Angels in the Snow
“It’s a hell of a thing when your own family turns on you.” Charles Montgomery tossed his wife’s Louis Vuitton garment carrier and Pullman bag into the roomy interior of the car trunk. He scowled as he thrust a box of expensively wrapped gifts to the side and settled the two bags in place.
“Here.” Alexander shoved his amplifier forward, letting it thud onto the Pullman case.
“Don’t do that!” Charles jerked the amplifier out and set it heavily on the ground. “You don’t need that stupid thing, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to listen to all that noise for the next week. We’re going to the mountains for peace and quiet!”
“Just ’cause you want peace and quiet . . .” Alex muttered under his breath.
“Charles, please calm down.” Judith Montgomery descended the shallow granite steps toward the car parked within the porte cochere beside the house. “You can’t expect this week to be pleasant if you begin it this way.”
Charles bit back the retort that rose to his lips, but it was not due so much to the truth of her words as it was to the expression on her face. She had been crying. Despite the beautifully made-up face, the chic outfit, and the perfectly styled hair, he could tell she’d been crying. More and more these days that had become the case, and though he couldn’t understand the reasons for her unhappiness, he knew it was real.
He forced a smile to his face. “I’m calm. Don’t worry, I’m calm.” Then his gaze flickered to Alex. “But I doubt I’ll stay calm if I’m bombarded with ear-splitting noise all week. Chances are slim to nothing that Rogers’s damn mountain house has a soundproof basement like ours.”
Judith placed her vanity case in the trunk, then turned to her fifteen-year-old son, who already towered over her. “Alex, certainly you could survive a week without your guitar and amp.” She stared at his sullen, obstinate face, so like his father’s. “Or perhaps you could bring just the guitar.”
“What’s the point?” The boy sent his father an angry look, but he wasn’t outwardly rude to her. “Besides, he’s just gonna be on the phone all the time with work, anyway. So why can’t I do what I want to do?”
Just then, Jennifer rushed down the steps wailing as if her heart were broken. Charles shot Alex an aggrieved look, muffling an expletive under his breath as he turned toward his unhappy daughter.
“Now what?” he exclaimed in irritation, then sighed when Jennifer turned away from him and ran into her mother’s outstretched arms.
“Jenny? What in heaven’s name?”
“Clarisse is having a Christmas party,” the twelve-year-old sobbed onto her mother’s shoulder. “Every-one’s going to be there. Cliff. Jeremy. Nick. Even Brett.” She lifted her face to shoot her father a pained look. “Brett Franklin will be there, but I won’t! And all because Daddy wants to go to the dumb mountains!”
Judith’s gaze was a mirror of their daughter’s. Then she looked away from Charles. “Now, Jenny. Surely there will be other parties.”
“No, there won’t.” The girl sniffled as if the world were truly coming to an end. “Not for me. Sara Smythe has a major crush on Brett, and Clarisse says he kinda likes her too. By the time we get back, they’ll be going out. I just know they will!”
“Twelve years old is too young to be going out.” Judith tried to soothe her daughter as she pushed a lock of hair back from her wet cheek.
“Babies in love,” Alex mocked, poking his fore-fingers in his cheeks and making a face.
“Alex,” Judith reproved.
In the midst of this chaos, the hands-free phone hooked over Charles’s ear vibrated. Relieved for an excuse to abandon Judith to deal with the children, he hurried back into the house, shutting his study door on the pandemonium of his family life. “Montgomery here.”
“Charles. I’m glad I caught you.”
At the sound of his longtime business partner’s voice, Charles sat in his big leather chair. “No, we haven’t left yet, but don’t worry about calling me if you need to.”
Doug grunted. “Cora pitches a fit if I spend too much time on business calls on vacation. Calls my phone my mistress.” He laughed. “She says I can have both of them, wife and mistress, but not at the same time. Anyway, back to business. It’s Garrington. His wife was recently appointed to the board of the Neighborhood Preservation Center, and now he’s not so gung ho about approving our demolition permits for Greenmont.”
“Have you reminded him about the hefty contributions we made to his last campaign?”
“You think I’m a fool? Of course I did.”
“And promised more of the same?”
“Naturally. Damn,” Doug swore in frustration. “This could screw up everything. It’s a close enough vote that we need to be sure of him.”
