. Was I up to the challenge?
When we arrived at the farm, Steve and I went up the stairs to our respective rooms to get settled. Once my unpacking over, I walked down the hall to Steve’s room where I found him holding a framed family picture taken a few weeks prior to Helen’s tragic death. Although his back was to me I could sense that tears were welling up in his eyes. “You miss her, don’t you?”
Steve drew in a long shuddering breath and sniffled back his tears before turning to me. “Yeah,” he sighed dolefully.
I stepped up to him and wrapped a sympathetic arm around his shoulders. “I miss her too. She was a grand lady.”
“She loved you dearly, Cassie,” Steve mused. “She even thought that…” he abruptly interrupted his train of thought realizing what he was about to divulge.
“Steve,” I chided with steely eyes and an eyebrow raised in menace.
A flickering elfish grin danced on his lips at the thought of revealing his mother’s wish. “Well, she thought that you and I…well…you know,” he babbled embarrassingly.
“Yeah I think I do. My mother is the same with me. She would like to see me settled down with a couple of kids. She hates my line of work and I can’t really blame her.”
“She kept saying she wanted grandchildren before she was eighty and I joked about having plenty of time,” Steve nearly choked on the last word as an emotional lump formed in his throat. He blinked away the tears threatening to his baby blues before gazing deep into my eyes. “I’m glad you came,” he spoke softly with a bewitching smile that warmed the cockles of my heart. Despite all he appeared serene and contented.
“Where’s my present?” he teased with a broad grin.
“Patience, Blue Eyes. It’ll come.” I made my way back downstairs with Steve on my heels who continued to pester me for hints about the mysterious package he was to receive shortly.
“Dad,” Steve began before I quickly interrupted.
“Don’t try it, Steve. Jim doesn’t know either.” A triumphant smirk crossed my face at the sound of a loud disgruntled groan.
Bright and early the next day, we all buckled down to the task of trimming the Christmas tree. Once the tree was secured in place in a corner of the living room, Steve strode up the stairs to the attic to retrieve the box of ornaments.
While Steve was getting the items, Jim and I went to the kitchen to fix ourselves a cup of coffee. I started telling him about Steve’s gift when the doorbell rang.
“That must be it,” I said with eager anticipation of seeing Steve’s expression when he would feast his eyes on my special gift.
Jim opened the door to a young fifteen-year-old boy. “Hello, is this the Elgins’ residence?”
“That’s right. I’m Jim Elgin.”
“I was wondering if I might find a Steve Austin here?”
“Hold on a second. I’ll get him. Please come in.” Jim bade enter the young man who stood sheepishly by the door while Jim called out to Steve.
“Yeah?” He shouted back from the attic.
“There’s someone here to see you.”
“Be right there.” Steve grabbed the box of Christmas tree ornaments and proceeded carefully down the tiny ladder. Gliding excitedly down the hall to the staircase with the box in hand, he accidentally tripped over a tiny bump in the rug and wound up tumbling down the stairs.
“Steve!” I cried in a panic as I rushed to his aid. “Are you okay?” I squatted beside him to ease him up to a sitting position.
“Yeah…yeah,” he breathed out while rubbing his aching head. “Just got a few stars dancing before my eyes but otherwise I’m fine. Who is here to see me?”
I shrugged. “Don’t know. He just asked to see you.” Steve flashed me an elfish grin. “Why are grinning like an idiot? I told you I don’t know who he is and your dad, doesn’t either.”
“Could you help me up, please?” Steve reached out to my hand to get a hoist up. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply to quell the dizzy spell washing over him before he made his way to the young man standing by the door.
“I’m Steve Austin.”
“Mister Austin, finally. You have no idea how long I’ve been trying to track you down.”
Steve and I exchanged quizzical glances. “Who are you?” Steve asked with curiousity.
“I’m Nick. Emilie Peterson’s son. I was told you were my father.”
Steve stood agape, frozen to the spot. He eyed the young man from head to toe; his focus mainly on the facial features. The resemblance was so startling that he couldn’t deny Nick’s parentage. “Com…come in,” he stuttered nervously as he bade the young blond enter.
“Thanks. I’ve been doing extensive enquiries for quite some time and finally found you. I went to Washington but they told me you had left for Ojai. Maybe I should have postponed this meeting till after the holidays but I couldn’t wait any longer.” He paused briefly to study Steve’s expression. “I take it this is a shock?”
“To say the least,” Steve heaved out. “Emilie, euh, she didn’t say anything to me.”
“I asked her why. She said she didn’t want to force you to settle down seeing how your career was thriving. She took care of me by herself and I can’t complaint. She did a marvellous job of raising me. I never wanted for anything, except maybe a father figure.”
I tugged at Steve’s sleeve to draw his attention. “Steve, maybe it’s high time to give Emilie a call?”
