A Lodi Christmas
Copyright© 2019 by AA Nemo
Just in time. I found you just in time. Before you came my time was running low. I was lost. The losing dice were tossed. My bridges all were crossed. Nowhere to go. Now you’re here and now I know just where I’m going. No more doubt or fear, I’ve found my way. For love came just in time. You found me just in time and changed my lonely life that lovely day.
- Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Cindy’s best friend was her next-door neighbor, Alice Goodwin. The eighty-three year old widow and Lodi native had been quick to welcome her to the neighborhood and had adopted her and Jenny, even though she had six children of her own and a dozen or more grandchildren and a few great grandchildren thrown in for good measure. Alice’s children were mostly scattered up and down California’s central valley, and it seemed like she constantly had a houseful or was on the road attending birthdays, weddings, christenings, graduations and any number of other family events.
When Alice wasn’t on the road she and Cindy typically had late morning coffee in one or the other’s kitchen. Cindy’s weekday routine began with a 4:45 AM wakeup so she could be at the radio station an hour later. After she wrapped up her morning radio show at 9 she would drive the 16 miles home from Stockton and then nap for an about an hour. After that she’d put the coffee on and by the time she poured her first cup, Alice would come breezing into her kitchen – she had her own key – or Cindy’s phone would chime with an invitation to visit Alice, who announced she had just taken home-baked scones, muffins or cinnamon rolls out of the oven.
Alice was a wonderful and engaging storyteller, but she was also a good listener. Over the past four years she had listened to Cindy, and had sympathized when Cindy needed sympathy, and kicked her in the butt when she needed that, too. Cindy could not feel sorry for herself because Alice wouldn’t stand for it. She became mom and grandmother rolled into one and she adored Jenny. Having been widowed twice – her first husband, the love of her life, had been killed in Vietnam leaving her with three children, and somehow she managed. She took his government life insurance and the proceeds from the house and moved out of expensive San Diego and returned to Lodi where she bought the house she was living in today. With little beyond a high school education she became a successful realtor and investor in rental properties. In the midst of all that she met and married Carmichael (Mike) Goodwin, the owner of a construction company, and they had three children.
They didn’t always talk about men, but when they did Cindy listened. “Cindy, I’d given up on ever meeting anyone as good as my first husband, then out of the blue Mike appeared. I was pretty content as a single mom, and with three girls and my job, my life was a whirlwind. I met Mike when he came by to give me an estimate on replacing my roof.” She chuckled, her blue eyes sparkling. “Well, I got my roof and Mike never left. We had two boys and another girl and added a bit to the house.”
Alice the wise told her something one time that stuck with her. “Cindy, it’s not just the talking that makes a relationship – oftentimes it’s the silences. I can see you’re puzzled, but there’s an overused phrase, companionable silence, and even though it’s become a cliché, there’s a great deal of truth there. A couple who can sit in silence because they enjoy each other’s company says a lot about the strength of their relationship.”
Alice’s words came back to Cindy as she sat on the porch swing with Case Reynolds. She’d been a bit surprised when she came out to her favorite quiet spot at the Hacienda and saw him sitting there. She’d almost turned and gone back into the house when he’d spotted her and invited her to sit. From the moment she accepted his invitation she’d been drawn to him.
It wasn’t just that he was a good-looking man – he reminded her of the tall, slim movie actor in all those 1930s and 40s movies, Jimmy Stewart – no, it was much more than that. He had an aura of maturity and calm that drew her. They’d exchanged names and she’d learned he was visiting his sister, Juliet, whom she knew slightly from picking up Jenny at the Dojo. Other than their brief introduction, they sat quietly for the better part of an hour in the morning sunshine. He kept the swing in its soothing motion with his long legs stretched in front of them as they enjoyed the tranquil garden courtyard, with the fountain providing the only sound above the gentle purring of Sam the big orange cat.