Charles was calm and thoughtful. He rubbed his chin slowly with one finger as he stared up at the deep coffers in the ceiling. “Garrington’s wife is a Morrison, as I recall. Daughter to Judge William Morrison and sister to Fred Morrison. That’s Morrison Windows, Inc. Maybe if we invited them to bid on the windows for the high-rise, she might be more amenable to our project. Or at least not hostile.”
“Morrison Windows? I’ll be damned! Where do you get this stuff?”
Charles laughed out loud, already certain the little obstacle Garrington presented was well on its way to being solved.
Doug laughed, too.
“So,” Doug went on. “I hope you got Judith something expensive for Christmas. Haven’t seen much of her at the office lately, but Cora says she’s looking a little down in the mouth.”
Charles sobered at once, and a crease appeared between his eyes. “We just need a little time away. That’s what this trip is for. She’ll be smiling again by New Year’s. Meanwhile, let me know how it goes with Garrington and his wife.”
“Sure thing. Have a good trip. I’ll see you in a week.”
“Yeah. Keep in touch no matter what.”
Charles sat for several minutes after he disconnected the phone. He heard the Katy Perry ringtone of Jennifer’s cell phone, and the high pitch of her still-childish voice. He heard Alex’s voice raised once in an indecipherable shout, and then a door slammed. But he continued to sit there. Doug would handle Garrington. And if Doug couldn’t, then he would call Charles in. No matter what happened, he’d only be a phone call away. There was no reason to worry about business.
But it was not business he was worried about. This hollow dread that had been building inside him wasn’t due to the complicated administration of the diverse holdings of M.G., Inc. It was his family. It was Judith and her hidden tears. Only they were no longer hidden so well. When had they begun? And why had he never noticed before now?
He sighed and ran a hand through his sandy-colored hair and rotated his head, trying to relax the tense muscles of his neck and shoulders, but it didn’t help. On the desk he spied a picture of his family. It had been taken in the hospital, the day Jennifer was born. Alex had been three. Charles picked up the picture and stared at it.
Although Judith wore no makeup and her hair was barely combed, she looked beautiful. She was smiling at him, not the camera. He and little Alex, who was sandwiched between his mother and father, had been smiling down at baby Jennifer. But Judith had been smiling at him.
It was his very favorite picture of his wife, and though she’d often suggested other photos for his desk, he’d always preferred this one. She looked so happy in it. They had been happy that day, he recalled. With the birth of their daughter after a long, troubled pregnancy, his whole life had seemed perfect.
Charles placed the picture back on the desk. They’d come so far in the past twelve years; his business had soared. Yet they weren’t nearly as happy. And now . . . Now he couldn’t seem to do anything right with Judith anymore.
She’d always complained about how hard he worked, but during their last fight, she’d actually accused him of loving his work more than he loved her. More than he loved the kids. Though her notion was absolutely ridiculous, he couldn’t ignore the fact that she seemed to believe it.
Another door slammed, and he heard a furious cry from Jennifer. With a sigh, he slowly pushed away from his gleaming rosewood partners desk and stood up. He had planned this trip to the mountains, so they might as well get going. If it took the whole damn week, he was going to straighten out his two troublesome kids and get to the bottom of Judith’s tears. He hadn’t busted his butt all this time for nothing. They were sitting pretty now, with everything any family could want. There was no reason for any of them to be unhappy.
By the time the big Mercedes reached cruising speed on the interstate, Jennifer had stopped sniffling. Alex was no longer making snide remarks about crybabies, and Judith was gazing through the front windshield instead of pointedly staring out the side window.
“Rogers said there’s a stock of firewood at the mountain house,” Charles began with a forced air of cheerfulness. “And we can cut down our own Christmas tree.”
“Did you remember our presents?” Jennifer asked resentfully from the backseat.
“Yes, dear,” Judith answered, still staring straight ahead.
“What about Christmas decorations?” Her voice held a challenge, as if she hoped to catch her parents in a moment of forgetfulness.
Charles answered. “Rogers said there are ornaments in a big box in the basement.” He glanced at his daughter’s angry face in the rearview mirror. “We’ll have everything we need for the best Christmas ever.”
“Maybe you will, but I won’t. I can’t go to Clarisse’s party.” Jennifer pouted. Charles’s hands tightened on the wheel in exasperation, but he refused to be drawn into the debate.
Judith sighed. “I know her party means a lot to you, Jenny. But there will be other parties.”
