*Author's Note: To celebrate the season I thought a simple, sweet love story would be appropriate. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!
"Sorry, buddy. Can I squeeze in here? Looks like the flight is gonna be packed."
"Yeah, I got lucky and got a window seat in an emergency row. Every inch helps when you're over six feet tall."
"At 5'9" I wouldn't have any idea, but I'll take your word for it," the older man said.
He stuffed his carry-on bag in the overhead bin, double checked his seat assignment, then plopped down in the middle seat. In a noticeably-heavy New York City accent he said, "Now as long as I don't get a screaming baby or some guy who weighs 300 pounds on the other side of me...."
The younger man in the window seat laughed. "I've experienced both of those and I'm not sure which one is worse."
"I rarely ever fly so I can't say I've had either one happen to me, but I'd like to keep it that way if you know what I mean."
He stuck out his hand and said, "I'm Jeff. Jeff Wilcox."
"Barrett Mammon. Nice to meet you, sir," the younger man said.
"Sir? I'm not that old, am I?" Mr. Wilcox said.
"Sorry. Force of habit. I was in the Army for four years."
"Oh, okay. I'm a retired police officer. And thank you for your service, by the way."
"Same to you, sir," Barrett told him.
"Call me Jeff. It makes me feel younger. And before you ask, I just turned 62 so maybe I am that old."
"You look like you're still in great shape to me...Jeff."
"Ah, I try, you know. I walk a couple of miles every day rain or shine and I watch my diet. I even gave up beer a few years ago, so yeah, I give it a pretty good shot."
He looked at Barrett then said, "You look like you're in pretty good shape yourself there, young man. Must be the Army, huh?"
"Oh, not really. I was deployed a lot and that meant long hours, not a lot of exercise, and the food was well, it was usually...edible."
"Then how'd you stay so fit and lean?" Jeff asked.
"Don't laugh, okay?"
"Laugh? Why would I laugh?" the retired cop said wondering what was coming.
"I teach ballet."
"What? No shi...no kidding?" He looked around hoping no child almost heard him swear.
"No kidding. I danced professionally until I was 17."
"Okay, now you're kidding. You were a professional ballerina?" Jeff asked unable to believe his ears.
"Well, men aren't referred to as ballerinas, but yes, I did dance professionally," Barrett assured him. "The term is danseur, just in case you were dying to know."
"Okay, how the hell does a dance...a ballet guy...end up in the Army? And what did you do for Uncle Sam?"
"I was straight-leg infantry. Ended up being a machine gunner."
"No shit?" Jeff said forgetting where he was. "Where'd you serve?"
During the flight, Jeff asked Barrett question after question about his early life in dance, how and why he ended up in the Army and part of a machine gun crew in Afghanistan, and then about where he was teaching and why he was on this flight.
In a word, he'd had his heart broken by a ballerina he'd been in love with and he was so distraught over being dumped he'd done the most opposite thing he could think of and joined the Army and requested to be in the infantry. A little over five years later he now lived and taught in a city just outside of Seattle and he was on his way back from New York and hoped to be home in time for Christmas.
"Okay. I see. I live in Denver now with my daughter and grandkid so I'll guess we'll be parting company when we land," Jeff told him.
"No offense, Jeff, but I hope so. I was checking the weather report and it's supposed to start snowing pretty heavily there anytime now. I really want to make my connecting flight and get out tonight."
"Ahh! It snows all the time in Denver, kid. You got nothin' to worry about. Trust me, okay?"
An hour before they landed, Jeff finally gave Barrett a break from the non-stop talking, so he decided to pull out his Kindle and do some reading. He hadn't made it through three pages when Jeff leaned over and said, "Whatcha readin' there, Sarge?"
Another question about the book followed and Barrett politely turned his device off and listened while Jeff recounted one story after the other about his years on the force.
"So I finally decided to go back to New York and attend one of the big shebangs the NYPD puts on every year. It's was great seeing the guys, you know. Most of 'em didn't show up and several of them have passed on, but there were plenty of guys I know who made it this year."
He leaned over and said, "I'm sure you know all about the passing on thing, huh, kid?"
Barrett did know all about that and never talked about it to anyone. He'd been on the giving and receiving end and both were bad. Watching a friend die in a firefight or from an IED blast was definitely worse, but unlike some of his former comrades in arms, he took no pleasure in taking another man's life.