Despite the earlier coffee, the gentle motion and the sun soon had Cindy in contented drowsiness. Eventually she became aware he was stirring. She opened her eyes to see him straighten up and look at his wrist, where a lighter band of skin hinted he usually wore a watch. He frowned slightly, and then looked up and caught her watching him. She didn’t look away. “I don’t have a watch any longer, and my phone is in my jacket somewhere in the house.”
That’s a plus – a man not a slave to his phone!
She smiled and pointed at the large round copper-framed clock on the stucco wall across the courtyard. “Thanks.” He paused for a few seconds and then asked, “Cindy, I’ve been so busy that I’ve not had time to shop for a gift for Juliet. Just from the fact I’m trespassing on your porch swing,” he smiled, “I’m guessing you live here in Lodi.” She nodded. He has a nice smile.
“Maybe you could recommend a shop where I can find something for my sister.”
Why am I relieved he didn’t say for his girlfriend? Of course that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a girlfriend – he’s probably about my age and usually the good ones are all taken by that time. Oh, stop. I’ve just met this guy and I’m already dating him – subject to possible absent girlfriend of course. But she isn’t here so maybe...
“Case.” I like that name. “What are you looking for?”
“I really don’t know. She needs just about everything for her condo, but I’d like to get something special for Christmas.”
“Jewelry is always a great gift.” The last time anyone gave me jewelry it was Jayson. It was good quality stuff and I did pretty well when I sold it – every bit of it. I do still have the truck he gave me, though. I earned it by marrying that bastard!
She looked at his wrist. “Does she have a nice watch?”
He shook his head. “That’s a good idea. She pretty much goes in for utility where watches are concerned, both for her job and for her workouts.”
“You could look for a new watch for yourself while you’re at it.”
Suddenly his sunny smile went away and there was pain in his eyes. He looked at his bare wrist but seemed far away. After a few moments he looked up but the pain was still there. “Maybe I will. A friend gave me the one I was wearing. I’ve sent it back to his family...”
She touched his hand. His skin was warm. Now why’d I do that? She decided she liked touching his hand. “I’m sorry.”
He nodded and she withdrew her hand. He looked at where it had been and seemed to regret the loss of contact. Cindy certainly did.
His smile returned. “I’d be happy if you could give me the name of some shops in town. I feel the urge to spoil my sister. Except for a few days a couple years ago...” his voice trailed off gathering his thoughts. “She and I haven’t spent many Christmases together.” He paused. “For quite a while.”
Wonder where he’s been? Short hair, good shape. People don’t just wander in here so someone had to invite him. My guess, it was Matt or Harrison so bets are he’s military or former. Can’t I just meet some guys who aren’t military? Oh right, I did once, and look how that turned out. And now I’m gun shy around most men, especially those who haven’t served. There are just so many adolescents inhabiting men’s bodies these days that it makes me want to scream or just quit dating. Somehow Case is different from Matt and Harrison though. He’s from the South somewhere and like the other two he exudes maturity and confidence, but there’s also calmness there. Serenity?
He stood and as she looked up at him she decided she didn’t want this time with him to end quite yet.
“Case, rather than tell you about a few places, why don’t I show you around?”
“Are you sure?”
“My daughter Jenny and I were going to spend the day together, but she’s decided that rehearsing songs with her group for the Christmas Day feed the hungry event at church is more important than spending time with her old mom, so my busy social calendar has been freed for the rest of today.”
He smiled. “I met your daughter this morning at breakfast; unless there’s more than one Jenny around here, you don’t look nearly old enough to have a daughter maybe eleven or twelve.”
Cindy watch out, Case may be quiet but ... but what? Oh hell, just go with it. She laughed. “For that compliment, I’ll even buy you lunch!”
She stood, holding her breath waiting for his response.
“It’s a deal, but I don’t know about lunch – with all I’ve eaten this morning I feel like I might not be hungry again until tomorrow!”
She exhaled in relief. “Well, I guess we’ll figure that out as we go.”
He really is tall. Even in these boots with a two-inch heel he’s still inches taller.