“Not like this one.”
“How about if you have a party? Maybe for Valentine’s Day.”
Jennifer sat very still in the backseat. “That’s too far away. How about New Year’s?”
“Remind me to spend the night somewhere else,” Alex muttered. He put in his earbuds, closed his eyes, and slid lower in his seat.
Jennifer made a face at him, then leaned toward her mother. “We could do it New Year’s and everyone would come.”
“I suppose so.”
“And we could have a DJ. And I could get a new dress. Oh, and we could have pizzas brought in—” She unfastened her seat belt and hitched her arms over the back of her mother’s seat. “You promise I can have this party? You won’t change your mind?” She shot a suspicious look at her father.
Judith sighed once more. “I can’t promise you a DJ at this late date. But a party and pizza? We can do that, Jenn. I promise. Now, please sit back and put your seat belt on.”
“Yes!” Jennifer exclaimed, throwing herself back onto the seat with an excited squeal. “It’ll be the best party anybody’s ever been to—especially better than Clarisse’s.” She subsided after that, focusing on her sparkly pink phone, her thumbs flying. Probably contemplating plans for her party.
As the car headed north to the promise of open spaces and snowy mountains, Charles heaved a relieved sigh. Jennifer was taken care of. Now he only had to worry about Alex and Judith. He glanced at his wife, hoping to coax a smile from her. But she was once again staring out the side window. Frustrated even more, he gritted his teeth. With two stabbing motions he turned the car radio on, then set the search mode in action. When the familiar strains of Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” came on, he gripped the wheel harder with both hands.
“Anyone want to sing along?” He forced himself to sound jovial. He caught a glimpse of Alex in the rearview mirror, but he realized at once that Alex’s bobbing head was not nodding agreement. He was only keeping rhythm with the music plugged into his ears. Naturally. But there had been a time . . .
Charles refused to let himself get maudlin. No doubt every little kid had appeared at least once in a Christmas pageant dressed as an angel or some other appropriate character. Then, just like Alex, they’d turned into incomprehensible teenagers.
Still, the image of Alex dressed in one of his dad’s oversized T-shirts and his mother’s pale blue robe would not go away. His silver foil wings and halo had wobbled precariously as the trio of angels had scooted onto the stage, and at first he and Judith had feared Alex would forget the words to the song the angels were supposed to lead. But once the music teacher had begun to play the piano, Alex’s fearful expression changed. For those few minutes he had been truly angelic, singing at the top of his lungs, louder than anyone else.
“Away in a Manger.” That song was meant to be sung by children, Charles decided with a faint smile. Even little Jennifer, who’d been but four at the time, had begun to sing from her position on her mother’s lap.
There had been tears in Judith’s eyes that night. Tears of happiness.
What he wouldn’t give to see that look in her eyes again.
The vibration of his earpiece pulled him sharply back to the present.
“Montgomery here—Jude, could you turn off the radio?” he asked from the corner of his mouth. “Hello? Yeah, Doug. What gives?”
He shot Judith an encouraging smile as she bent forward to turn off the mellow tones of the Christmas classic, but she didn’t meet his gaze. For a moment he lost track of what Doug was saying—something about the delivery of copper piping and one of the unions’ positions on imports from the Far East.
“—are you there?” Doug’s demand pierced through Charles’s preoccupation.
“Yeah, yeah. Uh, just bull your way through, Doug. The union’s talking big, but those guys are not about to stand tough. Not with jobs like ours so few and far between these days. And the last thing the union can afford is for its own people to scab. It’s all a bluff. Mark my words.”
After he ended the call he glanced again at Judith, but this time she was leaning back against the headrest, her eyes closed. He turned the radio back on, hoping that might spark her interest. But Judith did not respond, and as they sped north through the wintry landscape, past the suburban tracts, then the farms, and on up into the hills beyond, his heart slowly took on the same icy cast as the world outside the big car. He wasn’t sure his plan was going to work. And if it didn’t . . .
Charles refused to think about that. He was a master at closing a deal. He always had been. He would simply have to rise above his emotions and do whatever it took.
The sky grew grayer. The clouds pressed closer to the earth. On the radio Elvis Presley sang “Blue Christmas.”
With a vicious jab of one finger, Charles silenced the singer mid-sentence. A blue Christmas. He didn’t believe in omens, but for that moment, he feared the song might be truly prophetic.