No, those memories stayed locked up tight in a vault deep inside his mind, and he refused to even visit let alone live there. It was his own personal defense mechanism against PTSD which so many of his buddies lived with, battled with longer after the fight was over, and the cause of quite a few of them taking their own lives. Many of those still alive drank or drugged to excess or did anything else they could to forget. Barrett Mammon simply willed himself not to think about it—ever.
"I do," was all he said without elaborating.
"I still can't believe you do the whole ballet thing. You sure as hell don't look like no twinkle toes." Jeff leaned in close again then said, "No offense."
"None taken," Barrett told him.
"You're a little young, but I wish I could get my daughter to take an interest in a guy like yourself. Ballet aside, any Army vet is a hero in my book, you know what I'm sayin'?"
"I think so," he replied with a smile. "So your daughter is single?"
"Well, she lost her husband, a great guy and a fellow police officer, by the way, in the line of duty three years ago. He didn't have much life insurance and she was having a hell of time financially so I moved out there to help her out. My wife passed away too, a couple of years before my son in law, so this has been really good for me, too. I gotta tell you I really like being around my little girl and her little girl. As in my granddaughter. Anyway, my own girl, Hannah, she's 35 now, and she's got some high and mighty banker guy sniffing around her and I gotta tell ya, kid, I don't much care for him. She's got a five-year old daughter to think about, and this guy ain't nothing but a phony in my book."
"I'm sure your daughter has good judgment, Jeff. Maybe you should trust her."
"Trust her? Look, kid. I know people. I can sniff 'em out in a heartbeat. This guy—Mr. Money Bags, has one thing on his mind. Money. Oh, sure. He comes off all charming and caring, but the bottom line is his bottom line. And this dick..." He took another look around and got a dirty look from an elderly woman. "This...guy...he's been married and divorced twice already and he just turned 40. My girl thinks he's changed, but let me tell you something. Leopards...."
"Don't change their spots," Barrett said finishing the old adage for him.
"Yeah. Damn right. Once a jerk always a jerk." He leaned over and said, "Semper jerk...off. Well, in his case anyway."
Barrett actually laughed for once and not just to be polite.
"Anyway, if you was a few years older, I'd try and get you to step in and get my daughter to wise up before she marries this...jerk...and ends up in some big fancy penthouse all alone day after day while he's out doing whatever rich guys do until he gets tired of her and moves on to the next wife."
"Sorry, Jeff, but I'd have to be staying in Denver for a while to help you out, and with any luck—no offense—that won't be happening."
"Yeah, okay. I gotcha. But still, even you'd be a step up from numb nuts."
Barrett tried not to laugh at the realization that Jeff had no idea by saying 'even you' he'd just issued what his late grandfather had called 'a compliment with shit on it.' His grandmother would have corrected her husband and said, "He means a left-handed compliment, Barrett." His grandfather had been left handed and that would have brought an equally sharp and immediate retort. Just thinking about them and their witty repartee made him smile.
"Ladies and gentleman, this is your captain speaking. We've been given clearance to land at Denver International. We've got some light snow falling and weather tells us it's supposed to be getting bad very fast. Please check your connecting flights as soon as you get inside if you're continuing on. If we get any further updates before we land, we'll pass that info on to you. Thanks so much for flying the friendly skies with us today. Flight attendants prepare for landing."
"Great. That's all I need," Barrett mumbled.
"What's that, kid?" Jeff said.
"Nothing. No one wants to hear you complain, right?"
Jeff clapped him on the knee and said, "Smart kid!"
The jet rolled to a stop and Jeff stepped aside so Barrett could go ahead of him after the captain turned off the fasten seatbelt sign and even stopped a few people for him.
"Hey, show a little respect. Army combat vet here," he said as he stopped traffic as though he was back in uniform sporting a badge.
"Good luck, kid, and don't get hurt flittin' around, you here?"
"Thanks, Jeff. Same to you on the take care part."
He made his way into the terminal as fast as he could and found a monitor and started scanning for United flights to Seattle. As he was looking, he couldn't believe his eyes when the word DELAYED popped up in red next to his flight.
"No! No, no, no!" he said. He spun around and nearly knocked someone over.
"Sorry!" he said. "Are you all right?"
Before the woman could answer Jeff walked up and said, "I see you two have met."
"Dad!" the woman said as she gave Jeff a hug.
"Hey, sweetheart! How's my girl?" he asked.
"Great. How was your meeting?"
"Fantastic! It was so good seeing the guys again, you know? Jimmy, Terry, Ralph. I shoulda gone years ago. Oh, hey. Honey? This is my new friend, Barrett. Sorry, kid, I'm terrible with names. What is it again?"