“I know where we’ll find your jacket. Shall we go shopping?”
Case agreed to take her truck since she knew their destinations, and also since she would have to come back to the farm to pick up Jenny.
“I’ve got to let Jenny know where I’m off to, so we’ll make a quick stop over at the garage where they’re rehearsing, and then we can go.”
As they crossed the gravel drive, Case remarked, “I noticed on your way out you stopped to chat with Alex Skarlatos – she’s the security chief, isn’t she?”
He doesn’t miss much.
“Yes, some of her responsibilities involve Jenny, so I wanted to fill her in on the change of plans. Jenny and I were to spend part of the day at the mall near Vacaville and then home to bake cookies and watch some old Christmas movies. That meant one of her security people would tag along and then follow us home and make sure we were settled before coming back here. Since Jenny is staying here at the farm instead, Xena needed to know that.”
“Xena? I heard Rashmi call her that.”
Cindy smiled. “That’s Alex’s first name but Xena Warrior Princess started when she was younger so in self-defense she started using her middle name. Of course, once Jenny discovered that Alex was really Xena she started using it and, at least in the family, it stuck. Actually, no one else is allowed to use it under penalty of great bodily harm.”
Case nodded, and with a twinkle in his eye, said, “I’ll keep that in mind.”
They were almost to the garage when he asked, “Harrison and Jessica seem pretty security conscious, is there a threat?”
Cindy stopped and chose her words carefully. “There have been in the past, but probably not these days, but it never hurts to be cautious.”
“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you...”
She laughed. “That pretty much sums it up!” Then she turned serious. “Jessica controls a multimillion dollar business here in town, and Harrison is the CEO of the fastest growing talent agency on the west coast. People are lining up to sign with the agency, including established talent who want to switch. The company has a strict code of ethics that protects the people they represent. In fact, Harrison and the founder Felicity Morgan, never meet with anyone one-on-one, and neither of them even have doors on their offices.”
“I don’t see the problem. Those are all positives.”
“Yes, but my guess is there are a number of powerful people who feel threatened or are just plain jealous. The entertainment industry seems to attract more than its share of sociopaths who prey on others. These people have enormous egos, a lot of money, and no moral compass. That makes them dangerous because they feel they can act with impunity. Harming Harrison or Jessica directly, or through someone they love, is a possibility. Security can’t be everywhere, but we all take precautions.”
“And what about you?”
“You don’t rate security?”
Cindy laughed. “No, I’m just the ex-wife!” Case doesn’t seem to think that’s funny. “Although when I’m performing with La Banda Sage – it’s a local group that I sing with – we do get security. You met Matt Kipling?”
“Matt’s company has the contract with Harrison’s firm to provide the security for all the entertainers. Mostly that’s when they’re performing, but sometimes a performer needs more. Our lead singer, Sofía Torres, travels with a bodyguard.”
Case’s face lit up. “Sofía Torres sings with your group?”
She crossed her arms. “Yes...” I guess he knows about Sofía. If he tells me he has a crush on her or asks me to introduce him I’ll just tell him to find his own damn gifts for Juliet. No I won’t, but damn!
Sensing her change in mood, he looked a bit flustered and hastened to explain. “Cindy, the only reason I even know the name is because our chief mechanic in Austin, Miguel Esparza, has a giant Sofía poster above his work bench in our hangar there. It’s pretty hard to miss.”
“That’s our best-selling poster.” Cindy recalled it was taken at a concert in LA and featured Sofía with her hair blown out, full stage makeup, wearing a short shimmery silver dress, and very high heeled sandals.
“I can see why she might need a bodyguard though,” he deadpanned.
“And by comparison, why I don’t.”
She said it in a teasing tone and was surprised when he took out his phone and asked, “Cindy, may I get you to pose for a photo?”
She hesitated. Do I want him to take my picture?
He smiled, seeing her hesitation. “I just want to prove a point. You can look at the photos and I’ll delete them if you want me to.”