“Don’t bother. She died six months ago,” Nick informed grimly. “She spoke of you on her deathbed. She urged me to seek you out and that you would understand her reasons for not telling you about me.”
“Nick, won’t you come and sit down in the living room where you and Steve will be more comfortable to talk.”
“Thank you Mister?”
“Elgin. Jim Elgin,” he said as she shook hands with the young man. “I’m Steve’s father.
“Nice to meet you, sir.”
“And I’m Cassie Miller. A friend of the family.” I said extending my arm.
Steve clasped my hand, clinging to it as though it were a lifeline. I in turn gripped his arm as we all proceeded to the living room where we sat side by side on the sofa next to Nick. From the livid expression etched on his face it was obvious that he was still reeling over the initial shock of discovering the existence of a son.
Curiosity goaded me to ask the icebreaker question that was burning on everyone’s lips, “How did your mother die?”
“Colon cancer. She died painlessly, though.”
Steve bolted upright in a fit of rage. “Why didn’t she say anything to me? Why?”
“I just told you.”
“No, I mean just before she died. She should have called or written, anything to let me know.”
“She tried but was unsuccessful.”
“Do you have any proof of what you’re saying? I mean any pictures, birth certificate, blood tests?” Steve asked.
Nick produced a folder from his breast pocket and tossed it on the table in front of Steve. “It’s all in there. I figured I’d come prepared knowing you wouldn’t be so prompt to believe my story.”
I reached out for the folder and opened it. Steve took peeks at what appeared to be concurrent with Nick’s statement.
“Without wanting to sound insensitive, do you mind if I check those out?” Steve told Nick. “This is a quite a shock and I need some time to digest it all. You don’t mind?”
“Of course not.” Nick stood, then Steve. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. Take all the time you need. I’m staying at the Comfort Inn in town. You may reach me at this number.” Nick handed Steve a piece of paper. “Call anytime you want. I should be here for another two weeks. I’m job hunting in the area,” he said, smiling proudly.
“Oh? In what field?” I asked, curious.
“Anything related to computers. I have a Doctorate in Computer Engineering.” He glanced at Steve who didn’t appear very enthusiastic about his achievement. That contrived smile was his cue to leave him to absorb the information. “I’ll be leaving now. Nice to have met you folks.”
“Likewise, Nick,” Jim said with a handshake. “We’ll be in touch.”
“I hope so.” He turned to me and shook my hand. “Nice to have met you Miss Miller.”
“I’ll walk you to the door.” I escorted the young man to the door and stepped outside with him to follow him to his car. “This is quite a bombshell you dropped on my friend.”
“I realize that. It was equally shocking to me to find out that my father was Steve Austin.” He opened the car door and stepped inside.
“If your story holds true, I can assure you Steve will be the best dad you could possibly ask for. But beware if your story is a hoax,” I warned with steely eyes. “He and I will come down on you like a hawk on a rat and you’ll wish you had never heard of the name Steve Austin, you got that?”
Nick wilted under my withering glare and swallowed hard before croaking, “Got it.” He put on the ignition and sped away.
I went back into the house to learn that Steve had gone to his room. I climbed up the stairs and headed to his bedroom. My step faltered as I neared the door, dithering whether I should disturb him. I took a deep breath and risked a knock on his door. When he invited me to come in I nudged the door open and poked my head inside to find Steve standing erected by the window, obviously lost in his thoughts.
I quietly slipped into the room and left the door ajar. “Don’t let it get to you.”
“Easy for you to say,” he scoffed sarcastically, “You’re not the one who found out you had a son.” He exhaled a shuddering breath and asked solemnly, “What do you think? Is he fibbing?”
“He does look a lot like you. Could be a mere coincidence but I would further investigate.”
“I intend to do just that. What if he is my son? What then?”
I walked over to him and put my hand on his shoulder. “Then you’ll do whatever it takes to make up for lost time.”
He turned to me with smiling teary eyes. “Do you honestly believe I can?”
“I know you can and you will. I always said you’d make a great father.”
“Maybe but I had expected to start from scratch with a wife, a home and a baby.” He returned to staring out the window. “It’s scares me, Cassie.”
I leaned my chin on his shoulder and gave both arms a reassuring squeeze. “I know it does. But you’ve seen worse and always managed to muddle through. You know you can count on me to help.” Even though his back was to me I could sense the tension leaving his facial expression and it its place, a grateful grin. “Do you plan to come down and help us with the tree trimming or shall we finish it without you?”
“No, no. I…I’ll be right down. Just give me a few minutes to collect my thoughts and I’ll be with you.”
“Okay,” I whispered before brushing a light kiss on his cheek. Before closing the door behind me I cast a last dejected look at Steve. My heart ached for him. When he hurts; I hurt. I hoped that for his sake that young man’s story held true. Then again if it did, what would his life be with a teenage son? I closed the door and chose to cast the thought aside for now. This was a time to rejoice and I intended to make the best of the holiday season with my two favourite men.