"Mammon," he said.
"Yeah, right. Barrett here is an Army vet. Great guy. We jawboned the whole way right, kid?"
"We did," he said noticing the woman was looking at him. She smiled in a way that let him know she understood that what her father really meant was that he'd talked and Barrett had listened most of the way.
"Barrett, this is my girl, Hannah Bana...."
"Dad? Don't. Okay? Just don't."
He threw up his hands and said, "Hey? What'd I do?" as though calling his adult daughter by her childhood name in front of a total stranger was no big deal.
"I'm Hannah. Booth. No relation to John Wilkes before you ask," she said offering her hand.
"Nice to meet you, Ms. Booth," Barrett said. "I don't mean to be rude, but I've got a connecting flight to catch."
"Oh, no. Please. Don't let me keep you," she said sincerely. "Or my dad. He'll talk your leg off if you don't just walk away."
He took one more glance at the monitor, did a double take, then walked right up to it.
"Great!" he said with disgust.
"What's goin' on, kid?" Jeff asked.
"The airport is closed. The whole thing."
They looked outside and it was snowing like nobody's business. Seconds later they heard an announcement over the public address system confirming it. No more incoming or outgoing flights until further notice.
"We're supposed to get well over two feet of snow by morning, Dad," Hannah told him.
"I guess I'll be bedding down in the airport," Barrett said.
"Nonsense! We're not letting an Army vet sleep on the streets, right, Han?"
"Dad? The airport isn't exactly 'sleeping on the streets'," she said quietly. "He cannot stay at our house!"
"Why not?" he countered. "He's a war hero, Han. And a personal friend of mine."
"You just met him!" she said with an edge in her voice but quietly enough so she hoped he couldn't hear her.
"No, that's okay. I've slept in a lot worse places. No big deal!" he said with a smile having overheard every word.
Jeff pulled his daughter aside and said, "We're not lettin' this young man sleep here tonight. We've got two empty rooms in the house and I'll drive him back myself tomorrow when the airport opens back up."
She glanced over at Mammon who was smiling sheepishly at her.
"Well, it is two days before Christmas. I guess it couldn't hurt to put him up for one night. But that's it, Dad. One night!"
Jeff started to speak, but his daughter cut him off. "But not an hour later than necessary, Dad. Do you hear me?"
"Yeah, yeah. I gotcha," he said. "Come on, kid. Let's get outta here. You're bunkin' with us tonight."
"No, I can't do that. Really," he replied.
"It's okay," Hannah said forcing a smile. "We have plenty of room and my dad's right. We have to treat our veterans right. So...please come be our guest. For tonight."
"If you're sure," he said.
"She's sure!" Jeff said answering for her. "We'll go grab my suitcase and head home before the roads close down, too."
It only took 25 minutes to get out of baggage, a true Christmas miracle, and 15 minutes after that they were on their way to the Booth-Wilcox residence. Jeff had insisted on driving and did his best to get Hannah to ride in back, but that wasn't happening.
"So what do you do now that you're out of the Army?" Hannah asked turning around to look at this younger man. He was tall and very handsome and she could easily see him as a future doctor or lawyer or some kind of executive.
"So how's my granddaughter doing?" Jeff asked cutting Barrett off before he could reply.
"Dad! That was rude!" Hannah said before turning back to Barrett.
"Ah, jeez!" Jeff said.
"I teach ballet," he told her.
Hannah's eyes opened wide in disbelief for a moment before bringing her shock under control.
"I didn't see that coming," she said with a smile.
Barrett had noticed how attractive she was in the airport. She had beautiful, long, blonde hair that was smooth and silky and a pair of stunning blue eyes that sparkled when she smiled. In spite of the heavy, wool winter coat she was wearing, he could tell she had a very nice figure underneath and were he actually staying in Denver he might be willing to take up her father's challenge. He'd never dated an older woman before although he had been out with a couple of them a time or two. They were just so much easier to talk to than girls his own age. They were more confidant and tended not to be wrapped up in so much superficial stuff—a huge plus from his point of view.
"I'm full of surprises," he said flashing her his best smile.
"I want my daughter to take ballet," Hannah said. "I wanted to start her a couple of years ago then Dad came to live with me and time just kind of got away."
"Anytime is a good time to start," he told her. "Have you ever danced?"
"Me?" she said. "Oh, no. Never. And I'm not about to start at my age. Uh-uh."