“Over there.” Case pointed to the sun-splashed peach-colored stucco wall near the side door to the garage.
“Now lean back against the wall and cross your arms.” Cindy could feel the warm stucco through her denim jacket. He watched her for a few seconds. “Cross one foot over the other.” He aimed the phone camera. “Now think about something pleasant. Maybe Jenny.”
Maybe the two of us on the porch swing again.
“Perfect. Now turn your head just slightly to the right and look toward the vineyard, and put one boot heel against the wall. That’s it.”
He examined the screen and said, “That’s it,” and then approached with his phone held out. “Have a look.”
If I’d known I’d meet Case and be posing for pictures I’d at least have put on a little more makeup. He did say he’d delete them, though.
Cindy took the phone and what she saw amazed her. He’d taken only four photos, two full body, and two close ups of her face, but he had captured a different Cindy from the one she saw in the mirror.
Do I really look like that?
With her leaning against the wall, bathed in sunlight surrounded by the peach-colored stucco, he had caught her as she had just begun to smile. The pose was sensual even with her dressed simply in jeans, sweater, denim jacket, and well-worn western boots. The close-up caught the vestige of a smile and made her look mysterious as well as beautiful.
These are amazing.
The next two were of equal quality. Still leaning against the peach backdrop with her face in about half profile, she looked confident, maybe even defiant, as she stared into the distance.
“Case, I don’t know what to say.”
He smiled broadly. “These are photos of the Cindy I see. Compared to the poster of Sofía, it’s beauty versus glamor. Glamor washes off.”
Why am I blushing? That may be the nicest compliment I’ve ever had from a man, and I’ve just met him. Does he do his photography magic with every woman he meets? She looked at his eyes. No, he means what he’s saying. Oh, dear. What am I going to do with him?
“Would you like me to send them and then delete?”
Still unable to comprehend how he had captured the images of the Cindy McCabe she didn’t know, she simply nodded as she looked at the pictures.
“Send and delete?”
“No, no. Send them to me but you can keep the ones you want ... if any.” She handed him the phone.
“Cindy, I’ll keep them all. No one will see them but me. I promise.” He looks so sincere and grateful I just want to hug him. Hug him?
She gave him her cell number, and he sent the photos.
Cindy just shook her head as she watched the images appear on her phone. I’ll have to send these to Jenny, and to Felicity – maybe just the thing for publicity photos or even an album cover. She quickly had second thoughts. He said they were photos of how he saw me and promised no one else would see them. Somehow it seemed a violation of something very private shared by two people. No, these are private – just for me and for Case. Cindy, what on earth has gotten into you?
They entered the side door to the garage to the strains of I’ve got your love to keep me warm, sung by Essie Sinclair. It wasn’t a traditional Christmas song, but certainly appropriate for the season, and Essie was nailing it. She had shed the sweatshirt she wore earlier and now her hair was loosely bound by a silver ribbon which matched the silky T she was wearing. Now she looks like a young woman, and a very attractive one.
My heart’s on fire, the flame grows higher, so I’ll weather the storm.
What do I care how much it may storm – I’ve got my love to keep me warm. I’ve got my love to keep me warm.
When she finished she looked around sheepishly because of the silence. Then Jenny started to applaud, followed by Ella, Emma, and Kesi. Case and Cindy joined in. There were smiles all around.
Case looked over at Cindy. “Does Harrison know about this girl?”
Cindy nodded, remembering the enthusiastic response she’d received when she sent this morning’s video to Felicity.
The girls decided it was a good time for a break and they trooped over to the refrigerator. Water in hand, Jenny came to them. She looked at Case, and then her mother, and then back again. Cindy could see the wheels turning. She knew Jenny was convinced that her mother’s lack of a social life would be cured when the right man showed up. Like most eleven year olds – even precocious ones – her world was pretty black and white. Right now, tall and handsome Case Reynolds was the ideal candidate.
She looked up at him. “Hi, Mr. Reynolds.”