Later at night while we were washing the dishes, Steve opened up about Emilie and the moments two had shared before they went their separate ways. I could tell it was hard to talk about the woman after all these years but at the same time I believed it to be good therapy for him.
“How about we invite him to spend Christmas night with us?” I boldly suggested to Steve to gauge his reaction. “That’d be a great way for us to get acquainted with him.”
“I don’t know,” he said in a heavy exhale. “I don’t know if I’m ready to get better acquainted as you say.”
“When I say ‘better acquainted’ what I really meant was finding out if his story holds up. Question him about you and his mother. Best way to see if he’s telling the truth.”
Steve acquiesced to my suggestion and Nick was most delighted of the invitation extended to him. In private he sought my approbation of Steve’s gift he’d purchased some time ago and was relieved when I gave his costly model airplane my seal of approval.
Although Steve and Nick appeared to be getting along I could sense Blue Eyes was on his guard. He wasn’t prepared to allow this young man into his heart before he had all the evidence that Nick was his flesh and blood.
Once the exchange of gifts done, Steve brought me under the mistletoe to steal a kiss and another and another. That display of affection didn’t go unnoticed by Nick who instantly assumed to two of us were romantically involved.
Later in the evening he took Steve aside to discuss his affection for me and went as far as suggesting proposing marriage. Steve laughed at the idea, stating that we were merely good friends but something in Nick’s implying tone brought him to reconsider.
On Christmas Day I awoke to the tantalizing aroma of bacon. My nose twitched at the smell that pulled me out of me bed and guided me down to the kitchen where, to my astonishment, Steve was cooking breakfast.
“Blue Eyes!” I exclaimed through a yawn.
“Good morning,” he greeted. “Sleep well?”
“I sure did.” I sat on the stool and took the glass of orange juice he handed me. “What’s that you’re cooking?”
“Anything your heart desires on this Christmas morning.”
His ebullience pricked my curiosity as to what he had up his sleeves. I played along, knowing I would eventually worm the truth out of him. I suspected his cheery mood was due to the lengthy conversation he had with Nick yesterday. Whatever the topics of discussion were, they obviously did wonders for his spirits.
After breakfast he winked to his dad and took me out to the stables to saddle two horses and off we went on a ride. We stopped at his favourite place of meditation where we dismounted and walked the riverbank.
“Cassie, how long have known each other?”
“I’d say we’re closing in on three years now. Why?”
He shrugged. “I was just wondering.”
I clawed at his arm and turned him around to face my inquisitive stare. “Blue Eyes, what has got you so pensive all over sudden?”
He lowered his head to hide his blush and kicked a chunk of earth with the tip of his booth. “Nick. He said something to me that got me to take a good look at my life.”
“I take it you two are becoming the best of friends?”
“He’s a nice kid but I haven’t fully accepted him yet. I need more proof. For all I know he could be out to swindle me. I’ve got to be sure. But,” he slowly stepped up to me and clasped both my hands, “one thing I’m sure of is that I love you dearly and…”
“And will you marry me?”
I gasped in a breath and stood aback at the sudden proposal. I stood rooted to the spot, completely speechless. “I’m flattered Steve, but don’t you think we ought to date first?”
“Steve, wake up.” I shook him to rouse him out of his dream. “Steve, come back to us.”
Lying on the couch with a damp cloth over his head, Steve’s eyes fluttered open to the sound of my commanding voice. He pried his eyelids apart to peek at Jim and I hovering over him. “Blue Eyes, you okay?”
He stared at us quizzically, wondering how he got to be on the couch with a damp cloth over his forehead. “You gave us quite a scare.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You went out like a light after you stumbled down the stairs. You have a nasty bump on the forehead but I expect it’ll subside in a few days.”
“Stumbled down the stairs?” He sat up abruptly causing his head to spin. Jim eased him back onto his pillow while I dunked the cloth into a bowl of cold water.
“I guess you don’t remember.” I wrung the excess of water out of the towel and applied it onto his forehead. “Lie still for a minute.”
Steve’s eyes darted around the room. “Where’s Nick?”
“Nick, my son or so he says.”
Jim and I exchanged puzzled looks.
“Ohhhhhhhhh that must have been some dream. A lifetime worth in twenty minutes.”
“That’s how long you’ve been unconscious, son.”
“I remember falling but I was okay. I came to the door and there was Nick.”
“The person who was at the door was the postal service man delivering my package.”
“Yeah my gift. Remember I told you I was having it delivered here?”
“A tool box.”
“The gift. It’s a tool box.”
“How did you know?”
Steve flashed me a knowing grin before closing his eyes with a serene look on his face. “It was only a dream. Thank God.”
“Does that mean the engagement is off?” I teased.