"Don't knock it until you've tried it," he told her.
"Not to impose on you or anything, Barrett, but do you think you might be able to give my daughter a little pep talk? I know she wants to dance, but she doesn't think she'll be any good at it. She's a very sweet kid, but she doesn't have a lot of self confidence yet."
"It's just a bunch of flittin' around, Han. How hard could it be?" Jeff said authoritatively.
Hannah made a grrring sound and shot her dad a look.
"What? Tell her, kid. Tell her I'm right."
"Well, we do do some...flitting," he said smiling at Hannah who smiled back.
She pointed at her father and mouthed the word, "Sometimes," then balled up her fist and shook it at him low enough that he couldn't see what she was doing.
Barrett laughed and nodded his understanding.
Hannah leaned as far back as she could and Barrett leaned forward to listen.
"I love my dad to death, but I swear I could just pinch his head off sometimes," she said in a whisper.
"I heard that," Jeff said. "I got feelings, too, you know."
He looked at Barrett in the mirror then laughed. "Oh, hey? Is Money Bags still showin' up?"
"Ugh!" Hannah said. "His name is Harold, Dad, and he's my fiancee, in case you forgot."
"I've tried to forget. Believe me, I've tried," Jeff quipped.
Hannah rolled her eyes and shook her head before saying, "Yes, he'll be here tomorrow, thank you very much."
"Unless the airport is still closed. Ha!" Jeff said.
Barrett smiled as he watched the family dynamic play out in front of him.
"Who even has a name like Harold anyway?" Jeff said looking at Barrett.
"Don't drag me into this, please," he said holding his hands up.
"Harold is a really great guy," Hannah insisted.
"Yeah, yeah. I'll tell you who a great guy is," Jeff said.
"Oh, really?" Hannah said with some attitude.
"Yeah. Right there," he said pointing at the mirror. "That is a great guy."
"Um...didn't you just meet him a few hours ago?" she said glancing at Barrett.
"That's all the time I needed," he told her. "And that was all the time I needed to size up Howard as a money-grubbing loser."
Hannah huffed, folded her arms, then stopped talking. Barrett grabbed his Kindle and tried again. To his great delight, no one said another word the rest of the way home.
When they pulled into the garage, Hannah got out, slammed her door, and stormed into the house.
The two men got out and Jeff said, "She's just pissed off because she knows I'm right. It takes her some time to admit it, but she'll figure it out before it's too late." Jeff went around to grab his suitcase out of the trunk then added, "I hope."
When they walked inside, a very pretty little girl met them in the kitchen and asked, "Grandpa? Why is Mommy so mad?"
"Hey, sweetie! Come here and give Grandpa a hug!" Jeff said ignoring her question. "I brought a friend home with me. He's gonna stay overnight with us, okay?"
"Okay," she said quietly.
Barrett knelt down, smiled and said, "Hi. My name is Barrett and it's a pleasure to meet you."
"Hello, I'm Phaedra."
"Nice to meet you, Miss Phaedra. What a pretty name."
"Thank you," she said sweetly. "Do you know why my mommy's mad?"
"No, I'm not sure," he said avoiding conflict. "But she did tell me you might want to take ballet. Is that true?"
"I don't know," she said quietly.
"I bet you'd be really good at it," he said encouragingly.
"Really?" she said hopefully.
"Oh, sure! Let me set my stuff down and I'll show you a couple of things and you can see how easy it is, okay?"
"Okay!" she said now suddenly happy.
Jeff had put his suitcase down in the hall and heard Barrett's comments.
"Good luck, twinkle toes," he said. "Hey—I'm countin' on you."
Phaedra was waiting in the living room when Barrett came in.
"You ready?" he asked with excitement.
"Yes!" she said loudly.
"Okay, let's start with first position. Watch my feet and do exactly what I do with your feet," he told her.
He went through each of the five positions and was helping her with posture when Hannah came down the stairs. Neither of them saw her, but she most definitely saw them. She stood there quietly and listened as Barrett calmly, confidently, and kindly explained one detail after the other to her daughter.
"Okay, let's try it! You ready?"
Phaedra nodded quickly and got her feet into position.
"Follow me. Ready? One, two, three...."
As they moved around the room, Barrett saw her out of the corner of his eye and smiled. Phaedra saw her, too, and called out to her.
"Mommy! Look. I'm dancing ballet with Barrett!"
"I see that!" she called back. "That's so beautiful!"