It was after midnight when the front door of the Warwick house opened. Harry didn't move from his position slumped in a chair at the breakfast nook. The bottle of beer in front of him was full and warm. He hadn't bothered to change out of his tux.
"Harold!" Anne Warwick cried, hand against her chest, when her husband flicked on the lights. "What are you doing there, sweetheart?"
"I don't know." Harry slid down further in his chair. "I just don't know anything anymore, Mom."
Mitch Warwick shrugged off his tuxedo jacket and draped it over the back of a wooden chair. He lowered himself onto the seat across from his son. "Your mother and I talked about this with the Donnelleys after you called to explain what was going on. We all agreed to give you and Melissa the space you needed to get your heads straight. It's hard to watch the two of you hurting, though."
"I'm sorry, Dad. I didn't mean to leave the party early."
"I don't give a damn about the party." Mitch stretched an arm across the table to cover Harry's fidgety fingers. "I give a damn about my son."
"I think it's time you tell us why I found my daughter-in-law crying in the bathroom after you left," Anne added gently. "This is more than a little spat."
Harry lifted the beer to his mouth and swallowed a mouthful of warm pilsner. He stiffened when his mother claimed the chair next to him and covered his father's hand. "I didn't have the flu during Thanksgiving. We didn't come down because Mel and I weren't speaking to each other. I spent the weekend at a hotel."
"Oh, honey." Anne draped an arm across Harry's shoulders and pulled him in for a half-hug. "Things seemed strained between you two after the miscarriage, but I thought they were getting better."
"They were. For a while. But then between the fertility treatments and the disappointment plus work and everything else, it just felt like we were drifting apart." Harry chuckled bitterly. "We had dinner together twice the entire month of June. We started arguing more, too. Every discussion escalated into a fight."
"Couples go through rough spots, son," Mitch said. "The pair of you have been together since high school. That's an investment you can't just throw away because of a few fights."
Harry slid his hands free. He studied the beer bottle, afraid to meet his mother's keen gaze. "There was a pretty intense case involving one of our biggest clients. I was practically sleeping at the office. Whenever Mel and I talked on the phone we just argued or gave each other the silent treatment. The firm brought in an expert for the case. An attractive, single expert who shared my office. I saw her more than I saw my wife."
Anne winced. Fat tears streaked down her cheeks. "Honey, please tell me you didn't."
"I didn't. But I was tempted. For weeks. And then one night I almost and that scared me. I left in the middle of a meeting and went home to tell Mel everything." Harry's eyes drifted closed. He could recall every second of that heartbreaking night. Melissa had yelled. And then he'd spent the night sitting in the hallway outside their closed bedroom door listening to her cry herself to sleep.
"So this cockamamie plan is some way of reconnecting?" Mitch asked.
"She and I need to talk without all the pressure of work and friends and life in Dallas. We need to remember what it was like to be friends. We're not Missy and Harry anymore. We're Melissa and Harold, and sometimes it feels like Melissa and Harold don't like each other very much."
"Is it working?" Anne asked.
Harry shrugged. "I don't know. I thought it was. We thought it was. I remember all the reasons that we were such good friends and everything seemed so easy. But then I got a call tonight and it seemed to all come rushing back."
"Do you love your wife?" Mitch asked, holding Harry's bleak gaze.
"As much as I did the day we got married. Maybe more." Harry shrugged again. "That doesn't automatically solve anything, Dad."
"Neither does sitting around here feeling sorry for yourself." Mitch shoved his chair away from the table. "Seems to me there's a conversation or two you need to have with the pretty little lady on the other side of town."
"She wouldn't dance with anyone after you left," Anne said, pressing a kiss to her son's cheek. "She looked for you every time the door opened."
"Yeah?" Hope swelled. Hadn't Melissa said that she'd enjoyed their talks? The memory of her smile as they'd danced warmed him. She'd said that he made her happy. She never lied to him. Even when honesty cut like a knife. He rose so quickly his chair thudded against the wall. "I've got to go."
Still dressed in his tux, Harry eyed the massive oak tree outside the Donnelley house. Scaling the tree had been easy when he'd been a teen. He wasn't sure his thirty-something-year-old joints were quite as willing. Even if he did make it up, what were the odds that the door on Melissa's balcony was unlocked?
It was a chance he'd just have to take. The same anticipation that had made his teenage palms sweat rushed through him. Would Mr. Donnelley catch him? Would nosy Mrs. Robertson across the street call the cops on him like she'd done his senior year?
By the time he reached the balcony, it was a given that he'd never wear the tux again. The vest was likely a lost cause, too. He carefully snuck onto the wooden balcony and brushed his hands off on his pants. The tiny scrapes on his palms burned, and he was fairly certain he'd sprained his left ankle. At least he'd made it.
"Missy," he whispered, jiggling the locked door handle. "Missy, open up."
The door jerked open. He stumbled into a dark bedroom. Before he could catch his bearings, the door snicked shut behind him. A moment later, a lamp near the bed turned on.