“Nice to see you again, Jenny. Your mother has volunteered to help me in my search for a Christmas gift for my sister. I guess I have you to thank for freeing up her schedule for today.”
Jenny deadpanned, “I’m happy it worked out for her. Otherwise she’d probably just be home moping around trying to write the perfect country song.”
Cindy rolled her eyes.
“I’m sure you have to be in the right mood to write a country song.” He smiled at Cindy. “But I’m also pretty sure David Allan Coe’s already done the perfect country song.”
As he spoke he moved to sit on a tall wooden stool that was near the platform that served as a makeshift stage so Jenny wouldn’t have to crane her neck looking at him.
“Do you know it?”
Looking puzzled, Jenny shook her head.
Case looked over at Cindy. She smiled and nodded, recognizing where he was going.
Case continued, “According to Mr. Coe, to have the perfect country song you have to include mama, trains, trucks, prison and getting drunk.”
Bottles of water in hand, Essie, the Foss twins, and Kesi drifted over, drawn by the conversation.
He looked at where Jenny had her two acoustic guitars in their stands and pointed. “May I?”
She didn’t hesitate and walked over and picked one up.
Jenny’s going to let Case play her Martin! She’s only let me play it once.
Case’s eyes widened as she handed over the small-bodied guitar. He held it almost reverently as he examined it. “Ever since I was a kid I’ve wanted a Martin.” He grinned. “But it came down to a fine guitar or flying lessons, so I made do with a pretty ancient Gibson my dad had. The music shop where I bought my strings had a couple Martins, and the owner let me play one a couple of times. You’re very lucky to have one.”
Jenny nodded. “Everyone pitched in and got it for me for my birthday.”
“You’re sure you want to let me play it?”
“Yes.” She smiled. “I think I can trust you not to hurt it.”
He nodded and then strummed it a few times. Satisfied with the tuning, he ran through the melody one time and then looked at the girls. “The perfect country song.”
Well, I was drunk the night my mama got out of prison, and I went to pick her up in the rain. But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck, she got run over by a damned old train!”
Jenny covered her mouth in an unsuccessful attempt to stifle a case of the giggles. The other four girls, standing close by, giggled as well.
And I’ll hang around as long as you will let me and I never minded standing in the rain. No, but you don’t have to call me darlin’ Darlin. You never even called me. Well I wonder why you don’t call me. Why don’t you ever call me by my name?
The girls laughed and applauded and Cindy joined in. Case got up and carefully handed the Martin back to Jenny. “Thank you. I’m a little rusty but playing your fine instrument helps that a lot. I’ve not seen one this color before. What’s it called?”
Cindy watched him. Didn’t seem rusty to me. Suddenly she had a vision of Jayson Adkins. He was a guitar player, too, but there the similarities ended. Jayson made no secret of the fact he hated kids and he disdained acoustic guitars. She briefly wondered what had happened to his large collection of expensive electric guitars.
Then she gave a mental shrug. Every man you meet is not Jayson Atkins. I’m around the best of them almost every day so I know better. Case has a nice laugh and a very fine tenor voice. Pilot, photographer, guitar player, knowledge of country songs, what other talents do you possess, Mr. Reynolds?
Jenny interrupted her musings. “Mr. Reynolds, you can sit in with us any time.” The other girls nodded. “So what are you doing Christmas Day?”
He looked from Cindy to her daughter. “Your mother said there’s some kind of ‘feed the hungry’ event at the church. I’d be happy to help out.”
“Case, don’t feel obligated. You’re here visiting your sister.”
He turned to her. “Cindy, I’ll bring Juliet. She has the day off because she’s working four to midnight on Christmas Eve. Christmas is about giving, not receiving, and I can’t think of a better way to get to know people in the community.”
He’s definitely not Jayson! ‘To get to know people in the community?’ Does that mean he’s thinking about relocating?
“But if that’s her day off...”
“Mom, I know Officer Reynolds is already going to be there, she’s volunteered to help with security.”