"What are you doing, you lunatic?" Melissa asked, hands on her hips.
Her pajama top was a Dallas Cowboys t-shirt obviously pilfered from his side of the closet. The sweatpants looked familiar, too. He would have apologized for waking her, but she was wearing her sneakers.
"Are you going somewhere?"
Melissa sank onto the side of the bed. She tossed her keys on the nightstand and gestured for him to sit in the padded chair in front of the vanity. "I was going to see you."
"You were going to climb down that tree, Miss Graceless? You'd have broken your neck."
Her glare could have melted asphalt. "I am thirty-four years old, Harold. I was going to walk out the front door like an adult."
"Oh." Harry shifted uncomfortably. The anticipation and adrenaline faded leaving him with a cold knot in his stomach.
The silence grew. Harry stared at the scuffed toes of his shoes. Melissa stared at Harry. She sighed, curved in on herself.
"What are you doing here, Harry?"
"I love you," he said. "I just… I haven't said it in a few days, and you need to know. I love you."
A soft smile slowly spread across her face. "I love you, too." She set a hand on his knee. "A lack of love has never been our problem."
"A lack of communication has, though," he said. "Lack of priorities. Lack of time."
"We've made progress. This has been good for us."
"It has. But I don't want to wake up on Christmas morning without my wife by my side."
"I admit that I wasn't looking forward to waking up alone, either."
Harry latched on to her hand. "I love my job. You helped me see that, but I'll never love it more than I love you. When we get back, I'm going to talk to my boss about cutting back on my caseload. I'll enjoy my job more if I'm not actually doing it every waking hour."
She squeezed his fingers. Her smile brightened. "I want vacations. More than just coming home for holidays. I want to go places like we used to."
Harry grinned. "I'm glad you said that. How does a week at the inn in Lynchburg sound? I made reservations for March."
"On Christmas Eve?"
"The innkeeper wasn't too pleased when she first picked up the phone, but I've had a lot of experience groveling lately. It came in handy."
"I think it sounds like a wonderful Christmas present."
Harry slipped off the chair to join her on the bed. Her childhood bed was narrower than their California king. Harry's feet hung off the edge and his shoulders were jammed up against the wall, but he was more comfortable than he'd been in days. Melissa's head was cradled on his shoulder. With every breath, he could smell nutmeg and cinnamon.
"You left gingerbread for Santa," he said.
"And a can of Coke." She tossed an arm across his waist. "Dad should have stuck with the milk for a few more years. I might have believed in Santa a little longer."
"I've missed you."
"I've missed you, too. We should never stop talking. And we should never be too busy for each other." She sighed and then went still. The fingers on his hip tapped out a nervous, irregular beat. "I don't want to start treatments again."
Harry lifted his head off the pillow to stare down into his wife's grave face. "You don't want children?"
"We're not ready for them yet. We need more time to just be us." She pressed her lips to the crinkle on his forehead. "And when the time comes, we can adopt like we talked about. There are plenty of children in need of a good home."
"I don't want to move to the suburbs," he blurted. "I like living in the city."
"Oh thank God," she breathed. "I tried, but the thought of a yard and a commute and block parties just scares the hell out of me."
Harry settled back on the bed. He shifted so that he was so close to Melissa it was impossible to tell where he ended and she began. Her pulse thundered under his fingers. Her breath warmed his throat. "Maybe we should stop doing what everyone else wants us to do or what everything thinks we should do and just do what makes us happy."
"No more gallery shows?"
"I hate modern art," he admitted. "Now that I don't work for Franklin, there's no point. What about the symphony? Can we agree to keep those tickets?"
"How about we change our tickets and just get the Pops package? The classical stuff puts you to sleep, and if we get tickets for Sundays we skip out on the 'scene' bullshit."
"No. Same for the ballet."
"There'll be a few events we'll have to attend."
"Of course. I'm not saying we should drop out of the social scene, but we shouldn't let it consume us." Melissa gently removed Harry's glasses, folded them, and set them on the nightstand behind her. "These are your spare glasses. What happened to your regular frames?"
"I stepped on them when I was rushing around packing. I'll call for a new pair after Christmas."
"I like the look. Geek chic is a weakness of mine."
A delighted chuckle rumbled through Harry's chest. "Any other weaknesses I should know about?"
"Well," Melissa said, biting back a grin, "I do have a thing for men in tuxes. Normally I prefer pressed and polished, but there is something to be said for the rumpled, I-just-climbed-a-tree look you've got. Definitely a bit of a bad boy vibe."
"A weakness for bad boys? That sounds very naughty of you, Mrs. Warwick."
"Good thing I've already gotten my presents then, isn't it?"
"Oh yes," Harry sighed, lips against hers, "it's a very good thing."
Out in the hallway, Peter Donnelley turned on his heel and headed for the stairs. He nodded to himself as he listened to the person on the other end of the phone call. "No, Mitch, it's all right. Harry made it here just fine. I'll make sure he calls his momma in the morning. We'll see you for lunch. It looks to be a very merry Christmas, after all."